Watching children running around the athletic field in a town sports league, you can’t tell the public school kids from the private school kids. At school bus stops, in the morning, the only clue about which are which may be that one group wears uniforms (which aren’t always much more definitive than “business casual” attire).
That’s the thought that came to mind when reading the quotes that Providence Journal reporter Linda Borg collected in opposition to the school choice legislation that Rep. Elaine Coderre (D, Pawtucket) submitted last week:
“We don’t want taxpayer money to pay tuition at private and parochial schools,” said Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association, Rhode Island. “It’s bad public policy because public dollars should go to public schools.”
“This is a blank check,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There is no limit to the amount of tax money that could be used to send children to private or parochial schools. This would further erode the money available for public education.”
Put aside the question of why the ACLU is commenting on school choice legislation at all (much less, doing so in opposition to increased liberty). And take into account that the National Education Association, Rhode Island, has a clear and obvious financial interest in restricting Rhode Islanders to government-run schools as much as possible.
We, in the public, need to start giving some consideration to what is meant by “public dollars” and “public education.”
Simply put, Rhode Island is not its government. It is a society of families who live within the geographical and cultural boundaries that define the Ocean State and that define Rhode Islanders. Our economy is not just the money that filters through state and local government. Our children are not just the children who attend schools that are directly under the control of the state Department of Education.
Our education system is the total strategy by which our local society educates itself. The children of Rhode Island enter school when they are young, and they walk off the graduation stage as Rhode Islanders whether they count in the statistics for the government schools, the diocese schools, the Jewish schools, the Montessori schools, or any other schools.
The irony is that, when Bob Walsh talks about “public dollars,” he means money that the government takes from the public by force of law to be spent in ways that the government thinks best. When it comes time to debate how “public dollars” should be spent, we find that it’s almost all untouchable — wrapped up in long-term contracts, mandated by state and federal laws, and generally subject to obscure accounting gimmicks.
When Steven Brown talks about “public education,” he means schools operated by people within government, with control increasingly moving to bureaucrats who aren’t even Rhode Islanders. He doesn’t mean schools operated by members of the Rhode Island public.
Nobody is better situated than a child’s parents to determine what school and what sort of education would best suit his or her needs. If we think of Rhode Island education in terms of how we ensure that Rhode Islanders are educated, then it’s only a matter of justice, fairness, and pragmatic efficiency that parents should have access to schools whether or not they are operated by the local teachers union, the state education commissioner, or a federal government bureaucrat.