The other day I was driving down a bumpy city street, fretting about the stress on my car’s shocks. Over the summer, some work had been done on the gas lines, and the road had been unevenly patched. There wasn’t an alternative route — no tunnel, no overpass — but, I wondered, what if there were? We have the Pennsylvania Turnpike, after all. Couldn’t that model be adopted on the local level?
The more I thought about it, the more applicable this logic appeared. If I would rather have Aquafina pumped through my water pipes, shouldn’t I have that option? And if, for whatever reason, I don’t like my local police department, shouldn’t I have an option other than dialing 911?
But it’s in another arena that this line of thinking is more commonly employed. When it comes to education, some argue that the ability to opt out of the public system is practically a right. They seem to ask: “Don’t like the roads you’re driving on? Well, you should be able to choose a road that meets your desires.”
The roots of this reasoning run deep. The tree they anchor, however, is rotten.
In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which declared that separate would never be equal, schools across the state of Virginia closed down rather than integrate. The strategy of massive resistance, as outlined by U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia, was born. Segregation academies — private schools for white and wealthy children — proliferated across the country, including in Lancaster County.
Interestingly, the lower school wing at Lancaster Country Day was completed the same year as the Brown v. Board ruling, and as of 1959, the population at Lancaster Catholic High School had “exploded” (according to the schools’ websites).
Fast forward to the present day, and the mechanisms by which white and wealthy families segregate their children from people of color have grown more sophisticated and, in terms of the language used to describe them, more race-neutral. Today in Pennsylvania we have the educational improvement tax credit program, the opportunity scholarship tax credit program and the proposed lifeline scholarship program. We have “school choice” as promulgated by lobbyists and legislators, who often pitch these programs as helping marginalized students and families.
Contrary to what they would have you believe, extensive research shows that such programs overwhelmingly benefit white and/or wealthy students. Works according to design, as they say.
“White flight is not just from the urban to the suburban,” political theorist Bonnie Honig writes, “it is from the public to the private thing.” School choice, in other words, is state-sanctioned racism. And it always has been.
The first architect of these policies was, to wit, a Southerner: economist James McGill Buchanan (1919-2013), who distrusted democracy because it threatened the power of elites. And he saw no greater breeding ground for that threat than public education, especially a version of it that brought people together across social divisions, like race. Better to keep people fighting among themselves than turning their attention to their shared economic oppression.
Buchanan argued, as educator and writer John Patrick Leary puts it, “that there is no public interest — there are only public choices.” These choices, Leary observes, are defined by two key elements: They are always market-based, and they always conflate the ability to choose with the freedom to choose. That is, even if you don’t have the means to drive on the turnpike, you still have the freedom to do so — never mind that you can’t afford it. Never mind that your choices are constrained by your means.
Choice, in this light, is a cynical ruse, in Leary’s phrase. It hides who suffers from policies like the educational improvement tax credit program, and it shields from blame those whose “public” but antidemocratic “choices” cause harm.
And make no mistake: In diverting public funds to private ends, these polices do harm far more children than they help. They create the conditions to systematically underfund the public schools that educate the vast majority of children, exacerbating social stratification in the process. Then, adding insult to injury, some accuse those same schools of failing. But it isn’t the schools that have failed. We have failed them.
Meanwhile, the burden on local taxpayers to cushion the shortfall increases every year. It’s a heavy price for the public to pay for the choices of a privileged few.
To the degree that our lives are governed by a pay-to-play mentality, and by the tiered systems of access that mentality creates, we have come to see ourselves less as citizens than as consumers in a marketplace. The only public interest is maintaining the power of private interest, exactly as Buchanan envisioned.
But not everything is, or should be, a market. Not every human undertaking is, or should be, about making a profit. Competition is not an unmitigated good, and there are plenty of areas in our lives where cooperation is preferable. I certainly wouldn’t want to drink artisanal spring water if it meant my neighbors’ water was tainted with lead, and I wouldn’t want a boutique police department to respond to my call if it meant that someone else’s house got robbed.
In the end, it’s in everybody’s best interest if the road we all share is well-paved. It’s in everybody’s best interest if we drive it together.
Erik S. Anderson is associate professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College. His most recent book is “Bird” (Bloomsbury).