The Republican War Against Public Schools Is a War Against the “Heartland”

The right-wing war against public education has taken various forms over the years. Indeed, some American conservatives have been hostile to public education going back to the colonial period. The modern-era war was kicked off in the 1950s and 1960s by court-ordered desegregation, which inspired a stampede of white kids into private, purportedly “Christian” schools.

Since then the Right has generated tons of propaganda about how public schools are failing. However, the righties argue, investing more tax money in them is pointless; just throwing good money after bad. And, of course, teachers unions are the work of the devil and must be broken up. The result has been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy — American public education on the whole isn’t as good as it could be if we invested more money in it. And the more Republicans can bleed public schools of tax money, the worse they get, and the more reason (Republicans say) we should put our tax money elsewhere. Preferably where their campaign donors can get their cut.

See also: Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake. and The War on Public Schools.

The brilliant “solution” the Right came up with to this is to funnel taxpayer dollars into various kinds of privately run schools, through charters or voucher programs. Charters started out sounding like a good idea but quickly morphed into a means for unscrupulous people to get their hands on tax dollars (see also). Unlike public schools, private schools can deny admittance to special needs students. Charter schools are not supposed to discriminate, but they’ve been known to deny admittance to students they consider undesirable.

Both voucher schools and charter schools have been around long enough that we should hold them to their claims of providing superior education. How are they doing?

Charter schools on average do not get higher test scores than public schools, and in some states—like Ohio and Nevada—charters dominate the state’s list of the lowest performing schools. Some charter schools get high test scores, but they usually get high scores by excluding students with disabilities and English learners or by high attrition rates.

Voucher studies in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and the District of Columbia found that students in voucher schools actually lost ground compared to their peers in public schools. This is not surprising since some voucher schools have uncertified teachers and are free to teach a curriculum that mixes facts and religious stories.

Milwaukee has had vouchers for religious schools for two decades and charters for three decades. All three sectors get the same poor results. Milwaukee is one of the lowest performing districts in the nation.

New Orleans is the only all-charter school district in the nation. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a white Republican legislature imposed an experiment on a majority African American city. School enrollment declined from 65,000 before the storm to 48,000 a dozen years later. The latest state scores rated 49% of the city’s charter schools as D or F, based on their academic performance. The New Orleans district scores are below the state average, and Louisiana is one of the lowest performing states in the nation.

So the “school choice” sales point is a scam. We’d be much better off putting the money wasted on charters and vouchers into improving our public schools. But we’ll have to get Republicans out of the way to do that.

Note also that the Supreme Court appears about to lift limits on state aid to public schools.  If they do, public schools in states governed by Republican majorities will be bled dry in record time.

There is one other point I’d like to make about public versus private schools, which is that in small-town and rural America public schools are essential to maintaining a sense of community. You’d have to be from a small town to appreciate that, I suppose, but it so happens I am.

Even in a small town there may be several different churches, many of which don’t speak to each other. People are usually too spread out to meet in any kind of town square or in the village pub. About the only place everybody goes is the WalMart.

But, by golly, everybody or nearly everbody went to the public school and sends their kids to the public school. Crowds still turn out for the high school homecoming parades down Main Streets in these parts. People cheer the football and basketball teams even if they don’t have kids on the roster. Folks from many parts of the community who wouldn’t otherwise meet get involved in school programs. More than anything else, the public schools provide communities with identity and shared focus that, literally, nothing else offers.

Often the first bit of information strangers, even elderly people, exchange around here is Did you go to Local School? When did you graduate? Did you know so-and-so? He might have been in your class. And then he married that girl who was in my class. Before long, there’s a taxonomy of shared acquaintances worked out. But it nearly always starts with Where did you go to school?

When I see people like Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos running down public schools and pushing private ones, I see people who are utterly out of touch with life in rural and small town America. That is true even as they blather on about the greatness of the “heartland,” a term that gives me the willies, frankly.

Of course, another irony is that small town folks often don’t connect political propaganda to their real-world lives. They don’t make the connection that the campaign to destroy the public school system might mean destroying their public school system. Just some other public school system. Makes me crazy. So they might be sold on the idea of charter schools in the abstract but would probably revolt, eventually, if the local public school districts were gutted out to make room for them. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

My great-uncle Lloyd Thomas and his students by their log-cabin school in southern Missouri, ca. 1910.

8 thoughts on “The Republican War Against Public Schools Is a War Against the “Heartland”

  1. Great post, maha!  GREAT!!!

    I'm a product of NY City's and Upstate NY's State public schools.  And despite my noted problem with " 's " (I STILL hate those f'in things, and will until the moment I die), I am considered to be of above average intelligence by people who meet me.

    When I was going to public school back in the 60's and 70's – even in NYC neighborhoods – public schools were "unifyers," much as you described them being in small towns. The same questions were asked: "Where'd ya go to school?"  Etc…

    Based on my own and my sister's experiences, obviously, if I'd had any,  I would have wanted my children to go to public schools.  Public schools are uniters; private schools are dividers.   Public schools are democratizers; private ones are exclusionary.

    Conservatives hate public schools because they want people who are intellectually less well-rounded .  As you pointed out, maha, public schools generally beat private ones. And the more knowledgeable a person is, the less likely they are to vote for Republicans.  They also hate public schools because there's no way for a relative or crony to profit off of them; hence, privatize the public schools!  Now, a politician can take public tax money, and put it into the pockets of family and/or friends.  And eventually, some of that money ends up in the pocket of the politician.

    I want to ask all of the commenters here at maha's house – smart folks, one and all! – what once "public" governmental function has been improved by being "privatized?"  

    I can't think of one.  Not one!  Not schools.  Not prisons.  Certainly not the military – or at least, not to my knowledge. 

    So, what exactly has been improved  by going from "public" to "private?"  Besides the bottom line at some already rich person's bank account, I mean?


  2. The less educated and more ignorant people are, the more likely they are to vote Republican. They have a vested interest in crappy schools.

  3. First, I love the family photo. Second, public schools forever!  There are specialty schools that work well, but let's be clear: non-public schools are exclusion devices. 

  4. The war against schools is only a move to put profits in select private hands from functions the public expects from government. To Trump, the idea is obscene that billions can be expended without enriching a donor class who will in turn support and enrich Trump. The article should also point to moves to privatize the FAA, the VA and the US Postal Service. All these are tentacles from the same predator – greed. All are empowered by big money in politics.

  5. This is a subset of the war of the rich on everybody else. 

    The GOP:

    Why do we need education paid for by the public when the tax money can be used to cover breaks for corporations and billionaires?  

    Why shouldn't social security be "saved" by cutting it and eventually privatizing it so we can use the savings and fees to give more to the wealthy?  If seniors have to eat cat food and live on the street, tough.

    Defund the ACA; the subsidies can be used to give breaks to the wealthy.

    Throw more money at the Pentagon.  Even though we spend more on defense than every nation on earth, combined, its never enough.  Cost overruns?  Now worries, just another conduit to give them more. It all ends up in the pockets of the wealthy.  

    Amazon, Exxon and other wealthy corporations not only don't pay any taxes, they get negative tax rates, e.g. they get returns amounting to billions of dollars, paid for by everybody else.  We need to cut "entitlements" and anything that doesn't affect the wealthy to pay for their breaks.

    Meanwhile, I'm fortunate enough to get a bonus of a couple thousand from my employer, yet the government takes a third off the top.  WTF?

    Everything the GOP does, every privatization scheme, none of it is about efficiency or even ideology, e.g. what government should or shouldn't be in the business if.  Its all about how can we take more from the middle, working class and the poor, to give more to the wealthy.  Bottom line.

    By now, anyone who still believes propping up billionaires with tax cuts and billionaires "trickles down" to help them, is a damned fool.

    No one who is not wealthy should be supportive of this.  When was the last time you felt the way a billionaire must feel when they see the windfall from the latest tax cut, because some policy was implemented that meant that much to you, materially or otherwise? 

  6. Even if not for cynical reasons, public schools, like public everything else, have suffered from decades of attacks from ideologues who believe "markets" can do anything better than the public sector. The belief is so strong and unsubstantiated we could substitute "gods" for "markets".

    John Roberts was right to point to a lack of civics education as a problem, even if he's late to the party. Less than 1/3 of Americans can correctly name the 3 branches of government. I'd like to see how a Venn diagram of the 2/3 who can't name them intersects with one of Trump voters.

  7. Here in WallaWalla, the local Catholic School attempted to start a charter school a few years ago.  Our population is around 33,000.  One of the founders attempted to explain the superiority of the school over public schools by calling the students scholars and said they had unique experiences like studying ancient Egypt by mummifying chickens.  I wrote a letter to the editor stating that a scholar is one who has profound knowledge of  a subject (according to my dictionary) and that defining a civilization like ancient Egypt simply by their mummification process is a joke. We still don't know how the great pyramid was built.  

    I don't believe the charter school survived, I haven't heard anything about it  lately.  If a religion wants to form their own school, that's okay with me, just don't use my taxpayer money.

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