Having withstood the assaults of Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration, public education, one of America’s best ideas, now faces attack in the states.
Public schools, known as common schools in the nineteenth century, were devised as a way for children of those less affluent to toe the ladder of economic mobility. These schools also provided a place for children of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, and even socioeconomic stations to know and understand one another in the classroom and on the playground.
Public education has not always lived up to those ideals – no one would suggest otherwise – but the notion of providing a meeting ground sounds to me like a recipe for democracy.
This noble tradition, however, is coming under siege like never before. DeVos, who spent her life trying to undermine public education, sought to advance her crusade by redirecting public funds into private and religious schools. With DeVos gone, those of us who believe passionately in public education might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief, but the battle has now shifted to the states.
Proposals are afoot in New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa and Kentucky (and perhaps others) to allow parents and students to take taxpayer money for tuition at private and religious schools. This mischief was made easier by the Supreme Court’s misguided Espinoza v. Montana decision last year, which held that if states offer tuition for any schools, they cannot deny its use for religious schools.
This sets up a confrontation with state constitutions, many of which adopted so-called Blaine amendments. James G. Blaine, a longtime member of Congress from Maine and the Republican nominee for president in 1884, proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit taxpayer funding for sectarian schools. The amendment narrowly failed in the Senate, but many states inserted such prohibitions into their constitutions, thereby fortifying the wall of separation between church and state mandated by the First Amendment.
The diversion of public funds into private schools is a bad idea on several counts. First, the siphoning of students away from public schools inevitably narrows the meeting ground for students, so central to the survival of democracy. Second, it compromises what may have been America’s very best idea, the separation of church and state as encoded into the First Amendment.
That is not to say that addressing the needs of public education is easy. We live in a society that does not value its teachers. Teachers and administrators face stubborn bureaucracies and, at times, unreasonable unions. Some of the most talented teachers finally give up and pursue other, more lucrative careers.
In this context, diverting money into private schools sounds like a quick fix. It sidesteps the hard work and the investments required to reclaim the legacy of public education in America. But these schemes are short-sighted and pernicious, especially at a time when we face the challenges of pluralism as never before.