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Clumsily revealing the segregation motive behind charter schools

Bill Smith, Community Voices • Oct 7, 2018 at 8:15 AM

When I read Kenneth D. Gough’s column “Puerto Rico’s U.S. citizens are not American enough for statehood” in the Aug. 17 Johnson City Press, my initial reaction was profound confusion. What possible connection, I wondered, was he trying to make between his support for school vouchers and his opposition to Puerto Rican statehood? After lots of reflection, I believe I understand — but more about that later.

Gough’s stance on Puerto Rico was that it is too poor and culturally different to become one of our states. To support school vouchers (or educational privatization), he invoked the economic theories of Adam Smith and the popular argument of other voucher advocates that market competition will improve educational quality and efficiency. According to Gough, “logic and reason” suggest parents should be able to use vouchers “at any school they wish, be it public or private, for-profit or nonprofit, religious or secular, or as compensation for home schooling.” He also said he’d never heard a good rationale for challenging school choice and that its opponents exhibit “a near-religious belief in the righteousness of public schooling.”

I am proud to be one of those public school zealots. I believe that public education is essential to our nation’s economic, political, and social well-being, and that attempts to undermine it are as dangerous to the health of our republic as assaults on the rule of law, the separation of powers and the free press.

I’m also pretty zealous about the truth. It is one thing for Gough and others to play games with our children’s future by promoting the replacement of public education with schemes based on their armchair musings about 300-year-old economic theories. It’s another thing to ignore the fact that voucher experiments have been abysmal failures. Students receiving vouchers have not performed as well academically as children in public schools, and voucher-funded schools have been plagued by scandals, including misuses of taxpayer money that are so egregious that they should have fiscal conservatives like Gough howling in alarm.

But, hey, let’s forget facts for a minute and just employ Gough’s own market theory and “logic and reason” to assess the consequences of his proposal, starting with the idea that home-schooling parents should receive compensation. What kind of behavior will we incentivize if we effectively say to parents that they can receive a cash award for each child they remove from school and educate themselves? I’ve always had doubts about home schooling, but I believe that many home-schooling parents make a sincere effort to educate their children as well as they can. That won’t be the case if we dangle generous cash incentives in front of the public. Unfortunately, most of the children whose parents will seize that opportunity are already disadvantaged academically by living in homes where education is not particularly valued. Removing them from school will only exacerbate the challenges they already face.

Gough is right about the effectiveness of free markets in the business world, but he’s wrong in saying that education is no different from business. Successful businesses optimize their profits by eliminating as much expense as possible. In for-profit schools, the need to provide a return to investors will incentivize the diversion of necessary resources away from the education of children.

Let’s also understand that the ability to attract students is going to be critical to every school’s success in the privatized educational Wild West that Gough envisions. How much spending will go toward advertising, and what services to students will be cut to make up for that expense? Because salaries and other essentials, such as utilities and basic building maintenance, comprise 80 to 90 percent of most school budgets, appropriating even 5 to 10 percent of a budget to marketing will have substantial effects on what a school can offer. One of the reasons for-profit colleges have been so tragically ineffective in preparing their graduates is that they spend over 20 percent of their budgets on advertising, more than they spend on teaching.

If schools have to designate even modest amounts of funding for marketing and profits, educational quality will surely suffer. Schools will be less able to purchase new textbooks and materials or the computer technology our children clearly need to meet the challenges of the future. Class sizes will probably grow as teaching positions are cut, and students needing special attention will receive far less than they need.

And how will parents effectively evaluate educational offerings? Will some be deceived by false or misleading advertising? A person who buys an article of clothing that shrinks dramatically after washing is out a little bit of money. In contrast, it may take a while before parents realize they made bad educational choices for their children, and that cost is unacceptable.

If we ever do devolve into the dystopian educational world envisioned by Mr. Gough, President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos, the one certainty is that our system of schooling will be grotesquely unequal. Rich parents will be able to supplement their vouchers liberally, and middle class parents less so. Poor parents will purchase whatever paltry educational offerings they can afford with their vouchers alone and will be especially vulnerable to scams from educational vendors looking only to make some money.

In the end, implementing a system of vouchers will result in a vastly inferior educational system for most children, but it will make it more likely that citizens get to send their children to school “with their own kind.” When we understand that consequence of school privatization, we can then see the relationship between Mr. Gough’s support for it and his opposition to allowing the people of Puerto Rico to enjoy the full rights of statehood. In the Time of Trump, he is not alone in believing that America will be great again when people can avoid having to interact any more than absolutely necessary with folks who are different from them.

I should probably thank Mr. Gough for clumsily revealing and clarifying this key reason for the right’s support of school vouchers. For a long time, I thought that their sole motivation was to funnel taxpayer dollars intended for our children’s education to wealthy investors. I’m still confident that’s a significant factor, but we can never discount their longing for an even more racially, culturally and socially segregated America.

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