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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 06/06/2012

Vouchers and the future of public education

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” This first appeared on her blog.

By Diane Ravitch

I debated whether to give this blog post the title you see or to call it “State Commissioner of Education John White Acknowledges That He Doesn’t Know How to Improve Schools.”

I felt a sense of outrage as I read the latest account of the Louisiana voucher program. Since Gov. Bobby Jindal is already doing what Mitt Romney promises to do, I keep a close watch on Louisiana. So should the national media. A Shreveport newspaper ran an article linking Jindal’s plan to the ALEC model of school reform.

The Reuters article skips the rhetoric about “the civil rights issue of our era” and goes to the heart of the voucher program:

“Louisiana is embarking on the nation’s boldest experiment in privatizing public education, with the state preparing to shift tens of millions in tax dollars out of the public schools to pay private industry, businesses owners and church pastors to educate children.

The voucher program is a bold effort to privatize public education by taking money away from public schools and giving it to anyone who claims that they can offer some sort of an educational or tutoring or apprenticeship program, in person or online, regardless of its quality.

Commissioner John White defends the radical privatization scheme, saying that: “I know the governor and bill authors had the goal in mind of improving student achievement,” White said. “The importance of that has been highlighted in studies which show the economic sustainability of a state is predicated on education, and we are dead last in the number of students growing up in communities with at least one parent with a college education.” Follow the logic here. If Louisiana ranks last in parent education, is that a strong argument for choice? Or for a higher level of professionalism and quality in the public schools? You decide.

More than 400,000 students are eligible for vouchers, which is more than half the students in the state’s public schools. Only 5,000 seats are available, and some of these seats don’t even exist. There are some good seats in good schools. A highly regarded private school in Baton Rouge will accept only four students, and only in kindergarten.

But it appears that many of the students will be accepted by small religious schools that have no track record of providing good education; for some, the state funding will be a windfall of millions of dollars. They may be far worse than the public schools that the students are fleeing. But parents will choose them anyway.

Next year, the state will expand the program to all students to get mini-vouchers, which can be used to pay private vendors for tutoring, apprenticeships, online courses, whatever. Given the absence of any due diligence in the rollout of this year’s voucher program, you can just imagine the private vendors that will spring up to claim millions of dollars from the state treasury.

Bear in mind that public education is level-funded, so all these millions for vouchers and charters and online schooling and tutoring will come right out of the public school budget, making classes more overcrowded, closing libraries, shutting down services for students that need them.

The Reuters article describes some of the curricular and instructional issues that any sensible person would worry about. From that story:

The school willing to accept the most voucher students — 314 — is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

 “The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.

 At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains “what God made” on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.

We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children,” Carrier said.

 Other schools approved for state-funded vouchers 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.”

Louisiana officials have decided that it is not up to them to make any judgments about quality or curriculum or instruction. That’s the parents’ choice.

Commissioner John White told the Reuters reporter: “To me, it’s a moral outrage that the government would say, ‘We know what’s best for your child,’ ” White said. “Who are we to tell parents we know better?”

Let’s deconstruct that statement. The state commissioner of education said right here that he doesn’t know what’s best for children. He doesn’t know what children or schools should be doing. It is not up to him to tell schools what is best regarding curriculum and instruction. He has no responsibility to improve schools, only to close then and to provide the wherewithal so that parents can leave them and take their public money anywhere they want.

What he means is that any parent in the state of Louisiana, regardless of their own education, knows more than he does about education. Would you want a doctor who told you that it was up to you to decide which medicine you should take when you were ill? Or a lawyer who said you should write your own defense? Or a golf instructor who told you to hold the club anyway that you wanted? Why do people get degrees and become professional if they don’t know any more than people who have no professional training?

Maybe John White is right. Maybe every parent in Louisiana knows more about education than he does, even those who didn’t finish high school. Maybe he doesn’t know what good instruction and good curriculum look like. But why is he in charge of education if he doesn’t know these things?

Diane

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