Trapped by poverty and underfunded schools

Trapped by poverty and underfunded schools

- in Fitzsimon File


Supporters of privatizing public education with a voucher program say that parents need vouchers to give them more educational choices because many low income students are “trapped in failing public schools.”

That rhetoric was on full display this week in Raleigh at a court hearing on lawsuits by education advocates and school boards to stop the voucher scheme approved last year by the General Assembly as part of the state budget signed by Governor Pat McCrory.

Attorneys for the state and the Institute for Justice, a Washington right-wing legal foundation, asked the court to dismiss the lawsuits out of hand, but Judge Robert H. Hobgood declined and the case will proceed to a trial where presumably we will hear a lot more from the voucher supporters about poor students who are “trapped.”

It’s an understandable strategic decision voucher supporters are making, claiming that their only concern is improving the education of poor kids. They’d rather not talk about their anti-government ideology that’s behind their crusade to dismantle public education, one of the last government institutions that enjoys widespread support.

That wouldn’t play well in the courts or with the public. People still overwhelmingly support public schools and oppose sketchy voucher schemes to divert education resources to unaccountable private and religious academies.

You don’t have to look very closely to see the contradictions in the claims by the right-wing groups behind the privatization crusade. One of the parents at a press conference organized by the Institute for Justice before the hearing said she wanted her child to attend a private school where the classes are smaller and he can receive more individualized attention.

It’s a common refrain from parents speaking for groups pushing voucher programs. But not only did the same General Assembly that created the voucher scheme remove limits on class sizes in public schools this year, the same right-wing tanks supporting vouchers tell us again and again that reducing class size doesn’t improve educational outcomes, that the state shouldn’t waste taxpayer dollars on reducing the number of students in a classroom.

It’s a safe bet that the think-tankers didn’t share their “research” on class size with the parent who spoke at this week’s press event. Or tell her that many students in the early grades will no longer get individual attention from teacher assistants to help them read thanks to the budget lawmakers passed last year that slashed funding for teacher assistants.

The think tankers probably also didn’t mention that they have long advocated slashing funding for early childhood programs. Or that the same General Assembly that created the voucher scheme to allegedly help low-income students reduced the number of slots available for at-risk four-year-olds in NC PreK that even some conservatives admit helps poor students do better in school.

The right-wing Raleigh think tanks and slick Washington legal outfits trying to dismantle public education would definitely rather not talk about the undeniable statistical correlation between poverty and student performance. Neither would the lawmakers who championed the voucher scheme.

That would raise troubling questions about their actual concern for poor students. They cut off benefits for unemployed workers, refused federal funding to expand Medicaid and provide health care for uninsured mothers and fathers, and ended the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helped low-wage workers make ends meet.

Low-income students are not trapped in failing public schools. They are trapped in poverty and severely underfunded and understaffed public schools have little chance to help them overcome the hurdles that poverty presents.

The best way to help low-income students is not to give them a few thousand dollars to attend completely unaccountable and often shady private schools.

Don’t be misled. The vouchers will not mean that poor students will be enrolling in the best private academies. Tuition at those schools is four or five times as much as the $4,200 voucher the law provides. The top private schools will still be far out of reach.

The best way to help low-income students is to renew efforts to address their families’ poverty and in the meantime give the public schools the resources they need to help.

The same day as the hearing on the lawsuits to stop the voucher scheme, a headline in the Winston-Salem Journal read “Schools face textbook shortage.” The story detailed how state budget cuts have left local public schools without enough funding even to provide textbooks for their students.

Public schools aren’t failing. They are under attack. And low-income kids are being cynically used in the crusade.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.