Published On: Fri, Aug 10th, 2018

American Public Education Will Face Extinction Unless We Stop It

For generations, Americans have grown up in a society that has striven to provide a level playing field for all. It is all in service to the idea that anyone, regardless of their background, ancestry, race, or place of origin could live the American dream. Part of the way our government has supported that idea has been through public education.

photo/ Wokandapix

As far back as the 1640s, tax dollars in the settlements that would become the United States have paid for public schooling for citizens of all stripes. In fact, from a global perspective, public education is an uncontroversial concept. The United Nations features universal primary education as a key goal of its UNICEF initiatives, reflecting the near complete recognition of the import of education around the world. Most industrialized nations even offer government funded courses in varied vocations as a part of comprehensive public education. Why then, is the United States Department of Education (DOE) doing everything in its power to devalue and destroy public education?

Deconstructing American Public Education

The American public education system is complex, with tax dollars from the local, state, and federal levels combining into a vast network of government-run primary, secondary, and university school systems from coast to coast. According to DOE estimates, the primary and secondary public school systems alone cost $634 billion to operate in the fiscal year 2013-14, the latest range for which data is available. That’s quite a lot of money and quite a big target for private interests looking for a slice of the education funding pie.

By 2010, the cause of privatization had attracted enough funding and attention from the wealthy and business interests to create what appeared to be, from the outside, a grassroots reform movement. Central to that movement was a member of a wealthy Michigan family, who had advocated for privatizing public education in her home state for years – with disastrous results. Her name is Betsy DeVos, and she’s now running the DOE in the Trump administration.

A Robbery in Progress

One of the central pillars of the so-called reform of public education that DeVos has sought for so long is the drive to create and expand school voucher programs. The idea seems appealing if you don’t look too closely at the details. The general idea is to provide funding for education directly to parents in the form of a voucher that they could spend at any school, public or private, that they choose for their child. In that way, the theory goes, students trapped in underperforming public schools could escape to find a better educational outcome. The problem – it’s already been tried throughout the nation of Chile, and it does nothing to improve education for students.

What it does accomplish, unfortunately, is the utter destruction of existing public school systems, while facilitating the transfer of billions of dollars of education funding into the coffers of private institutions. The only mitigating factor would be scrupulous regulation of the private and charter schools that end up with the lion’s share of the public education dollars. That, however, would disrupt the fleecing of education tax dollars by imposing real penalties for underperforming private and charter schools. Revealingly, that’s why another pillar of so-called education reform is a near-complete lack of oversight of the companies swallowing up public education funds.

The Fox in the Henhouse

Betsy DeVos, of course, has already been installed as the head of the DOE. It’s easy to argue that the damage that she’s poised to do to American public education is now unavoidable. As the recent teacher strikes in five states proved, though, change is still possible if enough people demand it. Defenders of America’s tradition of equal opportunity and universal basic education can’t wait another moment to make their voices heard. As we speak, the number of professional staff at the DOE is shrinking, and the Republican-led House of Representatives is advancing a bill that will funnel more funds into a DOE with questionable priorities.

Until the midterm elections give progressives the chance to wrest control of some of the levers of power, it’s incumbent upon all of us to make our voices heard to make sure that American public education remains the primary guarantor of the American dream. If we don’t, it may be another casualty of a system that’s tilting dangerously in favor of the wealthy and powerful, and our children will pay the price for our collective silence and inaction.

Author: Andrej Kovacevic

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