May 20, 2024

Denis Smith: Public Funds for Private Purposes. How Vouchers are Undermining Democracy

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Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant with the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. The following piece was originally published at the Ohio Capital Journal. 

Take a moment to look around your neighborhood and beyond. In your observations, have you noticed an increasing number of children out and about during school hours?

If you have, you’re witnessing the warning signs of future societal instability. And yes, those warning lights are blinking red. Surprise? Not really. It’s been coming for decades.

Recent examples of the misdeeds of right-wing legislatures are legion. Gerrymandering, voting limitations, and reproductive rights restrictions quickly come to mind. But here is perhaps the most important offense against democracy: the Republican war on public education.

That war has taken on many forms, as public funds are now used in many states to support privately managed online and brick-and-mortar charter schools, vouchers for private school tuition, and even subsidies for families involved in home education. Many observers find the use of public funds for private purposes to be a volatile mix, a dangerous brew that may prove to be destabilizing to our society over time.

As a retiree and one who is out and about, I see these signs in my own neighborhood, where groups of kids are at play, where others are exploring Costco and any other place imaginable that would attract school-aged kids not in school, but with time on their hands.

Look around. You may hear them before you see them. For at least the last ten years, there has been a surge in the number of red states that have established education voucher programs, allowing public funds to subsidize private educational choices for families. Recall that the rationale for vouchers originally was to allow families to escape “failing public schools.”

In Ohio, the so-called “school choice” movement, enabled by the GOP, has operated on steroids in the last two decades, with politicians like Senate President Matt Huffman and state Sen. Andrew Brenner, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, aggressively acting as the leading anti-public education figures in the Buckeye State.

Yet, an examination of private and religious school enrollment patterns in several states indicates that the very rationale conjured up for vouchers has now been shown to be fraudulent.

Originally shopped as a way for low-income families to have a lifeline that would help them “escape” those “failing” schools, the educational voucher program has instead been shown to be a scheme where affluent families can receive state funds to reduce their tuition payments.

Recently, the Arkansas Times framed the situation in this manner: “Such programs mean that any kids already enrolled in private school are eligible to apply for a voucher to pay for tuition. That doesn’t sound like a program targeted to help low-income families frustrated with their public school; it sounds like a program to boost the bank accounts of existing private school families, many of them wealthy.”

Arkansas is subsidizing higher-income families so their children can receive a private school education. Ohio, notwithstanding the rhetoric of Huffman and Brenner, is doing the same thing, in a big way.

In examining the data, Cleveland’s WEWS also looked at Ohio’s school voucher program and found the same situation.

It is very clear that regardless of the rhetoric about providing opportunities for disadvantaged families, vouchers in Ohio, Arkansas and other states mostly serve those students who are already enrolled in private and religious schools.

Any public program that serves an elite – in this case private and religious-school students – is undemocratic and antithetical to the public interest, particularly when the funds in the state budget come from the same line item for public schools, as is the case in Ohio. The WEWS report found this situation in a March investigation:

“The number of students receiving EdChoice Expansion vouchers increased from 23,272 students during the 2022-2023 school year to 82,946 students during the 2023-2024 school year, according to data provided by the Ohio Department of Education & Workforce.

“The number of students enrolled in private schools during the 2023-24 school year only increased by 3,719 students, according to ODE.”

These figures reinforce the fact that students already enrolled in Ohio private and religious schools are the true beneficiaries of vouchers. William Phillis, the long-time leader of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding and the state’s leading foe of school privatization efforts, put it in straightforward terms:

“With the advent of universal vouchers, private school tuition rates are typically escalating; hence, lower-income folks will not have the financial capacity to use private school vouchers. The result of this scheme is that a disproportionate percentage of the tax-funded vouchers will go to the more affluent folks. Therefore, all taxpayers will subsidize a scheme which only affluent folks can access.”

It is now abundantly clear that there is a Republican scheme to encourage the proliferation of privately managed charter schools, subsidize and in effect encourage home schooling, and now, provide vast state resources to supplement the operations of private and religious schools that benefit primarily the wealthy families whose children were already enrolled.

Hello, conspiracy theorists. Why have you missed this scheme?

“School choice” is one thing. But using public funds to subsidize and encourage the dissolution of public education is another. All the forces are in place that will result in the inevitable destruction of public education – the primary force that provides adhesion to communities and a national, not fragmented, identity.

Eight years ago, the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks worried about excessive individualism and its effect on national cohesion.

“The emphasis on individual choice challenges community cohesion and settled social bonds,” he wrote.

“School choice” as a movement is a direct challenge to community cohesion and an assault on the public school as part of the identity of a community. No word salad can take away the correctness of that assertion. Moreover, community cohesion comes with the idea of democracy, where citizens elect community members to provide governance to public schools and necessary oversight of the public funds that operate them.

In an earlier essay about “community cohesion and settled social bonds,” I embraced these words by Dr. Kenneth Conklin, a philosopher concerned about cultural fragmentation.

“If an educational system is altered, its transmission of culture will be distorted,” Conklin wrote. “The easiest way to break apart a society long-term without using violence is to establish separate educational systems for the groups to be broken apart.”

As we look at the damage inflicted upon our schools and the attending society by the likes of Republican zealots like Matt Huffman and Andrew Brenner, there are some additional warnings Conklin provides about societal continuity and the
schools as agents of community cohesion:

“A society’s culture can survive far longer than the lifespan of any of its members, because its educational system passes down the folkways and knowledge of one generation to subsequent generations. A culture changes over time, but has a recognizable continuity of basic values and behavioral patterns that distinguishes it from other cultures. That continuity is provided by the educational system.”

At this stage of community destruction caused by school privatization zealots and their use of public funds to support private and religious schools, it is incumbent upon community members to fight this assault. A coalition of public school districts have joined in a lawsuit to fight the school voucher scheme. If you are an Ohio resident, see if your school district has stepped to the plate in a lawsuit against the use of public funds to fight this voucher scheme and stop the Huffman and Brenner wrecking crew from destroying your community and its schools.

If your local school district is not involved, call up the system’s central office and find out why.

Better yet, show up at a school board meeting before this academic year is out and ask those members why they have not joined the Ohio E&A and Vouchers Hurt Ohio coalition. Your community and democracy itself is at stake. After all, our very culture and the transmission of social values “… is provided by the educational system.”

Note: system. Not systems. It’s time to defend democracy. After all, as Jefferson and other founders have told us since our nation’s independence, an informed citizenry is the arsenal of democracy.

Matt Huffman told us what he and his colleagues are all about.

“We can kind of do what we want,” he said in 2023.

Please show up at a future school board meeting and ask what they are going to do about a bully whose goal is to wreck public education and the community they nurture.

Our democracy is at stake. It is time to act. Now.

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