It took a couple of weeks, but the advocates of the state mandate that requires Milwaukee’s property taxpayers to throw money at religious and opportunistically-created for-profit private “schools” finally came out of their shells to defend their increasingly-indefensible program. A typically-shadowy “group” took to the airwaves this past weekend with some slick new ads. The all-too-willing Journal Sentinel also got in the game to try to stem the damage from the report that showed the voucher program accomplishes exactly nothing special in terms of educating children. Better late than never for the determined voucher vultures, who continue make unsupported claims to support the tax-draining scheme and, even, expand it.
The centerpiece of the Journal Sentinel’s rehabilitative effort was Sunday’s puff-piece about St. Anthony’s, a Catholic school on the south side that was dying in the real education marketplace and is now making an artificial “comeback” on the backs of city taxpayers by greedily taking voucher money – $6.2 million this year alone. That kind of public money can buy a lot of scapulars, rosaries and crucifixes for the religious indoctrination at the heart of the school’s mission. Once hosting only 350 students at its low point, St. Anthony’s is now busting at the seams, with an enrollment of 1,100 in two buildings. While a few other Catholic schools in the city refuse to sully themselves with public voucher money, St. Anthony's is swimming in it and is apparently praying all the way to the bank.
The piece – by the J-S’s regular pro-voucher reporter Alan J. Borsuk – has all the hallmarks of the typical aren’t-voucher-schools-wonderful story-line that the paper has prided itself on since deciding to buy into the scam 18 long years ago. There are softly-lit photos of studious young souls, thirsting for the knowledge that is obviously being kept from them by those dastardly public schools. There is the sympathetic description of the school’s radical right-wing phonics-and-rote-math programming: “The general difference, in education terms, is between 'constructivist' teaching, in which the teacher aims to lead children to develop their abilities, do their own learning and reach their own conclusions, and 'instructivist' teaching, which is firmly led by teachers and focuses on specific skills and knowledge that teachers impart to students, often by using drills and exercises.” This is the sort of manipulative comparison invented by right-wing “educators”, whose passive-learner “instructivist” construct is to education what creationism is to science.
You have to go all the way to the ninth paragraph of the article to find that – ooops – St. Anthony students fare no better than MPS students in standardized tests. “The school has a long way to go,” puffs Borsuk. No, the school is right where it is and has been for several years. If this return to an imaginary view of the 1950's is so great, what’s the problem? Never mind, writes Borsuk, “the track it is building is eye-catching.” So there, MPS – you don’t have enough eye-catching “tracks”; not enough gimmicks being driven by for-profit education hacks with effective PR. Not that Borsuk or the Journal Sentinel would notice if they did.
Speaking of for-profit education hacks...no, wait, you can only say nice things about Howard Fuller, right? A formerly credible civil rights activist, Fuller has held court as the sainted Voice of the voucher profiteers for decades and now presides as a director of the Bradley Foundation-funded and hilariously-named Institute for the Transformation of Learning program at right-wing Marquette University. You know the J-S is serious about rehabilitating the voucher program’s reputation when they call in Fuller to try to do it for them. The highly-motivated and conflict-ridden Fuller – not only is he beholden to right-wing agenda money, his wife Deborah McGriff (like him, a failed superintendent of MPS) is an executive vice-president of the pioneering for-profit-and-get-taxpayers-to-pay-for-it Edison Schools company – makes more of the usual excuses we have heard since the report came out: It’s only one report in a series (Fuller and others have led the effort to prevent earlier accountability studies); the taxpayers of Milwaukee getting stuck and the rest of the state getting a break is, I guess, too damn bad; and the voucher parents are satisfied (but, strangely, no more so than MPS parents, despite the fact that most of them are getting their kids’ religiously trained for free). “If we are smart,” Fuller says smugly, “we will end the battle over the MPCP and work together to take advantage of the best practices that exist in our various systems of learning in this community.” Oh, that’s it – we are just too damn dumb to see how throwing money at places like Alex’s Academy of Excellence and the Mandela School and getting the same result as MPS is a good idea. My bad.
Fuller’s is one of four columns in this Sunday’s opinion section. “There was a time when school choice was touted as a panacea, as the competitive leverage the public schools needed to improve, as a means to empower parents and save low-income students from bad schools,” writes Anneliese Dickman of the centrist Public Policy Forum. “With the latest data, however, the Milwaukee voucher program is now simply portrayed as a popular program that pleases parents and performs at least as well as MPS.” “A popular program that pleases parents”? Shouldn’t that be the public schools?
But, for comic relief, you can’t beat the Journal Sentinel’s resident wing-nut comedian, Patrick McIlheran. Paddy Mac, you see, drives his kids to a Catholic school in Wauwatosa everyday, where they get candy and games on All Saints Day, and he can’t see why Milwaukee taxpayers shouldn’t be soaked for the same religious nonsense for poor children. While citing studies that don’t exist (“There's already good research suggesting that choice schools outperform public schools,” he claims. Well, no...if there was, Fuller would be hitting us over the head with it.), he really doesn't care if the voucher scam fails to deliver on any of its many promises. Sure, what’s a half-a-billion down the drain between friends.
As always, Paddy Mac saves the best punch-line for the end. “Some 80% of Milwaukee's choice schools have a religious basis, just as my children's school outside the program does. Among public schools, there are those dedicated to beliefs such as environmentalism.” Get it? The public schools teaching simple science and promoting environmental awareness (what are they supposed to do when the field trip finds a three-eyed frog in the river – applaud?) is the same as pushing often-medieval religious practices and beliefs on impressionable school children. It’s what the parents want, you see (or, in the case of head-in-the-sand anti-science types like McIlheran, don’t want). “Some [parents] certifiably are [fools], just as some people make poor choices that leave them unhealthy, poor or miserable,” says McIlheran. Oh, don’t forget leaving them stupid. Heavy on the stupid, Patrick.
So, Paddy Mac is all in favor of funding bad choices and foolishness. I guess I know what he means. After all, I am a subscriber to the Journal Sentinel.