The nomination of Betsy Devos to be Secretary of Education has lately sent supporters of teacher unions and public education into a genuine tizzy. Attempting to use her record of support for charter schools in Michigan which were unsuccessful, her poor performance before the senate committee, or some of her supposed closed-minded Christian values to demonize her has become popular fare for many on social media. And although it is becoming increasingly obvious that Devos certainly seems to have a certain amount of baggage, there is something that has been buried under all the rancor coming her way. This is her idea of creating a more privatized approach to education in our society by allowing tax monies to be given directly to students in order to attend the school of their choice, rather than merely being dumped into the local public school.
Despite what may be Devos’s position on the subject, privatizing education doesn’t necessarily mean school vouchers or for-profit charter schools run by corporations. What it can mean, if one is to genuinely expand the boundaries of a more privatized approach, is for the bulk of all federal and state tax monies that now go exclusively to school districts and public schools to instead go directly to individual students and families; meaning that students could take a tuition check they have received from the government and use it to attend whatever school they wish, even those which are outside the local neighborhood where their family pays property taxes. That is, as long as they could provide themselves with the necessary transportation, and as long as there was a place open for them at the private school which they wished to attend, they could enroll there immediately.
Furthermore, in such a privatized system the idea of local control (i.e. students having to attend school in the neighborhood where they live) would be abolished, and many schools which are now public would not only become private, but would be supported by the tuition which students are paying from the check they are given by the government. If students and families like their neighborhood school, which has now become a private school, they could continue to attend it by simply using their tuition check there. If not, they could find another school to attend somewhere in the vicinity where they live, once again which they would be able to attend as long as they could provide themselves with the necessary transportation.
What this means of course is that those public schools which a certain number of students and families chose not to attend would be forced to close, with their teaching staff either forced to find work elsewhere or conceivably start their own private school in the area where they formerly taught. However, even though in this privatized system any number of schools would almost certainly have to close, the opportunity would arise for new schools with innovate philosophies to replace them; these new schools then being supported by the tuition checks which students are receiving from the government.
The idea of local control in our present public school system is a deeply limiting one which keeps minority and poor students trapped in failing schools which, short of using any available vouchers or tax credits, they are forced to attend. Yet if tax monies went directly to students, and they could now go to school wherever they wished, this racial stalemate might soon be broken. Yes, there would be a period of chaos where a number of public schools were forced to close, and before more innovative schools were created many students would probably have to shuffle in order to find a place at another school in their vicinity which hadn’t yet closed. Yet eventually, if real school choice could be implemented through a genuinely privatized system, the lives of many poor and minority children might be significantly improved.
In addition, this sort of privatized system would make it exponentially easier for innovate, organic, experimental schools to flourish simply because they would have a much steadier stream of revenue coming their way from the tuition checks which students had received from the government. And because they wouldn’t have to accept funding from federal or private foundations which come with serious strings attached, such as a requirement to evaluate learning solely through standardized test scores, those schools would suddenly have a real window to implement more innovate strategies for facilitating creative learning and healthy child development.
Furthermore, school accountability would become entirely personal and reality oriented. Instead of stemming from external measurements such as a rise in test scores or an adherence to certain federal requirements like Common Core standards, there would be only one immediate, direct standard of accountability. If parents and students didn’t like a school they would simply be able to leave at any time with their tuition check from the government in hand. This is by far the best, and should be the only standard of school accountability. If families aren’t happy with how their children are being educated, they take their toys and leave.
Educational power in this society has for too long gone only to the public school system itself, rather than to individual students and families. In a perfect world it should innately reside in the latter. Yes, there are going to be a couple of rather difficult dynamics which have to be worked out, such as how to provide the proper transportation for those students who wish to attend school in a different district than where they live; in addition to the predictable resistance of those in certain wealthier neighborhoods to students from poor, minority neighborhoods arriving at their school, tuition checks in hand, intent on enrolling immediately. Yet if those of us concerned with a more equitable society wish to see this privatized approach to education through, in which power resides primarily in the hands of students and families, this new type of social contract might indeed have a surprising chance to be properly implemented.