Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bring 'em on

I like to criticize him a lot, so I should praise him, too: the Eduwonk spoke up for public schools in USA Today... today.

The article was celebrating the free-marketeers favorite son, Milton Friedman who spawned the idea of vouchers 50 years ago. Said Rotherham, aka Eduwonk:

Andrew Rotherham of the Progressive Policy Institute notes that there is "incredible organized opposition" to vouchers, notably from teachers unions, which fear the loss of public school teachers' jobs.

But unions aren't the only force opposing vouchers, he says. "Americans love their public schools ... and are very skeptical of things which seem to strike at the heart of that."

Amen and bravo. It's too easy -- and rude, really -- for conservatives to blast the "evil teachers' unions." It's much harder to take on a supermajority of average Americans who don't want their public schools to be harmed.

I welcome this voucher debate. It's a wedge issue that conservatives will find drives a wedge right through the heart of their base.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Financial oversight? Huh? Why?

Don't miss the final installment of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's fantastic seven-part series on the voucher school program in that city. It's stunning.

A sample:

For many years, before the voucher program existed, the private school's record at doing that was strong. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald, a graduate of Harambee, can tick off a list of classmates from 1973 who are successful today.

There is Jesse Wray, who became a Milwaukee businessman, and there is his brother, Noble, the chief of police in Madison.

On April 27, 1990, former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson used Harambee as the backdrop when he signed legislation creating the voucher system.

...In January, Cleveland Lee Sr., a former financial officer at Harambee, was criminally charged with systematically embezzling up to $750,000 from the school.

In April, a small group of teachers walked out in protest of a delay in their paychecks and other disputes over personnel issues. They eventually were paid. Harambee officials said no classroom was left unattended. But teachers at the school have complained that sometimes their paychecks bounced, and one former board member said the school could be as much as $500,000 in debt.

In five years, in quick succession, the school has had five principals and lost experienced staff members. Just last week, some of its teaching staff was laid off.

...The voucher program is a case study for what can happen in the absence of public scrutiny, [ex-Harambee school board member and parent Mikel] Holt said. Voucher schools, like Harambee, are not required to let state officials - or anyone else - see their books. (emphasis mine)


Wow. Yeah, this is a program we want to expand all over the country, right?

By the way, the series was not one-sided. The Journal Sentinel sent reporters to over 100 voucher schools and reported in detail on the state of the program. They should win an award.

Vouchers failed in N'orleans

From the Times Picayune last Friday:

A plan to give some students in failing New Orleans elementary schools state-financed vouchers to attend private schools fell one vote short of getting out of a Senate committee Thursday, likely killing it for the session.

House Bill 613 by Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, had many powerful critics, from Gov. Kathleen Blanco to teachers unions to interim New Orleans schools Deputy Superintendent Ora Watson, who is in charge of the troubled system. Lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee were deadlocked on the issue, voting 3-3 on the legislation, which meant the proposal would not go to the Senate floor.


There's the good news. Now the bad:

Burns' bill had picked up surprising steam, buoyed by widespread frustration with the Orleans Parish school system, where 55 schools are on the state's failing list because of subpar test scores and other problems. The proposal, which was backed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, was approved 13-1 by the House Education Committee last week and cleared the House 62-37 in a historic advance.

The Picayune ran another article the next day basically making the point that this "historic advance" has emboldened voucher proponents to try harder next time.

I know that many readers of this blog will wonder -- given the wretched state of New Orleans' schools -- why this is a bad thing. Consider this:

Critics of the bill noted that unlike the public schools, the private schools participating in the voucher program would not be required to accept students with disciplinary records.

So you would get a situation where the private schools would take only students that would behave and leave the ne'er-do-wells to the public school system to sort out. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Further -- and this is my favorite quote:

Sen. Gerald Theunissen, R-Jennings, said he would oppose the legislation if it applied to parishes in his district, but he agreed that something new needs to be tried in New Orleans.

This is the conservative, small government, local control Republican party, right? We're for vouchers, just not in our districts. Do it in the urban districts, leave ours alone. Why? If vouchers and the free market and competition are so great -- and a monopoly is so bad -- isn't that true everywhere?

It's amazing how malleable principles are, isn't it?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Welcome to the Balkanized States of America

The voucher discussion on this blog and others last week was fascinating for me. Fascinating because it's an inherently interesting discussion and fascinating also because I simply can't understand how people fail to grasp a simple concept: if I take money from you, you will have less money! Easy, huh? Well, not for voucher proponents.

I'm interested in another angle, too. And that of course is the separation of church and state problem. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel which is in the midst of running a seven-part series on Milwaukee's seven year old voucher program:

Three sentences bring home one of the most significant impacts of Milwaukee's groundbreaking private school voucher program.

One: On doors throughout St. Margaret Mary School, at N. 92nd St. and Capitol Drive, there are small printed signs that say: "Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school."

Two: More than 10,000 students - over two-thirds of the total using publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee this year - were attending religious schools.

Three: Wisconsin is putting money into religious schools in Milwaukee in ways and amounts that are without match in at least the last century of American history.


Yes, the Supreme Court ruled (by a 5-4 vote that exactly mirrored Bush v. Gore) that the Milwaukee voucher program was not in violation of the establishment clause. But they've been wrong before-- and they're wrong on this one. I'm fairly convinced that this will look, many years hence, like the colossal blunder that it is. It takes a while for history to rule on such things.

To quote Justice Stevens' dissent:

I am convinced that the Court's decision is profoundly misguided. Admittedly, in reaching that conclusion I have been influenced by my understanding of the impact of religious strife on the decisions of our forbears to migrate to this continent, and on the decisions of neighbors in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to mistrust one another. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.

Welcome to the balkanization of America.

Jonathan Kallay asked in a comment if there was an intrinsic value to public schools. Yes, there is. And it's this: kids of all religions -- and of no religion -- go to the same place and interact. They learn, along with history and math and the like, the important lessons that those that are different from them aren't actually so different from them. If Catholics go to one school, Muslims to another, Jews to yet another, and so on, how will those lessons be learned?


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