Increasing the Market for Baloney: Are Universal Vouchers like Lunchables?

Lunchables were very popular in my kids’ elementary school cafeteria. Marketed as convenient prepackaged school lunch, they are likely seen as a timesaver for busy working moms. I don’t buy Lunchables for my kids, preferring what I consider healthier options. I respect the right of parents to make nutritional choices for their own children, but it is not something I want to spend MY money on. (Likewise, our family budget doesn’t allow for sending our children to school with filet mignon in their lunches, but I respect another parent’s right to do so, if they choose.) Apparently, the Lunchable Creator Won’t Even Feed Them to His Own Kids:

“Highly processed, enticingly packaged creations targeted to young children, nutrient poor Lunchables are offered in numerous combinations to suit any young, impressionable palate. The Lunchables brand boasts 26 different varieties of meal combos. Examples include crackers, pizzas, small hot dogs, small burgers, nachos, subs, and pseudo healthy wraps.

The meats are frequently cut, filled, and/or extended with hormone disrupting soy protein. Further, this GMO frankenfood is disguised under a variety of aliases.

Lunchables also can include an assortment of drinks and desserts. The drink is commonly a GMO high fructose corn syrup laden Capri Sun or Tropical Punch flavored Kool-Aid mix with bottled water. Desserts would be jello or pudding or a candy alternative, like Reese’s cups or Butterfingers.

I’ve often wondered how corporate executives who come up with these products live with themselves…

Bob Drane, Lunchables inventor, whose own upper middle class children don’t eat what Daddy created for “other” children, had this to say:

“I wish that the nutritional profile of the thing could have been better, but I don’t view the entire project as anything but a positive contribution to people’s lives.”

Drane’s own daughter confessed:  “We eat healthy.””

According to a reference in Wikipedia, Lunchables were designed as a way to sell more bologna.

I see simlarities between Lunchables and the School Choice movement’s move towards Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)/Universal Vouchers and I’m not sure my tax dollars should be paying for either.

We described ESAs in “ESAs: Education Choice with a Side of Accountabaloney“:

Rather than a simple voucher system that allows students to use state money to attend private schools, ESAs allow parents to use state funding for a “customized” education for their children, paying for a wide array of educational services: tutoring, exam fees, online programs, in addition to tuition.  Unused ESA funds can even be saved to pay for college. ESAs will expand the publicly funded education realm, creating (in theory) a marketplace of education products for parents to choose from and allow public funding of those choices with little to no true accountability. ESAs will usher in what education reformers refer to as the “post-facility” education system, where children learn from a smart phone, instead of in brick and mortar classrooms. ESAs are supported by both Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Look for their model bills, establishing or expanding ESA programs, in a statehouse near you.

Are ESA, like Lunchables, designed to sell us more baloney?

It looks like 2018 may be the year for Universal Vouchers in Florida. Palm Bay Representative Randy Fine has announced his intention to file a Universal Voucher bill this session and the James Madison Institute, a “think-tank” with deep ties to ALEC and the Koch Brothers, has suggested the program be named after Civil Rights icon and educator, Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune (you can read their plans here).

The “idea” of Universal School Choice via ESAs, placing parents in complete control of their child’s tax funded education, may sound good on the surface but the lack of clear accountability for such programs is astounding.

In Florida, public school children, like mine, are required to participate in endless hours of expensive, computer based, state mandated, high stakes assessments, district mandated progress monitoring and test prep; their teachers and schools are ranked and rewarded and/or punished for those scores; promotion, retention, remediation, course grades and graduation decisions depend on those scores; and there are even legislative mandates that define amount of uninterrupted time a kindergarten must receive reading instruction, often leading to the elimination of free play for our youngest learners. These things, we have been told, we need because of “accountability.”

On the other hand, Foundation for Florida’s Future, Adam Peshek, while speaking at an 2015 Excelled Summit session focused on Education Savings Accounts (watch at 40:25), suggested that such testing requirements would be “ridiculous” with Universal Vouchers where  accountability could be assured through “crowd sourcing,” suggesting that parents could rate education providers in much the same way that riders rate Uber drivers.

For the record, here is an image from showing that this Lunchable received 5 stars:

At the 2016 Excelled Summit, in a session titled “ESAs & the New Frontier in Educational Choice,”  Robert Enlow (President and Chief Executive Officer, EdChoice, watch at 6:00) suggested the burden of accountability for ESA spending could be placed on the parent, with apparently no outcomes measure, at all:

true accountability, in this case, is if a parent doesn’t use the money correctly, the state can kick them out, reclaim the money or… could be convicted of fraud.”

Apparently, they have moved beyond the Uber/crowd sourcing model of accountability and went straight to punishing parents who don’t follow the rules of this new education marketplace.

Public Education is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida and providing it is a paramount duty of the state. We expect our education tax dollars to be spent in a responsible way. When states create programs that give public education funds to private individuals, allowing them to spend as they please, with few regulations, and, at the same time, expect students and certified teachers in traditional public schools to submit to an onerous, test and punish accountability system, that is accountabaloney: It is not fair, it is not fiscally responsible and, by allowing parents free range to spend tax generated education dollars, it eliminates local control and fails to hold private, public and home schoolers to the same accountability standards, placing the bulk of the accountability burden on those who chose public schools.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the onerous burden of test-based accountability is placed primarily on traditional brick and mortar public schools; it is by design. Such systems will encourage families to escape from test and punish public schools, helping to usher in the reformer’s “post facility,” profitable, publicly funded, privately managed education system.

To be clear, I am not suggesting parents shouldn’t be allowed to choose the academic environment they want for their child, I just am not sure that their neighbors should have to pay for every choice they make. For example, should taxpayers pay for unschooling (which might be a perfectly valid personal choice)? Should taxpayers pay for students to attend madrasas or other religious institutions? Where is the line between tax funding and parental choice? Whose responsibility is it to assure education tax dollars are spent appropriately? Do private schools even want to be held to the same accountability standards as our tax funded schools?

Universal Vouchers allow lawmakers to shirk their responsibility of providing “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education” placing the burden of choice on time and cash strapped families. Lunchables were designed to sell time-strapped families baloney… are Universal Vouchers much different?

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