Education Opinion

Public Funds Going to Private Schools

By Walt Gardner — June 17, 2013 2 min read
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I’ve never understood how public money can legally be funneled to private schools in this country. But that is exactly what is happening with increasing frequency. Although the trend is most apparent in preschool, it is also taking place in K-12 (“Private Preschools See More Public Funds as Classes Grow,” The New York Times, Jun. 14).

The best explanation I can come up with is the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. The high court held that vouchers are constitutional as long as they meet five criteria. The most important is that aid goes directly to parents and not to schools. Since then, 19 states and Washington, D.C. have put into place either voucher systems or scholarship programs. For example, Alabama allows families to enroll their children in private schools through tax-credits. Arizona goes beyond tax-credit scholarships to include education savings accounts.

Some states are facing legal challenges because of clauses in their constitutions that prohibit the financing of religious institutions with public money. But I think the fight is doomed to failure. There is a well orchestrated movement underway to abolish public schools. Although voters so far have rejected vouchers or their variants in 27 referendums across the country, I see the pushback losing its vigor with time. Public opinion is being beautifully manipulated by sophisticated forces intent on achieving their ultimate objective. Occasional victories will occur, but they will be aberrations.

The real question is whether the U.S. will be better if public schools become anachronisms. I don’t doubt that some public schools deserve to be shuttered because they have consistently failed to deliver even a basic education. But there are about 98,000 public schools enrolling some 48.2 million students. They all can’t be bad. But in the mind of too many, public schools are seen as a monolith. The media play up the scandals, leaving voters with the impression that public schools are hopeless.

I keep coming back to the remarks made by Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s former minister of Education (“We All Have a Lot to Learn,” Newsweek, Jan. 9, 2006). Although Singapore’s students rank high on tests of international competition, he said: “We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition ... These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

These are the reasons why I believe that public schools remain one of the great strengths of the nation.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.