Public vs. private education

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Tue Jul 9 20:29:02 MDT 2002

Some comments on a number of posts by José 09-07-02:

1. A key argument José advances is that racial and linguistic minorities in
the United States favour the voucher system as opposed to a public or "state
monopoly" education system. At least, that seems to be his argument.
However, he concedes that "Whether the miserly and divisive voucher programs
being pushed by the likes of Jeb Bush have soured the Black and Hispanic
community on the idea of vouchers I do not know." It is interesting to note
that a New York opinion survey cited by José, which seems to indicate
majority support for a voucher system among Blacks and Hispanics, also notes

"this support for vouchers plummets if it means less funds for public
education. Among those who initially reported favoring vouchers, 59 percent
withdraw their support with this stipulation. Thus, two-thirds of Latinos
either reject vouchers outright or if there is an adverse affect on public
school funding...."

 2. We know, however, that a voucher system will mean less funding for
public education. José argues that a voucher system can increase equality
within the system by providing equal funding for all students. But schools
will always differ radically in their resources under capitalism. In
practice, the "100% funding" under José's ideal voucher system will
necessarily be a minimum, a floor payment. The rich will still have their
schools, which will charge far more than the voucher amount. José's system
would promote true equality of resources and opportunity only if there is
not only a floor but a ceiling: that is, a limit on how much could be spent
per capita (per child) on schooling. Why not propose the nationalization of
private schools (as in Cuba), making the whole system public? By forcing the
rich into the public system, the system would have to be taken seriously,
upgraded, made truly beneficial for all.

3. José suggests that a voucher system, by encouraging the creation of
private schools, would favour control by minorities who are now particularly
discriminated against within the public system. But is the "state monopoly"
the basic problem here? José's own examples suggest otherwise. His
explanation of the differences (and the reasons for them) between the
relatively positive Decatur system and the horrible Atlanta system was not
altogether clear to me. Both systems are public, apparently. So clearly
public is not the problem; control of operations and curriculum are key. In
Decatur, "principals and teachers run the schools as they see fit, and
there's a fair bit of variation from one school to the next.... The
difference is in what the schools are trying to do."

For example, a public system can be operated by locally-elected boards. That
was the system we had in my current city of residence, Ottawa, as indeed in
most of Canada, at least until recently. School trustees were elected every
two or three years (annually in some cases), and were salaried. The school
board normally had jurisdiction over an entire municipal area, thus covering
a mix of income levels and helping to equalize the spread of resources
throughout the public system since standards were universally applied. I am
not saying the system was perfect; it wasn't. But the basic design offered a
template that could have been further modified to accommodate racial and
ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged interests. (In Ontario, such
concerns are partly reflected in the existence of separate school boards for
minority Francophones (one third of the population in Ottawa), and - for
historic and constitutional reasons - an entirely separate publicly-funded
system for Roman Catholics, which apart from the religious component
operates as an equivalent system to the secular majority public systems.)
But all of these systems are "state monopolies". In addition, of course,
there are private schools for the rich and religious fundamentalists, which
until recently received little or no state funding.

BTW, even within the secular public system some schools operate under
innovative educational theories; for example, some public boards include
schools operating under the Montessori franchise.

(In the interests of disclosure, I should say that our daughter attended a
private Montessori school for a number of years until we pulled her out
because of dissatisfaction with the lack of structure in the pedagogical
framework; her experience in the public school system since then has
generally been quite positive in comparison. At her recent elementary school
graduation ceremony, it was quite striking how well the kids of many ethnic
origins, some with serious physical or mental disabilities, interacted with
each other. In the public system, where white anglo-saxons are barely a
majority in our area, if they are a majority, she has been exposed to a
range of influences she would not have encountered in most of the private
schools in this area.)

4. In my opinion, U.S. support for vouchers or private schools by minority
parents represents a retreat from the mass campaigns - ultimately
unsuccessful in most cases - waged by the Black and Hispanic communities in
the 1960s and 1970s for (minority) community control of the schools. Those
campaigns were conducted for the most part if not entirely within the public
school system; they were fiercely resisted by the teachers' union
bureaucracy (the AFT and Shanker) but were supported by many radicalized
teachers as well as other professionals in the system. Vouchers represent an
individual response to a social problem. Instead of advocating a voucher
system, we should be working to build support for and improvement in the
public school system by the labour movement and progressives.

5. José speaks of the right of children to an education. But in practice it
is the parents, not the children, who will determine what kind of schools
the kids attend under a voucher system. Let's not overlook the fact that the
public "state monopoly" imposes some limits on the right of parents and
families to abuse their children by propagating religious beliefs in place
of science, for example. At the very least, it can help create a public
space in which children can be exposed to a range of ideas and concepts, in
addition to a multi-ethnic environment. As Stan Goff notes, parental control
with a voucher system would in many parts of the United States mean the
teaching of creationism in the schools. José rightly complains that this
happens anyway in the public system in many states. But at least with a
public "state monopoly" these issues have to be debated and resolved in the
public sphere, and not just left to individual and family discretion.

6. José cites Marx's critique of the Gotha program in support of his view
that "education by the state" is "altogether objectionable". It is hard to
know what to make of the brief excerpt cited by José (and it is the only
reference to education in that document). But even José acknowledges that
"Marx seems to advocate or ate least tolerate state regulation of the
schools", a position José is "leery" about. And it is worth noting, perhaps,
that "Free education for all children in public schools" was one of the ten
demands that Marx and Engels advanced as "generally applicable" in "most
advanced countries" in the Communist Manifesto.

Marx's objection to the Lassallean-inspired phrase was that it amounted to
"appointing the state as the educator of the people". But although there is
no doubt that state-mandated curriculum is permeated with bourgeois
ideology, I think the concept of a compulsory state-financed education
system, for all its real and potential defects, is nevertheless an advance
over its opposite: a discretionary system in which access is unequal and
dependent on individual family resources, with little or no possibility for
the broader society, let alone the front-line professionals (teachers and
other educators) actually involved in the day-to-day working of the system,
to influence the content of the curriculum.

Lenin was certainly quite scathing in his critique of those who, like the
Bund, proposed a separate school system for ethnic or national minorities.
See, for example, his 1913 article on "Cultural-National" Autonomy:

"As long as different nations live in a single state they are bound to one
another by millions and thousands of millions of economic, legal and social
bonds. How can education be extricated from these bonds? Can it be 'taken
out of the jurisdiction' of the state, to quote the Bund formula, classical
in its striking absurdity? If the various nations living in a single state
are bound by economic ties, then any attempt to divide them permanently in
'cultural' and particularly educational matters would be absurd and
reactionary. On the contrary, efforts should be made to _unite_ the nations
in educational matters, so that the schools should be a preparation for what
is actually done in real life...."

Although Lenin, in the Soviet regime, modified his unyielding opposition to
separate national schools and small-nation autonomy, I think his general
comment on the reactionary content of removing education from state
jurisdiction is valid. It was within that perspective that the RSDLP called
for "public education to be administered by democratically elected organs of
local self-government; the central government not to be allowed to interfere
with the arrangement of the school curriculum, or with the selection of the
teaching staffs; teachers to be elected directly by the population with the
right of the latter to remove undesirable teachers." (See the draft RSDLP
program drawn up in April-May 1917). That is, a state monopoly, but locally
controlled and administered.

7. To summarize. José is adamant that his proposed "100% voucher system"
would "cover 100% of the cost for 100% of the children", and that it is
simply a restatement of the "Marxist position that the state should pay the
cost of educating children but not be allowed to control [that education]."
I think the reality is that the voucher system - the real one upheld by the
U.S. Supreme Court - is an attack on the whole concept of public education.
It will not cover 100% of the costs for 100% of the children; rather, it
will pay just enough to entice some parents frustrated with the current
system (some for good reasons, others because of religious or other
reactionary beliefs) out of the state system and into a privatized,
parcellized and elitist system, and further reduce the state funding for the
public system. And it will not weaken the hold of bourgeois ideology over
the school curriculum in either public or private schools; on the contrary,
it will simply provide state funding to schools that in many if not most
instances propagate even more reactionary nonsense to children.

Richard Fidler

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