The debates rage
Only a few months ago, two Jefferson Parish schoolteachers raged a spirited debate about charter schools with me. They were against them.
“They are destroying public education,” one said to me as they departed.
That comment – one I’ve heard repeatedly in the past few years as charter schools have proliferated in Orleans Parish – perplexed me because it contains a misleading assumption. It implies that charter schools aren’t public schools. They are public schools: They’re simply a new model of taxpayer-supported school, one that’s slowly transforming a famously failing public school system.
That conversation came to mind recently when Gov. Jindal signed into law radically new policies that really do have the potential of destroying public education – at least the old method of doing it.
These days, charter schools are a quaint addition to the public school landscape compared to this new age of reform. Fed up with the status quo, education reform has swung to an opposite extreme and some of the changes appear to be less about educational quality than about political ideology and religious beliefs.
Changes to teacher tenure policies may do more for improving schools than anyone could foresee. However, sending thousands of children to religious schools on taxpayer-funded vouchers reads like a conservative strategy to put “God back in schools,” as was the cry after forced school prayer was found to be unconstitutional.
The new policy allows low-income parents to take state money and enroll children in “private” schools. But the reality is “private” means “religious” the majority of the time, because upscale private schools are far too expensive – and sometimes exclusive – for low-income parents to manage. Only religious schools – Catholic schools – in the New Orleans area are affordable enough for a voucher to cover the cost of an education.
The argument for vouchers reminds me of the new creationism argument. When the religious conservative drive to teach creationism in schools couldn’t get passed, the general consensus that religious education belongs in church, not taxpayer-supported schools, advocates changed tactics and semantics.
Opponents say that using taxpayer money to educate students in religious schools is a violation of the separation of church and state doctrine. But as conservatives have gained influence in state legislatures, voucher programs have spread across the nation, despite the fact that there is little to no evidence that non-public schools provide a better education.
Taxpayers can only hope that non-public schools of all varieties will use their hard-earned money for strong academic instruction and not for other purposes. Since there will be little public oversight, the quality of such schools will have to be accepted on the basis of faith.