13 Reader Views on Directing Tax Money to Private Schools

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, “Should America go ‘all in’ on public schools, or should parents have the ability to direct the tax dollars that fund their child’s education to the public or private school of their choice?”

Mary is a former teacher who sent her children to public schools, believes in their mission, and now favors school choice. She writes:

I have a master’s in education and even though I stopped working when I had my children, I have given my time for years tutoring reading in a nonprofit after-school program. This opened my eyes wider to what I have always known and am ashamed to say: that public schools are filled with systematic racism! They have held down minorities for decades. Why is it not okay to call out and demand change for a system that has failed our most vulnerable population? People of means are able to move on to better options for their children. We need to give those same options to all children. Would you keep calling the same plumber if he repeatedly didn’t fix your sink? Maybe we ARE all racist if we continue to not demand better for those who can’t afford a change.

Helga wants to go “all in” on public schools:

As a first-generation American whose father’s formal education was derailed by WWII and refugee life during his formative years, I was raised to view my public education as a gift from my country and a unifying force for civilized discourse among the citizenry. Taxpayer-funded private and religious education on a national scale would be Balkanizing.

Working in education today, I see the ill effects of a culture of low expectations, poorly educated instructors who collect “credentials” like Pokémon cards for climbing the pay scale, and students struggling under the weight of unstable home lives. My colleagues are proudly unread and ill-informed. My students have no idea how much they are getting screwed until they attempt college. As a parent, I have seen the positive effects of my student navigating pre-K-through-grade-12 public school and paid five-figure property taxes annually to ensure this exceptional education. My child’s teachers were highly educated and engaged and exposed my student to a wide range of ideas and experiences. The inequality between my work school and home school is staggering. The country would benefit from more equitable funding and support to deliver quality to all. Public funding of religious zealotry posing as education is not the solution for what ails us.

Jessica believes that “parents should have the ability to direct the tax dollars that fund their child’s education to either public or private schools,” but feels torn on the issue and explains why:

I’m 66 years old, the daughter of a primary-school teacher who taught for 30-plus years in the NYC public-school system. She won numerous awards as she always looked for creative ways to engage her students. She was often chosen to teach the class designated as “IGC”—“intellectually gifted,” as it was called back then. She loved those classes because it allowed students (a very diverse group of NYC students back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s) to stretch and succeed. She received innumerable thank-you letters (from students and parents) throughout the years as she pushed her students to work hard, think hard, and reach for tough—and seemingly elusive—goals. Her students went on to win science awards, to win writing contests, and to graduate college, even as they were the first person in their family to do so. Thus: Per my mother’s experience—and my own experience (I taught undergraduates for a part of my career)—I believe wholeheartedly in a rigorous public-school system that pushes students to excellence.

But that’s not what's going on now––and my mother, who was a die-hard, card-carrying, picketing member of her union, would be horrified to see what’s happening.  

To her (and to me), getting rid of honors and AP and gifted classes is a travesty, one that harms all students. My mother was always so impressed with her students—of all backgrounds and races—as she watched them take up the gauntlet of learning. She helped them create better study habits and think creatively and not be hampered by a problem, but rather keep looking for a solution. That last part, to keep students from giving up in the face of a difficulty, is what I think of as her “special sauce.” If public schools continue getting rid of intellectual standards and tests, and ultimately taking away a young person’s opportunity to truly succeed, then I would be perfectly happy to have a strong private-school system supported by my tax dollars. And while I’m NOT a religious person, that goes as well for religious schools that have strong science programs that follow the scientific method. I had many friends when I was younger who went to excellent Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish schools that prepared them well for university.

Of course if you had asked me this question about 10 to 15 years ago, my answer would have been different! The times they are a-changin’, and therefore so are my opinions …

Joshua argues that public schools are a public good and are accountable to taxpayers as well:

Today’s children are tomorrow’s tax base, and we must have a vested collective interest in an educated citizenry. Public education is something we should all care about, and we should work hard to make it function. We should provide flexibility––for example, opportunities for job training as young as 16. We can reimagine public education without giving up on it.

Private (especially religious) schools receiving tax funding without any meaningful access for taxpayers to weigh in on decision making is extremely problematic to me. Some parents and right-wing grassroots movements claim parents have no say in public education, but they do. We have elections for state boards and for local school boards.

Amy attended Catholic school and is similarly skeptical of school choice:

If a private school ever receives public funding, it should only be if it was determined that its learning standards are aligned with the state’s. That would at least make it look good on paper. But what would actually be taught? The private school can say their biology teachers teach evolution, but keep in mind what kind of teachers private schools are going to hire: ones with an interest to teach creationism. Will someone from the state sit in on that biology class and make sure the lessons are taught properly?  

I have no confidence that private schools will teach the state’s learning standards, and here’s why: I am now an (atheist) science teacher in a public school. We have one other teacher in our small, rural high school that teaches Biology, just like me. I have one section and she has four sections. I devote about one quarter of the year to teaching evolution. She doesn’t include it in her curriculum at all, despite the fact that our state (Illinois) mandates that evolution be taught in biology classes. She has told me that it is due to her religious belief.  She can’t teach something that she doesn’t believe is true.  

We have a small district and an administration and school board that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that she has left it out. The state is not coming in to sit in on her classroom, observe her lack of an evolution unit, and hold her accountable. However, I feel pretty confident she is not so bold as to teach creationism in its place, and this is the biggest difference between public and private schools. As public-school teachers, we know where we definitely can’t step, even if we fail to go on the paths we were told to follow.

For the record, I attended Catholic school and was taught evolution. Unlike some faiths, the Catholic Church’s official position is that the theory of evolution is compatible with the Bible.

David describes an approach to school choice that would not involve direct taxpayer funding of religious schools and would incentivize high standards without interfering in private institutions:

Establish state examinations for grades 1–12 that measure achievement in reading, writing, math, history, science, and civics. These examinations should reflect what public-school students are expected to learn. Establish minimum passing scores on these grade-level examinations that are required to be elevated from one grade level to the next. Parents should receive confidential reports of their child’s performance on these examinations. This creates better information for parents to evaluate than a report card.  

Any parent who does not enroll their child in a public school, and whose child takes the examinations for their age, should be awarded a Scholastic Achievement Grant for Education (SAGE) if they obtain the minimum score required for grade-level promotion. This way, parents unhappy with the public-school curriculum can leave instead of wasting their breath and time going to school-board meetings. This will lower the political temperature. And unlike vouchers for private schools, taxpayers have accountability. Those granted SAGEs fulfilled a public purpose, learning what is expected in public school. A SAGE doesn’t have church-state entanglement problems because, unlike vouchers that pay for seat time in private schools, a SAGE pays based on performance on public examinations. The only concern of the taxpayers and the government is did the child learn the required amount expected of public-school students?  

Jessie is a mom of three in Colorado. She tells her family’s story of leaving the public-school system during the pandemic:

My oldest daughter was turning 6 when schools were abruptly shut down. We started school online, which for a working mother of two small kids was a ridiculous joke. I cried the very first day out of stress, fear for my daughter, and anger at the bureaucracy that didn’t look at her social, educational, or emotional needs. Every kid was slumped in a chair on the Zoom call, hardly speaking. Six-year-olds staring at a screen, or not. Our teacher understood the enormity of what was being asked of us parents, and told us it was okay if not everything got done. We gave up one day in April. The teacher, too. We all knew this was a failure. I knew what the rest of the world is only starting to understand: that the kids who posed the smallest risk were punished the most.

On my daughter’s sixth birthday, they had a Zoom dance party for her, and I wept as I watched my daughter dance by herself in front of a laptop “with” her classmates. After May, public schools struggled to decide what to do for the fall. Remote? Online? Hybrid? They had no clue. The lack of leadership and clarity only added stress to a working family. That July, when they STILL didn’t have a plan, I knew it was time to get out.

My husband and I dug into our savings and enrolled our daughter at a small Christian school 10 minutes from our home. This was prior to mandates for young children to wear masks, so she spent her first-grade year maskless in a classroom learning with her friends. At pickup every day, the kids were jubilant, talkative, excited and … KIDS. I teared up with gratitude every day in the pickup line as I saw my daughter chat with other girls playing some hand-slapping game as they waited. My daughter deserved an education, but also a CHILDHOOD. And because of our choice to pull her that year, that’s just what she got.

I started attending public-school-board meetings, initially to protest masks, and learned how horrifically the school system I had graduated from was now failing. For 15 years the system has been in a downward spiral, adding bureaucracy and creating programs that made little progress. I started reading articles about critical race theory, gender theory, and other ideologies that are becoming more mainstream. A friend who was a kindergarten teacher confessed they were teaching 5-year-olds that there were 30 different gender possibilities.

I sat in one public-school-board meeting where a special-assessment group had been contracted to discover why our public schools were failing. They put together a 30-page PowerPoint presentation that basically just showed what we know. Math, science, and reading are all in freefall. They had no solutions. They are failing. There is no resuscitation. In my friend circles, there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of us that have pulled our children from school in the last two years. Some homeschool, some charter, some go private. But we ALL know what America will know soon. The public-school system is broken beyond repair and free-market correction may be its only hope.

Robert casts doubt on the superiority of private and charter schools:

Charter and private schools play a far different game than public schools. Public schools must take all students with very few exceptions. This includes students with significant learning and behavior problems. Charter schools simply avoid these students.

In public schools, a kid has to cause significant harm to others, deal drugs, or bring weapons to school to be totally removed. Charter schools work in the opposite direction. Students that do not deliver a favorable outcome are simply never let in or removed long before high-stakes testing comes around. For those students that win the “lottery” to gain admission, there is a line of students waiting to replace them and schools do an excellent job of identifying those who drive the scores down and eliminate them. Running afoul of the rules can quickly get a student removed for things that would require exhaustive layers of disciplinary and restorative remedies in public school.

It’s maddening, as a public-school teacher whose performance is judged by school test scores, to see charter/private schools gain by excluding poorly performing students who are tossed back into public schools while boasting about their scores compared to public schools. I could literally flip the results of testing by simply observing a public school for a week to see who is habitually truant or has behavioral issues and moving them into a nonpublic school that would have to eat those poor-performing-student numbers.

The critique that charter schools simply avoid difficult students, by declining to admit them or expelling them before tests, is among the most contested areas of the school-choice debate. What is permitted differs by state––in California, for example, the law requires charters to admit all students who want to attend, and to deal with a dearth of space by admitting students via random lottery. In other states researchers have attempted to study whether charters engage in “skimming” and “pushout,” as in this study.

Zachary wants to require people to stay in public schools:

The impoverished are already all in on public schools for lack of a better option, so what we’re really asking is if the well-off should go all in as well. If the well-off do not have to participate in the same public systems the rest of us do, those systems inevitably suffer from neglect and a lack of investment. We should wield selfishness for the public good. If children of the well-off have to attend public school, they have an incentive to make sure those schools are functioning well. If the rich are able to opt out of public education—as they increasingly have in recent years—they have no stake in the quality of their local public education, as it will not directly affect them or their children.

I had to attend special-education classes as a child while my family struggled with finances. I could barely put a sentence together at the age of 5 before I then blossomed and was far past my peers by the second grade. My nephew is going through similar circumstances at the same age, and I hope he blossoms as I did, but quality public education in his district is lacking and his specialized education is minimal—less than what I received over 20 years ago—and the best private schools in his area are explicitly Christian (which presents its own set of issues even if affordability was not a concern). What would become of a child like me in a system where the well-off have opted out of public education? Would they still choose to invest in children like me, or would I be left behind?

Erin advances a related argument:

Inclusion in education is beneficial to students with and without disabilities, as well as the community at large. The cost to provide a free and appropriate public education to all students varies, so schools will set aside larger amounts of money to hire special-education personnel. The problem with letting tax dollars flow to private schools is that private schools have the ability to deny enrollment to students that may “cost more to educate.” Students needing specialized instruction such as dyslexia services may be denied admission, simply because schools may consider it more cost-effective to educate students that are “cheaper” to educate. This is a horrible and discriminatory way to fund education. It will weaken public schools and will hurt students with disabilities.

But Michael’s concern for the marginalized led him to the opposite conclusion:

Public education is sub-par in the U.S. [despite relatively high spending per student compared to most countries]. In many schools it’s positively abysmal. Why should children suffer because they live in an area with terrible schools? Or if they want schools that offer more than the publics do? If we really want equity, then allow minority students the option to go where they will get a good education, not one that might barely pass as one. I daresay that one of the reasons that our schools perform so badly is that they are a monopoly, with the teachers unions as the de facto controlling entity. Competition is a great thing—monopolies have no incentive to improve, but if you lose many of your customers to a better product you will have to do a better job or go under. Why should schools be different?

Glenn points to America’s system of higher education as proof:

Our primary-education system (K–12) is a monopoly full of uniform standards [and] systemic inefficiencies, and [it is] consistently falling further and further behind the global benchmarks for good education. The American collegiate system has always had to compete for its students. In any form of competition there are inevitably winners and losers, and our collegiate system is an unwieldy mix of poorer and well endowed, large and small, public and private, secular and religious, high academic and of more modest standards, on campus and off campus, junior colleges, technical colleges, A&Ms, research institutions, etc.  But it is irrefutable that the collegiate system, after years of competition, is the envy of the rest of the world while our primary system and its educational monopoly falls further behind. The difference can be summed up in one word—competition.    

Last but not least, Adam is taking a wait-and-see approach:

As a high-school student, I think whether or not we go “all in” on public schools depends on their ability to focus on rigorous and comprehensive learning. If the public-school system can demonstrate speedy COVID-learning-loss recovery and prove itself resilient against politicization efforts, and it can realign its priorities for student achievement, then a full investment in public schools is beneficial. However, if quality, learning-centered education cannot be provided, parents have every right to flock to private and/or charter schools, and to support them instead.

Thank you to everyone who wrote in, whether I included your email or not. I read every one. See you later this week.