BY DAVID PERRYMAN
My parents taught me at an early age that two wrongs don’t make a right. Neither do three or four or five. I’m not one to believe in black helicopters and conspiracy theories, but the evidence that there is a plan to torch public education has been piling up for several years.
In 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program [MPCP] was the nation’s first voucher program allowing tax dollars to be used to subsidize secular private schools and later to include religious schools.
Twenty-six years later, there should be a plethora of data to settle the question of whether vouchers improve student educational outcomes. However, for the first 21 years of the program, the private schools were not required to publicly report things like student achievement or graduation rates.
Now that private schools are reporting, a February 2013 research brief prepared by the Public Policy Forum showed that the 24,941 Milwaukee students attending taxpayer subsidized private schools had much in common with the 79,130 Milwaukee students attending public schools, including student performance.
There had been no improvement in educational outcomes and even though private school students in Milwaukee are whiter and wealthier than public school students, the public school students are actually performing slightly better than their private school counterparts.
Despite failing to meet goals, Milwaukee’s voucher program had as of 2014, according to Margie Pitroff’s Milwaukee Public Radio report, taken $1.7 billion from Milwaukee’s Public Schools with $150 million more being diverted each year.
As a result, while the city’s parochial schools were rescued financially, there was not sufficient money in the public schools to meet the growing need for special education programs. Art, music and physical education programs were cut and teacher mentoring was scaled back.
The only other boon delivered by vouchers was the millions of dollars in research grants given to college professors and graduate assistants to “study the issue.”
Despite the inability of voucher programs to improve educational outcomes, groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC] continue their efforts to direct money and resources away from public schools.
To justify these diversions, they vilify public education and public educators. Remember in the mid-1990’s when Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating referred to teachers as “slugs” and “finger painters” and in 2000 when he said “homicide” was the manner in which to handle the state teacher’s union? The governor later apologized for the 2000 remark, but not the name-calling.
ALEC knows that to weaken public schools, it must weaken the teachers who make public schools the most efficient means of educating all of Oklahoma’s children.
Despite the demoralizing attacks, teachers continue to sacrifice for the benefit of children. As voucher proponents intensified their attempts to undermine public education, the more determined public school teachers were to have their students succeed.
ALEC’s agenda is now clear. Last year HB 1749 was introduced and signed into law to weaken the professional organizations that protect public school teachers.
Also last year ALEC members introduced HB 1696 and SB 782 to allow the State Department of Education to place charter schools in any school district statewide, even over the objection of the locally elected school board. SB 782 became law.
This year ALEC’s HB 3156 and SB 1187 are poised to deregulate public education. SB 1187 allows teachers to be hired at rates below the minimum salary schedule and without paying retirement and health insurance, without collective bargaining and without certification requirements. This passed the state Senate last week.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s finance director, Preston Doerflinger, said last week that even though the two ALEC voucher bills, SB 609 and HB 2949, were not heard on the floor, the issue is “not over.”
The coup de grâce is the proposed State Department of Education rule that allows it to consolidate/annex school districts that are financially unable to finish a school year. That’s a no-brainer when ALEC legislators hold the purse strings.
The final chapter is when a local school board must choose between finishing the school year or eliminating teacher’s health insurance. Knowing teachers like I do, many good-hearted, altruistic [and underpaid] teachers will sacrifice even further, for the sake of the kids.
It is shameless that Oklahomans would allow that. Six wrongs don’t make a right.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, serves District 56 in the Oklahoma House