From Equality, Freedom, Education: (3) Public Education and Eating the Rich—Part 1: “… conservative politicians declare that a principal reason for supporting school choice and vouchers is that these policies will provide opportunities—finally!—for poor students to access quality education, when the actions of these same politicians reveal their intent is actually to provide tax breaks or vouchers for those Americans currently wealthy enough to send their kids (and many do) to private school without any assistance from the state, and these recipients of government largess are the very same Americans who are the most likely to chastise the notion of a welfare state.”
A disadvantage for advantaged conservative policy makers is that they are generally clueless about what it means to be truly poor in today’s America. While I am not a conservative, I am advantaged, and were it not for the opportunity to serve “failing” charter schools in Philadelphia, as well as students from inner-city Wilmington, Delaware, when I was a high school principal, I would not have any appreciation of what it means to be truly poor.
Wilmington has had the misfortune to be characterized at one time or another as the “Murder Capital of America,” and many of my students came from the violent neighborhoods responsible for that title; as I write this, I am recalling one such young man sitting in my office and telling me about the bullet still in his shoulder from being shot a few weeks earlier.
At the end of my working career, for three to five days a week for a year, I drove through the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia to my assignments on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction. Other than a very few educator acquaintances, no one I know has ever driven on the streets I traveled in Philly; no one I know has gotten to know the people who work with poor kids every day whose stories of students’ success or disappointments have, at times, moved me to tears.
If no one I know personally has had those experiences, I am fairly certain that the advantaged conservatives who comprise the Country Club Set have not had them either, but yet they support political positions that drastically and negatively impact the urban poor. In general, the actions of advantaged Americans suggest we do not collectively care that in a little more than a century, America has managed to change economically-integrated cities into segregated urban islands that reflect racial and class segregation. Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation is a powerful exposé of this reality.
It is in the isolated islands of country clubs, suburban churches, board rooms, and neighborhood cocktail parties where advantaged conservatives concoct and refine their plans to increase their wealth—and what is most germane to this post—their plans to enhance opportunities for their own children, about whose achievements they love to boast while rarely if ever recognizing and acknowledging the role played by economic advantage (and white privilege) in those achievements. It would be indeed rare for these folks, compromised by their fog of selective ignorance, to discuss what should be done about the education of the ~160,000 Philadelphia children who live at a level of poverty that might cause Dickens to cringe, except for, as already noted, conservative politicians’ claims regarding how “choice” and “vouchers” benefit the poor. Their perfidy is transparent in at least four ways (and they know it):
One, the notion that vouchers and choice would result in droves of poor students gaining access to quality education is false and reflects conservative politicians’ cynicism and belief that millions of Americans are unable to think critically, and therefore, will buy what they are selling. They are certain most Americans will not realize that there are very few spaces currently available for additional students in America’s private and charter schools unless those students are six-foot-five and can dunk from the foul line. (Please excuse my own cynicism born of my experience living and working in New Castle County Delaware.)
Two, conservatives know that even if there are spaces in private schools and charters, the sophistication required to understand and go through the application process is daunting for (e.g.) a hard-working parent with two jobs and a sixth-grade education who does not speak English, or for someone who has been debilitated by drugs. If someone brings this challenge to the attention of a conservative, the likely response is, “that’s not MY problem.” (I caution every conservative reader of this post to consider its title.)
Three, while charters are financially accessible to the poor because they are public schools, the notion that vouchers would make private schools accessible is ludicrous. When the education committees of state legislatures (like Pennsylvania’s GOP-dominated legislature) chew on the matter of vouchers, the dollar amount commonly bandied about is only enough to pay the tuition of religious schools. Clever, isn’t it, using taxpayer dollars to support religious indoctrination of children under the guise of providing “quality” education for the poor?
Four, the aforementioned cynicism allows conservative politicians to create the impression that vouchers will provide poor students with access to traditional private schools, but that is a lie. The 2021 poverty Level for a family of four is $26,500; the ~70,000 Philly kids living in deep poverty means they are somehow existing with a family income that is half that of the poverty level. The (2021-22) annual high school tuitions for Tower Hill School in Wilmington and for Germantown Academy in Philadelphia are $32,800 and $37,830 respectively; the tuition for St. Andrew’s Academy, a boarding school in Delaware, is $62,280 a year. Some of these schools provide scholarships, but even with that, if you do the math, it is easy to see that a kid in deep poverty (or a kid in poverty) is unlikely to attend one of these private schools.
Progressives’ (the Army of Equality’s) solution would be to affirm that “universal education in America is a right and not a privilege,” because as Thomas Jefferson declared:
A government is like everything else: to preserve it we must love it … Everything, therefore, depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education …
In order to fulfill this mission, the progressive solution must insist upon universal public education that trains, monitors, supports, and requires EVERY teacher to employ research-based instructional practices and appropriate classroom assessments—not standardized assessments—in every school. Further, the inequitable distribution of wealth among school districts that mirrors the wealth inequities of citizens across a state, something that is a blatant fact in Pennsylvania, must be addressed, and not in the usual progressive practice of throwing money at challenged school districts, but in a coordinated, thoughtful, accountable, and strategic manner that is as free of political corruption as is humanly possible. A big ask given that those with power tend to reside in the most affluent school districts.
It is my hope that Americans will ultimately choose the Progressive solution, not because of fear of being eaten by the poor, but because at our core, a majority of Americans are benevolent people who care about others, not out of fear, but because of a deeply-held acceptance of our founding philosophy:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And as a life-long educator and the descendent of poor immigrants who used effective and universal public education as a stepping stone on the pathway to the American Dream, I believe with every ounce of my being that the ultimate solution to the current American malaise is also what is needed to support Americans’ pursuit of happiness: the Creator-endowed right of every American child to experience effective, equitably-distributed, universal public education.
This is the fourth of several posts that I will be updating and reposting in an attempt to refine and arrange all of my education-related posts in a logical, conceptual order. As always, your comments will be much appreciated.
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