There are two visions of education vying to define Michigan schools — the voucher vision of state and corporate control and the public vision of local control.
The public vision is familiar. For better and for worse, it’s what we have had in Michigan. Through locally elected officials, the community uses public funds to build a publicly owned and operated institution which offers an education to each child.
The philosophy behind the public vision is that the entire community benefits by providing an excellent education for every child. Today’s graduates will be tomorrow’s community members and we are all better off when folks think critically, have the ability to learn new skills, and appreciate the principles of democracy.
The public vision sees education as a direct function of the community. Education is an obligation which demands more than writing a check or issuing a voucher. This obligation demands direct involvement and oversight. These are our kids and our responsibility. Many communities in Michigan are already living up to this responsibility and providing excellent public education.
Along the way, they are also doing something more. As people come together at school board meetings, athletic events, concerts, plays, and parent groups they are building a sense of community. These small acts of civic engagement may not seem significant, but in aggregate they are what bind our communities together.
All of these events happen because these are public schools — because these are our schools. We are proud of our schools because they are ours, and because they are ours we work hard to make them something to be proud of. This powerful incentive is what makes the public vision work. In the public vision, schools belong to communities and to citizens.
The voucher vision is built on faith in an entirely different incentive. The voucher vision relies on the notion that people and institutions behave only in their own self-interest. The voucher vision sees a future for Michigan education where every child takes a piece of public education funding and shops in a market of cyber and charter schools.
In the voucher vision, communities have no role in education. The institutions providing voucher education are for-profit corporations or non-public entities and are not accountable to the local electorate. Parents and students who get voucher education can only take their vouchers elsewhere if they are displeased. They have no ownership or ability to impact the school because it’s not their school. In the voucher vision, students and parents are mere customers and the rest of the community is cut out altogether.
Proponents of the voucher vision have cleverly masked it with rhetoric about “choice,” “unbundling,” and money “following” children. Voucher vision proponents have uncapped the number of charter schools in Michigan without providing safeguards for quality. Voucher vision proponents tucked an “unbundling” measure into last year’s school aid budget without public debate. Finally, voucher vision proponents engaged in a secret “skunk works” plan to create cheap schools paid for by voucher cards.
But the voucher vision proponents never give evidence their takeovers and markets produce better results. They never articulate how their takeovers will result in a return to local control. They never explain how they expect challenged communities to rebuild themselves around for-profit corporations. And if anecdotal evidence coming out of the EAA and Muskegon Heights, the country’s first fully privatized school district, is to be believed, the “something” they are doing is not working.
Struggling schools need help. But what they need are the resources to build great public schools to serve as the core of their devastated communities.
The voucher vision is a cynical one based on the idea that citizens won’t or can’t work together to build great schools. It depends on markets and experiments to invent new ways to run schools. It reduces us to mere customers and divorces our schools from their communities and the democratic process.
The public vision is a hopeful one based on ownership and community. It hasn’t always been perfect, but it has produced many great schools and, with investment, it can turn around our troubled schools. Between these two visions, the public vision is the only choice. After all, these are our schools, our kids, and our responsibility.
Brett DeGroff is an appellate attorney and member of Okemos Parents for Schools. This column was written with input from multiple members of Okemos Parents for Schools and ran in the Lansing State Journal on February 15, 2014.