Scoppe: On inches and miles and drowning some schools

Associate EditorJune 13, 2013 

Scoppe

— WELL. THAT didn’t take long.

The ink had barely dried on the Senate budget plan to let people give up to $10,000 to private schools instead of paying their taxes, when the House doubled the cost of the program, expanded its scope exponentially — and upped the ante by turning a long-awaited 4K expansion into another privatization program.

The Senate said the don’t-pay-your-taxes donations could pay for scholarships for students with “exceptional needs.” The House plan adds scholarships for students “who are eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program, or whose families meet the qualifications for federal Medicaid benefits.” Which is significantly more than half of all public school students.

The Senate bill cuts off the donations-in-lieu-of-taxes option after a total of $5 million in taxes has been not paid; the House allows $10 million.

Shall we take wagers on how much the defund-the-public-schools crowd will try to raise that cap next year?

The phrase “I told you so” leaps to mind.

More and more legislators have convinced themselves that if they just let the anti-public-school advocates have a little bit, they’ll go away satisfied, and our legislators can go back to trying to actually improve our public schools — something they were finally beginning to do before the defunders swooped in on our state a decade ago and hijacked the conversation.

It’s a lovely fantasy, isn’t it? But, really. Does no one remember what we learned about inches given and miles taken?

The whole thing reminds me of how legislators terrified of the poker barons used to think that if they just let them have five video poker machines per location, or just let them make small payouts, or just let them accept small bets, they’d be satisfied. Of course the more our lawmakers gave the poker barons, the more they demanded. Up to and including a governor.

It was wilful ignorance then, and it’s wilful ignorance now. Even a new front group that came in last year hawking a more modest plan to siphon money out of the public schools made no secret of the fact that this was just a first step. A foothold. Get that first little program in place, the group said in news releases, and it could grow the commitment.

But while it’s the most disturbing, growing that foothold by the week isn’t the most audacious thing the defund-the-schools gang did last week. After all, the Senate had finally agreed to prostitute itself, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves haggling over the price.

No, the truly audacious move came in response to the Senate’s plan to spend $26 million to resume the long-promised expansion of full-day 4-year-old kindergarten. Instead of putting 85 percent of the new money into public schools and 15 percent into private schools, which is in line with the trend since the program’s inception in 2006, the voucher-friendly House voted to send 92 percent of it to private programs.

Now, I’ve never had a problem with allowing private providers to participate in the Child Development Education Pilot Program, as the 4K program is called. Educating 4-year-olds isn’t a traditional state responsibility, and since many public schools don’t have the space to add another grade, we’d have to build new classroom space if we served all kids. On the other hand, a whole industry has grown up to take care of kids who weren’t old enough to attend school. So a fully public 4K program would not only require huge capital expenditures but also push some child-care providers out of business.

Just the opposite, by the way, is the case with older kids: The state already has invested tons of money building and equipping schools, many of which would be underused if the state enticed parents to send their kids to private schools; meanwhile, more private facilities would have to be built to accommodate any great influx of students.

Moreover, the 4K program includes an essential component that advocates have refused to include in the defund-our-schools proposals: Private 4K programs have to follow the same rules as the public schools. Same student-teacher ratios, same teacher qualifications, same number of days and hours of instructional time. Same everything. Which just makes sense: If taxpayers are going to pay a contractor to build a state building, we set out the specifications for how it must be built. Why in the world would we do any less when we pay schools to build children?

But the House’s plan to funnel nearly all of the 4K money to private providers has two problems, both of which underscore the gulf between what the defund-the-schools advocates say they want and what they’re actually working toward.

First, rather than putting the entire $26 million into the successful Child Development Education Pilot Program, the House puts half the money into the ABC Child Care Program, run by the Department of Social Services. That’s apparently a good program — for what it does. But it’s not an education program; it’s a child-care program.

The House budget requires DSS officials to work with education officials to develop “additional educational curriculum standards” that “must conform” to those in the 4K program. Which some of us might call reinventing the wheel. Making more work for bureaucrats. Growing government, perhaps.

Beyond that, there’s the hypocrisy of the proponents, whose entire argument in the K-12 setting is that the state shouldn’t “dictate” where people send their children to school. By requiring that 92 percent of the money be spent in private schools and day cares, the plan forecloses the option of public schools to parents who might prefer that — or have no private options. The House plan does allow part of the private 4K funding to be redirected to public schools if parents haven’t used all of it by Oct. 1. But that’s more than a month into the school year, and there’s no provision for reallocating the $13 million in child-care funding.

If the goal here were really “choice” — rather than simply propping up private schools and day cares — the alternative to the Senate plan would be one that pays to send their children to whichever type of school their parents prefer.

But as the people bankrolling the movement have demonstrated time after time after time, it has absolutely nothing to do with providing parents with choices. It has everything to do with an ideological campaign to undermine public schools, which consume such a huge portion of state spending that their erosion is essential to the publicly stated goal of the libertarian high priest, Grover Norquist: to shrink government spending and shrink it and shrink it some more, so that in 25 years, “we can get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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