School choice: But for who?


Last week, Gonzales County commissioners voted unanimously and without discussion to designate this week as “Gonzales County School Choice Week.” It is not certain if commissioners thought this a harmless effort to showcase public schools, but a closer look reveals a little more deceit coming from an organization that pushes an agenda promoting “National School Choice Week” to unsuspecting entities that may be ignorant to their agenda.

“National School Choice Week” is not just an occasion, but a business. Its website is bathed in yellow, the same color used in its slick marketing campaigns delivered to county and city governments in the hopes that they will help distribute their message of “school choice.”

The “School Choice Week” website shows kids dressed in snazzy yellow scarves as they petition statehouses across America to pass laws authorizing “school vouchers” and more tax dollars to be used toward private education. They even have a cute and catchy dance routine that students can learn to perform for their friends at school. It's a safe bet that the Apache Flames didn't learn the moves.

A closer look at the photos across the website shows nary a public school student. Most of the innocent-enough kids are wrapped in their yellow “school choice” scarves while promoting the many charter, private, or religious schools they attend.

But now, Gonzales County can be associated as a school choice week proponent alongside area private schools like Providence Christian Academy in Yoakum, Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hallettsville, Lifegate Christian School in Seguin, and Ashley's School in Stockdale. No public school districts in the county or immediate area chose to be associated with “school choice week.”

For a local, professional take, the Inquirer reached out to area ISD leaders.

“I have to admit, I had to do some research. 'School Choice Week' wasn’t even something on my radar,” said Nixon-Smiley CISD Superintendent Cathy Lauer. “The founders [of School Choice Week] are claiming it’s a non-partisan organization that recognizes all forms of school choice. Interesting. I wonder why they felt a need to create an organization at all?”

“School choice” is the generic, non-threatening phrase used by private school proponents in place of the more toxic “school voucher” term to use taxpayer money to fund private, often unaccredited and unaccountable for-profit schools. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is a fierce supporter of private schools, as is Gov. Greg Abbott. Both have participated in years past on the front steps of the State Capitol, shilling at “school choice” rallies wearing the trademark yellow scarf.

But each year that some sort of school voucher scheme was proposed in the Texas Legislature, it failed.

In a Twitter exchange last week, the editor of the legislature-reporting newsletter Quorum Report noted that new House Speaker Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) clearly said “no” to new school voucher legislation coming from his chamber this session. The speaker is the one who sets legislative agendas and selects which bills will be heard for debate.

Editor Scott Braddock stated that “Texas lawmakers have discussed vouchers for decades and there's still a super-majority opposed to them in the Texas House precisely because it's been debated and they're a trash idea.”

When this writer asked Braddock what his opinion on “School Choice Week” and the officials that support it was, his response was a big “thumbs down” emoji.

His response will likely do little to deter the private school kids that are bussed to the capitol to lobby for the agenda presented by the adults that look to profit off of them.

The best response to “School Choice Week” was an analysis in the Jan. 21 edition of The Washington Post. In it, Carol Burris — a strong critic of school choice and a highly-decorated New York high school principal, having earned “Educator of the Year” accolades, among others — gives her take on the “National School Choice Week.”

“Despite its image of a grass-roots celebration of every imaginable alternative to neighborhood public schools, the week is a carefully crafted public relations campaign designed to remind lawmakers of the financial muscle of its sponsors,” Burris writes. “Beneath all of the fanfare, however, is a push for policies designed to undermine most American's first choice — neighborhood public schools.”

The column goes on to describe the shadowy funders of “School Choice Week” and the billionaires that look to benefit from school privatization. But to get a local perspective, Superintendent Lauer gives her take from down in the trenches.

“Simply put: school choice already exists,” Lauer said. “We don’t need additional 'competition' to create a free market that will make us stronger — an argument oft-used when discussing school choice. For that reason and a lot of others, Nixon-Smiley CISD already does everything we can to provide the best education for all of the children we are fortunate to serve. We do have a few families that home school and a few that send children to private schools, but those are personal choices for those families. I have no problem with 'school choice' as it exists today.

“The issue is really that politicians want to take money from public schools and send it 'with the child' to private, charter, or homeschools through vouchers or education credits. I am strongly opposed to this.

“Diverting money for the public good to unaccountable private or home schools is just wrong. Who will shut down the unscrupulous schools that will potentially crop up to siphon off this public money and potentially not educate children? How do we know that private schools are educating students in what would be considered the public good?

“Some private schools do not even take students who are special needs or have discipline problems. Private schools can choose to take only certain races, ethnicities, and religions. So again, are vouchers really opening up any more choice for some families? Also, most private schools do not transport children. Can parents even get the children to these chosen schools?

“My final thought: I think that voters need to understand that vouchers/credits do not necessarily create any more 'choice' for most families and that their tax money will be going towards completely unaccountable educational venues.”

Something to think about as Gonzales County recognizes “National School Choice Week.”