I knew that particular Monday was going to be busy. I had just arrived home April 18 from a day trip to Louisville, Ky., at 11 o'clock Sunday night, and I had also agreed to fill in as host of an early morning talk radio show for an acquaintance who was having open-heart surgery.
From there, I was booked to speak to 200 high school students attending the Close-Up Foundation's Washington Seminar and meet with the AU Communications Department about our media strategy to combat a Wednesday announcement by "philanthropists" who were announcing the results of a lottery to provide 40,000 "scholarships" to send poor children to private schools.
I got to the Close-Up session, but before the students arrived, a woman came up and identified herself as one of the "signers." She explained that about half the students were hearing impaired--many completely deaf--and that she and a colleague would be hand-signing my talk and repeating deaf student questions and answers for the hearing students. She carefully explained that, because of the time delay between my words and the signed version, if I told any jokes, the laughter might come a little late.
I gave the students an overview of the First Amendment, focusing on some contentious free speech and religion issues currently before Congress and federal courts. To my surprise, almost every question was about vouchers. Students who attended private schools repeated predictable arguments about how bad public schools are and how parents were being "doubly taxed," paying property tax and private school tuition.
I asked the students from public schools whether they thought they were getting "a good education." Over 90 percent raised their hands. Turning to some who did not, I asked why. A young woman from Casper, Wyo., said her school didn't even have enough up-to-date textbooks in some subjects so each student could have his or her own copy. She added it didn't make sense to take money out of her school to pay for somebody's private education. One of the hearing-impaired students from Washington, D.C., explained that people don't understand that there are additional costs to accommodating students with many kinds of special needs.
The tight schedule required that the students get on buses and head out for lunch, but at least a dozen hands were still up when I had to stop. One student, deaf and also becoming blind from a rare genetic eye disease, literally held up the entire bus caravan as he stood in the hallway and signed me the question, "Why doesn't our government spend more to cure diseases like mine?" Choking back tears myself, I said that his illness was so rare that it didn't have a big "interest group" lobbying for research funds.
From there I called the AU office and learned that our opinion column criticizing the "privately funded" voucher program had been printed that morning in USA Today. I had been a little concerned that its evidence linking CEO America and the Children's Scholarship Fund to right-wing groups lobbying for taxpayer-funded vouchers and others who actually had stock holdings in school privatization companies might be a tad too tough for publication. Not so.
For Americans United's communications team, much of the rest of that week was spent discussing with the media why wealthy private citizens giving out partial tuition "scholarships" to poor children was neither the wise nor benign policy it might appear to be at first blush. As it turned out, 1.2 million people entered a lottery to get between $600 and $1,600 to try to fund tuition at some non-public school.
But some parents apparently didn't understand the rules. A New York Associated Press reporter spoke to an elated winner who got $1,000 but wanted her child to attend the Brooklyn Friends School, which the reporter discovered has a tuition of $16,000! The Wall Street Journal reported that one of the schools funded by private vouchers in San Antonio was actually operated in an abandoned bar in a strip mall, and the teachers were an ex-carnival worker and a whale handler at Sea World. The more facts the media has time to uncover, the less valuable the program appears.
Sure, the often maligned teachers' unions lobby for more money for public schools -- and not just to improve their members' salaries--but we all need to tell more public school success stories so that 1.2 million parents don't get conned into believing that private schools will necessarily be "better" for their children.
More of us need to stand up in support of the good things in public schools. If we don't lobby for this generation and those of the future to have the guarantee of a free quality public education, we are at risk of being asked a variant of the question that last Close-Up attendee asked me: "Why didn't we do what it takes to make my school work?"
I don't want the answer to be that we got drowned out by elaborate public relations stunts paid for by "philanthropists" with their own right-wing ideologies and "private school" stock portfolios hidden from view.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.