Public education in the United States emerged in the late part of the 19th century. By 1920, all of the then 48 states had compulsory public education laws, but in 1920, only 30% of Americans aged 14 to 17 attended high school. (American Public Education: An Origin Story, www.educationnews.org). With the emergence of the industrial age and rise in immigration, education was seen as a tool to address “social ills” and to create uniform knowledge among the workforce. In fact, the 1923 Supreme Court decision in Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, analyzed a state law criminalizing education in modern languages, including German. The law’s intent was to promote “civic development.” The Supreme Court held that states are empowered to compel school attendance and to prescribe a curriculum, but that exercise of the police power through the language instruction prohibition was not justified. Public education has always been an issue within state control. The Federal government has intruded on that control through funding, including in my favorite statute, the IDEA. So what’s all the fuss about Betsy De Vos and her support of vouchers?
Are vouchers Good? Bad? I’m torn. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) challenged Ohio’s voucher program arguing that the program was unconstitutionally intertwined with religion, since the vouchers were primarily used for attendance at religious schools. The Supreme Court rejected that argument, noting that parents determined where the vouchers were used. Ohio also has two scholarship programs for students with disabilities. I visited a great little private school in Ohio that participates in the scholarship programs and serve students with language based learning disabilities. There’s no guarantee that the scholarship will cover full tuition and families accepting the scholarship must surrender their right to use the legal process to secure full funding. On the other hand, the scholarship enables many students to get an education that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Where I live, there is no similar school. On the other hand, the risks of vouchers promoting segregation of students with disabilities is easily envisioned. So my conclusion; tread carefully.
There’s nothing wrong with a religious school. I sent my children to a religious school and to independent schools. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can actually list reasons public schools should be supported:
1. They foster community and civic engagement. Watch Friday Night Lights.
2. Public school is like family. They have to take you in.
3. There is no guarantee that charter or private schools will be any better than a public school.
3. Some oversight is better than no oversight. Public schools are accountable; private schools are not.
But my primary problem with Betsy De Vos is that she is using her wealth to promote her own personal agenda. (See “Trump Education Pick Plays Hardball with her Wealth,:” Noam Schieber, NYT 1/10/2016). So, get educated. Form an opinion and, if you are concerned that acceptance of Federal funding for a voucher system in your state will seriously undermine your child’s rights to a free, public education, raise your voice in your community and to your legislators.