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Tax Funds for Private Schools

The current debate in public education about taxpayer funds being provided to private schools is merely the next step in the evolution of a different quality of education based on the income of the parents.

Early in American history, a well-educated citizenry was considered important. Even before the new constitution was finished, ordinances were passed requiring a system of public education.

In the 1800's mandatory education became common after the first attendance law passed in Massachusetts in 1852. New York had barred all religious instruction from public schools in 1842.

The following sections come from a PBS site:

In the 1890s, the National Education Association appoints a “Committee of Ten,” composed mainly of college presidents, to study the issue of school curriculum. Traditional educators see high school as a college preparatory institution while others believe the high school should offer a more utilitarian curriculum. The committee concludes schools should maintain a single academic curriculum and all students should master an equally rigorous curriculum.

The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act allocated federal money for vocational education for students over 14 seeking trade careers.

In 1918, the National Education Association publishes the “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education,” which endorses different curricula for different students. It suggests a curriculum on seven broad areas: health, fundamental processes (literacy and numeracy), worthy home membership, vocation, civic education, and leisure and ethical character. The NEA views the efforts as democratic and a way to increase access to education. The goal is to stem the tide of dropouts, a problem they attribute to the dominance of bookish coursework, especially in immigrant communities. This document stresses the value of the whole child, not just the intellectual faculties, and education for all youth, not just the college-bound.

In 1919, the Progressive Education Association was formed; these educators abandon autocratic classrooms where students are taught through memorization, recitation, and harsh discipline. Building on John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism, they stress problem-solving skills, hands-on learning, using a child’s interests as the basis for developing a curriculum, self-discipline, and flexible methods.

In 1945, the findings of Dr Charles Prosser inspire educators to launch the Life Adjustment movement in an effort to make school more relevant to children. Students receive guidance and training in citizenship, home and family life, use of leisure, health, tools of learning, work experience, and occupational adjustment. Twenty-nine states make curriculum changes as a result of the Life Adjustment movement. This movement was terminated in 1958 during the conservative attacks on anything that might be related to Communism.

In the 1970s, educators such as Jonathan Kozol complain about the irrelevance of curriculum, meaningless routines, dehumanizing discipline, lock-step schedules, and school’s role in perpetuating inequality. Vestiges of the earlier progressive movements (project-based learning, narrative report cards, small-group instruction, student involvement in choosing activities, and flexible use of space) are brought back into the classroom.

The above narrative of changes in the education system reveal many educators have been consistently concerned with improving the quality of education for all children. In recent years that emphasis making school relevant to children as part of improving their education has been lost for a number of reasons.

During the post World War II economic boom, the American middle class also blossomed. This enabled many families to buy new houses, leading to the accompanying growth of suburbs around the big cities. With school systems often based on the local tax base, the quality of education was determined by a great extent by its location.

I can personally attest to this observation. I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, where my dad had a union job at a large manufacturing facility in the same city. I attended the city's single public high school and was part of a graduating class of roughly 350. My education included 4 years of math through calculus and 2 years of chemistry. The quality enabled me to successfully tested out of several math courses in college (so I could work extra hours on my part time job). When my kids were very little, before elementary school age, our family moved to a relatively small city over an hour north of Milwaukee. Both of my children had high school class sizes around 90 and neither had such advanced classes available as I had, so their college class preparation was quite deficient when compared to mine, 30 years earlier. Both attended college, partially due to the economic stability of their parents when I cosigned on their college loans, and both succeeded in college due to their hard work, overcoming any shortcomings from HS. Their college time might have been more effective if less time had been taken to comprehend the material that some students already had in high school.

The relative quality of education being affected by funding has been long recognized. However the methods attempted to address the inequalities have not been effective. Vouchers provided to some number of poor parents supposedly enable them to pay for their children to attend a school other than the one in their neighborhood, but often the vouchers are used just as a mechanism for parents to send their kids to private schools (most are religion based) at public expense. Charter schools are promoted as alternatives to the public schools but again only those few children involved see a change, not those still in the rest of public school system.

The funding situation is not the same in all states, so clearly legislatures have options. Hawaii has a single statewide school district. Revenue sharing is used in some sports (like the NFL) to improve competitive balance, but that approach never seems to be an option when dealing with disparate school districts within one state. Probably those already in a district with a prosperous tax base are less willing to share with those in a poorer district, and legislators are more likely to favor those citizens who can provide campaign funds over those that cannot. However, giving taxpayer funds to private schools to increase competition thereby improving the public schools is quite unlike the NFL model. The NFL does not provide revenue to the CFL, a totally separate league with its own rules, to increase competition and the level of performance within the NFL. Private schools do not have the same rules as public schools, for their students or for their teachers.

The recent decades have seen the deterioration of the quality of life for those in the middle class or lower on the economic ladder. Many well paying jobs have been exported to other countries, while pay scales continue to fall even as the cost of living increases. The war on drugs actually targets minorities, where whites and minorities use and sell drugs at similar rates but minorities are the ones imprisoned at much higher rates. The recent subprime mortgage scandal also had consequences by race, where minorities were more likely to lose their homes than whites.

These changes in the economy and in living standards will have an effect on the children in those families, especially those with only one parent. Some states now have a majority of their public school students living in relative poverty.

Rather than politicians trying to solve the underlying problem in the economy with growing poverty, the teachers have been targeted. Bad teachers are blamed, and then the teacher unions are blamed as well because some number of bad teachers were not immediately terminated. However teacher retention rates typically are similar between union and non-union states, so the union argument is often from an anti-union bias rather than the presence of unions or not actually being significant. As in much of our current economic conventions, the financial bottom line becomes paramount. Rather than the public school being managed as a group effort (teachers and the school board representing the community) to work out solutions to problems, whether with students or activities or budgeting, now there is often a high paid administrator, who career path consists of moving from school to school advancing one's pay along the way. The administrator provides a confrontational situation, with the teachers being the problem on following new policies, budgeting problems, and of course on student performance.

In this context of poor student performance and teachers being responsible for that failure of the education system, No Child Left Behind was introduced in January 2001 and became law in January 2002. The new plan was to have all students tested every year. If certain schools do not perform adequately for several consecutive years, then there are predefined steps to follow, from transferring students to another school (2 years), to tutoring (3 years), to replacing the staff or curriculum (4 years), to restructuring the school (5 years).

This policy reminds me of the long standing office joke, 'the beatings will continue until morale improves.' In this case, the testing will continue until the results improve. Unlike the number of various attempts to find better teaching methods in the past 100 years, this is an attempt to make the schools succeed by test results improving.  Teach to the test is now the common education practice. It does not matter if the children have no common sense and cannot form conclusions given different conditions or have any awareness of the political system locally or nationally, the children just have to answer enough of the test questions correctly. Hopefully all of life's challenges that follow their time in school will in some way match their earlier memorized test questions.

The NCLB provides support for the autocratic solution, so the school administration can hold the teachers responsible for a) poor test scores even if the school itself has financial difficulty, b) poor student behavior even if the school itself must be involved with the student body. The teachers are then forced to teach to the test. Rather than teachers striving to improve the education of children, to include efforts at creativity and development of each student's unique skills, aptitudes, common sense, and social skills, the students are taught to meet the test result criteria, the mechanism for judging the school and therefore its teachers. As the teachers teach new material less and the test related material more, the value of the teachers to the students diminishes.

Many teachers have quite the challenges in the 21st century. They are held accountable for how their students perform on standard tests, regardless of the home life of those students, regardless of how much the parents are involved with their children in school, and regardless of the amount of support the teachers get from their district. As parents with decreasing incomes have trouble paying for a religious education for their children, they seek getting that from their public school, including prayer time. There are many groups (primarily Christian) who want the teaching of intelligent design as part of science, with reduced time learning about natural evolution. There are other groups who want the teaching of global warming, to make the children fear carbon dioxide even though everyone exhales it (so the child is inherently evil?), it is critical to all plant life, and as there has been no global warming between 1997 and 2013 (and probably even beyond the time of this article; global cooling becomes more likely with the currently less active sun) most children have seen no warming during their lifetimes. Teachers are put in the middle, with pressure from parents and even perhaps their school board, for politicized teaching rather than concentrating on the basics required for adulthood and for later education.

Perhaps this discord in our public schools is (at least partially) the real reason behind a program like NCLB. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." If the populace is uninformed, then they are unable to keep in check the misbehaviors of their elected representatives. As the education system is ruined, corruption must necessarily increase, because there is less informed voting, and less effort to keep representatives and government bureaucracies accountable. With the declining quality of life for most, the populace is concentrating more on their daily survival rather than larger political issues, like corruption in politics and the increasing wealth of the rich while the rest get less.

By putting the blame for poor student performance on the public schools and their teachers but not including the community or school board management or financial resources available, politicians have been pushing publicly funded private schools as the alternative, with the justification either the competition will improve the public system or the private alternative will be less cost to the taxpayer. Neither is true.

Back in the 1980s, political conservatives had the slogan 'starve the beast' which meant cutting taxes, which will force the necessary reductions in government social spending to avoid the resulting deficits; the rich are unconcerned with social spending (like: health care, social security, welfare) when they can already readily pay for all those services. Governments at all levels have become financially strapped in recent decades often due to the reductions in tax rates for the rich which has become a commonplace event for politicians after being elected (to compensate their donors), with that the resources available for public education are also affected.

The rich can always afford private schooling for their children so the quality of education of their electorate matters to them only to the extent a dissatisfaction will cause some noticeable consequence to them (the rich and their representatives). Taxpayer funds should remain only with their public education system, which should provide a quality education to enable successful adults. Unfortunately the public education system has become rather a mess for many reasons and private investors are ready to generate profits when receiving more funds during the lack of a coordinated, effective plan to improve that public system. For example, Teachers for America teaches recent college graduates for only 5 weeks and places them in schools, fully expecting turnover as only a 2-year commitment is required, but these are ‘inexpensive’ teachers for school districts to draw on.

Public schools can help their students learn to appreciate diversity among people (depending on the neighborhoods for that school), hopefully making them more tolerant of others when given proper guidance from teachers and parents, while private schools are often not diverse, especially when based on a single religion, so that environment might lead their students becoming less tolerant of those outside of their own group. By reducing the effectiveness of the public education system, to the benefit of the private schools, those students might be learning to be less tolerant of those unlike that group preferred by the private school. It might be possible this enrichment of investors for private schools might not be for the best of our children and therefore of our society.

The groups pushing for taxpayer funds going to private schools are just trying to get the money to those schools, not to improve the public schools as claimed.

created - April 2014
last change - 04/06/2014
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