The Unfair Way These Democrats Will Lose on Schools in 2020

The charter-school window is closing fast and many 2020 Democratic hopefuls will likely get hurt as it snaps shut. Part of the phenomenal success of the charter-school movement since 1991 has come from its ideological flexibility. As Queen Betsy stiffens that ideology into a sour blend of Jesus, Koch, and Trump, it looks as if Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker will all face awkward questions.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing, Washington DC, USA - 17 Jan 2017

Kneel before the charter-school Queen!!!

Like many changes in America’s culture-war landscape, this one happened fast. Since 2016, charter schools have been seen more and more as a conservative scam, a way to rob public schools of needed funding. Why? The honors should go to Queen Betsy. Her single-minded focus on increasing “choice” has made it difficult for anyone else to agree.

It wasn’t always this way. Of course, some on the left have always abhorred charter schools. But others haven’t. The unique appeal of charter schools between the 1990s and 2016 was that they appealed to everyone who thought public schools were lacking. And lots of progressive folks have always found big problems with public schools.

Exhibit A: My student-teaching mentor back in the 1990s. He was the best teacher I’ve ever seen, and he was chomping at the bit to start a charter school as soon as Missouri passed its charter law. For him, it was all about cutting red tape and getting educational resources into the hands of underserved kids. He and a small group of fellow progressives had outlined their plan for a wrap-around progressive school, one that would use truly child-centered teaching methods and provide a host of other services for families such as day care, medical care, and meals.

Beto_El_Paso_IVP_TT_PLACEHOLDER

I LOVE–erm…I mean I HATE charter schools.

Or consider activists such as Milwaukee’s Howard Fuller. Though prominent civil-rights groups such as the NAACP oppose charters, Fuller has always seen them as the best hope of low-income African American families. For families trapped in dysfunctional school districts, Fuller argues, charters and vouchers provide a desperately needed escape hatch.

In the past, then, charters and “choice” were embraced by both the left and the right. Anyone who thought the current public-school system was failing could jump on the charter-school bandwagon. For politicians who wanted to be seen as “doing something,” charter schools were the thing to do. That has changed, though, and today’s leading Democrats will find themselves hard pressed to explain their pro-charter pasts.

booker on oprah

…here’s Superman.

President Obama got out in time to avoid tough questions, but his administration pushed hard for charters. Many other Democratic politicians did the same. Beto O’Rourke now tells crowds,

We will not allow our public tax dollars to be taken from our classrooms and sent to private schools.

However, back when it was fashionable for hyper-educated dilettantes to open charter schools, his wife did just that.

Cory Booker might be in an even worse position. Backed by Facebook and Oprah, then-Mayor Booker endorsed a huge expansion of charter schools in Newark.

warren two income

What did you know and when did you know it?

And Elizabeth Warren has recently bashed charters, but until recently she was a huge supporter. Nothing exacerbated the social divides in America, Warren argued in her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap, as much as did the brutal economic and racial segregation of the public-school system. The solution? Charters, vouchers, and “choice.” As Warren argued back in 2003,

The crisis in education is not only a crisis of reading and arithmetic; it is also a crisis in middle-class family economics. At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school. . . . A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly.

Unfortunately for these Democratic hopefuls, the tide has turned and they will be left high and dry. It’s not fair, of course. Back when Booker, O’Rourke, and Warren touted “choice,” they had every reason to think they were on the side of the progressive angels. Thanks to Queen Betsy, however, supporting charter schools these days feels like a deal with the devil.

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How to Kill Public Schools

Well, we had a good run. For the past hundred-fifty years or so—depending on where you live—Americans have had public schools. I don’t mean to be Chicken Little here, but from an historical perspective, it looks like Queen Betsy has figured out a way to get rid of em.

simpsons school

Who will pay to educate Mr. Burns’s doctor?

In some senses, of course, the United States has always had schools FOR the public. Even before the Revolution, there were schools that students without tuition money could attend. I’m finding out way more than I want to about the funding of early American “public” schools in my current research. As I’m finding, these “charity” schools had a wild mix of financial backers. Churches, taxpayers, wealthy individuals, and even not-so-wealthy people gave a lot or a little to educate impecunious children.

At different times in different places, a funding revolution swept the world of American education in the 1800s. Basically, this revolution replaced schools that were FOR the public with schools that were BY and FOR the public. That is, instead of parents, charities, philanthropists, churches, and governments all kicking in here and there to fund worthy students and schools, local and state governments committed to provided tax-funded educations to children. Those governments took tax money from everyone—whether or not they sent kids to the public schools—and in return promised to run schools for the benefit of the entire community.

There were big problems with this funding revolution. Not all children were included. Most egregiously, African-American students were often segregated out of public schools, or shunted off to lower-quality schools. And not all states participated equally. New England and the Northeast jumped early to the new model, while other regions hesitated. Plus, people without children and people who chose not to send their children to the public schools ended up paying for schools they didn’t personally use.

The heart and soul of public education, however, was that the public schools would be administered as a public good, like fire departments and roads. Everyone paid for them, everyone could use them, and everyone could in theory claim a right to co-control them. Even if your house didn’t catch fire, in other words, you paid taxes to support the firefighters. And even if you didn’t drive a car, you paid to maintain the public roads. And those firefighters and road crews were under the supervision of publicly elected officials, answerable in the end to taxpayers. Public schools would be the same way.

This funding arrangement has always been the heart and soul of public education. And it is on the chopping block. Queen Betsy recently proposed a five-billion dollar federal tax-credit scholarship scheme. Like the tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in eighteen states, this plan would allow taxpayers to claim a credit for donations to certain non-profit organizations that would then send the money to private schools.

In some cases, donors can claim up to 100% of their donations back. For every dollar they “donate,” that is, they get a full dollar rebated from their tax bills. Tax-credit scholarship schemes serve to divert tax money from public education—administered by the public—to private schools without any public oversight.

[Confused? Me, too. For more on the ins and outs of tax-credit scholarships, check out this episode of Have You Heard, featuring the explanations of Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.]

lancaster friend of the poor

Back to this future?

What’s the big deal? In essence, these schemes return us to the world before the public-education $$$ revolution. They return us to the world Joseph Lancaster knew so well in the first decades of the 1800s, where funding for schools was an impossibly tangled mess. Back then, parents who could afford it could send their kids to great schools. Parents who couldn’t had to hope their kids might get lucky and attract the attention of a wealthy philanthropist or a church-run charity program. They had to hope that a mix of government money, private tuition, church support, and philanthropist largesse could support their kids’ educations.

By allowing taxpayers to pick and choose whether or not to support public education, Queen Betsy’s proposal takes us back to those bad old days. Are we really ready to throw in the towel on public education? Ready to return to the old system, with “charity” schools run FOR the public by wealthy benefactors who wouldn’t send their own kids there?

A Story We Should Care More About

Every new story about creationist teachers or praying cheerleaders gets lots of attention, but the news we should really care about involves the humdrum topics of taxes and school funding. As creationist hero William Jennings Bryan put it in the 1920s, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In Alabama, conservatives passed a law allowing taxpayers to write their paychecks in a different way. Yesterday, the state Supreme Court started hearing arguments about this new conservative strategy. This story is one we should all follow as if it were interesting. After all, it promises to give an answer that no praying cheerleader ever could: Will conservative taxpayers be able to rule the school?

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

The Alabama Accountability Act allows taxpayers to divert their tax money away from public schools and toward private ones. Alabama is not alone. More than a dozen states have similar laws on the books. What the justices decide in Alabama might direct debate about these laws nationwide.

Of course, not all the laws are the same. As the National Council of State Legislatures reported, as of April 2014, 14 states had some sort of tax-direction law. In general, these laws allow people to shift some of their taxes to scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). Instead of the tax money going to the government, it goes to these organizations. In turn, the SFOs defray the cost of private school for selected students.

Why should we care? Some critics of these laws insist that the laws are intended to break down the wall of separation between church and state. By allowing students to attend private religious schools, some say, these laws use tax dollars to pay for religious indoctrination.

In Georgia, for example, enemies of that state’s law have worried that students will be sent to conservative schools.  At some schools, foes announce, students are forced to pray and banned from supporting homosexual rights.

Conservative supporters of the laws, such as the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, insist that these laws are the last best chance for low-income students. With tax-funded scholarships, low-income students will be able to escape failing public schools. The real issue, according to the Institute for Justice, is the “right of all . . . parents to send their children to the school of their choice.”

Historically, since the 1930s conservatives have agreed that public schools have been taken over by a grasping, out-of-touch academic elite. Any effort to weaken public schools and strengthen private ones has been seen by many conservatives as a win. As I argue in my upcoming book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, this notion has been both enormously influential and widely shared among very different sorts of conservatives.

Religious conservatives have insisted that secularizing “humanists” like John Dewey have taken over public education. Free-market conservatives have worried that the same power-drunk Keynesian economics that dominated public policy between 1930 and 1980 had turned public schools into intellectual cesspools. Patriotic conservatives fretted that sneaky subversion had become the public-school norm. And we can’t forget, of course, that white racial conservatives considered desegregated public schools to be worse than no schools at all.

This sort of tax-direction law is the most recent strategy conservatives have used to move students out of public schools. Will it work? We should all be riveted to the noises coming out the Alabama Supreme Court. Their decision could set a precedent other states will have to notice.

How to Save the GOP

What can conservatives do to shed their image as “a party of plutocrats who get a kick out of kicking the poor when they’re down”[?]

Writing in the pages of libertarian flagship Reason Magazine, A. Barton Hinkle pleads with conservatives to get on the charter-school bus.

Liberal politicians such as President Obama and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio have handed conservatives a golden opportunity, Hinkle argues.  When liberals close down charter schools and limit vouchers, they doom low-income children to “reactionary” public schools.  By promoting market reforms, allowing parents to choose among a variety of schools, conservatives can kill two birds with one stone.

First, conservatives will be able to introduce a significant measure of market discipline into a social institution firmly dominated by entrenched and bloated unions.  Second, conservatives will be able to claim without flinching that they represent society’s least powerful.  Charter schools and voucher opportunities can benefit low-income parents the most.

Can this strategy work?  Can conservatives take the wind from liberals’ sails by promoting school privatization?

We’ve seen recently how it can fail.  Mayor De Blasio’s recent challenger Joe Lhota went all-in for charter schools.  Didn’t help.

Perhaps other conservative politicians will manage to do better.

 

Does Wal-Mart Want More Jesus in Public Schools?

The Walton Family loves school vouchers.

For years, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have pumped money into plans to privatize schooling in the US of A.  Most recently, we read that the Walton Family Foundation has donated six million bucks to the Alliance for School Choice.  Why?

The ASC has a track record of supporting vouchers.  Its enemies accuse it of being nothing but a front organization for “fundamentalist” schemes to re-religiousize public education.

Do the mega-rich Waltons hope to get more Jesus into America’s schools?

Readers of Bethany Moreton’s relatively recent book To Serve God and WalMart won’t be surprised to hear of the connection between conservative evangelical Protestantism and big-box retailing.  But even the most scathing critics of the Waltons’ educational policies have sometimes left out the religious angle.  Diane Ravitch, for example, blasted the Waltons for copying in education what Wal-Mart had achieved in retailing.  As she put it,

The foundation supports charters and vouchers, though it prefers vouchers. It seeks to create schools that are non-union and that are able to skim off students from the local public schools. In time, the local public schools will die, just as the Main Street stores died.

Other critics of the Waltons’ beneficence have focused more closely on the religious angle.  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for example, has long targeted both the Waltons and the Alliance for School Choice as leaders in the drive to sneak religion back into public schools through the back door of vouchers.  Rob Boston of Americans United, for instance, called ASC leader Betsy DeVos the “Four-Star General” leading a “Deceptive Behind-the-Scenes War on Public Schools and Church-State Separation.”

According to Boston, Devos is a “fundamentalist Christian and far-right political activist” with a sneaky goal: “nothing short of a radical re-creation of education in the United States, with tax-supported religious and other private schools replacing the traditional public school system.”

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask the tricky question: what’s the relationship between free-marketism and Jesus?  Groups such as the ASC and the Walton Family Foundation seem committed to both.  In the realm of schooling, that means vouchers.  For many conservatives, vouchers seem to contain a triple promise.  They can weaken the grip of teachers’ unions by diverting tax money away from union-dominated public school systems.  They can bring more ol’-time religion into schooling by funding religious schools.  And they can give parents and families the magic wand of consumer choice.

It doesn’t seem as if there’s a logical or theological connection between these policy ideas.  That is, from my scanty understanding of Christianity, free-market principles don’t seem to be a central part of traditional evangelical theology.  Yet in school policy as in other areas, it seems Americans have historically connected capitalism with Christian virtue.

And there’s one other puzzle we need to suss out.  If these privatization campaigns are about both Jesus and capitalism, why don’t promoters mention either?  When the Alliance for School Choice tells us about itself, it does not mention religion or the panacea of the marketplace.  Why not?

For critics, this is all part of the ASC’s “sneak attack” on secular public schools.  The ASC wants more Jesus and more Milton Friedman, this line of argument goes, but wraps those goals in anodyne calls for more school choice for low-income families.  But why would conservatives try to hide their love for public religion or for capitalism?  Most conservatives make no secret of their goals.  Why would they hide their love for public religiosity or market-ism in this case?