School vouchers and the NCLB conspiracy

I hope a lot of people are concerned by a $100 million voucher proposal recently announced by House Republicans. The bill would provide voucher money to poor communities where public schools aren’t meeting the testing standards imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act.

(And to think some folks wondered what the real strategy behind NCLB was. The law’s goal isn’t to fix public schools—it’s to show how bad some of them are doing in order to justify vouchers.)

Although the bill’s sponsors acknowledged that Congress isn’t likely to vote on it this year, the very attempt proves that the religious right and the Republicans who do their bidding are indeed one rascally group.

Getting poor people to buy in on the voucher idea is a smart strategy, because it hits the public schools where they’re most vulnerable—in the country’s most economically devastated areas, where any kind of school would have a tough time educating children. Pandering to the poor also creates the illusion of the G.O.P. as champions of the disadvantaged. (You may have just choked on your coffee as you read that last sentence, but, hey, money talks in politics.)

Republicans excel at getting their base the big bucks by throwing the rest of us a few scraps, and voucher money for the poor is indeed table scraps compared to the billions that white fundamentalist Christians in the South will get. (Speaking of whom, how is it that the South, which has no industry to speak of, has so much influence on American politics?)

Those folks are keen to get the taxpayers to pick up the tab for their kids’ religious education. What’s more, the large religious schools that will rake in the most voucher money are owned by the big corporate mega-churches—the ones where, by coincidence, parishioners are told that God wants them to vote Republican.

The G.O.P.’s timing in unveiling its voucher bill was unintentionally ironic: The announcement came only days after the Department of Education oh-so-quietly released a statistical study showing that public schools do as good a job at educating kids as the much-vaunted private schools do. Which sort of removes the entire justification for the voucher concept, doesn’t it?

Still, doesn’t it behoove those of us who want to stop this incremental rollout of a national school-voucher program to do a bit of thinking about how to pre-empt vouchers by, for instance, improving floundering schools? Doing so will take effort at the national level.

Too many schools perform poorly because they’re in poor neighborhoods: Whether in an urban housing project or a rural trailer park, too many parents are a downright negative factor in the education of their own children. Holding parents more accountable for their kids’ academic performance—and cracking down on the most disruptive students—will take serious political will.

A structural problem facing public schools is that they are funded on too local a level: A school’s budget is essentially determined by what real estate in the surrounding area is worth. Fixing this screwed-up school-funding system absolutely requires action on a national level. Even in a best-case scenario, compromises with the anti-public-education crowd could possibly leave us with some half-assed, jury-rigged system, but it would still be an improvement over what we have.

The soldiers fighting the Great War on Godless Education would fiercely oppose a national system for funding public education—because they know that federal money initially offered unconditionally can become conditional later on. Schools in the Bible Belt that refused to teach science and other reality-based alternatives to thousand-year-old fairy tales could see their funding threatened—just as the Republicans are doing to our schools through No Child Left Behind.