Democracy 101: Universal Education”

Cal Thomas’ recent Viewpoint article in The Marietta Times starkly portrays the way money continues to be the real bone of contention in education. According to Thomas, the new Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos doesn’t believe that money really makes any difference in outcomes for students. This position is most ironic coming from a billionaire who has made a fair amount of it selling educational programs rather than working for the improvement of public education.

Since 2003, when the United States Supreme Court refused to even consider the ruling that the State of Ohio’s funding formula for schools is unconstitutional; the struggle to make education a right for all rather than a privilege has continued. Some may rail against federal involvement in local education; however, an educated electorate is necessary for a democracy to survive. Federal leadership is needed now, just as it was in the desegregation of schools in the 1960s.

Devos’ proposal to move toward a “voucher” system for public schools appears to be another effort to short-change American children by limiting the amount of money the government is willing to spend for the education of all children. With an individual voucher system responsibility for educating the future workers, voters and leaders of the society will fall to individual families rather than society as a whole. Vouchers that cover only part of the cost of quality education will serve to further divide an already divided country. Those families who are able to supplement the voucher will do so and a new segregation based on wealth will emerge.

In the earliest years of the United States there was no public education. In those times only the affluent could afford to be taught to read and write, dooming the less educated to lives of diminished opportunity. Today, public education offers an array of choices for students who are prepared to make use of it. In addition to college preparatory classes, students can attend vocational/technical training that prepares the graduate for work in business, industry, medicine or to continue their education later if they chose to do so. The difficulty is that not all students learn in the same way or arrive with the same preparation for learning.

The concept of school choice driven by vouchers undermines a basic benefit of public education, that is, it is universally available to all regardless of ability to pay. Public schools provide education but they also should be a place where children from diverse backgrounds learn to communicate and work with people who are different from themselves. Does anyone really believe that this is a value we can afford to abandon?

The charter schools that have been created in Ohio, and other states, have largely been created to provide “a separate but equal” education for those who “didn’t make it in regular school.” Of the 373 charter schools in Ohio most are located in urban areas and are designed to provide education to students who are experiencing difficulty in regular education settings. By separating these children from the larger group, Ohio is sending a message that no one wants to acknowledge.

The unintended consequence of separate education is less tolerance, not more. All children would be better served by providing the funding to schools to create the individualized support that all children need; while ensuring that they continue to be part of the larger community. Furthermore, children and society would benefit by development of a world view that embraces diversity and appreciates that all children belong regardless of how they learn. Everyone is being short-changed in this new world order of “economic segregation” and further polarization is the likely result.

Finally, Thomas and Devos should carefully study the report by the Center for Research of Education Outcomes (CREDO) published in 2013 by Stanford University. The study found that in the 27 states studied, charter schools were no more effective than traditional public schools for the vast majority of students. The gains, so often cited by advocates of charter schools, were for students who entered school with either poor preparation in pre-school, non-English speaking students or students with specialized needs.

Does America really want to return to a time when education was a function of privilege and wealth rather than the great hope of many to improve their lives? The true value of education is in the promise of development in all children the ability to think, feel and believe in a world where opportunity and compassion co-exist. The children are watching. Voters need to be vigilant as well.

Teresa Porter lives in Marietta.