Saturday, April 02, 2005

Who's the real "April Fool"?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:40 AM |  

I admit the Heartland Institute got me -- for awhile anyway.

Front page on the April 1 edition of the institute’s monthly newsletter “the heartlander” is an article by long-time school choice advocate Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, under the headline "Why I Oppose School Choice.”

Bast has coauthored three books advocating school choice ((We Can Rescue Our Children (1988), Rebuilding America’s Schools (1991), and Education & Capitalism (2003)). Heartland just sent copies of Ten Principles of School Choice, coauthored by Bast and Herb Walberg, to every state and national elected official in the United States.

To see him write “I now realize I was wrong about school choice . . . And have now bravely changed my mind” was shocking enough, but then he adds “School choice is bad. Government school monopoly is good.”

What brought about this “epiphany”? Bast had held that the case AGAINST school choice is based on the elitist and false assumption that parents are too stupid to choose their children’s schools. But opening his eyes to the real world caused him to question his view.
Every news story about neglected children and child abuse I have read or seen challenges the confidence I had in the fitness of parents to make their own decisions. I read about social workers finding children tied to urine-soaked beds or kept in basements for months at a time. Children and babies left home alone while their parents go on drug binges for days at a time.

I began to think maybe some people shouldn’t have kids. Maybe they are too stupid, lazy, or befuddled by drugs to lead productive lives, much less oversee the education of their children. Do we really want to give them more choices? If we allowed their children to attend the few good private and government schools, they would ruin those schools, too.

I concluded that somebody at the Department of Children and Family Services should be paid to make sure those at-risk children are assigned to the most appropriate schools.
His logic then flows -- having government assign only students from low-income families to public schools would stigmatize those children, which is bad. It is well known that having disadvantaged students sit next to smarter students is good. If only poor kids went to public schools that would be bad. So, the only logical conclusion is that the government should assign all children to appropriate schools.

There is, Bast claims, in his surprising turn-around no role for private schools.
Every dollar given to a private school through a voucher or tax credits means a dollar taken away from a public school that really needs it. We should not be talking about subsidizing private schools when there are government schools that can’t afford new textbooks, art and music classes, or enough guidance counselors and nurses to keep their students out of trouble.

Private schools are elitist, expensive, unaccountable to taxpayers, refuse to administer the same tests as government schools do, underpay their teachers, have too few guidance counselors and other support staff, and use outdated teaching methods (such as phonics) and curricula (not politically correct). . . .

Everyone knows private schools are elitist. Well, except for the Catholic elementary school I attended along with my six brothers and one sister, all on my dad’s blue-collar paycheck. But schools like Holy Name of Jesus aren’t a real option for parents anymore. They either have long waiting lists or so few students they are closing. It’s, um, a paradox.
Wow, I thought. Could school choice opponents be right? So how does Bast propose we improve public schools? Yikes, school choice opponents are right! Once ending the government monopoly is off the table, the answer is crystal clear -- raise taxes and spend more money on education.
I now realize education is different. We should ask professional educators how much money they need to do their job right, and then make whatever sacrifices it takes to deliver it to them. Spending more in the past hasn’t resulted in better schools, but that just means we haven’t tried spending enough.

In fact, Bast argues that government schools are the choice parents want.

You see, most parents don’t want their kids mixing with children from poor families in schools where most of the staff is too busy teaching to play counselor and nurse. They don’t trust teachers who are too smart or have expectations that are too high. They don’t like the idea of their kids spending time in old buildings with lots of small rooms and corners where they might get into trouble.

Most parents want board-certified career teachers who don’t assign too much homework and are easy graders. They want big, new, shiny schools where the lights are always on, the hallways are wide and graffiti-proof, every door has a lock, and security guards or cameras are on constant patrol.

School choice can’t deliver what most parents want for their children. So who needs school choice?
Okay, by the time I got about halfway through the article, I didn’t really need the footnote telling me “April Fools.” And the newsletter is dated “April 1.” Unfortunately, school choice opponents' testimony against the Hann/Buesgens education access grant legislation, which essentially made the same arguments as Bast’s April Fools' joke, fell on March 31. Their "preserve the system" arguments are no laughing matter.