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Shysters and school choice divide by status

Jennie Young • Nov 18, 2018 at 7:45 AM

Our region is fortunate to have an eloquent advocate for public schools in Dr. Bill Smith. Credit to our newspaper for featuring him.

He has corrected so much hype, and gives us objective, scientific analysis of public and private charter school track records. He knows the growing of tax-paid public charters could disable and would at least seriously disadvantage community schools. Adding the diversion of tax dollars to subsidize private, partisan, sectarian, voucher and online profit seekers makes it worse.

If you missed Dr. Smith’s Oct. 28 column, find it on the Press website, titled “Snake oil, charter schools and disingenuous debate.”

Opposing him (and most of us) on this issue is Betsy DeVos, now Trump’s education secretary. All her adult life she has stood, from her billionaire’s multi-level Amway background, for privatizing most everything, especially keeping government (our) influence far as possible from education. She has aggressively advocated for vouchers with low accountability, even for religious schools.

Exemplary charter schools exist, but they’re the exception. Too many fly-by-night shysters and short timers are attracted by a pool of public money. Others under-perform or perform on par with public schools, although many gain an edge from selecting their students, while public schools commit to serve all comers.

Excellent performance can occur in K12 Inc. and other online programs, but everything seems to come down to parents and situational advantage. Generally, they rate poorly beside traditional public schools. Consumer Affairs website has dozens of helpful consumer comments. Twenty-six years after the first charters were issued, Dr. Smith is proven right. Even the advocates, after all this time, can’t produce solid evidence that “choice” alternatives are better. Especially given DeVos’ wash-out results in Michigan. Far too many children have already been ill-served.

They say it’s about “choice,” or even better, “parental choice.” Who’s against that? Many proponents’ intentions could not be better, especially those striving for better schools where schools are under-funded and stressed or even failing. That adjective “under-funded” ought to be the clue, and the trigger for change.

Canada’s Alberta province established public charter schools in 1994, soon after the movement started in America. They never spread across the country and few remain today. I would suggest that’s because all public schools in Canada are funded equally and well. Proficiency stats reflect that. Canadian children aren’t disadvantaged by overcrowded classrooms or other sub-par conditions. The best systems in this world have public-funded schools with high-priority attention and equal funding. With plenty of models for figuring this out, there should be no need of destroying public schools, which were, after all, the model for the world.

It’s inexcusable American teachers’ wages and average compensation continue to fall relative to comparable occupations, with the penalty pay gap now reaching 18.7 percent. Including decent benefits, the gap is still 11.1 percent.

Local communities are usually protective of their schools. But we have powerful forces sighting in on Tennessee, pushing the switch to public and private charters, vouchers, even sectarian schools. More Republican legislators favor this than will admit, whether for ideological or financial reasons. Otherwise why does it surface with such regularity?

ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) looms largest, followed by Americans for Prosperity (Koch brothers’ front group, ALEC member and major funder), has long targeted Tennessee. Not a lobby nor front group, ALEC is a 45-year-old organization, secret for some 40 years, made up of global/U.S. corporations, conservative think tanks, issue-oriented pressure groups, and — mind you — legislators, whose identities the group tries, but often fails, to conceal.

Tennessee just passed legislation exempting mandated disclosure of legislators’ state-paid travel expense to ALEC conferences (the last one, by the way, at Trump International Hotel in Washington with a one-day $500 tab per conferee). ALEC is a bill-mill. Members, including legislators, meet behind closed doors to rewrite state laws favoring private interests, designing bills that legislators advance as their own work. Privatizing public education has long been a major ALEC focus.

On education, here are ALEC’s key points, slightly shortened here for space. (Verify at alec.org.)

1) Citizens, legislators and regulators should separate the concept of public education from the monopolistic delivery system and embrace 21st century methods ...

2) Legislators should improve or pass charter school laws ...

3) Legislators should create or expand the type(s) of state-preferred school choice: vouchers, tax credit scholarships, home schooling, education savings accounts, etc.

4) Legislators and regulators should be wary of attempts to re-regulate innovative private educational options, which could expose them to the death of the thousand bureaucratic cuts, and sacrifice necessary freedoms.

Number 4 is scariest of all. They’d take public money, yet avoid public scrutiny. Local schools serve as a connection and focus for the community, its melting pot, so to speak, an important equalizer. “Choice” alternatives often will, on the other hand, divide by status, wealth, faith and ethnicity.

Vouchers and for-profit charters were never conceived for poor and lower-middle-class folks out of concern for their prospects. They serve people who can afford private schools, but would like government subsidizing, a little “welfare,” if you will. It’s not about serving children. It’s about exclusivity and profits.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

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