Consider your public school experience -- if you had one, and most of us did -- and consider why some people would be happy to do away with public schools for nearly everyone.
Of course, all of our experiences were different. I'm a middle-class white guy who grew up in a small town in Texas when public schools were reasonably, if modestly, funded. Our facilities were suitable and the spirit of my high school was, for the most part, positive and aspirational -- the assumption was that many of us would go to college, and many of us did.
We read a few good books, studied math and history, did a lot of writing, and learned enough to survive or thrive in college and suitably conduct the life of a good American citizen.
Of course, a great deal has changed since the days of my Mayberrian youth. Schools are much more diverse and we ask a lot more of them. By their natures, schools are conservative, which means that they feel obligated to teach traditional bodies of knowledge and skills -- history and reading and writing, for example. Unfortunately, these things are less and less central to ordinary American life. In our culture at large, drugs are more available and sexuality is unbridled. None of this is the fault of public schools, but it makes their jobs much more challenging.
Furthermore, as anti-government rhetoric has surged in recent years, public schools, which are generally supported by local, state and federal money, provide an obvious target.
Because most of what schools produce is essentially invisible and very difficult to measure; because not everything they teach is directly connected to a practical, utilitarian good; because we Americans still harbor a significant and well-documented strain of anti-intellectualism; and because people with enough money to send their kids to private schools often begrudge the taxes that are spent on public education, well, you can see why public schools must sometimes feel as if they have a bull's eye on their backs.
My home state, Texas, is a good example. During the last few years, state support for public schools has dropped by at least $5 billion. Teachers have been laid off and class sizes have been increased. Despite a projected budget surplus of close to $9 billion this year, there's little prospect that funding for public schools will be restored.
On the contrary, this month State Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston filed Senate Bill 23, which is titled, "An Act relating to the establishment of the Texas Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program."
Patrick, a well-credentialed conservative, is also sponsoring SB 665, which will establish in statute the right of public school students and staff to say "Merry Christmas" to one another.
But SB 23 is a tad more subtle. Proposals to provide vouchers to the parents of public school students haven't generated enough traction in Texas to become law. For "voucher," therefore, SB 23 substitutes the more benign term, "opportunity scholarship." And rather than providing money for vouchers directly from the public coffers, it relies on donations from private businesses to provide "scholarships" to families making as much as $85,000 per year. In turn, the businesses receive state tax credits.
On its own, SB 23 isn't likely to bring public education in Texas to its knees. But it's a start. And 11 other states already have similar programs, reflecting the concerted effort to strangle public services of all sorts.
Few institutions have done more to promote equality of opportunity and the well-being of our society than public education. We've always known how to produce good public schools, and in our richest neighborhoods we still do so. The challenge is to produce good schools for everyone. But efforts to gradually drain and drown public education often reflect an ill-conceived ideology rather than concern for students, who would be better served by a genuine commitment to good public education.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)