Julie Miller and Ken Kraus: Privatizing education with tax dollars is convoluted and deceptive

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and teachers from East High School, walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

In 600 words or less, what do you know about profit-based education?

We thought so.

Our kitchen island is groaning under a ream of research regarding the national debate on traditional publicly funded education. Privatizing public education with your tax dollars has become one of the most convoluted and deceptive movements ever to infect the public mindset.

Taxpayer dollars, deregulated schools, private management. The “freedom of school choice” movement is a mixed bag of zealous elites, parents wanting better choices for their child and conservative politicians whose platform is cut taxes, deregulate vast sectors of the economy and transfer your tax dollars for public ed to the private sector.

Years ago, public schools were considered a positive force in a nation busy welcoming immigrants, becoming industrialized and building schools that would unify an ever-growing and diverse population.

Public school was the doorway to knowledge, skills, socialization and self sufficiency — the bedrock of democracy. As there was no mention of education in the U.S. Constitution, states and local communities shaped ever-evolving definitions of the public school. Over time, public schools found themselves at the center of civil rights litigation and ideological battles.

Renowned economist Milton Friedman, considered the founder of vouchers, said the government should quit the business of running schools. Government, posited by Friedman, had little business in a free-market society. In a marketized system, competition would eliminate low-performing schools because they’d fail to attract customers.

Today, wealthy, white voucher school proponents — Koch brothers, the Walton and DeVos families — have poured millions into a “reform” industry populated by lobbyists, consultants, curriculum designers, media specialists, conservative research think tanks, campaign organizers and ballot initiative drafters. A prime example: the American Legislative Exchange Council, a.k.a. ALEC.

Further, millions have been contributed to pro-choice conservative candidates at every level of government who support Friedman’s concept: fund students not systems.

Voucher supporters presume that transferring from a public school to a private one means transferring to a better one. Often not true. In 2016, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-choice organization based in Ohio, studied a large sample of Ohio voucher programs and concluded:

“…students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared far worse academically compared to their closely-matched peers attending public schools …. such impacts also appear to persist over time.”

Since vouchers rarely cover the costs of high-quality and well-established private schools, many low-income children remain in public schools or sub-par private schools.

With states racing to reallocate millions of dollars to for-profit, online and scantily vetted schools with little oversight, one can and should expect scandal. Given disappointing academic results and a powerful potential for deception and disruption of traditional schooling, why are school profiteers so keen on dismantling traditional K-12 public schools?

Sadly, it’s because — don’t look away now — kids equal money. Private operators are getting very savvy about tapping into public resources. Unfortunately, few Americans either know or care enough to respond to what is happening to our K-12 public schools, and that suits the free market just fine.

It may be too late to curtail the shift to funding boutique for-profit schools. But it’s not too late to chastise your esteemed legislators for throwing public education under the proverbial (school) bus.

In the end, it’s your children who will be the losers. Teachers are tired of dodging bullets and even taking bullets. They’re tired of tip-toeing through vast political mine-fields of disinformation. Unfortunately, your (f)lawmakers aren’t listening.

Julie Miller and Ken Kraus

Julie Miller and Ken Kraus, wife and husband activists, bring over 85 years of education and private-sector experience to the kitchen table.