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The Great Voucher Fraud

Voucher plans don't boost student performance -- they harm public education. So why do they keep growing?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Stephen Rees via Shutterstock.com

 

If you ask Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal about the next civil rights movement in the United States, he’ll tell you the battle will be for so-called “school choice.”

“The next great civil rights fight is really about making sure that every child has a great education,” Jindal told Politico recently.

“Let’s be honest,” he continued, “we all want to say we’re for equal opportunity in education, but that’s not the reality in America. If your parents have the means, they probably move to a good neighborhood with good public schools, or they’re saving their dollars to send you to a good private school. There are too many kids in this country today trapped in poor neighborhoods, with poor, failing public schools.”

Fifty years after the March on Washington, D.C., ardent voucher pro­ponents such as Jindal would have Americans believe that they are something like modern Martin Luther King Jrs., seeking enhanced opportunities for all. They claim that parents should be able to use taxpayer money to educate their children as they see fit rather than being locked into certain schools, and they say taxpayer-funded “scholarships” – a euphemism for vouchers – are the only way for low-income families to escape failing public schools. 

But the reality is far different. Despite the best efforts of “school choice” advocates to spin the effectiveness of vouchers, decades of accumulated evidence paints a different story: Vouchers do not improve educational outcomes, they take money away from struggling public schools, they’re cash cows for institutions offering questionable education, they aid students already attending private institutions and they ignore the needs of special-education students.

“[Vouchers] undermine public education as a public responsibility and encourage a consumer mentality, in which social responsibility is dissolved,” Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, education historian and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, said in an interview with Church & State.

The American people remain skeptical of vouchers. A poll released by Phi Beta Kappa and Gallup in August found that 70 percent of Americans oppose plans to shift public funding into private and religious schools through voucher plans, the highest number in the poll’s 20-year history.

Yet despite this, more states than ever are piling onto the “school choice” bandwagon. In 2013 alone, 15 states either expanded or created voucher or “neo-voucher” programs —  a system of generous tax credits that are vouchers by another name. 

Why is this happening? Voucher advocates have become adept at employing several lobbying arms, all of which have the ability to curry favor with certain types of legislators.

Powerful groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation, Betsy DeVos’ American Federation of Children and other far-right groups that hate public services provide a rich funding stream for the voucher movement.

Organizations like these talk about helping children. But their real goal is to crush teachers’ unions and shift education from the public to the private sector, opening up potentially billions for rapacious for-profit firms that would love nothing better than to “Walmart-ize” American education.

Joining them are fundamentalist Christians, who believe public education is “godless.” They seek tax support for their network of private independent schools, many of which teach Bible stories in place of science, offer discredited “Christian nation” views of history and are stridently anti-gay and anti-woman.

The Catholic bishops provide the final piece of the puzzle. Catholic schools have been in steep decline for decades, as more and more parents realize their children can get a good education in local public schools (schools that are free of the ultra-conservative dogma that saturates many Catholic institutions). Unable to control their unruly U.S. flock, the bishops are essentially seeking a taxpayer-funded bailout of a private school system that fewer and fewer Catholic parents see as necessary.