Aaron Regunberg: Don’t Let School Vouchers Fool You

Friday, June 15, 2012


At the New Living Word private religious school in Ruston, Louisiana, students spend the majority of their school day in a lightly furnished classroom in front of a TV, watching their “lessons” from an instructional DVD that goes back and forth between biblical verses and academic content.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, Louisiana, children spend their time sitting in cubicles, working independently on Christian workbooks like an introductory science text that teaches “what God made” on the six days of creation. Asked why students are not exposed to the theory of evolution, the school’s principal answered, “We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children.”

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What do these two schools have in common? As a recent Reuters article reported, they’ve both been approved for state-funded vouchers through Louisiana Governor Jindal’s new education privatization plan, which has allowed his administration to begin to shift up to $50 million in tax-payer dollars out of public schools and into the hands of private industry, business owners, and church pastors.

The well-funded and big-spending “ed reform” advocates of this plan—and others like it being proposed around the country—argue that vouchers are about fairness and justice. If wealthy families have the privilege of sending their children to highly effective private schools, then low-income families should have the same “school choice.”

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it has absolutely no connection to the reality of how these systems play out. In Louisiana, the top private schools (the Moses Browns and Wheeler Schools of the state) are offering just a few open slots to students with vouchers; the Dunham School in Baton Rouge, for example, has announced it will accept only four voucher students, all kindergartners.

The vast, vast, vast majority of voucher students will be enrolling in schools like the aforementioned New Living Word (314 open slots), Eternity Christian Academy (135 slots), and a host of similar schools that, according to the Reuters article, use social studies texts warning that liberals threaten global prosperity; Bible-based math books that don’t cover modern concepts such as set theory; and biology texts built around refuting evolution. And that’s to say nothing of the schools that are likely to spring up as primarily money-making enterprises now that so many millions of tax-dollars are up for grabs.

To make an absurd plan even crazier, Louisiana’s brave ed reformers (who usually seem to be so obsessed with “accountability”) did not include any consequences in Jindal’s 47-page bill for private schools whose voucher students get poor test results. This is particularly worrying because the pilot voucher program the state has run in New Orleans for several years has had a whole lot of poor results—in fact, a two year study of the program run by former Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Leslie Jacobs found that, with the exception of two schools, all schools in New Orleans receiving vouchers produced student results that were worse than those obtained in the district-run schools.

Of course, the worst part of the voucher plan is the unavoidable damage it will do to Louisiana’s public schools. Every time a student receives a voucher, his or her local school will lose state funding. With a funding loss as huge as the voucher plan’s estimated $50 million, the question is not whether vital public school services will have to be cut, but rather who will be most injured by these inevitable reductions. And the answer is the same as it has always been in these situations—those most hurt will be the poorest students, the families in most need of stronger, better-resourced public schools.

It should be clear by this time that Louisiana’s voucher system—and, indeed, all voucher systems—are not actually about helping children or low-income communities. Indeed, that’s never been their real purpose. Vouchers are about one thing and one thing only: wide-scale school privatization. Milton Friedman, the father of free-market ideology in the U.S. and the inventor of the voucher idea, said it himself in a quote that couldn’t be any more explicit. “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.” And then there’s this quote from Joseph Bast, president of the right-wing Heartland Institute, who said: “Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling. In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.”

So a word to the wise. Wherever you are, in Rhode Island or elsewhere, there are currently—as you read this—well-moneyed interests talking about how to bring a voucher program to your state. When they come (and they’ll come…there’s simply too much money in play for them not to) really do your homework and think carefully. They’re going to dress it up in Orwellian language of social justice, but it’s just another iteration of the privatization waves that have rippled through our healthcare systems and prison systems over the last few decades with equally disastrous consequences. It’s not about students and it’s not about families—it’s about undoing 180 years of American commitment to public education, and it’s a mistake of epic proportions.

Writer's Note:

For those who read my June 1st Mindsetter on school resource officers, in which I incorrectly wrote that Providence’s Hope High School has four school resource officers (the school actually has two)—a major apology. The piece was a re-creation of a conversation I’d had, and I didn’t do the fact-checking I should have done to ensure the information in that conversation was correct. Bad call. I also think, in my attempt to point out the incongruous priorities of a system that allows schools to not have a full-time nurse, that I was remiss to have not made more clear the incredible commitment and work of SROs as individuals. In short, that piece had some significant mistakes, and I’m sorry for them.


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