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Target: Public Education
Barbara Miner, November 1998 -- Having implemented its welfare agenda, the conservative movement is taking aim at public education. The religious right and the broader conservative movement have been organizing and funneling money into voucher initiatives for decades, particularly in the past ten years. So it was no surprise that a recent Gallup poll found that 51 percent of Americans favor using public tax dollars for tuition vouchers for any school, including private and religious schools. Employing the seductive rhetoric of "choice," conservatives have put vouchers at the top of their educational agenda. They have seized on legitimate discontent with public schools, particularly in urban areas, to further their goal of privatizing education and removing schools from public oversight and responsibility.
    Voucher supporters got a boost in early November when the Supreme Court let stand a ruling by Wisconsin's high court upholding the constitutionality of a program in Milwaukee that provides publicly funded vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools, including religious schools. Milwaukee's voucher program, the country's first, began in 1990 and initially served several hundred children at a handful of nonreligious schools. The Wisconsin ruling allowed the program to expand this fall to as many as 15,000 children attending an unlimited number of private and religious schools.
    Controversy over vouchers has centered on constitutional concerns about the separation of church and state. With several other cases pending, it is almost certain that the Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide the issue. But if Milwaukee's experience is any indication, resolving the legality of vouchers will not end the controversy. In Milwaukee, the state court's ruling has merely opened up a Pandora's box of new issues.
    In the tradition of Ronald Reagan's tales about welfare recipients driving Cadillacs, conservatives have successfully used the strategy of policy-by-anecdote. Yet one story they ignore is that of an African-American student named Tenasha Taylor. In a speech on black separatism to her English class at University School of Milwaukee, Taylor criticized the school as racist. She was suspended and asked not to return the following fall. She sued on grounds of free speech. She lost. In his opinion, Federal Judge Terence Evans wrote, "It is an elementary principle of constitutional law that the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights do not apply to private actors such as the University School. Generally, restrictions on constitutional rights that would be protected at a public high school...need not be honored at a private high school."
    Private schools, like private roads and private country clubs, don't have to answer to the public. That's why they're called private. But what if the private schools get public dollars? Do they have to follow the same rules as public schools? The answer is particularly crucial in Milwaukee because even if 100 percent of a private school's students are funded by vouchers--that is, the school doesn't have a single student who privately pays tuition--the school may still call itself "private" and operate accordingly.
    Under Milwaukee's program, for instance, voucher schools do not have to obey the state's open meetings and records laws; do not have to hire certified teachers--or even require a college degree; do not have to release information on employee wages or benefits; and do not have to administer the statewide tests required of public schools. Nor do they have to publicly release data like test scores and attendance figures or suspension and dropout rates. The only requirement is a "financial and performance evaluation audit" of the entire voucher program, to be submitted to the legislature in the year 2000.
    One of the fiercest controversies has erupted over special education students, who account for about 15 percent of Milwaukee public school students. The voucher schools argue that, even when such students are enrolled in a private school (which the schools help insure doesn't happen too often), it is up to the public schools to provide any special services such students may need.
    Another issue is that some white parents in Milwaukee have used private schools to escape desegregation. The Milwaukee public schools, for instance, are approximately 60 percent African-American. At some of the most popular Catholic high schools the proportion is 35 percent.
    The legal issues are particularly complicated because religious schools can receive vouchers. Under the First Amendment, the government may not "entangle" itself in the running of religious institutions. Thus religious schools can fire teachers who violate the schools' religious views--a gay teacher, perhaps, or a teacher who supports the right to abortion. Will religious schools that receive vouchers also be able to teach that homosexuality is a sin, that creationism is superior to the theory of evolution, that the Jews killed Christ?
    Voucher programs have been portrayed as a way to help poor blacks trapped in underachieving public schools. But the African-Americans who support and take part in voucher programs are the public face, not the force behind the movement. The conservatives who bankroll the movement have a different goal: dismantling the democratically controlled public education system and replacing it with a privatized one that would inevitably favor money and privilege. In Wisconsin, there is already talk of lifting income caps and extending the voucher program beyond Milwaukee.
    Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, nicely sums up the situation. "Too much market ideology has left our private and public worlds all topsy-turvy," he recently wrote. "We have made the President's private life public at the very moment we are demanding, via school vouchers, that our last genuinely public institutions be made private." Think about it. Vouchers are coming your way.

Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a grassroots independent education journal based in Milwaukee.  This article (c) 1998, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212) 209-5426, or send e-mail to Danielle Veith .


 


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