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

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

School Vouchers and the Green-Zoning of America

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a must must read on the Iraq debacle, specifically, but it carries, too, much insight into the larger neocon project: the green-zoning of America and the world. In allowing us to see from inside how the ideological extremism of "privatize everything" became the tool that transformed a mess into a FUBAR wreck, we get a clear picture of the underlying ethos that drives Bush Co. to put government under private management. It was not expertise or knowledge that got you a job in Iraq but, rather, brazen arrrogance and an unyielding fealty to a false market model that replaces real market competition with cronyism and political favors. Democracy, for these guys, means the power to exercise unrestrained greed without any intervention or oversight in a world where workers are reduced to the dual role of consumer and consummable (human capital).

Now Utah would appear to be the new ground zero for the green-zoning of America's public schools. A statewide voucher initiative just passed the Utah House by 38-37, and it offers a plan to bleed out the public schools there (now at the bottom of the nation in funding).

Here is an eloquent statement published in the Salt Lake Tribune against the de-democratization of Utah:
Proponents of private-school vouchers have seized the rhetorical high ground, using terms like "equal opportunity" and "parental choice" to justify their efforts. Let us set the record straight.
Salt Lake City School District supports both universal excellence and public school choice. We offer a variety of programs, philosophies and instructional strategies. Twenty-five percent of our students exercise meaningful choice, enrolling in schools outside their residence area.

We seek to help all students maximize their potential. Our committed public educators have much in common with talented teachers in private schools.

We do not blame parents who think vouchers may help them do what is best for their children. On the contrary, we hope they'll stay with us, work with us, to find the solutions they desire. Nevertheless, we challenge those who have already abandoned public education to think about the harm vouchers will do.

Vouchers let Utah legislators off the hook. They do nothing to address underfunding of public school programs. They will not reduce class sizes, train teachers, develop innovative curricula, rebuild unsafe facilities, or pay rising transportation costs.

Powerful legislators say, "More money is not the whole solution." We agree. However, less money is no solution at all. Money does fuel continuous improvement. Vouchers mean fewer dollars for public schools in a state that already ranks dead last in per-pupil funding. Utah is the state least able to afford a diversion of public educational resources.

Vouchers deepen social divides and leave taxpayers without a voice. Even "means-tested" vouchers cannot provide equal access. Transportation and tuition costs will continue to discriminate, further dividing our community.

Private schools choose the children they serve and they tend not to serve children with special needs. Who will ensure that students on vouchers will not be counseled out of their private schools because they prove difficult to teach or discipline? Private schools typically do not meet accountability standards required of public schools and taxpayers would have little say in how voucher dollars might be used.

Vouchers do not prevent "double taxation." All families pay education taxes only once. Tuition is a voluntary payment to a private institution. People who hire private security firms do not get vouchers from police departments. Swimming pool owners do not get refunds from the recreation levies earmarked for public pools. Private school tuition is not a tax in any sense of the word.

Vouchers compromise the separation of church and state and violate the Utah Constitution. Respect for religious diversity has never been more important than it is today. We must shore up the 200-year-old constitutional protections for our rights of conscience. By opening the door for public money to flow to religious institutions, in direct violation of Utah's Constitution (Articles I and X), vouchers chip away at those safeguards.

Make no mistake. Vouchers are weapons employed in a strategic attack on our public institutions. The voucher movement betrays the public good by encouraging narrow-minded self-interest and a willingness to turn away from our responsibilities to each other. The goal is to funnel government support toward private and corporate gain and to de-emphasize government's social stewardship.

Voucher proponents do not care for the students who will suffer as a result of their plans. We hope our representatives will care, and will refuse to turn their backs on the civic mission of public education.

HEATHER BENNETT and co-writers Doug Nelson, president; Kristi Swett, vice president; Cliff Higbee; Mark Maxfield; Alama Uluave; and Laurel Young are members of the Salt Lake City Board of Education.

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