Americans Used To Understand Public Schools and the Commons
The idea of America as a true “land of opportunity” is anathema to their ideal of a nation of “classes and orders” where every person knows their place and morbidly rich white men are in charge
A new report finds that DeSantis’ Florida will, this 2022-2023 school year, move $1.3 billion in taxpayer money originally destined for public schools to private schools. This will gut the public school budgets across the state by roughly 10 percent.
Florida is not unique in this: it’s happening all across the nation. Public education in America is in a crisis and has been for some time. It’s a crisis Republicans across the country are doing everything they can to make worse.
In many ways today’s conservative war on public education dates back to the 1950s when, in 1954’s Brown v Board decision, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must allow Black children to sit in the same classrooms with white children.
This so outraged white conservatives that public schools were shut down altogether in some states and counties, and private, all-white “academies“ were opened, many by religious figures, across the nation.
It was the beginning of a concerted, 75-year-long assault on public education.
The Republican war against public education moved from being purely about race to incorporating an ideological rationalization or excuse with the 1980 effort by billionaire David Koch to run for vice president on the Libertarian ticket.
Koch’s platform said of public schools:
“We advocate the complete separation of education and State. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
Thus was set the formula that billionaires from David Koch in that era to Betsy DeVos in this era used to push for the destruction of public (racially integrated) schools.
*Privatize public schools through charter schools and by offering vouchers.
*Withhold funding from public schools while pouring cash into these new, private entities.
*Expand the nationwide propaganda campaign that public education is failing and/or is an instrument of an oppressive state.
*As public schools become starved of cash, use that crisis to destroy their teachers’ unions and ultimately to shut them down altogether.
*Once most primary and secondary schools have collapsed and only private schools are left, begin to dial back money available through vouchers, so poor people must use special “cheap” schools designed just for them.
*Over time cut back voucher funding and amounts so, just as Reaganomics has done with our colleges, low-income people have to borrow from banks to send their kids to good schools.
This is not a new model: Reagan began the process with colleges, from substandard junior colleges for low-income people to throwing average Americans who wanted to attend a good college into a $1.8 trillion debt hole.
It’s not even a unique model just for education: we’re halfway through it with Medicare. George W. Bush introduced the Medicare Advantage scam in 2003, and now half of American seniors are on these private plans.
Once they’ve destroyed Medicare altogether (probably within a decade) the “good deals” available to people buying into the private Advantage plans will evaporate and America’s elderly will be right back where they were in 1964: on their own.
In 2018, in an effort to stop creeping privatization of public education, voters in Arizona got a ballot measure up and overwhelming voted to reject an expansion of vouchers and charter schools in that state.
In response, three months ago the Republicans in control of that state’s legislature passed the nation’s first statewide voucher program, shoving their ideal of privatized education down the state’s voters’ throats. It’s a cruel scam but an effective one.
The strategy is simple. Once public education is destroyed, over time the vouchers will be cut back to represent a smaller and smaller fraction of the cost of private education. Parents will have to cough up more and more, just like what happened with college tuition between 1980 and today.
As mentioned, conservatives have already used this model they’re inflicting on our public schools on college education.
In 1980 state and federal government paid about 80% of college tuition, so individual tuition was very affordable. The norm from the 1940s to the early 1980s was that a student could pay for their college tuition with a part-time job in the summer.
This was because, before the neoliberal Reagan Revolution, college was considered part of the commons. Thomas Jefferson started the nation’s first entirely free college — the University of Virginia — and Abraham Lincoln was equally proud of the free and low-tuition colleges he started. As the state of North Dakota notes:
“Lincoln signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, giving each state a minimum of 90,000 acres of land to sell, to establish colleges of engineering, agriculture, and military science. … Proceeds from the sale of these lands were to be invested in a perpetual endowment fund which would provide support for colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts in each of the states.”
Fully 76 free or very-low-tuition state colleges were started because of Lincoln’s effort and since have educated millions of Americans including my mom, who graduated from land-grant Michigan State University in the 1940s, having easily paid her minimal tuition working as a summer lifeguard.
Today, 80% of college tuition is paid for by students themselves, creating a massive, nationwide student debt crisis. Only roughly 20% of tuition is now covered by state and federal funds and, if Republicans had their way, even that would be gone.
As state after state increases their voucher programs and amplifies their support for charter schools, we’re beginning to see the exact same dynamic at play for primary education. This is intentional: it’s the explicit goal of the GOP.
Parents are already starting to borrow money to pay for their children to go to elementary and secondary school: today it’s 10% of parents going into debt for their young children’s education. Within a decade or two it’ll probably be closer to the 68% of students attending private universities who have student debt.
The banks love it. The private school industry, which has a substantial PR arm and lots of money to fund PR campaigns against public schools (that have no resources at all in this area and are barred by law from advertising or lobbying), has become a multi-billion-dollar industry and throws hundreds of millions into buying politicians every election year.
It seems baffling that Americans would allow their legislators to destroy what was once, in the era from 1940 until the 1980s, the world’s best public school system.
Part of the problem is that most Americans never had a single Civics class in school and so simply don’t understand these concepts. (Reagan cut federal funding for Civics education with the rationale that students should focus on science and math.)
Americans used to understand the commons. The phrase comes from the common area communities used to use for grazing and community gardens centuries ago.
In every developed country in the world except the United States both healthcare and education (all the way through college) are considered parts of the commons. Because the commons are our “common wealth,” they’re administered with public funds raised through taxation by government answerable to voters.
Only in the United States, among developed nations, are education and healthcare considered privileges rather than rights and only available to those who can afford them. But then the US is also the only country in the developed world that has a corrupt Supreme Court that allows racist rightwing billionaires to buy and own politicians to corrupt public policy.
Our public school system was painstakingly constructed starting in the 1880s and 1890s with Horace Mann‘s early efforts in the Northeast. By the 1950s, as Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress built thousands of gleaming new public schools across the nation, we were the envy of the world.
While public schools are paid for out of government tax revenues, to maintain high levels of accountability to their local communities most of the funding comes from local property taxes.
Additionally, every public school system in America is overseen by a local elected school board which has the final say on everything from hiring and firing to curriculum.
There are few systems in America that are as accountable to local public sentiment — local, grassroots democracy — than our public school system. They’re also almost universally unionized, which, like their democratic nature, represents another strike against them in the eyes of white supremacist and neoliberal billionaires.
America’s rightwing billionaires and their racist Republican politician toadies are dedicated to ending public schools and replacing them with non-union, private, for-profit education that best serves well-off children while ghettoizing poor children.
The idea of America as a true “land of opportunity” is anathema to their ideal of a nation of “classes and orders” where every person knows their place and morbidly rich white men are in charge of everything.
To salvage this part of our nation that was so beloved for almost two centuries, join your local school board or, at least, show up for the meetings, and become an activist for public education. The next few years — as Republicans in Arizona are showing us — may be our last chance.