I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Who Is the Real "Special Interest" in the Voucher Debate?

Well, another year has come and gone, and New Jersey school vouchers, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco*, are still seriously dead:
In the roller coaster life of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday conceded the controversial school voucher bill is likely dead for the rest of the year.
Where the bill is headed next is less certain.
“Bottom line, it is not going to happen this year,” Christie told a young man from Hazlet who asked about the program. “But hang in there … I am going to continue to push for it, and hopefully we can get Sheila Oliver to do the right thing and post that bill for the people of New Jersey.”
You know, at some point, you have to wonder if rich folks like Peter Denton are going to decide they're sick of pouring his money into non-profit voucher cheerleaders that simply can't get the job done. I mean E3 (Excellent Eduction for Everyone - yeah, that whole numbers/letters thing in their logo is nearly as outdated as my SNL reference) has been at this since 1999. Thirteen years, and nothing to show for it? At what point do you look at the people you've hired to push vouchers and come to the conclusion they haven't been doing their jobs very well?

Well, no matter what, it doesn't look like the voucher pushers are going away any time soon; just today, the chairman of E3, Therman Evans, extolled the virtues of scholarships vouchers in the Star-Ledger:
It was with great interest that I read former Gov. James J. Florio’s op-ed (“School voucher loss is gain for equality,” June 20) regarding the effort of many in this state to pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which will save thousands of our most vulnerable children languishing in failing urban schools by providing them with scholarship funds to attend charter, private and religious schools of their choice.
While our Legislature continues to debate with interest groups over how to fix an ailing urban public school system from within the entrenched and politicized educational delivery system, the stakeholders — the families and children subjected to this endless cycle of failure — demand action now to save as many children as possible. [emphasis mine]
I dealt with Florio's op-ed yesterday, so no need to rehash it. Suffice to say, there is no evidence that children who get OSA scholarships will be going to "better" schools; in fact, they will quite likely be worse, and the state will have no control over what sort of wacky things these schools will teach.

What interests me here, however, is Evans's focus on "interest groups." Who are these groups, and what is their "interest"?
Organizations like E3, and parents and community activists who support the Opportunity Scholarship Act, believe that instead of a white flag of surrender, OSA provides chronically failing schools the impetus to compete in the education marketplace, to use the 50 percent of the absent child’s school funding, which the district retains, to improve their educational practice while working toward excellence in an effort to draw back those students, and their full funding, to their neighborhood and community public schools.
New Jersey business groups such as the African American Chamber of Commerce, the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey and the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce believe the OSA is a positive step toward solving the lack of educated and trained workers due to chronically failing schools, available in the communities where they are located.
Ah, of course: business. Business loves to blame to economic slump on schools, despite the fact that are boatloads of college-educated people who can't get decent jobs in this country anymore. Of course, the fact that these people think schools and businesses are analogous tells you how little they really know about education.

But Evans leaves one "interest group" out of the equation: private schools. I mean, these are the direct beneficiaries of vouchers, right? Just like charter operators are the beneficiaries of "choice." So, where do the interests of the people running these schools fall in the discussion?

If approved, the new schools would mark a significant increase in New Jersey charter schools with religious backgrounds. With Rev. [Reginald] Jackson, the movement also gains a powerful and sometimes controversial voice.
“Historically, the African American church has always been outspoken on these issues, the social issues, the education issues,” Jackson said.
He stressed that none of the applications are directly from the churches, but only being led by pastors. In each case, it would be a separate nonprofit organization running the schools, with separate boards, Jackson said.
“Most of the people on the boards are not from the churches, but are from business, the community,” he said.
The other applications from members of the council that Jackson cited:
  • Therman Evans Charter School for Excellence (Linden): Rev. Therman Evans
  • Regis Academy Charter School (Camden): Pastor Amir Khan
  • Atlantic Preparatory School (Mays Landing): Pastor Richard Smith
  • Visions of Destiny Academy for Academic Excellence (Trenton): Bishop Herbert Bright
So the man who is leading the charge for vouchers is starting a charter school named after himself? Just how much money does he want to drain away from the public school system? Between his charters and vouchers, how much will be left for the kids left behind? You know, the kids who have special eduction needs, or who don't speak English at home, or are dually-exceptional, or autistic, or have speech issues, or are emotionally disturbed, or simply have parents who don't want them to attend a religious school (or a charter named after a pastor)? Because I can guarantee you one thing: there is no way the charters or the privates Evans cheerleads for are going to be able to educate these deserving children.

Below Reverend Evans on the list above is Pastor Amir Khan, who admitted he needs the revenue from his charter to "carry" his ministry:
But the opening of the larger charter school is essential to the church's plan to buy the land from the diocese, he said.
"We were anticipating the charter school to get additional income to carry us," he said. [emphasis mine]
Gosh, I wonder how many other religious organizations are anticipating that voucher money and charter money will help to "carry" them?

Reverend Evans says he doesn't want to run up the white flag on public schools. But between the twin funding drains of charters and vouchers, running up that white flag looks like exactly what he is doing.

* For those of you too young to remember the joke:

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