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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's big rebranding speech was, of course, all warm and cuddly new face to the same old Republican ideas. Education is especially well fitted to that effort, since conservative think tanks have spent a decade marketing corporate education policy as being basically a new civil rights movement. Speaking Tuesday, Cantor fitted himself right into that frame even as he touted vouchers, charter schools, and for-profit higher education.
Cantor highlighted the voucher program imposed on Washington, D.C., by the federal government, pointing to a success story from the program. But while there are doubtless individual successes from any such program, just as there are individual successes at traditional public schools, according to a 2010 Department of Education study, there was "no conclusive evidence" that the D.C. voucher program improved student reading or math scores; the only improvement found was about a 12 percent increase in students' chances of graduating from high school.
A program that slightly improves the graduation rates of very small numbers of students is Eric Cantor's big idea? Well, no. Really, Cantor's big idea is to find an infinite number of ways to shift education funding around—preferably out of traditional public schools—without increasing funding or really paying any attention to whether all these new way to shift funding around actually improve outcomes. So he pushes vouchers as if they were more effective than they are, and he pushes charter schools even though their results are mixed at best and, overall, probably slightly worse than traditional public schools. Oh, and of course both vouchers and charters also fit a privatization agenda, funneling money out of a public school system that serves all kids and into religious schools and charters run by management companies that make off with big fees.
Similarly, Cantor lamented the high cost of college tuition without acknowledging that the major reason students are paying more is because per-student public higher education funding has fallen dramatically over the past 25 years, even as a college degree has become more and more essential to getting a good job. And he promised that "We will encourage entrepreneurship in higher education, including for-profit schools." For-profit colleges charge higher tuition than community colleges and state universities, have high drop-out rates, and produce nearly half of all federal student loan defaults despite only enrolling around 10 percent of students. But they do produce private profits, so yay!
All of Cantor's big, warm, fuzzy, rebranded Republican ideas on education boil down to this: Don't increase education funding. Rather, move the existing pool of public funding out of public educational institutions. If you can move it into private hands, so much the better. But if you can keep moving the same money into different programs, regardless of their track records, you have a better chance of keeping people from noticing that you're not actually investing in their kids any more, you're just changing the form of the existing investment in education. You know, the one the Republican Party is always trying to cut.