How to Kill Public Schools

Well, we had a good run. For the past hundred-fifty years or so—depending on where you live—Americans have had public schools. I don’t mean to be Chicken Little here, but from an historical perspective, it looks like Queen Betsy has figured out a way to get rid of em.

simpsons school

Who will pay to educate Mr. Burns’s doctor?

In some senses, of course, the United States has always had schools FOR the public. Even before the Revolution, there were schools that students without tuition money could attend. I’m finding out way more than I want to about the funding of early American “public” schools in my current research. As I’m finding, these “charity” schools had a wild mix of financial backers. Churches, taxpayers, wealthy individuals, and even not-so-wealthy people gave a lot or a little to educate impecunious children.

At different times in different places, a funding revolution swept the world of American education in the 1800s. Basically, this revolution replaced schools that were FOR the public with schools that were BY and FOR the public. That is, instead of parents, charities, philanthropists, churches, and governments all kicking in here and there to fund worthy students and schools, local and state governments committed to provided tax-funded educations to children. Those governments took tax money from everyone—whether or not they sent kids to the public schools—and in return promised to run schools for the benefit of the entire community.

There were big problems with this funding revolution. Not all children were included. Most egregiously, African-American students were often segregated out of public schools, or shunted off to lower-quality schools. And not all states participated equally. New England and the Northeast jumped early to the new model, while other regions hesitated. Plus, people without children and people who chose not to send their children to the public schools ended up paying for schools they didn’t personally use.

The heart and soul of public education, however, was that the public schools would be administered as a public good, like fire departments and roads. Everyone paid for them, everyone could use them, and everyone could in theory claim a right to co-control them. Even if your house didn’t catch fire, in other words, you paid taxes to support the firefighters. And even if you didn’t drive a car, you paid to maintain the public roads. And those firefighters and road crews were under the supervision of publicly elected officials, answerable in the end to taxpayers. Public schools would be the same way.

This funding arrangement has always been the heart and soul of public education. And it is on the chopping block. Queen Betsy recently proposed a five-billion dollar federal tax-credit scholarship scheme. Like the tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in eighteen states, this plan would allow taxpayers to claim a credit for donations to certain non-profit organizations that would then send the money to private schools.

In some cases, donors can claim up to 100% of their donations back. For every dollar they “donate,” that is, they get a full dollar rebated from their tax bills. Tax-credit scholarship schemes serve to divert tax money from public education—administered by the public—to private schools without any public oversight.

[Confused? Me, too. For more on the ins and outs of tax-credit scholarships, check out this episode of Have You Heard, featuring the explanations of Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.]

lancaster friend of the poor

Back to this future?

What’s the big deal? In essence, these schemes return us to the world before the public-education $$$ revolution. They return us to the world Joseph Lancaster knew so well in the first decades of the 1800s, where funding for schools was an impossibly tangled mess. Back then, parents who could afford it could send their kids to great schools. Parents who couldn’t had to hope their kids might get lucky and attract the attention of a wealthy philanthropist or a church-run charity program. They had to hope that a mix of government money, private tuition, church support, and philanthropist largesse could support their kids’ educations.

By allowing taxpayers to pick and choose whether or not to support public education, Queen Betsy’s proposal takes us back to those bad old days. Are we really ready to throw in the towel on public education? Ready to return to the old system, with “charity” schools run FOR the public by wealthy benefactors who wouldn’t send their own kids there?

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  1. Agellius

     /  March 4, 2019

    But doesn’t that happen anyway? The public school system hasn’t prevented students from rich families having better schools than students from poor families, even within the public school system itself.

    • Right, but the kicker in these tax-credit scholarships is that the essentially allow people to get out of the agreement forged back in the 1800s. People have always been able to go to richer schools, public or private. This will allow people to pull their tax dollars out of public education altogether.

  2. Patrick Halbrook

     /  March 5, 2019

    To what degree are you being hyperbolic? You note that these “schemes” will “in essence” return us to the days of Lancaster, but don’t the differences outweigh the similarities? Public schools certainly are not going away, and I’d be hard-pressed to believe federal tax credits will make any significant dent in their funding. By characterizing DeVos’s plan as a conservative return to the early 1800s it makes the status quo sound more progressive. But one might also see our current system–“forged back in the 1800s”–as an outdated one. In a sense, it sounds like DeVos’s opponents are the ones taking the “conservative” position here (in resisting change) and DeVos is experimenting with a hybrid that bears some interesting resemblance to the way things were 200 years ago, but is in fact something fundamentally new because she does in fact intend to preserve both public and private forms of education. Am I far off on that observation?

    On another note, I thought the last two paragraphs in the AP article made an important point about how this could actually be unpopular among conservatives: “Some conservative groups found fault with DeVos’ proposal. The Heritage Foundation applauded it for pursuing school choice but said federal tax credits would open the door for undue federal regulation. ‘It would grow, rather than reduce, federal intervention in education.'” This sounds similar to the dilemma fundamentalist colleges faced when trying to decide whether to accept federal funding, and I know there’s quite a few religious schools out there that cringe at the thought of becoming financially dependent upon well-meaning but unwise Republican tax schemes.

    • I appreciate your point, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that tax-credit scholarships “in essence” return us to the bad old days of funding options for public education. It doesn’t need to include a majority of tax dollars to have that effect. Nor does it need to eliminate public education to do so. Back in the 1820s and 1830s, there were also lots of public schools. The big difference was the way in which they were funded. Then, as now, some of the funding was through optional charity programs instead of via government tax coffers. Even if it is only one dollar, that difference in sources makes a HUGE difference. Instead of public education being a right, it becomes a gift bestowed (or not) by wealthy benefactors. In that light, I do not consider it hyperbolic to talk about the death of public education.
      I agree entirely, too, that our current funding model is not very progressive. It relies on local property-tax funding. My preferred solution, though, isn’t to return to the tax-optional plan of the 1830s. Rather, I think we should more forward to a more truly balanced funding plan for school districts, one that evens out the huge disparities in local funding.

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