Education as Commodity

While the press often makes a valiant attempt to cover complex policy issues, it sometimes fails to “connect the dots.” An example is the current press coverage of HB 136, which frequently fails to identify the doctrine behind the bill. Quite simply, that doctrine spells the end of public schools–at least, as most of us would recognize them.

Passage of House Bill 136–even in the weakened form recently proposed–would be one more step in converting education from a public good to a tax-supported commodity. Some of its principles will continue to devastate Ohio education until and unless taxpayers come to realize that this shift is simply poor public policy.

The DeRolph school funding lawsuit focused on the “thorough and efficient” language of the Ohio Constitution’s mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient system of common schools”; but in HB 136, sponsor Matt Huffman (R-Lima) goes beyond funding to whether Ohio will provide a “system of common schools” at all.

The legislation is just one example of a disturbing trend in conservative doctrine. Here, for example, is Ohio Treasurer and US Senate candidate Josh Mandel, addressing school-choice supporters on March 22 from the steps of the Statehouse: “Whether your mother or your father thinks it’s best to home-school you or send you to a private school, religious school, charter school, public school, whatever school it is, wherever they want to send you, . . . what those people envisioned [in 1776] . . . I believe was an environment where a mother and father could . . . make that decision, make whatever kind of decision they want, and have the dollars follow those children to the school that’s best for them.” (You can see the speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHeO0WQQ4c0).

At least proponents of Ohio’s Cleveland Scholarship and EdChoice vouchers rationalized them as ways to provide alternatives to failing schools. And school-choice advocates have long maintained that all schools benefit from the competition and innovation offered by charter schools. Those advocates see their alternatives as operating within the existing system; in fact, they depend on it, because they aren’t interested in serving all students and in meeting all the requirements faced by public schools.

The new school-choice extremists offer something entirely different: a tax-supported option to choose from an unlimited selection of minimally-regulated, privately-controlled, for-profit or nonprofit, ideological or secular providers. Whatever else may result, it won’t be a system and it won’t have common schools.

Ohioans can be forgiven if they have little emotional attachment to 160-year-old Constitutional language, but the distinction between these ways of viewing public education is not just linguistic or legalistic. In writing the Constitution’s mandate, its framers were following in a tradition that goes back to the colonial era. That tradition identifies education as a common good, maintained by society for the public benefit, both requiring and deserving public support. It produces schools in which all of us—even those who go to private schools or send our children to private schools—have a stake, and, through elected governance, a voice.

The fundamental difference between the extreme conservative agenda and common-school advocates is not that Huffman, Mandel, and their colleagues expect too much of public schools, but that they expect too little. They view education primarily as a means of developing tomorrow’s consumers and workers; public educators expect that, of course, but we also expect public schools to develop tomorrow’s citizens. The privatizers’ goals might be met by having minimal public schools that are just good enough to provide a basic public education to everyone else’s kids; our vision requires us to strive for great public schools for all.

Knowledge is knowing that Walmart could provide education services; wisdom is knowing that supporting them with tax dollars would be a bad idea. Ohioans need to reject not only HB 136 but other attempts to make education a commodity.

by Bill Lavezzi, NEOEA Executive Director

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About neoeaxd

Bill Lavezzi serves as Executive Director of the North Eastern Ohio Education Association. NEOEA is a professional association of educators consisting of the nearly 31,000 members of the 192 local OEA and NEA affiliates in northeastern Ohio. Founded in 1869 as the North Eastern Ohio Teachers Association, NEOEA took its present name in 1989 in recognition of the diversity of its members.
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