Friday, September 9, 2016

In praise of Diane Zook for questions on voucher program

Posted By on Fri, Sep 9, 2016 at 7:25 AM

click to enlarge DIANE ZOOK: Good questions on voucher program. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • DIANE ZOOK: Good questions on voucher program.
Diane Zook, the state Board of Education member who's drawn criticism here for her zeal for charter schools and other damage to the Little Rock School District, distinguished herself at yesterday's Board meeting with important questions about a new voucher program that will send taxpayer money to private, mostly religious schools.

When the Republican- and charter- and voucher-supporting Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave a cheerleading introduction to this program, I raised questions about this latest gift from the Walton Family Foundation war against public schools. The D-G followed up the unquestioning news account with a fawning editorial dismissive of criticism.

Wednesday, I heard former Little Rock School Superintendent Baker Kurrus raise similar questions. He knows whereof he speaks, with family experience with "individual education plans." Under rules adopted by this board, any and all of these plans qualify a student to take $6,600 in state tax money to the private school of  the family's choice. The schools must meet some bare-bones rules (very little about the quality of the services they provide.)

An IEP can be given for something as relatively small as a speech or hearing impediment. The "plan" might insure, for example as Kurrus explained it, that the child with a hearing problem  is seated close to the front of the room. Be sure that most private schools aren't looking to take on all the children that Little Rock schools must help with profound problems. Some never leave "self-contained" classrooms. Some are on feeding tubes. But the state rules treat all with IEPs as equal — the profoundly disabled and the child learning to articulate better.

Rep. Doug House, who sponsored this giveaway, seemed surprised to learn of the gaping loophole.  The legislature might need a second look, he said.

But back to Zook, whose speciality as teacher and administrator was special education, as quoted in the Democrat-Gazette this morning:

* She asked why put a Walton-financed organization in place to handle applications and dispense the money? The state Education Department can't do this? Is use of the pass-through a way to avoid constitutional arguments against sending public money to religious institutions? Good question. Is it an end-run around other legal restrictions? 

* Real public schools must employ special ed teachers. Zook questioned whether employing a part-time special-education teacher or sharing a special-education teacher among schools meets the requirement in the law that every eligible school employ a state-licensed special-education teacher. An answer that each school must "employ or contract with" a licensed special ed teacher didn't strike me as a sufficient answer.

State Education Director Johnny Key lacks credibility because he has been a devoted bag-carrier for Walton Foundation desires  since his days in the legislature. Nonetheless, his duly recorded alibi:

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key said he wanted to "dispel the notion" that the department is using the third party to do an end-run around legal restrictions. The involvement of The Reform Alliance, he said, enables the Education Department to avoid having to institute an all new system for distributing money to parents for what is right now a pilot program.
Only action and practice will dispel notions, not Key's empty words.  I ask again if the taxpayers who are sending this money to church schools — at least one of which has already said it's not interested in severely disabled children, just the lesser kind — will have accountability.

What students get the money? What is their race? What is their economic status? What is the nature of their disabilities? What are the demonstrated needs being unmet in public school districts? What is on offer that is superior in the private schools?

I look forward to the Walton cutout organization's response to the first Freedom of Information Act request for the specifics on how the money is being spent. I expect they will say they are a private organization, unsupported by public money, and that their  records are not under the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

If so, I count on the the Democrat-Gazette editorialists to condescendingly explain to me why this is a very good thing.

The voucher camel's nose is in the tent. It will not retreat.

But thanks to Diane Zook for asking some pointed questions.

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