The Public Funding of Private Education
By T.L. Dayen
The research literature available on school choice (the public funding of private school), is for the most part from the perspective of either support or opposition to the idea of publicly funded K-12 private education. The empirical data on comparative K-12 test scores in math and reading reveals minimal discrepancies, even while there is some dispute on methods used to collect and interpret the data (Usher and Kober, 2011). The principle and most notable divide revealed in the literature between supporters and detractors of school choice is ideological in nature; and further reveals a rather complex partisan rift in American perspectives on K-12 education economics, politics, religious considerations and socialization (Ravitch, 2013). This literature review will first provide a brief but more detailed explanation of what school choice is, and then present a synopsis of the constitutional, political and ideological arguments published for and against school choice. This literature review will conclude that school choice is the public establishment of segregated K-12 socialization.
WHAT IS SCHOOL CHOICE: School choice is publicly funded private education; that is, private education funded by taxpayer dollars, also known as “Charter” Schools (Charter) (Cunningham 2013; Ravitch 2013). In 2001, the Department of Education issued a mandate that states increase limits on Charters, in order to compete for billions in federal grants issued by the Obama administration’s “Race-to-the-top” school testing incentive program (Ravitch 2013). As of 2012, forty two states had passed legislation that legalized some form of school choice specifically to precipitate Charters. The method by which private education can be and is publicly funded depends solely on the laws of each individual state (Cunningham 2013). These methods include at least one or more of the following (Cunningham 2013; Ravitch 2013):
- Public space: public facilities for Charter schooling
- Vouchers: public funds paid directly to individual low-income qualifiers
- Lottery vouchers: limited open entry application process
- Dollar for dollar Corporate tax deductible expenses for Charter education scholarships
- Dollar for dollar individual tax deductible expenses for Charter education
According to Josh Cunningham (2013) and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), there are as many as 900,000 nationwide K-12 students on waiting lists for Charter admission. While many earlier voucher programs targeted low-income families in urban areas or and/or the lowest-performing public schools (Usher and Kober, 2011), the NCSL and Charter supporters suggest that waiting list numbers would reduce if more states expanded their public funding options for Charter education beyond income and/or performance criteria (Cunningham 2013; Usher and Kober 2011).
THE FIRST AMENDMENT ISSUE: Charter education, specifically the Ohio school voucher program, was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2002 in the case of Zelmann v. Simmons-Harris as a violation of the Establishment Clause; the 1st Amendment (Cunningham 2013; Usher and Kober 2011). However, the court ruled that the state was not establishing a religion through Charter funding, because the funding was provided to parents who then made the ultimate decision to spend it in a religious or secular school. The Court added that Charters “acted to help under-served students in a failing school system” (Cunningham 2013).
Still, many are not satisfied with this ruling. The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Civil Rights Division (2012) maintains that these [Court] decisions “do not disturb the bedrock constitutional idea that no government program may be designed to advance religious institutions over non-religious institutions” (“School Vouchers” 2012). As it stands, however, Charter (the public funding of private school) is constitutional in the United States.
TESTING AND PERFORMANCE: The literature reveals a general consensus on comparative public and Charter K-12 math and reading scores (Cunningham 2013; Ravitch 2013; Usher and Kober 2011). The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) conducted a 2013 study on comparative test scores of 27 Charter states. Its findings are representative of similar studies conducted; over half of schools compared performed similarly, while a quarter of Charters performed better and roughly a quarter performed worse than their public school counterparts (Cunningham 2013). There are also indications that public schools in close proximity to a Charter counterpart have seen “modest increases” in test scores, attributed to competitive performance factors, but that this effect “weakens” the further the distance between the schools (Cunningham 2013).
Education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education under both President G.H. Bush and Clinton, Diane Ravitch (2013) makes the argument that test scores focused solely on math and reading do not account for the full spectrum of educational goals in subjects like history, geography, music, art and physical fitness. The NCSL itself reports that even while Charters are required to publish annual test scores, the scope of these criteria can differ from state to state which may or may not include graduation and attendance rates (Cunningham 2013). The Center on Education Policy (CEP) has also taken issue with reporting methods of test scores, in that comparison groups can have different sets of characteristics unique to their own demographic which can lead to spurious results (Usher and Kober 2011).
THE POLITICS OF SCHOOL CHOICE: Michael McShane (2012) addresses the impetus behind the push for school choice Charters. He refers to the Department of Education as an entrenched three prong bureaucracy he calls the “iron triangle” or the “educational industrial complex” which consists of Teachers Union lobbyists, and state and Federal boards of education. He calls this iron triangle, “a nearly impenetrable sub government in public education that has resisted reform” (McShane 2012); reforms needed to address a “three-fold increase” in K-12 expenditures since the 1970’s on a languishing public school system as evidenced by the low National Assessment of Educational Progress (NPEP) scores (McShane 2012).
McShane also makes the connection between the Democratic Party as supporters of public education; and cites $330 million spent on Democratic candidates over the past 5 years by public education interest groups. He purports to speak for Charter supporters in general when he says that before the Charter option, the only option for “reform-side” proponents was to “elect Republicans.” Rather than funding ever increasing budgets for “public bureaucracies,” Charters were viewed as a more cost efficient means of funding education (McShane 2012; Usher and Kober 2011).
Merit vs. Ideology: The literature has shown that despite the impetus discussed above for Charter education, test scores have remained similar to their public counterparts. But this has not stopped the momentum of Charters nationwide. Franciosi (2004) suggests there is deeper motivation to “privatize” public education having to do with a growing anti-government sentiment in the U.S. based on the ideology of “individualism.” Usher and Kober also report a “shift” taking place which is putting more emphasis on the “value of choice itself” and less on rationales of achievement. Franciosi echoes this observation by noting that opponents of Charters perceive public education as a means to “promote national culture or values” and ensure equal educational opportunities to every child regardless of race or socio-economics.
In their Review of Major Development and Research on “School Vouchers,” Usher and Kober cite the Mission Statements of two organizations who have conducted and published studies on Charter education that they say reflect a clearer understanding of Charter support. One, the James Madison Institute supports “limited government, economic freedom, federalism, and individual liberty.” Second, The Cato Institute supports moving “toward a future where government run schools give way to dynamic, independent system of schools ‘competing’ to meet the needs of American children.”
PUBLIC FUNDING WITHOUT PUBLIC OVERSIGHT: Public schools must adhere to strict regulations and laws regarding safety, the learning and physically impaired; discrimination, state licensing and certifications as well as a fairly uniform standard of curricula. Charter schools, however, are exempt from these requirements, and these criteria can vary from state to state. Charters are run; that is, held accountable and overseen by a state appointed “Authorizer;” often the Governor, or other legislative or committee body that overrides the authority of each municipality’s elected public school board (Cunningham 2013; Ravitch 2013). In its Guide for Legislators for School Choice Policy, the NCSL emphasizes the “critical role” of state legislators in Charter performance through the unencumbered authority to automatically close under performing schools and create incentives and rewards for high performing Charters (Cunningham 2013).
Ravitch points to a dangerous potential for “politicizing” K-12 education where decisions may be based on factors other than actual underlying causes that affect performance, and that the complex issues of K-12 education are not best served by politicians who may have multiple conflicts of interest. Opponents also assert that Charters funnel not only material resources away from already underfunded public schools, but also the psychological support of motivated parents and students that public schools need for optimal performance. This combined with the flexibility Charters enjoy in admissions criteria, could set some schools up for certain failure (Ravitch 2013; Usher and Kober 2011).
SEGREGATION: The ADL’s Civil Rights division agrees with Charter opponents by making it their formal position that despite Charter claims of inclusiveness, Charters provide for discrimination at some level. Charters have the legal right to tailor their “educational focus” and are not required to adhere to any structural standards of their premises. This gives Charters the ability to reject applicants based on religion, language barriers, academic achievement, gender, sexual orientation, discipline problems or physical disabilities (“School Vouchers,” 2012).
The literature indicates that the momentum of Charter schools may have more to do with Segregation than either test scores or ideology. A 2012 Buechner Institute of Governance school choice study in the Denver public system found the highest priority when choosing schools was “location” followed by educational “focus,” while less than 25 percent of respondents cited school performance as a concern (Cunningham 2013). Jeffery Henig (2011) points to the “changing landscape” of the American education system; specifically race and ethnicity. According to Henig, by 2001, sixty one of the country’s largest 100 school districts were less than 50 percent “white non-Hispanic students.” Henig cites multiple challenges to educational “coalition building” in multi-ethnic communities that include competing interests of Blacks and Latino’s; referring to conflicts over jobs, resources and affirmative action programs as “guerilla warfare.” He also cites the language and legal barriers to political mobilization for education reform in communities with a high rate of undocumented immigrants, which according to Henig had reached 28 percent in 2003.
Franciosi (2004) agrees that political consensus on issues like education are much easier to achieve when communities have homogeneity in income, religion, race and language. He goes as far as to tie location in school choice to housing prices and values; citing studies that indicate in school districts where parents have a greater say, house prices tend to be higher, where-in larger consolidated school districts, home values fall. Home values, according to Franciosi are also linked to K-12 class size and per pupil spending.
Segregation and Achievement Gaps: The UCLA Civil Rights Project studied the impact of K-12 “peer diversity” and found that it not only reduced prejudice, but heightened civic engagement, critical thinking and overall improved learning outcomes (Ravitch 2013). Ravitch advocates that achievement gaps in adulthood begin with socioeconomic and/or cultural differences of our early childhood home environments, and that “racial segregation contributes to low academic achievement;” therefore, K-12 education should provide for social diversity. Charter segregation can also lead to an unequal educational spectrum beyond “common core” subjects of math and reading. Ravitch points to 2008 budget cuts and strict testing requirements since the 2000’s, as putting a one-sided burden on public schools to compete with their Charter counterparts that may have stronger tax bases and resources to focus equally on history, literature and the arts, which according to Ravitch is equally important by any measure as math and reading in K-12 educational curricula.
Herbert Foerstel (2013) however, is concerned that Charter students could be at risk from the narrowly defined and/or “censored” educational focus that attracts many parents to Charter education. Literature, history and science are three areas where Foerstel finds inequitable, and in his opinion substandard, instruction when and wherever censorship goes unchecked. Foerstel states that literature is the easiest and first to be censored on ideological grounds. He cites that the American Library Association has determined some 46 of the top 100 novels of the 20th century have been censored or banned in America’s schools including The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird. He says American history is the subject students score the worst on Federal testing. Foerstel quotes American History lecturer James Loewen, whose audiences when asked “what caused the Civil War” out of four possible choices, invariably choose “states’ rights” with the lowest percentage choosing “slavery” as the cause. Foerstel says this “corrosive” trend toward Pollyanna patriotism will produce a citizenry “who lack the knowledge and skills to criticize or defend our political systems.” The censorship of science, specifically creationism vs. evolution, according to Foerstel, is not just stunting K-12 understanding of biology, but also geology, astronomy and physics; as “young earth advocates” calculate the age of the universe at 6000 years. Foerstel concludes that taking the position in academia that “Human intervention is contrary to the will of God” dangerously hinders an objective pragmatic effort to tackle critical environmental challenges to climate, natural resources and species extinction.
THE PUBLIC ESTABLISHMENT OF SEGREGATED K-12 SOCIALIZATION: The literature concurs that Charters are publicly funded private education. The literature is in agreement that differences in testing and academic performance between Charters and public schools are not significant. The literature concurs that school performance is not the prime motivating factor for parents in K-12 decisions; but rather the liberty to choose where, what and how their child receives its K-12 education, free from government oversight and/or regulation.
The literature is at odds, however, on how America’s K-12 youth and future citizenry benefit from public funding of private education. Proponents argue that parental satisfaction is the goal of K-12 education. Opponents have serious concerns that because parental satisfaction is based on learned biases, that school choice (Charters) is simply the public establishment of K-12 segregation based on parental biases; which the literature has shown can be economic, ethnic, religious or political. When testing and performance are considered comparable, the remaining data provided by the literature indicates that the ultimate outcome of Charter education appears to be the public establishment of segregated K-12 socialization.
Cunningham, Josh. 2013. “Comprehensive School Choice Policy: A Guide for Legislators.”
National Conference of State Legislators. Retrieved February 23, 2015 from http://www.ncsl.org
Foerstel, Herbert N. 2013. Studied Ignorance: How Curricular Censorship and Textbook Selection Are Dumbing Down American Education. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Franciosi, Robert J. 2004. The Rise and Fall of American Public Schools: The Political Economy of Public Education in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Henig R., Jeffrey. 2011. “The Contemporary Context of Public Engagement: The New
Political Grid.” Public Engagement for Public Education: Joining Forces to
Revitalize Democracy and Equalize Schools. (2011). Stanford: Stanford UP.
McShane,Michael Q. 2012. “Turning the tides: President Obama and education reform.”
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research No. 6. Retrieved
February 21, 2015 from http://www.aei.org
Ravitch, Diane. 2013. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Division of Random House, LLC.
“School Vouchers: The Wrong Choice for Public Education.” 2012. Anti-Defamation League:
Civil Rights Division. Retrieved February 21, 2015 from http://www.adl.org
Usher, Alexandra and Nancy Kober. 2011. “Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A
Review of Major Developments and Research.” Center on Education Policy.
Retrieved February 21, 2015 from http://www.cep-dc.org