Republican leaders in Congress are once again trying to foist a voucher experiment on the District of Columbia, despite opposition from D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, school superintendent Paul Vance, a majority of city council members and city residents. As a result, pro-voucher groups from around the country have descended on the District with carefully crafted public messages centering on extending “opportunity” to inner-city children and “choice” to parents. While some people have been drawn to vouchers by hopes that they will help disadvantaged students or encourage reforms that strengthen public schools, these are not the goals of many of the movement’s backers. For these individuals and organizations, vouchers are part of a broader strategy to privatize, not improve, public schools.
A completely privatized education system would be disastrous for the disadvantaged children many voucher advocates claim to be most concerned with. A U.S. Department of Education survey of private schools in large inner cities found that between 70 and 85 percent of schools would “definitely or probably” not be willing to participate in a voucher program if they were required to accept “students with special needs such as learning disabilities, limited English proficiency or low achievement.” Among religious schools, 86 percent expressed this same unwillingness to participate. Eliminating public schools would mean abandoning millions of children.
Because most Americans are committed to strengthening rather than dismantling public education, many pro-voucher, pro-privatization groups offer two messages: one for committed followers and another for the broader public.
For example, the web site of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a high-visibility voucher advocacy organization, says that the group is “not anti-public school.” While BAEO says it supports vouchers only for low-income families, it has been bankrolled by a small number of far-right foundations better known for supporting affirmative action rollbacks and education privatization through universal voucher systems.
The Florida-based James Madison Institute says “parents should have the freedom to make decisions in the best interests of their children.” But they leave unmentioned that the institute’s education policy director has signed a proclamation calling for scrapping the public education system.
Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, an influential Illinois-based think tank, wrote that “most people active in this movement are motivated by compassion for the poor, the need to improve government schools, and outrage over waste and mismanagement in government schools. ‘Privatization’ is not part of their vocabulary.”
Elsewhere though, Bast has revealed himself to be an ardent supporter of complete privatization. Although he has acknowledged that objective is “politically impossible for the time being,” he says vouchers “would put us on the path to further privatization.”
In a column several years ago, Joel Belz, publisher of World – a Religious Right magazine – wrote that supporting vouchers as a “temporary compromise” would help “bring down the statist system.”
There are a number of studies, including those conducted by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, that make clear that voucher schemes have not delivered gains in student achievement, but that evidence has not deterred advocates from seeking to eliminate public education. “We don’t even know what event will trigger the collapse of support for government schools,” declares the Alliance for the Separation of School and State’s web site. “What we do know is we are further along than most people think.”
To these and other radical voices, vouchers serve as a convenient means to further their broader anti-government agenda. The long-term goal is to make all schooling an activity supplied by private sources: for-profit management companies, religious organizations and home schools.
Doing away with a commitment to offering public education for all students would be bad for our children and bad for our country. As we debate how to best strengthen public schools in America, it’s important to know the major backers of the voucher movement are pursuing a very different long-term goal.
More on the effort to privatize public education can be found in the People For the American Way Foundation report, “The Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education.”
Nancy Keenan, a former classroom teacher and state superintendent of public education, is currently education policy director at People For the American Way Foundation (www.pfaw.org). This article originally appeared on www.TomPaine.com