Tag Archives: public education

Voucher Programs and the Constitutional Ethic

with Cullen Merritt

ABSTRACT

America’s public schools have not been exempt from the enthusiasm for “privatization” and contracting-out that has characterized government innovations over at least the past quarter century. A number of the issues raised by school voucher programs and to a lesser extent charter schools mirror the management and efficacy questions raised by privatization generally; however, because public education is often said to be “constitutive of the public,” using tax dollars to send the nation’s children to private schools implicates the distinctive role of public education in a democratic society in ways that more traditional contracting arrangements do not. We explore the unique role of primary and secondary public schools in forging a broad consensus about the nature and importance of America’s constitutional ethic, and growing concerns that vouchers, in particular, are failing to address, let alone facilitate, an ethic of citizenship.

INTRODUCTION

Concerns about failing schools, especially in America’s poor urban neighborhoods, have triggered a number of reform efforts, including voucher programs in which government agencies issue certificates to parents who use them to enroll their children in a participating school of the parent’s choice. Schools are paid a predetermined amount for each voucher received (Levin 2001). The vouchers are used at private schools, the majority of which are religiously affiliated. In most programs, vouchers are awarded through a lottery system, in which eligible students—usually but not always determined on the basis of socioeconomic status—are pooled and recipients are chosen at random (Peterson et al. 1998).

Proponents argue that vouchers create a market-based educational system in which schools must compete for students, a process they believe incentivizes innovation and positive academic outcomes. (Levin and Belfield 2005). That belief is based upon economic models of supply and demand in which markets have been shown to benefit consumers; it ignores, however, both the civic mission of public education and the other ways in which education differs from ordinary consumer goods.

Voucher programs have generated acrimonious policy debates as well as a number of lawsuits. The debates are largely between those who believe that education is basically another variety of consumer good, in this case a set of skills preparing young people to enter the job market, and those who argue that education is also an important public good (Carnoy et al. 2003), and that private schools, particularly religious ones, are ill-equipped to fulfill education’s public mission.

TRANSMITTING THE CONSTITUTIONAL ETHIC

The civic mission of public schools includes, at a minimum, the teaching of America’s history and the transmittal of the country’s core constitutional values. Those values guide appropriate individual participation in a democratic polity; even more importantly, a sound and accurate civics education provides students with an understanding of the genesis and evolution of the rules that shape and constrain public service in the United States, and provide a standard against which to measure the performance of public officials and the bona fides of those who ask for their votes.  At its best, civics education transmits the philosophical premises which undergird the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, premises which require allegiance to a particular code of conduct for citizens and public servants alike. That code defines the public good as essentially secular and rights-driven, and situates public service in a world that is increasingly multi-sectoral, multi-cultural, and international in scope.  (Kennedy & Schultz, 2010) The public mission of the schools thus requires them to teach students about this country’s approach to and experience with the principles of democratic self-governance–what Kennedy and Schultz have called the Constitutional Ethic.

The politics of liberal democracies is the politics of faction, as Madison clearly understood. Individuals have economic interests, social goals, and political and religious beliefs that are affected by public policies and that motivate political behavior. When they lack a common understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of America’s approach to governance and fail to form an ethical commitment to those common undertakings, a diverse polity inevitably fragments into tribal components contending for power and influence.  One of the concerns voiced by voucher program opponents is the participation in such programs of religious schools grounded in a wide variety of beliefs that conflict with important constitutional principles. Many of these schools teach students that the First Amendment does not require separation of church and state, and that biblical commands (for example, that women should be submissive and homosexual citizens shunned) take precedence in the public arena over jurisprudence confirming the constitutionality of very different civic imperatives. Opponents of voucher programs also point out that the racial segregation that has re-emerged as a result of some voucher programs (Witte 2000) is both socially undesirable and violative of America’s Constitutional Ethic.

During the 2013-14 academic year, ten percent of students in grades K-12 attended private schools, and those private schools comprised twenty-five percent of all schools within the United States (U.S. Dept. of Education). Just under eleven percent of these private schools, however, are nonsectarian; the remainder are religious. Catholic schools account for just over fifty-four percent of the nation’s parochial schools (U.S. Dep’t of Education). A growing but indeterminate number are fundamentalist Protestant schools that are reportedly teaching creationism, asserting a Christian biblical foundation for the U.S. Constitution, portraying evolution as an evil doctrine and using textbooks published by religious organizations that scholars criticize as wildly inaccurate. (https://www.sheilakennedy.net/2017/10/footing-the-bill-for-proselytizing/) In most voucher programs, parents can choose to enroll their children in any of them.

Challenges to the constitutionality of providing government funding to religious schools were resolved, albeit not without criticism from legal scholars, when the Supreme Court decided Zellman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. Then- Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that financial assistance via vouchers should not be considered a subsidy to religious schools, because the voucher is provided to individuals, allowing them to “exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious,” (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), 663). According to Rehnquist, the fiction that the vouchers go to the parents (in most states, the parent chooses the school to which the voucher is sent, but is never actually given possession of the voucher) “the circuit between government and religion was broken, and the Establishment clause was not implicated.” Similar reasoning has doomed challenges brought under state laws prohibiting the use of public funds for parochial or other religious institutions. See e.g., Anderson v. Town of Durham, 2006; Meredith v. Pence, 984 N.E.2d 1213 (Ind. 2013), 1217).

Research studies evaluating outcomes of the various voucher programs now in effect have focused upon academic achievement, the consequences of diverting education funds from public schools in order to support private and religious ones, and a variety of social equity issues including the racial and socio-economic identitites of voucher recipients. (CITATIONS) There has been little to no research investigating the impact of voucher programs on civic knowledge and cohesion, or any effort to measure their effect on the transmittal of the constitutional ethic.

 

A MODEST PROPOSAL

Given existing case law, it is unlikely that voucher programs will be ruled unconstitutional or otherwise illegal, and despite the growing number of negative evaluations of their academic outcomes, such programs continue to enjoy considerable political support. Assuming that private and religious schools will continue educating approximately ten percent of the American school-age population for the foreseeable future, lawmakers should, at a minimum, condition receipt of government funding on the schools’ obligation to fulfill the civic mission we expect public schools to fulfill. At present, however, there is no generally accepted understanding of the nature or importance of that civic mission, and no standards or procedures for assessing whether individual schools are creating knowledgable, responsible American citizens familiar with and prepared to observe the constitutional ethic.

In the following two sections, we supplement our definition of the Constitutional Ethic and suggest how government might ensure compliance with a requirement that it be taught.

The Constitutional Ethic

The U.S. Constitution is the basis of America’s legal system and civic culture; as it has operated over the years, it has shaped a distinctive value system, a framework within which Americans make public policy and operate our common institutions. Elected and appointed officials take an oath to uphold that constitutional system, an oath that implicitly obliges them to understand its most basic and important characteristics. Both citizens and policymakers need to know not just that the U.S. has a government of checks and balances, but why the system was constructed that way.

At its most basic, adherence to the Constitutional Ethic requires that American citizens, especially but not exclusively public officials and others in positions of authority, act in ways that are consistent with the basic premises of the country’s governing systems, and avoid acting in ways that would undermine them. For example, respect for due process   guarantees would seem to rule out drone strikes on persons–especially but not exclusively Americans–who have not been afforded legal process to determine guilt or innocence. Respect for government’s obligation to treat citizens equally would seem to rule out efforts to marginalize members of minorities, or refuse them access to the institutional benefits enjoyed by other citizens. Respect for the right to vote, one of American citizens’ most fundamental rights, imposes an ethical obligation to refrain from vote suppression tactics or other partisan “dirty tricks.” Respect for the principle of free speech, protected by the First Amendment, imposes an ethical obligation to refrain from attempts to censor ideas of which some people disapprove.

Maintaining the integrity of a constitutional system requires broad citizenship education and civic participation consistent with the values of that system. As Keith Whittington has argued, leaving constitutional compliance to the courts is both empirically and normatively problematic. (Whittington, The Good Society pg. 60) Constitutional rules give rise to conventions, norms and customs that should guide American political behavior. As Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Foundation has written, increasing young people’s “informed engagement” in our national life requires school-based civic education. “After all, understanding and actively participating in our civic life was one of the principal missions given to American schools from the very beginning.” (https://www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/85/8b/858b7e5d-c538-42e2-ae78-24471dce73d7/ccny_creview_2011_civic.pdf )

Regulatory and Monitoring Proposals

The nature and extent of state oversight is a key, and often contentious, consideration when states enact voucher programs.  Typically, private schools participating in voucher programs must comply with regulations regarding health and safety, but requirements for compliance with other standards, such as teaching certification, curriculum, accreditation, anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, number of school days, and recordkeeping and reporting vary by state.  No voucher program of which we are aware imposes standards for civics education on participating schools. Because the civic mission of the nation’s schools is so fundamental to the continued operation of American democratic institutions, we propose that inclusion of a robust civics education curriculum be a condition of voucher program participation.

Ideally, private schools accepting vouchers would integrate curriculum content from the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Program within their curricula.  Developed in 1987, the We the People education program is administered by the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education program; it was adopted by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution as the principal education program of the federal Constitution’s bicentennial.  The curriculum promotes civic competence and responsibility among elementary, middle, and high school students through “an innovative course of instruction in the history and principles of the U.S. constitutional democracy.”  Through the curriculum, students gain insight into (1) the philosophical and historical foundation of the American political system, (2) how the framers created the Constitution, (3) how the Constitution has evolved to further the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, (4) how the values and principles embodied in the Constitution shaped American institutions and practices, (5) the rights protected by the Bill of Rights, and (6) the challenges the American constitutional democracy may face in the twenty-first century.

Multiple studies have found that students who have participated in the We the People program score significantly higher on tests of civic knowledge compared to their peers, especially in the areas of understanding and respect for the rule of law, political attentiveness, civic duty, community involvement, and commitment to government service, among others (e.g., Leming 1996; Owen and Schroeder 2017; Owen Schroeder, and Riddle 2016; Owen 2015a; Owen 2015b).  Participating voucher schools in states electing not to adopt the We the People curriculum would be allowed to develop their own civics education curricula, or to select another existing program, subject to evaluation and approval by the state’s board of education.

It is one thing to require that schools participating in state voucher programs provide adequate and accurate civics education, assuming that such a requirement is  politically feasible. Ensuring that the schools comply with that requirement is another, especially since many states have exhibited a startling laxity in monitoring compliance even with basic health and safety requirements. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/education/os-florida-school-voucher-investigation-1018-htmlstory.html

At a minimum, private schools participating in voucher programs should be required to demonstrate compliance with applicable civics education regulations by maintaining  records documenting class participation in the civics curriculum in applicable grade levels on a yearly basis.  Schools should also report student performance in civics-related courses.

CONCLUSION

Acceptance of a voucher by a private school should be subject to that school’s compliance with certain basic requirements. At a minimum, school buildings should meet relevant code requirements and fire safety standards; teachers should be able to offer evidence that they are equipped to teach their subject matter; and the school should both teach and model foundational constitutional values and behaviors. Ideally, schools receiving public funds should not be permitted to discriminate on the basis of race,  disability or sexual orientation (religious schools have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of religion in certain situations, although they do not have a right to do so on the taxpayer’s dime) and should be required to afford both students and staff at least a minimum of due process. At present, we are unaware of any voucher program that requires these commitments.

A long line of political theorists have described citizenship as a process of sharing, of forming community around basic values and ethical principles held in common. There are few public issues that do not presuppose a civic understanding of, and broad agreement with, a common purpose, a shared vision of the public good. A constant tension between the public or common good and a commitment to individual rights is a truism of Constitutional law and political debate, and an exploration of that tension should be an explicit part of any civics curriculum.

A quotation from Stephen Macedo is relevant to this issue of teaching the Constitutional Ethic:

Talk of diversity and difference too often proceeds without taking adequate account of the degree of moral convergence it takes to sustain a constitutional order that is liberal, democratic, and characterized by widespread bonds of civic friendship and cooperation.” (Macedo, 2000, 2)

Voucher proponents define the public purpose to be served by education solely as the achievement of a level of academic competence sufficient to sustain economic growth and make America competitive in the global marketplace. We quarrel with this definition. We argue that schools funded by tax dollars, whether public or private, should be contractually obligated to foster the Constitutional Ethic, and that the public good requires more than the transmittal of literacy and technical knowledge sufficient to support economic growth and individual self-sufficiency. It also requires the creation and perpetuation of a political community steeped in the Constitutional Ethic and prepared to contribute to the process of creating unum from our pluribus.

 

 

 

Two Countries, Both American

There’s an important new book by Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, titled The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy.  It paints a depressing  portrait of America and the evaporation of what used to be a healthy middle class.

His assertion: America is no longer a single country. Instead, we are two separate nations, and those nations have dramatically different resources, expectations and fates. As a post to the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking put it,

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

According to Temin, the two sectors have entirely distinct financial systems, residential options and educational opportunities, and their inhabitants have very different experiences when they get sick or interact with the law.

Worst of all, those in the low-wage sector have no way out. American social/economic mobility may have been real once, but it is a myth today.

A review of the book in the Atlantic was titled “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost Twenty Years with Almost Nothing Going Wrong.”  The reviewer cites Temin’s assertion that racism, abetted by deliberate policy choices, produced these separate nations:

The upper class of FTE workers, who make up just one-fifth of the population, has strategically pushed for policies—such as relatively low minimum wages and business-friendly deregulation—to bolster the economic success of some groups and not others, largely along racial lines. “The choices made in the United States include keeping the low-wage sector quiet by mass incarceration, housing segregation and disenfranchisement.”…

Many cities, which house a disproportionate portion of the black (and increasingly, Latino) population, lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities. Temin argues that these impediments exist by design.

The book does offer a way out– suggestions for remedying the hopelessness of those trapped in low-income America.

He offers five proposals that he says might help the country return to more equal footing. Some are fairly clear levers that many before him have recommending pulling: expanding access to and improving public education (particularly early education), repairing infrastructure, investing less in programs like prisons that oppress poor minorities, and increasing funding for those that can help build social capital and increase economic mobility. But other suggestions of his are more ambitious and involve fundamentally changing the cultural beliefs that have been reinforced over generations. Temin advocates doing away with the belief that private agencies can act in the interest of all citizens in the way that public entities can, and should. His final recommendation is to address systemic racism by reviving the spirit of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s and 1970s, when civil-rights legislation helped to desegregate schools and give black Americans more political and economic power.

I agree that changing the culture is imperative; but it is also an incredibly slow and difficult process.

If someone knows how, I hope they’ll share….

That Social Safety Net

It may be time to re-conceptualize the social safety net.

Most of the people who refer to a social safety net use the term as shorthand for a variety of so-called “welfare” programs, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to TANF and other income-support measures. Defining the social safety net in that way—and focusing, as so many Republican political figures do, on support for needy Americans—facilitates criticisms of measures intended to help the poor.

After all, the comfortable ask, why should the prudent and solvent among us have our hard-earned monies taxed to support “those people”?

It’s easy to see the persistent attacks on income-supports for disadvantaged folks as both dishonest and mean-spirited, and most efforts to rebut them tend to revolve around the realities of social supports: the percentages of recipients who are children, elderly and/or disabled, the overwhelming numbers of impoverished Americans who work forty or more hours a week, etc.

We may be missing the forest for the trees.

A “social safety net,” properly conceived, is the web of institutions and services that benefit all members of a given society while building bonds of community and cross-cultural connection. In this broader understanding, the safety net includes public education, public parks, public transportation and other services and amenities available to and used by citizens of all backgrounds and income categories.

Public education is a prime example. Even granting the challenges—the disproportionate resources available to schools serving richer and poorer neighborhoods, the barriers to learning created by poverty—public schools at their best integrate children from different backgrounds and give poor children tools to escape poverty. Public schools, as Benjamin Barber has written, are constitutive of a public.

Common schools create common cultures, and it is hard to escape the suspicion that attacks on public education have been at least partially motivated by that reality. While supporters of charter schools and voucher programs have promoted them as ways of allowing poor children to escape failing schools, the data suggests that most children—including poor children—are better served by schools that remain part of America’s real social safety net.

This point was recently underscored by Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the Texas Board of Education—a board not noted for progressive understandings of the role of education. After setting out the comparative data about costs and outcomes achieved by traditional public schools in Texas and those operating via various “privatization” programs, he concluded

When you hear the unending and unsubstantiated rhetoric about “failing public schools” from those that support vouchers or other “competitive” school models, it is important to have the facts. ISDs aren’t perfect, but they graduate more kids, keep more kids from dropping out and get more kids career and college ready than their politically connected competitors. Any claims to the contrary just simply are not supported by the facts and at the end of the day facts matter because these lives matter.

Recognition that “these lives matter” is the hallmark of a society with a capacious understanding of citizenship—both in the sense of who counts as a citizen, and what constitutes the mutual obligations of citizens to one another.

The actual social safety net is not limited to the (grudging and inadequate) financial assistance given to the most disadvantaged in our society. The true safety net consists of the many institutionalized avenues within which the citizens of a nation encounter each other as civic equals, and benefit from membership in a society built upon the recognition that all their lives matter.

Defining the social safety net that way allows us to see that the portion of our taxes used to assist needy fellow-citizens isn’t “forced charity.” It’s our membership dues.

 

 

Market Economy versus Market Society

A recent opinion column from the Lafayette Journal-Gazette caught my eye. Written by Ed Eiler, a former school superintendent, it began

Three recent newsworthy items deserve our attention. The first is a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which concluded rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

The second is a report issued by the Indiana Department of Education that calculated the net increased cost for the state’s education voucher program to be $53.2 million. Some 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

The final report is one completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressing educational reform. The report acknowledges there are no silver bullets and the present efforts at reform have failed. The report recognizes the importance of having all stakeholders be a part of the process of improving our schools.

Why does any of this matter? All of these reports can be tied to the effort to privatize education.

Eiler then references a book by Michael Sandel, who makes an important distinction between markets that deal with material goods, which he finds “valuable and productive” and markets operating  in areas where they do not belong, in our civic lives.

Should educational opportunities be made available based upon the ability to pay? Should we pay children to read books or get good grades? Should people receive health care on the basis of their ability to pay? Should access to politicians and the political system be governed by those who have more money? Should legal representation be affected by one’s financial circumstances? Should you be able to pay someone else to take your place in serving your country? Should citizenship be for sale?

Sandel asserts markets may in fact undermine or crowd out non-market attitudes and values worth caring about and change the character of some goods and social practices. He writes that the most corrosive effect of markets is the loss of our commonality – “we’re all in it together.”

This argument underscores what I have sometimes called a “category mistake.” I’ve previously written that our misguided and unsuccessful drug war is a consequence of placing drug abuse in the category of criminal justice rather than public health. Similarly, too many school reform efforts categorize education as another consumer good, rather than a public necessity.

Of course we all want our children to receive educations that will enable them to compete for jobs and status, just as we all want university graduates to find gainful employment. But the purpose of education goes far beyond those “consumer” goals. Genuine education is not job training; it both enriches the lives of recipients (a market good) and creates good citizens (a social good). As political scientist Benjamin Barber has written, public education is constitutive of a public.

So long as we think of education as a consumer good, a “product” we purchase for our children, we will continue to have affluent families segregate themselves from poorer communities, and we will continue to exacerbate inequality.

Public education is–and must be categorized as–a public good. And an exceptionally important one. Properly understood, it is not something that private markets can provide.

Self-Interest Properly Understood–and Taxes

Since at least the late 1980s, policy disputes in the United States have largely revolved around the actual and perceived deficiencies of government. It has been an article of faith among self-styled fiscal conservatives that wasteful state and federal governments are imposing excessive and unnecessary tax burdens on the American public.

Engaging in this line of argumentation is particularly  appealing to candidates for public office, since it plays to widespread resentment of the obligation to pay taxes while avoiding the pesky need to identify specific instances of the “fraud and waste” that are widely supposed to exist.

There are certainly situations where tax dollars are misspent. Most of those situations involve poor management practices, since voters tend to base their support for political candidates on ideology rather than perceived managerial competence. But more often than not, assertions of “waste” are based upon disagreement with something that government is doing–a belief that services being provided or programs being supported are unnecessary (especially when such services or programs are primarily seen to benefit others).

What government should do, and how it should fund what it does, are persistent and entirely legitimate issues. The problem is, too many of us have imbibed the Kool-aid; we want the services, we want to live in thriving communities with a good quality of life, but we don’t want to pay for the services and amenities necessary to produce that quality of life.

Worse, we frequently don’t recognize the ways in which we benefit even from government programs and services we don’t personally use. A couple of examples:

When voters are asked to support bond issues or tax increases for public education, people who do not have children in the system (usually a majority of those voting) often oppose the measures, because they see no personal benefit, no immediate “return on investment.” What they fail to recognize is that the quality of local public education systems affects their property values, enhances (or diminishes) job creation efforts, and makes their communities safer and more attractive. In the long run, good schools are in their personal self-interest.

Similar metrics apply to taxes for public transportation. Even people who will never use transit benefit personally from public transportation systems that reduce congestion, improve air quality, connect low-income workers to their places of employment, and improve mobility for the elderly and disabled.

Even people who care only about minimizing their personal tax burden will ultimately benefit, because long-term, the ability to hold down tax rates  (especially here in Indiana, where constitutionally-imposed tax caps severely restrict municipal governments’ revenue options) will depend upon a city’s ability to grow its tax base–its ability to entice people to move in, buy homes and start businesses. Cities that successfully market themselves do so based upon quality of life measures–good schools, well-maintained parks, excellent public transportation.

Often, sound investments take time to generate returns. That’s particularly true of investments in our communities.

Sometimes, “self-interest properly understood” (as De Tocqueville noted many years ago) is the opposite of immediate gratification. That doesn’t mean the investments aren’t necessary and worthwhile.