"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Homegrown Terrorism and the School Privatizers

First it was the Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, referring to the NEA as a terrorist organization. Then came Reid Lyon wanting to blow up colleges of education. Now we have a local brown shirt in Minneapolis who suggests burning down a public high school. HT to Media Transparency--article from Star-Tribune:

Last update: February 17, 2007 – 7:11 PM

Samuels fans flames of public school bonfire

Don Samuels has apologized for his words, but not his views. And he isn't likely to. For the Fifth Ward City Council member from Minneapolis who suggested burning down North High School is not just one man with an opinion.

Don Samuels has apologized for his words, but not his views. And he isn't likely to. For the Fifth Ward City Council member from Minneapolis who suggested burning down North High School is not just one man with an opinion.

He is a stalking horse for a movement that wants to torch public schools. It has gotten frighteningly close to its goal.

The Center of the American Experiment, a local conservative think tank, is renewing the push for school vouchers, and it tapped Samuels to endorse its position paper. In his foreword to the recent publication, Samuels again displays a flair for the dramatic, writing that he wonders "how many future murderers are in the first grade classes of the four elementary schools within a mile of my home?"

Officer, arrest those first-graders!

But if you take Samuels seriously, it is not just his language that is lousy. It is his policies.

Samuels has become the darling of a coalition of mostly conservative, mostly suburban groups involved in a coordinated assault on "government monopoly schools." These groups are pushing hard in Minnesota for expanded tax-credit or tuition vouchers to allow public dollars to be spent on private schools. It isn't just people in the North High neighborhood who should worry about that.

Some groups pushing for vouchers have fought to outlaw gay marriage or to keep children from receiving sex education or learning about evolution. They have a right to send their kids to religious schools. They don't have a right -- Article XIII of the State Constitution bars public funding for "sectarian" schools -- to subsidize such schools with tax dollars.

Nevertheless, the crusade is on. And Samuels is its hero.

Other black leaders are being lobbied to convert to the vouchers cause. One, NAACP President Duane Reed, says he recently refused requests to testify on behalf of a vouchers/tax credit bill in the Legislature. He says the request came from a group affiliated with the Libertarian Party, whose platform praises tax credits and charter schools as "interim measures" that will help kill the public schools.

"This is not about Don Samuels," Reed said at Thursday night's public meeting at North High with Samuels. "This is about ... tax credits. Which is just a code word for vouchers. This is just teeing up a sensational issue."How many black leaders support vouchers?" he said to me later, proceeding to tick off a long list of black groups, starting with the NAACP, that oppose them. "Now Don Samuels all of a sudden is an expert, and he is going to speak for us? I don't think so."

Charter schools, funded with public funds, were supposed to help produce new teaching methodologies and education strategies. Other states limit their number. New York has a limit of 100. Iowa has a limit of 10. Minnesota has no limit. Today, we have 131 charter schools, with 23,600 students. At least 19 more charter schools are on the way.

How much is too much?

The largest sponsor of charter schools, Friends of Ascension, has ties to former state Republican chairman Bill Cooper, who has served on the group's board of directors. Friends of Ascension has 16 schools with 2,800 students (12 percent of charter school enrollment). Nor is Cooper the only former Republican Party chair to have found a keen interest in the inner city.

Former GOP chairman Ron Eibensteiner and his wife are the founders of KidsFirst Scholarships, which award privately funded vouchers to children (650 this year) to attend private schools. Those scholarships are funded by grants from right-wing billionaires such as Ted Forstmann and the late John Walton of the Walton Family Foundation. Critics such as the liberal People for the American Way point out an obvious motivation: By handing out private vouchers in the inner city, conservatives hope to create political momentum for state vouchers that will damage public schools.

Not to mention the teaching of evolutionary science.

The fire has been set. Public schools have lost thousands of students to charter schools and open enrollment, and that exodus has been folded into "drop-out rates" that have been recklessly exaggerated by radical opponents of public education, including Don Samuels.

This is not just an intramural squabble in the black community. All supporters of public education should be worried. It is not just North High that is under assault; it is the very idea of public education.

As an inner-city politician with friends in high places, Samuels didn't set the schools ablaze. He just fanned the flames. But his friends are dancing around the bonfire.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com

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