The Gilbraith-Reed Career and Technology Center in Garland, Texas is really something to see. It’s a high school, but the moment you step on campus you could easily mistake it for a community college. The students are all either in class or sitting in common areas, reading, typing away on computers or talking quietly on cell phones. Classes take place in either labs with the latest technology at teachers’ disposal or in replica store fronts like you would expect to see in an upscale mall. Students can learn anything from management to bookkeeping to retails sales to customer service in these beautifully maintained work spaces. There also classrooms and wings that focus on fashion design, culinary arts, veterinary medicine, dentistry, auto mechanics…it’s quite a testament to what privatized education could look like.
Unfortunately, this polished, well-funded paragon of corporate participation in public education is far from the norm in Garland, much less the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex. A mere 20-minute drive can land you in an overcrowded, underfunded high school where students are often housed in outhouse-style “temporary” buildings where there may or may not be functional air conditioning, the internet signal is spotty and the idea of social distancing is ludicrous.
The solution might seem simple to outsiders. A school voucher system, as espoused by many Republicans and especially current US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, looks like a great alternative. Through this program parents can simply take a voucher for the amount of money their child represents to their assigned school and take it to the school of their choice. The money comes out of the budget for the home school and into the budget for the school of choice. It’s kind of like market capitalism. If one school doesn’t keep their program and facilities up to a high standard, they can lose funding. Talk about incentive!
There’s a problem, of course.
Let’s do a thought experiment. The vast majority of poor schools aren’t run down because they are run poorly; they’re poor because they are located in decaying communities or near apartments with high Section 8 concentration. Many poor kids don’t have much support at home, so they arrive at school unprepared to learn. They are often hungry, lack clean clothes and basic hygienic care, and a high number are left alone for many hours to fend for themselves while their one parent/grandparent/aunt/guardian works multiple jobs to try and provide a minimal existence. Those poor guardians may not even have a car, much less the wherewithal to transport children to some school across town.
I know. I have worked and volunteered in many poor schools.
There aren’t many guardians in the above situation who can simply choose to drive their children to another school across town, but the few who can absolutely will. Those who remain behind are left with a school that is even worse off in terms of funding, and I can promise you they will also have fewer great teachers because the great teachers, too, will often choose to follow the money. They won’t do it for the money only, they will do it because when students fail the teachers are blamed, and poor kids walking into an underfunded school are going to fail despite even Herculean efforts from the teaching staff.
School vouchers would only make poor schools poorer and exacerbate the phenomenon of socioeconomic flight (often mislabeled “white flight”) as parents seek to flee decaying and dangerous neighborhoods. It’s a self-perpetuating downward spiral into a dystopian disaster.
But hey, I’m an open-minded guy. I’m open to new ideas. I am adamantly against school vouchers, for the reasons detailed above, but the people who support vouchers are generally targeting the privatization of education. There’s a bunch of money to be made, and where there is money to be made there are corporations paying big bucks to political leaders to try and make it. I wouldn’t mind seeing some pilot programs for privatized education, but let’s test it in the areas most desperately in need of new ideas and more funding. Let’s test it in the poorest areas first!
Let’s start in Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where the situation is about as desperate as a situation can be within the United States. Select the five poorest, lowest performing schools in Detroit and turn them over to DeVos’ corporate pals. Give them five years and let’s see where they are. A few stipulations have to be made, of course, such as they can’t bus any of the kids away from their home schools. I saw that play out at a school in Texas. The district moved all the problem kids (which was about 70% of the students) to another school and introduced a program that provided three meals a day, mandatory after school study halls and extended the school day by 2 hours. One year later they boasted dramatic improvements, and while that’s all well and good I wonder what the improvements would have looked like with that other 70% still on campus.
After all, THEY NEEDED THE HELP MORE. (I don’t have to tell you what happened to the school that received those problems kids, do I?)
If some corporation can take over a poor school, keep all of the same students on campus, and turn it around in five years, count me in!
Until then, however, I will maintain that the only way you could make public education worse than it is with federal, state and local governments running them, is by turning them over to the corporate sector. We need to vote and vote responsibly. Vote for people who understand the plight of teachers and students, who understand that funding is the first issue, but not the last. They must understand that standardized testing is biased by nature and a complete waste of time. They need to see that many students have a greater need to understand what predatory lending is and how to balance their virtual bank account than to sit through Calculus. They’ve got to stop talking about teaching Creationism in SCIENCE class.
Vote for people who have been teachers! There’s a winning strategy for education!
School vouchers and the privatization of education sounds nice when you have never set foot in a poor school or poor neighborhood. If you have any experience in public education whatsoever, it sounds like throwing gasoline on a raging fire.