Can Public Schools Save America?
Don't let privatization do to schools what Fox did to news.
Reframing the Education Culture Wars
Most people in the United States are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants, but public schools knit us all together into a common culture. They give us a common understanding of how our society works, our roles in it and our responsibilities to each other. While it is hard to believe, it appears that the mission of many voucher advocates is to use public school budgets to fund ideologically segregated private schools, so they can insulate millions of children from concepts like equality and the public good. So let’s stop playing defense and start reminding people that public schools are what holds this country together.
Universal Vouchers are Here.
For those of you who do not live in Arizona, let me tell you little bit about what is going on. Republicans in Arizona just passed a law that virtually privatizes the entire Arizona public school system. The law says that any parent who wishes to opt out of the public school system will be given $7000 to do whatever they want. No requirements. No standards. No accountability. Home school if you like. Set up your own school in a strip mall and teach Q-Anon if that’s what floats your boat. In fact, fascist media influencer Charlie Kirk has already announced that he is opening private schools in conjunction with a conservative Church, a model he hopes to replicate across the country.
Overturning the Will of the Voters
In Arizona, citizens can reject a state law by collecting signatures to have it referred to the November ballot where the voters can either approve it or reject it. Public school advocates are gathering signatures right now in the hopes of stopping this atrocity in its tracks. You can learn more about and support their efforts here: https://teamsosarizona.com/.
What is astonishing is that Arizona Republicans just attempted to pass a massive voucher expansion in 2018. Advocates put it on the ballot where it was rejected by 65% of Arizona voters. It’s not just that this new law is exponentially worse, it shows a total and complete disregard for the will of the voters of Arizona. This might explain why Republicans in the Arizona legislature tried to pass more than 100 bills this year to create new barriers to voting. God forbid the voters should be able to hold them accountable for their actions.
The Profit Motive
Public budgets are the last frontier for predatory capitalism.
Some people see a sizeable budget of public funds dedicated to providing public goods and resources and think, “How can I strip mine that sucker?” Massive efforts are currently underway to privatize public education and Medicare. (I’ll write about Medicare privatization later.) Social Security privatization might be their holy grail, but it’s still our third rail.
The truth is, they haven’t actually gotten that far. People love public schools. The privatization movement has tried to make the case that they can deliver a better education at a savings to governments and taxpayers, but that hasn’t really panned out. Try as they might, nobody seems to have figured out how deliver a better education to our children while pocketing a healthy chunk of the budget.
There have always been parents who want vouchers to send their kids to private schools. Some believe that their kids will get a better education. Some want their kids to have a religious education. Others are motivated by racial segregation. But for whatever reason, these parents just haven’t been a big enough political force to combat the overwhelming support for public schools.
The Foxification of Public Education
We all used to watch the same news. It wasn’t necessarily the best news, but at least we all had some shared sense of reality. Now, Fox News and the vast right-wing media universe have done something I don’t think any of us ever imagined possible: convince millions of Americans to believe in a completely alternate reality by segregating them into a separate information environment. Now they want that segregated information environment to start in early childhood.
Enter the Culture Wars
Public schools are under well-funded and nationally coordinated attack.
As if teaching wasn’t hard and underpaid enough already, now teachers are dealing with accusations of racism and child abuse and violations of their first amendment rights. I’m not going to get into too much detail on this. There are plenty of other sources. (See notes below) All you need to know is that there is a massive, well-funded and coordinated effort, not just to argue for “school choice” but to destroy people’s support for, and trust in, public schools altogether.
Conservatives, especially those in the “mega-church” business, have long understood that if you get to children when they’re young, you can control what they believe when they grow up. I believe that most advocates for private schools are just trying to provide children with a quality education. But there is definitely a growing movement that seeks to drive millions of American children into conservative private schools precisely so they can isolate them from learning the kind of skills and values that protect people from the influence of demagogues later in life, such as: why a healthy democratic process is essential to freedom and how to recognize creeping fascism when you see it!
Are their motives ideological or financial or both? The unholy alliance between market fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists depends on raising children to believe that anything that limits the acquisition of wealth in any way is morally wrong. If you want to understand why extreme conservatives believe that government should stay out the way of the market, yet believe that government should intervene in personal morality, you should read up on something called “the prosperity gospel.” (See notes below.)
If you want people to grow up to be Fox News watching, gun-toting, non-sins-of-the-flesh-committing, socialist-fearing, Democrat-hating adults who won’t let government impede the unlimited accumulation of wealth even if it’s necessary to save the human species from extinction, you gotta get ‘em while they’re young!
How Do We Fight This?
Our tendency is to spend our time and energy pointing out all-of-the-above to anyone who will listen – BUT – that isn’t the approach that will get the results we want.
They say, “public education is bad.”
We say, “Republicans are bad.”
Voters perceive this as a “He Said, She Said” situation and just tune out.
Here is the problem: attacking conservatives’ motives doesn’t strengthen the case that public education is good in a way that effectively nullifies the accusations they are making. To do that, we have to remind people why the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in public education.
We have to go on a massive positive crusade to champion the cause of public education.
Why We Believe in Public Education
1. We need a public education system so our society can function.
“We live together in a society. We need a shared understanding of how our society works and of our role in it: our obligation to each other and what it means to be a good citizen.”
We often talk about what children learn in terms of what is useful for them as individuals, but we should elaborate on the fact that there are certain things that we all learn, and that those things allow us to communicate with each other and function as members of a larger society and as citizens of our country.
We learn how to interact with, respect and appreciate other people, including those who are different from ourselves.
We learn about our physical and emotional development so we can have healthy relationships with others, whether they are emotional, sexual, social or professional.
We learn about our history as a country: how we were founded on ideas like democracy, equality and religious pluralism, how we struggled to live up to those ideals and sometimes failed, and how we never give up striving to do better.
We (hopefully) learn how to read and evaluate the validity of the news media and other information sources.
We learn about how our government works, the rights that we have, and how to be active and constructive citizens.
We learn why a healthy democratic process is essential to freedom and how to recognize the signs of creeping fascism.
We learn about our totally unique American culture and how it developed by bringing together people from all over the world who share their cultures and combine them in new and wonderful ways.
The Radical Right is trying to drive people out of the public school system precisely because it is a critical positive force for unity in our society and democracy in our political system.
2. Public schools make us free.
“Our children can’t become free and functional adults unless they know all of the options that are available to them in life and have the education that they need to succeed in whichever option they choose. Public schools give us all that freedom, regardless of who we are, where we came from, or our ability to pay.”
Through public education, our children can discover what they are good at and what they like to do. They can learn about the wide range of options for their futures, and develop the skills they will need, whether those skills involve math, language, visual arts, music, athletics, biology and science, computers, crafts, machinery, design, project management, team leadership, psychology, medicine, personal care and even parenting.
The ability to be exposed to and experiment with a wide range of options and then to develop the skills you might need, is the foundation for becoming a successful adult in our country, both in terms of career and personal development.
Public schools provide that freedom to discover, choose and develop to every child. Every child. No matter who you are, where you live, when you got here, or how much money you have. That freedom is what we owe every child, and that is why fully funding our public schools should be our top priority. We have to recruit and retain the quality teachers, administrators and support staff we need and make sure they have every resource they need to educate and nurture our children.
The Bottom Line:
Public education is one of the most important institutions in our society.
Our children can’t become free and functional adults unless they know all of the options that are available to them in life and have the education that they need to succeed in whichever option they choose. Public schools give us all that freedom, regardless of who we are, where we came from, or our ability to pay.
The Radical Right is trying to drive people out of the public school system precisely because it is a critical positive force for freedom, unity in our society and democracy in our political system, and a floodwall against rising fascism.
That is why fully funding our public schools should be our top priority. We have to recruit and retain the quality teachers, administrators and support staff we need and make sure they have everything they need to educate and nurture our children.
We must fight to protect and improve our public schools. Universal free public education is what creates the common ground that keeps America together.
COMING SOON: How to Stop Playing Defense and Win the Public School Culture Wars: A “Say This, Don’t Say That” guide.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism!
I look forward to your feedback and ideas.
Reframing America is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Families who bail on public school will get $7,000 per kid in GOP's new scheme: "Every red state" urged to follow
By Kathryn Joyce, Salon.com, July 1, 2022
What’s more, SOS Arizona pointed out, the ESA funds could also be used to send taxpayer funding to the sort of private school being established by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who recently announced plans to start a network of anti-“woke” Turning Point Academies, first in Arizona, then around the country. The first such school, with more than 600 students, is set to open in Glendale this fall, as the result of a partnership between Kirk and Phoenix megachurch Dream City. According to Newsweek, the academy will ban CRT, the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and what it calls “radical LGBT agendas.” Those 600-plus students, Lewis notes, will add up to some “4 million taxpayer dollars that go straight into Kirk’s academy.”
Christopher Rufo used "critical race theory" as a Trojan horse. Now he wants to sack the city and win the war
By Kathryn Joyce, Salon.com, April 8, 2022
To get universal school choice," Rufo told listeners, "you need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.
Christopher Rufo, the man who's been widely credited with single-handedly willing the "critical race theory" panic into existence (even if the truth is a bit more complex), laid out a new set of marching orders for the right: Defund public universities, discard academic freedom, remove credentialing requirements for K-12 teachers and generally foster so much anger against public schools that it drives a nationwide popular movement to privatize education.
(Warning: Watching this may make you physically ill.)
The long, strange history of a quintessentially American theology.
By Tara Isabella Burton, Vox.com, September 1, 2017