The Other C Word

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.

4 thoughts on “The Other C Word

  1. The concept of community schools is part of the problem. Those who can afford to live in the better communities with a larger tax base get better buildings, better teachers, and better equipment….which probably translates into better education. In YOUR model, you want to keep the poor students in the inner city schools so the rich right, far white (yeah, exactly) can get more for less. If schools, like business, must compete for business, WE ALL WIN….

    • Actually, John, I am arguing for equitable resources so that poor students and poor school districts (which are often urban, but not always) can provide quality education.

      You have actually pointed to a major problem with the current way Pennsylvania funds public education: the state ranks in the bottom ten of all states in terms of how much funding it provides to schools. Instead, it pushes responsibility for public education down on local communities — so much depends on where a student lives because wealthier communities are able to pump more resources into their local schools. What we need is a more equitable distribution of resources — and we were on the road to fixing many of these problems after the 2006 Costing Out study. But Governor Corbett has gutted that progress.

      I explained last week why using “competition” is the wrong framework. (See “The Competition Fallacy” — https://yinzercation.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/the-competition-fallacy/) Our schools are not struggling because they lack resources, they are reeling from massive and inequitable funding cuts. What we need is adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for ALL our public schools, so that ALL students receive a quality public education.

    • Your comment shows little understanding of the inner-city. For many neighborhoods their neighborhood school is the last remaining anchor of community, that is why they are fighting to keep them. The business model will ALWAYS privilege the bottom line, NOT families and children.

      • Jenni, I know you were responding to John, but just wanted to add that I couldn’t agree more. Our neighborhood schools are truly invaluable as community resources. And some of our inner-city schools are among the best — they totally blow away stereotypes and preconceived notions. Where schools are struggling — whether urban, suburban, or rural — we need to make sure they have the resources to fix problems and strengthen those communities. Using a business model won’t help, it will hurt.

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