It is all but certain that attempts will be made in the next four years to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Look for public schools to be added in some way to that privatizing to-do list.
The person Donald Trump has chosen to be the next U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a crusader empowered by her family’s vast wealth who is bent on changing public education as America knows it by diverting funding from public schools to voucher and charter schools.
The nomination makes the egalitarian American imperative of universal education more vulnerable than ever to the forces of politics and ideology.
The ideology is all too familiar. Like those who want the private sector to take over the essential safety nets of Social Security and Medicare, the adherents of public school privatization want free-market organizations to take charge of education.
Wisconsin residents have seen plenty of this as the Legislature, following Gov. Scott Walker’s lead, has cut public school funding while steadily increasing the amount of taxpayer money given to voucher and charter schools.
Ozaukee Press readers were exposed to a novel justification for this short-changing of public schools in a recent letter to the editor from state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville). Stroebel wrote that taxpayers of Ozaukee County and the rest of his district should be thankful that state education money is being spent on voucher schools in Milwaukee because without those schools the state would have to send more aid to the Milwaukee public school system.
“The money has to come from somewhere,” Stroebel wrote, “in this case local school aid.”
No, it does not have to come from local school aid. The state’s obligation to fund public education is not supposed to be some sort of zero-sum game in which one school district’s gain is another’s loss. All public school districts deserve a fair share of state education aid regardless of how much tax money the Legislature sends to private schools.
Wisconsin’s public schools have suffered some of the deepest cuts in state education spending in the nation. Meanwhile, taxpayer funding for voucher students in Wisconsin has increased by 14%.
School privatization zealots don’t seem to understand, or refuse to face, the fact that the institution of public education is strongly supported, in fact admired, by the American public as an essential function of a democratic society.
That was proven in Wisconsin’s November election in which 88% of 55 school district referendums were approved by voters—voters who agreed to pay higher property taxes for the betterment of their public schools.
That astonishing number of referendums—totalling more than $800 million for facilities and operational spending—needed to keep schools functioning effectively is a clear indication of the financial squeeze put on public schools by the combination of reduced state aid and state-mandated limits on local tax levies.
Even some of the most devoted proponents of public education agree that school choice, in the form of charter schools managed by responsible nonprofit organizations and well-run non-public schools whose students qualify for tax-supported vouchers to pay for tuition, should have a place in the education mix.
That place, however, should not be created at the expense of public schools.
There is no dearth of success stories about individual charter and voucher schools that have excelled in inspiring children to learn. Yet promoters of choice schools have generally oversold their ability to improve education overall, even in cities where public education has struggled.
The most notorious example is the city of Detroit, where education privatizing advocates persuaded officials to allow wide-open competition by for-profit choice schools to educate the city’s children. The result of what has been described as a Wild West of cutthroat competition was academic achievement worse than that of underfunded public schools.
One of the architects of that disaster was Betsy DeVos, the soon-to-be secretary of education.