Two weeks ago, the governor of my state directed $32 million dollars in funds from the federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund to create scholarships to K-12 private schools. This voucher-ization of COVID-19 relief dollars has also been replicated in Florida and Oklahoma.
The Governor’s action has sparked an intense reaction, as well as a lawsuit seeking to block the program as a violation of our state constitution. The Governor has defended his use of GEER funds through the lens of choice.
Thus, this voucher program, like all voucher programs, hinges on that magic word in education: choice. To be clear, choice is a good thing when it is framed as providing families with the capacity to select the learning environment that best meets the needs of their child. In fact, my family has benefited greatly from educational choice, as my daughters attend a public school system that provides open enrollment and 39 magnet programs, including the school my youngest attends. Some of the most incredible educators I know also work in and lead public charter schools that are providing exceptional learning opportunities for their students. My wife and I even decided to homeschool our children for a year when we moved to a new city for a fellowship.
However, while I support these instances of choice in education, I believe use of public funds to create a private voucher program is misguided and wrong. On the surface, this position would seem to border on hypocrisy as I have written about the need to offer greater choice for families.
The contradiction, though, isn’t about inconsistencies in my position—it is a result of variations in how the word “choice” is used in education.
Private voucher advocates want people to think their actions are about providing the same “choice” I support in education. However, that has never been true, as vouchers cannot be viewed as a true choice program due to the capacity of private schools to deny access to groups of students— something public schools can never do.
For example, while the recently created voucher program in my state would not allow public dollars to flow to schools that deny student admission based on race, the scholarship dollars could be used at schools that deny admission to students based on other factors such as religion, sexual orientation, or disability status.
While public schools admittedly still have significant work to do in order to equitably serve the needs of all students—especially our students of color and those with disabilities—the answer to that reality is not to redirect resources from public schools to private schools that can fully deny admission to these same students. By a similar token, advancing true educational choice also requires public systems to address the unacceptable disparities in equitable access in selective enrollment programs.
Those who argue private school vouchers are about educational “choice” have also found their position weakened by the proliferation of schooling options within our public school systems in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, in South Carolina, public school districts for the first time are offering choices ranging from enrollment in district-based virtual schools, “eLearning” through a student’s zoned school, and hybrid schedules that allow students to learn from home and in the school building. If our governor was truly committed to enhancing “choice,” he could surely find ways to use $32 million in federal funds to enhance these new choice options through actions like addressing the glaring digital divide faced by our students.
However, the governor has chosen to take another route by redirecting federal relief funds to private schools that not all students can choose to attend. So, does this mean he is lying when he says his program is about promoting choice? No, I don’t think it does—it simply means his actions are about a different type of “choice.”
Ultimately, this action isn’t about giving parents more choice. Instead, this action is reflective of a “choice” to privatize our nation’s K-12 education system, a choice that is both wrong and dangerous.
Efforts to advance an agenda of privatization threaten to remove vital funds and resources from our public schools in a moment where they face unprecedented budget shortfalls. This crisis is compounded by our national underinvestment in our public services, including schools, over the past 50 years. For decades, we have too often subscribed to the idea that the path to economic growth and prosperity can only be found in slashing taxes and forcing public services to run on shoestring budgets. This approach can work for some Americans in good economic conditions, but it leaves us all exceptionally vulnerable in hard economic times.
As an analogy, one great way for me to increase my immediate household income is to forgo any investment in the future by failing to pay for adequate insurance on my home. As anyone in South Carolina knows, this strategy is dangerous in the long-term, though, as a hurricane can find me without the capacity to respond financially when the storm comes. This failure of financial planning is almost exactly the approach we have taken with services like public health and education.
We chose for years not to invest in the physical upkeep of our schools or in sound educational practices like smaller class sizes, and while the talent of our educators minimized the negative effects of those shortfalls, our systems were overwhelmed in the face of the category 5 storm of a global pandemic. As a result, we should be seeking to maximize available resources now to rebuild our public services, not finding creative ways to continue to starve these services for a privatization agenda.
However, I know there are those who argue privatization is exactly what our public education system deserves or needs. Those who argue it is what our schools deserve rely on the “I should be able to send my tax dollars where I want” argument. However, that mentality is inconsistent with the very concept of public services.
For example, it would be insane for me to claim I should get a “security voucher” to hire a private security force instead of allowing my taxes to support the military. In America, our Constitution is based on a collective commitment to “provide for the common defense,” similar to the call for “we the people” to “promote the general Welfare.” A belief in support of public services is ingrained in our very charter as a nation.
There are also those who claim privatization is what our public schools need because of the power of “competition” to spur innovation and growth. However, the concept of “competition” in education is deeply flawed and inequitable for one basic reason. By definition, competition is supposed to divide people into “winners” and “losers,” but in education, we should want everyone to win. In America, public education isn’t about competition—it is about community and the power of schools to bring us together, something that is critically needed in a society of people increasingly retreating to their own silos of thought and information.
As a result, we can never lose sight of the real “choice” presented in the voucher debate. The choice before us is not one of finding the best education for an individual child; instead, it is choosing to recommit ourselves to building an education system that is accessible to all and meets the needs of all.
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