Monday, February 3, 2020

USED Pitches Privatization To Wyoming

Mitchell Zais, Deputy Secretary of Education, last week visited Wyoming to stump for school choice. He wrote for the Wyoming Parent his version of the department's sales pitch for Betsy DeVos's Education Freedom vouchery program. Wyoming parents (and taxpayers), this is a bit of a snow job. Let me explain.

He opens by recognizing that humans are individuals, so that he can say this:

So why does American education group students by age, and expect them to learn the same material, on the same schedule, pretty much in the same way?

This guy
The answer is: they don't. In fact, they so much don't that about a decade ago some folks launched an audacious plan to make everyone learn the same stuff (you know-- kind of a common core) on the same schedule and the education establishment hasn't stopped kicking back about it since. Zais knows this-- he opposed the Common Core when he was head education honcho in South Carolina, and if he already thought that everyone in education was operating in lockstep, why would he bother? No, walk into any school and even in the Core era, you'll see differentiation and tracking and a host of ways to accommodate the individual nature of students. Perfect? No-- but then the private schools that he's touting here aren't known for broad ranges of tolerance, either.

Then he launches into that old favorite-- US schools are failing and costs too much. And test scores.

"Costs too much" is an interesting critique from a guy who's background is military. But the rest is the same old baloney.

We do know that American education is not working. Too many students are falling farther and farther behind, despite the fact that taxpayers spend almost $13,000 per year per student. And yet, despite ever-increasing spending that’s near highest in the world, results are, at best, flat. We’re not in the top ten in any international ranking. In fact, we’re 37th in math in the world. We’re outpaced not only by big competitors like China and Russia, but also by countries like Estonia, Finland, and the Netherlands.

We don't know that US education is not working, nor am I sure what he means by students falling "farther and farther" behind (English teacher note-- I think he means "further" unless he's talking about a decline in track and field skills). We're not in the top ten ranking on that one standardized test that is mostly bunk, anyway, but we never have been anywhere but mid-pack. And as always, the missing piece of this argument is the same-- if we get a low PISA score, so what? What connection has anyone made between a nation's score and anything?

Then it's on to the biggest slice of baloney in the promotion of this program-- parent empowerment. The pitch here is that parents know better than any bureaucrat what school fits their child best. That assumes a few things that can't be safely assumed.

First, it assumes that the only stakeholders in school are the parents. They aren't. All taxpayers pay school tax because all of society benefits from having well-educated folks in it. Next, it assumes that parents will be making their choice in a world of clear, plentiful information about the choices, and not a world of noisy not-entirely-accurate marketing for these private businesses. And finally, it assumes that they have a choice. All you have to do is look to Florida, where this same system is already in place, and see how that works. The schools that enter this program are private schools, and they retain their right to discriminate as they wish. So, in Florida, if your child is LGBTQ, you definitely do not have your choice of school.

Then we get to the slick weaselly part of tax credit scholarships:

Our proposal does not rely on any taxpayer funds already allocated to public school students, nor does it create a new federal education program.

Tax credit fans like to brag that no public tax dollars are spent, and this is technically correct, because the government isn't used as a pass-through. Instead, donors pay into a scholarship fund instead of paying their taxes. The government never touched the money, so we can't call it government money with government cooties. However, every dollar given to a scholarship fund is a dollar less that is paid in taxes. The $5 billion that DeVos wants to "inject" into these scholarship brokerage organizations would be a $5 billion hole in the budget. Which means taxpayers either get $5 billion less in government services, or taxes are increased to fill the hole.

So it is true that these programs don't cost public taxpayer dollars, but they do come at taxpayer expense.

And watch Florida as the private donors exert leverage over programs by pulling out or giving more money. Ultimately, someone will decide whether it's okay for private schools in Florida to discriminate against LGBTQ students, and that someone won't be the government or local voters and taxpayers and it certainly won't be parents-- it will be the donors. This is what privatized education looks like-- schools that depend on keeping wealthy patrons happy.

As for the "no federal education program"-- well, only if the program is completely unsupervised (which I suppose is not inconcievable). Somebody on the state or federal level has to check on the scholarship organizations-- the ones that collect donor money and hand out scholarships-- and certify them as legit or not. Since DeVos envisions these funds as usable for homeschooling or transportation or remedial coursework, someone is going to have to manage a list of approved vendors. And it would be nice if there were the occasional audit.

Education Freedom is about giving private schools the freedom to profit at taxpayer expense, no matter how religious or discriminatory they are. It's about the freedom of rich folks to get out of paying taxes and, as a sort of bonus, being the big hands on the levers of education policy. Meanwhile, the public system is starved of more and more resources.

This is where we are-- the US Department of Education making a concerted effort to undermine the public education system that they are theoretically charged with watching over. Wyoming--and all of us--would be better off without this.

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