Thursday, September 24, 2020

Proposal puts kids last and attacks public education

The spin doctors at Kids First! Yes!, the political machine behind Proposal 1, have been working hard to ensure that Michigan voters don’t see Proposal 1 for what it really is - an all out assault on public education.

If passed, Proposal 1 will amend the Michigan Constitution to allow students to use public money for private school tuition. The text of the proposal and the public relations campaign waged on its behalf are prime examples of the type of deception that has come to be the standard in American ballot politics.

Increasingly, special interest groups are using organizations, such as Kids First! Yes!, to heighten the grass roots appeal of their heavily funded agendas. The fact that Proposal 1 is essentially about providing students with vouchers to be redeemed at private schools is explicitly missing from the publicity campaign being run by Kids First! Yes!.

Look closely at the official wording of Proposal 1 and you will find that private schools are conveniently relabeled “nonpublic” schools. Pause for a second and ask yourself the following question: When was the last time you heard someone say that they were attending a nonpublic school? What the pro-voucher lobby wants to avoid is a serious discussion of the problems that face Michigan’s public schools.

The essential ingredients of successful schools - small class sizes, teacher-parent cooperation and a commitment to leave no child behind - are in no way addressed by Proposal 1. The current shortage of qualified teachers is also ignored.

Proponents of school vouchers have repeatedly brushed off criticism from teachers groups by accusing educators of being more interested in protecting their supposedly cushy jobs than they are in improving Michigan’s public schools.

Instead of working with teachers to address the real issues of public education, Kids First! Yes! has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow a limited number of voters to force a public school district to share its scarce financial resources with private organizations. In such an environment, the number of new private schools competing for students will drastically increase.

Supporters of school vouchers think that this influx of new schools will improve the overall quality of K-12 education. The idea behind this particularly risky social experiment is that bad schools will eventually be bankrupt and that good schools will fill the void. Exactly how we will gauge the success of the various types of educational institutions that will spring to life in a competitive system is unclear.

There are distinct differences between public and private schools. Public schools must admit every resident child. They must hold their school board meetings in public. They must have a school lunch program that complies with mandated nutritional guidelines. They must have a written sexual harassment policy. Most importantly, all public school records must be available to the community under the regulations of the Freedom of Information Act.

Supporters of school vouchers don’t consider the differences between public and private schools to be a problem. They tend to view Proposal 1 as the next stage of the charter system.

Firstly, charter schools are created to address the specific needs of students. The number of charters granted by Michigan is limited to a predetermined number of schools.

Secondly, state and local governments already are finding out that under the current system, it can be very difficult to get accurate information from private academies.

Nevertheless, there isn’t a single line in Proposal 1 that deals with the issue of regulating an increasingly privatized system of education. Moreover, advocates don’t seem to understand that the quality of education isn’t the only factor that some people will consider when they decide where to send their kids. Many of the same people who would have no problem with public funds going to Lansing Catholic Central, would start to feel a little queasy if the same public funds helped to start a school run by extreme fundamentalists.

If the Texas public school system was operating under the provisions of Proposal 1 in 1993, David Koresh could have used public funds to start a Branch Dividian academy. Is this the type of system we want to impose on the children of Michigan? It’s certainly not the kind of stuff you’ll see in a Kids First! Yes! commercial - then again, few aspects of the campaign being waged on behalf of Proposal 1 are grounded in reality and it might be a little late in the game for Kids First! Yes! to abandon its wolf in sheep’s clothing strategy.

At any rate, the folks at Kids First! Yes! better get to work. They have to convince us that our education system is so flawed that it must be completely scrapped. Their task won’t be easy. A recent study commissioned by the state Department of Education found that the percentage of Michigan’s eighth-graders who scored at the highest two levels in mathematics increased by 47 percent between 1992 and 1996.

Also, many of the seven school districts that Proposal 1 has slated to immediately implement school vouchers already provide their students with a substantial amount of choice through Michigan’s charter school program. Simply put, Proposal 1 is a solution looking for a problem. Michigan’s children don’t need school vouchers; they need a renewed commitment to the system of education that already exists.

People who really want to put kids first will vote no on Proposal 1.

Greg Shaw, a State News undergraduate columnist, can be reached at shawgreg@msu.edu

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