Saturday, April 1, 2023

We’ve Served Up Public Education to Greedy Profiteers

Earlier this month, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio had a raw, emotional moment in front of cameras as he railed against America’s charter schools. “I know we’re not supposed to be saying ‘hate,’” said the 2020 presidential candidate, “but I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.”

Another 2020 contender, Bernie Sanders, similarly called for “a moratorium on public funds for charter school expansion.” And in my home state of Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf has vetoed every school choice bill that’s reached his desk—because his goal is “educating every child through our public school system.”

These politicians do have a point. Our public schools—America’s most important investment in our kids and their futures—shouldn’t be easy plunder for those who take advantage. 82 percent of American students attend local district schools—if nothing else, we should support that vast majority of kids.

But the real profiteers who are wrecking public schools aren’t charter schools, tax credit scholarships, or private education. The ones exploiting public education are public-school unions—and corrupt politicians who do their bidding.

Unions like NEA and AFT are multi-billion dollar corporations who gave up caring about America’s students decades ago. In fact, at their 2019 meeting in Houston, NEA voted down a resolution to “re-dedicate itself to the pursuit of increased student learning in every public school in America by putting a renewed emphasis on quality education.”

Their only goal now seems to be empire-building: increasing the number of dues-paying members to fund their executives’ enormous salaries and to buy key elections for their partisan agenda. The kids get left behind.

Public education doesn’t have to involve a one-size-fits-all model. According to Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, in most democracies public education simply means government funded. It doesn’t mean government run, and it isn’t limited to only one type of school. Only in America does “public” have to mean “a front company for a government lobbying firm.”

Which is exactly what these unions are. Why should unaccountable, private organizations get to dictate what our kids are learning? The “privatizers” they rail against are doing something we should have done as a country long ago. They’re bypassing the union middleman and offering a brighter future directly to the students.

Given our history and political impulses, maybe we’ll never have true educational pluralism in America. But why can’t we avail ourselves of solutions that already exist? In Pennsylvania, these solutions range from charter schools to Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC) and Education Scholarship Accounts. Similar programs have produced astounding results in several states, such as Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

Why not support district schools, private schools, charter schools, and even home schools? Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Despite the proven success of school choice programs both for individual students and for aggregate outcomes, they’ve faced strong opposition from certain legislators and Pennsylvania’s governor. Even though Republican and Democrat legislators both supported a recent expansion of our state’s EITC program, which lets businesses donate so public-school students can receive private-school scholarships, Governor Wolf vetoed it.

Political insiders knew it had nothing to do with Wolf’s educational philosophy. He himself attended private schools, and his personal business even donated to the EITC program. It all came down to the $10 million unions have donated to his campaigns.

Until we can stop unions from profiting off our own kids’ education system, we’ll never be able to offer millions of young people the tailor-made educational experiences they deserve. And instead of measuring up to other industrialized countries in primary and secondary education, America will remain at its present status, a mediocre 38th (PISA Test 2015). It’s time to swallow our pride and learn from those countries who’ve eclipsed us.

American public education should be as diverse as we are. Union lobbyists want everything one way, but we can’t let our students be pawns in their game.

Marc LeBlond
Marc LeBlond is Senior Policy Analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.


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