The Hidden War on Public Education

We must not turn our backs on public education – it must not become a for-profit business.

Marco Rubio

In a recent opinion piece, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) championed a Florida program that provides tax dollars for low-income children to go to private schools. Such programs, in which the government gives people a “voucher” that they can use to pay tuition at a private school, have become a popular talking point, especially among libertarians.

However, such voucher programs are fundamentally flawed in that they miss the point of the problem. Supporters argue that children in low-income neighborhoods are forced into schools that cannot offer them a good education. This is assuredly true. Their solution is that we must get our kids out of these schools, and into the capable hands of private institutions. This, though, is the wrong conclusion.

Imagine that one of the walls of your house has fallen in. Your house is really no longer doing its full job as a house. Sure, it keeps the rain off of your head, but it lets in bugs and wind, and a big hole is of little deterrence to would-be burglars. So, what should you do about your broken house? Fix the wall, obviously. What you do not do is buy a new house.

Our education system, at least in poor neighborhoods, is failing to do its job. It is leaving far too many children woefully unprepared to compete in the national, let alone global economy. But, like the house, the proper solution is to fix the public system, rather than move towards a purely privatized school system (which has been championed for years by wealthy libertarians such as the Walton family, owners of Walmart).

I think there are two important points that we should all remember when thinking about these voucher programs that give tax dollars to private schools.

First, in the short run, while some children do indeed get a better education through these vouchers, the vast majority of children will be left behind, condemned to an education that will fall far short of preparing them to be successful contributors to society. These children deserve a better education just as much as the children who are able to get vouchers for private school.

For this reason, we should be focusing our tax dollars not on paying tuition, but on actually improving a broken public education system. Thus, instead of only helping the few, we may actually help all children in such a way that a child’s zip code will no longer determine the quality of their education.

If people are really committed to getting all of our children the best education possible, then they should support rather than condemn our public schools, aiming at improving them rather than gutting them.

This leads to the second point. The final goal for many supporters of school voucher programs is the elimination of the public school system, replacing it with a system of for-profit private schools.

We must not forget that, for the vast majority of history, the for-profit system was exactly how education was distributed.

What does this look like? Education will be distributed just like any other good or service. And, just like any other good or service, you get what you pay for. There will be the expensive, name-brand schools that provide not only a top quality education, but a brand name across the top of their students’ transcripts. On the other hand, there will be the generic, no frills, large classroom, and tiny budget schools that poorer folks can afford. Of course, there will be those who cannot afford any education at all for their children, but in this world, not everyone gets to go to school.

What this will inevitably result in is extreme stratification in which class will be correlated with education. Just as in the past, such a system only serves to perpetuate hierarchy, in which the poor, and their children, have their place at the bottom. At the same time, the rich pay for a top quality education for their children, ensuring that they too will be in the class of the haves, rather than the have-nots.

This is the very reason we began a public education system. As a society, we firmly believe that even if one was born poor, one should have the opportunity to climb the social latter. This social mobility is impossible without an equal education for all.

There are many problems with the American public education system. However, voucher programs and private schools are not the solution. Education, the great equalizing factor of our society, must be guaranteed to all. We do this through fixing the education system from the inside out, not by throwing it away altogether.