What We All Lose When We Mistake the Market for the Public and Conflate Consumers and Citizens

In Ohio right now, 100 school districts have filed a lawsuit declaring that the state’s EdChoice school voucher program is currently operating in violation of Article VI, Section 2 of the 1851 Ohio Constitution: “The General Assembly…shall secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state…” The Ohio Constitution does not provide for the diversion of public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition.

EdChoice vouchers violate the rights of 1.8 million public school students across our state by extracting tax dollars from the state foundation budget that is intended for the public schools. But in recent years the response of school advocates has been fragmented because—due to the complexity of Ohio’s school funding formula and the design of the EdChoice program—the voucher program has had different implications for different school districts.  The lawsuit filed earlier this month, however, expresses in clear language the interests of all of the children across our state. Right now public school advocates have a wonderful opportunity to defend the lawsuit in language that speaks to protecting the rights and meeting the needs of all of our state’s children.

Today’s post is intended to facilitate that conversation by pulling together some thinking from philosophers of education and scholars who have devoted their lives to considering the meaning, purpose, and significance of a public system of education.

Promoters of school choice celebrate individual parents as consumers looking for a school that will perfectly help each of their children succeed and won’t threaten the values of their particular family. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber confronts the assumptions underneath this ideology: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

In the first paragraph of the first page of his 1899 book, The School and Society, our nation’s most prominent educational philosopher, John Dewey declared that public schooling serves a public purpose: “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.”

In the powerful final essay in the new Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Bill Ayers updates Dewey’s idea by considering what its application would mean if we were to define what the best and wisest parent wants today as the level of services available for the children in a well supplied suburban American public school district: “Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education.  A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education, and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

What is the public purpose of public education? In a recent short analysis, educational historian Jack Schneider surfaces the hope of many parents that through school choice, they can ensure success for each of their children: “If we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others—the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else. But that’s not what schools are designed to do.” Surely all parents hope their children will develop the necessary skills to thrive and succeed, but individual success has never been the primary purpose of those who developed our nation’s system of public schools—located in every community and required to protect the rights and serve the needs of all children.

Benjamin Barber expands on Schneider’s concern by exploring vouchers’ sparkling appeal to individualism and the eventual toxicity for our children, our communities and our democracy: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Bill Ayers explicitly defines the public purpose of public education: “In a free society education must focus on the production—not of things, but—of free people capable of developing minds of their own even as they recognize the importance of learning to live with others. It’s based, then, on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. Further, while schooling in every totalitarian society on earth foregrounds obedience and conformity, education in a democracy must consciously emphasize initiative, courage, creativity, self-confidence, mutuality, respect for self and others—the arts of liberty.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315) (emphasis in the original)

Finally, Benjamin Barber explicitly analyzes how vouchers deny our children and their families the protection of their 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)

Barber’s words almost perfectly describe the conditions to which EdChoice vouchers contribute in Ohio. A smaller number of students carrying vouchers extract desperately needed state tax dollars from the mass of Ohio school districts and especially from the poorer school districts which depend on state revenue. The vouchers deprive the much greater number of students remaining in the public schools of the kind of small classes and enriched schools Bill Ayers describes in the public schools in our state’s wealthy exurbs, where higher local property values create a greater capacity to fund the wealthy districts’ public schools. School privatization, as Barber predicts, only accelerates our society’s growing inequality.