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October 14, 2012

Will Vouchers, Charters and Virtual Schools Turn Out the Friday Night Lights?

Posted in: Education,Privatization

With a disgraceful and relentless disregard for America’s social fabric, Republicans around the country are doing what they can to destroy public education.

Based on model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the GOP is pushing vouchers, corporate virtual schools and charter schools. Meanwhile, they’ve rigged policy against public schools, draining them of funding and using ridiculous high-stakes tests to attack the reputations of teachers and public schools.

The social, cultural and economic consequences of the privatization effort are staggering. Still, they are often overlooked in the debate. There has not been enough discussion about the central role public schools play in America’s social and economic life.

In advance of a renewed GOP privatization push in Texas, my colleagues and I at Progress Texas produced a short video regarding the threat to a legendary Texas tradition: Friday night football. The video is called, “Will Our Friday Night Lights Go Out?” We were lucky to have two young actors from the TV series, “Friday Night Lights,” appear in the video. Both had been Texas high school football standouts. The video has received broad coverage in the press, and finally opened a window onto what a world of privatized schools might do to us.

Funding cuts have already hurt public school athletic programs, as well as music, arts, and other curricula necessary to a well-rounded education. But the real threat comes from the drive to scatter hundreds of thousands of students into at-home virtual schools, storefront charter schools, and other private schools – all of them funded with taxpayer money.

Backers of the privatization initiative here claim they could take 300,000 students and $1 billion a year from public schools. A drain of that magnitude in money and students will destroy many things we all take for granted – including public school athletics.

The key backer of privatization, state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, used to be a TV sports reporter, for crying out loud. So far, Patrick’s only response to our video and press initiative was to call it undeserving of response. Patrick and his privatization conspirators, however, need to engage in full and open conversation about the consequences of their plans, which call for taking 12 percent of Texas students out of public schools every two years.

Stripped of student competitors and money for programs, the Friday Night Lights are going to dim if not go out altogether. Schools will be downgraded to lower divisions when they lose students. Competition will be disrupted and greatly diminished. A few schools might use vouchers as recruiting tools, leading to a small number of “powerhouses” and thousands of schools that can barely field teams.

The opposition to school vouchers focuses too much on wonky number games and intricate policy details. It’s time we talked about how the abandonment of public education will derange American social life. We take so many of the benefits for granted we have a hard time talking about what life would be like without them.

Public schools are social and cultural centers. Neighborhoods organize around them. Holiday pageants, school plays, orchestra concerts, and parents’ meetings are integral parts of many parents’ daily life. We often become friends of the parents of our children’s friends and engage with folks we otherwise would never have met. These relationships extend beyond the school years. Scatter students to the winds and social life will further fragment. We will all be less connected to one another.

The only people to gain will be the corporate privatizers themselves. Meanwhile, they will be creating a nation of disconnected citizens who won’t learn to become productive enough to buy the stuff businesses want to sell. Social and economic inequality will grow, and, since the corporate sponsors want to dodge accountability, it’s likely that the education our children receive will only decline.

It goes without saying that participation in sports teaches responsibility, discipline, and maybe most importantly, teamwork and cooperation. These are all deeply held values, and they will be put at risk by the Right’s radical agenda to dismantle public education.

We need to bring a great deal more attention to this attack on deeply held American values. For decades, private schools have existed in a balance with public schools, and I do not mean to criticize them or the families that decide private schooling is best for them. But the scale of the proposed expansion of private schools is another thing altogether. Many people believe the balance will stay the same, that it’s just a matter of using vouchers to make the private schools more available.

There is much more at stake than that.



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