Here’s the problem with “school choice.” It siphons money away from the public school system, which is a bedrock of community life. America’s commitment to providing an education to every child is one of the greatest expressions of our ideals.
When you start opening the to school choice, the money can seem insignificant — like that camel’s nose in your tent. But sooner or later, other parts of the camel will join the party. Eventually, you’ll find yourself outside your tent looking in.
Case in point from across the river: New Hampshire’s new “education freedom accounts” program. It’s billed as a way to help lower-class families send their kids to private school. When it was proposed, Education Commissioner (and failed gubernatorial candidate) Frank Edelblut told state lawmakers the cost of the program would be minimal. He estimated that less than three dozen students would take part. The Legislature swallowed it whole, budgeting $129,000 for the first year of the program.
Just a little nose. Nothing to worry about.
Well, that was obvious bullshit. I mean, if the new program would only attract a handful of participants, why even have the program in the first place? The implementation and management costs would be way out of proportion.
Turns out that Edelblut was either lying through his teeth or dead wrong. The number of participating families in the program’s first year will be north of 1,000, perhaps as high as 1,500. That means the “education freedom” program will cost the state, not $129,000, but as much as $7 million.
As the head of the New Hampshire NEA noted, if a public school system committed that kind of fiscal miscalculation, heads would roll. Edelblut’s is still firmly attached.
This is looking more and more like the future of education in Vermont. Two years ago, Education Secretary Dan French produced a “planning memo” that outlined a radical restructuring of the public school system, including unfettered school choice. As has been the case with other forays into deep conservatism, the administration has never followed through on this — presumably because it knows such a plan would never pass muster in the Legislature.
But it exists nonetheless. Given the political impossibility of radical change, the administration has been taking piecemeal steps in the direction of choice. More recently, federal court decisions have opened the door to public support for private schools, including religious schools. And a number of Vermont lawsuits are pushing to remove limits on school choice.
The nose is pushing into the tent. In New Hampshire, the camel promised that the intrusion would be minuscule… until it was too late.
A bit of school choice here and there doesn’t pose a threat to the fiscal stability of public schools. But a lot of school choice would impoverish the public education system. And honestly, Vermont already has a lot of it. There are roughly 90,000 school-age children in the state. Roughly 10% of them go to private schools, with tuition underwritten by tax dollars. In 2018, the state paid $40 million in tuition to private schools. Makes Edelblut’s Blunder look modest by comparison.
And if court rulings uphold school choice, that will only be the beginning.
On the micro level, school choice sounds like a good thing. Why shouldn’t each parent get to decide where their children would get the best education? Why should kids’ futures be at the mercy of their local schools?
But on the macro level, the system only works if everyone buys in. It’s a public commons kind of thing: a valued resource is shared among all community members. No person can choose freely how they use the resource; in return, they get access to a resource they couldn’t create on their own.
The post-Reagan age has been all about privatizing the public common. It’s about valuing individual freedom above communal well-being. Every step we take in that direction weakens the fabric of our society.
I’m not advocating pure communism, with all property subject to sharing. I’m saying we need a healthy balance between individual opportunity and communal responsibility. Public schools are a commitment we make to our community. My partner and I don’t have kids, but we willingly pay our property taxes because we realize the value of a good public education. I don’t want to see our state’s commitment to public schools to be weakened any further.