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Vouchers Are a Solution in Search of a Problem

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 3/22/2017

On March 5, 2017, Superintendent John Kuhn spoke at ATPE at the Capitol, our popular lobby day and political action training event. Here is what he had to say:

I have three older sisters who are all teachers. When I became a teacher too in 1997, the first advice they gave me was, “You need go join ATPE.” And they never spent a year teaching without the legal protection and other benefits of ATPE. So I’m really happy to be able to be here and be a part.

Before I left this morning, I told my wife I was nervous. I’m going to speak to this huge crowd of accomplished educators from all over the state. She gave me some advice. She said, “Don’t try to be funny or smart or charming. Just be yourself.”

So there are a number of vital issues facing professional educators in the 85th Legislature, and your engagement is going to be so important. They are wanting to prohibit organizations like ATPE from having your dues payroll deducted. Why would they want to do that? Political reasons only. The members of our legislature want to make it harder for teacher associations to unite teachers as a political block that might oppose their agenda. Whether this bill passes or not, you need to respond by recruiting every teacher you know to join an association and every retired teacher you know to join an association. Your freedom to associate and engage politically is under direct threat and this isn’t a one-time deal. You have to see this bill for what it is: they are telegraphing their intentions. They are like that gremlins on the wing of the plane in the old Twilight Zone movie, ripping the wires out of the engine. They want to silence teacher voice in the political arena until there’s no one left to defend the public education system from the privatization schemes that have gripped the nation.

The sense of urgency must increase, and increase quickly, if you and I are to save public schools in the state of Texas. And not just in Texas, but in this nation. The great American experiment of free public schools, open to all children and overseen by locally elected citizens—this bold vision is being challenged by an army of wealthy and interested parties who are dead set on dismantling the public education system and trading it for a voucher system.

But before we get to vouchers, I want to note that there are other challenges facing us this session. The Texas Supreme Court called our school funding system Byzantine and called on the legislature to fix it. Just yesterday, two former state commissioners said at a symposium that the state is badly underfunding education and that it is negatively impacting student learning. On testing, STAAR was a rolling disaster last year, we still give more tests than the federal law requires, and we still ship millions of tax dollars to ETS and Pearson. And we have an A-F system that by design passes out WAY more Fs than As. And the odds of your school getting a bad grade goes up dramatically as the average income of your residents goes down. As I’ve heard superintendent friends say, “the A stands for Affluent; the F stands for Free Lunches.”

But it all really comes down to vouchers. This has been the end-game the whole time. Going back through the decades from TABS to TEAMS to TAAS to TAKS to STAAR, it was never about assessing student learning. It was always about smearing teachers and manufacturing a crisis. Vouchers were always a solution in search of a problem, and the test-and-punish industrial complex arose to create that problem. In reality, testing has always shown us the same thing, always. Well-off and middle-class American public school students academically outperform kids from private schools and kids from other nations, when matched socioeconomically. And poor American kids outperform poor kids in those other countries and in private schools, when matched socioeconomically. It is only when you lump all the kids together—because we have so many more poor kids testing than the systems they compare us to—that American public school results look bad. It is a trick. We don’t have an educational problem. We have a social inequality problem that politicians and privatizers dress up as an educational problem. And this statistical sleight of hand, this deliberate misdirection has one goal: to justify the need for vouchers and the dismantling of public education as a state responsibility.

The voucher movement is about money and adult interests. It isn’t about children. It’s not even mostly about parents who want a discount on their private school tuition; it’s mostly about the interests of other adults, very wealthy adults. It’s about the interests of tycoons and political players who are funding school voucher campaigns across our state and nation, not because they want to improve schools but because they want to engineer a cheaper education so their property taxes will go down. They want to hobble teachers’ unions and reduce wages and benefits. And on top of cheapening a system that already has one of the lowest levels of per-pupil spending in the nation, Texas privatizers also want to make money on the back end, they want a piece of the education pie, which billionaire school choice advocate Rupert Murdoch said was a $500 billion dollar industry just waiting to be “transformed.” He meant to say “hijacked.”

They don’t really want a piece of the education pie. They want the whole thing. They want to convert a public good into a private enterprise. They want to take this public education system that was created by wiser and more selfless people long ago as a public trust, that belongs to the people—controlled by voters engaged in the Democratic process, free to attend, and open to all children—this is the vision of public education as we know it, and this is what is facing an existential threat.

Texas voters and Texas lawmakers have rejected vouchers over and over again. But the voucher lobby cynically repackages the idea under new and confusing names. Let’s call vouchers “opportunity scholarships.” The voters figured that out, time to change the name. Let’s call them “education savings accounts.” Let’s call them “school choice.” Let’s rebrand them over and over until everyone is thoroughly confused and doesn’t realize they’re voting for vouchers. The Dallas Morning News had a better term for vouchers in a recent headline: “Private School Vouchers are the Fool’s Gold of Better Education.”

Fool’s gold. Pyrite. A worthless material that is just shiny enough to trick the uninformed into believing that it has value. That’s exactly what vouchers are, even if you call them something else. And why would you call them something else? Why would voucher advocates feel the need to trick people by rebranding their pet policy?

Maybe it’s because vouchers are a terrible idea. Maybe they change the name because the research is in, and it’s clear: vouchers just don’t work. In fact, research shows unequivocally that vouchers don’t just fail to make student achievement better; they actually make student achievement demonstrably worse. Vouchers aren’t the civil rights movement of our time; they’re the civil wrongs movement of our time, hurting the children they pretend to help. Three different research studies published recently have found that voucher programs harm student learning—including one study sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation and the Fordham Institute, both proponents of vouchers. Students who use vouchers underperform their matched peers who stay in public schools.

You heard me right. I’m not just saying that vouchers don’t help very much. I’m saying voucher programs result in students learning less than if the voucher programs didn’t exist. Giving a student a voucher to improve his education is like giving a struggling swimmer a boulder to help him swim. The Walton Foundation study said, “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” A study of the voucher program in Louisiana found very negative results in both reading and math. Kids who started the voucher program at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Vouchers are so harmful to children that a Harvard professor called their negative effect “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature.”

Vouchers should come with a surgeon general’s warning like cigarettes. The third study was of a voucher program involving over 10,000 students in Indiana—where our vice president was governor—and it found this: “In mathematics, voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement” and show no improvement in reading. Vouchers are not only not helpful—they’re harmful. And they are not only harmful—they are more harmful than any other educational initiative Harvard researchers have ever seen. They are the educational equivalent of smoking cigarettes to treat lung disease. And the voucher lobby treats research exactly like the tobacco lobby does, by paying think tanks to generate copious amounts of pseudo-science and internet content to try and generate support for the harmful ideology behind their business venture.

In the face of this data showing indisputably that vouchers make things worse for struggling students, why then are vouchers still the big focus this session from so many Texas and Washington political insiders? It’s simple really, and sad. It’s because the voucher push isn’t about student performance at all. That isn’t what this is about. It’s about money in the pockets of adults. Vouchers are not, never were, and never will be about kids.

That’s why they get upset when anyone challenges them. Did you see the recent video of the state senator berating a roomful of teenagers who had had the audacity to suggest that voucher schools should be held accountable for their finances and their academics in the same way that public schools are? He told the students they were selfish for standing up to bad policy.

By the way, accountability is the Achilles heel of voucher proponents. They can’t explain why private schools receiving voucher funds shouldn’t be held accountable for financial integrity through audits or be accountable for student performance through an A-F system.

A voucher is a voucher is a voucher. These aren’t scholarships or grants. They’re taxpayer dollars that are preemptively captured and rerouted before they can get into the state treasury to support schools, to pay for private school tuition. Or to pay for homeschooling expenses.

That’s what scares me the most. Everyone who teaches knows that there are two kinds of homeschooling families. There are the ones who really homeschool, and they’re great. They teach their kids actual curricula, and those kids do great and learn a lot. And then there are the other families, the ones who have discovered the homeschooling law in Texas to be a giant loophole, a get-out-of-school-free card. My guess is half the homeschooling students in Texas are really just dropouts, but their parents figured out they could sign a letter claiming to homeschool and they wouldn’t get dragged to truancy court. Fake homeschooling is an epidemic that our legislators are aware of, but they won’t talk about it, and now they’re getting ready to subsidize it. My guess is that 75 percent of Texas kids who withdraw to homeschool for the first time when they are in high school are really just dropouts. These are the kids who don’t like the dress code or who got in trouble for nonattendance and who wear down their parents until they withdraw them to quote-unquote homeschool. These are kids who wander the streets during the day with nothing to do, nowhere to go, they can’t get a job, they just know they don’t want to go to school and get in trouble for not doing their work or not following the rules. So there is already an incentive for fake homeschooling among many struggling families, and now Texas senators want to give you a $5,000 check if you will homeschool your child? This is a very bad idea if you care about the future of our state.

The public education trust is an investment in the children of the state—ALL the children—an investment that was demanded in both the Texas Declaration of Independence and the state Constitution. That trust built a system that was here before any of us, that has served our state by educating the vast majority of us for many generations—and that trust fund is the target of these voucher schemes. It is shameless and it will do real harm to real children and degrade the future of our state by compromising the quality of education Texas kids receive.

In the days of Santa Anna, Texas settlers were confronted with a corrupt leader firmly in the pocket of a plutocracy that refused to pay taxes to support schools for the rabble. This led our forebears to rebel, and to list prominently among their grievances in the Texas Declaration of Independence these important words: the government “has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources, (the public domain,) and although it is an axiom in political science, that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self-government.”

So I ask what is worse? A government in 1836 so blind to the needs of its citizens that it failed to create a system of public education, or a government in 2017 so deeply held hostage by cronyism and corruption that it is actively, session after session, year after year, trying to dismantle a system of public education that has already been created, a system that was built by the treasure and efforts of many selfless generations of Texas taxpayers and teachers, a system that has expanded since 1836 to cover every square inch of the state, to educate every Texas child who wants to be educated, for free, children of every race and color and creed, regardless of ability or disability, regardless of which side of the tracks they were born on, regardless of their home language or any other personal characteristic. Public schools are for the children. Vouchers are for cronies and conmen. When rich elites refuse to invest in the education of the children of the poor, they sow seeds of disenchantment that eventually unravel the social fabric. They don’t realize what a dangerous game they play.

The public education movement was and is and will always be about the interests of poor and middle class children and families who see education as their path to a more prosperous future. The voucher movement is about funneling tax dollars to schools that have the right to exclude kids that don’t fit their mold. Voucher schools will have academic entry requirements to keep out the riff raff. Voucher schools will have behavior contracts to keep out the riff raff. Voucher schools will have parent volunteering requirements to keep out the riff raff. The voucher schools will have fees for extracurricular activities, fees for books, fees for uniforms, fees to keep out the riff raff.

But they aren’t riff raff. They’re children, and they are all welcome in our public schools.

The voucher movement rests on a foundational lie that the free market will sort good schools from bad when parents choose. But this is smoke and mirrors, because they have no intention for the marketplace of schools to be truly free. The voucher movement wants to create a system in which public schools give STAAR tests—lots of STAAR tests—but the voucher schools give none. That’s not a free market. That’s the government picking winners and losers. And the voucher movement wants public schools graded with A-F grades based on those STAAR tests, but it doesn’t want the voucher schools graded on the same A-F scale, because A-F grades for schools are based on the STAAR tests that voucher schools will never ever be required to give. School vouchers are not a free market, they are the government picking winners and losers and guaranteeing that the winners will be private schools that are exempt from the crushing bureaucratic regulations that our state and federal governments have heaped upon the state’s public schools for decades.

It is a cynical ploy, a corrupt, self-serving campaign. Vouchers are not about children, they are 100 percent about adult interests.

And school choice is not really about giving students their choice of schools. The best private schools cost over $20,000 per year in tuition. The state is talking about giving out $5,000 vouchers. That won’t get poor kids into leafy green academies, it will get them into pop-up franchises that some of the voucher lobby’s largest donors are going to launch all over the state. It will get them into online for-profit schools where one teacher at a computer will “teach” 400 kids clicking through modules online, and we will all pretend this is an education, that this clicking through modules is preparing those kids to be engaged, civically minded, well-rounded citizens.

I’m just going to say that a real education should look a lot like real life, with flesh-and-blood encounters with teachers and classmates, face-to-face interactions with diverse friends and neighbors, conflicts and shared lunches, recesses and sports teams, student councils and class officers and mums and bonfires, parades down main street led by the band, and news clippings in the gas station about a buzzer-beater win. Letter jackets and class rings, kissing in the stairwell, loud stereos in the parking lot and quiet tears in the counselor’s office. This is the hum and rattle of community, the pulse, the heartbeat of our neighborhoods. This is public school.

Public schools are about the children. Public schools mold the future when they educate our kids, and they always have. When our politicians brag about how great Texas is and how strong the economy is, remind them that it was public school teachers, not politicians, who built Texas, and we built it by educating 95 percent of the students in this state.

The voucher schools will exclude those hardest to teach, because there’s no law to prevent it. And they will teach any old curriculum, because there is no law to prevent it and no test to see if the voucher students are learning Texas’ Essential Knowledge and Skills. Voucher schools will get state education dollars, but they will refuse accountability. They’ll say competition is their accountability, but it’s a lie because the public schools will not be allowed to compete freely in this market, the public schools will be set up to fail, the public schools will be saddled with STAAR tests and requirements to admit children with learning disabilities and behavior problems, while competing with completely unaccountable, unregulated voucher schools. This design is the deliberate sabotage of the school system our ancestors fought and bled and died to establish, the deliberate sabotage of a field of civil service that employs hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working Texans who have devoted their lives to serving the future of this state.

The voucher movement is a repudiation of Texas history and Texas values, a naked violation of the state constitution. Public schools are the state’s way of saying we will educate our children, all of the children. Vouchers are the state’s way of saying we will educate some of the children, some of the time. Unless voucher schools are required to admit all children and are prevented from discriminating against special needs children in their admissions, and unless voucher schools are accountable to the public for the financial and academic performance, then vouchers are just a broken constitutional promise, an embodiment of Texas politicians’ disdain for the needs of regular Texas families.

It’s a great scheme if you can stomach it. If our senators will pass it, there are some folks who will make a killing, who will line their nests with tax dollars while playing school. And public schools that serve all kids will slowly wither on the vine. This brave, selfless, centuries-old experiment in practical democracy will end. This honorable notion that we as Texans should put our resources together in a trust for our children, all of our children, will die.

The foxes are funding the voucher campaign, funding the mailers, funding the politicians, funding the think tanks. The foxes are scratching at the hen house door, and Texas politicians have their hands on the handle, ready to let them in, to let them devastate taxpayers and schoolchildren.

Vouchers are about adult interests, and voucher schools are about exclusivity. But public schools are about inclusivity, and public schools are open. They’re open to poor kids, open to the disabled, open to the homeless, the migrant, the dyslexic, open to all children. They’re open to kids of all colors, all ethnicities, all creeds and language backgrounds. Public schools are open, and public schools are owned and operated by the Texas voter and the Texas taxpayer.

Our ancestors only won the right to establish a public school system because they were willing to fight for it, to demand it for their kids and for the health and well-being of Texas. This threat to public schools is the clearest sign yet of the disdain that exists in elite quarters for the needs of common middle class Texans.

If we won’t fight, we will lose public schooling in the state of Texas. If we won’t write and call and march and clog the offices and phone lines of our elected officials with righteous calls for funding and protecting the public school system, then the foxes will devour what was established for Texas children way back in 1836.

If not you and I, then who will do it? We have to step up and defend our children’s education. We have to leave here today and call on everyone you know to get involved. Call your friends, the mothers and fathers you know and tell them to join TAMSA and Friends of Texas Public Schools, tell them to donate to Parent PAC, call your pastors and tell them to join Texas Pastors for Children, tell them to get on the front lines and save our schools, save our towns and communities, call the retired teachers, call everyone you know, and tell them if they don’t fight for public schools, then we will lose them. Hand out your senators’ phone numbers, and tell them to call every single day. Call during your conference. Call during lunch. Call from the parking lot, and have your spouse call too. Go to their town halls and ask the brave, direct questions. Why shouldn’t private schools be held accountable? Don’t their graduates impact the state’s future? How do we know if they’re learning anything?

Ask them direct questions when you visit them in their offices. Why not hold voucher schools accountable? And if they say the free market is how they intend to hold voucher schools accountable, then why have STAAR and A-F for public schools, if they are competing in the same market? They can’t have it both ways. Tell them that. Don’t be scared. If anyone should be afraid, it should be Texas senators. They need votes to keep their jobs. Ask them why it’s okay for voucher schools to have academic entry requirements that keep out learning disabled kids when public schools can’t do that. How are we supposed to compete fairly?

And share ATPE’s legislative priorities with them when you visit their offices:

  • Preserve the solvency of TRS and protect our defined benefit system from those who want to turn it into a glorified 401k.
  • Give teachers the right to payroll deduct their association dues, as a matter of freedom of association.
  • Fix school funding and make it fair and equitable.
  • Reduce testing.
  • And most of all, protect the public school system from privatization through programs like vouchers and education savings accounts (which are really just vouchers with lipstick on).

Thank you, educators, for all you do for our children and our state. Don’t lose hope, and don’t forget this: There are over 300,000 teachers in Texas, and there should be over 300,000 teachers voting in every election, including primaries. And there should be more retired educators like Representative Gary van Deaver running for office. Our state needs you. If you unite and stand together and use your teacher voice, Texas teachers are a force that can’t be stopped.

Thank you.

John Kuhn is a Texas school superintendent and long-time advocate for public schooling. His essays have been read hundreds of thousands of times online, videos of his speeches have gone viral, and his book, Fear and Learning in America, has sold thousands of copies. He continues to advocate for teachers and fight for the constitutional promise of free public schools for all American children.

Watch John Kuhn’s speech AND earn CPE credit on our Professional Learning Portal.