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Janresseger: How the School Marketplace Wrecks Universal Public Schooling

Universal Education Savings Account vouchers (to pay for private schools or home schooling, or any educational expense) just went into effect in Arizona. A well-funded campaign across the state legislatures for school privatization via this kind of tax-funded universal vouchers threatens to further divert already scarce state tax revenues from the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children.

Peter Greene, a retired Western Pennsylvania high school teacher and writer, describes the meaning of public schooling: “Each community issues a guarantee—a promise that every child will have at least twelve years at this facility to learn as much as they can, to acquire as much familiarity with as many resources and tools as they can. That’s the promise of public education in the United States: that every single child will be given the chance to get as much help, as much training, time, resources, and expert support to figure out how to become more fully themselves, to understand what it means to be fully human in the world.  Have we always fulfilled that promise? Not at all. But the promise has been made, and that means we know what we are supposed to live up to… There is no business in this country that declares, ‘We will make sure that our product or service gets to every single citizen of this country no matter how much time, trouble or money it costs us.’ Only public schools (and the U.S.Postal Service) make any such promise.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, “Our Schools and Our Towns Belong to Each Other,” pp. 62-63)

In recent years, however, the defenders of education as a private and individual benefit have been making political strides—pressing politicians to direct state funding away from the public schools to privatized vouchers, charter schools or homeschooling—private services particular parents seek to protect the interests of their children alone. Culture warriors—lavishly funded by school privatizers like the American Federation for Children, the Heritage Foundation, and the Goldwater Institute—have set out to attack the very protections that ensure that public schools protect the rights of all the children who enroll and serve the needs of all kinds of children. Right now, as the voices of Christopher Rufo, and Moms for Liberty blare out of Fox News, it is important to be reminded of the voices we rarely hear these days—those who have defined the values and principles embodied in a system of public schooling and those who have kept that vision alive.

In my state, Ohio, we are in the midst of a full bore attack on public schooling and on the civic and intellectual values our public schools have long been intended to define.  Bills pending in our legislature include House Bill (HB) 290, to add a “backpack” universal Education Savings Account voucher program on top of EdChoice vouchers and several other voucher programs. In a lame duck session right after the November 8 election, our legislature will begin to consider the new vouchers along with all the culture war bills that have been introducedHB 322, to ban teaching about or discussion of divisive concepts including race and sex; HB 327, to ban teaching and materials about divisive concepts including racism and sexual orientation; HB 454, to ban gender affirming care for minors; HB 616, to ban discussion and materials about racism, sexual orientation, and gender identity; HB 704, to establish gender identity at birth according to DNA; and HB 722, to ban discussion of any ‘sexually explicit’ content and establish a “parents bill of rights.”

In a powerful commentary for the Washington Post earlier this fall, Paul Waldman declared that the culture war maelstrom is a central plank in the far-right platform to discredit public schools and thereby promote school privatization: “The conservative campaign against education is…. many things. As a political matter, it’s about intensifying the culture war so moral panic drives Republican votes. As a policy matter, its long-term goals include dismantling public education.”

Why must we block the Far Right’s drive to add and enlarge all kinds of tax funded, private school tuition vouchers and to expand the number of charter schools? I believe there are two primary reasons we must fight against school choice.

First, public schools are universally available and accessible.

In School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment, the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Wagma Mommandi detail the many ways that privately operated charter schools select and choose their students, despite that parents imagine school choice as the path to greater opportunity. Charter schools control and market their specialized curricula to attract particular children. They are free to locate in the specific neighborhoods where they want to attract students, and they may or may not provide federally subsidized free and reduced price lunches. Some charter schools impose conditions on their applications and steer away parents whose children need particular services. Other charter schools charge burdensome fees or require that parents commit to volunteering in the school for large blocks of time. In some cases charter schools neglect to provide special services for disabled students or English language learners. And once students are enrolled, some charter schools  counsel out students whose test scores lag or students who don’t comply with rigid, no-excuses discipline codes. Some charter schools hold students back repeatedly to encourage them to leave. Many charter schools shape their enrollments by failing to replace the students who drop out or are pushed out; enrollment in these schools is higher in the early grades with many fewer students reaching graduation.

While promoters of school vouchers and charter schools claim that publicly funded school choice opens opportunity by freeing parents to look for alternatives, in fact, power and privilege always operate behind the scenes in a system based on individual freedom of choice. In School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, Robert Asen explains: “Freedom… elevates individual choice above all while obscuring structured advantages and disadvantages afforded to differently situated people in diverse and unequal societies… (T)his model treats these relationships as free of coercion and the uneven influence of power.” (School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, p. 49)

Political theorist, Benjamin Barber, further explores how public schools protect parents’ and students’ rights through the laws and regulations society agrees to impose on behalf of its public responsibility to each of its citizens: “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)

Second, the expansion of the privatized education marketplace diverts essential public tax dollars from the public schools, undermining their capacity to serve the masses of our children.

In a 2016 report published by the Economic Policy Institute, school finance expert, Bruce Baker showed how the expansion of charter schools destabilizes the big city school districts where charter schools locate: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools.”  Baker continues: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Last January, over 100 school districts sued the state of Ohio, declaring in their complaint that Ohio’s rapidly expanding EdChoice voucher program is undermining the state’s constitutional responsibility to fund public education: “The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools. Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.”

The damage of expanding the school choice marketplace is particularly threatening in rural states. In Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America, Montana Senator Jon Tester worries about what the incursion of charter schools would mean for his rural state: “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization. My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.” (Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America, pp. 279-280)

As public schools endure a raging attack from the far right, we need to remember the importance of protecting public education—our nation’s system of publicly funded, universally available, and publicly accountable schools. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing 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.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...