School vouchers: privatizing public education

privatization-schoolsThe Providence Journal reported yesterday on a school voucher bill introduced in the House by Representatives Elaine Coderre and Arthur Corvese. If passed, it would have far reaching and potentially devastating effects on Rhode Island’s public education system. Bill 6131, the “Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act” would make about 68% of Rhode Island schoolchildren eligible to receive a voucher, that is, money from the state, to attend a private or parochial school. Unlike voucher systems in most states, the proposed bill would cover Rhode Island families on a sliding scale, with the poorest receiving the most money and those families making up $130,000 a year entitled to 15% of tuition costs.

The Rhode Island Catholic had more information on the bill, and the group sponsoring the legislation. In “Parent group seeks school choice legislation” we learn that James Shiel President of the Rhode Island Catholic Schools Parent Federation was “…pushing for someone in the House and Senate to introduce legislation to create a voucher program.” The Federation “sponsored a legislative reception for members of the General Assembly at the Statehouse.”

The keynote speaker at this reception was Leslie Davis Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations for the Indiana-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a libertarian voucher system advocacy group with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Milton Friedman made no secret of his desire to privatize the entire United States educational system. Friedman and his followers see vouchers as the first step towards this privatization, with the ultimate intention of destroying the United States public educational system. Said Friedman:

I believe that the only way to make a major improvement in our educational system is through privatization to the point at which a substantial fraction of all educational services is rendered to individuals by private enterprises. Nothing else will destroy or even greatly weaken the power of the current educational establishment–a necessary pre-condition for radical improvement in our educational system.

So when Justin Katz of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity was quoted in the ProJo saying, “The objective is to make sure that all Rhode Island students can access the education they need. The way you ensure that is by increasing the total resources available to education,” what he actually means is that he wishes to see our public education system economically weakened through the use of vouchers, to be eventually replaced by an entirely privatized system. Katz doesn’t want what’s best for education in Rhode Island, he wants what is best for his neo-conservative economic agenda.

The Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation website frames the issue as “educational liberty,” a turn of phrase that those involved in marriage equality and reproductive rights should recognize. The Parent Federation says, “Educational liberty is every parent’s and guardian’s freedom to choose the learning community, educational philosophy and curriculum for their child’s full development from among qualified government-run, private and religious schools.”

Just as the Catholic Church and the religious right attempted to frame its opposition to marriage equality and reproductive rights as an appeal to “religious liberty” i.e., the right to discriminate based on religion, so does the term “educational liberty” attempt to reframe opposition to a state funded, secular educational system as educational advocacy. In truth, voucher supporters in Rhode Island are an alliance of conservative religious activists opposed to secular education and free market libertarian ideologues intent on downsizing government at any cost.

The education of our state’s 143,000 public school students is not really their priority.

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Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

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"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

"There comes a time when neutrality and laying low become dishonorable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame." - David Brooks

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