Somehow, with everyone screaming about the future of Obamacare, a bill quietly slipped through the House of Representatives that I still have yet to see covered by mainstream media. House Bill 610 would repeal Johnson’s landmark education bill, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This is a law that mandates that every child have an equitable opportunity to receive a free public education, and prohibits any discrimination of a child on the basis of, well, anything—skin color, his or her last name, religion, disability, gender, etc. Not only does it prohibit such discrimination, it requires states and school districts to work to close “achievement gaps” created by differences in demographics. Furthermore, ESEA will be replaced with a law that turns every state’s education into a voucher system.
Let me explain. We live in an America where we pretend we have achieved total equality, yet our cities and towns are mostly still segregated by race and ethnicity. When schools began to desegregate in the 1960s, white families founded private schools or fled to far-reaching suburbs and brought with them their buying power. Those communities thrived, while the black and Hispanic neighborhoods rotted. Not surprisingly, there are differences in economic prowess that befalls segregated neighborhoods. Decades of racially and ethnically-driven city and suburban development has led to lacking job opportunities in those neighborhoods, as well as underfunded schools and a variety of social problems that stem from poverty. As an educator, I’ve seen the yearly testing reports. The lowest-performing demographics with regard to standardized tests are consistently Latino, African American, Special Education, and kids with at-risk indicators. Thus, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ensures that we as educators work to help all kids reach their full potential, combatting the effects of poverty and disability on those opportunities.
The new law really doesn’t take any of that into account. In fact, it seems to discard the notion that there are really any differences between children in schools at all. The new law does away with funding for Advanced Placement classes and says nothing about the future of students with learning disabilities. Furthermore, there has been a change in the rhetoric behind what “equality” in education is. Instead of acknowledging the need to ensure equity for our children, and working to extent the same opportunities to the underserved, I have actually engaged in conversations with people who think that it is a violation of their children’s equal rights to not subsidize their private school education. So wait a minute. That’s a hardship? I’m discriminating against your child because it’s expensive for you to choose to send your kid to private school? Tell that to the mom working three jobs and still can’t provide enough food for her kid who goes to that underfunded elementary school that uses twenty-year old textbooks and pays their teachers $30,000 a year. And you want me to subsidize your private school tuition, or else it’s discrimination? How oppressed you are!
Never mind the obvious first amendment implications of using public funds to send your kid to a religious private schools. I’m going to explain to you precisely how this voucher thing plays out over the next ten years, should it actually become law. First we start with the comparison between private, charter, and public schools. It’s worth saying, first of all, that one of the downsides of individual states taking charge of their own education is that some of them suck at it. They either underfund it altogether, or they underfund impoverished areas while favoring more affluent ones. But in states and school districts that are adequately funded, and where educators are professional, put the child first, and use the latest research and techniques to genuinely improve achievement, charters don’t really do any better of a job. The data just isn’t there. I know in my school district, I’ve seen a number of students start the year over at that fancy charter school that teaches Mandarin, and end up back here. I’m sorry. I know that’s not what you wanted to hear. You totally knew in your heart of hearts that charters are better. Maybe you live in one of those states that have sucked at education. Charters did great there. But it doesn’t make the case for a nationwide initiative to funnel public funds that way.
Private schools? I’ll say this. I went to private school from Kindergarten through 12th grade. I have nothing against that school or any private schools, really. I have some fond memories, and I’m grateful that my parents cared enough about my education to send me there. They felt that’s what was best for me. But as a professional educator, I know that at bare minimum, the public school kids in my town probably got the same quality education, and for sure had a greater variety of courses offered. Private schools aren’t about quality of education. They’re about environment. Why else would you send your kid to a Christian Academy if you didn’t want your kid to simply go to school with other Christian kids and have a lesson delivered with a Christian slant? You wanted your kid to openly pray with the other kids. I get it. That’s your choice. But don’t pretend that your kid’s private education is about anything but environment, because it’s not about being educationally competitive with public schools.
So what happens when you start allowing parents to move their kids to a private or charter schools and take public money with them? It’s important to know that having “school choice” does not mean that the school is going to choose you back. Those charters and private schools have limits on availability and standards for admissions. It may be a lottery. It may be that the number of schools like this in your area are very limited. It may be that the richer kids can afford the thirty minute commute, where the less affluent kids don’t have that option. Who gets in? The smart kids? The kids with a cleaner home life? The ones whose parents can make donations to the football booster club? I bet it’s not the kids with single parents working three jobs. I bet the at-risk kids that have been in trouble a few times get passed over, although those are the ones who need the most from us. So the top kids go to the fancy schools, while the others go to the “dumb” schools. And don’t think kids who get passed over won’t wonder why they don’t get to go to the nice schools.
The next step is a matter of supply and demand. Suddenly everyone wants to go to charters. That increased demand will likely be followed by a supply response. New charters for everyone! But wait, haven’t we effectively turned charter and private schools into de-facto public schools at this point? Kids have just been funneled out of existing school buildings into other charter and private schools. From a public funding standpoint, where is the money to build new charter schools? We already had all of these existing schools that are now half-full. We don’t have extra money to build new charters. Furthermore, even as these existing public schools sit half empty, the district still has to pay for the maintenance and overhead on the building itself. They have to keep the lights on, the water, keep it clean, and make sure it doesn’t decay to the point of being a safety hazard to the students left behind. That’s not even getting into the money still owed in servicing the interest on the bonds taken out to build the facilities in the first place. Now you have school districts having to operate buildings and educated students on less money. They’ve already had to lay off half the teachers, who ended up at the charters and private schools where they’re paid less. In the end, you end up seeing some great teachers leave the field because they can’t live on what they’re paid. At this point, wouldn’t it have been easier and more prudent to invest money in better practices that ensure quality of education in our existing school? But now you have this funding and operating dilemma.
Oh my gosh! [places hand on cheek with a distressed expression] How do you fix a thing like this? State and local governments are going bankrupt over this. Something has to be done fast. In an emergency effort to keep the ship from sinking, states do what governments always turn to when they can’t fund the services and institutions they are supposed to be providing. They do it with roads. They do it with prisons. Now we will privatize education at the tax payer’s expense. Corporate education will become a reality. Companies will swoop in and buy facilities, as well as build those new charters everyone wanted. Or even more, all schools may essentially become charter schools, and they’re all for profit. That means these companies will be glad to take your tax dollars and provide an education in return. But just as health insurance companies raise your rates and cut back on claims they’ll cover, these education companies will cut corners on your kids’ education. They can’t turn a profit if they don’t do this. Right now, schools find efficient ways to use taxpayer dollars to run the school. There is little waste because the funding is limited, and we have a job to do—teach your kid. But with for-profit schools, They’ll find ways to save on school nutrition, technology, facilities, textbooks, class size, and how much they pay their staff. Even more teachers will leave the field. Education will be a joke, and your billionaire Secretary of Education and her billionaire friends will be the ones laughing…all the way to the bank.
If all this sounds like something you’d want, then by all means, continue to push for those vouchers. But if this sounds as nightmarish to you as it does to me, then I suggest you make TWO calls. The first one is to your Congressperson. Tell them no. Hell no. The second should be to your state or local governments demanding that they fix your school systems before the private sector does it for them.