How to Lose Public Education in 4 Easy Steps

Jul 12 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This week on NPR, you might have heard the story of a young African girl who joined a child militia after she was kicked out of high school because her family couldn’t pay the fee. She ran away to the militia against her family’s wishes because militia members ate better than others.

In that country, school is not a right, it is a privilege reserved for those who can pay for it. How close are we to this kind of K-12 system?

We have lost so many rights since 1980, but for most there is no defining moment when it happened.  They are eroded little by little. Each incremental step doesn’t seem harmful. There may be people warning against dire consequences, but the sky doesn’t fall, and so we dismiss the warnings.  Then one day we realize we no longer have clean water, workplace safety, or class action suits.

Yes, the same thing could happen with public education, and there are—have been—key Republican influencers like Betsy De Vos working toward making that happen.  Each step seems oh-so-reasonable at the time. We get used to the new norm, then get nudged into the next step. The strategy counts on us not paying attention to the long-term impact, just the impact of each little step. We need to understand where this road is taking us to be able to muster the resolve to resist it.

Start with public schools whose teachers and curricula are accredited and approved by the state.

STEP 1.              Carve out an exception.

Argument: We must have an exception for parochial schools. Having parochial teachers and curricula dictated by the state would be an unacceptable exercise of state authority over the church.

STEP 2.              Expand the exception, promote a preference for privatization.

Argument: Now that we have seen that parochial schools can provide a good education without state accreditation, we should allow all private schools to be exempt from accreditation as well. This will allow them room to do what private sector schools can do best: innovate and advance standards in education. If they do a bad job, the free market will make sure that they go out of business.

STEP 3.              Transition education from public to private management with vouchers.

Argument 1 competition: It is unfair that private schools should have to compete with subsidized public schools. This is not a level playing field. Even if we in private schools offer a better education, it’s hard to compete with free.  Why not give families vouchers and let education providers compete? Whoever offers the best education product will win the market, and with the best education, everyone wins.  Generally, this argument appeals more to the right.

Argument 2 equal opportunity: It is unfair that only children from rich families should be able to attend innovative private schools.  The best education should be available to all children. The government holds poor and middle class students back. Vouchers would create equal opportunities for students to attend the schools they choose. Generally, this argument appeals more to the left.

STEP 4.              Transition from vouchers to fee for service

Argument 1 efficiency: It is inefficient for the state to collect taxpayer money for schools just to give it back to taxpayers as a voucher.  That makes the state an unnecessary middleman. In future, states will simply leave taxes in the hands of taxpayers, who know best how to use that money toward education.

Argument 2 fairness: The percentage of the population with children in school is very small, yet we tax everybody to support schools that are only used by a few.  Schools should be funded by those who use them.

Voila! Education is no longer a right; it is a commodity. You have no more right to a good education than you do to a 65” television. And if conservatives succeed in rolling back child labor laws, children in this country will feel the same economic pressures that drove the African girl into the child militia.

Distilled down, the process outlined above is to create an alternate universe of education, then make that the new norm. We don’t want to end up with privatized education; we have already seen what happens when fringe elements get control over education. The question is where and how to derail the process.

In the list above, we are at step 3 right now. Communities are experimenting with vouchers, but they have not become the norm. There is a thriving alternative universe of for-profit schools and forces aligned to make these the standard for how education is delivered.

What we need to do–and still can do–is challenge the arguments starting at step 1.

Parochial schools (including religious homeschoolers) left to go their own way have started teaching racial and religious supremacy, creationism, and other fabrications. There are enough of these extremist schools throughout the nation that several companies compete to offer textbooks. In 12 states plus the District of Columbia with voucher and corporate tax credits, tax funds are already being used to support this religious brainwashing. It is not improper use of state authority to ensure that children are not educationally crippled with false facts and prejudices. Private schools and independent study programs have abused their latitude and should be subject to more regulation, not less.

Counterarguments for step 2:

A. Those private schools that perform better do not do so because they are private. They do so because other conditions lead to better performance.  For example:

  1. Poverty is the number one indicator of academic success and survival, and private schools have fewer children living in poverty. Thus, their results are skewed.
  2. Private schools get children whose parents are proactively looking for better education alternatives for their kids. They are involved parents. A public academic magnet school performs better than a public boundary school for the same reason. Indeed, a public magnet high school in my area is one of the top-performing high schools in California.
  3. Some private schools perform better because they have more resources.  If you put one teacher for every five kids in a public school, that school will deliver higher performance, too.

B. All else being equal, public schools have been better at raising educational standards and results than private schools.

C. The progressive philosophy argument: We need to attract the best and brightest educators to public school where their skills can benefit the whole nation, not sequester them in a miserly tower for the privileged few.

D. Why the “free market” will not weed out the bad schools:

  1. Some private schools have been created to indoctrinate children into conservative philosophy. They are very well funded by the same people who are trying to pry the government out of education and weaken the government generally to the benefit of corporations. They have deep pockets, and they can afford to run at a loss for a long time if they have to. At this stage, it is much more important to them to get bodies into seats than to clear a profit.
  2. Those schools that only want to turn a profit have a wide open field to scam people. By the time parents realize their kids are not learning, the school can pack up and move to another town. Meanwhile, a year or two of a child’s education is lost.

Counterargument for step 3:

Competition does not always deliver the best result. There are areas where aggregating resources creates the best result for the public, and education is one of those areas. In both net results and cost-effectiveness, it is better to aggregate education under a public umbrella. (Conservatives want training rather than true education, but that is a different discussion).

Vouchers encourage competition, which splinters educational resources. Vouchers allow families to go from school to school looking for a better experience but do not address the fundamentals behind that better experience

For-profit schools don’t have any incentive to research and improve educational methods. Competition dictates they should use their resources convincing families that what they already offer is better than what other schools offer.

As stated above, there may be wealthy pockets of superior education, but overall, the fragments resulting from commoditized education will deliver net less than a public aggregation would. Likewise, the “equal opportunity” argument is hardly persuasive when the access in question is to an inferior system.

If we stick to these arguments, we don’t get to step 4. We will have established that there are some things that should not be commoditized, and education is one of them. We will have established education as a public benefit, not a personal accessory.

The conservative argument hinges on convincing us that private education is somehow better than aggregated public education. It’s not. The best students in the world come from state-run schools. When we had the best students in the world, it was because we made a philosophical and financial commitment that every student deserved access to the best education that we as a nation could provide. That is what has changed, and that is what we must reclaim.

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