One of the foundations of a civilized society is a well-educated, voting population that is able to reason and engage in public debate from a common perspective to form a cohesive union necessary in a democratic society. In America’s infancy, the economic structure was based on agriculture that did not necessarily require an educated workforce and average citizens could not afford to send their children to schools which were tuition based.
In 1837, Horace Mann proposed that taxes be used to support a public education system in Massachusetts and the successful program spread to other states. By 1918 all states had a compulsory education system that mandated all children attend school through the 8th grade and it helped America generate a specialized, educated workforce to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution. The public school system in America today faces the threat of disbanding at the hands of religious, right-wing groups anxious to take tax dollars from public schools and use them to send students to private and religious schools.
There have been attempts in the past to privatize the education system in America with public funds from different conservative groups and Religious Right groups in the form of vouchers. The voucher system of education is a mainstay of the right-wing agenda, and the ultimate goal is elimination of America’s public education system. The proponents of privatization and the voucher system have used the euphemism “school choice” because Americans have resisted privatization and voucher schemes in the past because public schools have served the population well until the controversial “No Child Left Behind” program diluted education into little more than teaching a standardized test.
The privatization forces are part of a larger effort by conservative groups intent on promoting free-market fundamentalism, and besides privatizing the education system, their goals are eliminating government regulations, privatizing Social Security, dismantling unions, and nullifying environmental policy. The insidious attempt to privatize the education system is not about helping poor students get a quality education as some conservative advocates claim, but to separate school and state. The founder of the Cato Institute and other conservative think tank leaders have signed the Public Proclamation to Separate School and State, which by signing, “Announces to the world your commitment to end involvement by local, state, and federal government from education.” The notion of school vouchers was introduced in the 1950s by Milton Friedman, a free-market fundamentalist who said that, “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system,” and is a quote from a 1995 Cato briefing paper titled “Public Schools: Make Them Private.”
The conservative groups’ goal of changing public education and government into a free-market system is articulated by Joseph Bast, president of Heartland Institute who stated in 1997 that, “Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling. In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.” The ultra-conservatives are not concerned with offering “school choice” to parents or aiding poor children to gain a quality education, but to change the nature of education in America. At the Koch Brothers secret policy meetings held twice each year there are seminars on changing the education system into one that extols the virtues of free-market capitalism and libertarianism by controlling curriculum and offering superior educational opportunities in private and charter schools. The problem with voucher system schools is that they are not superior and do not outperform public schools.
The oldest voucher system program is Milwaukee’s School Choice Program, and standardized testing shows that students perform below the level of public school students who remain in the public system. Cleveland has a similar program with similar results to Milwaukee’s students. In fact, in some private voucher schools less than 20% of students reach basic proficiency levels in reading and math. Hardly superior no matter what socioeconomic status students come from. Private schools are still attractive to conservatives and it is not only for the opportunity to dismantle the public education system in favor of for-profit schools and eliminating unions.
In states across the nation religious groups have infiltrated school boards and bastardized science curriculum to include anti-gay instruction as well as creationism as replacement for science courses. The social conservatives have had little success initiating voucher schools and instead pressure public school teachers and administrators with threats of termination for neglecting to teach creation in lieu of evolutionary theory in science classes. The audacious theocrats enlist parents to demand equal time for bible-based instruction under the threat of replacement, and with evangelical Christians making up a majority on school boards, their threats carry great weight.
The 2010 midterm elections ushered in a renewed effort by ultra-right-wing conservatives and the religious right to privatize public schools, and state governments are at the forefront of the attacks on education. The most blatant assault on education is under way in Michigan with a new emergency financial manager, Bob Bobb, taking over the Detroit school system and preparing for a charter school takeover of 45 public schools. Bobb is effectively auctioning off to the highest bidder 50 different schools, and has taken 18 charter school company applications to take over schools in poor communities of color. Teachers in the districts have made wage and benefit concessions to no avail, and by selling school districts to private contractors, Governor Snyder’s privatization efforts will allow him to dismantle unions and seize assets. The ultimate insult is that the private, charter schools will be paid for with public funds normally used to fund public education.
The public school system in America is in jeopardy of being eliminated by neo-conservatives and the religious right for the sole purpose of changing the government into a free market. Americans have resisted voucher schools and privatization schemes for 60 years because the system works and education is paid for by taxpayer dollars. If wealthy conservatives, think tanks, and religious fundamentalists succeed in destroying public education in lieu of charter, private, and parochial schools, taxpayer dollars will still fund education but there be no public involvement in educating our children. Instead, students will learn archaic superstition instead of science, and instead of learning the history that shaped America children will learn the virtues of free-market capitalism and libertarianism as envisioned by corporate America.
In the 1800s, Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster recognized that democracy was dependent on a well-educated populace that was able to reason and engage in public debate. In 2011, conservative fundamentalists and religious extremists recognize that a well-educated populace is capable of critical thinking and poses a serious threat to corporate takeover of America. Jefferson and Webster are dead, but the extremist Christians and fundamentalist plutocrats are alive and buying the last vestiges of free thought and independence. The symbiotic relationship between the religious right and corporate America will be the undoing of public education, and of America itself.