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As public education stumbles, democracy falls

August 5, 2018

There is a disturbing trend in American policy where a powerful few use government to benefit themselves at the expense of the many. The most recent example is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s proposal to implement a $100 billion tax cut that would primarily benefit the 0.1 percent of earners, including himself. Simultaneously, there are proposals to impose punitive work requirements on SNAP and Medicaid recipients, hurting mostly children, the elderly and the disabled.

This pattern extends to state policy. The American Federation of Teachers reports that more than half the states invested less in public education in 2016 than they did in 2008, even as most of these states enacted tax cuts during that period. The poorest districts are the hardest hit, as they cannot recoup lost state funding with local revenue.

Scholars Jamila Michener and Sally Nuamah have found that when government is unresponsive to the most underserved, e.g., erecting barriers for Medicaid recipients or closing public schools over community objections, those communities disengage from political participation. When government serves the privileged few, democracy also suffers.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos views her role in government as advancing the interests of the few. While accelerating privatization of public schools by expanding charters and vouchers, she has declared: “we should be funding and investing in students ... not in institutions, not in systems.” She commodifies education, likening it to Uber, cellphones and Blockbuster video. DeVos prioritizes “parents’ fundamental right to choose” over equity.

As the political theorist Benjamin Barber noted, private choice cannot be a surrogate for the public good. “(A)ggregating our private choices … yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged.” Indeed, school choice has accelerated segregation and the diversion of funds from public schools. Charters and vouchers also often exclude the neediest, leaving public schools to serve them with fewer resources.

Barber also observed that choice is an illusion: “the real power... is in the determination of what is on the menu.” Owing to the policy decisions of the powerful, parents in needy districts do not have the choice of a well-funded public school. As law professor Osamudia James has written, “school choice merely glorifies the limited and less-desirable choices of people of color.”

Current education policy undermines the vision in Brown v. Board of Education of public education as a public good essential to democracy. The Brown Court declared that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments ... It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities ... It is the very foundation of good citizenship.” The Court understood that segregation impeded the aim of a cohesive society. Thus, even if the conditions were the same in segregated schools, separate could never be equal.

Two cases decided last week reaffirm the vision of public schools as essential to the survival of our democracy and provide a road map for a needed redirection of education policy nationwide.

In New Mexico, a judge ruled that the state underfunds its schools in violation of that state’s constitution, with particular harm inflicted on English Language Learners, Native American students, poor students, and students with disabilities. The court ordered the state to adequately fund schools so they can serve all children. It also affirmed the connection between equal educational opportunity and democracy, quoting late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan: “education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society. We cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by our Nation when selected groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests.”

Similarly, Minnesota’s highest court confirmed education’s public purpose. Parents and children in Minneapolis and St. Paul sued the state, charging that segregation in their school districts deprived children of a constitutionally adequate education. They pointed to several factors contributing to segregation, including the creation of charter schools and the exemption of charters from desegregation plans. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied the state’s motion to dismiss and allowed the case to go forward. As the court noted, Minnesota’s constitution declared that a uniform system of public education is vital to “(t)he stability of a republican form of government.” The court concluded that “It is self-evident that a segregated system of public schools is not “general,” “uniform,” “thorough,” or “efficient.”

These courts ruled that exclusionary education policy perpetuates inequality and is inconsistent with the goals of public education. For our democracy to thrive, education must remain a public good.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center

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