In a recent tweet by The Washington Post, I noticed President-elect [Donald Trump] standing next to his nomination for our next secretary of education with the headline: “School Choice or Privatization?” As I read on, it became clear to me this will be common lingo in the coming administration. No doubt public education has been challenged and even threatened in recent years, but it has not been the result of a political landscape that is imminent and represented by this nomination.
The president-elect and his nominee are both on record as fully supporting a school choice ideology that provides both for vouchers where students can attend any school (public or private) with federal and state subsidies for tuition and charter schools that are open to all students and are run by for profit organizations. Where would the money come from to fund school vouchers and help pay school tuition?
Nationwide, over $600 billion a year currently is spent on K-12 public schools with less than 9 percent of those funds provided by the federal government. The president-elect has proposed providing $20 billion of federal funds toward nationwide vouchers. Would that money be diverted from the current federal funds that are now provided primarily to target students with disabilities and those living in low-income neighborhoods? It has been estimated that states and local school districts would have to collectively provide an additional $110 billion to support their proposal. Would Missouri and local school districts, like Nixa, be able to or even want to divert current tax dollars and increase taxes to support their proposal?
Does that make “good business sense” as they have proposed? With political support from the House [of Representatives] and the Senate, it is likely they will find a way to divert current education funds to their program. In Missouri, the royal flush continues with apparent political support from governor [-elect Eric Greitens] and his supermajority in the legislature. So should we expect those supporting such a change to run the table on us who support public education? Missouri and most other states throughout the USA might be wise to brace themselves, if they haven’t already begun to do so, to invest heavily in the next few hands or fold and go home. The deck appears stacked against us (legally, I might add) and as most good card players know, it takes ambition, adaptability and patience to play well and be successful with the cards you’ve been dealt – oh, and a little luck on the side.
I’m asked, “Don’t you think public schools should be more like a business?” My reply: You mean like Wall Street or the banking businesses of recent past or many small businesses that never make it past the first or second year? As we go through these turbulent times that most certainly lie ahead, it would be wise for us to remember Horace Mann’s belief that “the public school is the greatest discovery made by man.”
Even though the odds are politically against us, we should remind ourselves that our nation has achieved success and respect throughout the world in a large part on the shoulders of public education. Let’s not be hasty. We need to play this out like a thoughtful chess game and not childish games like War or 52 Card Pickup.
Those who say public education is failing our young people may be right in some places throughout our country, especially large cities. Certainly their backs are against the wall in those communities for a variety of reasons. But keep in mind the nominee for secretary of education [Betsy DeVos] comes from Michigan, where she has been the leading proponent of charter schools and school vouchers, certainly thinking of the difficulties in a district like Detroit. Even though Michigan has been sending a billion dollars a year in state funds to charter schools, most of those schools have performed below the Michigan average for public schools, and the entire state has fallen in rank against national reading and math scores, according to New York Times reporting.
Public schools, like Nixa, take children as they come to us. They include students with special needs and disabilities, as well as students with many talents. Would it be realistic to assume that “privileged” private schools would open their doors to and address the needs of all students? Privatizing public education is complex and complicated. Even if it can be effectively implemented, it will be difficult for parents and students to make an informed judgment about which schools are “good” (successful). If they do believe they have discovered it, how realistic is it that they will be able to pay the tuition not entirely covered by a voucher, and how “easy” would it be for them to leave their neighborhood and find their own transportation to a new school?
So maybe it’s time to ask a different question, even in the face of a landslide of political opposition. Should businesses run more like a public school? Would that take away the temptation to profit at all cost or the attitude of “whatever it takes” without regard to ethics? Or should we simply recognize and acknowledge that public, nonprofit school districts and private, for-profit businesses do not operate in similar environments.
Privatizing our public schools with “public” funds is a promise fraught with peril.
—Stephen Kleinsmith, superintendent of Nixa Public Schools