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.

School Finance Expert Demonstrates Flaws in Ohio Senate’s Proposed School Funding Formula

Ohio Senate Finance Chair Matt Dolan penned a disingenuous column for the June 13 Plain Dealer to brag about the new school funding formula his Senate Finance Committee has substituted into the proposed state budget. Dolan is wrong when he claims that the Senate’s substitute for the House’s proposed Fair School Funding Plan would be “sustainable, stable and predictable” and when he claims that his plan “will alleviate the pressure on local school district budgets.”

Dolan has said that the legislature should be careful about initiating a plan whose phase-in might cost more over six years than the legislature can afford, but his argument lost any credibility last week when the Director of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management Kimberly Murnieks announced that “she expects the state to have a surplus of $1.7 billion by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, and a $1.6 billion surplus in June 2022.  That’s $3 billion more than the deficit the state had predicted.”

Dolan and the Senate Republican majority have also insisted on a 5% income tax cut that will lower taxes for the wealthy. Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton explains: “Nearly half of the tax reduction would go to those in the top 5%, who are paid more than $221,000 a year. The top 1% percent, who have income of at least $526,000, would average a cut of $1,712 and receive a quarter of the tax reductions. The tax reductions in the Senate bill come on top of huge tax cuts the richest Ohioans have received over the past 16 years. While lower-and middle-income Ohioans on average saw little change or paid more in state and local taxes, the top 1% received more than $40,000 a year in tax cuts.” It is troubling that Ohio’s state senators favor tax cuts for the wealthy when they could instead rectify decades of underfunding the state’s school funding formula.

The Senate’s plan adds some money right now for he state’s public schools over the upcoming biennium.  The House plan, by contrast, was designed over three years by a panel of experts to be sustainably updated  over time after an initial  six year phase-in to remedy what has been frozen state funding—at the FY 2019 level—for the entire FY2020-2021 biennium.

At the most basic level, the Senate plan would penalize public school districts. As the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding’s Bill Phillis pointed out last week, “The Senate whacked about $30 million out of the House budget for the transportation subsidy and $90 million from school bus purchase.”  Rural school districts which must bus children long distances have no spending latitude within their transportation budgets, and Ohio mandates that public school districts pay transportation costs for busing students to private, religious, and charter schools, adding expensive distances to cover and complicating school bus routing.

The House Fair School Funding Plan accomplishes precisely what a state school funding formula is supposed to do. Here is how Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert defines the function of a school funding formula: “School funding is largely in the hands of states (mandated by their constitutions), and the primary job of states’ finance systems should be to account for differences between their districts in the cost of providing that minimal level of educational quality, and then to distribute funds in a manner that compensates for the fact that some districts have less ability than others to pay these costs (e.g. via property taxes).  For instance, districts serving large proportions of high-needs students will tend to have higher costs; if those districts lack the local capacity to pay those costs, state revenue needs to fill the gaps.”

The school funding expert at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, Howard Fleeter has released a complicated analysis which examines the flaws in the Senate’s school funding proposal Matt Dolan brags about. While the Ohio House’s Fair School Funding Plan was developed over three years by legislators, educators and policy experts to cost out the services school districts are required to provide and to measure accurately each school district’s capacity to generate local funding, Fleeter explains that the Senate’s substitute proposal “is essentially a recalculation of the FY19 funding formula with a handful of changes.” But, Fleeter adds, there are serious problems in the way the recalculation was done: “Most of these issues are related to the Senate funding proposal not properly updating the data used to compute the FY22 and FY23 foundation formula funding amounts.”

For example, “The property valuation and income data that is used to compute the State Share Index (SSI) in the Senate’s FY22 and FY23 funding plan is the exact same as was used in the FY18/FY19 State Share Index… The data mentioned above presumably would have been updated by two years to compute the SSI in FY20 and FY21 had the funding formula not been frozen, and then updated by an additional two years for use in FY22 and FY 23.”  And to figure out per-pupil data, “The Senate’s enrollment figure used to calculate the SSI is still based on FY17 data.” And the Senate’s formula “uses FY18 teacher salary data to calculate the FY22 formula amount.”   For all these reasons, Fleeter explains, the per-pupil base cost amount in the Senate’s proposed formula “does not keep pace with inflation.”

The state school funding formula has lagged behind the real cost of public education for years now.  Fleeter explains: “FY 09 is the last year the base cost per pupil amount was based on a defensible adequacy methodology. Measuring inflation from July 2008 (the beginning of FY09) and now (April 2021) reveals a 21.4% inflation rate.  In contrast, $6,110 (the per-pupil amount produced by the proposed Senate plan)… shows an increase of only 6.6%. Thus, inflation since FY09 has been more than three times the rate of increase in the (school funding) foundation level proposed by the Senate. Looked at another way, if the $5,732 per pupil amount from FY09 were simply increased by inflation, it would have reached $6,959 as of April 2021, implying it would be nearly $7,000 per pupil by the time that FY 22 begins.” Fleeter believes that the Senate’s proposed substitute formula is inadequate to cover necessary costs school districts face today, while the House’s Fair School Funding Plan, when fully phased in will fund services at their real cost.

Fleeter adds that a serious mistake in the state’s current school funding formula—a technical problem in the way the State Share Index (SSI) is currently calculated—is replicated in the Senate’s new proposal. The problem has been corrected in the House’s proposed Fair School Funding Plan. The current SSI calculation mistakenly creates a local school district “wealth index which serves to intertwine Ohio’s 609 school districts with one another. This means that changes in property values (and income) in some districts will affect the amount of state aid received in other districts… Because the SSI property value index compares property values per pupil to the state average, districts with no agricultural property now appeared wealthier than before because their unchanged property values were now compared to a lower statewide average. This change then caused these districts to receive less state aid even though their circumstances did not change.”  Fleeter concludes: “Under the House funding plan, districts will see their state aid change from year to year based only upon how their property value and income have changed while changes in the circumstances of other districts will have no impact… As a final note, the House’s state/local share calculation is based upon the most currently available data, as is their Targeted Assistance calculation.”

Thankfully, both chambers of the legislature plan to eliminate the state’s punitive and disequalizing school district deduction method for funding vouchers and charter schools. But the Ohio Senate’s budget exacerbates several other problems for public schools across our state on top of the primary problem in its inadequate school funding formula. The Senate budget expands the size of taxpayer funded, private school vouchers from by from $4,650 to $5,500 for K-8 students and from $6,000 to $7,500 for high school students; adds a neo-voucher tuition tax credit program for families with income below $300 percent of the federal poverty line; and creates tax payer funded education savings accounts for home schooling.  All this is in addition to the Ohio Senate’s 5% cut in income taxes.

The Ohio Legislature’s budget conference committee should put the Ohio House’s Fair School Funding Plan back into the budget to repair longstanding problems in our state’s funding of public schools, forget about expanding vouchers, and leave out the tax cut. The Ohio Constitution does not envision education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual student.  Instead the state constitution defines public schools as an essential part of the social contract—the embodiment of our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens and to Ohio’s children. Paying taxes for government services including public schools is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses, with the greatest obligation assumed by those with the greatest financial means.

This blog has covered problems in this year’s Ohio Senate Budget proposal here, here and here.