The Goal of Abolishing Public Education Dates Back Decades–And It's Now Within Reach

The election of Donald J. Trump as president offers the best opportunity in decades to shrink the size and power of government and increase individual liberty. 

So writes the Heartland Institute, a libertarian "think tank," on a page devoted to all the Trumpian actions they approve of. Heartland was founded in 1984 by David H. Padden, a Chicago investor who had also been a director of the CATO Institute. They've advocated for fracking, stood up for tobacco companies, and advocate tireless for global warming denial. Plenty of related industries have been generous in supporting them, though they like to keep their money dark

So it will come as no surprise that fifteen years ago they were laying out the program by which vouchers could be used to privatize education. Joseph Bast, then Heartland's CEO, predicted that 2002 would be a "turning point in the decades-long battle to restore parental rights and a competitive education industry in the US." This did not turn out to be particularly prescient, but many of his thoughts about the shape of the battle are a bit more disturbing and, fifteen years later, familiar.

Bast hoped that Supreme Court's upholding of a school voucher program in Cleveland, allowing tax dollars to pay for tuition at private religious schools, would open the voucher floodgates, and to some extent that has been true in Ohio. But mostly Bast was clear and blunt about the goals of voucher advocates. The second section of the article kicks off under the heading "The Privatization Opportunity."

Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise. Other major industries have moved from the government sector to the private sector in recent years, including airports, hospitals, ports and harbors, railroads, water works, and even (as Berkowitz noted) the administration of welfare programs. 

Bast expresses a childlike faith in the magic of the marketplace. "Privatization is so effective it typically costs a private firm half as much as the government to produce a product or service of similar (often superior) quality." It's a cute notion, for which he offers zero evidence. What was clear even in 2002, but what Bast never acknowledges, is that privatization allows private operators to hoover up a big pile of tax dollars that would otherwise have gone to the public sector. But Bast belonged to the Cult of Competition, believing that competing schools would reward schools that please parents, stimulate parent involvement, be more efficient, and penalize failure. None of these things are related to the goal of providing a high quality education for every single child in America, but then, that's not his goal.

Bast had some clever (if not reality-based) ideas about how vouchers would satisfy many reformy constituencies. For instance, by setting voucher amounts below current per-students spending levels, vouchers would lessen the taxpayer cost. Because, I guess, the private schools would accept the low voucher amount. Because when I tell the dealer that I can't afford a Porsche, he just says, "Well, then, I'll just lower the price to what you would like to pay." Because that's how free market competition works.

Bast thought that vouchers would end the standards debate. Voucher schools would just give a standards based test and report the results to the community, Actual charter and voucher schools figured out really quickly that they liked the idea of not being held responsible for such test results. So he missed that call.

His big vision?

Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will not longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization. Vouchers could remain to help the truly needy.

Use the poor to get vouchers started. Shut down public education entirely.  Let the wealthy go back to their exclusive top-tier schools, and set up some cheap ones for everyone else. Boom. No public education, and no forcing taxpayers to pay a bunch of money to educate other people's children.

Worried about government money being followed by government regulations? Not a problem. Since we're subsidizing parents and not schools, the new private school system can operate under whatever rules it likes, as long as it keeps enough parents happy to keep making money. Just make parents happy. Racist parents. Flat Earth parents. Parents who don't want their children to go to school with Those Kinds of Students. Bast, like most voucher fans (including Betsy DeVos) gives no thought to what happens to parents of students who are expensive to educate.

You might think that ultra libertarians might object to vouchers as a new entitlement. But vouchers are fair because they will be "relieving parents of an unjust financial burden": paying to educate other peoples' children. Bast frames education as a service to parents; it is not clear whether he thinks non-parental taxpayers have any obligation to pay for any school at all.

He does raise one "worry" that seems odd from our vantage point, saying that some conservatives are worried that a growing secular education market might squeeze religious schools and homeschoolers. We now know that's crazy talk, since vouchers can be handled in a way that allows religious and even home schoolers to cash in as well. But Bast's justification is one more statement of the voucher movement's priority:

While we can respect their beliefs, the fate of individual schools or schools of a particular type ought to be of less concern than the rights of parents and the education of children. Schools, after, all, exist for the sake of children and not vice versa. 

Quality of education and the provision of education for all young future citizens is not a priorityall that matters is that parents get a choice. And his supporting choice is a false one. Schools do not exist merely to serve students, but to serve the country and society as a whole. But the Heartland Institute, in fine Ayn Randian tradition, doesn't believe in any obligation to society as a whole. As long as you're getting yours, why should you have to help anyone else get theirs?

Bast believed that we were at a tipping point in 2002, with vast support for vouchers poised to make them reality. As it turns out, his enthusiasm was overstated, a fact that he came to understand himself. Here he is quoted on the subject in a New York Times piece from just one year ago:

Complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now...

But the Times actually cut that quote short. The rest of the sentence reads: and would put us on the path to further privatization.

That quote goes back almost a decadeThe folks at Heartland are patient, and they have something now that they haven't had for fifteen years: a Secretary of Education who has supported their group financially, and who is deeply in tune with their goals.

If you take nothing else from this piece, remember this. For many of the most ardent privatization advocates, school vouchers are not a destination, but just a stop-gap, something that will have to do until they can finally move on their real goal: the complete dismantling of public education in this country, replaced with a loose system of unaccountable, unregulated private schools. That fully privatized system, not a voucher system, is the goal. Keep your eye on the ball.

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