Free Public Education is the Backbone of Democracy

By Christine Mason

backboneHistorically, education in the US has served multiple functions. One of the important functions has been providing an access to knowledge and learning and a pathway to college or other post-secondary educational opportunities. In some ways, education has been an equalizer. Rather than rich families simply taking care of their own children, tax funds have been distributed so that those living in poor neighborhoods have benefited from the tax dollars generated by others in their states. Through high quality public education, students who are born in an array of circumstances have had a chance to learn with peers from diverse backgrounds.

Charter Schools Emerge in America

I remember back about a decade or so, when charter schools emerged. KIPP provides a wonderful example. The creation of a college-prep charter school in Harlem made a significant difference in the lives of many children. Yet, as charter schools grew in popularity there has been an on-going concern that these charters might be a vehicle to use public funds for a privileged few. Thankfully, for the most part charters have grown with opportunities for equal access. Perhaps it was the regulations and guidelines that accompanied the design and implementation of charter schools. In fact, in many cities, such as Washington DC, charter schools serve the poorest students, sometimes giving them some of the best options for academic learning in their school districts. And in some cases, students in charter schools have achieved higher scores on high stakes assessments than those in the traditional public schools.

However, let’s be clear:

  • Charter schools receive public funds and operate under the rules and regulations of school districts and state educational agencies.
  • Some for-profit agencies operating charter schools have not achieved great results.
  • Some for-profit agencies operating charter schools appear to be operating primarily under a “profit motive.”
  • One variable that varies state to state is regulation and oversight. Regulation and oversight appears to be an important and necessary condition for effective charter schools. In DC, for example, the Charter School Board has taken great strides to shut-down charters that don’t meet certain standards or don’t achieve acceptable academic gains.
  • Private schools do not report to any public boards- there is no public oversight and private schools are not required to follow the rules and regulations of local school districts.

The Private Quagmire

Charter schools, operating under public scrutiny, are one thing. For public funds to be used for private education takes us to a totally different place. The very foundation of democracy is undermined by the potential of replacing equal access to knowledge and learning and the pathway to college with a system that siphons public funds to pay for schools that are not available to all.

booksImagine this. If 50% of the funds for education were to go for private education, those funds could possibly be used for 10% of the population. The potential exists for high quality education for 10% and far less funding and inequitable education for millions of others. The impact could be staggering. Who knows, 90% of the population attending public schools could end up with larger class sizes, less innovation, less upkeep for their buildings, older text books, teachers who are paid at a lower rate, and in general all of the ingredients that accompany an inferior education. How could such a system even begin to support equal access to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness?

A Pivotal Time

In some areas of poverty, students have had an excellent education. However, even today inequities exist — in some areas of poverty, school buildings are inferior, teachers are not as well educated, and students are receiving an inferior education. While today’s system is not perfect, we have seen improvement. Public funds have been intentionally set aside to provide “additional” funds for students in high poverty (Title I) schools and awards have been given to high-performing, high-poverty schools. If anything, more efforts are needed to continue to improve schools in poverty zones.

Yet, public education in America is at-risk. Americans are at-risk. Democracy is made stronger by an educated populous. We only need to look to third-world countries where women do not receive an equal education to get a glimpse at what is at stake. Vouchers for private education sometimes are dressed in the garb of vouchers, disguised as “money that follows the student,” or touted as “school choice.” Whatever the terminology that is used, public funds should not fund private education. Ever.

 

 


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