Last month, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss (who published my recent argument supporting the “community school” approach to public schooling) featured an enlightening opinion piece by a professor of education named Sarah M. Stitzlein.

To sum it up, Stitzlein powerfully explains how private school vouchers, which deploy public money for families to use at private and religious schools, harm our civic life.

This echoes what Allen Mikaelian and I argue in our new book, The Privatization of Everything: “Politicians and the private sector offer privatization projects as a cheaper, more efficient alternative, [but] the real reason for privatization is the slow forced march toward dismantling democratic control.”

In other words, privatization—of public schools, water systems, roads, the U.S. Postal Service, and other public goods—is, as one of our chapters puts it, a “slow coup.”

This argument needs to be blasted far and wide right now—particularly when it comes to public education, as conservatives ramp up efforts to dismantle our public education system.

Conservatives from Florida to Washington State are growing louder (and funding astroturf campaigns to fearmonger) about critical race theory (CRT), “wokeness,” books that should be banned, mask policies, and pandemic school closures. The founder of the Republican PAC-funded Moms for Liberty has said, “2022 will be a year of the parent at the ballot box.”

Stitzlein writes, “Rather than expanding choices, as proponents often tout, [private school] vouchers actually limit our choices and how we make them in our democratic communities. The public loses the opportunity for voice and influence over how it spends public dollars. Communities lose the ability to determine what content schools should teach, which skills are necessary for our workforce, and the best ways to develop active citizens.”

Despite this, voucher programs now exist in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Public Funds Public Schools, a national campaign founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Law Center, explains that vouchers go by many different names—like “education savings accounts”—but “they all function to undermine public education and publicly subsidize private education.”

And what’s really scary is that school privatization proponents are using the pandemic to push for voucher programs at all levels of government.

There are many reasons conservatives have been so successful expanding voucher programs and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. Billionaires and corporate leaders have spent big on privatizing our public schools for years. Also, decades of cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy have bled public school systems of much-needed resources.

But Stitzlein zeroes in on big reason we often overlook: “While we tend to describe vouchers in terms of parental rights and the marketplace, I suggest instead that we should think about vouchers in terms of democracy, foregrounding our perspective as citizens.”

She cites how political theorist Benjamin Barber describes the fundamental problem of vouchers: “Vouchers transform what ought to be a public question (‘What is a good system of public education for our children?’) into a personal question (‘What kind of school do I want for my children?’). It permits citizens to think of education as a matter of private preference and encourages them to dissociate the generational ties that bind them to their own children from the lateral ties that bind them (and their children) to other parents and children.”

Counter to what billionaire and former education secretary Betsy DeVos once said—that public education is an “industry” and schools are “like food trucks”—our public school system shouldn’t be seen as a marketplace.

And we better start thinking of ourselves, our neighbors, other parents, not as consumers of public goods but as citizens with rights and responsibilities. Otherwise, there soon might not be much of a public education system left to protect—which would be devastating not just to students but also to our communities.

As Stitzlein concludes, “When we turn over our power to voucher programs that regard schools as mere providers of services sought by parental consumers, we lose schools as the centers of our communities and locations of hope.”

In these divided times, that’s the wrong way forward for our democracy.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

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