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June 19, 2012 5:26 PM Wherever the Backpack Roams

By Ed Kilgore

I continue to be amazed at how little general attention has been drawn by Mitt Romney’s radical proposal to turn all federal K-12 education dollars into vouchers that will, as one of his advisors, Grover Whitehurst, likes to put it, follow kids around like a backpack wherever their parents choose to send them.

If the Romney proposal is implemented and becomes, as it appears designed to become, a super-charged magnet for state as well as federal money to flow into private schools, some pretty big questions will have to be asked about whether any conditions will be placed on private use of public dollars. Will schools all over the country receiving public largesse be like some of those which are beginning to receive state money via Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s new “scholarship” (just another word in this case for “voucher”) program? Here’s a report on those fine institutions from the Independent Weekly’s Walter Pierce:

The tally of private schools approved by the state Department of Education to accept voucher students reads like a who’s-who of who’s-that; one sees few big brand names — no St. Thomas Mores or John Curtises. Evangel, a football powerhouse in Shreveport, jumps out, but the vast majority is overwhelmingly small, Christian schools — evangelical mostly along with a fair number of Roman Catholic schools — tiny operations with fewer than 100 students…
Most appear to be tied to evangelical churches with names like Eternity Christian Academy, Old Bethel Christian Academy and Boutte Christian Academy. In fact, “Christian” and “academy” dominate the nomenclature….
The most brazen example is Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake. The school has been approved to accept 135 new students. That’s a considerable uptick in enrollment, which at the end of this school year stood at 38 — a more than 300 percent increase. Talk about buttressing the budget; $1 million in tax dollars will be diverted from the public school system to Eternity Christian, a school that, according to its mission statement, offers “a quality faith-based curriculum that is soley [sic] based on principles from the Bible …”

So the Louisiana program is using state funds to prop up marginal church-based schools with zero vetting of their curriculum, facilities, instructional credentials or standards. “The market,” or, I suppose, the Good Lord will sort them out eventually.

A separate piece on the Louisiana program by Alternet’s Bruce Wilson (published at Salon) notes that a number of beneficiary schools use textbooks that explicitly preach anti-evolution and anti-gay nostrums as science, along with revisionist history and political preferences.

Is this where Mitt Romney wants to push American education? And if he suggests (in the unlikely event he has to clarify his proposal anytime soon) schools will be vetted for quality or competence, how long will it be before that idea collides with the belief of Romney’s evangelical and conservative-Catholic allies that any regulation of religious bodies for use of public dollars is an assault on “religious freedom?”

The disconnect between Romney’s nice, vague rhetoric and his toxic policy specifics, and his ability to get the media to focus on the former rather than the latter, is becoming one of the defining characteristics of the general election contest so far.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Ron Byers on June 19, 2012 5:45 PM:

    Having sent four kids to large suburban school districts that were among the best in my state, I am not impressed by large public school systems, especially at the middle and high school level. If the tiny private schools hire high quality teachers, keep class sizes small and let the teaches teach, I am sure students will benefit. My only real concerns are that evangelical schools probably won't teach science and math worth a damn. Many of the evangelical academies could turn in to Christian "madrassas." Others will exclude poor and minority children, dumping them into underfunded public schools. Those potential problems are scary for the long term health of the nation. All that said, I still think kids learn better in smaller institutions as long as they employ highly motivated, high quality teachers and keep class sizes relatively small.

    This issue is not one sided.

  • Mudge on June 19, 2012 5:53 PM:

    I read where some state legislators in Louisiana had a cow because an Islamic school had applied or been approved. Apparently only Christian schools are entitled to state money. What a surprise.

  • Peter C on June 19, 2012 6:07 PM:

    The Republicans have always hated public education; vouchers are their way of trying to kill it. It's a strategy: outsource it (absolving the Government of the responsibility) and then cut off the funding (sorry, we can no longer afford it!).

    a quality faith-based curriculum that is soley [sic] based on principles from the Bible

    Does the Bible have much to say about things like Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus, Physics, English/American Literature, Chemistry, Biology, History (American, European, Asian) (and on and on and on ...)??? Exactly which 'principles from the Bible' are the basis for these (seemingly trivial) subjects???

  • Mitch on June 19, 2012 6:25 PM:

    @Ron Byers,

    You're spot-on about smaller schools/classes being superior. I was a military brat and went two high schools: One had close to 5,000 students, with 30 more more per class. The other had about 600 students, with closer to 20 students at a time. Without a doubt learning was much easier at the small school.

    And you are also right to fear "Christian madrassas" because those are exactly the type of schools preferred by the GOP.

    The real answer is to increase the budget for our public school systems, allowing them to hire more teachers and expand to reduce class size. The GOP wants only to defund public education, and give taxpayer dollar to religious zealots and wealthy donors.

    And Peter C., the Bible give 3 as a resonable solution to Pi. Not much else needs to be said about it's educational potential.

  • jjm on June 19, 2012 6:49 PM:

    The right is opposed to public schools only because they see in education a revenue stream they can dip into twice: your tax money and then your tuition money. Wow! what a deal for them!

    And the end product? Who cares? According to one charter school studied by the NYT, the test scores and all other indicators showed the school well below par, but the school said, "What's to worry? We are making PROFITS."

    I grew up under an education system largely designed by John Dewey; so did both of my parents. We all valued education and public education to an extraordinary degree.

    But educators are now being told to treat education as some kind of commodity, not as the most important thing to happen to a child in its lifetime.

  • Anonymous on June 19, 2012 7:02 PM:

    If the tiny private schools hire high quality teachers, keep class sizes small and let the teaches teach, I am sure students will benefit.

    You must not know anybody who works at one of these "tiny private schools". I know several. While there are some dedicated souls who don't mind working for the far less than living wages that most of these schools dole out, you'll find it increasingly hard to find "high quality teachers" as student enrollment increases the need for educators. What's more, many of these schools tend to be selective preferring medium IQs and above and don't have the capacity for special needs students, low functioning students, or students with behavioral problems.

  • Oh my on June 19, 2012 7:31 PM:

    So in TEAliban land, using a modest tax to penalize someone for not having proper health insurance is outrageous Marxism. Forcing me to pay for somebody else's kids to go to their religious madrassa of choice is American pie freedom. That's pretty f*cked up.

  • DRF on June 19, 2012 8:22 PM:

    Aside from the troubling issues of giving public funds to religious schools and the difficulty of state governments tracking the quality of these schools, it's just an outrage to see states divert public funds to private schools via a voucher system. Many of the students attending these schools can afford the tuition without the state subsidy. This is just incredibly wasteful.

  • exlibra on June 19, 2012 8:27 PM:

    My only real concerns are that evangelical schools probably won't teach science and math worth a damn. -- Ron Byers, @5:45PM

    You're, probably, right about the science part, but I wouldn't be as worried about math. Having a guy nailed to a plus sign in front of your eyes all day long is a powerful motivator to study hard.

  • pj in jesusland on June 19, 2012 9:28 PM:

    Thanks to Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's citizens are free to discriminate. They are so sophisticated they recognize the validity of creationism. Mathematics begins with teaching about measuring in cubits.

    When Louisiana students place even lower on international educational surveys than they do now, will they blame the New Testament God? Or will they blame the survey for asking trick questions?

  • tcinaz on June 19, 2012 10:07 PM:

    Oh yes it is, Ron Byers. As a teacher in the public school system in Oregon for 34 years, I can assure you it is inordinantly one-sided. Since A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983, an assumption about the quality of teaching in American schools has pervaded the landscape regardless of the mountains of research that dispelled A Nation's premises. The nation launched on a reform agenda driven by the far right, fueled by questioned research, that culminated in Michelle Rhee, the now discredited spokesperson for reform, whose credentials were built on falsified test scores in Washington D.C. of all places. The consequence of all this "reform" has been to erode funding for public school at levels never before seen in American education. See this: (http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/us_education_spending_20.html) and this (http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/NEA_Rankings_and_Estimates010711.pdf)
    Your own statement puts the lie to the actual situatation: "All that said, I still think kids learn better in smaller institutions as long as they employ highly motivated, high quality teachers and keep class sizes relatively small." You are of course correct, but what you suggest can not be implemented when funds are being eroded preventing these smaller institutions with smaller class sizes in the public sector. Do you get the rub of your own argument here? The trend in publicly funded schools is toward larger schools and larger class sizes, not reflecting best practices and educational policies, but austerity measures by Republican dominated state legislatures. And don't get me started on over-generous compensation packages and pensions to teachers, because I can show you the lie that represents relative to the economy as a whole for the last forty years too.

  • Ron Byers on June 19, 2012 10:43 PM:

    tcinaz

    I am not arguing with most of what you say, but I live in a middle class to upper middle class predominantly white suburb. Our school taxes are significant, and we don't seem to lack for all the school administrators you might want. What we have, however, is an outrageous system where thousands of students who attend one of two over crowded high schools. We have administrators who actively search the halls for students to condemn to our alternative school which is funded by some sort of state federal grant and run by a former insurance salesman who is politically well connected. The behavior of our "adminstrators" reminds me of the old press gangs the British used to crew their naval ships.

    Don't tell me about how wonderful large well funded public schools can be. They can be total crap. That said, I have no brief for small evangelical schools either. All I know is a lot of people running our public schools should be held accountable for the damage they do to the young people in their charge. I have a daughter who was impressed by the local administration after a normal youthful mistake. She is now 23 and just beginning to emerge from the hell the large well funded public school inflicted on her.

  • Ron Byers on June 19, 2012 10:45 PM:

    tcinaz

    I am not arguing with most of what you say, but I live in a middle class to upper middle class predominantly white suburb. Our school taxes are significant, and we don't seem to lack for all the school administrators you might want. What we have, however, is an outrageous system where thousands of students who attend one of two over crowded high schools. We have administrators who actively search the halls for students to condemn to our alternative school which is funded by some sort of state federal grant and run by a former insurance salesman who is politically well connected. The behavior of our "adminstrators" reminds me of the old press gangs the British used to crew their naval ships.

    Don't tell me about how wonderful large well funded public schools can be. They can be total crap. That said, I have no brief for small evangelical schools either. All I know is a lot of people running our public schools should be held accountable for the damage they do to the young people in their charge. I have a daughter who was empressed by the local administration after a normal youthful mistake. She is now 23 and just beginning to emerge from the hell the large well funded public school inflicted on her.

  • jhm on June 20, 2012 5:57 AM:

    It might be inaccurate to say that GOPers specifically, and the right more generally, have always opposed public education. I think the issue is one of curriculum, not funding. The main point contention seems to be that conservatives remain implacable foes of anything which might tend to undermine their ideology, and doubly so of anything which will instill in children the idea that their cherished creed is not, in fact, reality based.

    Just saw this, and while I haven't read it through, it seems germane:

    http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/beyond_the_politics_of_the_big_lie_20120619/

  • cmdicely on June 20, 2012 11:42 AM:

    And Peter C., the Bible give 3 as a resonable solution to Pi.

    That is an accurate first-order approximation. It is problematic (as, for that matter, is any finite expression of an irrational number) when people treat it as a precise value.


  • Poed Lib on June 20, 2012 10:30 PM:

    Mother of GAWD, the amazing STUPIDITY of many of you is beyond comprehension. The entire education destruction agenda of the Repukeliscum is for one reason and one reason only - education is the largest industry in the country, if privatized, and the Repukeliscum want to get control of the dollars. Billions upon billions of dollars. And large public schools can be just fine. My kids went to a large school (their class had 450-500). I went to a large public school. The size of the school is not the key feature. It is parental involvement, and the proportion of parents who are single parents. Single parents are one of the prime reasons why the school systems sink.

    Another tool in the war chest is the use of charter schools. Charters are just private schools on the public subsidy. They are not under the control of the school board, and so there is no oversight on spending. They are filled with incompetent unqualified teachers, and they have results that are worse than public schools.