Photo: Donna Grethen
Political theorist Benjamin Barber, who died April 24, wrote about the importance of education as a public good. “Education not only speaks to the public, it is the means by which a public is forged.”
As he noted, education transforms individuals into responsible community members, first in their classrooms and ultimately in our democracy. Local school districts are also the basic units of democratic government.
Michigan professor Marina Whitman recently noted that the essence of a public good is that it is non-excludable; i.e. all can partake, and non-rivalrous; i.e. giving one person the good does not diminish its availability to another.
Some school reforms strengthen education as a public good; such as school finance reform, which seeks to ensure that all children have adequate educational resources.
Unfortunately, the reforms pushed in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations attack education as a public good. For example, choice — charters and vouchers — is a favorite policy of all three administrations. Choice operates on the excludable premise of “saving a few.”
In operation, choice makes education rivalrous. As a New York appellate court observed, diverting funds from public schools to charters ‘benefit a select few at the expense of the ‘common schools, wherein all the children of this State may be educated.’”
The experience in America’s major cities reveals choice’s damaging results. At a recent NAACP hearing, New Orleans residents spoke of an all-charter system rife with fraud and mismanagement. The schools are highly segregated with poor children and children of color relegated to schools with limited resources, inexperienced teachers and long commutes.
Michigan’s policy of unfettered charter expansion, together with a money-follows-the-child school funding system decimated Detroit’s public schools, along with other poor districts, and has left schools across that state intensely segregated.
Chicago’s choice policies disenfranchised mostly communities of color, shuttering neighborhood schools to open charters with a history of excluding ELL students and students with disabilities and with expulsions at 10 times the rate of Chicago’s public schools.
Recent research from Roosevelt University reveals that Chicago’s policies toward charters are a major factor causing the fiscal crisis in Chicago’s public schools. Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emmanuel claimed to close neighborhood schools, in predominately poor and African-American communities, to “right-size” the district. However, he then proceeded to open a slew of charter schools in neighborhoods with declining enrollment, demonstrating that he had no interest in “right-sizing.”
The public school district, responsible for charter facilities, saw its debt burden increase markedly. A third of Chicago’s charters alone carried a debt burden of more than a quarter of a billion dollars. The charter strain, coupled with Chicago’s existing $6 billion debt, forced public schools to cut special education teachers, advanced courses, the arts, increased overcrowding and left schools without funds for basic supplies, such as toilet paper.
A new study in California similarly showed that its charter policy operates without regard to the health of the public school system. California has spent billions on charters without considering the quality of charters or the impact on host districts. The report, prepared by the organization, In the Public Interest, noted that to be eligible for school construction, a public school district must demonstrate the need for seats. However, charters have no such requirement. As a result, California has spent more than a billion dollars opening schools in areas with no need, and often opening schools that perform worse than public schools.
Connecticut’s policies regarding charters also fail to consider the impact on children in and out of charter schools. State officials turn a blind eye to segregation, exclusion and astronomical suspensions in charters. They ignore restrictions on over-saturating districts and directives to consider local opposition.
Across this country, public money is diverted from public schools to charters with no consideration of need, quality or the impact on the majority of public school students. The result is invariably the creation of exclusive schools, out of the reach of voter oversight, at the expense of public schools that serve everyone.
Charter advocates claimed charters would be superior without the constraints faced by local districts. However, after more than 20 years, charters are no better than public schools.
Moreover, they leave public schools without resources to serve the most vulnerable and communities disenfranchised by unelected school boards.
As Barber predicted, “What begins as an assault on bureaucratic rigidity becomes an assault on government and all things public … (destroying) a people’s right to govern themselves publicly … (and) to establish the conditions for the development of public citizens.” Reforms that gut public education attack democracy.
Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.