Florida’s universal school choice law, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed on Monday, will undoubtedly be lumped in with the state’s other controversial education policies.
It’ll be seen as one more salvo from a man who aspires to be America’s culture warrior-in-chief. It’ll be mentioned in the same breath as last year’s Parental Rights in Education Act (the so-called “don’t say gay” bill), this year’s possible expansion of that law, the rejection of a pilot program for an AP African-American Studies course, the repeatedly court-stymied Stop WOKE Act, and, potentially, a new procedure for removing books with sexual content from public classrooms and school libraries in which targeted titles “must be made unavailable to students until the objection is resolved.”
But there’s a crucial difference between this voucher law—which will make all Florida K-12 students eligible to opt out of public school, attend a qualified private or charter school, and take per-child funding of up to $8,000 with them—and those other policies. The rest try to tie Florida’s public schools to right-wing values or, at least, to block left-wing values at the door.
This school choice law doesn’t do that. It’s not an assertion of authority. It’s an escape hatch, and progressives who live in red states might want to get more comfortable with that idea. The longer public schools remain a central culture war battleground, the more they’re going to want an option to escape.
“School choice” wasn’t always anathema on the left. The first states to permit charter schools were the progressive bastions of Minnesota and California. Indeed, “the original vision for charter schools came from Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers,” The New York Times reported in 2014, and was not warmly received by the Reagan administration in 1988.
School vouchers have historically (though not exclusively) been championed by the right and eschewed by the left. The Florida law, for instance, has been slammed by critics as a handout for the wealthy. It’s arguably the opposite: My rough math suggests $8,000 will be less than rich people are paying in school-supporting property taxes—meaning they’re still net payers even if they get the full voucher—and it’s much more than middle and low-income families typically pay—meaning the subsidy here is progressive, taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
Likewise, private education is right-coded in America, but there’s no reason a private school must be religious or conservative in its values and administration.
Waldorf and Quaker schools (like Sidwell Friends, which counts Chelsea Clinton and both Obama daughters among its alumni) are often thoroughly progressive. Elite prep schools like Dalton in New York City are hardly reactionary enclaves.
I understand the progressive arguments in favor of public over private education, but it’s not impossible to design a private (or charter) school which overcomes most of them. Private schools can have union labor and robust DEI programs. They can have admission policies which prioritize historically oppressed and marginalized groups.
They can be nonprofits or worker-owned cooperatives. They can have income-scaled or donor-funded tuition. With vouchers like those DeSantis just approved, they might even be able to run entirely on public funds.
Plenty of non-elite private schools charge tuition of $8,000 a year or less. The national median is $9,873, well below the public per-pupil average spending of $15,621. Schools with an ideological component, like Catholic and other religious schools, tend to be cheapest, and that same dynamic could work for our hypothetical lefty institution.
Moreover, as long as they meet basic state standards and testing requirements, private schools can have whatever curricular and library content they want.
Are you angry that your red state is excising any mention of gay people from the school library? In a private school, your library could exclude any book that doesn’t have a gay character.
Of course, a private or charter school with all those left-friendly features will still be a private or charter school. That is, it still won’t be “publicly funded for the public good,” as journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones put it in 2017, at least not like a regular public school. Unless it grows unusually large, it’ll never have the capacity, as public districts theoretically do, to offer an equal education to every local child.
And with any program that makes it easier for students to leave public schools, especially underperforming schools, the question will remain: Does their escape happen at the expense of the children who stay behind? (The evidence on this is mixed, Chalkbeat reports, but on balance it seems public schools get “slightly better” after vouchers.)
Those are real considerations and, for many, will outweigh the allure of stocking a school library and selecting a sex-ed or U.S. history curriculum without a whit of conservative meddling.
But if we teach beyond basic skills like math and reading—and we do—education is inescapably about the transmission of deep values to the next generation. In public schools, the general public has a say in what those values are, and much of the American public is conservative.
In the long run, average public values will evolve, sure. But your kid’s K-12 years don’t happen in the long run. They happen in 13 years during which the political composition of your town and state will likely stay roughly the same.
If you’re a blue dot in a sea of red, your school district probably won’t reflect your politics any time soon. That’s just reality in a democratic system. The majority isn’t always what you want it to be. Your kid will learn cultural values in school, and if it’s a public school in a district which isn’t uniformly of your own political ilk, your influence over those values will be limited at best.
Maybe that’s an acceptable bargain to you, given all the other reasons one might have for preferring public education. But maybe not. If your chief concern is the values your child is picking up in class and as she browses the library shelves, and if your values aren’t the values of your state or local political leadership, having the option to send your kid to a private or charter school which does align with your thinking is good, actually.
And in Florida, Ron DeSantis just gave progressive families exactly that.
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