Braun: Advocates of privatized education want to end public schools
Bob Braun/Star-Ledger Columnist | NJ .com
Do supporters of privatized schooling — including Gov. Chris Christie — really want to destroy public schools? Is even asking the question an exercise in political hyperventilating?
It’s a charge frequently made by NJEA President Barbara Keshishian who said, "Chris Christie has one objective: to destroy New Jersey’s public schools in order to pave the way for their privatization.’’ He declined to comment for this article, but Christie — through spokesman Michael Drewniak — has insisted he likes public schools, just not their unions.
"The Governor’s issue is with a union that opposes reform,’" Drewniak said.
There was a time when advocating the elimination of public schools was so politically toxic that even those who harbored the desire stayed in the closet. That may be changing.
"We think public schools should go away,’’ says Teri Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party and a leading advocate — both in New Jersey and Pennsylvania — of passage of school voucher bills. The tea party operates in those two states and Delaware.
They should "go away," she says, because "they are hurting our children.’’
Adams’ group — and its political action committee run by her brother Don — lobbied for voucher bills in New Jersey and campaigned for south Jersey political candidates. One of those candidates, Republican Jon Runyan, last year captured the 3rd Congressional District seat held by Democrat John Adler, who died months later. Runyan also wouldn’t comment.
This spring, she concentrated most of her organization’s efforts on passage of a comprehensive voucher bill in Pennsylvania. The state already has a limited "scholarship" program — much like the one now under consideration in the New Jersey legislature and advocated by Christie — but the new bill would have extended vouchers to all students in Pennsylvania.
Adams says the current voucher program "discriminates" against wealthier students by providing public subsidies only to inner-city children in allegedly failing schools. Her group’s e-mails pushing vouchers caught the attention of James Kovalcin of South Brunswick, a retired public school teacher who asked Adams for clarification. She responded via email:
"Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only, eventually returning responsibility for payment to parents and private charities. It’s going to happen piecemeal and not overnight. It took us years to get into this mess and it’s going to take years to get out of it."
"I was shocked she was so open about it, but her view didn’t surprise me,’’ says Kovalcin, an award-winning physics teacher honored by The Star-Ledger Scholars, a now defunct program, that identified the best New Jersey students and teachers for 22 years.
In a phone interview, Adams acknowledged she sent the e-mail and made the comment that public schools should "go away." After the interview, she called back to say her position "now" was the elimination of failing urban schools with the decision of what to do with more successful suburban schools to come later.
Can other — more mainstream — political figures agree with the aims or privatization without embracing the motivation? George Norcross, the Camden County Democratic political boss who is helping Republican Christie push vouchers in New Jersey, says he supports the Pennsylvania efforts but quickly adds, "This is not about the destruction of public schools."
What would motivate anyone to destroy public schools? Kovalcin believes it is a legacy of the banning of prayer in the public schools. "They became the enemy of the religious right," he says. James Harris, the head of the New Jersey NAACP, has traced anti-public school sentiment back to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision banning racial segregation.
Others see commercial motives in wanting the schools shut down. "It’s one of the really big pots of money,’’ says Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers law professor in Newark. "We spend $630 billion a year on education and many want it for private profits.’’
So many reasons exist for wanting public schools — as Adams puts it — "to go away.’’ Maybe, with efforts like that of her Independence Hall Tea Party, a debate can begin on whether we really want the uniquely American experiment of universal, local and free public education.
Julia Rubin, of Princeton, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools-New Jersey and an opponent of privatization, paid Adams what might be seen as a back-handed compliment:
"It’s refreshing to see a vouchers promoter who is honest about her real intent — to destroy public education. Fortunately, most New Jersey residents understand how devastating vouchers would be for our excellent public schools.’’