The budget stalemate in Harrisburg hasn’t been primarily about whether some budget line items go up or down by a few hundred million dollars. Those kinds of disputes are easy to resolve. Rather, it’s been about whether Pennsylvania will start down a radical, extremist path that leads to the destruction of public education in our state.
As we celebrate the birth of our country, we should remember that public education is central to the ideals that led to, and grew out of, American independence. And we in Pennsylvania should resolve not to compromise those ideals as the state passes its budget this year.
The American Revolution was not just a political revolution against the King and Parliament. It was also a social revolution against the hierarchal society they represented, a society in which everyone knew and kept in their place. It was a revolution to give all white men, no matter whether they started out poor or rich, real freedom and an opportunity to better themselves—and, in doing so, contribute to the well-being of the whole country. Over the following 200-plus years, we have expanded their vision and still seek freedom and opportunity for all people, no matter what they look like, no matter their gender, and no matter who they love.
Creating opportunity for all does not just mean tearing down the barriers of aristocracy. Founders like Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams realized that unless access to a good education was available to all, opportunity would be limited to only a few.
They also realized two other things. First, the future of the country required our citizens to have a civic education centered around American ideals. And second, the rapidly growing economy in the early 19th century needed workers who would only get the necessary education if it were publicly provided.
Cities, towns, and villages provided free public education as early as 1639. Many colonies and every new state after 1776 required local communities to create public schools.
As it became clear that the benefits of public education spread far beyond local communities, states began to support those schools. Under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens, who was the great educator before he became the great liberator, Pennsylvania became the first state to do so in 1834.
Private schools have always existed alongside the public schools, and Pennsylvania today offers business tax credits that provide $350 million in support for private schools.
But Republican extremists from outside Pennsylvania, like billionaire Betsy Devos, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, have always wanted much more: a radical, voucher-based alternative to the public school system in every state. When Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court plainly said that our public schools are inadequately and inequitably funded, Republicans lied and said it called for more support for private schools.
And now the Senate Republicans are holding the state budget hostage for what looks like a small investment in vouchers. That Betsy Devos and other billionaire extremists embraced it, however, shows us that the ultimate goal of the program is the total replacement of public schools. States that have taken the first step in this direction, like Ohio and Arizona, have been traveling down that slippery slope ever since they first enacted a voucher program with declining funding for public schools.
What would be wrong with a privatized school system?
Most importantly, it would be an elitist system, in which wealthy parents would supplement state vouchers to attend schools that were far better funded than the schools the rest of our children could attend. The promise of America, to offer real freedom and equal education to all, would come to an end. England’s rigid class system, which our founders sought to displace, would be recreated here.
This elitism would not only block the way forward for working people, it would especially affect Black and brown people, who have far fewer resources to attend private schools but receive no more under the voucher plan proposed here and in other states. A privatized education system would be an inherently racist one.
Second, our children would no longer attend schools that teach American ideals. There are too many who attend schools that teach religious ideas that conflict with our ideals and that undermine respect for science and rational thought itself. And the private schools attended by the wealthy would, implicitly or explicitly, teach their students that they are members of the elite, who deserve to rule over the rest of us.
And third, economic growth, which grew because of our huge investment in public schools and the skills and talents of our people, would slow down as fewer people have access to an excellent K-12 education and the opportunities for further education and training it creates.
Like the British monarchs and aristocrats before them, the wealthy elitists who back vouchers think that America’s success depends on people like them having outsized political and economic power.
We need to remind them and their supporters, among whom are Republican legislators and Governor Shapiro, that the success—and the soul—of America depends on fairly and fully funded public schools that provide opportunity and freedom for all.