The real battle for the future of public education is about to begin in Raleigh.
The leading think tank on the anti-public education Right set the stage this week with an “exclusive interview” with chief school privatizer and voucher proponent Rep. Paul Stam who talked about the voucher bill he would be introducing in the House.
Stam’s plan would provide “equal opportunity scholarship grants” of roughly $4,000 to low-income and middle class students that they could use to help defray the tuition at private or religious or for-profit schools.
In other words, it is a $4,000 voucher—-though Stam doesn’t like that word. Two years ago he advised the audience in a private meeting organized by Americans for Prosperity not to use the term voucher because he said it doesn’t poll well. So instead it’s an opportunity scholarship.
Interestingly, the think tankers don’t seem too worried about the semantics. The headline of their breathless story calls Stam’s proposal an “expansive school voucher plan.”
Expansive indeed. Though it’s billed as helping hand for low-income families, the story says more than half the current public school students would qualify for the voucher in the first year under the income criteria and almost two-thirds of the students would qualify after that.
Stam’s plan would allocate $90 million—-or more correctly drain $90 million from public schools—-to fund 11,000 vouchers by the second year of the plan with half of them going to existing private school students.
And you can bet it is only the beginning. Stam told the right-wing think tank that had been trying to create a voucher program for 20 years and now has the Republican majority in place in the General Assembly to do it.
He also has a voucher-friendly majority of the State Board of Education. Stam and his legislative allies made sure of that, refusing in 2011 to obey the state constitution and consider the appointments that Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue submitted for their confirmation, instead holding the appointments for Governor Pat McCrory to make.
McCrory didn’t disappoint them. It appears that the double round of McCrory appointments that the legislature recently confirmed, along with far-right Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest who is also a member, gives the voucher crowd the control of the state board they have long sought.
Stam’s allies in the legislative leaders are also doing their part. House Speaker Thom Tillis held an unannounced pro-privatization cheerleading session in the House chamber this week where Christian school officials made their case to friendly legislators and supporters. The message was far different earlier this year when Tillis met with teachers and public school officials who spoke out strongly against vouchers and other privatization schemes.
Stam and the propaganda outfits often use words like opportunity and choice to describe their plan there’s a good reason for that.
They certainly can’t tell the truth about their intention to turn over the education of our children to the vagaries of the market, for profit and non profit. They don’t want to acknowledge that the goal is to drain resources from the already underfunded public schools and eventually shift them to private academies serving the upper class families who can afford them.
Stam all but admitted that two years ago in his remarks to the true believers after warning them not to use the v-word. He talked about legal services, saying that “there are government run law firms, legal aid, but that does not mean that everyone will do best by going to legal aid.”
Legal aid lawyers do amazing work, but they are paid far less and have far fewer resources at their disposal than attorneys in large, wealthy law firms. That’s Stam’s vision of the way education should work too.
There will eventually be one kind of education for families who don’t have much money, the public schools with far fewer resources than they need and a mandate to educate every child regardless of their academic level or disability. There will be another kind of selective schools for wealthy kids, well-funded schools with tuition well out of reach of most families, schools that can pick and choose who they educate, leaving the at-risk kids for somebody else to worry about.
Stam’s latest version of his privatization scheme comes at an especially troubling time. Thanks to budget cuts in recent years, North Carolina now ranks 48th in per pupil education funding and 46th in teacher pay.
Then there’s the overwhelming lack of evidence that students do better in private schools than public ones. They don’t. The voucher supporters often cherry pick data and promote flawed studies to claim that privatization helps students, but the truth is that at best there is no significant difference in student achievement, a few gains here, less progress there.
Stam’s right about one thing. Vouchers don’t poll well. That’s because people in North Carolina support public education and want it improved, not dismantled by diverting funding to private and unaccountable schools.
Chris Fitzsimon is the executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.