Resegregating our Schools

March 7, 2017

Because of the historical racial patterns of church-going, it has been said that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning.  Thanks to changes being pushed by, among others, Secretary of “Education” Betsy DeVos, that is likely to change to Monday morning, when school bells ring.

House Bill 610, in the words of its sponsor, “repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.”  This 50 year old law, the backbone of American education policy through Democratic and Republican administrations, is being scrapped. The new law sharply limits the authority of the Department of Education, which is reduced to administering block grants to states.  More importantly, the law establishes a national voucher program allowing children to attend any public or private school, including home schooling, at taxpayer expense, and it requires states to allow complete school choice as a condition of receiving any public education funds. (As an aside, this seems to me to be exactly what the original Affordable Care Act tried to do to force states to accept the Medicaid expansion; it will be interesting to see if any progressive states choose to challenge this “coercion” under the Supreme Court ruling that invalidated that portion of the ACA. Turnabout is indeed fair play.). It will obliterate this nation’s long-standing commitment to public education.

As with health care, the forces behind this change are obsessed with free markets and choice as the answer to, well, everything.  They believe that competition is the only way to improve the quality of education, and that the public school monopoly is the root cause of our troubled education system.  The evidence does not support this.  I should note that finding unbiased research is challenging – for those who want to go straight to the sources, the nonpartisan National Center on School Choice has a comprehensive compendium of studies.  However, my admittedly brief review shows mixed evidence, with some studies showing choice is helpful, some showing it is neutral, and in some studies harmful. It seems fair to say that if 3 decades of research have failed to demonstrate a conclusive benefit of choice on education, it isn’t a slam dunk that choice is THE answer.  One issue is that choice can mean many things: choice among public schools, or charter schools, or vouchers to be used in non-public settings.  It’s therefore hard to draw a firm conclusion about “choice” overall.  But the evidence about vouchers specifically – the centerpiece of HB 610 – is less mixed.  It’s negative.  The largest, best designed studies have consistently shown that voucher students do worse than those who stay in traditional public schools.  The reason is unclear, but it would certainly seem to warrant caution before unleashing it on millions of American students.

If it were simply a matter of mixed evidence, this move to privatize education would be perhaps understandable as a reasonable gamble, a decision that could be refined with more and better research.  But at its heart, this privatization scheme is a radical undermining of core principles of American democracy.

Our commitment to public education goes back to the early days of the Republic.  Thomas Jefferson was a strong proponent of education as the foundation of a free society.  He was so committed to it that his founding of the University of Virginia was one of only 3 things he wanted to be remembered for in his epitaph (the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom were the other two; he left out being president, much less the size of his electoral college victory).  Jefferson and others understood that a sound democracy depends on an educated and enlightened citizenry.  Education should not be available only to those of means, nor should it vary based on those means.  One important function of public schools in a democracy is as a place where diverse people from different walks of life could mingle, interact, exchange ideas, and learn a common cannon of democratic principles.  It is an important basis of a level playing field in a free society.  (Granted, the diversity of schools in Jefferson’s day was lacking, but the idea is still valid.) Jefferson believed there should be a constitutional right to education, and while there is no such right in our national constitution (as there is in the constitutions of 174 other nations), every one of the 50 states does include such a right.

Jefferson had nothing against religious instruction; indeed, he believed it to be an important supplement to public education.  But not a substitute for it.  Sectarian separation of education would undermine the development of the American people, which required schools to be inclusive.  And in fact, the various waves of private and parochial school growth, starting with the Irish Catholic schools in the mid-1800s, through the segregation academies in the South in the 1950s and 60s, have been driven in large part by a reaction to this inclusivity.  This has also been behind many other forms of “choice” including suburban white flight starting in the 1970s (my own family was part of this in New York) and the more recent push to restrict busing and promote “neighborhood schools.”  This is the ugly truth behind most school choice – it has frequently been used as a means of re-segregation.  No doubt most parents who choose to move to less diverse neighborhoods with “better schools” or elect to send their children to private schools are motivated primarily by the desire to make sure their kids are well educated.  But some simply don’t want their children going to school with “those” children, and even those among the majority of the well-intended need to be aware of the segregationist effects of their choices.

If challenged by my many friends who choose to send their children to private and parochial schools, I would try to convince them of the value, to both their own children and to society, of a shared public education experience for all, supplemented by the religious education of their choice.  In a democracy we can’t force this, only try to encourage it.  But we shouldn’t be encouraging the dismantling of public education.  And we shouldn’t be paying for private goods with public tax dollars.

The sponsors of HB 610 state it is about the repeal of the 1965 education act.  But they should really be saying it is about the undoing of Brown v. Board of Education.  I can’t wait for the bill that reinstates Plessy v. Ferguson.

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