School Finance Expert Attacks Thinking of Betsy DeVos: the Social Contract vs. Individualism

Bruce Baker, the school funding expert at Rutgers University, publishes a regular personal blog that he calls School Finance 101.  Recently he has been posting reflections he calls “School Finance Prerequisites.” These pieces consider principles Baker views as foundational to an understanding of public school finance.  Baker is challenging the thinking of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, a long opponent of public education and a philanthropist who has invested millions of dollars in advocacy organizations like the American Federation of Children and the libertarian think-tank, EdChoice, to promote school choice and her goal of making school funding portable—a publicly provided chit carried by each child to the school chosen by her parents.

In On Liberty vs. Equality, Baker examines a central flaw at the center of the promotion of school privatization: the belief that school choice will lead to educational equity:  “A common refrain among school choice advocates is that expansion of choice through vouchers and charter schooling is ‘the civil rights issue of our time.'” However, “a lengthy literature in political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences which most often operate in tension with one another… Preferences for and expansion of liberties most often leads to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate these divisions… Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, winners and losers.”

Baker continues: “(E)xpansion of charter schooling has largely led to expansion of vastly unequal choices.  Some charter schools, operated by politically connected and financially well-endowed management companies are able to provide longer school years, longer days, smaller classes and richer curricula than others. Those same charter schools are the ones most chosen, with the longest waiting lists… (T)he choices are unequal and unequally accessible.  A system of unequal choices is still an unequal system.”

In a companion post, On the Provision of Public Education, Baker considers public vs. private goods and the essential role of taxation to pay for public goods and services. Baker is describing what ought to be some basic lessons of civics: “Governments, established by the people for the people, collect and redistribute tax dollars to provide for the mix of public goods and services desired. Investment in public schooling is investment in ‘human capital,’ and the collective returns to that investment are greater than the sum of the returns reaped by each individual…. We invest public resources into the education of the public, for the benefit of the public.”

Why is it so important to re-explain these basic principles of public funding for the public good?  “The necessity to revisit the basic connections between taxation and the provision of public goods comes about partly in response to a frequent argument of (advocates for) school choice… that public tax dollars belong (or at least should belong) to the child, not the institutions… Institutions—especially government institutions—are faceless bureaucracies, thus ‘bad’ whereas children are obviously ‘good.’  That is, even if those institutions are established to serve the children…  (I)ndividual parent preferences for the use of public dollars always supersede societal preferences.”  Baker argues that, “the tax dollars collected belong to… the democratically governed community… that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars… Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools.  The assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt (15 to 20 years) surely do not belong exclusively to parents of currently enrolled children.”

If you have been listening in recent months to speeches delivered by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, you may realize that in these recent blog posts, Bruce Baker is explicating what is wrong with the logic in DeVos’s reasoning.  For example, here is what she said in a keynote address at the annual meeting last July of the American Legislative Exchange Council:

“Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…

“Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students.’ NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’

“I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

“This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Bruce Baker is condemning Margaret Thatcher’s contention—and apparently Betsy DeVos’s belief—that there is no such thing as society—only individuals and families.

In his recent posts, Baker defends the thinking encapsulated by the American Federation of Teachers in its anti-DeVos tweet—that public schools are an essential manifestation of the social contract: “We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”

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