Discussions of public education today are filled with the language and values of privatization. We hear about children "trapped in failing schools," students who could escape if their parents had the right and the public dollars to help them afford a private choice. Very often privatization is framed in the language of rights: the individual parent's right to choose.
| "Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power... Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract." —Benjamin Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, pp. 143-144.
The language of individual rights is seductive, for individualism is at the center of one of our beloved myths—the American Dream. An ethos of individualism and an ethic of personal responsibility are essential themes of this story about opportunity. The point of view has narrowed to that of the individual, who imagines he or she will thrive because in America anyone can get ahead through hard work. The setting is often a marketplace, where the protagonist is a consumer or an entrepreneur. Enterprise and the freedom to choose mean that one succeeds by making the choices that benefit oneself or one's family. In this story it is assumed that the choices of all individuals massed together will benefit society as a whole.
As Americans, we are only too willing to accept the limitations of this narrative's point of view. We identify with the hero and believe the plot: all Americans start at a place where we have an opportunity to succeed if we work hard. There is one set of rules we all play by, and if we are strategic and patient, we can all be winners. When people succeed it is because they are virtuous; they learned the rules; and they played the game skillfully. When people fail, we like to assume they are losers—lazy and irresponsible.
If we really think about it, we may reconsider. Perhaps children do not all start at the same place. Maybe they do not all have the same opportunities. Perhaps we do not all get to play by the same rules. As Christians we have traditionally preferred a different narrative. Instead of understanding ourselves as isolated, rugged individuals, we have honored community and our mutual obligation for the common good. The Bible is about life in community. Love, justice, compassion and charity are values for living in community. Jesus named the greatest commandment as loving God and loving "your neighbor as yourself."
Our society has also valued community, by creating laws and institutions to protect our broader rights and to try to ensure greater access to opportunity for all. According to Rev. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Washington, D.C.'s Foundry United Methodist Church: "Justice is the community's guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society... If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation." The laws and institutions of a society are the mechanisms by which society can attempt to provide and protect opportunity for all.
In the United States for over two hundred years, we have been developing a public system of education as the best means of serving a mass of children—today 50 million children. We have recognized that education cannot be understood as a race, because while races, by their very nature, create winners and losers, public education must serve all children and thereby serve society itself. Public schools are publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public. They are not perfect, for our society is not a utopia, but because they are publicly accountable, we can work in an open and transparent way to improve them. We in the churches have advocated for a long, long time to make public schools more equitable. Because they are public institutions, we have been able to do that.
Here are questions you should ask yourself and ask candidates for public office when they propose various forms of privatizing public education (which include charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, private contracting, and education management or charter management companies including the large, virtual e-school providers).
- Do you think it is possible for the federal government or for a local school district to provide good choices for all children?
- Is efficiency, a business value, more important than democracy, a civic value? Who should oversee privately managed schools (receiving public dollars) on behalf of the public to protect the children and the public investment?
- What should federal and state governments do to improve the regulation of privatized schools?
- Are charter schools in your community providing comprehensive services for students with special needs in compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? If not, where and how are these students being served?
- When parents send children to privatized schools that are governed by private boards that are not open to the public, where can the parents go for help if their children are poorly served?
- When a school district is being managed under a "portfolio" model which projects an ongoing churn of schools opening and closing, what is the government's responsibility to address the destabliization of that community?
- When there is competition to attract students to a range of small schools or charter schools, what is the government's moral and fiscal responsibility to the students remaining in the neighborhood public schools?
Here are important values to consider in the context of conversations about public vs. privatized schools: equal access, equal services, public purpose, public ownership, and protection of the common good.