Public schools serve 90 percent of America’s children. Yet lately, it seems, the system is treated as an afterthought by politicians at the national and state levels as they plot to find new ways to divert tax money to private (mostly religious) schools.
The problem starts at the top. In Washington, DC, the US Department of Education is headed by Betsy DeVos, a woman who has no experience in the field of public education. Prior to taking the job, her main claim to fame was running a right-wing group that pushed school voucher schemes at the state level. DeVos’s boss, President Donald Trump, shares her hostility to public education and has proposed spending billions on a nationwide voucher plan.
DeVos and Trump are backed by an array of mostly DC-based right-wing think tanks that constantly agitate for the privatization of secondary education. These groups take it as a given that anything “public” is bad and that the free market always provides better services. They have no data to back up these claims—in fact, numerous studies have shown that existing voucher plans in the states and a federally funded program in DC have done nothing to boost student achievement—but that doesn’t matter to the ideologues who champion privatization. We’re long past the point where facts make a whit of difference in public policy debates.
The attempt to dismantle public education brings together two distinct strains of ultra-conservative thought. Fundamentalist Christians constitute the first, having for years carped about public schools being godless pits of socialism, crime, and amorality. Their answer used to be capturing the schools for Christ and turning them into de facto parochial schools for fundamentalism, but that hasn’t worked so well because of a little thing called the US Constitution. These days, they’re increasingly pushing for voucher plans that compel all Americans to pay for their parochial schools—even though these institutions are saturated in far-right theology and often parrot views that are anti-science, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ rights, and so on.
The second strain is made up of “government-should-do-nothing,” anti-public service zealots who argue, with straight faces, that a modern, geopolitical state of 327 million people that leads the global economy and functions as the world’s sole remaining superpower should somehow be able to get by with a government slightly larger than your average city council.
Both strains are motivated by ideology—one worships a frightening rendition of the vengeful deity of the Hebrew scriptures, while the other bows down before the characters of Ayn Rand novels. Neither wing is much bothered by facts.
Here are some facts anyway: there are about 13,500 public school districts in the United States. They educate approximately fifty million children. Most are answerable to democratically elected school boards, but there are, of course, state and federal laws that these public, taxpayer-supported institutions must follow. For example, civil rights laws protect teachers, administrators, staff, and students. Schools must accommodate young people with special needs. Public accountability laws apply.
None of this holds true for private schools. They can deny admission to or expel students who fail to meet certain “moral” standards. Staff members are often subjected to rigid theological rules. The schools are free to use whatever curriculum they want, regardless of what connection it may have to reality. They are subjected to precious little, if any, government oversight.
Voucher advocates love to point to posh private academies and imply that a voucher will get the average kid a seat within. Not likely. Fancy private schools serve the children of the wealthy and powerful. They charge astronomical tuitions and are absolutely not interested in educating the masses. For most people, a voucher of a few hundred or a couple thousand dollars might buy them entry into a Roman Catholic school, a fundamentalist academy, or a non-religious private school of questionable quality. (In Florida, Wisconsin, Washington, DC, and other jurisdictions with voucher plans, the free market has responded by creating fly-by-night schools that offer low wages to teachers and abysmal educational quality.)
And let’s be clear: Americans don’t want privatization. Since 1967, Americans have had the opportunity to vote directly on voucher plans at the ballot through referenda. Every single voucher scheme has been defeated, often by a margin of 2-1.
Most recently, Arizona voters made their views clear in 2018 after the state legislature, which is in the thrall of the Koch Brothers, passed a far-reaching voucher plan. Six women who had been lobbying lawmakers to do more for public education decided they’d had it and gathered enough signatures to put the law to a vote on the ballot. Even in this conservative state, voters rejected vouchers 65-35 percent.
Nevertheless, the voucher tide rolls on. The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2002 that voucher plans don’t violate the Constitution’s ban on establishing religion, and in the current term the high court will hear arguments in a case from Montana that may weaken or entirely remove provisions existing in about forty state constitutions barring taxpayer funding of religious enterprises.
The first step to truly defending public education is a reassertion of an old-fashioned principle called the public good; it’s a recognition that we do some things not just to benefit the individual but to help society as a whole. Public education touches all of us. It doesn’t matter if your children are grown, if they didn’t attend public schools or if you never had children. The majority of children in your community rely on public schools. They are your neighbors, your fellow citizens, and your future workforce. It is in everyone’s interest that they receive an education. (For the same reason, you support a public library even if you buy your own books or don’t enjoy reading.)
Sadly, many on the far right long ago abandoned this principle. They reject the very idea of the public good, and they heap disdain upon claims that in our shared human family, it’s imperative that no one be left behind, that there are certain things we all should have access to in order to live with at least a modicum of dignity—food, shelter, health care, and, yes, education. They spread platitudes about “picking yourself up by your bootstraps,” overlooking the fact that some people don’t even have boots.
Public education is not perfect. It’s a decentralized system that seeks to educate fifty million children; of course, there will be some problems. The answer is to fix those issues, not toss aside the system in favor of pie-in-the-sky promises proffered by privatizers who are motivated by an inflexible ideology that ignores what’s good for all of us.