On Publicly-Funded School Choice

The Democratic and Progressive Parties both oppose public funding for private schools, and they both oppose school choice. I have a hard time agreeing with these positions, and I’d like to understand why.

Let’s start with the recognition that I work for a publicly funded private school where a significant percentage of students are only able to attend thanks to their communities’ commitment to school choice.

But let’s join to that recognition my active participation in progressive politics, a stance that sees me supporting many politicians who, along with sharing many of my progressive values, disagree with me on the questions at hand.

Hence this essay, which is not intended to persuade. I am not trying to convince you. I am simply trying to understand my own position when it comes to school choice and publicly funded private schools.

The argument begins with a shared commitment to free, universal schooling for every child who lives in our communities, regardless of their economic status or citizenship. More than any other institution, public schools are the most interactive spaces within our communities, more so even than our churches, synagogues, and mosques, for schools are the great equalizer, allowing access to all, regardless of religion, race, sex, sexuality, gender, or class. A public school is where the community meets itself, whole and unvarnished, day in and day out, for a dozen years straight. It should be a safe, enlightened, and open space, and it should absolutely be funded by the community itself (with support from the state and federal governments, inasmuch as the state and the nation have an interest in what goes on in that space).

But I am of the opinion that communities need more than an open space. They also need the intimacy of a publicly funded private space where people are more allowed to be themselves while also opening themselves up to the values of the greater community, a place where they can engage in difficult conversations without the wide eye of the entire community observing their every word and deed, a place where they can work through their weirdness until it becomes a gift.

But people are weird in so many different ways. I am the product of a public school, and I like to think that I was weird in a positive way, one that would, at least at times, be interesting and maybe even valuable to some of the people in my community. I had confidence in my weirdness, and while I hope I didn’t flaunt it, I don’t think I ever rejected it. In short, I may have been weird as a kid and as a teenager, but I was rarely (if ever) uncomfortable.

But not everyone is weird in a positive way. Some people’s weirdness carries a lot of anger, or anxiety, or trauma, and it can become an object of ridicule or the cause of their social exile. Some people’s weirdness makes them very, very lonely, or very, very prone to violence.

Still other people are weird in different ways. Maybe their weirdness fits the wider community’s definition of the artist, and it’s cultivated by teachers and mentors from a very early age, to the point where their weirdness is recognized as a genuine talent, one that deserves further nurturing above and beyond those skills that society has deemed minimally appropriate, a weirdness that commands respect and is justifiably deserving of a publicly funded private space where it can innovate on a topic free from the community’s judgement.

People are weird, and while everyone ought to be free to engage with that publicly funded open space, they also ought to be free to pursue their education in publicly funded private spaces where they can be as weird and as free as they want.

I understand there is an economic disparity when it comes to private schools. Some people’s idea of an education costs a lot of money. Other people’s ideas hardly cost anything at all. The question is how to pay for it all.

Should a community be responsible for paying tuition for every child within that community, regardless of which school the child attends? If my child’s weirdness suggests her best opportunity at an education will cost nearly $23,000 a year, while my neighbor’s child’s weirdness would be best served at a cost of only $14,000 a year, should the community be on the hook for both? Is there room for disagreement as to what constitute’s a child’s weirdness or as to how best a particular weirdness can be nurtured? Should there be a financial limit set, with any additional funding being required to come out of a family’s pocket, and if so, should there be a way for lower-income families to request additional community funds, provided their request can meet some kind of standard, and who ought make that standard, and what ought it to be?

These are all valid questions. What are not valid questions are whether each child’s weirdness ought to be recognized, and while maybe not encouraged, whether it ought to be respected enough by the community to at least deserve access to a publicly funded private space where it be worked on in a healthy way.

Communities ought to be responsible for paying for their young persons’ educations, regardless of which school the child attends. Everyone in a community has a stake in the future of that community, and educating their young serves an interest in that stake, regardless of who that young person might be or whose family she might belong to.

Communities also benefit from investing in each child individually, rather than as a group. A set budget should be provided to increase the richness of the open, publicly funded space, but each child should be considered individually and be the recipient of their own budget, one they are free to spend as best as their family sees fit.

It would not be a question as to each child’s “worth” to the community because each child deserves the very best the community can offer; rather, it would be a question as to the “cost” of their education. The services required by one student may far exceed the services required by another, and so the former would receive a stipend greater than the latter’s. Fairness would depend on the standards used to determine a reasonable cost for those services.

If a family is able to pay for services over and above what the community considers a reasonable cost, they ought to be able to do so. But there ought to be a process by which lower-income families could provide greater detail so that the community could look at their child’s unique circumstances in a deeper and more open-hearted way and decide whether to fund them, choosing in most instances to err on the side of the child.

What would this look like in practice, and how could the quality of that open, public space be increasingly enriched while perhaps serving fewer members of the community, and why, in those circumstances, would we continue to want it to?

We begin by assuming the cost to minimally educate every young person in a community. We adjust that cost on an annual basis, investigating at every turn the community’s definition of “minimal.” To that cost we add an administrative fee for managing the open, publicly funded space, an administrative fee for evaluating the special weirdness of every child, and an administrative fee for discovering the cost for servicing that weirdness in a way that is available on the open market.

For some children, it might mean purchasing a few books. For others, it might mean purchasing a guitar. For still others, it might mean purchasing hours of labor and years of expertise from a certified occupational therapist. For still others, it might mean purchasing the time and labor of an in-home nurse. For still others, it might mean a series of tennis lessons. Regardless, the community will guarantee to pay for each service up to a reasonable cost. That cost, obviously, ought to be made public, though perhaps not in an immediately identifiable way, if only to protect a child’s right to privacy.

The key part is to differentiate the cost for providing the open space and the cost for providing each child with their optimum education. Both of those costs ought be to be known, but both of those costs ought to also be considered a given, each coming from the need for every community to best invest in its own future.

In practice, this means an educational budget that is subject to a town’s vote, and a town, state, and federally funded commitment to nurturing each child’s individuality. Each town should be served by a publicly funded school board, either appointed or elected, as determined by each town. The school board should be the ultimate arbiter of all educational decisions, subject only to the town’s vote on the budget.

But the budget should be broken out into two items. The first is the cost for maintaining an open, public space capable of educating every young person in the community. The second is the cost for servicing each child individually, less the funds provided by the state and federal governments. A rejection of the latter item could only be registered through the election or appointment of a new, publicly funded comptroller, a vote against the cost in fact being a vote of no confidence in the comptroller’s ability to find the best prices available on the open market rather than a vote against the interests of each child, an investment in which every community agrees it ought to make to its fullest extent.

The school board would be responsible for determining a child’s weirdness and how best it ought to be nurtured. There would not be a single, universal test for this determination, its foundational element involving the conviction that every child is weird in her own way and thus deserves to be evaluated in her own way. A community could employ individuals to make this evaluation as best they see fit, subject only to rules and regulations handed down by state and federal officials and the past and future decisions of the electorate.

The goal for both budgets would be to reveal to the community the exact cost of investing in their future, and then letting the community decide whether they’re investing enough or too much, less the funds provided by the state and federal governments.

Again, the voters would not be able to directly reject the budget for investing in each child individually. They’d only be able to reject the funding for the open, public space.

If the funding for the open, public space is rejected, that does not mean the complete closure of that space. The space would be capable of charging each individual student who attends it the cost of their separately configured individualized education. It would put the services provided by the open, publicly funded space in direct competition with services provided on the open market, charging the lowest possible cost to each student as determined by the school board (and subject to appeal).

And what if a town decides not to open a public space? The cost to provide the unique educational services required by every child in that town would still be subject to the determination of the school board, and the residents of that town would be on the hook for sending that money to spaces outside of town, open or private, depending on the ability of that space to best serve the child’s educational interests, again, as determined by the town, less the rules and regulations of the state and federal governments.

As to the question as to what the standards ought to be when it comes to determining a child’s weirdness and how best to nurture that weirdness, I really can’t say, but I also ought not to. At some point, I have to recognize that my way isn’t always the best way, and I ought to listen to a proposal rather that assert a determination.

With that being said, I remain committed to the position that a child’s weirdness ought to be recognized and respected and receive nothing less than the community’s full support.

I also remain committed to the idea that educational innovation is best served by a well-regulated and publicly funded market with a customer base of progressively oriented school boards, with every dollar spent on schools (public or private) being a dollar spent on the health of the future.

And what about the teachers’ unions? I believe every school, public or private, ought to be subject to a union, but not every school ought to be subject to the same union. Every school should receive federal funding for the procurement of union dues, and the school staff ought to be able to form a union of themselves, capable of joining if they choose a union of greater schools. The teachers would not be responsible for union dues over and above their federal responsibilities as citizens of the United States.

By giving each teacher, public or private, access to a union of their peers, school boards will be forced to reckon with the true costs of educating each child and not the cost as determined by a capitalist-benefitting market.

When the federal government agrees to pay in full the dues of each union, it creates a new, federally regulated market for the services required by unions, namely financial management, legal assistance, and administration, not to mention educational research and development as a way to differentiate the benefits of one union over another. They may be federally funded jobs, but they’re also federal investments in the future of the nation, agreeing from the outset that teachers are on the front line when it comes to the development of our educational goals and strategies and so we ought to listen to them when they tell us the real costs associated with those goals and strategies.

I want to make the presence of a union a condition for receiving public funding for educational-related services, but I want the union dues of those professionals to be funded by the public, creating in the process more competition among the unions and more jobs related to servicing them.

This feels right to me. It feels like a progressive model of publicly funded school choice, one that accepts the radically democratic idea that towns should be responsible for educating their young people, less the responsibilities already funded by the wider state and national communities. It rejects standardized testing and standardized education in general. It promotes and supports the need for teacher unions. It remains committed to funding the special needs of every child, and goes even further by expanding the notion of special needs to recognize each child’s gifts and talents. It provides access to additional funding for lower-income families so that every child can thrive despite the natural predation of the market. It creates jobs, publicly funded jobs, but jobs with true costs that are protected by the unions, and it doesn’t hide those costs from its citizens. It gives towns, ultimately, the right to decide on how much to invest in their futures.

Will it cost a lot? Yes. Will it be worth it? It’s up to each community to decide.

Oh, there’s something I forgot. Each provider of a publicly funded educational-service ought to operate as a non-profit (with opportunities for endowments). This will ensure public funds do not enrich individual members of the community, which will hopefully reduce the number of sleaze ball capitalists who choose to invest in the education market. Any profit generated by the education system ought to be invested right back into the kids.

That’s a radically democratic, deeply progressive model that I can get behind. While I’m not trying to persuade you, I hope that you can get behind it too.

Compliments, Criticisms, Questions?