My dad was an oil and gas equipment salesman for most of his life. He raised the four of us in a refinery town where the town’s fortunes rose and fell with oil and gas prices. Growing up in a boom/bust cycle imprinted itself on me, giving me a visceral sense of capitalism and business before I could intellectually understand ideas like profit/loss and return on investment, or fixed and variable costs.
So when I see yet another argument for draining public money from public schools, I feel like I’m standing in the middle of the boarded-up Main Street of my home town. All that looked so solid when I lived there decades ago is dust and plywood now. Except my high school. My high school looks the same and is still vibrant. That’s what comes of investing in a public good.
No one who grew up there ever heard any wooly-headed liberal phraseology like “public good,” mind you. A billboard of the John Birch Society’s message to “Get the U.S. Out of the GODLESS U.N!” greeted drivers on their way into town; those same drivers could buy booze and several kinds of guns in the same little shop on their way out. But I know all those folks in my tiny Texas town didn’t think of taxes as evil; they believed them to be “civilization dues” and they willingly paid them.
Now of course, taxes are seen as a tool of the devil in many parts of Texas. We’re at war over how to pay for our schools and even what a “public” school should be. Our lieutenant governor wants private schools to get public money with no public accountability. He frames that argument in language from the Civil Rights Movement, which really – as we say here – chaps my hide.
That’s because I can’t stop thinking about students like the ones in the high poverty school where I taught. And especially one boy who completely changed my idea of who public education is for and why we pay for it. We pay for it because it’s an expression of how we value human dignity and human worth.
One spring day, in the middle of class, I heard a child shrieking outside in the breezeway. It was jarring because it sounded as if the screamer were under assault. The sound bounced off the courtyard at regular intervals all the way down the long stretch of concrete. But I knew this voice. It belonged to a teenaged boy in a wheelchair who has developmental delays and cognitive complications that keep him from speaking. His voice is strong, however, and he definitely communicates – though not with sentences. He shrieks – and really, it is a shriek like something off the moors, three times a day. His voice was my chime, and much like church bells, he became a signal for various parts of my day. He always made me smile, whatever I was doing. His shriek was one of pure delight, pure joy at being outside, at movement, at freedom to look and listen all around him. He called me to remember, always, that public schools exist for students like him. He will never pass a standardized test, never go to college, never be a “product” of our school that will make us look good.
His deeply committed teachers in the special education department worked to help him increase his knowledge and skills. Within his class, students are trained to shred documents, do laundry services and make trophies, posters and plaques. If certain critics had their way, these opportunities would be closed to students like him.
Without public school, who would accept him as a student? Who would give him that three-times-a-day joyride down the breezeway to look at the budding trees, to dodge the fat squirrels, to feel the wind and sun on his face?
There’s no such thing as “ride sharing” unless you count hopping into the back of your buddy’s pickup truck. And there are no “choices” in the schools in those towns. No charters or private schools.
For me, that boy is why all the arguments around “school choice” are hollow. I’m especially distressed by the recent comparison of school choice to ride-sharing services made by our Secretary of Education.
Secretary DeVos made made the comment as part of a speech she delivered recently at the Brookings Institution:
“How many of you got here today in an Uber, or Lyft, or another ridesharing service? Did you choose that because it was more convenient than hoping a taxi would drive by? Even if you didn’t use a ridesharing service, I’m sure most of you at least have the app on your phone…Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ridesharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice. In both cases, the entrenched status quo has resisted models that empower individuals.”
I’ll leave aside the fact that her argument presents a false dichotomy, which is a classic logical fallacy. Also, Uber’s not the best example – it’s involved in quite a bit of trouble right now – especially around its failure to pay taxes. Allow me to make the argument more personal.
I do have Uber, Lyft, and Fasten ride-sharing apps on my phone, she’s right about that. And my family has two cars. But all that says about me is that I have privilege. I haven’t had to worry about how to get from Point A to Point B in a long time. It certainly doesn’t make a case for why my privilege should be policy for everyone in town.
For instance, the student I’m talking about – his family has no car. He came to school every morning in a specially equipped bus that held his wheelchair in place safely. I watched that bus pull up to the school many mornings. Two aides greeted it and talked to students as a ramp extended from the bus and lowered their wheelchairs onto the sidewalk. It always made me proud that my community made it possible for these students, most of them profoundly cognitively impaired, to come to school. Without that bus, they would have no way to school. Without school, they would have no one to show them that they matter.
This is doubly true in many of the small towns dotting the rural counties of the Texas Panhandle. There’s no such thing as “ride sharing” unless you count hopping into the back of your buddy’s pickup truck. And there are no “choices” in the schools in those towns. No charters or private schools. Yet, if they have special needs students, those students – and all other students – have the ability to go to school, regardless of their financial circumstances.
These communities believe that education is important and all children deserve an education. And they’re willing to pay for it. If the school choice reformers have their way, not only will those rural schools suffer, but schools like the high school where I taught will be devastated. That’s because of the economics of fixed and variable costs that I mentioned earlier.
Let’s say you want to give parents $6,000 for each of their students because you’ve determined that it’s the per pupil, or variable cost. All businesses have fixed costs and schools have those in things like utility costs and labor costs. They don’t change easily or often. If students leave the school where the boy in the wheelchair attends, you don’t change the variable cost, but now you’ve spread the fixed cost over fewer students. That means that the fixed cost is more expensive. Which means that some fixed costs will have to be downsized or eliminated. Like the cost to fund the aides which meet the special needs students every morning.
It seems like every time teachers talk about how important it is to fund schools, many in the legislature, and now our Secretary of Education, say: “Money doesn’t fix the problem.” True, money alone won’t fix it. But it does help it pay the bills and stay open. It helps us to fulfill our promise to provide a free and appropriate public education to all students, regardless of their abilities.
Our children – all of our children – deserve to go to school. That’s why Presidents Adams and Jefferson believed in “the general diffusion of knowledge” as a public good and why Jefferson saw education as “the keystone in the arch of our government.” Until we return to this most American value and belief, we are doomed to try on the failed experiment of making our public good into the private profit of an elite few.