On May 24, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified before a Congressional committee on the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposals for education. In addition to including major cuts, these proposals allocate $250 million to fund vouchers to private schools.
There was significant news coverage that in her testimony DeVos refused to accept her department’s responsibility to ensure that private schools receiving these federal funds would not discriminate against particular students. What received less critical attention was the proposal itself – that public tax dollars should be spent to fund non-public education.
It is important to remember why we tax ourselves in support of public schools. Public schools (including public charter schools) are publicly funded to pursue a common, not a private purpose. We are a democracy, relying on the intelligent participation of citizens to determine the direction of our common destiny.
In order to maintain a democracy, a population sharing some basic skills and knowledge is essential.
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We argue a lot about what those shared skills and that knowledge ought to be. Lately we have witnessed heated debate around a set of national standards in the form of the Common Core and its associated assessments. The effort to codify these national standards was prompted by accelerating criticism that our schools were failing to achieve anticipated outcomes.
The vague understanding but powerful appreciation of those outcomes and the emotional energy devoted to debates over how to achieve them confirm how important we think it is to consider what participation in this nation requires – in spite of how difficult agreement may be.
Private education opts out of these communal concerns and others. In this country, private schools are largely church affiliated (about 70 percent as of 2013-14). While some religious schools may provide a fact-based curriculum, not grounded in the tenets of a particular faith tradition, others include sectarian indoctrination and may bend history and science facts to perpetuate their beliefs.
These are exactly the sorts of schools that we criticize when we see them in other parts of the world. Many religious and nonreligious private schools also have admission and expulsion policies that enhance their academic achievement profiles by not serving special education or other students without stellar academic records.
DeVos believes that we should fund any sort of education that a parent desires. Apparently, she does not see any conflict with our national interests that might arise from funding sectarian curricula or supporting schools that restrict a student’s exposure to people who are not like them.
How can that be reconciled with the purpose of publicly funding education – our need for a set of common understandings about the way the world works and some acquaintance with people who are not just like us, so that we can behave civilly and vote intelligently?
As inadequate to the job as they sometimes are, our public schools continue to serve as a monument to our best sense of ourselves as an inclusive, egalitarian and interdependent democracy, mutually responsible for all children and through them our country’s future.
We long ago accepted that it is appropriate to tax ourselves in support of education; even to impose such taxes on elderly and childless couples – a clear recognition that the benefits of education accrue not specifically to the child receiving the education or to that child’s family.
We all benefit when our communities are populated with productive workers and knowledgeable voters. We are all disadvantaged when the demands of modern life leave people behind, unable to adapt or engage with changing social or labor-force conditions.
Public and private interests are not the same, and some private interests actually endanger our common good.
It is not in our interest to try to stop individual parents from pursuing their own educational agendas for their children, but there is no public purpose served in providing public funding to encourage that private pursuit.
It is for these reasons plus the associated diversion of financial and political support away from our public schools that the policy positions of the League of Women Voters of California specifically oppose any tax-supported private school voucher program.
Kay Bertken is education director for the League of Women Voters of Fresno.