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Public education’s role in promoting American ideals

Amid all of the Sturm und Drang surrounding the seemingly endless eruptions of right-wing performative politics during the recently ended legislative session, the continuing evisceration of traditional public education through the medium of private school vouchers attracted comparatively little attention. Major revisions to the innocuously named Family Empowerment Scholarship Act that became law in 2019 dropped any pretense that the primary purpose of private school vouchers is to enable deserving students from poor families to escape bad public schools. (“The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by her ZIP code,” they said.)

As things currently stand, the statutory formula for determining who is eligible for private school vouchers automatically increases the number of available vouchers each year, and it contains a demand trigger that raises the maximum family income ceiling, which is now close to $100,000 for a family of four, until every student in Florida will be, at least theoretically, eligible for a voucher. And, astonishingly, voucher recipients no longer need to be leaving public schools for ostensibly greener pastures in the private sector; the state will now subsidize the tuition of students already attending private schools.

The most perplexing aspect of private school vouchers is that they are the work product of Republicans who claim to be conservatives. There are two broad policy justifications for taxing the public to finance education. The first justification is ensuring that a common body of necessary knowledge is imparted to every child able and willing to learn, both for the benefit of the child and for the benefit of society as a whole. All of us who are footing the bill — and everyone is — have skin in the game and the right to demand value for our investment. To that end, there is a uniform curriculum of math courses, English courses, science courses, history courses and more in public schools that is combined with rigorous accountability.

There are no such requirements for private schools receiving tuition checks from the public treasury. The architects of private school vouchers have no interest in whether children who would be reading the Western canon and learning physical science in a public school are instead being taught pig Latin and astrology by uncertified teachers in a private school. (“Trust the parents,” they tell us now.) Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, is adamant that Critical Race Theory not be taught in public schools and that a course extolling American exceptionalism will be, by God. But what about in the private schools that are now feeding at the public trough? Crickets.

It is in the context of the second broad purpose of public education, however, that the conflict between conservative principles and Republican practice is most apparent and most baleful. I refer to public education’s traditional function as an engine of integration and assimilation. While our public schools are de facto segregated by class and caste due to factors such as housing patterns and transportation limitations to a greater extent than we would wish, public education is nevertheless an essential means by which we as a society strive to achieve the end stated on our coinage: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Republicans are, of course, rhetorically committed to unity, but it is a commitment often more honored in the breach than the observance, as their dogged devotion to private school vouchers demonstrates. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together, and anyone who believes parents with private school vouchers in hand will not self-segregate on the basis of race, class, religion, political ideology and culture has not read much history, pays no attention to current events and has given little thought to human nature.

It is not to be expected that a MAGA mother will send her daughter to a private school preferred by progressives, with openly gay faculty members and electives like Neo-Colonialism in America and Feminist Literary Criticism. But she might find a private school sponsored by a predominantly white evangelical church congenial, a sentiment unlikely to be shared by a Black journeyman plumber looking for a private school for his sons. It is in this way that tribalism rather than unity will be funded by the state.

America has historically prided itself on being a melting pot in which a nation of diverse citizens sharing common knowledge and common credal values is constantly being reforged. We have not always lived up to this ideal, but the persistent attempt to do so is the essence of the American experiment, an experiment in which traditional public education has played a vital role, a fact to which Republican pseudo-conservatives are either oblivious or indifferent.

Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.

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