by Steve Blow
05:27 AM CDT on Wednesday, October 4, 2006
To be honest, I'm not all that enthused about writing this column. Seems we've trod this ground before.
But when the opposition is so relentless and the stakes are so high, it's foolish to let tedium distract.
So let's take a moment to counter the $400,000 advertising campaign now aimed at you ˆ the one touting "school choice." And, of course, that's code for "private school vouchers."
Once again, this is the high-dollar handiwork of San Antonio vouchers proponent ˆ no, that's too mild ˆ let's say "vouchers zealot" James Leininger.
This fellow just won't take "no" for an answer. Over and over, the Texas Legislature has rejected his voucher schemes ˆ taking the wiser course of raising standards for public schools, not draining funds from them.
In the last legislative elections, you recall, Dr. Leininger tried an end run by pouring campaign money toward the defeat of five key voucher opponents.
His $2.5 million investment succeeded in ousting two of them.
The strategy this time is a little class warfare. In radio ads and on billboards, he's trying to stir up the wrath of poor folks.
I spotted one of the billboards on the edge of downtown yesterday. It shows a nice, upstanding black family and says: "All families deserve a choice, Not just the rich. Give parents a choice, Give children a chance."
That's the wedge Dr. Leininger and his Texans For School Choice hope to use in getting a voucher pilot project approved when the Legislature convenes in January. The plan would take money from public schools and give it to low-income families for private-school tuition.
But let's look at three significant issues overlooked by this latest campaign:
No. 1. Parents already have a choice. Every school district of any size offers a variety of options ˆ magnet schools, specialty career or arts schools, talented-and-gifted schools, etc. Add to that the 313 charter public schools across the state, which offer free, open enrollment to students, no matter where they live.
And on top of all that, by law, no student is trapped in a low-performing school. Districts are required to offer transfers from any school that failed to meet federal academic standards for two years.
No. 2. Parents have choices, but few exercise them. So why gamble on vouchers? Where is this competitive pressure that is supposed to create great schools?
Nationally, only 1 to 2 percent of eligible students transfer from low-performing schools. It was 1.1 percent last year in Dallas and less than 1 percent in Fort Worth.
The excellent, rigorous KIPP TRUTH Academy ˆ a free charter school in South Dallas ˆ began the school year with empty seats. Not enough parents applied to even fill the school.
No. 3. There is no magic to private schools. Voucher proponents love to deride "government schools" as hopeless and inept. They love to portray private schools as wholesome, sure-fire successes.
The truth is that, overall, there's very little difference. A huge federal study released this summer found that students of like economic backgrounds perform almost identically whether in public or private schools.
And those charter schools? They were supposed to be the magic solution, allowing private operation of tax-funded schools.
Results have been lackluster across the state. A few, like the KIPP schools, have been great. Most have been so-so. And far too many have been "academically unacceptable" ˆ 13 percent of them last year, compared to just 4 percent of traditional public schools.
Listen, there is always room for improvement in our public schools. And we shouldn't be afraid of innovation.
But don't buy the baloney that all of public education is in disarray. Or that there are miracle fixes.
Quality public education has been one of our nation's greatest achievements. It's part of what has made us strong, united and truly a land of opportunity.
Let's build on that success, not dismantle it.
Online at: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/localnews/columnists/sblow/stories/DN-blow_04met.ART.North.Edition1.3dd078a.html