Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why Congregations Across the Nation Should Stand Against Vouchers

 Many of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations of the U.S. behind the scenes are welcoming, even promoting the idea of government vouchers and financial supports for religious based PreK-12 schools, and the reasons are fairly evident.  More money, more students, the opportunity to open their own school.

Right now Vouchers is the flagship policy being promoted by Mrs. DeVos, the new Secretary of Ed, and by the new President, Mr. Trump.  The Secretary and President are supported by much of the Republican party which has depended on faith groups for their election since Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove figured out ways to attract churches to political action in the late 70s. Many politicians even see Vouchers, also called Ed Savings Accts and Scholarships, as a payoff to religious leaders who have delivered the votes in past elections.

However, there are some glaring reasons that Congregations across the US should rethink supporting or promoting vouchers for private PreK-12 schools.
1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught in a particular religion.
2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe.
3. The story that public schools are anti-Judeo-Christian-values is untrue.
4.With the Money comes diminished control and fragmentation for our local communities.

1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught adherence to a particular governmental religion. 
I still remember as a child in Baptist Sunday School learning the story of Roger Williams and how he and his followers were pushed out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 by the Puritans who considered him and his Baptist followers heretics.

The story of how he escaped in a blizzard and made his way to Rhode Island to eventually found the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in the Colonies was important history in our church.  His belief in Separation of Church and State, in the importance of individual conscience, and his belief in treating the natives honorably were taught as hallmarks of what it meant to be Baptist, even as late as the 1960s.  Many American denominations have a similar “freedom of religion” story in their history.

Williams’ beliefs have become less revered now that media preachers outrank congregational ministers and following a charismatic preacher carries more weight than figuring out what you, yourself think.  But it’s not my goal to convince everyone that we should all become AnaBaptists.  The point is that the Puritans’ push to make Massachusetts Bay a theocracy quickly became antithetical to what it has meant to be American for the last 400 years. It is important to remind ourselves, that though we may be the religion in control of government this year, we may be the victims of a theocratic government when another sect takes over.

2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe. 
Each of those terms has a different meaning, and every faith is a minority in some part of the country.  There is also no assurance that the private for-profit firms, who will also be founding new schools or are currently in place, will be any more in touch with community values than the elected boards we put in office through our local elections, and the leaders/teachers from among our own local population.

It has become an urban legend that Republican views are Christian views, that they are only one set of beliefs, and  that the two labels are interchangeable.  Yet, beliefs, worship practices, and codes of belonging across Christian communities in the US are as diverse as the complex heritages we grow from: from Catholics, to Quakers, to Jehovahs Witnesses, the range of “Christian” churches is vast.  Even among Jewish Congregations, there is national diversity of types and practices.

Many families across the country have stories of breaches and breaks because Grandma was a Methodist, and the Great Grands could not abide that she might not raise the grandkids Church of Christ, or Presbyterian, or some other denomination, and those stories are not limited to long gone generations. There is even the old joke about the guy stranded on a tropical island who when found has two churches there– one where he worshiped before he split off (from himself) to the new one.

My home town had two gas stations, one grocery store, one stop light and 26 churches– all variations on protestant Christianity.  Yet, there was a reason there were and still are 26 or more instead of fewer. Each had a slightly different flavor and style to the other 25, and the congregants in each considered their reason for belonging to that particular church and denomination something worth being separate for.  Which of those churches will have control over the new school that receives the bulk of the voucher money from the community’s taxes?

That variation has not gone away in communities across the nation, and it is good and important to keep that variety in the context of our personal searches for truth and meaning.  However, it makes converting our Monday-Friday schools into religious ones, a problematic endeavor.

3. The story that public schools are anti Judeo-Christian values is untrue. 
Politicians, and some ministers who want to separate us from one another, would have us believe that public schools deny children freedom of religious belief, deny them the option to personally  pray, and deny core values that have been part of Western Judeo-Christian tradition.

Yet, in most states, the pledge of allegiance with “under God” right there in the middle of it starts off each day, by law.  Holiday concerts in December of every year are still much loved performance events of most localities with traditional carols and some add on’s in welcome to other cultures. The opening prayers still get said at many a local event, and major calendar breaks are still centered mostly around western religious holidays.  After school programs sponsored by local religious groups continue to be hosted across the country--Except in places like Michigan (Mrs. DeVos’ custom designed home state system of privates) where the fabric of local community identity has been shredded by mostly for-profit private schools who use the communities' money without serving the greater community.

 Public schools have actually been able to understand the difference between widely varying individual church dogma and the general religious ethics that inform our civil society.  Miraculously (or not so miraculously) there are core values that do reach across religious lines, and not just protestant Christian religious lines.

Values like honesty, not cheating or stealing, respecting one another’s possessions, not hurting others, gratitude,  kindness, sharing, and respect for our families and elders are both religious and civil societal values which continue to be cornerstones that keep our classrooms and schools functioning as healthy communities. Those values we can teach and do teach.  Though reinforcement of these values on a worship day or through religious community are helpful and healthy, the basic religious ethic of all the Big Five religions are already part of our public school traditions because they are the values that help us live in harmony with one another as good neighbors.

Will the same be true of the narrower, more dogmatic, or for profit schools that voucher/scholarship money goes to? There are no assurances because they will not have the same requirements or community oversight our current public schools have. Will the religious organization that runs the new school respect your child’s right to practice a slightly different religious belief or practice?  They will not be required to.

4. With the Money comes diminished local control,  and fragmentation of our local communities. 
For many years, the joke among farmers and other local businesses was that the scariest words one could hear was, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” The truth behind that fear is the reality that people who see citizens’ money as better spent based on outside views often bring ill-fitting policies. Public schools have suffered that plight much of late. Both Democrats and Republicans have felt economic unregulated capitalism would be a better system for managing schools than local democracy would.  Vouchers and Privately run Virtual Schools are the culmination of that belief.

Nationally aligned business and political people believe that the unregulated Market will govern our children’s daily lives better than local community leaders, local parents, and local business people-- Just the way the Market has better governed our health care with better service and better prices. Neither ESSA nor DeVos/Trump Voucher-privatization will include actual local control, only corporate or indvidual religious organizational control.

While privates and virtuals will get the benefit of our federal, state, and local tax dollars; our local public schools will be left without enough to run the already legally required programs the privates and virtuals will not have to provide, with local districts unable to exert any control over the non-public schools that operate within their borders.  Those new schools (and some already established) do not operate with the same conceptual mission to serve the children and communities of the whole town, neighborhood, or county.  The new schools’ mission is to push a particular ideology or make a profit, regardless of the effect on the community as a whole.

Even if the new school happens to luckily be of your denomination, which of those 26 ministers will have control over what your child learns? And what happens when the money has been taken from the local school, but only those who "belong" are accepted?

It will be their choice, regardless of the effect on your community, your congregation, or your child or grandchild.


Friday, March 10, 2017

New Strategy, Same Agenda, Lamar Alexander and Accountability

Why would Lamar Alexander suddenly start to dismantle the “accountability” regulations of ESSA, the landmark Education Bill he worked over a year forging and heralded as a fabulous bi-partisan feat; one of the few of the Obama era?
Photo by Angela Lewis Foster/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Is Accountability which he so avidly promoted for so long suddenly not needed?  He spent about a half hour explaining the change, but ....

Accountability has been the battle cry from both parties for almost 20 years of Education Reform. Why abandon it now?

Those defending the Public Schools have long known the push to privatize our local schools is a bi-partisan effort.  Both of Obama’s Secretaries of Education were firmly committed to  sustained step by step reform using standards-standardization, “accountability,” and high stakes testing as the interlocking strategies for closing local schools-- as were the Republicans.  And it was working fairly well as a means of funneling money to hybrid public-private charters; all under the auspices of Civil Rights for poor students, and “school improvement.”

The story went, State and Federal Officials and Company Owners had to protect children from the local teachers and school boards. These locals were denying them access to educations like children of Harvard and Yale alums were receiving.  Of course, no one was suggesting that children of the projects or working class neighborhoods and towns receive the healthy food, extra parent time, enrichment vacations, healthcare or safer environments their wealthy counterparts received- just the daily school part had to change.

Everything was going fairly well until roughly 2010 when grassroots groups began to spring up among teachers and parents, resisting the narrative.  People started refusing to believe that public schools were failing, with local boards conspiring to deny civil rights,  public schools teachers being unintelligent, ill-trained, and incompetent, and as Rex Tillerson, then CEO of Exxon put it, the children being “inferior products.” It just didn’t match what people saw and experienced in the real world.

No doubt, Education Reformers like Alexander expected some push back, but did not calculate the power growing social media would contribute to the equation.  At first the resistors could be categorized as a few malcontents, radicals, and old teachers unable to understand and change with technology. But as numbers grew, Republicans saw an opportunity in the growing discontent about the outrageously inappropriate standards and ill-designed tests as a way to saddle the Dems with blame for the most unpopular aspects of NCLB, the Republican Reform bill.  They pretty suddenly broke with the Democrats on Standards, keeping basically the same standards as Common Core in Republican states under new names, while condemning Common Core as an elite Democratic conspiracy.  Their strategy shifted to a states rights argument.

With a Republican victory in November there was both opportunity and danger. It became growingly evident that ignoring resistance would not be enough to accomplish a complete privatization of schools.  Change had to move faster, and strategies had to shift if privatization were to succeed because resistance and studies were accumulating.  At that point a shift to the methods used by DeVos in Michigan, Pence in Indiana, and reformers in New Orleans and Florida would be required. Vouchers for both charters and privates and technology in the form of virtual education would need to be moved into place much faster than things had been moving.

Under a new battlecry the Republicans could continue the privatization agenda and also gain a political advantage. Using state control and vouchers (often called scholarships or tax incentives), the Republicans could continue to claim they were on the side of “poor children” and Civil Rights while speeding up the privatization process which had been decimating less affluent schools.  Their new initiative would suddenly extend the preferred school type from currently failing public-private charters to completely private, religious, virtual, and ideological schools.  Voila, a whole new coalition of voters seduced and satisfied in one fell swoop.

The religious right would not only be reinvigorated against the Democrats, but Catholics, Protestants, and Isolationists could be galvanized as renewed supporters when promised their personal choice of new schools that fit their individual ideology through vouchers. Never mind that neither districts, states or the feds were willing to ante up the money to provide designer schools for all districts and flavors.

All the elements were in place– extra dollars could be allocated from the ESSA coffers for the vouchers. Some money had already been earmarked in ESSA, but more could be syphoned off. ALEC bills which re-apportioned state expenditures toward vouchers were already in place to be voted on in the 30 Republican states.

 There were a few problems, though. The attacks on public school teachers had reduced the number of  available trained teachers and the unions protecting teacher salaries had not yet been completely defeated.  Private schools and hybrid charters would have trouble meeting the quota of needed teachers and making the profit margin they would like with “accountability” requirements still in place for teacher qualifications.  They needed a less qualified and larger work force of classroom bodies, at least temporarily, to supply the new ”choice” schools with adult bodies at a low price-- even lower than the 17% discount public school teachers accepted on graduation when compared with their private sector counterparts. Hence the need to take out the teacher training accountability requirements.

Simultaneously, studies on both “solutions” began to come in with highly negative results. Neither Virtuals nor Vouchers improved learning. Quite the opposite, they lowered achievement.

Republicans (and their Democratic allies) are now suddenly under a gun.  They need to clear the way for reduced teacher qualifications and get vouchers and virtual schools approved for full use before the public realizes their agenda is the same old agenda just with new and even worse strategies to accomplish it.

Education is the one place localities are still pushing back against private commercialization of what should be an inalienable right rather than a luxury commodity. Can Global Corp Reformers use the cover of Trump chaos to close the deal on this last federal market before the public wakes up?

Alexander and the team he heads have a rush on, and a high stakes one.  Can he/they privatize your child’s school and put a less qualified, lower paid teacher in your child’s classroom before you figure out what they are doing? Can they make sure their changes can’t be reversed at mid-term elections or by angry parent campaigns leading into the elections?

They have a supply and demand problem, not just with the number of teachers. Most people don’t want a reduced quality of education for their children, with lower paid, less qualified teachers, but that’s what Alexander and the Reformers are selling,

The question  of timing remains though, can Alexander and his Reform allies get out of the frying pan with some chance to run out of the fire before November 2018?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are right?

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are right, at least about one thing.  Education is the Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century.

However, their statement has further reaching and deeper implications than either imagines.

When DeVos and Trump use the term Civil Rights, they are thinking of what our political system “allows” people of color to have.  That is Not What Civil Rights Are.

Civil Rights belong to everyone, including Blacks, Whites, Immigrants, and Indigenous People– All Peoples regardless of exceptionalisms. Civil Rights are those Inalienable rights Jefferson talked about- Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

At this moment in our history, the greed of Free Market Capitalism, in the form of Global Corporations, is trying to take All our Civil Rights away.  In their paradigm all assets are for private ownership, to be bought and sold for gain, with no room for inalienable rights to be commonly held.

Civil Rights are those necessities which are needed to survive as humans– such as access to clean water, air, food, control over our persons, and yes, education. They deal with assets that should belong to all, not just to corporations or the wealthy, and certainly not just to certain ethnic groups.

The current Drive to Privatize - Schools, Water (both above and below ground), Public Lands, Access to Healthcare, and assorted other public needs is a drive to take away all our Civil Rights.

This is not to diminish what privatizers have done already to communities of color around the nation.  The labeling of schools as failing based on invalid tests and narrowly defined data, the closing of schools and firing of Black teachers in exchange for charters, virtuals, and younger whiter, less well trained classroom presences, has had devastating effects on communities across the nation. From LA to Newark, from New Orleans to Detroit, from Florida to Philadelphia and Chicago: the damage has been savagely cruel and every bit a full denial of Civil Rights.

However, the rest of the country should not be fooled into believing that what DeVos and Trump plan is a return to a time when people of color were denied Civil Rights, but whites were not.  This iteration of Privatizing targets the schools of McDowell County West Virginia and North Carolina, Alaska, and Vermont for takeover just as much as those in the inner cities.

In 2014 “Rural Policy Matters” concluded: “But the charter/privatization dynamic is changing. For example, in North Carolina, a dramatic expansion of the state’s charter law is putting pressure on cohesive higher-performing rural communities, especially those in low-income counties.”

At this point in time, even districts once considered affluent suburbs are struggling with funding due to long term degeneration of funding from outside sources, the erosion of property values from the 2008 crash, and exemptions to local taxation given to attract large corporate businesses.  It is unfortunate that the federal government sought to bail out the banks, but never considered bailing out our communities' losses due to the housing crash. With the current precarious funding structures pushed on localities from the states’ lack of support, and unfunded mandates from the federal level, even once invulnerable districts are at risk.

Vouchers and Virtual Curriculum will be simply too attractive to cash strapped localities to resist, and the resulting bifurcation of rich and poor students from the siphoning off of even more dollars from local schools, and the inability of middle and working families to make up the difference between voucher grants and real tuition will be disastrous for our most stable districts, just as the last round of privatization was for communities of color. In the final analysis the Civil Rights of the solid middle class will go the way of our poorer communities, to lower learning rates and reduced life expectations.

So, yes, Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump have a point.  Their plans to gut the public schools of America through a massive transfer of assets to private ownership of what should be a commonly held Civil Right for all, is the issue of the 21st Century.