Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Future of Schools in DeVos' World, a.k.a. 1989 Intents & 2017 Realities

What do you see in this photo? An old Chinese restaurant? Maybe an old pizza place? Well, put on your Betsy DeVos glasses, folks. It's a SCHOOL!  Yes, here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a pastor and his wife applied to turn this building into a school that they would operate. Except they didn't, though.  They presented to the Milwaukee Board of Zoning Appeals this past week and couldn't produce documentation that they had applied to the Department of Public Instruction for a permit (they hadn't). They also couldn't say whether their school was going to be public, charter or "choice." Their chosen site was next to a high-traffic gas station, so it posed a safety hazard. They also hadn't thought about the fact that such a small space would not accommodate a playground.

Why would anyone be so hopelessly underprepared for something like this, though? EASY! That's because virtually anybody who wants to start a school in the City of Milwaukee can do it. There are dozens of other schools that look a lot like this, all "choice" schools, in Milwaukee.  No educational experience? No problem. Since the main intent has become to siphon money from public schools, there's has gradually been less and less scrutiny of these schools. Bilk the taxpayers of   $250,000, then close up shop in the middle of the night and move to a gated community in Florida? ALSO no problem.Link And soon, the whole country will get to experience this wonderful "choice" in education!!

Here in Milwaukee, the "choice" program started in 1989. The brainchild of Dr. Howard Fuller, it started initially to give parents, largely parents of color due to Milwaukee's demographics, access to an education more like those of their wealthier white counterparts.  Over time, though, the Republicans figured out a way to get this agenda to serve them instead of kids from Milwaukee's highly-segregated and under-resourced areas.  Get ready for this agenda to be injected with steroids, and for an abandoned Pizza Hut near you to become a Holy Church of the Whatchamacallit Preparatory Academy very soon! The selection of Betsy DeVos will finally enable every single two-bit "education" profiteer who can't fill out paperwork to become just as much of an "educator" as Betsy DeVos is, which is to say not at all. But that still won't stop licenses from being granted all over the country. There's money to be made, unions to be busted, and parents to be convinced that "choice" is where it's at. But just don't ask about those test scores or graduation rates...

Look. I admire Dr. Howard Fuller. I worked for him years ago. I am 100% certain that he has the best interests of children, particularly children of color in Milwaukee, as his highest priority. But this is not his movement anymore. Many of us can acknowledge him as the father of the “choice” movement. And no one in the country has more choices than Milwaukee parents right now. Sadly, this hasn't led to better achievement in far too many cases. The overwhelming majority of kids end up back in public schools.  When the Waltons paid a group of University of Arkansas to track Milwaukee "choice" vs. public school kids, they had to abandon the study. Why? Because so few kids remained in "choice" schools that they lost most of their comparison group.

Let’s also face the fact that this Frankenstein of a movement has now moved almost entirely into wealthy white conservatives’ reign. They have fought off every single measure for greater accountability at the state level. Parents still cannot really make informed choices about their schools unless they look only at public schools. Milwaukee Public Schools remain the only local system that is totally transparent and accountable in Milwaukee, even if we don’t always like the results we see.  It took until late 2016 for convicted felon (later overturned) and "choice" advocate Republican Scott Jensen to finally pay lip service to the idea that there ought to be higher levels of accountability for schools that receive taxpayer dollars through the choice program.  Even after saying this, nothing has changed. 

Twenty-seven years and well over $1 billion into this failed experiment and what have we got to show for it here? It depends who you are.  Just ask the wealthy parents who were already able to finance their kids' private school tuitions. They are all-in on "choice." But why? Isn't this movement about educational attainment for Milwaukee's poorest kids?  Not anymore!

The most recent research we have shows that more than 2/3 of the financial benefits from the “choice” program go to the richest 13% of Wisconsinites. Just who are these people? These are the people who’d been comfortably able to pay their kids’ private, usually religious school tuition for as long as needed. But that wasn’t enough for the Republicans: they decided to give these wealthy folks a huge tax cut, so now parents already well off enough to pay for tuition get a tax break for it. They are rewarded for taking their kids out of public schools, and as an extra kick in the shins, the money they pay is then not taxed and the state doesn’t get these tax revenues.  When this big kickback to private school parents was passed, Dr. Fuller decried it and also testified in Madison against raising the income limits to receive school vouchers. He was ignored. 

Dr. Fuller has long been against universal vouchers. And well he should be, because this is against the original intent of the movement he founded. But the movement has been co-opted by wealthy, mostly white folks who:

1) Don't send their own kids to public schools;
2) Have guaranteed that a lot of this "choice" money goes to them; 
3) Still pretend at every opportunity that "choice" is about helping poor children despite all evidence to the contrary (see the 2/3 reference above);
4) Fight tooth and nail against any accountability that actually helps parents "choose" based on transparency in test scores, graduation rates, and college admission rates;
5) Don't even want city school districts, like Milwaukee, to be able to democratically elect their own school boards (just Google Whitefish Bay resident Jay Miller's op-ed on this topic; apparently public schools and elected official governance are fine in the suburbs, just not for city folks!);
6) Are starving public school districts for a "choice" that will only last as long as it takes to dismantle public schools. Because if they can accomplish that, voucher money will vanish overnight, and the tax benefits to the wealthy families already able to pay full tuition will stay in place. Their ultimate goal, as it is with health care, union busting, and everything else, is to make sure that unless you can pay for it yourself, you don't get it (except for them: they will make sure about those tax benefits).

Betsy DeVos, the billionaire Republican donor who didn’t send her kids to public schools, has no teaching experience, has virtually no experience with schools of any kind, but who gives millions a year to Republicans, said in her testimony to Congress that she believes only in accountability for public schools. Yup, forget these kids whose schools, according to a UW-Oshkosh study completed by Dr. Michael Ford, closed at a rate of 41%.

“Forty-one percent of all private schools that participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) between 1991 and 2015 failed. I do not mean failed as in they did not deliver academically, I mean failed as in they no longer exist. These 102 schools either closed after having their voucher revenue cut off by the Department of Public Instruction, or simply shut their doors. The failure rate for entrepreneurial start-up schools is even worse: 67.8 percent.”

This is what Betsy DeVos is endorsing, and there are no two ways about it.  It has the effect of helping corrode teachers’ unions (which in turn hurts other unions), keeping billionaires like her from having to pay employees a living wage.  They have figured out how to shift most of the economic benefit to folks who don’t need it (see the 2/3 and 13% references, above).

Dr. Fuller's well-meaning contemporaries are operating from a 1989 view of education "choice", but the movement has been entirely taken over by monied special interests who have no track record of supporting education for the kids his original movement sought to assist.  The internal theft of command happened gradually, but it happened.  When do we get to stop pretending what this is really about?  If 2/3 of the economic benefits going to the wealthiest 13% isn't the magic number, what is?  Ask a public school math teacher while you still can. 

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