Grading the States

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Benefits of Public Education

school childrenThe ability for every child, regardless of race, income, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristic, to obtain a free quality public education is a foundational principle in American society. This principle is based on the belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn to allow an equal chance for achievement and success. When former Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, he observed that education “is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Furthermore, as civil rights activist Hodding Carter III wrote, “The greatest single innovation of this democratic republic has been the idea of the public school.”

While most will not dispute the value of education, some challenge the value of public education. They contend that only through competition will public schools improve, and that private, taxpayer funded options such as religious schools, private schools, and charter schools run by non-profit and for-profit corporations are systemically better than community public schools run by locally elected school boards.

We disagree. Although the public school system is not perfect and has continual room for improvement, it is still the cornerstone of community empowerment and advancement in American society. In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools, and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75%) of private school students attending religious private schools.

As America becomes more diverse, so have its public schools. In 2017, the percentage of White students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools decreased to less than 50 percent (49.5 percent) for the first time since data has been reported. On the other hand, the percentage of Hispanic students has risen from 19 to 25 percent, and the proportion of Asian/Pacific Islander students increased from 4 to 5 percent. While the percentage of students who were Black decreased from 17 to 16 percent and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students remained around 1 percent, students of color now make up the majority of students in the public school system.

Even as the proportion of students of color in our public schools increases, schools are facing a retreat from the mid-1980’s when elementary and secondary schools were at their peak of integration. The privatization of our schools has played a role. We are deeply troubled that charter and private schools are further exacerbating this re-segregation.

Why does all of the above matter? Why is it critical that we support our public schools? The required inclusivity of the public school setting provides more opportunity for students to learn in culturally, racially, and socioeconomically integrated classrooms and schools, and that promotes a variety of social-emotional and civic benefits for students. At a time when there seems to be more emphasis on community divisions in our social and political settings, attending a public school can provide students with more opportunities to encourage relationships and friendships across group lines, thus eliminating false barriers of separation.

And yet our nation has embarked on a troubling course that steers us toward school privatization, exclusivity and division. The present Department of Education under the leadership of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, promotes privatized programs and choice, and has a decidedly hostile view towards the support of students attending public schools. This is occurring even though the Department of Education she oversees was created, “to strengthen the Federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual” and to make sure states afford every student equity of opportunity to a quality education, as declared by Congress in 1979. Indeed, the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who believed that “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal.”

The attack on public education is also an attack on equal opportunity and civil rights. Although privatization advocates claim that private schools advance the quality of education, this is a tenuous argument to make in the face of the reality that too often there is little to no public accountability, fiscal transparency or maintenance of civil rights protections for students in privatized programs. History is replete with battles fought and sacrifices made to protect the civil rights and ensure the equality of opportunity for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability or other immutable characteristics. The proliferation of privatization programs in the states and the redirecting of public resources for the benefit of a small percentage of the student population belies this principle of equality of opportunity for all students. Privatization in public schools weakens our democracy and often sacrifices the rights and opportunities of the majority for the presumed advantage of a small percentage of students.

Purpose of this Report Card

This report examines our nation’s commitment to democracy by assessing the privatization programs in the 50 states and the District of Columbia with the goal of not only highlighting the benefits of a public school education, but comparing the accountability, transparency and civil rights protections offered students in the public school setting versus the private school setting. States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. This is not an assessment of the overall quality of the public education system in the state — rather it is an analysis of the laws that support privatized alternatives to public schools.

This report card, therefore, provides a vital accounting of each state’s democratic commitment to their public school students and their public schools, by holding it accountable for abandoning civil rights protections, transparency, accountability and adequate funding in a quest for “private” alternatives. It is designed to give citizens insight into the extent of privatization and its intended and unintended consequences for our students and our nation.

Executive Summary >

For full footnotes and appendix, please download the full report [PDF].