08 May 2011

Are religious fundamentalists damaging public education?

In 1989, Wisconsin passed Wisconsin Act 336 that established the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).  Wisconsin was the first state to offer parents a choice of either staying at a public school or taking a voucher in order to pay for private education.  The program had its participation capped at 15% of the population of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The legislation set up a voucher program for low income families at 175% the national poverty level or below to attend non-sectarian private schools.  In the 2010-2011 school year, 20,996 students (based solely on 3rd Friday head count) were enrolled in 102 participating schools that were predominantly religious

Studies have indicated that voucher programs do not achieve statistically better results than their public school competitors.  According to the Department of Public Instruction, the WSAS results are worse than MPS's. At the same time, they are sapping needed money away from MPS.  At best the research and current literature are inconclusive about consistent results.  And data does not track students from the time they enroll to the time they leave.     

Every year, funding for the next year is based on the 3rd Friday head count.  Private schools collect their vouchers based on this count.  Invariably, teachers in MPS prepared for the 4th, 5th, and 6th weeks of the school year because then there would be a sudden surge in enrollment.  This practice takes place every year in every MPS school.

The students that arrive later in the year are welcomed to secular public classrooms that cost them no additional money.  At the same time, if the student had been kicked out of a private voucher school, the school keeps the $6,700 that the MPCP had paid as part of the 3rd Friday count.  The best data would trace the student from the beginning of the year until the end of the year regardless of mobility.     

This funding structure leads to a plethora of problems for MPS.  In my eight years as an elementary and middle school teacher at two different schools, it was rare to have a text book for each child.  We made do; we learned to share.  In order to ensure there was paper in the classroom, teachers asked parents to make  donations, still teachers paid out of pocket for most supplies, even in the high-achieving, effectively run schools.  As the population of voucher students rises each year this funding scenario grows worse for MPS.

The funding for many of the institutions that receive vouchers is also much higher because they charge tuition and have wealthy contributors.  The type of investment that the billionaires in the religious right have made on private schools is the type of investment that should be made in every school for every child.  Private voucher schools have intensified income inequality in education.  Conservative fundamentalists are pushing the voucher agenda all over the country selling it as reform that works.  In Milwaukee, the lobbying by religious groups swayed the debate and by 1998 private religious schools were added to the list of participating private schools.  Now rather than tax dollars designated for public education, the money goes to religious education.

Parental Involvement
When Howard Fuller became a strong advocate for MPCP, he leaned hard on the idea that it was a way to get parents involved with their children's education.  The main message to parents was and is that they should have a choice.  One of the lead cheerleaders for MPCP in Wisconsin is Leah Vukmir.  "The voucher program has caused dramatic improvement in the public schools," Vukmir explained. "As a result of choice and competition, there are more opportunities for students."  The biggest problem with this idea is that the programs provide opportunities for a small percentage of the student population whose parent(s) were already highly involved in the child's life.  In many cases these are students who would perform equally well had they attended their local neighborhood school.  Thus, the voucher program removes high achieving students from public schools.  As a result test scores at MPS schools drop and achievement overall drops because high achieving students often act as the role models at the school.

Special Education Needs (SEN)
Private institutions are under no mandate to provide individual education programs (IEP) for students with special needs (SEN).  Because of this many students do not receive the services they would had they attended a public school.  What does happen is that, for example, speech therapists by law are required to provide services.  A student who is not registered at the MPS school where a speech therapist works, but is instead enrolled at a private institution, may still receive services from that speech therapist.  When the therapist could be spending time with students that are actually enrolled in his/her school, the therapist m,ust attend to the needs of the private school student.  Not only is this a disservice to the members of the public school, but it also means that taxpayers are paying for services in addition to the voucher.

As the voucher cap increases, the results will be that MPS will become the school district for all of the challenging kids that get kicked out of the private schools.  Eventually the population in MPS will be entirely of those students who can't afford private schools, don't have parents who are involved in the decision making, or don't function well in the traditional educational setting.   

Focus of Teaching
Additionally, the focus at schools is increasingly about competition.  The competition is only comparable in data - test scores.  So, everyone is preparing for testing, all year long.  The authentic learning experience will no longer exist if education becomes driven by the capitalist notion that competition leads to improvement.  This is an obvious obfuscation but regardless, in education competition leads nowhere.  Students need to learn how to work together in order to solve problems rather than vying against each other.  Cooperation and collaboration ought to become far more important skills than competition.

While all of the finagling over money and cap limits is taking place, sectarian schools are quietly taking tax dollars and teaching children biblical myths; some go so far as to to teach that the bible is the word of god, that the earth is 6,000 years old, and that evolution is not science-based but only a hypothetical theory.  To many forward-minded people, the idea that our tax dollars are funding children to be proselytized would be hard to accept and unfathomable in a developed country, after all this is not Saudi Arabia.  But the religious right have successfully focused the attention on the failing public school system not on the content or learning provided by the private religious schools.

The religious right have dominated the debate and are succeeding in forcing their agenda on parents, especially in urban districts.  The cost of all of this is that public education is being damaged irrevocably.  The gap in educational attainment between the poor and the wealthy is increasing and vouchers contribute to that crisis. 

What do you think?  Are religious fundamentalists damaging public education?

Read more about it and decide for yourself:








No comments:

Post a Comment