Class Warfare

The Right is using poor minorities to push vouchers. But who benefits?

The March 18th Public Education Committee meeting was a dream come true for Chairman Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington). Not only was there a hearing on his House Bill 2465 that would bring vouchers—now stylishly called “freedom scholarships”—to Texas, but a man Grusendorf had long admired would testify in favor. Economist Milton Friedman, widely credited with inventing public school vouchers forty years ago, described how vouchers would save Texas schools by forcing them to compete with private-sector education companies. “Education is a socialist industry, run as a monopoly with heavy control by the trade unions,” Friedman told the committee. “As with every socialist industry, you get low quality and high cost. Why shouldn’t the money go with the child, not with the school?”

But for pro-voucher strategists, the true stars of the hearing were the dozens of parents who came to testify—most of them African-American or Hispanic, most describing themselves as low-income. They came to the speaker’s podium one at a time to vent their displeasure with the public school system and to express hope that vouchers could offer their children something better.

Rev. Sterling Lands, president of the Austin chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) had rallied a number of his flock to the hearing. For nearly 20 years Lands has fought with the Austin Independent School District to improve schools on Austin’s historically poor and neglected east side. Lands, who pastors the Greater Calvary Baptist Church in East Austin, says he is sick of low test scores and high drop-out rates among minority students, of weak and unresponsive school boards, of the sorry state of East Austin schools.

“It’s criminal. In the time that I have been doing this, nothing has gotten better. In fact, things have gotten significantly worse,” Lands says. “The schools continuously and systematically fail minority students. They have no expectation that we can do better.”

Lands and members of his community have tried petitioning the school board, and have even threatened to withdraw their students from the district and place them in charter schools, or a separate school district of their own. Now Lands is supporting more drastic measures—like vouchers.

The casting of vouchers as a grassroots civil rights movement is no accident. Lands and other community leaders may be worried about their children, but BAEO itself is funded and directed by a coalition of conservative interests who have pushed the voucher movement for more than 40 years. Socially conservative, pro-business and deeply religious, these groups create and bankroll a network of think tanks, nonprofits, and “community groups” that advance attacks on affirmative action, social security, welfare programs, and the public schools.

Friedman first espoused vouchers in 1962. The theory behind vouchers goes like this: Give parents and children the chance to act as education consumers. When public schools compete with for-profit schools they will be forced to perform more effectively and efficiently. Eventually, only the leanest, meanest, top-performing schools will survive in the market.

In the beginning, vouchers found support only among a few constituencies. Fundamentalist Christians opposed to the secular nature of public schools embraced them, as did right-wing fringe groups fearful of socialist indoctrination by “government schools.” Pro-business interests were intrigued by an idea that could topple teachers’ unions—one of the last strongholds of organized labor. And entrepreneurs salivated when Friedman predicted the rise of a multi-billion dollar education industry.

But voucher theory didn’t work in practice. Repeated studies found little evidence that competition improves public schools. For-profit “education management organizations,” billed as models of dazzling efficiency, struggled to make a profit. Experimental voucher programs proved expensive and were lightening rods for lawsuits. And voucher students did no better—often worse—than their public school peers on standardized tests.

Worse, vouchers could not win mainstream support. By the end of the ’90s the movement seemed to have stalled. A few state legislatures had instituted a handful of small, citywide programs, but voters had never passed a voucher referendum. Twelve voucher and “tuition tax credit” measures had been voted down in general elections—often by margins of 40 or 50 percent. Exit poll data on voucher referenda showed that support was lowest in urban areas, and among minorities and the poor. The typical voucher supporter was a white suburban Protestant with a family income of $60,000 a year or more. “People just didn’t support the idea of tax money subsidizing private education for upper-middle-class kids,” says Sam Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN).

Then the voucher movement reinvented itself. Using the rhetoric of the civil rights struggle, supporters of vouchers began to advertise them as the only answer for low-income and minority children, trapped by their zip codes in under-funded, segregated, often violent public schools.

In the summer of 2000, BAEO announced its formation at a symposium hosted by Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning. Institute director and BAEO president Howard Fuller told reporters his aim was to “change the face of the voucher movement.” Former New York Congressman Floyd Flake, now a BAEO board member, called vouchers the “new wave of civil rights.”

Within weeks, the BAEO launched an ad campaign in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Washington Times, profiling minority families who had benefited from existing voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. A few weeks later they added radio and TV spots in the Washington, D.C., area, repeating the group’s stock message: “School choice is widespread — unless you’re poor.” All in all, the Times estimated the cost of the ads at $3 million—impressive for a fledgling, grass-roots advocacy organization. The group soon had chapters in states like Florida and Wisconsin where voucher fights were hottest. The BAEO involved itself in frontline voucher battles in Michigan and California.

The new spin also nudged vouchers into the mainstream and made them more palatable to liberal legislators. Once a liberal/conservative litmus test, vouchers now polarize voters and legislators along a range of interests and ideologies—minority against white, urban against rural, rich against poor.

In Texas, vouchers turn normally staid, party-line legislators into wild cards. And thus, at press time, it’s still uncertain whether HB 2465 has the votes to pass on the floor of the House. While some minority urban Democrats may support the bill, rural Democrats and Republicans may oppose it. On committee vote—held with 10 minutes advance notice at Grusendorf’s desk on the floor of the House—Reps. Gloria Dawson (R-Pearland) and Bob Griggs (R-North Richland Hills) opposed the bill. Dawson spent 33 years as a teacher before running for the legislature. Voters in her district love their high-performing public schools. Griggs is a former school superintendent. But Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat with a large minority constituency, voted for the bill.

Rep. Ron Wilson, another Houston Democrat, authored a bill that is a virtual twin to HB 2465. “If we’re concerned about kids, we ought to be willing to do almost anything,” Wilson says. “Public education in this country is like a sinking ship. We ought to be throwing lifelines to kids, not trying to fix the ship.”

Support for vouchers has broadened, though maybe not enough for this session. A “virtual charter school bill” authored by Grusendorf proposed giving state money to home-schooling parents who contract with on-line education services. That bill was voted down in the House 66-75 in late April—the first big leadership bill to fail this session. A similar bill brought to the Senate by Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Addison, was amended past all recognition. Many saw the bills, which would have given public money to private education entities, as a test vote for vouchers.

If vouchers do succeed in Texas, it will be because of the canny and well-funded campaign of a small group of wealthy individuals. While community groups like BAEO do the public relations work, the muscle behind vouchers remains as it always has, in the hands of a few right-wing powerhouses. Together they fund politicians who pass voucher programs, the legal firms who defend the programs, and the think tanks who pronounce them successes.

WalMart heir John Walton has spent nearly one billion dollars in the last three years on organizations that research, promote, and lobby for “school choice.” BAEO itself started up with a $900,000 check from the Walton Family Foundation, according to the conservative weekly Human Events. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation gave $500,000 to BAEO in 2001. With well over $700 million in assets, the Bradley Foundation is one of the top right-wing cash cows in the country. The Bradley Foundation gives generously to the anti-affirmative action Center for Individual Rights, a nonprofit law firm that headed the legal attack on admissions practices at the University of Texas Law School. The foundation also contributed to the anti-bilingual education group One Nation/One California. Education privatization is among the Bradley Foundation’s longest running and most successful enterprises. The foundation is also the chief supporter—with more than $5 million in the last 10 years—of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which builds support for privatization in low-income neighborhoods. The Bradley Foundation has also given $1.4 million to Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning.

The John M. Olin Foundation gave BAEO $100,000 in 2001. Along with the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation has been a generous donor to the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a rightwing think tank that financed author Charles Murray’s work on The Bell Curve. Murray’s book argues that racial inequalities in the United States are a result of minorities’ inferior genetics.

The Bradley, Olin, and Walton Foundations have contributed heavily to the Children’s Education Opportunity Fund (CEO). James Leininger began CEO America—originally CEO San Antonio—in 1992 to give private vouchers to public school students in San Antonio’s Edgewood Independent School District. In 1994, Walton gave Leininger $2 million to make CEO a national program. CEO America now claims to operate in 70 cities and 36 states, giving out the private vouchers that critics say are a stalking horse for publicly funded vouchers.

But voucher backers have encountered a problem in their push: a growing body of research that indicates vouchers don’t significantly help students. So the Bradley, Olin and Walton Foundations have subsidized their own scientific studies that show vouchers succeeding.

Education researcher Paul Peterson is the director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, which has received more than $5.4 million from the Olin, Bradley and Walton foundations. In 2000 Peterson released favorable results from a study on the New York City voucher program. The research group that gathered data for the study felt compelled to issue a press release disowning Peterson’s results, calling them “premature” and “inconclusive.” The non-partisan National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education reanalyzed the New York City program and found African-American voucher students were the only group to show any improvement over public school counterparts; their achievement test scores were about 1.5 percent higher.

Peterson and Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Civic Innovation—an institute also supported with Bradley, Olin and Walton money—released a 1996 report showing gains for Milwaukee voucher students. University of Wisconsin professor John Witte, who had made a five-year study of the Milwaukee voucher program, called Peterson and Greene’s study a “confusing, tortured effort to find any evidence that students enrolled in private schools do any better than students in Milwaukee public schools.”

On another front, the Bradley, Olin and Walton foundations also support the Institute for Justice and the Legal Landmark Foundation, public-interest law firms that have successfully defended voucher programs in Florida, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Through strategic investments in lawyers, academics, and community organizations like BAEO, these powerful conservative interests have orchestrated voucher pushes in California, Michigan, and Florida. Now they’re moving into Texas.

Together, board members of CEO America gave $82,000 to Gov. Rick Perry during the 2002 election campaign, and about $95,500 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. CEO America’s board members gave $41,267 to Attorney General Greg Abbot and $177,500 to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. As a group, members of the House of Representatives received just under $57,000, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Perry and other top Texas officials have been staunch supporters of vouchers and privatized education. But however good the voucher lobby may have been to Texas politicians, there’s little reason to believe that vouchers will be good for Texas children—especially for the African-American and Hispanic children that vouchers are supposed to rescue.

“The greatest irony of vouchers is that they would hurt precisely those children they claim they would help,” says TFN’s Sam Smoot. “The vast majority of children will be left behind in public schools that have been drained of their resources.”

Grusendorf’s HB 2465 would create a voucher pilot program this fall in 11 urban school districts, chosen for their high numbers of students in reduced-price lunch programs. The voucher program would be the most extensive in the country and would expand in 2005 to include any district that chooses to join it.

A study by the Texas-based Coalition for Public Schools estimates the 11 participating districts would lose $265 million in state and local funding. When the program expanded in 2005, public schools statewide could lose as much as $800 million.

A boilerplate anti-discrimination clause in the bill would prohibit private schools from rejecting voucher students based on race or ethnicity. But there is no provision against more subtle discrimination based on academic or behavioral records. If there are more voucher applicants than available slots, private schools would be required to select applicants by lottery. In the Cleveland voucher program, which also has a lottery provision, the Indiana Center for Evaluation found only 53 percent of voucher students were African-American, compared to 71 percent of public schools students.

Some private schools may simply opt not to accept voucher students and the government oversight they bring with them. House Bill 2465 would require private schools to give the TAKS or a similar test each year and make the result public (though unlike public schools, private schools wouldn’t be slapped with sanctions for low performance).

Edd Burleson, director of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, says discussions among private school administrators about vouchers have been informal, but “most are quite concerned about the strings attached to taking gov
rnment money.”

But where established private schools turn vouchers away, for-profits soon spring up to take in those students and the state dollars they bring with them. HB 2465 requires only that a private school apply for accreditation before it accepts voucher students, and provides virtually no state oversight of schools in the program. Texas has already had a taste of the chaos that ensues from this sort of school privatization. When CEO America (then CEO San Antonio) made private voucher money available to Edgewood students, a handful of schools opened just for the occasion—one in a storefront, one in a former bar, yet a third with no listed phone number, apparently quartered in an abandoned shack.

The future looks grim, if Texas charter schools are any indication of how education might operate under the loosened accreditation standards and lack of state oversight contemplated in HB 2465. In 2001, the Texas Education Agency found charter schools spent an average of $23 per pupil on instructional materials, compared to $105 spent by the average public school. Yet there is one area where charter schools best public schools: The average charter school spent $939 on administrative costs—more than four times what the average public school spends.

As for pioneering pedagogical methods for public schools to emulate—as many voucher advocates promised that for-profit schools would do—Dr. Harry Levin of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education found for-profits were likely to pinch pennies by innovating less. The three main ways for-profits save money, Levin says, are hiring inexperienced teachers, filtering out the students who are the most expensive to educate (often those with disabilities, behavioral problems, or limited English skills) and enforcing a rigid, standardized curriculum.

Edison Schools Inc., one of the longest established and best known for-profit education management organizations in the country, has been kicked out of Texas, its contracts canceled with the Dallas and Sherman school districts for fiscal mismanagement and low student achievement.

After this session’s proposed severe cuts to the education budget, vouchers would be instituted instead of proven reform, like reduced class sizes, better teacher training, and enriched curriculum. Voucher supporters argue that public schools aren’t “losing” any funding, since the costs of educating a student go away when the student—and his or her tax-supported voucher—leaves the school. But per-pupil spending accounts for only a fraction of school costs; expenses like buildings, teaching materials, staff, and administrative costs don’t disappear as the student body dwindles.

But even if vouchers achieved all that supporters promise—if they did not discriminate against minority students, if voucher students’ achievements outstripped the public schools, if privatized education did not prove ripe for exploitation by greedy profit-makers—they would still enable only a handful of children to escape failing schools. Those who were left behind would be worse off than before.

To Lands, and many parents and activists who have watched under-funded schools ignore and fail their children, vouchers are temptingly close, reassuringly instant. They want help now for an immediate crisis. In March, a black high-school boy shot a black high-school girl on campus at an East Austin school. Lands knew them both. The boy had sung in a wedding at his church a few weeks before. The boy had been crying out for help, Lands says, and the school had ignored it.

“There are behaviors that the schools tolerate because they have low expectations of these students,” Lands says. “A lot of children of color come from some pretty grave circumstances. Rather than hold them hostage to their circumstances, they need to be given a target. We don’t have that.”

If there’s an escape for poor and minority kids, a way out of gritty subdivisions and dead-end jobs and grinding poverty, it is through education. And when the schools fail, as Lands believes they have, there’s no hope.

“I am pro-voucher, anti-voucher, anti-pro-voucher—anything but what we have,” Lands says. “It is vital that we find a way in which the Haves do not have at the expense of the Have-nots.”

The truth behind Land’s urgency is undeniable. That is why it has proved such a successful selling tool for vouchers. Unfortunately, when it comes to solving educational deficiencies for minority students, vouchers are the wrong answer.

Emily Pyle is a legislative intern for the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST