Re: Public vs. private education (reply to José)

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Fri Jul 19 23:29:25 MDT 2002


    I didn't realize my reply hadn't been posted until much later as I got
knocked off line by a hard drive crash it has taken me a few days to recover
from. I'm just beginning to catch up now.

    On vouchers: I do not support any of these Republican plans, even as a
tiny inadequate baby first step and so forth, or "critically" like a rope
supports a hanging man, or anything like that. Not at all. I oppose them.


    On the Supreme Court decision, I think it is a prime example of judicial
cretinism. The Cleveland voucher plan was clearly designed WITH THE
CONSCIOUS AIM  of channeling children to religious schools, not because some
money goes to religious-sponsored schools, but because, in practice, the
only tuition it covers is the much lower one of the parrochal schools. But
the argument that no public money may go to a religiously-sponsored
institution to provide non-religious services is idiotic, that was the main
argument presented in the bourgeois press here.

    However, I am more convinced now than before that Marxists in the United
States cannot say things like "defend public schools" or "support public
schools" in GENERAL. That is because, in *general* terms, the U.S. has over
nearly two decades re-established dual school systems where they were
abolished, with the characteristics I described. By and large inner city
schools are a tool of the ruling class in perpetuating national oppression.
In this society separate IS inherently unequal, and separate has, as a rule,
been re-established: true, not with the absolute 100% rigidity that may have
prevailed in Georgia in 1950, but with equally devastating social effects.
When we "defend public schools" in general, we are defending a form of
apartheid. That's how I view it.

    Your experience with a community-control struggle shows, I think, that
the demand of community (as opposed to and counterposed to state) control of
schools is more widely applicable than most people on this list might think,
i.e., that it is not something made "legitimate" by national oppression, and
justifiable only in that context. On the contrary, it would seem to be right
in line with what Marx says in the Critique of the Gotha Program:

    "'Elementary education by the state' is altogether objectionable.
Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the
qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc.,
and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these
legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from
appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church
should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school.
Particularly, indeed, in the Prusso-German Empire (and one should not take
refuge in the rotten subterfuge that one is speaking of a 'state of the
future'; we have seen how matters stand in this respect) the state has need,
on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people."

    However, the fact remains that in the Black and Hispanic communities
there is strong sentiment for vouchers, and especially among parents. This
has shown up in regular public opinion polls and in things like election
exit polls, which provide much more detailed demographic data and a much
larger sample, even though it isn't what pollsters call a "scientific"
random sample of the population as a whole, but rather a sample of those who
go out to vote. In those polls --I studied in 1998 election exit polls
closely-- what was remarkable, what really struck me, was that support for
vouchers as a general concept was strongest precisely among Black and
Hispanic voters who were parents. I don't believe this was ever written up
in the election coverage, but it was there in the raw data, which I had
access to because of my work.

    How the voucher idea got into these people's heads is clear enough. It
was raised by right wingers and Republicans, in making vague and demagogic
propaganda for the kinds of voucher plans they have in mind. But that is not
dispositive of the question of whether we can or should support such an
idea -- the ones the parents have in mind, obviously, not the one the
Republicans are trying to camouflage with a lot of democratic-sounding
phrases. That idea -- that parents of Black or Hispanic children should have
an equal right to send their kids to the best schools, rather than the ones
their kids are stuck in now, is one I agree with.

The idea caught on because traditional school desegregation in the U.S. has
failed. It is dead. My contention is that this sentiment in the Black and
Hispanic communities is simply a new expression, a new *form* of the same
demands for quality and equality in education all of us here have been
fighting for all our political lives.

    Moreover, there is the practical problem to contend  with. ¿What do you
say to Black parents who say they support vouchers, not in the sense
Republicans really mean, but in the sense I describe in the paragraph above?
Do we tell them not to seek individual solutions to social problems? Well,
actually, as both you and I know, when you have a child, you have no choice
but to make individual choices for your child in situations that are the
result of social problems. And in fact a generalized voucher plan, one
covering 100% of all costs for all children, is hardly an individual
solution, but rather precisely a social one. And various partial forms of
that demand, also (i.e., vouchers for all kids in a given city,

    Concretely, in the United States, such a plan would mean mostly kids
transfering from one public school to another. A voucher plan doesn't have
to be the form this takes. Putting all schools in a metro area into one pool
accessible to all and (for desegregation purposes) giving preference to the
choices of Blacks and Hispanics would have largely the same effect. The
forms are different, but the content, the end result, would be 85% or so
overlapping with the kind of voucher plan that I think captures what's
behind the pro-voucher sentiment in oppressed communities, ie., vouchers
that cover 100% of the full cost. The 15%  percent that is not overlapping
is, of course, the private schools.

    Should private schools be included -- leaving aside for the time being
what FORM this might take? I believe they should be. I believe our posture
should be that, on the one hand, the state should not be allowed to skip out
on paying for the education of any children (or almost, in this kind of
society it is ineviatble that the sons of the ruling class and their
immediate circle will go to exclusive and costly ruling class academies,
and, of course, it would be an outrage to subsidize these from working
people's tax dollars. But that is not the great majority of the private
schools). On the other hand, these private schools are part of the whole
school system of society, i.e., the dual school system I mention above, and
therefore they should be part of the solution. And there should be no
incentive to the ruling class to push even more children out of the public
schools, privatizing the costs for their education.

    (An aside: it would be interesting to hear from comrades in countries
where the state subsidizes both government and privately run schools, and
what has been the stance of the Marxist movement towards this financing.)

    That, of course, is precisely what the Republican voucher plans would
do. By giving parents part of the cost of a private education, they shift
the rest of the cost onto the parents or the sponsoring religious

    The political purpose of the kind of voucher plan I raise with
people --and it is a subject that comes up regularly at work--, is precisely
to be COUNTERPOSED to the Republican plans. That's the WHOLE POINT. I tell
them I agree with them but the voucher plan should cover 100% of the costs,
first, because otherwise a lot of the poorest people wouldn't be able to
take advantage of it and second, because it would mean Coca Cola and the
rich developers, etc., who run Atlanta would then have a huge incentive to
totally trash the schools, because they would save several thousand dollars
per student. I also tell them I like it because I believe different kinds of
schools are better for different kinds of children, not just children with
"special needs" but all kinds of kids.

    The arguments raised against voucher plans in general, even if correct
when aimed against the Republican plans, are not sound when directed agaist
this kind of plan. It does not "take away" money from public education. The
phony "war" against terrorism and the real war against Afghanistan and the
Palestinians (the latter is financed by the U.S.) is what takes away the
money. The idea of preventing parents from exercising their right to send
their children to a religious school is undemocratic -- no, not in the great
socialist commonwealth of tomorrow, but, yes, in the here and now. (And I
apologize for having misread your post and imputed to you this argument).

    I agree with the Bolshevik approach you quoted. It is striking how
faithfully it reflects Marx's criticism of the muddle-headedness of the
Gotha program. But our task politically isn't to come up with ideally
designed systems and structures for the commonwealth of tomorrow, but to
relate to existing sentiment and political motion in that direction. My
problem is a simple one. What do I tell my coworkers when this issue comes
up at work? That they're wrong -- vouchers are evil, they must fight instead
for school desegregation? When there is no motion around school
desegregation, nor any vehicle through which to carry out this fight?

    I agree with you that, viewed through the prism of an individual,
"school shopping" --as you derisively call it-- does nothing to advance
motion towards political independence. But when you view it through the
prism of the Black and Hispanic *communities*, it assumes a radically
different character. It then becomes a demand aimed against segregation and
national oppression.

*  *  *

    On bilingual education, as practiced in the U.S. from those places I've
been able to observe. My *belief* is this is pretty typical and generalized,
but I have not seen any studies or even journalism that addresses this topic
on a national scale.

    First, it is usually a form of segregation, all the hispanc kids are
initally shunted into these classrooms even when the school is integrated.

    Second, I believe it is precisely the *wrong* thing to do educationally.
I believe second and third languages are best learned by immersion and from
the earliest possible age. What they do is take children who speak some
Spanish or only Spanish and put them in  a "bilingual" by which they mean
Spanish-only classroom. These children then receive all instruction in all
subjects in Spanish, save having one class period a day where they take
English as a second language. The "second language" is very much taught in
the same way that other second languages are taught to english-speakers in
U.S. schools, i.e., they get very little from the class, perhaps a little
re-enforcement of their exposure to English in broader society. That
exposure, in the case of children who enter "bilingual" education as first
graders, for example, takes place naturally, as they expand their horizons
over the next couple of years. That is largely responsible for the children
having acquired at least rudimentary English skills by the time they're
taken out of the program.

    After three years of "bilingual education" THEN they are thrown into
English-only classrooms. Very often they have no help in making the switch
from doing arithmetic in Spanish to doing it in English. English spelling in
particular drives them crazy (as it does other kids: my son Lucas, who turns
eight next week, says English spelling was designed by a "psychopathic
maniac.") but all the moreso if you come from the phonetic and orthographic
regularity of Spanish.

    After that, they receive no more formal education in Spanish. The
rudimentary Spanish-language literacy they have acquired either remains
immature or withers. They are now fourth graders struggling with having to
function in English rather than having been first graders (or younger) when
confronted with an environment where they simply had to make themselves
understood in that language.

    What you have isn't really bilingual education AT ALL, but rather
monolingual education serially in two languages.

    And the bottom line is you end up turning out kids who are functional
illiterates in two languages.

    How/why this system got developed/imposed, I do not know. There is no
secret to educating children bilingually: this is done in many schools in
many countries including in some private schools in the United States. The
socalled "American" or "English" or "German" or "French" schools popular
with privileged layers in many semicolonial countries are an example of
this. One common practice is to have the morning classes in one language and
the afternoon classes in the other one. Moreover, the classes in a given
language are never restricted to language classes.

    This is an issue among Hispanic parents, even those who have raised
their children in Spanish in the first few years. There is a significant
number that do not want their children enrolled in "Spanish school" but in
"English school." This is one of the main attractions of parochial schools,
which do not follow the public school model. At least some of the ones in
Miami, which I know through my family, have special, more intensive
English-language classes for newly arrived immigrants, but otherwise the
kids are largely "mainstreamed" from day one. Also, they have Spanish
classes for native speakers. If you look at U.S. parochial schools, I think
you will find that the Catholic Church in many areas has seized on this as
an opportunity, and I suspect there is probably a fair bit of material on
the methodology they follow, as opposed to that of the public schools.

    The point here is similar to the one I make about  "defending public
schools" in  general. Bilingual education is not universally popular in
Spanish-speaking communities, just as public schools are not, and for what I
suspect are very good reasons.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Richard Fidler" <rfidler at>
To: "Marxism list" <marxism at>
Sent: Thursday, July 18, 2002 10:44 AM
Subject: Re: Public vs. private education (reply to José)

Some comments on José's reply to me, dated July 10 and posted on the list
July 15.

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