Friday, April 01, 2005

Time to get tough about educational access grants

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:54 AM |  

This might be the closest I’ve ever come to being wrong.

In my Wednesday Pioneer Press column Accountability clause isn't fatal to Minnesota school voucher bill I made the case that the accountability clause that was written into the the Hann/Buesgens educational access grant legislation was not, as contended by EdWatch, a show stopper. Although like EdWatch, I believe the bill would be better without it, I did not see the clause, which calls for administering state tests to voucher students and only voucher students attending private schools, as being a show stopper. I still don’t.

However, EdWatch was right on the money when it came to predicting the actions of the state. Pending political maneuvers by supporters of the Hann/Buesgens legislation, Democrats ripped out the heart of the bill in the Education Policy and Reform Committee last night passing (14-13) an amendment that would essentially require any private school accepting vouchers to test all students to state standards and be held to the same accountabilities vis a vis No Child Left Behind as are the public schools.

The amendment didn’t just attach strings to a educational access grant, it put a noose around its neck, pulled it tight and kicked the stool out from under it.

This accountability amendment is a show stopper. Not only will it make vouchers unpalatable to private schools, but it destroys the very purpose of the voucher bill -- improving public education in the broadest sense by providing low-income families with diverse educational options. More to the point, it condemns another year’s worth of children to flounder in schools that aren’t capable of educating them.

Unfortunately, opponents of the bill do not see things from the perspective of individual families and children. They see things in terms of systems. In testimony after testimony, school administrators, teacher’s union representatives, persons from educational groups with a vested interest in public education again and again cited the good being done by public schools, made excuses for good not being done by public schools, lamented inadequate funding, complained that private schools were not held to the same standards as public schools. Children were statistics.

These people miss the point. The purpose of private education is diversifying the broader public education environment, not simply creating another branch of state-run education. The committee members voting for the amendment just couldn’t bring themselves to to loosen their grip on bureaucratic power.

If you’re a Republican today, you should be pissed. If you’re a Democrat you should be ashamed of your party.

There once was a time when Democrats represented real people and gave voice in the legislature to people without power. Last night they showed little but arrogance, condescension and contempt for low-income and minority families and their ability to choose the education they want for their children. The vote wasn’t about kids -- it was about power.

I was disappointed that no one from EdWatch was there to testify. One thing about EdWatch, it doesn’t mince words when it comes to principle and doesn’t play politics and frankly, doesn’t care what people think. it’s a perspective that last night was sorely needed.

In the committee meeting, supporters of the bill went overboard to emphasize that the educational access grant bill was not bashing public schools nor was it a personal indictment against public schools personnel or administrators. In fact, the first speaker on behalf of the bill was a member of the Milwaukee public school board, who is also a strong supporter of school choice.

Speaking from the perspective of the Milwaukee public schools, Ken Johnson passionately detailed how the Milwaukee public schools have accepted the challenge of “choice” schools and worked with them to improve overall education in Milwaukee -- both public and private. Johnson, and one must assume a majority of Milwaukee public school board members, gets it. “It’s not about a particular system,” he said. “It’s about educating children.”
Where have we heard that before?

Milwaukee has the same social problems the same funding problems as Minneapolis and St. Paul. What apparently they don’t have is the same leadership by excuse and rationale mentality. Supporters of the bill swung the door wide open to make school choice a cooperative effort, as in Milwaukee, between private and “choice” schools. Opponents kicked the door closed.

Opponents of the Hann/Buesgens bill were right about one thing, however -- the legislature does need to focus on improving the public school system and the best way to do that is to pass clean educational access grant legislation and put some real accountability in play, the accountability of parents picking schools for their children based on their needs, not sacrificing their children to the careers and the egos of school administrators.

The Hann/Buesgens legislation is not dead. After the amendment passed, House sponsor and committee chair Rep. Mark Buesgens pulled the bill back, which means it could still be resubmitted to the committee in a modified form or the amendment might even be reconsidered. In the first go around, supporters took the high road and focused on children. Opponents wanted to make it about themselves. Perhaps it’s time to oblige them.

UPDATE: Here's the exact text of the ammendment (replaces the acountability clause currently in place) offered by Denise Dittrich (DFL - Champlin) . There were 14 amendments submitted, which will be reviewed by the committee on Monday. Strategy is pretty clear -- if you can't vote against a good bill then make it a bad one.
“Notwithstanding other law to the contrary, all students in a School that enrolls” Page 4, line 7, after “public” interest insert”, consistent withThe requirements in sections 120B.30, 120B.31 and 120B.35. The School also must demonstrate adequate yearly progress,Consistent with sections 120B.35 and 120B.36."
Developing . . . .