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Grade School Confidential

Submitted by Commandrea on July 22, 2011 – 6:23 pmOne Comment
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By Alex Wukman

As no one needs to be reminded this spring’s political conversation was dominated by the fight over public education funding, both here in Texas and across the nation. As the story unfolded one question kept buzzing around, the one question no one was asking: “Why?” As in why pick on education funding now after all we’ve been in tight budget spots before? Why are conservatives so intent on making it impossible for schools to do their job? Why has it come to this: teachers and parents taking to the streets to keep schools open?

Admittedly at the time it was hard to see through the rhetoric. So it’s understandable that no one was really trying to figure out if there was more to the case than the”everyone has to make sacrifices” line of reasoning. However, as the year has gone on and the story has moved off the front pages, things seems to be getting worse. Schools across Texas are either trying to put together lesson plans without textbooks or preparing to sue the state, again, to force the legislature to fund education. And the only thing coming out of Austin is a desire to re-fight the decades-old battle about whether we should replace high school biology with Sunday School classes.

It didn’t take a genius to find out that the proposed cuts  to Texas’ budget were not being applied across the board, but it still didn’t answer the question of why cut school funding instead of something else. Then I saw a blog post on Forbes.com from John T. Harvey. He begins by rehashing how the state’s budget crisis was completely predictable, but fails to mention how it’s predicted to happen again; he  also fails to mention that a conservative estimate, one that doesn’t include any outside factors, shows Texas with a deficit of $10 billion in 2013. Harvey’s lack of futurism aside, his post goes on to mention an idea that is almost too disgusting to think about. Harvey writes:

“I hesitate to speculate on why those in control of the State government would so blatantly ignore the warning signs and lead us into this education disaster. Others don’t, however. They believe that it is because the Governor and key Legislators are purposely setting out to destroy public education, hoping to replace our constitutionally-mandated system with one based on private schools.”

I honestly did not believe that anyone, especially an elected official, would be so uncaring as to want to destroy our public education system. Then I remembered who I was dealing with. It seems that for over 15 years conservatives have been engaged in a behind-the-scenes attempt to destroy public education. The goals of this movement were succinctly laid out by Nobel Prize winning Libertarian economist Milton Friedman in a 1995 Cato Institute briefing paper simply entitled “Public Schools: Make them Private.” In the executive summary of the paper Friedman writes a line that has become a mantra for anti-public school crusaders everywhere: “Our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured. Such a reconstruction can be
achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system…”

Friedman’s thinking didn’t come out of a vacuum; beginning in 1966 Conservatives started putting school vouchers on ballots, and they were defeated 24 out of 25 times. As the decades went on money and influence began to flow to right wing think tanks who, as Alternet pointed out, were interested in promoting “free market fundamentalism. More specifically, their goals include privatizing social security, reducing government regulations, thwarting environmental policy, dismantling unions — and eliminating public schools.”

For much of the last 20 years the call for the elimination of public schools has only come from right wing pundits and ideologues. However, as Think Progress documented, those calls have recently found a receptive audience with a group of well heeled individual and organizational donors. Among the most influential is Amway scion Dick DeVos, who, in 2002, suggested that conservatives start referring to public schools as “government schools.” One of the biggest foundations involved in attempts to implement “systemic reforms to K-12 education” is the Wal-Mart backed Walton Family Foundation, who gave $157 million last year to organizations that promote “parental choice” in schooling.

Thanks to the power of the internet the “Get Rid of Public Schools” sentiment has spread out from a handful of think tanks and intellectuals to rank and file conservatives. Much of the opposition to public education from average conservatives comes from the belief that schools are, as one commenter on Big Government stated, “indoctrination warehouses” filled with “communists.” In the case of the famous Koch brothers, who gave school privatization national exposure with David’s 1980 Vice Presidential campaign, the red scare tactics can be traced back to their father Fred’s paranoiac belief that every level of government had been infiltrated by communists or communist sympathizers.

There are of course ideas about “getting the government out of education,” giving parents and community more control over how tax dollars are spent as well as the material taught to students. One Republic-Main Street columnist suggested that we should “De-certify the teachers’ unions, abolish the U.S. Department of Education, abolish the state education departments, grant absolute autonomy to local school boards, abolish the requirement for teacher certification, give tax breaks to parents who home-school or send their kids to private school, [and]encourage churches to set up in-house schools and courses.”

The backlash against public education hasn’t just been limited to heartland states like Texas, Wisconsin or Indiana. In June, New Jersey Governor Chis Christie jumped on a TEA Party backed idea when he announced plans to privatize all of New Jersey’s schools. Terri Adams who currently serves as the president of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association, an organization that operates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware and is known for controlling a wealthy mid-Atlantic PAC that contributed $16,000 to endorsed candidates in 2010, told Newark Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun that her group’s “ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only.” Adams went on to say that she thinks public schools “should go away” because they “are hurting children.”

On the legislative side of things, the football of school privatization has been carried fairly far down field by the American Legislative Exchange Council an organization, heavily funded by the Koch brothers, composed of corporate heads and elected officials that writes and distributes bills to elected officials. Ideas that start out at ALEC meetings, the next one is August 3-6 in New Orleans, have a habit of winding up coming out of the mouths of politicians. Including a seven point proposal, that led to a 17 page rebuttal, to “reform” the University of Texas along a “market model” that would pay professors based on the number of students they teach and only fund research that doesn’t have an immediate financial return.

As John T. Harvey stated privatizing all of Texas’ schools “would mean abandoning the poor, disenfranchised, and otherwise challenged children of our State. That’s not just mean-spirited, it is un-American and undemocratic. Our system of government requires an educated citizen more than any other.”

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