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Parents Need a Private School Option When Public Schools Fail

As the need for vouchers increases, the politics of school privatization gets interestinger and interestinger.

“Some NYC teachers: ‘Don’t send your kids here!’” screamed the headline in a New York Post article last week. The damning story goes on to explain how over 80 percent of the teachers in eight public schools – including charters – said they would “never recommend those schools to children.”

At two of the schools — Foundation Academy HS in Brooklyn and recently-closed Monroe Academy for Business and Law in The Bronx — 100 percent of teachers who answered the survey said they’d tell parents to pull their kids.

“The school was a mess,” said Lourdes Lebron, a former PTA president at Foundation. “The environment was horrible. There were fights. The school didn’t even have a yearbook. What memories are the students going to have about the school? These kids got nothing.”

There were several reasons given for these intolerable situations. Some blamed the administrators of the schools, while others blamed the city. A few administrators claimed that disgruntled teachers, having been let go, were just being spiteful.

Whatever.

The question becomes, “What are the parents of the kids attending those schools supposed to do now?” Given that some of the schools are charters – usually a better alternative than local traditional schools – and given that New York has no private school choice program, it seems that these families will have no option but to shell out money for a private school … if they can afford one.

This story reminded me of others dating back to the 1990s.

In 1993, columnist George Will was on “This Week With David Brinkley” and asserted that “50 percent of urban area public school teachers with school-age children send their children to private schools. What do they know that we ought to know?” National Education Association president Keith Geiger, also on the show, attempted to trump Will with a lame gotcha, “It’s actually 40 percent.” Geiger clearly gotcha’d himself.

More than a decade later, nothing much had changed. A study by the Fordham Institute in 2004 found that in big cities many teachers send their own kids to private schools.

In Philadelphia, 44 percent of the teachers put their children in private schools.

Cincinnati – 41 percent

Chicago – 39 percent

Rochester, N.Y. – 38 percent

San Francisco-Oakland area – 34 percent

New York City – 33 percent.

Well, it sure is nice that so many urban public school teachers choose not to send their children to those icky public schools. But what about the parents of kids who can’t afford to do that? What are they supposed to do? According to many teachers and the unions they belong to, well, suck it up.

But there is a solution and it’s called a voucher or opportunity scholarship, which enables a child to use public funds to attend a private school. And no one knows their advantages better than African-Americans and Hispanics.

In fact, the country’s first voucher law came into being in 1989 via a joint effort of the recently deceased Polly Williams, a black Democratic Milwaukee state assemblywoman, and Tommy Thompson, the white Republican governor of Wisconsin.

A 1999 survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group, found that 68 percent of blacks favor vouchers. In 2007, an Education Next poll showed that 68 percent of African-Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics favor the private school option.

A 2014 survey by the Friedman Foundation showed that blacks and Latinos are the groups most likely to favor vouchers.

When you look at the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, it’s hardly surprising that so many minorities see vouchers as their ticket to a better life. The program has averaged a 93 percent graduation rate, with 90 percent of those graduates enrolling in college, and a 92 percent parent satisfaction rate since 2010. (The grad rate in D.C. traditional public schools is supposedly 64 percent, but even that dismal number is questionable.)

While there are 39 private choice programs in 18 states and D.C. that help those in need, there aren’t nearly enough to match the demand. And the issue has some very interesting political ramifications. While a majority of Republicans have long favored this kind of school choice, Democrats have fought fiercely against it, having aligned with the adamantly anti-choice teachers unions. But things are changing; over the past several years, more and more courageous Dems have been bucking the establishment and fighting passionately for school choice. In addition to the aforementioned Williams and her partner in crime, the great Howard Fuller, long time Democrat strategist Joe Trippi, former California state senator Gloria Romero (who now runs the Foundation for Parent Empowerment) and hedge-fund manager and self-described “pragmatic, realist liberal” Whitney Tilson have become apostates. And many more are now lining up for the cause.

Included in the “breakaway Dems” category is Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. councilman who has been deeply involved in a myriad of education reform groups for years. After the Nov. 4th election, he wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he acknowledged that the results exposed a schism within the Democratic Party.

Hidden in the news coverage of the midterm elections looms a bigger problem for my fellow Democrats than just a bad night at the polls: the voters’ wholesale rejection of the party’s most powerful backers: teachers’ unions. Led by the NEA and AFT, the national teachers’ unions boasted of spending $80 million in this election to defeat candidates who support vouchers, teacher accountability and other promising education reforms. They lost. And they lost big.

The aftermath offers a lesson to the Democratic Party — and Hillary Clinton — as they prepare for 2016.

What a great irony it would be in 2016 if the Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of a major civil rights issue. (Emphasis added.)

The teacher’s unions know they are on the losing side of this fight, even if they desperately hope that national Democrats aren’t paying attention. For months Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been a fixture on TV screens vowing to stop candidates challenging the status quo education establishment. After the election, she canceled a scheduled press call. There was little good news to report.

The normally demure Condoleezza Rice took it one step further. On a radio show last week, she bluntly stated,

Poor black kids trapped in failing neighborhoods schools, that’s the biggest race problem of today. That’s the biggest civil rights issue of today. Anybody who isn’t in favor of school choice, anybody who isn’t in favor of educational reform, anybody who defends the status quo in the educational system, that’s racist to me.

Neither teacher union leaders nor traditional Dems have weighed in on Chavous’ op-ed or Rice’s statement, but I think it’s clear that the division in the Democratic Party is growing into a gaping chasm. School choice has become a powerful wedge issue and has brought with it a great irony, as alluded to by Kevin Chavous. There are still many who consider themselves “progressive” who want to keep an outdated and sclerotic zip-code-mandated public education system in place. And it’s the stodgy old conservatives who want to – if not blow up – radically alter and improve the dreadful status quo for millions of kids that the progressives claim to care about.

As an optimist, I believe that at some point, enough Dems will tell their union buds to kiss off and embrace vouchers. When that happens, a tipping point will be reached and there will be no turning back. That will be a great day for the most vulnerable children of America, who will be liberated from the wretched public schools that teachers refuse to send their own kids to.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Milwaukee: Happy Days, Schlitz, Harley-Davidson … and School Choice

Schlitz may be the beer that made Milwaukee famous, but recently the spotlight has been shining on the city’s school choice efforts.

Back in 1990, the Pleistocene Era of education reform, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program became the nation’s first publicly funded school choice program for low-income children. Born of an interesting political marriage – Democratic state legislator Polly Williams and Republican Governor Tommy Thompson – the program started as a way to address the city’s troubled education system.

Now of course, when one refers to vouchers, school choice, opportunity scholarships or whatever name you want to give public-monies-going-to-educate-children-at-anything-but-a-government-run-school, all the usual suspects descend from the woodwork and trot out all the alleged horrors of school choice. The teachers unions most notably hate choice because some parents will actually choose to send their kids to a non-unionized school. The National Education Association never misses an opportunity to make ridiculous statements – which have little or no basis in fact – about the issue. For example, on its website it has “Five Talking Points on Vouchers,” all of which I debunked in a January post. Elsewhere on its website, the union makes what it claims is an educational case against vouchers:

See what research says about the relationship between vouchers and student achievement… Americans want consistent standards for students. Where vouchers are in place — Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida — a two-tiered system has been set up that holds students in public and private schools to different standards.

So the union wants us to look at facts? Researchers Patrick Wolf and John Witte do just that. Earlier this year, they wrote about students participating in Milwaukee’s voucher program stating that they

graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

In 2009, referring to researcher John Warren, Education Next’s Paul Peterson wrote that an estimated

82 percent of 9th grade students in voucher schools graduated from high school, while just 70 percent of 9th graders in the Milwaukee Public Schools did.

Both systems have seen a marked increase in high school graduation rates since 2005. For the Milwaukee Public Schools, the rate has moved steadily upward from 54% in 2005 to 57% the next year, then to 60%, then up, again,  to 65%, and, finally. to 70% in 2009, a healthy trend that that should be applauded.

So not only do vouchers help those who use them, but they also seem to positively affect those students who stay in their traditional public schools.

One private school that primarily serves low-income students through Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program boasts a 100 percent college acceptance record.

Dante Hamilton will be one of 37 seniors graduating in June from HOPE Christian High School…

In most schools, a percentage of the graduates would be heading off to college, while many would have a different destination.

But Hamilton and all 36 of his classmates have been accepted to college. It’s the second year in a row that one hundred percent of HOPE Christian seniors gained college admission.

Many of the graduates will be the first in their families to graduate from high school and attend college.

When all else fails, NEA points to the bogus “fiscal burden” of vouchers, charging that they increase costs “by requiring taxpayers to fund two school systems, one public and one private.”

Again, wrong.

In Milwaukee, vouchers are saving the taxpayers money.

The per-pupil taxpayer cost of independent charters and the MPCP is substantially less than that of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). In 2011-12, MPS per pupil taxpayer cost was $13,269, which is made up of state, local, and federal aid compared to $7,775 for independent charters and a maximum of $6,442 combined state and local aid for MPCP. The MPS per pupil taxpayer cost is calculated using information from the MPS budget. The MPCP per pupil funding is from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau Informational Paper on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Never knowing when to quit, NEA recently posted an article about Barbara Miner, who just wrote a book about Milwaukee called Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City. Miner, who is mordantly attached to the status quo and quite enthusiastic about it, is associated with Rethinking Schools, an organization that believes real education reform will be led by the teachers unions. (No, this is not an early April Fool’s joke.) In 2011, this “social justice” outfit held a conference where its keynote speaker was unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers. (Here we see a photo of chums, Ayers and Miner, at the event.) NEA ends the article with a direct quote from Miner, who leaves no doubt about her values as she unloads on Wisconsin’s pro-choice governor Scott Walker.

We survived Joe McCarthy. We will survive Scott Walker.

Apparently, in Miner’s eyes, Walker is an evil demagogue because he championed the move to get the government out of the union-dues-collection business, and has the audacity to care more about kids and taxpayers than ensuring that big bucks flow to union coffers.

But despite Miner, Ayers, NEA et al, MPCP is prospering and the future for school choice in Milwaukee and the rest of the Badger State is bright. Two years ago, Marquette professor Alan Borsuk wrote “Milwaukee could become first American city to use universal vouchers for education.”

Prescient? Perhaps.

According to the results of a Marquette University poll, released on March 19th,

…51 percent of Wisconsin voters support a major expansion of the state’s private school choice program.

The Marquette poll reported that 37 percent of Wisconsin voters would support a statewide expansion of the program while another 14 percent would support its expansion to large school districts with some failing schools. In contrast, 14 percent of voters say they favor not expanding the program, while 28 percent would end it.

On, Wisconsin!

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.