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Month: September 2016

School choice and vouchers: Who are the winners?

School choice and vouchers: Who are the winners?

With recent attempts to eliminate public schools in lieu of charter schools, this article gives a different, often unseen agenda surrounding school voucher programs.


This is the official mission of the United States Department of Education: “. . . to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence throughout the Nation” (2002). Approximately $650 billion dollars were spent this past year, most of it at the State level, to fulfill this mission. Having an educated citizenry is essential to maintaining a democratic society and this has always been achieved through a public education system. However, in recent years this system has come under attack by those who would like to see it dismembered and replaced by market-style private schools. School vouchers have been promoted as the vehicle that will allow parents to choose their children’s school.

What are school vouchers?

The voucher system has its roots in mid-20th century Georgia when a white supremacist legislator, Roy Harris, as a means to avoid dealing with school integration, wanted to end the state education system in favor of education grants (Rawls, 2001). Later economist Milton Friedman proposed the use of vouchers as a means of applying the market economy to the public school system (Weisenberger, 2001) with the purpose of creating a competitive market in which “. . . ‘good’ schools would thrive and ‘bad’ schools would fail” (Rawls, 2001, p. 365). Following on the heels of the 1982 United States Department of Education report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, with its questionable methodology and findings (Lowe, 2002), Congress passed the Excellence in Education Act (“Excellence in Education Act,” 1991) that rekindled the fires of education reform. Something was thought to be wrong with American schools and school vouchers were promoted as the solution. Rawls (2001) describes the school voucher as “. . . a publicly funded certificate given to parents that is applied to tuition at any school approved for such purposes by the state” (p. 364).

Why Vouchers?

One of the main reasons for the recurrence of school vouchers is the perceived inability of public schools to provide an adequate education. First, what obligation does the public school system have to the public and to its students? Rawls (2001) points out that states fund public education with the idea of self-preservation:

“’. . . it is the government means of protecting the state from the consequences of an ignorant and incompetent citizenship’” (p. 367)

For this reason, education is compulsory and the essential curriculum (the “3 Rs”) is mandated by the state and must be taught by public and private schools alike. The basic function of public education is to produce literate students capable of effectively participating in the processes of a democratic society. According to Foster (1991), there is another vital function performed by public education. He refers to “performative memory” (p. 243) and its importance in creating the imagined community of a nation. Schools teach a history that has been reworked and refined to provide a national past—“. . . the continuous history of the imagined community unfolding through ‘homogeneous, empty time’ into an equally infinite past and future” (p. 241). Public schools have the role of reinforcing this past by developing patriotism. Children begin learning the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. The school year is replete with national holidays such as former president’s birthdays and Memorial Day that build and strengthen national solidarity.

These ceremonies put the living members of the national community in touch with the dead, merging both into a community that, rendered as immemorial and immortal, acquires a reality apart from its ritual performance (Foster, 1991, p. 243)

Foster makes the relationship between the state and public education perfectly clear in this statement:

“The educational apparatus of schooling and textbooks through which versions of the national past are authorized and disseminated is largely a state creation.” (p. 243). It becomes clear that in addition to producing literate citizens, national education is also an attempt to create a national culture (Hirst & Thompson, 1995).

Who Really Benefits From A School Voucher System?

It is easy to see how vouchers might be seen as the answer to a desire for the best education possible. However, what would happen if legislation were passed to provide all parents with education vouchers for their children? This question is best answered by first deciding who will benefit from such a program.

In most cases, a voucher will only provide funding equal to the amount allotted by the state for public education of a child (Lowe, 2002). Private school tuition is generally much higher and parents must therefore find a way to provide the additional costs. There are many families who barely have enough income to provide for the necessities of living while many others have even less.

Most of these people are immediately excluded from a voucher program. Even if these families could find the additional money, private schools would select only those students who fit the socioeconomic and academic profile that will perpetuate the “picture of success”. The end of this analysis means that those who would most likely benefit from a voucher system would be middle class families with the resources to pay the additional costs and those families who have already placed their children in private schools.

The reality is that the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widens further in the presence of a voucher system (Latham, 1998).

Who then would really benefit from a voucher system? As discussed, most of the socioeconomically disadvantaged will be automatically excluded from participation. Another relatively unseen effect of a voucher system is that as funding flows to private schools, it flows away from public schools, increasing the existing imbalance of resources between urban and suburban schools (“Racial justice 101,” 2000). The impact is greatest on the poor since most live in urban settings where funding is already insufficient. Rather than providing advantages to these disadvantaged children, they become even more disadvantaged (Whitty, 1997), losing access to other services such as healthcare and meals that the school can no longer afford to offer (MacLeod, 1987; McLaren & Gutierrez, 1997; Rawls, 2001). Doerr (2001) makes it clear what public schools need:

“. . . more adequate and more equitably distributed funding, repair, replacement of worn-out buildings, smaller classes and therefore more teachers (about fifteen children) in the lower grades, and more attractive teacher compensation.” (p. 40).

This becomes even less likely to happen with voucher systems. The answer to the question then becomes an all too familiar one. Those middle class families with children in private schools would obviously benefit financially from a voucher system. However, the wealthy stand to gain the most because they would recoup a part of the money paid for private school tuition. There is a tax advantage for the wealthy: “A reduced tax rate would provide the well-to-do with a voucher for part of their tuition for private schools” (Lowe, 2002). The elite also profit from their investments in constructing additional private schools to accommodate new students.

Is Private Really Better?

Many write about the inadequacy of the public school system while private school access is perceived as the answer to providing “quality” education. However, there is conflicting data as to the “superior quality” of a private school education. Greene (2001), commenting about the Cleveland voucher program says that there are “. . . statistically significant benefits from school choice” (p. 21). However, when referring to the same voucher program, the American Teacher (“Voucher program fails to deliver,” 2001) contradicts this statement,

“. . . vouchers are not providing the academic advantages that supporters have promised and may even be splintering student populations along racial lines” (p. 14).

So it seems that neither public nor private schools are meeting parents’ and students’ expectations.

A Subtler Agenda

There is another dimension to the problems in education that spans public and private schools alike. It is best stated by McLaren and Gutierrez (1997):

What is essential for educators. . . is to dismantle the discourses of power and privilege and social practices that have epistemically mutated into a new and terrifying form of xenophobic nationalism in which there is but one universal subject of history – the white, Anglo, heterosexual male of bourgeois privilege. (p. 214)

Private schools simply represent one vehicle to strengthen this “power and privilege” that McLaren and Gutierrez recognize. Coons (2001) contends that public schools do not exist anyway since “. . . ‘public’ identifies institutions that are accessible to all citizens. . . and. . . access to any particular state school today remains a privilege attached to residence.” (p. 7).


Substantive changes must be made in education, changes that modify the social and cultural perspectives of those at the policy-making level. “What is needed in school settings, then, is radical shifts in what counts as knowledge and what counts as learning—shifts that allow disruptive and critical forms of pedagogy to emerge.” (McLaren & Gutierrez, 1997, p. 207). The significant problem has nothing to do with whether schools are public or private but rather with the views held by society as a whole clearly stated here:

“. . . the present conditions in our schools are as much a part of moral indifference as they are a result of the current economic flows within late capitalism.” (McLaren & Gutierrez, 1997, p. 194).

It is sometimes easy to yield to what appears to be the “inevitability of the situation” but as McChesney (1999) emphasizes when he quotes Noam Chomsky, “. . . if you act like there is no possibility of change for the better, you guarantee that there will be no change for the better.” (p. 5-6).


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Whitty, G. (1997). Creating quasi-markets in education. In M. Apple (Ed.), Review of research in education (Vol. 22, pp. 3-47). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Some Things Never Change

Some Things Never Change

As I begin this post, I recall reading an excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, about the Chicago meat packing plants. It was a vivid description of the horrible immigrant working conditions, cases where disease and sickness were the price paid by workers for the sake of profit. One particular line comes to mind. After reading about the way that pork was pickled and then packaged, the final act was to take the leavings from the drain and use it in some meat product. “…everything but the squeal from the pigs was used.” To me, this is a historic summary of the path human greed has taken, from those blatant, graphic images to a subtler form that hides behind the same epithet: “business ethics.”

For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest–that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.
– via

We trip over ourselves in social discussions and in the news media to avoid point the finger at those who constitute the real problem with society today. It is done so slickly that our normalized selves seldom recognize that we have done it. Comments referring to how sad it is to see so many new health issues, so many families financially struggling to live their lives, increasing numbers of violent crimes, and so on. Underneath is a neoliberal capitalistic system that seeks to use everything and everyone to get “all but the squeal out of the pig.” Done under the guise of efficiency and reduced cost, those defining the terms, “efficient” and “cost” rarely, if ever, include humanity in those definitions. Instead, “efficient” refers to getting the job done as quickly and easily as possible regardless of how it impacts the people doing the job or using the product while “cost” is strictly about profit; who cares about the cost in terms of health, economic conditions, or morality. This is the same way of doing business made more efficient (ha!). Hell, the U.S. government gave smallpox-ridden blankets to Native American children and during the Spanish American war, companies sold the military boots with cardboard soles (Zinn, Peoples’ History of the U.S.)! Slavery ended not from a bloody civil war but from the decision of slaveowners that it was too costly and could be more efficiently implemented by ending physical bondage and replace it with a social slavery. Complicit companies could then be free from the responsibilities of providing food, housing, and medical care while continuing to squeeze more work out of the same people and paying them a pittance.
The same things are done but more covertly and prefaced with an elaborate scheme to set the stage for more raping and pillaging of human rights. Ralph Nader’s notion of “planned obsolescence,” companies selling appliances that were built to fail after a period of time to spur consumerism has evolved into a way of life.

But the American consumer has now been conditioned to accept a reality that would have been characterized as absurd before. We accept that the feature-laden smartphone we buy today MUST be replaced in six months when the new models arrive. We are surprised when anything we purchase lasts for any length of time beyond an ever-diminishing norm. We are trained to believe that society requires us to discard and reinvent ourselves with every wind that blows from the world of fashion. We are constantly bombarded with the clear message that the answer to everything, from the world economy to our self-esteem, will be fixed if we simply…..consume.
– via seattlerecycles

Almost every product was built to fail; quality was a term used to sell the crap. In contrast, a few companies maintained true quality but at a much higher price, unaffordable by many and cherished by those who either wanted quality or just wanted the social status that came from owning those brands. This did not go unnoticed by companies who began to market a separate product line advertised as “better” or “more durable” than the other line that cost less. While a bit better, the profit margin was much greater by relabeling still-inferior products as improved versions. For example, we started with plain batteries that led to alkaline batteries, touted as the ultimate battery that lasted several times longer than the plain ones. However, along came the extra strong alkaline followed by another, each with a higher price than the previous “end-all” product; who knows where that will end…
America’s love affair with the automobile is another excellent example of how pseudo quality has been used to increase profit. Not many decades ago, owning a Cadillac or Mercedes was out of the majority’s financial reach but now, there are affordable models for a much larger percentage of families. Other more common brands now sell a higher cost product that supposedly is better quality and new brands have emerged that simulate the appearance of more expensive ones. A side effect of this race to increase profit while reducing real quality has been the evolution of mechanics to parts people whose main job is to con as many owners as possible into having multiple components replaced to fix a simple problem. This is exacerbated by the engineers who design not for quality but for profit so that when one piece breaks, it requires the removal or replacement of several others. It’s all about ethical business operation a.k.a. get everything out of the pig, if possible, including the squeal.

A Dangerous Philosophy

Most people would say that business is business and profit is the name of the game. This may be true with “widgets” a.k.a. physical products but when that same mindset is used in the realm of human services such as education and healthcare, people begin to suffer and quality becomes a thing of the past, replaced with pseudo quality. In more cases, we are buying more boots with cardboard soles while being told that they are high quality. It is as if we are killing our own children for the sake of profit…

Hey, “Toy” Manufacturers!!!

Hey, “Toy” Manufacturers!!!

A Violent World

We live in a world where we see violence every day, in the news, on television, and sometimes, in the streets. Video games provide children with an opportunity to act out violence through their characters and life seems to become less valuable. Manufacturers using “business ethics” as an excuse, manufacture all kinds of weapons look-alikes and sell them to kids who, as all kids do, play out their imaginations.

When I was a kid, we played with toy guns (says a lot about a normalized society!), because toy guns did not look like the ones that are considered “toys” today. The ones we used were much smaller than real guns and they looked like toys; isn’t that the point of toys?

The Real World

Now we go into the real world where violence often ends in injury and death. Police are tasked with trying to maintain law and order yet little seems to be done to help them. Are there cases of excessive violence? Yes. Are there cases where race stereotypes end in a victim’s death? Yes. Are there justified cases of shooting deaths in the line of duty? Of course. Only a person impervious to the reality of a society based on -isms could ignore it.

The point of this brief post is to point out the lack of social responsibility for the sake of profit that continues to be exhibited by toy manufacturers who sell weapons replicas that anyone can buy and give to kids, replicas that anyone under pressure in a dark alley would not be able to distinguish from the real thing. If you have never had a real weapon pointed at your face, you cannot appreciate the state of a police officer having one pointed in her or his face.


Perpetuating the Norm

Perpetuating the Norm

In the last few weeks, several professional athletes have followed the lead of Colin Kapernick to protest the disproportionately high number of Black folks who have been brutalized by police. They have knelt during the national anthem as a means of showing their concern and urgency to address the problem. Even President Obama supports their right to express disagreement. However, there is another aspect of these rightful displays that is rearing its ugly head: the power of capitalism to suppress any behavior that challenges the normalized view of what it means to be an American.
In an article today, Brandon Marshall decided to join the rightful protest,

After the game, he told reporters he had knelt because “I’m against social injustice. I’m not against the military, the police or America at all. I’m against social injustice.”
– via the Guardian

The response was not unexpected as the system always works to preserve itself:

The Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall has lost an endorsement from a sponsor after following Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, in refusing to stand for the national anthem before an NFL game.
Air Academy Federal Credit Union president and chief executive Glenn Strebe said the company respected “Brandon’s right of expression” but would no longer employ him as a spokesman.
– via the Guardian

Follow the Money But Look Deeper Into the Imagined Nation

It is a common practice by companies in the U.S. to go with the money flow. We call it business ethics, focusing on profit above all else. Brandon Marshall’s act did not follow the quintessence of business ethics because it would cost the credit union investments from those who see his acts as “unpatriotic” and “un-American.” It is much more than a business decision, it is an act by the system to preserve the normalized, “imagined” nation described by Benedict Anderson in his book, “Imagined Communities”:

I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion….

Anderson saw this normalization as a positive way of creating solidarity but that concept has devolved into a means to suppress the very thing to which it aspired. In the same article, Roger Goodell commented about Colin Kaepernick’s rightful act, and conforming to the normalized model, he implies that Kaepernick’s action was unpatriotic:

“On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that. I think it’s important to have respect for our country, for our flag, for the people who make our country better; for law enforcement, and for our military who are out fighting for our freedoms and our ideals.”
– via the Guardian

The impact of Brandon Marshall’s experience can already be seen:

Von Miller, the Broncos’ Super Bowl MVP linebacker, said after Thursday’s game that though he was “not going to kneel for the national anthem” he felt “it should be a change”.
– via the Guardian

There are many in this country who “feel things should be changed” but do not voice those thoughts, perhaps because of fear of financial or status loss. How many others are thinking the same way as Von Miller?

This post is not meant to be a detailed examination of the reasons why a normalized model exists in this country, who benefits from it, and all the ways it is perpetuated. Instead, it is meant to stimulate thinking about why it is so important to have an imaginary picture of what it means to be “American.”

“Cows have a sense of freedom…until they encounter the fence around the pasture.” Me