There is a battle being waged in Nebraska for our schools. Alt-right ideologues and billionaires have joined forces to take down public education, both K-12 and our public Universities. In part one of our school choice series, we will describe the national landscape that has lead to the popularity of defunding public schools.
The motives behind this fall into two camps:
Camp 1: Religious ideologues believe that public schools are evil because they are secular and teach facts like climate change, science based sexuality, reproductive education and birth control, and hold peer reviewed research in higher regard than faith based beliefs about the world. This camp generally wants to educate all children in the community in their schools as a way to proselytize and control information available to the public.
Camp 2: Billionaire ruling class whose main motivation is to funnel taxpayer dollars into private companies; a steady stream of revenue without actual market competition or with any real risk attached. They disagree that every child in the community is deserving of a free and excellent education.
Unfortunately for Nebraskans, Governor Pete Ricketts falls into both camps, and his bloodlust for the decimation of public schools is only paralleled by his desire to punish, torture, and murder prisoners. Of course, this is not what the GOP would have you believe. The Republican party here has a made a sport of being disingenuous. They dare not show their true motives because most Americans find them abhorrent. Most civilized people want excellent and free education available to every child.
So what is an extreme, religious-ideologue billionaire to do in the face of wildly undemocratic and unpopular agenda? Lie. They lie. They pay other people to lie. They surround themselves with priests and nuns and Catholic school kids in yellow scarves, and they lie.
Let’s walk through the playbook.
First, they must pretend to love public schools, particularly in Nebraska where public schools are still highly revered in the realm of public opinion, and the majority believe tax dollars should not go to charter schools or vouchers. This is a fine line for them to walk. If you watch closely, they eventually slip up and their contempt for schools, teachers, knowledge, and democracy is often just under the surface. Instead, they simply act as if they want public schools to do better. And suddenly, that puts them in a camp with most Americans, because don’t we all want our public schools to do better? Instead of an honest conversation where we all walk away with solutions to educate ALL children, they push the conversation towards their real political motivator, pulling children out of publically governed and funded public schools and into privately governed and privately funded non public schools. This is what they call “school choice.”
Everyone likes choice. (Unless we’re talking about women’s health, but in most other situations, choice is good. Who doesn’t want a choice?) Their rhetorical strategy is one used by many parents of toddlers; give the toddler a false sense of control and autonomy by telling them you are giving them a choice between two things that make absolutely no goddamn difference in the grand scheme of things. “Do you want a banana before or after your nap?” This works on adults just as easily as toddlers. It taps into our need for control, and our love of autonomy – and freedom. Choice implies freedom. They have turned school privatization into an argument for choice and freedom.
You might feel that having a choice is better than not having a choice. Perhaps you’ve even found yourself agreeing with a school choice advocate.
You might admit that public schools are not perfect – and you should.
It is not news to most people that we have a huge problem with racism and huge gaps in income, wealth, and education. The current school system in the U.S. reproduces and magnifies these inequalities year after year, generation after generation. The very institution that was created to be the great equalizer is currently making inequality worse. This is a bigger problem than the genuine concern over the decline of music and art in schools, the increase in testing, or the school lunch choices that most white suburbanites worry about. This is actual failure. There are families and children who do not have access to good public schools, and they are disproportionately families of color.
It is a national disgrace.
And we could talk about this problem all day, what caused it, and policies to fix it. And that’s precisely what the anti-public school ideologues want us to do. Alt-right ideologues and billionaires who need even more rhetorical leverage to divide and conquer the left have used this to divide us. They love it when we debate actual policy solutions, conduct studies, and argue about the best way. But again and again, when we put forward the fruits of those efforts, the elected officials representing alt-right ideologues and billionaires simply vote them down.
Then we, rational people who believe all children deserve a free and excellent education, water our policy proposals down to something that alt-right ideologues and billionaires find acceptable. We know the changes aren’t good enough. We know they won’t solve the problems, but we keep hoping to improve schools even if it is little by little.
Once these tepid budgets and policies, which were compromised so deeply that they are guaranteed to keep failing children and families, are passed and implemented and the alt-right ideologues and billionaires point back at the rational people, and then they say, SEE WE TOLD YOU YOUR IDEAS DON’T WORK. Instead of responding back with a full throated and honest, “WE DEMAND FREE AND EXCELLENT PUBLIC EDUCATION FOR ALL CHILDREN”, we meekly go back to the table and hope that those seeking to dismantle our public schools will work with us. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
While poor communities and communities with large populations of non white students are in peril, alt-right ideologues and billionaires offer THE SOLUTION. What is the solution? Privatization. But they call it choice.
In many communities around the country are battling systemic racism in every part of their day, private schools are now the ONLY choice. No one, literally no one, wants their kids to go to a school that is unsafe, with overcrowded classrooms, and untrained teachers. So it isn’t really a choice at all. It is the choice between food or starvation, water or thirst, life or death. No person should be put in this position, but they have to deal with the devil because education is the most powerful tool available to a child to make a better life
And so, school choice gets the biggest foothold in the poorest communities, by design. This is a feature of decades of obstructionist political behavior on the right and they are finally ready to cash in. They prey on desperation and they capitalize on liberal white guilt. The liberal white guilt wasn’t helpful enough to actually make the schools better or help people of color get elected so they could sit at the table and fight for their own schools, but by god, we sure do feel guilty that kids haven’t gotten an education for decades in some school districts. Finally, the great and powerful OZ saves the day, and private schools that lack the transparency and accountability of a public system are taking money from public schools, and line the pockets of entities that don’t pay taxes (churches and billionaires) with taxpayer dollars.
Seeing Red has outlined key pillars of their rhetorical playbook, but we actually have a lot more to say on this topic. Please stay tuned, and in the meantime, here is list of a anti-public education bills proposed by Ricketts’s anti-public education puppets in the legislature:
(Date TBD) LB295 (Lienhan Smith Brewer Halloran) – https://nebraskalegislature.gov/bills/view_bill.php?DocumentID=30926
LB828 (Lowe) Adopt the Empowerment Savings Account Act
LB779 (Groene) Change provisions relating to learning communities
LB804 (Brasch) Include elementary and secondary schools in the Nebraska educational savings plan
LB1033 (Murante) Eliminate learning communities
LB1116 (Linehan) Create the Quality Education Accountability Commission and Office
LB1125 (Groene) Change school finance base limitation and local effort rate provisions
LR285CA (Murante) Eliminate the State Board of Education