The inequality of public education
Predictably, an attempt to put educational choice on the ballot was met with a legal challenge.
The Rogers Foundation filed the lawsuit last week in Carson City District Court, describing the proposed ballot initiative as “a voucher system that harms public schools, promotes discrimination and ignores accountability.” In a statement announcing the lawsuits, Beverly Rogers proclaimed “we support public schools because they serve all students.”
But do they really “serve” all students?
Judging by the racial and socio-economic inequalities in modern education, it’s pretty obvious that this is not the case. Indeed, under our current education system, public schools do engage in their own form of discrimination. It is discrimination based not on religious or ethnic grounds, but rather on zip codes – a method that has resulted in massive economic and racial segregation for much of the student population.
To think that all schools in Clark County, for example, offer equal educational services would be an exercise in gross naivety. While there are undoubtedly excellent classrooms throughout the district, there are also many families who live in neighborhoods with schools that consistently underperform – and because of the way students are assigned to their public schools, a child’s home address is often the primary factor in determining the quality of his or her education.
There are, in other words, vast inequalities within public education – inequalities that leave families who lack the financial resources to access private alternatives, or move to “better” neighborhoods, stuck in a system of economic segregation.
Progressives such as Nikole Hannah-Jones – best known for her work on The 1619 Project — deplored this systematic inequality. She noted that “classism allows wealthy white communities to exclusively fund their own schools, then keep low-income people out through exclusionary zoning and invisible but impenetrable school district boundaries. “.
Of course, this is precisely why “open enrollment” and programs like the Nevada Opportunity Scholarships have long been promoted by advocates of educational choice. Both programs aim to give disadvantaged and low-income students access to the kind of opportunities currently enjoyed only by the most affluent families.
And yet, even these reforms — which pale in comparison to the sweeping choice agenda proposed for the Nevada ballot — have met with relentless opposition from advocates of the traditional public school model. While it may be hard to imagine a world where politicians – many of whom represent disadvantaged communities – oppose the expansion of grants for low-income families, that is precisely what has happened in many times in Nevada. Since its inception in 2015, for example, Nevada’s Opportunity scholarship program has faced constant opposition from Democrats who feared it would affect public school budgets.
Although this specific program does not use taxpayers’ money “for education” (it is funded by tax credits given to companies that donate to scholarship organizations), there are nevertheless some legitimacy to the fear that some districts would see a cut in funding if large swaths of students fled to the private education sector. After all, public school funding is partly determined by student enrollment — so any student exodus would likely impact a district’s bottom line.
However, ways to mitigate this risk must be sought in parallel with providing families with greater opportunities and alternatives – and not used as an excuse to deny such educational mobility in the first place. After all, keeping children in classrooms that do not meet their needs, simply to alleviate the budgetary worries of a bureaucratic system of government, is a coldly unfair education policy. Children are not mere funding mechanisms for our public education apparatus – and treating them as such by denying them the resources to pursue alternatives should be seen as an affront to our shared principles of fairness, equality and compassion.
If we are serious about tackling the racial, socio-economic and cultural inequalities that plague education, it may well require something more than the status quo is willing to provide. Institutional barriers that prevent struggling families from finding classrooms that promise a brighter future for their children will need to be broken down, whether those classrooms are in public, chartered or private institutions.
Last week’s lawsuit was all but inevitable, given the controversial history of education reform here in the Silver State. Indeed, the debate on educational choice is one that only intensifies in the coming years — and as such, it’s completely understandable that many Nevadans share Rogers’ concerns about public school funding and private school admissions policies.
However, it would be a mistake for opponents of the choice to believe that they own the patent on good intentions. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more discriminatory system than the one we currently endure — where a child’s education depends almost entirely on zip code and family income level.
Michael Schaus is a Las Vegas, Nevada-based communications and branding consultant and founder of Schaus Creative LLC – an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses, and activists tell their stories and inspire change. He is the former communications director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of public affairs commentary experience as a columnist, political comedian and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.