Vouchers

Mobilizing to Defend and Strengthen Public Education

I wish politicians and pundits who make a habit of railing against teachers and public schools had spent some time at the conference put on by the Network for Public Education (NPE) last weekend.  The organization’s first national conference brought together about 400 teachers, scholars, education bloggers, and activists to learn from and encourage each other, and to strategize on how to push back against the assault on public education.

The passion that fueled the high-energy gathering was not teacher pay or pensions. It was a commitment to students, teaching, and the future of public education as an institution that serves all children and helps prepare young people for life.

There was also plenty of anger and frustration at the status quo: budget cuts, diversion of energy and funds into various privatization plans, and a vast amount of time being taken away from teaching to satisfy ever-increasing demands for high-stakes standardized tests.

At the end of the two-day conference in Austin, Texas, NPE called for congressional hearings on the use, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing in America’s public schools. In a letter to members of Congress, the group urged them to examine 11 questions about the quality, costs, and effectiveness of such tests. The letter, which has drawn some surprising support, concludes:

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.

After the conference, NPE board member Bertis Downs, who also serves on PFAW’s board, published a compelling open letter to President Obama inviting the president to consider the harmful impacts of excessive high-stakes testing and other educational policies backed by the administration.

A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts.  In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.

Saturday’s keynote speeches were by Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and John Kuhn, who as a Texas school district superintendent might be considered by some a more surprising speaker. Kuhn gave a barn-burner of a speech on behalf of public education and the children it serves. Kuhn is the author of a new book, part memoir and part pro-public-education manifesto, called Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education.

“I am here speaking for one reason. I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my children,” he said. “Anything that weakens the public schools in the United States of America weakens the nation.”

Kuhn slammed the ongoing political efforts to divert more public funds to for-profit charter chains and voucher schools that are not required to serve all children, as well as the underlying premise that educational opportunity will be improved by turning education into a system based on competition.  In education, he says, competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting and search for competitive advantage.  Competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellence, he said. “If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around.”

Sunday’s keynoter was Diane Ravitch, widely considered America’s finest education historian. Ravitch, an NPE board member, served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, but she has since become an energetic critic of the corporate reform movement, saying it is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it threatens to destroy public education in America.  Ravitch’s most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which Jonathan Kozol calls “a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch’s speech was also a manifesto and call to battle against the corporate-reform “juggernaut” that is “devouring education.” 

While conference participants shared a burning desire to change the conversation and push back on efforts to dismantle and privatize public education, there wasn’t always unanimity among participants. A panel on Common Core, for example, featured a number of educators who are strongly opposed, but also included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who defended the standards as a way to build broader public support for a public education system that serves the common good.

At the conference, more than two dozen panels focused on a wide range of issues regarding the future of public education, including teacher preparation, the role of parents, the impact of educational corporations and foundations promoting privatization, the importance of truth-telling academic research and investigative reporting, and organizing and communications strategies.

A consistent theme at the conference was the imperative to better serve high-needs students living in conditions of concentrated poverty. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of success on standardized tests, but the corporate reform movement often dismisses talk about the impact of poverty and inequities as excuse-making.  “They want us to say that poverty and segregation and policies that continue to foment that should not matter,” said the CTU’s Lewis. “Well, yeah, that would be lovely. They should not matter. But they do.”

Among the organizations offering resources was the Opportunity to Learn campaign. For example, Opportunity to Learn challenges school closures as a reform tactic and provides examples of alternatives that have proven effective in strengthening public schools.  Among those strategies is creating “community schools” by wrapping schools and students in social and family support services.

In spite of the huge challenges and relentless attacks on public education, the conference as a whole, like Ravitch’s speech, had a kind of David vs. Goliath optimism.  She devoted part of her speech to educational heroes. Among them was the Providence Student Union, which has engaged in creative protest and street theater against tests required for students to graduate. In one high-profile project, the group recruited 50 prominent Rhode Islanders to take the math tests students would have to pass to graduate from high school; 60 percent of the adult professionals failed.

Ravitch said that the tactics of those who are out to destroy public education are failing, and that parents and educators are mobilizing to build public opposition to “reforms” that are based on “junk science.”

There’s no question the facts are on our side. But we have to shape the narrative. And the narrative is, we have a great public institution. Our public schools are not failing. If you’ve read my last book you know that the test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children. The graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in history. So their narrative is a lie…We are defending American democracy. We are defending children. We are fighting for what’s right….

She called for parents and others to be active both in advocacy and in politics.

So my message is, first of all, be not afraid. Be strong. …. Speak proudly of our children. Our children are amazing -- the fact that they’re able to put up with all the garbage that’s being thrown at them. And get political…Run for office. Get involved. We cannot win unless we throw some of these guys out of office….I’m 75 years old…I’m not gonna be here forever….Who’s gonna take my place? My answer is, “you will.”

….We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning. Not profit centers for corporations and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. We are many, and they are few, and this is why we will win.

PFAW

The Problem with “School Choice” Week: What’s Behind the Bright Yellow Banner

Anti-government ideologues, privatization profiteers, and religious fundamentalists are eager to get their hands on public education dollars.
PFAW Foundation

Voucher Programs Still Don't Make the Grade for Students, Parents and Taxpayers

Conservatives have long touted the game-changing impact that voucher and similar taxpayer funded K-12 school tuition programs have on improving educational success, but as you peel back the layers we find lackluster results at best.

A recent Politico article shines a light on this issue as states are set to spend upwards of $1 billion dollars on private school vouchers and similar programs in 2014. What we see are outcomes that don’t making the grade for students, parents and taxpayers, with some of this money even going to schools that teach creationism and religion as science. According to a 2011 study published by the Center on Education Policy, when compared to similar public school students, voucher recipients have generally performed at the same level on reading and math assessments.

With the lack of real and positive impacts for students, as we see in so many places around the country, including Louisiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, we should question why states are not putting that public money back into public schools to help the children that need it the most.

Earlier this summer, People For’s Peter Montgomery wrote an excellent piece that highlights right-wing strategies on vouchers, entitled “Choice’ School Accountability in the Eye of the Beholder – or Big Donor.”
 

PFAW

New Poll Shows Overwhelming Opposition to Private School Vouchers

The annual PDK/Gallup poll records the highest level of opposition to private school vouchers in the survey's history.
PFAW

Wisconsin News Round-up: 6/29/11

Today's news from Wisconsin:

RecallTheRight.org

PFAW

PFAW and AAMIA react to DC approps, reaffirm support for White House rally

Last week, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted a press conference on Capitol Hill in defense of her city. Speaking out against several policy riders that have been passed or threatened by conservatives in Congress, Delegate Norton, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, DC Vote, and members of the civil rights community, including People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action, voiced their support for autonomy and the right to self-government for the people of the District of Columbia.

PFAW and AAMIA just got their first glimpse of the FY12 DC appropriations bill. While some issues were spared, other riders are in.

Roll Call:

The bill that funds the District includes a provision restricting the city from spending federally appropriated and locally collected funds on abortion services, except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

It also includes $60 million for a federally funded, private-school voucher program, a key priority for Boehner.

Delegate Norton warns that we’re not out of the woods on any issue.

The introduction of the bill is only the first step in a long appropriations process, and action by the new national coalition is essential as the bill goes to committee and to the floor.

We are currently waiting for news from the first of the committee meetings.

PFAW President Michael B. Keegan recently noted:

Rather than address the many complex issues facing our nation, House Republicans are choosing to threaten women's constitutional rights by attacking choice and preventive care, and they are taking every chance they get to force their social priorities on the people of Washington, DC.

And while there is no doubt that educational opportunities and standards must be improved across the country, allocating money to private schools at the expense of public school students is not the way to succeed. Public dollars must continue to fund public services.

PFAW and AAMIA continue to believe that enough is enough – the people of DC deserve a voice. We hope that voice will be heard loud and clear on June 25 at the White House Rally for DC Democracy, organized by our friends at DC Vote.

Date: Saturday, June 25, 2011

Location: Lafayette Square Park, 16th Street & H Street NW (in front of the White House)

Time: 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM

Click here to RSVP, and here to learn about additional opportunities to support DC Vote on June 25.

As you may know, there have been dozens of civil disobedience arrests this year of citizens who stood up for the District’s right to self-govern. Neither PFAW nor AAMIA are organizing a civil disobedience action for June 25. If you need assistance, you may contact DC Vote directly.

For more information, please click here.

PFAW

PFAW and AAMIA condemn riders, sponsor White House rally

Last week, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted a conference on Capitol Hill in defense of her city. Speaking out against several policy riders that have been passed or threatened by conservatives in Congress, Delegate Norton, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, DC Vote, and members of the civil rights community voiced their support for autonomy and the right to self-government for the people of the District of Columbia.

Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way:

The extreme social policies that threaten Washington, DC are yet another example of the hypocrisy of the GOP leadership . . . We hope that the Senate and President Obama will join us and say that enough is enough – the people of DC deserve a voice. Our democracy demands nothing less.

Leslie Watson Malachi, Director, African American Ministers in Action:

The people of Washington, DC are tired of being taken advantage of . . . It’s time to end the institutional repression of Washingtonians, and in the meantime, it’s time for Congress to stop playing political games with the lives of those who make their home in our nation’s capital.

Today, PFAW and AAMIA have taken their actions one step further by sponsoring the White House Rally for DC Democracy on June 25, organized by our friends at DC Vote.

Date: Saturday, June 25, 2011

Location: Lafayette Square Park, 16th Street & H Street NW (in front of the White House)

Time: 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM

Click here to RSVP, and here to learn about additional opportunities to support DC Vote on June 25.

As you may know, there have been dozens of civil disobedience arrests this year of citizens who stood up for the District’s right to self-govern. Neither PFAW nor AAMIA are organizing a civil disobedience action for June 25. If you need assistance, you may contact DC Vote directly.

For more information, please click here and here.

PFAW

The Problem with School Vouchers: FL Private “High School” Offers $400 Diploma

The quality of education is a serious problem facing our nation, and it’s clear that the best solution is high quality public schools, not unaccountable voucher schemes that drain money away from our public education system. Next time  someone assures you that private schools are so much better than public schools, you might want to point them towards the InterAmerican Christian Academy, which allowed a Florida man to “earn” a high-school diploma in just 8 days and for only $400.

 

It began with a poster on a streetlight in downtown Miami: “High School Diploma. (305) 716-0909.” I dialed, and a chipper female voice answered, “Hello. High school.” Eight days and $399 in cash later, at the school’s Doral “campus” — a cramped third-floor office next door to US Lubricant LLC and across the hall from a hair extensions company — I was grinning widely, accepting a framed diploma and an official transcript sporting a 3.41 GPA.

 

This is the same state in which the Governor, Rick Scott, is looking to substantially expand “school choice” programs. Sounds like a great use of taxpayer dollars…

Read the full story at Thinkprogress.org

PFAW

Mitt Romney the Weathervane: What Our Most Changeable Politician Can Tell Us About the Modern GOP

As Mitt Romney enters the Republican presidential race this week, there will be plenty of attention on his shifting political views. But Romney's changing positions are not just the tragicomic tale of a man so desperate for the presidency he'll say anything to get there: they're also a valuable measure of what it takes to make it in the modern GOP.

Romney's many breathtaking U-turns -- on universal health care, on gay rights, on abortion rights -- have been extensively documented and parsed, and have become a reliable punchline. The former governor's willingness to adopt the position that he thinks will get him the most votes in whatever election he happens to be running in does speak to his own character. But Romney's ease at shifting also makes him a perfect weathervane for measuring the audiences he is trying to appeal to. And the speed with which Romney has been spinning to the right is an alarming sign of the political winds within the Republican Party.

This weekend, Romney will be making an important appearance among a group that has historically mistrusted him: the Religious Right. Speaking at the annual conference of Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, Romney can be expected to once again disavow his previously convenient reasonable positions on abortion rights and gay equality. But he is also likely to go a step farther.

At a similar event in 2007, as he tried to shake off his image as a socially moderate Massachusetts Republican in preparation for his first presidential run, Romney spoke at the Values Voter Summit hosted by a coalition of right-wing social issues groups. In his speech, he rattled off Religious Right catchphrases, speaking of the United States' "Judeo-Christian heritage," the "breakdown of the family," and making "out-of-wedlock birth out of fashion again" and passing an anti-gay marriage amendment to "protect marriage from liberal, unelected judges." He promised a federal "marriage amendment," funding for vouchers for religious schools and across-the-board anti-choice policies. By earlier that year, he had impressed Ann Coulter enough that she endorsed him in a speech made famous by her use of an anti-gay slur.

At last year's Values Voter Summit, having done full penance to the Religious Right for his previous statements in favor of gay rights and choice, Romney focused his speech on right-wing economic policies, including an odd tribute comparing Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton to the Founding Fathers. But the company he kept revealed the friends he was hoping to make. The event was sponsored in part by the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, two groups who were soon to be named "hate groups" by the SPLC for their long histories of false anti-gay rhetoric. Romney's fellow speakers included Religious Right stalwarts Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, Planned Parenthood scam artist Lila Rose, and the AFA's Bryan Fischer, who has gained infamy with his vicious rhetoric about gays and lesbians, Muslims, African Americans and progressives. I wrote a letter to Romney warning him about associating himself with Fischer -- he didn't respond.

The Religious Right leaders that Romney is eager to curry favor with aren't just hostile to gays, Muslims and the social safety net -- many have expressed concern or even outright hostility to Romney's own Mormon faith. Fischer recently confronted Romney's faith, declaring that there is "a direct contradiction between Mormon theology and the teaching of Jesus Christ." A writer for a leading Religious Right publication declared, "If Mitt Romney believes what the Mormon Church teaches about the world and how it operates, then he is unfit to serve." As Romney angles himself into an increasingly extreme GOP, he will have to make nice to those who insult not only his past politics but his core religious beliefs.

At the Faith and Freedom Conference this weekend, Romney will have a similar opportunity to reinforce his social conservative bona fides while tying in his newly adamant anti-gay and anti-choice positions with the Tea Party's love of pro-corporate anti-tax talk. Ralph Reed, the resurgent mastermind behind the Christian Coalition, will perhaps be the perfect ally in his effort to paint himself as a true Tea Party candidate who wants small government for corporations and big government for individuals. Reed was, after all, partly responsible for bringing the passion of American evangelicals to the Republican anti-regulation agenda and schmoozes equally comfortably with Pat Robertson and Jack Abramoff. He is the perfect power-broker for an age when GOP politicians are supposed to oppose universal health care while supporting IRS involvement in abortions - the niche that Romney is trying to carefully fit himself into.

Romney will try to take advantage of the GOP base's newfound love of tax breaks for the rich, while continuing to pretend that he never supported choice and gay rights and reasonable environmental and health policies. If he can get away with it, he'll be the perfect candidate for today's ultraconservative GOP. But either way, he's bound to become a powerful symbol of just how far to the Right you have to go to make it in today's Republican Party.

Cross posted on The Huffington Post

PFAW

House Passes DC Vouchers, Bypasses DC Rights and Church-State Separation

This afternoon, the House of Representatives passed a bill to resurrect private school vouchers in the District of Columbia.

While Tea Party Republicans are claiming to take the high ground on government spending, they vote to throw millions of dollars at reviving a program that the Department of Education has shown is ineffective. After studying the program for four years, the Department found that use of a voucher had no statistically significant impact on overall student achievement in math or reading. The results were the same when the Department looked only at students who had applied from schools in need of improvement. As the Obama Administration stated in opposing the bill: "The Federal Government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students. Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement."

So if the program doesn't educate kids effectively, what exactly does it do?

For one thing, it helps religious schools stay open. This voucher program has been in existence since 2003, and more than three fourths of the students in it have used these government funds for private religious schools. While Congress is slashing government spending on public education in communities across the country, the House decided to throw a few million dollars to keep religious schools afloat. This raises significant First Amendment concerns.

It also insults the 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia. The mayor opposes this program, as does Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. If the people of DC wanted a voucher program, they would adopt one, something they have never done.

Finally, it furthers the right wing's drives to privatize core government functions and get around First Amendment restrictions on government-funded religion.

For some people, those are apparently good enough reasons to support the bill.

PFAW

States’ Rights! Smaller Federal Government! But Not for DC

We should have known what was coming in January when the House GOP, in one of its first acts in the majority, took away the limited floor voting rights of the District of Columbia’s one delegate in Congress. The move was depressingly ironic coming from a party that had swept to power on a movement that claimed to echo the spirit of the American Revolution and its call for “no taxation without representation.” But the irony was lost on most of the GOP, and, it seems, hasn’t been found yet.

Today, the House will vote on whether to spend $100 million of federal tax dollars over five years to impose a school voucher program in the District that doesn’t work and that the local government doesn’t even want. The voucher program, which funnels federal money to religious schools, is a pet project of House Speaker John Boehner, who has shown no qualms about cutting other education programs—including Head Start and Title I grants for low-income school districts.

A similar program was eliminated in 2009 after it was found to be ineffective in increasing student achievement, and DC’s mayor and non-voting congressional delegate both oppose reinstating it.

The voucher bill, expected to pass in the House, is the latest in a string of House GOP efforts to use DC as a pawn in the culture wars. The GOP’s radical anti-choice bill, HR 3, includes a provision that would prevent DC from using its own, locally raised tax dollars to provide abortion services. And now, Rep. Jim Jordan, leader of the 176-member Republican Study Group, is pushing for a bill that would overturn the District’s law allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

And this is on top of efforts to overturn DC’s local decisions on gun control and its needle exchange program.

Just to be clear, an elected body in which DC residents have no voting representation has decided to spend its time imposing programs the city doesn’t want, overturning its laws, and deciding how it can spend its own local tax dollars. Somebody call the Tea Party – I bet they’ll be furious.

PFAW

Pro-Voucher Group Working Against Recall of Union-Busting Wisconsin Republicans

Cross-posted on Right Wing Watch

An organization that backs private school vouchers is campaigning against the recall of the eight Republican Wisconsin senators who backed Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation. The so-called American Federation for Children (AFC) is an ardent supporter of the voucher scheme in Milwaukee, the unsuccessful voucher program which Walker and his GOP allies want to export to other parts of the state as part of bolstering the Republicans’ attacks on public schools and teachers.

Listen to their robocall defending GOP Senator Sheila Harsdorf:

At the same time that Walker and the Republicans proposed a massive $834 million cut to public schools, endangering the state’s esteemed public education system, they seek to spend more taxpayer money on a wasteful voucher program that has been unable to improve the education of Milwaukee students. A comprehensive study in 2009 found “no overall statistically significant difference between [voucher school] and [public school] student achievement growth in either math or reading one year after they were carefully matched to each other,” and that fourth graders in the voucher program were actually performing worse than comparable public school students.

While the private school voucher scheme did nothing to improve education, it did funnel taxpayer dollars to religious schools: of the 120 schools receiving vouchers examined in the study, 95 were religious and 7 operate within a religious tradition.

Renowned education scholar Diane Ravitch, once a proponent of the so-called “school choice” movement, told OnMilwaukee.com that the voucher program “has not worked”:

Milwaukee is indeed the nation's laboratory for assessing the value of school choice. The advocates of school choice predicted that academic performance in choice schools would not only soar, but that the competitive pressure would cause achievement in the regular district schools to improve. None of this has happened. The latest studies show that students in voucher schools and in charter schools do not perform any differently from those in the regular public schools.



"Reformers" in Milwaukee have been pursuing strategies that we now know are ineffective. The more time and resources devoted to ineffective strategies, the less attention there is to finding useful improvements. Choice got the support of foundations and business leaders, but it has not worked.

Even the state schools superintendent Tom Evers agreed that “choice schools have proven to be no more effective and in some cases less effective than Milwaukee Public Schools.”

But organizations like the AFC ignore and dismiss the clear findings that the Milwaukee voucher program is a wrongheaded and ill-designed effort to improve education, and instead want to expand the program to more school districts and tear down the public education system. Now, they want to make sure that Republican legislators keep their jobs and continue to support vouchers and bust unions representing public school teachers.

PFAW

Boehner Takes a Hit from the Right on DC Vouchers

House Speaker John Boehner took a hit yesterday in, of all places, the conservative Washington Examiner, a newspaper owned by the same folks who own the conservative Weekly Standard. Columnist Harry Jaffee slammed the Speaker for his plans to impose a reinvigorated private school voucher program on the District of Columbia. Jaffe states he is neutral on the issue of private school vouchers in general, but "with one caveat: The scholarships should not be used for parochial school tuition. And that is exactly where they have been going."

The Founding Fathers must be frowning on House Speaker John Boehner; you can almost envision the furrow on Thomas Jefferson's brow.

How could this fine conservative lawmaker from Ohio, who often cloaks himself in the Constitution, go on a crusade to give federal funds to D.C.'s Catholic schools? What happened to the separation of church and state?

Why is this a church-state issue? Because the vouchers are overwhelmingly used for religious education. In fact, the Department of Education reports that about 80% of the participating students have used the voucher to attend religious schools. Although the program may not expressly favor religious schools over others, you have to be willing to suspend your disbelief to think that that's not one of the goals of the program's proponents.

Jaffe ties the program directly to Boehner's upbringing.

So let's not let Boehner kid anyone. He's a good Catholic, attended Catholic schools in Cincinnati, has raised funds for D.C.'s Catholic schools, reads to their students, invited Cardinal Donald Wuerl to the State of the Union. His bill is a subsidy, plain and simple.

Catholic schools provide a strong education, build character and give poor kids a way out. No doubt. In Chicago and other cities, Catholic congregations support vibrant school systems. The truth is that D.C.'s Catholic community can no longer finance more than a few schools, which is why Wuerl turned seven into charter schools.

When John Boehner attended Archbishop Moeller High in Cincinnati, his parents split the cost with the local parish. When his brothers attended, Boehner helped.

That's the American way, where congregations and families helped their own get religious education. That's the way Thomas Jefferson saw it, at least.

Indeed, that is the American Way. But apparently it's not John Boehner's way.

PFAW

School Voucher Hypocrisy

In the Washington Monthly, Steve Benen takes the Speaker of the House to task on his hypocrisy in supporting the slashing of vitally important programs while setting some funds aside for a pet project of his in the District of Columbia.

Let me get this straight. As far as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is concerned, the United States government is "broke," which means we can't afford to pay for key domestic priorities, even if we want to.

Boehner, however, is also convinced that we have federal funds lying around to pay for private school tuition. …

[He] wants U.S. taxpayers to spend $20 million for private school tuition in D.C. over the next five years.

Maybe this is just an extension of Boehner's deep and abiding passion for looking out for struggling children? I have a strong hunch that's not it. After all, the Speaker's budget plan calls for devastating cuts to Head Start, Pell grants, Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty), and nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children, among other things.

If Boehner were motivated solely by a desire to help children and students, these cuts would be off the table. Instead, they remain near the top of the GOP to-do list.

So what's really going on here? It's simply a matter of priorities. Boehner supports brutal spending cuts for most domestic priorities, but he loves vouchers, especially those that benefit Roman Catholic private schools and undermine public education (which his party is growing increasingly hostile towards).

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program certainly does help religious schools stay open. This voucher program has been in existence since 2003, and more than three fourths of the students in it have used these government funds for private religious schools. In other words, the program funnels taxpayer money into religious organizations. In addition to the many other arguments against school vouchers, this program raises significant First Amendment concerns.

Does the Speaker support the program because he thinks it helps students achieve academically? In fact, neutral analyses of the program demonstrate clearly that it simply has not significantly improved the educational attainment of the enrolled students. The Department of Education has concluded that the use of a voucher had no statistically significant impact on overall student achievement in math or reading. The results were the same for students who applied from schools in need of improvement.

Does the Speaker think that the people of DC want this voucher program? In fact, the city’s mayor opposes it, as does Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and numerous members of the DC Council. If the people of DC wanted a voucher program, they would adopt one, something they have never done.

So why support a program that the locals don’t want and that the local population’s elected officials have asked you not to impose on them?

Throughout America and within Congress, there are ideologues seeking to privatize education as part of a larger push to privatize a wide swath of core government functions. Other ideologues chafe against the restrictions on government-funded religion that the Founders wisely placed in the First Amendment. So-called “opportunity scholarships” are an opportunity for them, but not for students.

People For the American Way opposes the Speaker’s bill, H.R. 471. It has been passed by committee, and a floor vote is expected near the end of March.

PFAW

Future of Public Education at Risk in Florida

Even though Florida’s initial experiment with school vouchers was ridden with cases of fraud and profiteering, Governor-Elect Rick Scott plans to drastically expand the voucher program and put the state’s public schools in his crosshairs. While a recent state-commissioned study found that “students using vouchers to attend private schools in Florida are doing no better and no worse than similar students in public schools,” the new Governor wants to expand the voucher program to include all Florida students.

Scott called for the diversion of funds from the public education system to “education savings accounts,” which families can use to pay for public, charter, private, or virtual schools. While such a plan appears innocuous on its face, the devil is in the details.

Valerie Strauss who writes on education issues for the Washington Post suggested that by encouraging students to leave public schools for private institutions, Scott’s plan would badly undercut efforts to make schools more accountable since most private schools are not subject to the same measures of public accountability, like tests and grading. Strauss maintains that “the notion that private schools would inherently be any better than a system of public schools overlooks all the key factors -- poverty being the first but not the only one -- that affect our most troubled public schools right now.”

Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones adds that “Scott’s education ‘reform’ plan seems be less about actually making Florida’s schools better and more about paying private companies to run bad ones.” Under Scott’s proposal, oversight would be seriously weakened, while private and virtual schools stand to profit immensely and at the expense of the public education system. Mencimer profiles cases of fraud and underperformance among the programs that would be given the greatest advantages under Scott’s plan, which she described as “a formula for disaster.”

The St. Petersburg Times questions how Scott would clear basic Constitutional and financial requirements. Firstly, Florida’s Supreme Court has found similar voucher programs unconstitutional before for violating the state constitution’s provision for a “uniform system of free public schools.”

Moreover, the numbers just don’t add up. Scott wants to severely reduce school property taxes and abolish corporate taxes, cutting significant revenue sources. The Times adds that since his plan entails “taking a portion of the per student funding for public schools and allowing families to spend that amount as they wish,” Scott “would not leave enough money for public education. And presumably, the hundreds of thousands of students already in private schools would receive public money as well.”

Rick Scott’s radical experiment with the Florida education system is the latest example of attacks on public schools that are taking place throughout the country. Just as Florida’s vouchers have so far proven largely ineffective, studies about voucher programs in Wisconsin and Washington D.C. also found that the programs did not come close to producing the promised benefits. In essence, Scott’s voucher plan drains money away from public schools in favor of an untested, unaccountable, and financially-questionable voucher program without any evidence that it will improve results.

PFAW

New Attacks on Public Schools

When Republicans take over the House next month, we can expect a flurry of bills seeking to impose school vouchers. But around the country, state and local officials are already escalating their assault against public education.

In Florida, voucher supports had already gotten their foot in the door with voucher programs for low-income students and those with disabilities. Last week, they took the predictable next step:

Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott on Thursday blew the door wide open to the idea of a voucherlike program for all students, saying he's working with lawmakers to allow state education dollars to follow a student to the school his or her parents choose.

He did not use the term vouchers. Others called it an "education savings account."

But whatever it's called, the incoming governor, key lawmakers and a foundation tied to former Gov. Jeb Bush are setting the stage for Florida to consider one of the most radical education ideas that it - or arguably any state - has ever considered.

In Indiana:

Gov. Mitch Daniels said Wednesday he will ask lawmakers to approve an education voucher system that would let low-income students use state money to help pay for private school tuition.

Daniels provided few details about his proposal - including income levels at which families would qualify or the amount they could receive - but said it will be part of his larger education agenda for the 2011 session.

And in Denver:

The Douglas County school board Tuesday night took another step toward a voucher program, with the board president saying he would like a pilot program for the 2011-12 school year. ...

[T]he board agreed to have Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen analyze whether vouchers would be good for the school district. After that analysis, the board will receive additional public input and make a final decision. ...

Some at the packed school-board meeting room were not in favor of using public money for a private education, especially for religious schools. Thirteen of the 14 private schools in the district are religious.

They carried signs that read "Keep Public Money in Public Schools" and "Do Not Bankrupt Our Schools."

"I think this would help destroy the public school system," said former teacher Sue Carter.

Indeed, the diversion of funds from public to private schools threatens the integrity of our public education system. By providing public funds to religious schools, voucher programs undermine the separation of church and state. To make things worse, studies show that vouchers don't even lead to significant academic improvements. For instance, earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education's final report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP, the name of the voucher program) found that there "is no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement."

The problems that are faced by America's public schools will not be solved by taking kids out of the system.

PFAW

A Judicial Victory For Church-State Separation in Florida!

Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling that rejects the latest efforts by the far right to undermine religious liberty in that state and pave the way for the return of a state voucher program. Just a few hours after hearing oral argument, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously held that two proposed state constitutional amendments that would undermine religious freedom and overturn the Court's ruling a few years ago striking down the state's publicly-funded school voucher program cannot be placed on the November ballot.
PFAW