Last month, the head of a county Republican Party in Oklahoma issued an open letter suggesting that the state "abolish public education."
In an interview, he went on to say that he and other members of his party took a "strong stance that education is not a proper role of government.” This is not a new argument. Education Secretary and consummate Disney-channel villainess Betsy DeVos has called public education a "dead end" for years. And New Orleans is about to become the first major city in America with an all-charter school district.
The idea of dismantling public schools altogether is a feature (not a bug) of the extreme-but-still-somehow-mainstream right in America. The liberal media cannot long fight the impulse to push the Overton window to the right; in the last decade, countless thinkpieces have been penned about the inevitable demise of public education. And yet, the suggestion that we abolish private education is so reviled by factions on both the right and left that it's practically unspoken. Why?
The gulf between rich and poor in America is so massive as to be beyond comprehension. Those who get to see it cannot really talk about it, because there are no words for it. For the most part, the worlds of the rich and the poor are separated, and this separation is rigidly enforced.
It would be naïve to suggest that private schools create this gulf, but it would be equally foolish to pretend they do not foster and perpetuate it. The wealthiest people go to great lengths to insulate themselves from the rabble, and sequestering their kids in private bubbles is one good way to do so. The professional classes and the upper-middle class tend to believe the best thing they can do for their kids is send them to private schools, whether observable data bears that out or not. After you hit a certain income level, it's just what you do.
On the other hand, who's to say the entire private school consumer base is wrong? In 21st century America, you can hardly begrudge anyone their choices in education. Different schools and different methodologies work better for different kids, and public schools often don't offer much variety. Public schools in many places simply cannot properly accommodate children with special needs. Plenty of working-class people say their public schools are not working for them, and they are usually right. In some areas, it's parental malpractice to send your kid to a public school if you can afford a private one. Lots of families of modest means bust ass to make sure their kids don't have to go to a crummy public school.
But these deficiencies within our public schools have root causes. One need look no further than the derogatory remarks made by Kentucky's wild-eyed, white-gloved governor about rank-and-file teachers in the wake of the pension crisis to detect the disdain those in power have for public education. Or look at the utter unwillingness of a state like Indiana, with its massive budget surplus, to spend a single extra dollar on its floundering education system. School boards in many counties don't think public education should be taken seriously, and so they don't. Elected officials in states like Oklahoma and West Virginia have waged all-out war on public education, and even beleaguered teachers in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles must fight tooth and nail for fairer treatment.
The oldest trick in the devil's playbook is fostering class divisions in order to maintain the status quo. Viewed in this light, a robust public education system is anathema to the mission of most lawmakers—indeed to the law itself. Equal educational opportunities for people regardless of wealth, unionized employees, pensions, transparency—all these things serve to break down class barriers. But as the role of money in American politics continues to balloon, school board and state legislature races get more expensive, and therefore only accessible to wealthier candidates—the kind who have vested interests in making decent education a luxury good, or at least something else that puts money in a donor's pockets.
Our public schools have been bled dry by legislatures, their carcasses then put on display to show that public education is a "dead end." If private schools are outperforming public schools, or offering services that public schools can't, this just proves the often right wing, but sometimes left wing, talking point that public schools don't work. Politicians and pundits don't need to speak aloud the idea that public schools, especially in poor communities, should give way to private enterprise. As in the extreme example of New Orleans, where the public schools have been allowed to die on the vine, the argument makes itself.
And, turning the public against public schools is the whole point. In the face of such self-evident failures, our collective interest in the social equalization promised by public education naturally wanes. If your kid's school district has been set adrift, and you've got an escape hatch—be it private, charter, or home school, or something else—you're going to use it, because you're going to do the best you can for your kid. Any of us would. The end result is a fractured, confused system with a startlingly unequal allocation of resources and deeply personal divides; a system that stamps out collective action before it starts.
What would happen if we did an about face in our approach to education? If everyone's resources were necessarily focused on the same system? Finland, for example, has the highest ranked education system in the world; one that is almost exclusively public, and has a fully unionized workforce. The few private schools that exist cannot engage in selective admission and cannot charge fees for tuition. Books, lunches, and even housing is provided to students in need. All of Finland's education eggs have been put in one big basket, and it works. Why couldn't it work in the wealthiest country in the history of the world?
All this is idealistic talk, of course. The hurdles to doing away with private education in the United States are so great that they could not be jumped without major structural changes—the kind most of us have stopped imagining will happen. But, that's not to say that those changes aren't something to strive for.
Simply put: We should not ignore the possibility of a future without private schools. We should take seriously the idea of getting rid of educational institutions that exclude anyone on any basis, especially income. We should engage in real debate on the topic. If nothing else, opposition to private schools sends a message to those at the top: You will invest in all of our children, rich, poor, or otherwise; you cannot isolate yourselves.