I’ve no doubt raised a few eyebrows with the title of this post. Get your mind out of the gutter people, I’m talking about transparency and accountability!
Let me be clear…I believe America’s public schools are what made our country great. They ensured all children had the opportunity to learn and they coalesced our communities and all the different types of people within them. But, in terms of today’s school choice landscape, the number one benefit offered by public district schools over all other choices, is transparency and accountability.
Of course, in this alternate universe the GOP has created, up is down, left is right, black is white, and private school choice options (private, religious, and home schools) are the more transparent and accountable schools for parents and taxpayers. Nothing could be further from the truth. District schools, with publicly elected school board members and the requirement to follow Open Meeting Law (at least in Arizona), are by far the most transparent and accountable. Yes, our charter schools are also public schools, but they don’t have publicly elected boards. Rather, charter school board members may not even live in the same state, let alone in the same town. But as public schools, both district and charter schools have myriad transparency requirements private school choice options don’t. These include the need to follow Open Meeting Law, ensuring the public’s right to witness the discussion, deliberation, and decision-making done in its name. They also must: accept all students; comply with stringent requirements for reporting, procurement, and auditing; and allow parents the right to review all instructional material and intercede in their child’s education where they believe it is necessary. There are many more differences in transparency and accountability, but you get the idea.
And yet, those advocating for school privatization have managed to convince many parents (especially in today’s highly partisan environment), that public schools (especially district schools) are trying to indoctrinate their children with values and ideology that are different than their own.
What it is really about though, as pointed out by fellow education blogger Jan Resseger in her recent post, is money and power. After all, the total bill for K-12 education in the U.S. in 2018-2019 school year was already $800B. In Arizona this year, K-12 education constitutes almost 44% of the state budget. Privatizing public education is a lucrative triple-play for the rich and powerful and those lawmakers they keep in office. Privatization allows the reduction of the need for taxation, it offers the opportunity for corporations to profit directly from the education industry, and it reduces the voice of the people making it easier to ignore their will. As Resseger points out, Gordon Lafer, in “The One-Percent Solution”, said,
(F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than around public education. In all these ways, then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda.”
The brilliancy of packaging school privatization was convincing parents that their “right to choose”, was what was important. Resseger also quoted Benjamin Barber, in his book “Consumed”, who deftly makes the point that this ability to choose, however, is not the real power.
We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.
In other words, you are either at the table, or on the menu. In fact, I previously wrote a post with this same title back in 2014. With public schools, parents, voters and taxpayers are at the table (if they exercise their rights the way they should). Unfortunately, it takes work to exercise our rights and hold our elected officials accountable. But then, that’s what is meant by “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. “We the people”, must do our part if we want our government and its institutions to reflect our values. At least in public schools, we have that opportunity.