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Cross posted at Notes on a Theory

At the GOP convention, Jeb Bush argued in favor of voucher and school choice using the frame of civil rights.  Bush, brother of failed president and education reformer George W. Bush, went further, offering an even more inapt metaphor.

“Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose,” he said in a prepared version of his remarks sent to reporters. “Go down any supermarket aisle - you’ll find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk— chocolate, strawberry or vanilla - and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.”

“Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?” Bush said.

This perfectly encapsulates what's wrong with the corporate ed position.

It conflates something as important, complex and far reaching in its consequences as an education with milk, a simple consumer good.  That frame justifies turning public education into a profit making opportunity.  It supports the deprofessionalization of teachers.  It focuses our attention on individuals instead of the ways we systematically provide a different quality to education based on class and race.  Choosing 2% one week and whole milk the next is no problem, but shifting your child between schools even once is a huge decision. The choice of milk depends purely on taste while education is a skilled profession.  While the analogy has surface appeal, its implication are gross and  most people would recoil from them it they were made explicit.  Most people, that is, who believe that providing a quality education to all is a basic requirement in a democratic society that is committed to the idea that all people are equal.

How can you say on the one hand that education is a civil right and at the same time it's like shopping for groceries?

Chief Justice Warren had a better sense of the civil rights issue when it comes to education.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
There's another important point to be made here, and it gets to the conceit of choice.

"Choice" is the illusion of power.  Vouchers were not dreamed up to provide choice, but to deny it. We need to avoid confusing a justification with an explanation.

A recent report issued by People for the American Way called Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the 1%, Undermining Democracy details what's really going on here.

It is important to understand that targeted voucher programs that allow students from poor families, children with disabilities or students in underperforming schools to attend private schools that will accept them are not the ultimate goal of school privatizers. They are a tactical means to a much larger strategic end, which is the end of public education altogether, as pushed by David Koch in his run for the White House in 1980, echoing his late father’s John Birch Society antipathy to public schools as socialist or communist.

“Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling,” statedHeartland Institute President Joseph Bast in 1997. “In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.” Heartland has received significant funding from right-wing foundations over the years, including the Charles Koch Foundation.

If you doubt that many privatizers seek to dismantle public education, take a look at the many prominent right-wing activists and thinkers who have signed the “Public Proclamation to Separate Church and State,” which proclaims that “I favor ending government involvement in education.”

As Milton Friedman, intellectual godfather of the movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

More famously, the late televangelist and Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell said, “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.” At the 2011 Values Voter Summit held in Washington, D.C., in October, one of the most frequent and enthusiastically received applause lines was a call to abolish the Department of Education. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott signed five bills last year that build on the voucher programs put in place by former Gov. Jeb Bush [my emphasis] and promote Scott’s agenda to expand charter schools, virtual schools, vouchers and a program that allows students to transfer out of failing public schools. Florida also gives tax breaks to corporations in return for private school scholarships, echoing ALEC model legislation: With Scott’s urging, that program’s cap increased by $30 million to $175 million while the McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities could nearly quadruple under new looser eligibility guidelines. Florida’s education chief, selected by the state board at Scott’s request last year, is a former executive director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a group created by right-wing funders to make black parents, rather than right-wing economists and Wall Street financiers, the face of the voucher movement.

Read the whole thing. My only objection is that what is typically called 'privatization' is really 'corporatization' - a shift of public funds to corporations, which since they are collectively owned and managed and not meaningfully 'private.'

It's worth quoting a bit more from Friedman on behalf of vouchers.

Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible. In general, they can now take this step only by simultaneously changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels.
As Albert Hirschman said, "A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them!"  But note too that what Friedman calls the "cumbrous political channels" is what the rest of us call democracy and active citizenship.

Of course we want real choice - students and parents should have options for different educational opportunities, teachers should be given autonomy to find the best ways to teach to their students, administrators and teachers should have the freedom to design programs rather than have things dictated from above.  Teachers should have the choice of joining a union to represent them.  Everyone should have the option of a quality public education.  What corporate reformers like Bush offer is not choice.  It's a top down agenda designed to undermine public education despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans recognize our public schools are essential.  The goal is to turn public education from a social right, one that all deserve as a consequence of being a human being, to a product, no different from milk or toothpaste.  And Democrats should be condemning this nonsense and articulating this alternative, original, vision.  And we should all be demanding that they do, not to mention ditching George W. Bush's NCLB (No Public School Left Standing).

Of course, some would claim that vouchers are only a Republican idea, and that the rest of what is often falsely called "ed reform", as if only those that share their vision are interested in change.  But as Laura Clawson notes, Bush was also in town to publicize the new pro-parent trigger movie Won't Back Down, along with former Democratic ed policy star Michelle Rhee. The movie will also be screened at the DNC.  (For what it's worth, the parent trigger demonstrates the incoherence of the "choice" agenda.  If not allowing an individual parent to have the government fund their choice to go to a different school despite the wishes of the vast majority of parents to offer public schooling alone, why can we disrespect the choice of 50% minus one of parents to maintain their public school in the face of a slight majority.  Any why do triggers only operate one way? The answer is the only choices they respect are those that fit with the top down corporate agenda.)

The long-term shift from social rights to commodification is one of the more important (and disastrous) political projects of my lifetime.

By the way, if you think education is a civil right, you should check out the recommendations of those groups with a long and distinguished history of fighting for civil rights.  But they will look very little like those of Jeb Bush.

Of course, Jeb, whose background is more aristocratic then meritocratic, believes it's the rest of us that are the real racists.

“We must stop pre-judging children based on their race, ethnicity or household income,” Bush said. “We must stop excusing failure in our schools and start rewarding improvement and success.”
I'll outsource the response to that to Richard Rothstein and Mark Santow.
Politicians and experts typically refer to schools as “failing” if they are filled with low-income children with low-test scores. Faced with enormous challenges, such schools may be doing as well as they possibly can, though.  African-American children from low-income urban families frequently suffer from health problems that lead to school absences; from frequent or sustained parental unemployment that provokes family crises; from rent or mortgage defaults causing household moves that entail changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity; and from living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, where schools spend more time on discipline and less on instruction and where stress depresses academic success. With school segregation continuing to increase, these children are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were regularly read to when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose adult environment includes many college-educated professional role models, whose parents have greater educational experience and the motivation such experience brings and who have the time, confidence, and ability to monitor schools for academic standards.
We won't be seeing any Bushes working with us to address those problems any time soon.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (7+ / 0-)

    Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity. Notes on a Theory

    by David Kaib on Wed Sep 05, 2012 at 05:35:32 PM PDT

  •  Actually his stupid example is a perfect reason (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    why we need a common education system... If parents choose schools like milk in all its variety then how could we trust a DR or engineer or ... everyone learning different stuff that suits thier ignorant parents prejudices and beliefs until we cannot rely on any diploma or degree or tech school  to give us consistent and reliable results form professions. We already have different accents in different parts of the country but wow maybe in a few generations we'll need real interpretors between states, heck maybe within small towns...Will there be battles who is speaking real english?... Maybe this is why republicans favor tort reform ... because people couldn't sue a Dr educated at a Far right college who uses a lot of prayer and treatments straight out of the ancient past... Urine drink anyone?  Or lets mothers die because it is gods will...

    This is the dumbest idea about education that is espoused by these profiteering AHs... A race to third world status that is successfully expressed in some of the reddest states in the union... But then what would one expect from a Bush... poisonous leaves of wisdom promoted as delicious healthy crap with laws preventing any disagreement because that would be treasonous to the emperors.

    How can you tell when Rmoney is lying? His lips are moving. Fear is the Mind Killer

    by boophus on Wed Sep 05, 2012 at 05:46:35 PM PDT

  •  There are no chocolate flavored schools. NT (0+ / 0-)

    We lose if we choose to forget; the lives of men, and money spent.

    by DeanDemocrat on Wed Sep 05, 2012 at 05:56:12 PM PDT

  •  As an instructor at a public college (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    David Kaib

    I cringed when I saw the trailer to this film. Other teachers probably did, too. Education movies are unpopular among real teachers, just like cop movies are unpopular among real cops.

    It was so rah rah feel good, and the plot came down to the same individualistic American hero story: all it takes is one man (or woman) with a dream and the drive to pursue it, yadda yadda yadda.

    Just get the bureaucrats and politicians out of the way and the parents and teachers will just.....what?

    When the kids of that first group of highly motivated parents moves on, then....what?

    Just get the magic teacher who uses karate, or the magic principal with a bat, or the magic parents group with a mission, and replicate it across the country. And the kids, no matter how poor and damaged, will Stand And Deliver. And if education was like running a Mcdonald's that formula might work.

    There is an elementary school in my town where the community is so transient that the classroom composition is made up of entirely different kids at the end of the year. How can those parents become dedicated to the schools? How can those teachers and kids form a meaningful bond?

    Have enough job transfers, evictions, deportations and teachers are considered successful if they can learn the kids names from one week to the next.

    The libertarian dream of parents moving their kids around from school to school as easily as they buy a different brand of milk is already happening. But the reality is more of a nightmare for all involved. And vouchers won't fix what the trickle-down economy and social inequality have broken.

    Non-profit single payer health care. Next question?

    by terran on Wed Sep 05, 2012 at 07:01:57 PM PDT

  •  Jeb is right (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Schools are like the many kinds of milk you can find in a well-stocked, suburban grocery store.  Ideally, all of these beverages meet some kind of minimum standards for sanitation and nutrition.

    There's whole milk, 2%, 1% and fat-free -- all of them within the zone of healthy beverages to be consumed some of the time -- although most pediatricians and physicianas would discourage a diet of 100% whole milk less they end up as Chris Christie clones.

    There's chocolate and strawberry flavored milk that doesn't even taste like milk -- this could equate to some of the anti-science, anti-evolution 16th-century religious schools that Bobby Jindal wants to give taxpayer $$ to.  In all honesty, these are over-sweetened, unnatural products which may be okay to drink once a week but a steady deit of which is not healthy for the individual or the body politic.  (Separation of church & state, Jeb -- don't embarass the founding fathers.)

    There's even soy milk and almond milk for people who can't tolerate dairy -- that's like special education programs for children whose physical or developmental conditions prevent them from benefiting from the standard educational model.

    However -- with the exception of the last category, special education for children who have no ability to exercise the "choice" Bush crows about -- I don't see where it is my responsibility as a taxpayer to buy less healthful Bible-thumping strawberry milk or corporate-profiteering 8% milk for people who "want" to make a choice but don't "need" to.

    Maybe instead of milk we should say education is like cars -- there's all different kinds of cars and why shouldn't we let people choose, at taxpayer expense, to drive a Hummer or a Lexus instead of a Focus or Civic?

    There is a great benefit to a common educational background -- but, if people want to choose something different, who's stopping them?  Oh, you want them to choose but me to pay?  Does that standard apply yo birth control as well, Jeb?  To college?  To health care? Didn't think so.  Guess there's no big corporate money to suck up to in those cases.  (I seem to remember there was a Bush -- Roger, was it -- who has been cashing in on selling textbooks to these "choice" schools.)


    When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called "the People's Stick." ~ Mikhail Bakunin

    by Sick Semper on Wed Sep 05, 2012 at 07:06:45 PM PDT

  •  Vouchers: valuable coupons for milk! (0+ / 0-)

    The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. Paul Cezanne

    by MeToo on Thu Sep 06, 2012 at 12:31:54 AM PDT

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