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School Vouchers: Closing Down a Public School Near You Soon

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By Amanda Hart

Illustration by Blake Jones

Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst recently appointed some rather craptastic people to some rather powerful positions. Our very own Houston Senator, Dan Patrick, was appointed to chair of the Senate Education Committee. Patrick has been an outspoken supporter for implementing school vouchers (or school choice) into our public school system. Shortly after Patrick’s appointment he touted at a press conference, “Our base has wanted us to pass photo voter ID (law) for years, and we did it. They’ve wanted us to pass school choice (vouchers) for years. This is the year to do it.” It is worth noting that the voter ID laws Patrick referenced were struck down in federal court on the grounds that they were straight-up racist. So it only makes sense that our next battle at the State Capitol would also carry some racist undertones. Patrick recently spoke at the state GOP National Convention and labeled the school vouchers debate, “the civil rights issue of our time.”  To which he was greeted with a standing ovation. Turns out this outcry for a school voucher system isn’t rooted in protecting civil rights but more so about redirecting tax dollars to private and religious charter schools.

Our next state legislative cycle will come to session in January 2013, which is bad timing seeing as we are still recovering from our last legislative cycle. One can only assume that the morons we elected to office must have a ‘let’s just go ahead and toss the baby out with the bathwater’ mentality when it comes to public education. This would explain why Mr. Patrick, Dewhurst, and Perry have such a hard-on for public school vouchers. A voucher system is designed to give parents a choice of where they send their child to school. The voucher would reimburse up to 60 percent of the student’s payment in taxes in the form of a credit that could be applied to help cover the tuition at a private school of the parents’ choosing. The average per student reimbursement would be approximately $5,300. This is far below what it costs to send your child to a private school. Which begs the question of who exactly is going to be able to take advantage of this program?  Parents who can afford to cover the cost of tuition to send their child to a private school are the only ones who are going to be able to benefit from this program, effectively leaving the students and teachers in the public school system with even less resources than they already have.  This tax credit would also be extended to parents who already have their children in private schools. However, according to proponents of the program, this shift would force public schools to improve due to the competition they would encounter as a result of these choice programs. Oh, right. What could possibly go awry by modeling our education system after a free-market ideology?

Turns out we don’t have to wait for them to implement school vouchers to find out what sort of chaos it would inflict on our education system. Louisiana did it for us.  Louisiana is currently in the process of implementing the nation’s largest voucher program that their governor, Bobby Jindal, aggressively pushed through at the beginning of this year. The Louisiana screening process to see which private schools would be eligible for the funds was a far cry from rigorous. A reported 90 percent of schools that applied to the voucher program were accepted. This includes schools like Eternity Christian Academy, which uses a Creation-based biology textbook that claims that the Loch Ness Monster is living proof that dinosaurs still exist and that the Earth is, in fact, less than 10,000 years old. In the words of Houston legend Bill Hicks, “Well, how fucking scientific of you.” The principal of Eternity Christian Academy, Marie Carrier, told the New York Daily News that she would like to accept 135 students through the voucher program to add to the current 38 enrolled. It is also worth pointing out that one of the schools that applied for funding was the Islamic Center of Greater New Orleans.  The school later retracted their application to receive state funds for their school because of the outcry from lawmakers who threatened to not pass the voucher program if “Islamic teachings” were allowed to profit from the program as well. Apparently funding private religious schools with taxpayer money is only acceptable if that religion is Christianity.

Accountability is a huge concern when implementing voucher programs. The question of if and how Louisiana would hold its schools accountable was highly debated. In July, it was announced that schools who had 40 or less voucher students enrolled would not have to meet state requirements for competency in math, reading, science or social studies. According to their State Superintendent of Education, John White, 75 percent of schools enrolled in the program would fall into this category. Any school who accepted more than 40 voucher students would receive a numerical grade from the state based on student test scores. On a 150-point scale, the school would have to achieve a 50 or above to be allowed to keep accepting new voucher students and the cash money that comes along with them. Strangely enough, if a school scores below a 50 they will not be removed from the voucher program or punished for not teaching students the most basic of reading and writing skills. Instead, they will only not be allowed to enroll any more students. Which means that if you cap your enrollment at 150 voucher students and not a single one of them passes basic competency tests, these students and their funds will not be stripped from the school - the school simply won’t be allowed to enroll any more students. Sounds reasonable, right?

The outlook for our public school system was already pretty dismal. Texas is currently ranked 45th in the nation for funding, 47th in SAT scores, and 43rd in high school graduation rates. And sadly each of those rankings came out prior to the Texas Legislature cutting $5.4 billion from the education budget.  Even with all the terrifying budget cuts and possible school voucher shenanigans there might be a bit of hope for our dear old state.  Turns out this issue is not one that teachers or parents are taking lightly. This is turning out to be a sincerely nonpartisan issue that has Texas families joining together to prepare for the upcoming battle. It does not take much to see that if school vouchers were implemented it would dismantle our education system - one that is already running on fumes. Education leaders, religious leaders, and community members all seem to be coming together to speak out against the voucher program. The Texas Faith Network has been working on building a coalition of Texas clergy who are opposed to the school voucher program. Currently, over 150 religious leaders have added their name to the Clergy Statement of Opposition to Vouchers. In the statement, religious leaders expressed, “We believe that directing state funds into private schools is destructive to public education, hazardous to the distinctiveness of private education, and oppressive to many who do not want their tax dollars to fund the teaching of religious views different from their own. We believe that the diversion of public education dollars to religious schools unconstitutionally allows for public funding of religious teachings. Our religious beliefs and institutions are sacred and must be free of the government controls and regulations which appropriately accompany government funds. We further believe that to allocate state tax dollars to any group, institution, or person without state regulation and control would be a serious mismanagement of taxpayer money.”

It is obvious that we as a state recognize that we have to put aside our political views and work together on these issues. According to a statement released by the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, Rita Haecker, “These so-called ‘choice’ programs offer no real choice for the overwhelming majority of students. Voucher plans benefit only a few students while enriching profiteers at the expense of public schools that have been short-changed by the same politicians who want to divert tax dollars to private schools.” Haecker went on to say, “All these voucher schemes to the contrary, the vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated in traditional public schools, and that is where our tax dollars need to be invested.”

Instead of focusing on generating money for religious institutions, maybe our legislators should be focused on restoring a few of the 25,000 teaching positions that were lost due to budget cuts or reducing the thousands of overcrowded classrooms plaguing this state.  According to the Texas Freedom Network, “About 90 percent of nonpublic schools are religion based… teachings on such matters as reproductive choice, evolution, history, and gay rights.” If hate and ignorance are what parents want their children to be taught, so be it. But we shouldn’t have to pay for it. Slashing our school budget by billions one session and following that up with the diversion of taxpayer money into private and religious schools a few years later will doom this state to failure. Luckily our community seems to grasp that. The question is, will our lawmakers as well?