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Who’s Afraid of Public Schools?

"No one really denies that there are two Americas anymore. We just lie to ourselves about how you get placed in one or the other."

President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have promoted school privatization and voucher programs. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Public schools are the bogeymen of American life.

We so often hear the bedtime story of “Failing Schools” that it’s no wonder some folks will do anything to ensure their kids get in elsewhere.

And let’s be honest. It’s the same impulse behind the latest college admissions cheating scandal.

A group of wealthy – though not too wealthy – parents thought their children should be able to enroll in the most prestigious schools.

So they bribed college admissions officers, cheated on standardized tests or paid coaches or other officials to accept their children as college athletes even if their kids had never played the sport.

We see the same kind of thing everyday in public schools – a confederacy of white parents terrified that their kids might have to go to class with black kids. So they dip into their stock portfolios to pay for enrollment at a private or parochial school.

Or they take advantage of a tax scholarship or school voucher to avoid an institution with low test scores by enrolling in one where students don’t have to take the tests at all.

Or they cross their fingers and enter their kid in a lottery to a charter school praying their precious progeny will escape the horrors of being treated just like everyone else’s kids.

And they call it a meritocracy!

What a joke!

They pretend that their children have earned special treatment.

WRONG.

No child deserves favoritism – paradoxically –  because all children do!

There are really two important but related points here:

1)  The children of the privileged don’t deserve a better education than anyone else’s.

2)  Children who come from wealthy families (and or from privileged social circumstances) don’t do anything to distinguish themselves from the underprivileged.

But these nouveau riche parents tried to bribe the way forward for their kids anyway even though to do so they had to launder the money through a fake “charity.” They didn’t care that doing so would earn them a tax deduction and thus result in even less money for the underprivileged. They didn’t care about the underlying inequalities in the system. No. They only wanted their children to remain in the class of America’s chosen few.

And the best way to do that is with cold, hard cash.

America doesn’t run on Dunkin. It runs on greenbacks. Dinero. Swag. Bling. The prosperity doctrine made physical, quantifiable and mean.

No one really denies that there are two Americas anymore. We just lie to ourselves about how you get placed in one or the other.

And that lie is called excellence, quality, worth – the ultimate in class war gaslighting.

It’s a deception that this scandal has shattered to pieces.

The privileged don’t earn their privilege. It’s not something they possess on the basis of intelligence or hard work shown through test scores. They don’t have it because of drive, determination or grit – once again shown through test scores. They have it based on wealth – the kind of wealth that buys time and resources to either pass the tests or bribe the gatekeepers to change the scores.

Think about it.

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George W. Bush got into Yale and Harvard and graduated with a 2.35 GPA. Why? Not because he had the grades and demonstrated his worth. He was a legacy. Like at least one third of all admissions to Ivy League schools, he got in purely because he had family who graduated from there.

You think Donald Trump threatened the College Board not to release his grades because they were all A’s!?

According to one account, his scores were merely “respectable.” Yet he still dropped out of the prestigious Fordham University and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years based on family connections and the reputation of his father, Fred Trump, one of the wealthiest businessmen in New York at the time.

Moreover, his kids, Don Jr. and Ivanka, were both enrolled at Penn around the same time as their father made hefty contributions. They began classes in 1996 and 2000, respectively, just as the university and its private Manhattan clubhouse received more than $1.4 million in pledged donations from Trump, the school newspaper reported.

This is not merit. This has nothing to do with what these people deserve. It is money – a pure transaction, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

The only thing that separates what the Trumps and the Bushes did with this latest scandal – the so-called Operation Varsity Blues – is the amount of wealth involved.
If you’re super rich, you can get away with it. If you’re just rich, you’d better not get caught.

And if you’re poor or middle class, you’d better stay in your lane.

But there shouldn’t be any lanes on this highway. Or at least they should only be in place to maximize fairness and student success.

We sneer at the idea of Affirmative Action but only because it’s directed at people of color. No one says anything about the real Affirmative Action that’s been in place since before our country even began – the system of reciprocity and privilege keeping wealthy white families in positions of power like Lords and Ladies while the rest of us serfs scramble for their leavings.

All children deserve the same opportunities to succeed. All children deserve the chance to get an excellent education. All children should attend a first class school filled with highly educated and experienced teachers who can draw on plenty of resources, wide curriculum, tutoring, counseling and support.

And the only way we’ll ever achieve that is through a robust system of public schools.

I’m not saying they’re perfect. In many neighborhoods, they’ve been sabotaged and surgically dismantled, but that’s a problem with an easy solution. Invest in public schools!

Because the stated purpose of public education, the reason it exists at all, is equity.

The alternatives – private and charter schools – are essentially unequal.  That’s their raison d’êtreto create a market that justifies their existence.

In order for charter and private schools to be a thing, there must be schools that don’t otherwise meet students’ needs. There must be an unreasonable demand that schools indoctrinate students into parents’ religious beliefs. There must be schools that aren’t as well funded or that have to meet ridiculous federal and state mandates.

The result is a two-tiered system. Schools for the haves and for the have-nots. It’s an apparatus that perverts the public to make room for the private.

In the public system, students are segregated into communities based on race and class and then their community schools are funded based on what their parents can afford. The rich shower their children with the best of everything. The poor do what they can.

Then the federal government pretends to hold everyone “accountable” by forcing students to take standardized tests that merely recreate the economic and racial disparities already present in their districts and neighborhoods. In turn, this provides the justification for charter and voucher schools that further erode public school budgets and increases the downward spiral of disinvestment.

Meanwhile, few notice how the equity built into authentic public schools gets left behind by those enrolling in privatized alternatives. No more open meetings. No more elected school boards. No more public comment or even a voice in how the money is spent. 

So long as there are two Americas, the fear of being in the wrong one will motivate the privileged to cheat and steal their way to the top. They will horde resources and wealth for themselves and their children while denying it to others.

It is a self-perpetuating system – a loop that we’re all caught in.

We must break the chain. We must recognize our common humanity and stop the zero sum game.

And perhaps the best way to begin is by supporting authentic public schools and not privatization.

We have been taught to fear public education, because it is really our only hope.

Steven Singer

Steven Singer

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, blogger and education advocate. He often writes at his own blog here.

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