public services are not an ATM

Built into the rhetoric of school choice is a deeply misguided vision of how public investment works.

You sometimes hear people advocating for charters or voucher programs by saying that parents just want to take “their share” of public education funds and use it to get their child an education, whether by siphoning it from traditional public schools towards charters or by cutting checks to private schools. The “money should follow the child,” to use another euphemism. But this reflects a strange and deeply conservative vision of how public spending works. There is no “your share” of public funds. There is the money that we take via taxation from everyone which represents the pooled resources of civic society, and there is what civic society decides to spend it on via the democratic process. You might use that democratic process to create a system where some of the money goes to charter schools or private school vouchers or all manner of things I don’t approve of. But it’s not your money, no matter how much you paid into taxes. And the distinction matters.

To begin with, the constantly-repeated claim that charter schools don’t cost traditional public schools money is just proven wrong again and again. People lay out these theoretical systems where they don’t, like you can just subtract one student and all of the costs associated with that student and just shift the kid and the money to another school. But this reflects a basic failure to understand pooled costs and economies of scale. And when we go looking, that’s what we find: after years of promises that charters are not an effort to defund traditional public schools, our reality checks show they have that effect. Take Chicago, where the charter school system has absolutely contributed to the fiscal crisis in the traditional public schools. Or Nashville. Or Los Angeles. I could go on.

But suppose we knew that we could extract exactly as much, dollar for dollar and student for student, from public education for each student who leaves. Would that be a wise thing to do? Not according to any conventional progressive philosophy towards government.

Do we let you take “your share” out of the public transportation system so that you can use it to defray the cost of buying your own car? Can you take “your share” out of the police budgets to hire your own private security? Can I extract my tax dollars from the public highway system I almost never use in order to build my own bike lanes? Of course not. In many cases this simply wouldn’t make sense; how can you extract your share from a building, or a bridge, or any other type of physical infrastructure? And besides: the basic progressive nature of public ownership means that we are pooling resources so that those who have the least ability to pay for their own services can benefit from the contributions of those with the most ability to pay. To advance the notion of people pulling “their” tax dollars out from public schools undermines the very conception of shared social spending. And governmental spending should require true democratic accountability; letting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dictate public education policy, Mark Zuckerberg become the wholly unqualified education czar of Newark, or the Catholic church control public education dollars through voucher programs directly undermines that accountability.

So of course there’s a deep and widening split opening up within the school reform coalition, which has always been filled with self-styled progressives. There’s a major, existential disagreement at play about the basic concepts of social spending and the public good. These have been papered over for years by the missionary zeal of choice acolytes and their crisis narrative. But there was never a coherent progressive political philosophy underneath. The Donald Trump and Betsey Devos education platform is a disaster in the making, but at least it has brought these basic conflicts into the light. These issues are not going away, nor should they, and the “progressive” ed reform movement is going to have to do a lot of soul searching.