Don’t Be April Fooled: Public is Better

It’s April Fools Day, which reminds me: Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos want us to think that private schools are better, not just for rich folks like them, but for everyone else too– Just like with Paul Ryan and health care. Don’t be fooled. It is a ruse. Public is better!

Growing up, I knew the meaning of private places. Private places were about gates, both physical and de facto. Private meant, “Keep out!” Private schools were not for me, but for someone else. Private clubs were for someone else. Private roads were for someone else. I understood that the people who were saying, “Stay on your side of the gate,” were usually rich and Christian, and always White. That meant not me as a Jew. I knew for certain that it also meant, not for Blacks and not for poor folks. Sometimes, private meant no women. The message was always clear: “We do not want you around us!”

As a nation, we need to be better than that.

Make no mistake. The folks inside the gates of privilege aim to stay there. However, to do so they need the rest of us to believe three things: First, that they have privileges because they deserve them and the rest of us do not; Second, that there is a chance, however slim, that a few of us just might get inside and become privileged too; Third, having just a few folks inside the gates and the rest of us outside is the way things are and always will be.

Unfortunately, in the minds of some of those standing outside the gates looking in, private implies, “That’s Better than what I have. I want that too.” Growing up, I also knew about some outside folks who managed to slip inside the gate. I grew to despise them because once inside they chose to identify with their former gatekeepers. They did not join struggles to remove gates or to make things better for everyone.

The ruse is clear, so we would be fools to believe it. The so-called replacement for the ACA called for less coverage and lower taxes for the wealthy. Having more coverage and less tax is simply not possible. Similarly, Trump’s budget calls for more money for vouchers, less money for the US Department of Education and, of course, tax cuts for the wealthy. Neither of these plans is about those outside the gates having the same choices or services as the wealthy. Privatization is never about spreading the wealth.

If we want a country in which the greatest good for the greatest number of people is a high priority, public is better. I think most folks think so too. That’s why we have public schools, roads and bridges, police, firefighters, parks, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid just to name a few public services. These are common-good activities that we cannot afford as individuals, so we share the costs. Not everyone goes to school, but we all benefit from an educated citizenry. Not everyone drives, but without good road and bridges, we would all suffer. Some of us are not old and in need of extra medical care, but we might be someday. Cost sharing brings broad access. It makes economic sense. For most of us, it is also a moral responsibility.

Most folks understand that without such public (aka government) programs most of our lives would be less bearable. That’s why Republicans got so much flack when they tried to reverse the clock on the progress made by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That’s why Democrats and Republicans alike got so many calls to oppose the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a privatization champion, as Secretary of Education. That’s why private school voucher advocates think up truth-deflecting, disingenuous names like, “Opportunity Scholarships.” That’s why privatizers started to call the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare– easier to drum up opposition to a person than to affordable medical care.

Most of us understand that if such services are privatized– if they become a competitive businesses trying to make a profit– privilege and inequality will surely follow. Think about the difference between a public service such as the New York City subway and air travel. We all pay the same fare on the subway, have equal access to the same seat, and either benefit or suffer from the same good or bad service. No privilege. If we want it to be better, we need to make it better for everyone. The wealthy can still hire private limousine drivers, but no one proposes limo vouchers or tax credits as the solution for transporting millions of New Yorkers each day.

Alternatively, think about private airlines. Extra fees buy comfort (and maybe even food). The boarding process makes it clear: It’s First Class first, then business class, and finally coach. Airlines have figured out that sorting people by their ability to pay is profitable. But it does not improve overall service.

In the subway example, we are citizens. With the airlines, we are customers. Sure, we pay a fare to ride on the subway, but the route to cleaner, safer, more on time train rides is as voting citizens and better public funding. As customers on the plane, the choices are either pay more or pick another airline with the same basic rules. Competition among airlines has us scrambling on the Internet for access to an artificially limited number of cheaper seats, but not improved overall quality. The magic of the market gives us smaller, more crowded seating, extra charges for luggage, and fewer, if any, snacks for those who can only afford coach fare. The sorting mechanism of the market brings comfort for the wealthy and profits for airlines.

The same is true for education. The wealthy send their children to expensive private schools. The gates are high and locked. Vouchers will not change that. Admission is a privilege. With vouchers, no one has to go to school or learn to live with anyone they deem undesirable or too different. That is bad for the common good.

In addition, most private schools cost more than the average per pupil expenditures in public schools and more than any direct voucher or tax credit can offer. Those private schools are not building new additions or opening their gates. Even if every current education tax dollar were converted to vouchers, the fundamental idea that wealth buys privilege would not change. As with medical care, the privatizers propose cuts in education funding and cuts in taxes for the wealthy.

Don’t be fooled. Tell your federal and state representatives. The wealthy need to pay more taxes not less. Tell them that we don’t want to slip inside the gates of the wealthy. We want to improve the public schools we have for all children. Vote for that or we won’t vote for you.

Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part-time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.

His writings are collected at

Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins


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