Put students, families first
Education has always been expensive. Throughout the history of the United States, only affluent families were able to buy for their children a good formal education. Nevertheless, American families of modest means have been able to educate their children for generations by pooling their resources. This strategy has brought about our current public school system.
Our public school districts were created by our municipalities, under authorization of state law, not to monopolize the education market, but instead as a reaction to a market that had priced out the majority of families, which are of modest means. We created a system where officials are elected at the local level, directly beholden to the voter and taxpayer, to oversee our schools, which are mainly funded at the local level. Americans have, save for a percentage of federal funding, local control of their own public schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, federal funding accounts for about 8.3 percent of school funding, with the remainder state and local funding. State funding amounts to about 25 to 30 percent. The bulk of public school funding comes from the local taxpayer.
Our public school system works extremely well considering the task, which is that our public schools must admit all children of various talents, skills, socioeconomic background and social status. On the other hand, private schools and charter schools can and do discriminate and create exclusivity. These schools take mostly students who perform well, that is good students, and turn them into good students. Our public schools must admit all students, those who perform well, and those who perform poorly. Our public schools take poor students and turn them into good students. That is by far the toughest job in the education field.
Today’s neoconservatives have focused the education reform narrative on some of our public school system’s disappointments. Their conclusion is that if students are not proficient at a specific school, then public education is a failure. This glosses over the fact that most public schools are successes. The neoconservative narrative never mentions what our public schools are doing right and how we can achieve the same successes at those schools that have poor outcomes.
The other issue that the neoconservative narrative ignores is the fact that our public schools do not operate in a vacuum. Today, an increasing number of our public school students come from families in crisis. This impacts student performance and school performance greatly. We have in our society, in cities, towns and suburbs, an ongoing opiate abuse problem. We have poverty, homelessness and families under stress. Many families operate with two working parents who live from paycheck to paycheck. These stresses are laid upon the door of our public school teachers, who often have to try to teach to children who come to school unprepared to learn. Do private schools and charter schools deal with these same problems at the same scale as public schools?
The neoconservative narrative focuses on money spent on public education and only on poor outcomes. This leads to the neoconservative assertion that we should not continue to spend money on public schools because we only get poor results. This assertion ignores the fact that affluent communities usually spend the most money per student per year in their public school systems. These public schools in the more affluent communities usually have the best outcomes for students. All of the Top 10 public high schools in New Hampshire spend more per student per year than Nashua. Nashua spends $12,762 per year per high school student. Goffstown was the closest to Nashua, spending $13,784 per high school student per year (Northwood did not report cost per high school student). The remaining Top 10 high schools in New Hampshire were more than $15,000 per student per year, with some being between $18,000 and $20,000 per student per year.
The fact is that communities that spend the most money per student tend to have the best outcomes. Tax money spent on public school education is money well spent. Studies that compared charter school outcomes with public school outcomes show that charter schools do no better than our public schools.
Today’s neoconservative strategies (I call them “neoconservative” rather than “conservative” because these people are not conserving America’s long-standing commitment to public schools), include defunding and privatizing our public schools, which is in essence an abandonment of our neighborhood community schools. Abandoning all schools because we are disappointed in the outcomes of some schools is a radical and draconian action that will not only have direct negative consequences for our students, but also for the value of property in our residential neighborhoods. This abandonment of public schools is based upon the faulty logic that because some are below par, then all have failed, and it doesn’t actually look into the real reasons why those few schools have poor outcomes. People vote for public school districts, and for neighborhoods, with their feet.
When we examine the history of education in America, abandoning public schools for privatization, or abandoning specific neighborhoods for public schools in other communities, which changes the demographics of certain schools, has been a slow, steady, response over many decades to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Public schools give us the promise of equity or equal opportunity for all; however, the system has been undermined by “white flight,” which then results in the underfunding and deterioration of specific public schools. This abandonment of schools by white people is now perpetuated and encouraged through the neoconservative “school choice” initiative. The issue of racial equity is one that often gets lost in the debate over so-called “school choice.”
The other issue that gets lost over the debate regarding school choice is that public money does not need to be siphoned to charter and private schools to inject competition into the education arena. Public schools already compete. They compete with private schools, parochial schools and other public schools (and other districts). Public education has never been a monopoly. Private schools existed before and after the establishment of public schools. Private schools will not meet the needs of all the people, but they will meet the market demands of families that have the ability to pay and desire to have their children go to exclusive schools.
Americans seek the best for themselves and their families. We seek to acquire the best homes in the best neighborhoods where we drive the best cars back and forth to the best jobs. We also desire the best education for our children. The desire to acquire the best is often associated with status and exclusivity. Our free market system is an amoral system, which seeks equilibrium between supply and demand through the adjustment of cost. This is how we establish who gets the best of things in our society. Before the establishment of public schools in America, affluent families sought out the best educators because those families had both the desire and ability to pay. The market met those demands but did not meet the educational needs of all families, as Thomas Jefferson noted in his time that there were a great many capable young men who did not receive any formal education simply because their families could not afford it. As a member of Virginia’s parliament, Jefferson proposed, unsuccessfully, to create a public education system for young men, much like our current one, which was to be financed at the local county level via local taxation.
Our capitalist system is not designed for equity, it is based on market forces, (supply, demand and desire and ability to pay), yet equal opportunity is the central mission of public school education. Education is a great equalizer as it provides equal opportunity for advancement of all based on talent and hard work no matter the social status, thereby helping to raise people out of poverty.
The neoconservative narrative that claims the free market will reform public education is a fraud. Free markets do help establish status and exclusivity and will meet market demands, but will not meet the needs of all the people. The neoconservative push for “school choice” will slam the door shut on equal opportunity for families of modest means. It will segregate our schools based on race and social status. It will make climbing the socioeconomic ladder that much more difficult for working families. The school choice initiative will serve to bust teachers unions and siphon tax dollars from our current public schools to private schools and religious schools, thereby making public school failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will use tax dollars for religious education, which is unconstitutional, and perpetuate pseudo-science (religion masked as science, Intelligent Design/Creationism) and revisionist American history based on neo-Confederate political biases.
One final note about what the free market does to schools. All we have to do is look no further than to the Daniel Webster College fiasco here in Nashua. If the free market’s competition magic improves school performance and enhances education, then we have to ask ourselves how was it that the owners of Daniel Webster College were able to make a lot of money, and yet leave the students in the lurch. Do we really want to do for kindergarten through high school what the free market system did to college students, which is put students and families in heavy debt and then leave them flat without their diplomas?
Raymond Guarino is a resident of Nashua and a current member of the Nashua Board of Education.