Monday, June 4, 2012

Over the Edge

Louisiana has announced a bold new program for their public education: don't have any.

The new program would phase out public education programs while phasing in taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for each student to attend private schools across the state. The idea is that this will make the schools more competitive for students, and will lead to higher outcomes. The voucher program will start this fall, with low-to-middle income families receiving vouchers for full tuition to a number of private schools. The following year, all families will apply for mini-vouchers which, taken together, will cover educations costs for students. Whenever one of those vouchers is granted to a student, that student's public school loses corresponding funding. This will eventually phase out public schools entirely, and place roughly 100% of children in private school, subsidized by state funds.

Here are just a few problems with this plan.

1. The vouchers. Like all voucher programs before it, these vouchers are funded by tax dollars. In other words, these private institutions will be sucking up tax money from the government, but will not be a part of the government. Essentially, it's  a long-term bail-out for private companies, even though those companies are not struggling financially. Rather than hiring teachers, the state is opting to give that money to private institutions, which will result in layoffs of state employees (who are members of a union).

And another point about voucher programs. What happens if/when Louisiana finds itself with a budget deficit? Will they be cutting the voucher amounts? Almost certainly. And that will leave low-income families without a way to pay for education. The public school system was a remarkable institution because it guaranteed an education to every student regardless of whether their family could afford it. Vouchers take that certainty away. Education then becomes a matter of wealth, not an inherent right to the children of America. When times get tough, and vouchers are put on the chopping block, what will Louisiana lawmakers say? That the poor need to pull their own weight, even as the state has been funneling money into private companies? Oh, and there is no limit on what those private institutions can spend this money on. As we've seen with charter schools, voucher money can be used to give the principals bonuses, to pay for fancy equipment, and not one cent must be spent on the value of the education.

2. The curriculum. As the linked article above points out, there are some serious questions about the curriculum at some of these state-approved private schools. For example, schools where science classes don't mention the theory of evolution, teach children that liberals are evil, promote conservative Christian ideology, and places where students literally work in isolation. These are just some examples. In the public school, there are standards for what must be taught, right down to lesson plans. In this case, Superintendent of Education John White states that he is leaving it up to the principals of these institutions to make sure that they are teaching their students all the necessary skills, and that it will be up to the parents, not the state that is funding these schools, to make sure the schools are doing what they're supposed to. I ask you: what parent has the time to go to a school and snoop around into what their children are learning? There will be no panel of parents or community members to preside over the school. Instead, there will be a board of directors that is paid through taxpayer funding. There are no limits on what can and cannot be taught in private schools, and the state of Louisiana is stepping back from providing oversight of private institutions.

3. School Choice. Many of the schools that have been approved for this program are religious in nature. It used to be that a family could choose which school to send their child to. Now, it will be based on how much funding the family can secure through the state (which I complain about above). That means that those who can afford choice will get it, and those who can't, won't. It also means that those who can't afford a local school will have to send their children elsewhere. And then, what if they can't afford anything except a school whose curriculum does not coincide with their beliefs? What if a Jewish family is forced to send their children to a Christian school that promotes biblical rhetoric in it's daily lessons? The problem with this voucher program is that it limits the poor in their choice of school, and will continue to do so as funding for the voucher program inevitably drops.

4. Standards. As I've said, there are no standards for private schools in terms of curriculum. Furthermore, they are not required to admit students to their programs. What this means is, private institutions have much more autonomy when it comes to cherry-picking students for enrollment. Since federal funding is dependent on standardized test scores (thanks to NCLB), these private institutions have it in their best interests to filter out low-performance students. Traditionally, those students who are low-performing in private or charter schools (in LA, they are essentially the same thing now) would be kicked back to public schools, or shuffled off into a program where they're labeled in such a way so that their scores don't count. But without a public school system, what will happen? These students will fall through the cracks, possibly even denied a spot in a private school and will therefore receive no education. Oh, but wait. In Louisiana, private schools are not required to administer standardized tests to their students. So, the only measure of student performance will now no longer be used. There will be no way to know how effective these school's programs are. There will be no way to look over the shoulders of these institutions, because there will be no overall comparison to other states, the nation, or even other districts.

5. Space. And what happens when these private institutions run out of space, or run out of people to teach the new influx of students? The school with the most openings currently has 315. How many thousands of students in Louisiana are going to be displaced? Without public schools, how will the overflow students get an education? Answer: they won't. The state will have to have some public institutions around to handle the extra students that the private schools aren't able to take. But how will those public schools be funded? They are going to be bare-bones schools with no supports, meaning they will finally embody the negative view that proponents of this plan have always had.

6. Jobs. So, let's say that in five years, all the public schools in Louisiana are gone. Private schools have taken over all of the students. What about all those public school teachers? What about the union? Well, the union will be gone, and those teachers that aren't hired by private schools will be out of a job. Remember, those who push for private schools have an immensely negative view of teachers as being overpayed, underworked, and indoctrinating. I'm sure they won't care that so many teachers will suddenly be out of work.

This is just a list of things that jumped out at me. I'm sure if I spent more time on it, I could come up with more. These are very serious concerns, major problems with this proposal. It reflects a dangerous precedent in our nation that places more emphasis on value than on quality. Louisiana is going to be a test case for the rest of the nation, but I fear the results of this social experiment. And unlike a study that is done in the lab, or a test that is taken in the classroom, the effects of this program will be felt for years, decades, generations to come. We are witnessing the beginning of the end to public, free, quality education for all. This is the first step to the world where education is a luxury for the elite, and the poor are left ignorant and powerless. America is better than this, has always been better than this, and I am sad to see that so many children will have to suffer to prove this point once again.

1 comment:

samp said...

I agree with your assessment. Surprising huh? This " social experiment" is very scary. What lead to this anyway? What is going on in this country? There is nothing more important than having our children and future generations receiving a good sound education. Otherwise, America could become a "reverse" 3rd world country. I assume somewhere a long the line the Louisiana voters will have a say in this even it means a referendum.