Shore up democracy by defending public education

I started writing this column on the anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol. On Jan. 6 three years ago, I watched in disbelief as the violence unfolded, and I am still terrified. What would our lives be like if our democratic structures and institutions, including our system of public education, were to disappear or ossify?

This possibility is increasing in Ohio, where state lawmakers have gradually backed away from the strict conditions that define how to spend public funds on K-12 education. They have replaced a steadfast commitment to the common good, to public education, with a commitment to individual choice.

Every state constitution includes a requirement for the state to fund a system of public education. The constitutional commitment codifies that the public interest is served when state resources are used to educate our youth in schools that include everyone and provide comparable opportunities regardless of their location. Public schools must be nonsectarian, free and available everywhere, and accountable to the public. Public education is a magnificent expression of our democratic commitment to the value of each person, interdependence and democratic self-governance. 

Historically, public funds have been off-limits to private schools. The public is not obligated to fund schools that select their students, discriminate, promote religion, make decisions in private, and operate with limited regulation or accountability. They don’t meet the conditions needed to serve the common good. Nonetheless, individuals have the right to attend a private school at their own expense.

Over the last three decades, however, the distinction between public and private school funding has faded. In the last state budget, it disappeared! Lawmakers made EdChoice Expansion vouchers available to everyone, regardless of their income or whether they already used a private school. Publicly funded private education became welfare for the wealthy.

Ohio now has two systems of publicly funded schools that reflect two diametrically opposed visions for the public role in education. One serves the common good. The other transforms education into a consumer choice.   

This is dangerous for democracy. Cleveland Heights public education crusader Jan Resseger captures the cost in a December blog entry: “An education marketplace is designed to serve the needs of the mass of individual tastes but not to protect the collective needs of our society.”

This two-headed monster can hardly bode well for ever adequately funding our public system or ensuring that it does not wither from legislative indifference. Education choice removes the constraints on where public funds are spent and thereby removes the conditions that protect the public interest. When satisfying consumer preferences is the driver of public spending, students’ rights, honesty, unity, equity, oversight and accountability no longer matter.

This year 155,000 private-school students in Ohio are using vouchers to fund at least part of their private education, while more than 1.6 million public-school students still wait for an appropriate level of state spending.

Cleveland Heights is rich with private-school options, and voucher use has been substantial, reaching 2,133 students last year. We are no longer an EdChoice district so no new vouchers have been awarded from this source, but 1,785 were renewed. Income-based vouchers, however, funded 180 new vouchers.   

Privatization now poses both a financial and ideological threat to public education and democracy. The annual cost is likely to top $1 billion during this biennium as about 90 percent of private-school students (there were 169,000 last year) seek public funds to underwrite their choice.

Democracy defenders have to identify and support candidates for the Ohio legislature who reject a dual system of K-12 education—who will fight for public education and value democracy. It will take all of us.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 17, Issue 2, Posted 4:40 PM, 01.30.2024