The stark orange monolith that was Donald Trump is starting to crumble.
And with it so are the dreams of corporate education reformers everywhere.
Where in previous administrations they could pass off their policies as Democratic or Republican depending on whichever way the wind blows, today their brand has been so damaged by Trump’s advocacy, they fear it may never recover.
Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they could champion both charter schools and school vouchers with impunity. But now the privatizers and profiteers hiding in progressive clothing are trying desperately to rebrand.
Not only is Trump’s voucher plan deeply unpopular, but the public has already begun to associate any kind of school privatization with a doomed President.
So like cockroaches, neoliberals have begun to skitter to one type of privatization over another. Fake Democrats hide beneath unfettered charter school expansion. Bought-and-sold Republicans cling to the idea that we should spend taxpayer dollars on private and parochial schools.
But is there a real substantial difference between each of these so-called “choice” schemes? Or are they both just scams when compared with traditional public schools?
Charter Schools and Private Schools are basically the same thing.
The biggest difference between the two is funding.
Charter schools are completely funded by tax dollars. Private schools – even when school vouchers are used – often need to be subsidized by parents. For instance, many private schools charge tuition of $30,000 – $40,000 a year. Vouchers rarely provide more than $6,000. So at best they bring the cost down but still make it impossible for most students to attend private schools.
Sure they may start as an effort to allow only impoverished children to use tax dollars towards private and parochial school tuition. But they soon grow to include middle class and wealthy children, thus partially subsidizing attendance at the most exclusive schools in the country for those families who can already afford it.
Parochial schools, meanwhile, are exactly the same except for one meaningful difference. They teach religion.
Their entire curriculum comes from a distinctly religious point of view. They indoctrinate youth into a way of seeing the world that is distinctly non-secular.
Progressives complain that using tax dollars to pay for student tuition at such schools – even only partial tuition – violates a foundational principal of our nation.
Using public money to pay for religious teaching has historically been interpreted as a violation of the establishment clause of the first Amendment to the Constitution – namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
This is further exacerbated in many parochial schools where religious teaching includes a blatant political bias toward conservatism. Children at many of these schools are taught that supply side economics, voter disenfranchisement and prejudice are normative bedrock truths.
These are the main distinctions between voucher and charter schools.
In short, they’re not all exactly the same. And corporate reform apologist are trying to rebuild their brand on these split hairs.
But the similarities between these types of school are much more striking.
The biggest commonality between these types of educational institutions is how they’re run. Unlike traditional public schools – which are governed by duly-elected school boards – charter, private and parochial schools are overseen by private interests. They are administered by independent management firms. They rarely have elected school boards. Their operators rarely make decisions in public, and their budgets and other documents are not open to review by taxpayers. This is true despite the fact that they are funded to varying degrees by public tax dollars.
So in all three cases, these schools are run privately, but taxpayers pick up the tab.
It’s ironic. Sending kids to charters, private and parochial schools with public money is called school choice. However, each of these types of schools gives taxpayers much less choice about how their money is being spent.
The community funds the school, but almost all decisions are made by people outside of the community – people appointed, in fact, by bureaucrats or business managers.
To be sure, parents can express their displeasure of administrative decisions by disenrolling their children in the school. But beyond this nuclear option, they are powerless. Even more troubling, taxpayers without children or with children who do not attend these schools have no say whatsoever about how their money is spent.
And to add insult to injury, it doesn’t even really allow the parents to choose which schools their children attend. They can put in a request for their kids to attend a choice school, but enrollment decisions are made by these same private equity managers. In short, administrators make the ultimate choice – not parents.
If the religious school doesn’t want to accept your child for whatever reason including operators’ disapproval of your religious beliefs, they don’t have to accept him. If the private school doesn’t want to accept your child based on race, gender or nationality, they don’t have to accept him. If the charter school doesn’t want to accept your child because of bad grades or troublesome behaviors, they don’t have to accept him.
The traditional public school, however, cannot refuse a child who lives in district borders for any of these reasons. In effect, school choice really isn’t about parental choice. It’s about increasing choice for the operators of privatized schools – letting them choose their students and how to spend your money without any meaningful input from you.
And it’s true at all three types of school!
Those are pretty considerable similarities. Moreover, they highlight major differences between these so-called choice schools and traditional public schools.
This is important because we don’t even have to get into the academic records of individual schools. The way each type of school is structured shows the clear inferiority of choice schools compared to traditional public schools.
By their very structure, public schools give parents and taxpayers much more agency in children’s education and how taxpayer money is spent.
Second, the latitude for school administrators to perpetrate fraud on the public is maximized in so-called choice schools and minimized in public schools. This doesn’t mean public schools are perfect, but it is much better to have a school under public scrutiny and local control than otherwise. This is demonstrated by the huge numbers of charter school scandals popping up in the news every day, where charters close suddenly, money is misspent on luxury items for operators that have nothing to do with education, and – especially in cyber charters – the quality of education students receive is literally lower than having no formal education at all.
Finally, if public schools struggle, it is almost always due to a lack of equitable funding and a surplus of impoverished students. It is no accident that poor students receive less resources and larger class sizes than middle class or wealthy ones. Nor is it an accident that we judge the effectiveness of schools primarily on standardized tests which are so good at highlighting the results of lack of resources rather than any academic deficiency.
If we spent our education dollars ensuring equitable resources instead of funneling tax dollars to charter, private and parochial schools, we would better increase the quality of children’s education. But for the last few decades that has not been the goal of education policy. It has instead been to enrich these same privatized school managers and investors – the corporate education reform industry. Nor is it a coincidence that this industry and its subsidiaries counts itself as major donors to both political parties.
Before she was elevated to Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos was exactly that – a billionaire mega-donor pushing school privatization while getting richer off investments in the same. Now that she’s driving school vouchers off a cliff in the Trump train, her co-conspirators are getting nervous.
Neoliberal Democrats may try to save the movement by claiming charter schools are completely different. But they aren’t. They are fundamentally the same.
The public sees the clear similarities between these kinds of schools. And much of that is thanks to the incompetent boobery of Donald J. Trump.