Saturday, January 27, 2007


Strange Bedfellows

Neal McClusky, writing on the Cato Institute blog takes exception to RSR's post criticizing the institute's recent report on public education: Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict. In the report, the libertarian think tank proposes solving the battle over teaching evolution by "letting parents choose schools that comport with their values."

According to Cato's report:
If public education were driven by free parental choice, it could escape the Balkanizing battles that plague our current system, because individual parents could choose schools that comport with their values, and there would be no need to fight over public schools for which all must pay, but only the most politically powerful can control.
What Cato and McClusky propose for public education is the same thing they propose for Social Security -- privatize it.

One of the great slights-of-hand in Cato's report -- and McClusky's response to our post -- is that when they talk about parental choice they can never quite bring themselves to say what they really mean: They support vouchers and charter schools.

As things stand now, parents have complete freedom of choice to send the children to any school they want. Although most choose public schools, some families send their kids to upscale prep schools. Some choose day schools while others elect boarding schools. For some, all-girl or all-boy schools are the key to good education. Yet others decide on Catholic schools, Christian academies, yeshivas, madrassas, or home school.

There's no law that prevents these parents from choosing from a wide menu of private school choices.

What's left unsaid, what Cato and other privatizers really want, is for the rest of us to pay for that choice.

McClusky writes that RSR's response to the report employs the "bogeyman gambit" -- the laughable notion that school choice will lead some parents to choose fringe schools. "Were such fringe groups truly the great threat Red State Rabble makes them out to be," writes McClusky, "then their schools would already swamp the nation."

That ludicrous leap in logic inadvertently reveals the quality of thinking that lies behind the entire report.

Unlike McClusky, RSR writes, not from some airy-fairy Washington think tank, but from Kansas. The threat isn't some distant event we read about now and then in the newspapers. We have some real life experience with fringe groups taking over the school board and other public institutions here. The threat from radical right fringe groups is no mere abstraction in Kansas.

These fringe groups agree completely with McClusky and Cato about the desirability of privatizing public education and, until last November, they had a majority on the state school board.

The former right-wing fundamentalist majority on the Kansas school board not only introduced creationist and intelligent design pseudoscience to the science curriculum, it aggressively pursued vouchers and charter schools.

Why? Because they want private schools that teach fringe science, but they don't want to pay tuition to send their kids to them. Make no mistake, once these "private" schools are eligible for public financing, they will spring up like mushrooms after a summer shower.

Cato and McClusky want to have it both ways. On the one hand they write that school choice is the solution to the culture war that's raging over the teaching of evolution. On the other they argue that using public money to let parents send their kids to private Christian academies that teach creation science will have no real impact on the schools.
Yet with very few exceptions, we hear little or nothing about a threat from private education. Which leaves two possibilities: either the malevolent hordes that Red State Rabble envisions going wild with school choice don’t actually exist, or they’re not so zealous that they’d be willing to part with private school tuition to indoctrinate their kids. Sure, we’re supposed to believe, they’re single-minded fanatics about their causes, but not so much that they’d sacrifice money for them!

Well, what Cato proposes is not that the parents who want to send their kids to private schools sacrifice money for them, but that the rest of us pay for those choices with our tax dollars.

And if McClusky hasn't heard about the problems of some private schools, he just hasn't been paying attention.

The University of California system, for example, is so concerned about substandard science education at some Christian fundamentalist schools that it rejects high school biology courses that use textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books as "inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community."

Other private schools -- even good ones -- reject special needs students because of the higher costs associated with educating these children.

Others have exclusive racial or religious admittance policies.

Many have uncertified teachers in the classroom.

And there's one thing you can be sure of. If tax dollars become available to private schools, they will spring up in rec rooms and storefronts all across the country.

If the Cato privatization proposal were to be adopted, the Iraq and New Orleans contracting scandals would pale in comparison. There would be a mad scramble for those tax dollars by unqualified and unscrupulous -- but politically connected suppliers. And campaign contributions by those same suppliers would ensure that there would be little or no government oversight.

Like the neocon's fantasy of liberating Iraq, the libertarian's dream of privatizing public education is another example of ideological blindness to reality.

Want proof?

Freedom loving libertarians, like McClusky, have a reputation as defenders of absolute personal freedom. Who are the strongest supporters of their "freedom of choice?" Why it's none other than the authoritarian fundamentalist right -- the very ones who think the country would be better run as an absolutist Christian theocracy.


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