Sunday, December 23, 2012

School Choice - Privatizing Our Public Schools

by Michael Handley

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), chair of the Senate Committee on Education, chose a private Catholic school as the backdrop to explain their education voucher scheme that they plan to push through the Republican controlled 2013 Texas legislative session.

The proposed Republican legislation would create a private school scholarship fund by offering businesses franchise tax breaks credits for paying into the private school voucher program.

Commenting on the Republican plan announced by Dewhurst and Patrick, Texas Democratic Party State Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said,

"Public education is the key that unlocks the American Dream for the vast majority of our children. And anything that threatens that is beyond unacceptable.

Through a combination of high-toned rhetoric coupled with smoke and mirrors, Texas Republicans are doing everything possible to destabilize our public schools.  Their most recent proposals are the next step in this endeavor. After slashing five billion in public education funding, Republicans now want to divert our tax dollars to their privatization friends. The people of Texas have made it perfectly clear that we oppose these publicly funded private school voucher schemes. The education of our children should not be a political game. 

We will not sit idly by as Republicans continue their efforts to rob our children of their futures."
Over the last ten years Republicans have starved education funding, finally cutting many billions of dollars out of the state's eduction budget during the 2011 legislative session.  This intentional underfunding has so weakened Texas' public eduction system that it increasingly struggles to deliver quality education to our young Texans.  Republicans point to some 500 of Texas' 8,317 K-12 public schools that now under-perform due to lack of adequate funding as proof that public eduction just doesn't work and therefore argue the only solution is privatization.
The standard conservative argument for public school privatization is that students and parents, unhappy with their under-performing neighborhood public school, should have the "free market" right to choose a (private) school that fulfills their child’s educational needs.
Sen. Patrick says of the franchise credit voucher plan, "this does not take money from public education." In fact, it does divert tax money the legislature could use to restore funds to the public education budget.  Adequate public school funding, not private school vouchers, are the best way to support Texas' 4,933,617 students attending 8,317 K-12 school across 1,265 public school districts.

Public school privatization is the newest "free market" Wall Street scheme to pick the public pockets of middle class families.  

Traditionally, "public" education had been a tough market for private corporations to break into -- fraught with politics, tangled in bureaucracy and fragmented into tens of thousands of individual schools and school districts from coast to coast.  But with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) pushing legislation in nearly every state that funnels public school tax money into private corporation "for profit" schools, Wall Street is inflating another big profit balloon.  Wall Street investors are pouring private equity and venture capital into scores of companies that aim to profit by taking over broad swaths of privatized public education.  Investment in the K-12 education sector soared to a record $389 million in 2011, up from $13 million in 2005, with 2012 investments passing 2011 levels.

Even though studies show that costly private schools don’t produce any better educational results than free public schools, for-profit schools have popped up all around the nation in recent years because of how valuable they are to corporate America. In fact, the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike earlier this year was largely in response to the city’s push to open up more charter schools to replace traditional public schools.

Education is a recession-proof industry that will always be in high demand. The corporate money-changers know if they can get their hands on this industry, "reform" it to replace decently-paid teachers and faculty with McTeachers, and then get taxpayers to foot the bill, quarterly profits and lavish bonuses for CEOs can explode.  Even in so-called "non-profit" charter schools, management can make big bucks.

ALEC and its Texas conservative lobbying partners Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and Tea Party parent Americans for Prosperity strongly promotes public school privatization and supports vouchers, taxpayer savings grants, tax credits, tuition reimbursements, and any other program that diverts public tax dollars into privatizing public education.

The scam of the Republican school privatization plan is apparent when you do the arithmetic.  One public school privatization voucher scheme under consideration for Texas is called Taxpayer Savings Grants (TSG). Taxpayer Savings Grants is a statewide program that allows parents the "choice" to transfer their child from a public school to a private school and use a Taxpayer Savings Grant voucher to pay part of the tuition.

The Taxpayers' Savings Grant voucher model is fatally flawed, as is every other public school privatization voucher scheme. First, few parents can afford to use the vouchers because private-school tuition balances are too expensive. Second, private schools would not have the capacity to enroll large increases in student admissions. Third, this voucher plan would mainly subsidize relatively wealthy students already attending private schools.   

Proponents of Taxpayer Savings Grants claim that the public school system would save $3,000 for every student who transfers to a private school and that "just under 7 percent of students would take advantage" of a $5,143 voucher to attend a private school.

Let's look at the arithmetic. The Texas Education Agency reports that public-school enrollment K-12 in Texas in 2010-11 was 4,933,617 students. Seven percent would total 345,353 students. Private school enrollment in 2009, reports the National Center for Education Statistics, was 313,360. There is no way private schools would have the capacity to enroll 345,353 more students.

Meanwhile, students already attending private schools would also receive the same $5,143 voucher per student. For 313,360 students already attending private schools, the cost to state government would total $161 million a year.

Here's another serious problem with TSG: The public school student transferring to a private school must pay the difference between the $5,143 voucher and the full price of tuition at the private school. If tuition is, say, $15,000 per year, parents would have to come up with the $9,857 difference. Private-school tuition often runs in the range of $10,000 to $20,000.

The average tuition cost for the top 10 private schools in the Dallas area in 2010-2011 was $20,000 according to the Dallas Business Journal. If a parent gets a $5,000 voucher to apply towards private tuition, s/he still needs to pay $15,000 of their own money. This makes attending a top-tier private school out of reach for most middle class parents and all low income parents.

Most of the 345,353 students who might want to use a private school voucher are simply priced out of the market. What's more, 2.9 million school kids from low income families take part in subsidized-lunch programs. These kids could never dream of attending a private school.  A quality public school education is their only hope of creating a better life for themselves and their future families.

Voucher proponents tell us that the present system of public education "is broken" and that "no student should be locked into a poorly performing school because that happens to be where they live." But how will moving 7 percent of the students, or less, to private schools fix a "broken" public education system for the remaining 4,588,263 (93%) students?

In simple terms, a voucher program would be another cut in state funding for public schools, on top of the loss of state funding at the local levels over the last two years, and at a time in which the State is not meeting its constitutional responsibility to adequately fund public schools.

The following are talking points regarding voucher programs:
✔ Another funding cut for public schools - At a time when Texas public schools are facing unprecedented, massive cuts to public education, and the structural deficit and broken school finance system have not been adequately addressed by the Texas Legislature, voucher programs only remove additional funding from public schools.

✔ General lack of accountability with voucher programs - The state maintains a laser focus on accountability, transparency, college readiness and measuring student performance, and should not consider a voucher program that does none of these. Further, voucher programs generally have no mechanism for tracking student progress and ensuring students receive a quality education.  Private for-profit schools are exempt from state and federal accountability requirements and locally elected school board oversight. 

✔ Voucher supporters often claim such a program will save the state money, but never say how. Actually, voucher programs could end up costing state tax payers more money, while removing money out of public school classrooms.

✔ Vouchers would help the wealthy at the expense of the poor – Under most plans, the voucher/taxpayer savings grants would not completely fund tuition at a good private school. So, only parents who can afford the rest of the tuition, as well as transportation, could take advantage of such programs.

The legislature has a constitutional duty to support and maintain a system of public schools in this state. (Texas Constitution Article 7, Section 1) State statute imposes a further duty upon the legislature: The mission of the public education system of this state is to ensure that all Texas children have access to quality education that enables them to achieve their potential and fully participate now and in the future in the social, economic and educational opportunities of our state and nation. (Texas Education Code §4.001)

In 1955, the economist Milton Friedman launched the privatized-school voucher concept. Except for a few small pilot programs, Friedman's voucher concept has never proven successful in 57 years because no one has been able to design a privatized model that works on the scale of any public school system.

Here are some related articles, plus a newsroom video, on these issues.
"The Great School Voucher Fraud" is an informative position paper by Edd Doerr of Americans for Religious Liberty that explores the assault on public education, particularly the history and role of vouchers. The particular focus of this paper is on the history of religion in American public education, including what state constitutions have to say about the use of public tax dollars for religious purposes. Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, is a well-published writer, a former public school teacher (history, government, Spanish) and since 1966 has been a full-time professional in the religious freedom and church-state separation fields.

Related:

Vouching Against Creationism

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