Wherever the Backpack Roams

I continue to be amazed at how little general attention has been drawn by Mitt Romney’s radical proposal to turn all federal K-12 education dollars into vouchers that will, as one of his advisors, Grover Whitehurst, likes to put it, follow kids around like a backpack wherever their parents choose to send them.

If the Romney proposal is implemented and becomes, as it appears designed to become, a super-charged magnet for state as well as federal money to flow into private schools, some pretty big questions will have to be asked about whether any conditions will be placed on private use of public dollars. Will schools all over the country receiving public largesse be like some of those which are beginning to receive state money via Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s new “scholarship” (just another word in this case for “voucher”) program? Here’s a report on those fine institutions from the Independent Weekly‘s Walter Pierce:

The tally of private schools approved by the state Department of Education to accept voucher students reads like a who’s-who of who’s-that; one sees few big brand names — no St. Thomas Mores or John Curtises. Evangel, a football powerhouse in Shreveport, jumps out, but the vast majority is overwhelmingly small, Christian schools — evangelical mostly along with a fair number of Roman Catholic schools — tiny operations with fewer than 100 students…

Most appear to be tied to evangelical churches with names like Eternity Christian Academy, Old Bethel Christian Academy and Boutte Christian Academy. In fact, “Christian” and “academy” dominate the nomenclature….

The most brazen example is Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake. The school has been approved to accept 135 new students. That’s a considerable uptick in enrollment, which at the end of this school year stood at 38 — a more than 300 percent increase. Talk about buttressing the budget; $1 million in tax dollars will be diverted from the public school system to Eternity Christian, a school that, according to its mission statement, offers “a quality faith-based curriculum that is soley [sic] based on principles from the Bible …”

So the Louisiana program is using state funds to prop up marginal church-based schools with zero vetting of their curriculum, facilities, instructional credentials or standards. “The market,” or, I suppose, the Good Lord will sort them out eventually.

A separate piece on the Louisiana program by Alternet’s Bruce Wilson (published at Salon) notes that a number of beneficiary schools use textbooks that explicitly preach anti-evolution and anti-gay nostrums as science, along with revisionist history and political preferences.

Is this where Mitt Romney wants to push American education? And if he suggests (in the unlikely event he has to clarify his proposal anytime soon) schools will be vetted for quality or competence, how long will it be before that idea collides with the belief of Romney’s evangelical and conservative-Catholic allies that any regulation of religious bodies for use of public dollars is an assault on “religious freedom?”

The disconnect between Romney’s nice, vague rhetoric and his toxic policy specifics, and his ability to get the media to focus on the former rather than the latter, is becoming one of the defining characteristics of the general election contest so far.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.