"Public funds shouldn't pay for private schools." That's the latest supposedly serious political argument being offering to keep our kids in failing schools, rather than allowing parents school choice. It's lazy and fatuous, and reminds me of an episode from the "Dick Van Dyke Show" of the 1960s.
The show's central character, Rob Petrie, finds a bank account in his wife Laura's name. Confronting her, Rob demands an explanation. All his income, their sole source of funds, goes directly into their joint account. Where did this money come from? Tearfully she explains, she's siphoned it off from the cash she's taken out of the joint account.
In the ensuing dialogue we learn that Laura wants someday to buy Rob a sports car, but wants to pay for it on her own. The money in their joint account is "theirs". By taking that money and leaving it in a bank account held in her name for a period of time, she argues, it stops being "theirs" and become "hers."
This is the mindset that can argue "public funds" shouldn't go to support private schools. "Public funds" is a legal fiction. There's no entity known as "public" out there working hard and earning that money. The only money in public coffers comes from private efforts. The correct way to discuss public school funding - in fact any government funding - is to state emphatically and clearly - private funds pay for it all.
Collecting private monies for public goods, commonly known as taxation, is meant to be an efficient process to pool money and address those general needs, which are best handled at the level of community or nation. It isn't a magical process to transform the origin of money, nor is it meant to be.
Sometimes government is the direct provider of a public good, becoming the employer of legislators; military; police; firemen; teachers. Sometimes government is a middleman, collecting fees and entering into contracts with private companies for services - garbage collection; construction; medical services. Sometimes government guarantees rights or subsidies in order to get a public service provided - phone; cable; utilities; sports teams. The means chosen to dispense the service, whether the government provides it directly or contracts for it or does a little of both, is up to the electorate, or should be.
There is nothing that requires public schools to be the only education sources funded by government, except for a constitutional clause foisted on our state at its inception. Known as a "Blaine Amendment", it is a creation of the late 19th century bigotry, and meant to indoctrinate children into views and values deemed acceptable by politicians.
Long ago we decided education was worth spending large amounts of privately provided tax dollars. We understood that a strong society is based on a well-educated populace. For years public schools systems, some with the barest of resources, performed this laudable goal admirably. However, this has changed.
No longer are the vast majority of children in this country well served by our public schools. Today even public school advocates are hard pressed to pretend a simple majority is. Our goal must be getting all, not merely some children a good education.
In the name of public education we hire private companies to build schools. We purchase privately produced school textbooks and supplies. We pay private firms to develop specialized programs and educational analysis. We hire private individuals to work as public school teachers. What's so outrageous about some of the millions of privately provided tax dollars, earmarked for education, going to private educators? What's so outlandish about parents having a say about which school their children attend?
Our country has thrived because, when the old way of doing things no longer worked, we tried something new. It is time to be innovative. It is time to choose education sources based on efficiency and efficacy, not cronyism and political clout. It is time to demand school choice. Don't let simplistic arguments based on wisdom articulated in a 1960s sitcom fool you into thinking otherwise.
Joann Pantages is an occasional Compass contributor. She lives in Anchorage.
By JOANN PANTAGES