Back in the early 1990s when officials in the state of Wisconsin passed a voucher plan, people were assured that the idea was to help poor students trapped in underperforming public schools.
That lie was exposed long ago. Voucher plans in Wisconsin (and other states) haven’t boosted the academic performance of any students, let alone poor kids. Yet these plans continue to proliferate, and as they do, backers are increasingly abandoning the claim that they have anything to do with helping low-income families.
Last week, Jonas Perrson of the Center for Media and Democracy wrote on Alternet about a recent meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing group that pushes for vouchers, among other things.
ALEC is now moving away from the fiction that vouchers are going to help the poor. Perrson notes that the ALEC meeting included a session titled “Problems in Suburbia: Why Middle-Class Students Need School Choice, Digital Learning and Better Options.”
He also writes, “Perhaps more importantly, ALEC’s revisions to three of its ‘model’ voucher bills make clear that it is changing focus from underserved inner-city schools to middle-class suburbia.” One ALEC talking point states: “Legislators … should keep in mind the financial burden many middle-class families face in paying for private schools.”
Indeed, a recent voucher bill in Nevada didn’t contain income caps at all. And in some states, home-schoolers are allowed to get in on the taxpayer largess – a sop not to the poor but to fundamentalists who hate “godless” public education.
Last week, North Carolina’s Supreme Court upheld that state’s voucher plan, again one aimed at low-income families. Right-wing legislators are already talking about expanding it. One can only wonder how long it will be before the income caps are removed.
This is happening because vouchers were never really about helping the poor. Indeed, voucher schools are under no obligation to admit or even consider students from low-income families. They remain free to expel or refuse admission to any students. A stack of vouchers a mile high will not help low-income parents if a school doesn’t want to accept their children.
These days, voucher advocates fall into one of two camps: People who want taxpayer help to run their sectarian school systems, such as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and creationist-loving fundamentalist Protestants, and extreme anti-government libertarians who oppose all state-provided services (even if they are effective).
These two camps have made common cause, but it is the latter group that has become more dangerous because they are data-proof ideologues bent on the destruction of what we call the common good – that is, taxpayer-funded services intended to benefit us all.
Fueled by briefing papers churned out by libertarian think tanks and steeped in didactic novels by Ayn Rand, these ideologues push the view that any government-provided service must be opposed on grounds of ideology, no matter how effective or popular it may be. (This is the same type of thinking that leads these ideologues to seriously argue in favor of privatizing national parks and public libraries.)
The view of these groups is that a government-provided service is always inherently bad simply due to the fact that it is government-provided. To them, the fact that a program may be effective, popular or widely used is irrelevant. If it’s a government program, it must be bad; therefore, it has to go. Public education has been in their crosshairs for a long time.
Their scheme is as ingenious as it is devious. They call it “starve the beast,” and it works like this: Gradually reduce funding for the government entity in question. Siphon the money to as many private institutions as possible. Demonize the people who work at the government-run institution. Spread outrageous tales about things that go on there. Lie if necessary. Do what it takes to reduce public support.
When the institution, overburdened and struggling due to a lack of funding, begins to fail, keep cutting the funding. Say pithy things like, “They need to do more with less.” Point to this “failure” as evidence that the institution is ineffective and in need of “reform” (read: privatization).
At the same time, the people behind this plan are salivating at the idea of turning secondary education over to the corporate sector. Milwaukee and other communities that have become ground zero for voucher boosters are cursed with fly-by-night private schools that seek to keep expenses as low as possible. Providing a service at the lowest price possible might be a good model for a fast-food restaurant, and it might pad the wallets of a few plutocrats – but it’s a disaster for education.
The ideologues’ “free market” solution for secondary education has completely and utterly failed, yet they march forward in the states with the aim of dismantling public education piece by piece. Their first lie was their most devastating: They told the poor that it was for their own good.
Now they’re trying to feed that rancid falsehood to everyone else. The only question that remains is if the American people will be foolish enough to swallow it or if they will come to their senses in time to save the system that the vast majority of our children depend upon.