What George Fails To Mention Could Fill a Book
I used to be one of the “educrats” whom George Lightbourn belittles in his essay “School choice is working and should be expanded”. Now retired, I spent my professional career as an analyst for the Department of Public Instruction. For part of that time, my opposite number at the Department of Administration was a bright, insightful, competent (and, as it turns out, ambitious) young guy named … George Lightbourn. Yes, George fails to mention that he himself got his start as an “educrat”.
But that’s only one of many things that George — now in the pay of the corporate-backed Wisconsin Policy Research Institute think tank — fails to mention.
For instance, he insists that parents should have the right to choose the school their children attend. And so they do. Guaranteed by law. What he fails to mention is that the general public is under absolutely no moral or legal obligation to pay for it.
Even though WPRI now recognizes that parents aren’t doing a particularly good job of choosing schools for their children, George contends that they alone should make the call. Another thing he fails to mention is that raising children is a responsibility shared between parents and society as a whole. It’s the entire culture that insists that kids be immunized, fed, clothed, and schooled (and, in societies more enlightened than ours, provided with health care), and gets downright intolerant of parents who abuse or neglect their kids, or try to use them as cheap labor.
George also fails to mention that public-school choice is a direct competitor against the darling of the neocon movement: PRIVATE-school choice. And, while WPRI was happy to do a study showing the shortcomings of PUBLIC-school choice, the right wing has resisted every effort to subject PRIVATE-school choice to comparable scrutiny.
The reason for this is simple. When Milwaukee’s program was first instituted as a limited experiment, it had an evaluation component. After 5 years, the study (headed by highly respected UW-Milwaukee Education Professor Alex Molnar) had piled up lots of data, the reports were filed, and the private-school kids had done no better than their public-school counterparts. This was a far cry from the glories that had been promised when the “experiment” was begun. The reaction of Gov. Tommy Thompson’s administration? Declare victory, remove the “experimental” tag, expand the program, and eliminate the evaluation! To this day, the private schools are exempt from the kind of accountability that the public schools face on a daily basis.
George advances the corporatist party line that the invisible hand of the market will inevitably cause top-quality schools to bubble up to the top. Quality, quality, quality. That’s all anybody ever looks for in a school, according to the propaganda. The George Lightbourn of a quarter century ago would not have been so naïve as to presume (nor so disingenuous as to pretend) that this is remotely close to reality. I could cite several dozen reasons OTHER than quality that parents use in choosing schools, but just consider a couple of parallel situations: entertainment (vigorous exercise vs. violent video games) and nutrition (a healthy, balanced diet vs. junk food). Those choices are just as free and unfettered as they are with respect to the schools. Do parents invariably choose quality, 100% of the time? The correct answer is another thing George fails to mention.
George also fails to mention that WPRI’s cover has long since been blown. It’s clearly a front for the twin pillars of neoconservatism: corporations and churches. Neither of these institutions is primarily concerned with children as human beings. The former wants their money; the latter wants their souls. They’d be thrilled to see what they derogate as “government schools” close up shop altogether. But they DO foresee a role for government in the final picture: as an endless source of funding.
For the rest of us, their hope is that we’ll end up like George Lightbourn: glossing over the whole truth to focus on the party line, ignoring the big picture for the big bucks.
I suppose it’s POSSIBLE that WPRI could be the source of an honest study on education. It’s also POSSIBLE that the tobacco industry could have done honest research into the health effects of smoking. Sometimes honesty really IS the best policy, if it furthers your agenda. But keen observers will always want to know: Even if what you DID show us is true, what is it you’re NOT telling us? What do you fail to mention?
Now, these folks will undoubtedly counter that we advocates for the public schools have an agenda of our own. And they’re right. We do. It was best stated about a century ago by John Dewey: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.”
George fails to mention that, too.
Richard S. Russell
The 5 greatest bargains in America:
(2) fresh air
(3) clean water
(4) public libraries
(5) public schools
Thomas J. Mertz