In our gerrymandered statehouses, school voucher bills of various sorts are being fast tracked. Koch money, dark money, so-called think tanks in the State Policy Network, and big advocacy organizations like Bradley, Heritage and Goldwater are behind all this activity which we—mere parents and teachers, and citizens—can’t seem to beat.
It all feels pretty hopeless, even though researchers show us that kids don’t generally really thrive when they take a voucher to escape their public schools. And it feels more hopeless because even the most rudimentary arithmetic tells us that if the legislature subtracts a whole lot of money for vouchers from the state education budget, there’s going to be a lot less money left for the public schools which serve 50 million of our children and adolescents.
Why, despite that the battle seems overwhelming, must we be relentless in our advocacy? What do we have to lose if our states divert massive funds out of our public schools to new or expanded voucher programs?
Today, although much of our politics is driven by anger and language that divides us and pits us against one another, the principles of democracy itself require that we protect our public schools. Here are philosophers, constitutional experts and historians who remind us why universally accessible and publicly accountable education is essential.
We can start with philosopher John Dewey, who defined public education not as a commodity to be chosen by each individual family or any particular faith community, but instead as the institution that defines our society’s obligation for the common good: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, 1899, p. 1)
Political philosopher Benjamin Barber’s defines precisely how only the public schools can protect each child’s and each family’s rights: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)
In The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court and the Battle for the American Mind, constitutional scholar Justin Driver traces the centrality of public education as the site of more debate in the U.S. Supreme Court than any other institution. Why? Driver explains that conflicts about our society’s most basic principles play out in the setting of our public schools: “The first reason that schools should be deemed our most significant theaters of constitutional conflict is owed to the sheer magnitude of public elementary and secondary education. Today more than fifty million students attend public schools in the United States, and in order to function they require a few million adults to serve as teachers, administrators, and support staff… Second, the school’s great significance in our constitutional order stems from the fact that cases arising in this setting offer an excellent prism for examining the preceding one hundred years of American history, as the cultural anxieties that pervade the larger society often flash where law and education converge… Third… cases arising from the schooling context involve many of the most doctrinally consequential, hotly contested constitutional questions that the Supreme Court has ever addressed—including lawsuits related to sex, race, crime, safety, liberty, equality, religion, and patriotism… The final reason that the public school should be viewed as the preeminent site of constitutional interpretation is that the Supreme Court itself has repeatedly, and convincingly highlighted the importance of that venue for shaping attitudes toward the nation’s governing documents. (The Schoolhouse Gate, pp. 9-12)
Walter Feinberg, a philosopher of education, reminds us that our pluralistic society requires students to understand and respect the rights of their peers who represent different cultures. The only schools that can foster such respect are schools that bring together students students from across the barriers posed by economics, race, ethnicity and religion: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories.’” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, p. 232) (emphasis in the original)
Constitutional historian and law professor, Derek Black further explicates the school privatization debate as a threat to a set of values historically embodied in public education, and he asks us to become more articulate in defining these principles: “Increasingly missing, if not entirely absent, is any discussion of education’s purpose and values—reinforcing democracy and preparing citizens to participate in it. What they (privatizers) miss is that charters and vouchers, for instance, involved an entirely different set of premises about education—and for that matter an entirely different set of premises about government… (A)t its core, the choice movement is not really about improved educational opportunity. It is about ideology—an ideology that is not about democracy and public education values as we know them…. So what is that ideology? First they think of education as a commodity… Bad purchases, false advertising, and defective products are just part of the process of moving toward better results over time. The market, they say, will sort it all out in the end… Yet what those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement… The radical individualist-libertarian movement is stoking the dissatisfaction of a relatively diffuse and diverse group of individuals to push its own agenda… These fundamental challenges to public education force us to ask whether public education can survive once again, and if it does not, will democracy be irreparably damaged?” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 233-244)
We can return briefly to Benjamin Barber, who punctures the ideologues’ argument that vouchers denote freedom for parents: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)
Like Derek Black, Bill Mathis, former managing director of the National Education Policy Center, considers the role of public schools through our nation’s history: “When the destruction of civil war had to be mended, they put down their weapons and built a school. When technological change made their jobs obsolete and they had to learn new skills, they went to their common school. When new sciences changed their knowledge of the universe, they taught them in their school. When the values of democracy required learning about the Constitution, laws, and humanity, they turned to the schools. Today the message remains clear and constant. If we are to fulfill and preserve the promises of our Constitution and our communities, we must ennoble our public schools. We must cherish them for all of our children, for the welfare of society and for the sustenance of democracy.” (“In Times of Crisis, Why We Need Public Schools,” in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 9)
As we push back against the campaign to privatize our public schools, it is essential to consider and speak up about what’s important about our nation’s widespread system of schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public. While we must work to keep improving our public schools to ensure greater equality of opportunity, they remain the optimal educational institution for the investment of our efforts and tax dollars. Public schools can balance the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students. School privatization cannot move our society closer to those goals.