War on Public Schools Rages: Right-Wing "Think Tanks" on the Attack

By Gutstein, Donald | Our Schools, Our Selves, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

War on Public Schools Rages: Right-Wing "Think Tanks" on the Attack


Gutstein, Donald, Our Schools, Our Selves


Supporters of public education need to realize they're in the middle of a war for its future, and they're losing.

The Fraser Institute's school report-card program is merely the opening salvo in a campaign to strip pubUc education of its funding and direct the resources to the private and nonprofit sectors.

Every year the Institute spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to compile and disseminate its rankings of elementary and secondary schools. It has undreamed-of support from corporate media, which turn over dozens of pages each year for school rankings in the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Sun, Toronto Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, and Quebec newsmagazine L'Actualité.

Every year teachers'-union executives and education experts write op-ed pieces pointing out the serious deficiencies in the rankings. And every year the media play the rankers and their critics as a debate between two equally valid viewpoints.

Lost in the debate are the goals of universally accessible, publicly funded education, such as preparing children for citizenship, cultivating a skilled work force, and developing criticalthinking skills.

For its part, the Fraser Institute couldn't care less what the teachers say. It knows the report-card program is working the way it intends, which is to undermine public confidence in the pubhc system. The wealthy, who send their children to private schools, ask, "Why should I pay for the public system, especially the failing parts?" And the poor ask, "I'm not getting a fair deal from the pubhc system. Is there something else?"

Families are already buying houses near high-ranked public schools if they can afford to, or bussing their kids if they're fortunate enough to gain access to "better" schools. And divorcing parents fighting in the courts for custody of their children are citing the school rankings as a reason why the parent who lives near a high-ranked school should get custody.

The Institute's Peter Cowley, who manages the report cards, and whose background is marketing, not education, is clear about the goal of school ranking: to "establish one of the conditions necessary for a free market in education; namely the availability to consumers, in this case parents, of reliable information on the comparative value of services provided by competing supphers, in this case schools", he wrote in the September 2007 issue of Fraser Forum, the Institute's magazine.

Other conditions are necessary for a free market in education, the think tank says, and it is working to establish these, too. Most important is to create a system in which government or private entities provide vouches so that children from disadvantaged families can attend private schools. The Fraser Institute already has a program dedicated to this activity in Ontario and Alberta. Children First is bankroUed by the deep pockets of Canada's third-wealthiest family, the Westons, to the tune of $2 million to $3 miUion a year. Poor families compete for these vouchers, which can be used to attend religious or private schools.

And once one provincial government offers its own taxpayerfinanced vouchers, for-profit school chains will flood into that province. This dismal prospect is most likely to occur first in Alberta, where Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Alliance, stands a good chance of becoming the next premier.

Smith has advocated vouchers since she was a Fraser Institute intern in the mid-'90s. While in the think tank's employ, she coauthored a study with Vancouver Sun editorial pages editor Fazil Miniar (then the Institute's director of deregulation), which concluded that "schools must be given the freedom to innovate," and that making schools compete through a voucher scheme was the way to do this.

To prepare for the day when taxpayer-funded vouchers become a reahty, the Fraser Institute already has a web site promoting for-profit school chains.

"The intended effect of the report cards," Cowley wrote in 2007, is "to encourage multi-faceted competition among schools, both public and private. …

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