Fear and loathing, from the school board to the statehouse

The mainstream resistance to school choice has embraced the language of fear and unrest. National School Boards Association executive director Anne L. Bryant asked recently in the Huffington Post whether virtual schools are a sham and warned of “corruption and greed” among for-profit providers looking to cash in on students. It would be foolish to dismiss this as a more aggressive rhetorical attempt to retain dominance in the public school marketplace. Arguments such as Bryant’s are showing success in state legislatures and they’re degenerating legitimate debate over education reform.

The mainstream resistance to school choice has embraced the language of fear and unrest.

For instance, a proposed parent trigger law in Florida failed in the state Senate after opponents similarly warned that gullible parents would be swooned by corporate education raiders looking to profit by converting traditional schools to charters. Never mind that charters have been flourishing in the Sunshine State for more than fifteen years. Democrat Nan Rich, the Senate’s minority leader, said the trigger would lay “the groundwork for the hostile corporate takeover of public schools across Florida.” Eight Republicans joined Rich and eleven other Democrats to defeat the measure, and nearly all expressed the same contempt.

There is more than just semantics at stake. Rich and her colleagues arguably were trying to revise history and the parent trigger gave them the opportunity. Bryant, while representing more than 90,000 local school board members, used her polemic to frame how states should contain online learning—for those public schools “in small or rural school districts that do not have the capacity to hire teachers for specialized courses, such as foreign languages, or schools that need to provide advanced or remedial classes for just a few students.”

Just a few students. This is why Hoover scholar John E. Chubb argued Monday on Fordham’s Boards Eye View blog for states to relieve local school boards of the authority to govern student access to online learning. “Boards may decide these matters with more on their minds than quality control,” Chubb wrote. “Every time a student opts to receive a bit of education outside of a home school, the school or district faces a financial hit.”

Indeed, Bryant expresses concern that the “messy, emerging field” of virtual education has documented little evidence of success. She’s not the first to do so, but her descent into the rhetoric of the Save Our Schools movement further casts the debate of education reform into one of students versus profits. Unfortunately, as Florida has shown, Bryant and her constituency have a receptive audience in the statehouse.

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