Choice. They stole our word. Not so long ago, “choice” belonged to progressives who had successfully attached its meaning to women’s reproductive rights. It had become shorthand for an entire, complex movement (though often stood in for the single hot-button issue of abortion). But the agents of school-privatization have co-opted the term. “School choice” now means sending public taxpayer dollars to private and parochial schools benefiting a select few at the expense, and to the detriment, of the great many.
Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote yesterday about the problem of looking at education as a consumer choice rather than a public good. “The more that people begin to see education as a consumer choice, the more they will be unwilling to pay for other people’s children. And if they have no children in school, then they have no reason to underwrite other people’s private choices.” [“How Choice May Kill Public Education,” 6-24-12]
Public education is a social compact (remember this from high school social studies class?): we collectively agree to educate all children in our community, because we all benefit from an educated populace. “But once the concept of private choice becomes dominant,” Ravitch warns, “then the sense of communal responsibility is dissolved. Each of us is then given permission to think of what is best for me, not what is best for we.”
We are a nation of consumers, trained from an early age to look at everything as a consumer choice. And we like the idea of choice: what’s more American than a grocery store aisle with 112 kinds of cereal to choose from? In fact, the concept of choice is almost a pathological fixation in our culture. If we can choose something, then we will like it; if we have a choice, then all is well.
Take healthcare as an example, where the far right has been launching a successful attack on affordable medical care for all, with scary stories about people losing their “choice of doctors” or “choice of plans.” When it comes right down to it, what people want is not necessarily a choice of plans or doctors, but a good doctor in their community that they can afford to see.
The problem of “choice” is related to “The Competition Fallacy” we outlined last week. (That article, by the way, has received some national attention and will be republished by Alternet.org.) Those who would like to privatize our public goods use the framework of choice and competition, but these are the wrong guiding principles. Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addressed just this issue over the weekend in a piece about the similar effort to privatize our prison system. He asserted, “you really need to see it in the broader context of a nationwide drive on the part of America’s right to privatize government functions.” [New York Times, 6-21-12]
Krugman went on to explain why this is happening with prisons, but he could just as easily been talking about education: “You might be tempted to say that it reflects conservative belief in the magic of the marketplace, in the superiority of free-market competition over government planning. And that’s certainly the way right-wing politicians like to frame the issue. But if you think about it even for a minute, you realize that the one thing the companies that make up the prison-industrial complex … are definitely not doing is competing in a free market. They are, instead, living off government contracts. There isn’t any market here, and there is, therefore, no reason to expect any magical gains in efficiency.”
And yet, Pennsylvania legislators are voting today on a massive expansion of a plan to send even more public money to private institutions. As we reported on Friday, this latest voucher-in-disguise effort will expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which currently diverts $75 million in revenue from corporations that we could otherwise be using for our public schools. (See “One Million Per Day.”) Yesterday Republican leaders announced they would almost certainly add another $25 million to this program, while creating a similar tax credit program that will cost another $50 million. [PennLive, 6-24-12]
The good news is that the House is not going along with Governor Corbett’s proposal to cut another $100 million in block grants to public schools for early childhood education. This is money that Pennsylvania schools could not afford to lose on top of last year’s massive cuts. However, the preservation of these funds comes with strings attached – and we’ll see those strings today as legislators vote to further expand voucher programs.
We will undoubtedly hear how tax breaks for corporations and the funneling of public money to private and parochial schools is wonderful, and how these programs create “choice” and “competition.” Just remember that other C word. No not that one. Remember “community.” As Diane Ravitch said, we have a communal responsibility to public education. Once we start seeing it as a consumer choice, we will lose the essence of our public schools: that they belong to all of us, and that we share the obligation to support them.