Thursday, September 22, 2016

Walton public school attack continues for Massachusetts charters and Arkansas vouchers

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2016 at 8:05 AM

REP. DOUG HOUSE: Says voucher program he created goes farther than he intended in students it covers.
  • REP. DOUG HOUSE: Says voucher program he created goes farther than he intended in students it covers.
Massachusetts voters will consider this fall removing the cap on charter schools and the battle has been bruising, with the Billionaires Club that backs charter schools investing heavily to continue its assault on conventional public schools.

Massachusetts, by the way, is a national leader in education.

Here's a report on spending in the charter school battle. It should be no surprise that Jim and Alice Walton have contributed $1.8 million between them to the campaign to remove the charter school cap. It's part of their massive effort to tear down conventional public school districts for a marketplace model.

As luck had it, I got a reminder of one of the Walton assaults in Arkansas last night.

I got a call at home to participate in a "town hall" on the new school voucher program that the Waltons helped push through the legislature in 2015.  It's a beginning step to the Billionaires Club's holy grail — school vouchers for all. The "Success Scholarship" is open to any student with an individual education plan, or IEP. Again: Any student, no matter how small or large the special education condition that requires some special attention — a slight speech impediment, for example. They must come from a year in a public school.

The town hall was put on by a Walton-backed organization, the Reform Alliance, which is spending big sums of Walton money to recruit people to take this money to go to private schools. The group has been designated by the Walton-controlled Education Department (former Republican Sen. Johnny Key, prop.) to oversee the scholarship program. That means it is unaccountable to the public because it is funded by Waltons and not the state. It's an open question if the Alliance will reveal how many people applied, how many were accepted, the sorts of needs met and the demographics of those served.

I put a question to a screener and, when they ran out of questions, the moderator finally dealt with mine. The moderator had already said anybody can apply — no restrictions apart from the required IEP and a year in public school — but she emphasized the schools that participate make the call on who's selected. I asked what's to guarantee that the private schools won't take the students with the slightest problems  and refuse difficult cases (as one school has already said it would do).

"Interesting question," said the moderator. She then proceeded to dodge it. She reiterated that anyone could apply. I didn't ask about applications. I asked about acceptance. I expect the public will not be able to get answers from private schools about their decisions to accept some and not others.

The town hall also included an "expert" from the Walton-financed education reform unit at their university branch in Fayetteville. She claimed great success with voucher programs elsewhere, at least as measured by parent satisfaction. Oops. Florida, a leader in such a program, doesn't allow academic performance measurement.

Even the Waltonite running the show had to tacitly acknowledge that there's confirmation bias when the state gives parents money to take their kid wherever they want. Parents, sad to say, are not always the best judge of a school's competence even if they feel good about it. See some truly awful schools — public, private, charter and at home — that parents love. And you want vouchers? Get a load of some of the findings on the disastrous Louisiana voucher program.

But I'd like to say a positive word for Rep. Doug House, the Republican who sponsored this voucher program. He's said he acted independently and had in mind children with great disabilities. He wanted a way for state support to help children with profound needs attend schools like Pathfinder in Jacksonville. He professed surprise to learn after the fact how broadly the IEP's could be interpreted. He said it was not his intention to go so far. He's talking about seeking changes in the next legislative session. Could be interesting if it happens.

Meanwhile, his response to my question on this subject was so thoughtful and extensive, I'm going to give it all to you here. Read on if you've time:

Truly, I have never had a conversation with anybody that I know of from the Walton Foundation. I did know that WF was or is a sponsor of the Friedman Foundation. It was at a Friedman seminar in Charlotte, NC in 2013 or 2014 that I first met two OK legislators (a Dem Senator and GOP Rep) about their scholarship program for disabled kids. But the idea for the scholarship program came after two dear friends of my wife, Anita, and me, who had so very very much trouble with PCSSD trying to get educational help for their two adopted children. These were HDC kids who were devastated by their mother's crack cocaine addition while she was pregnant. No, HDC did not tell the adoptive parents. But everybody else who got involved in the Succeed Scholarship came in after I filed my bill. If it is wrong, it is my fault. If it is right, then I credit the bipartisan cooperation of all 135 members of the General Assembly and everybody who believes that every child deserves an appropriate education.

I have said publicly, and say so again: I do not like vouchers either. Vouchers are contractual promises by the state to pay a private institution. A scholarship puts the parents in control. In the Succeed Scholarship a parent controls the money and can yank it on a month's notice. The state makes no promises. Are some parents going to screw up? Of course. Some schools screw up now, too. But I am not so elitist to say that a parent does not have the right to make their own decisions about what is best for their own disabled child. Straw-man "what if" lack-of-the-perfect will not be the enemy of the good. I have also promised that I would not introduce a bill to expand this program to other than severely disabled children.

When I was working on the bill in 2015, I went to the Associations for Administrators, School Boards and the Teachers. I presented them with some indisputable facts: first, every special education teacher in this state and nation will admit that there are simply some children whose disabilities are so severe that a public school academic environment cannot help them. Examples: Down's, Autism, MS, MD, injuries, prenatal injuries and poisoning etc. Secondly, many of these kids are extremely expensive for the school districts, and most of the district administrators and principals struggle to do the best they can. And lastly, many parents recognize that despite the best efforts by the schools, an alternative learning environment offers a better alternative, but they simply can't afford it. Pathfinder for Down's kids in Jacksonville, and Access Academy in Little Rock for a host of other disabilities offer alternatives to desperate parents. These are the kids and the parents I am trying to help. It's not much. The school districts have the authority to spend whatever money needed to fund these kids at alternative schools. But to get them to do so?

So the administrators, teachers, and school board reps offered suggestions. They were frank, they could not support a scholarship program but they would not fight it. (After all, there is a financial incentive for them if they can't really help a kid) But give the schools a one year try. Give the schools an opportunity to visit with the parents about the resources the schools can bring to the table before the parents make the commitment. Have the parents sign a waiver that so long as the child is dis-enrolled, the district and the state are relieved from responsibility. Gosh, consider Vilonia, one of my districts. it is a district that pulls out all the stops to do the best they can and I'd pit them against any school district in the country. I;ve seen a kid in a wheel chair. with modified classrooms, with two teachers and two attendants, a special bus, etc. This is a $200,000 kid!. But ultimately, it is the parents' choice. Are some parents going to make bad decisions, of course they are. I love the public schools, and most of my colleagues (especially the rural GOP members) are crazy about theirs. But every last one of them (see the vote count for the bill and the appropriation) recognize that there are simply some kids that can't be helped in a traditional setting. Gosh, we have the Schools for the Blind and the Deaf. We don't have public schools for the Down's, or for the autistic, or the quadriplegic. Wealthy folks or folks with means have already found the help for their child, or grandchild. I learned of one financial institution executive who is most pleased with her autistic granddaughter singing songs and hugging teacher assistants all day long. She related that while she has the means, they also have raffles and car washes to raise money to help the less wealthy parents pay their way. This is a blessing for the parents of limited means.

In 2017 I plan to tighten up the definition of severely disabled. I'm not an educator, I am a retired soldier. I wished somebody had told me about the federal disability classification system when we were talking about this very subject in 2015. And I also think that it is foolish to force a parent to enroll a kindergartner for a year, the parent and the school knowing full well they can't help a particular child, just in order to get state assistance in an alternative learning environment. I'm comfortable with authorizing the district superintendent ( or her designee) to waive the one year enrollment requirement. I see the wisdom of a pilot program, you learn along the way. 

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