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Bad Apples

The Republican Plan To Devastate Public Education in America

Conservatives talk about “school choice.” What they really want, though, will result in the end of public education for the poor, and disfavored minorities like LGBT people.

A student looks at learning material featuring sharks.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
A student participates in a lesson in his classroom at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on September 27, 2021 in New York City.

Republicans, and white conservatives, have long been hostile to public schools. School desegregation drove white evangelicals to become the strongest Republican demographic. Ronald Reagan promised to end the Department of Education in 1980. Trump put Betsy DeVos in charge of the Department of Education, precisely because she was a leading proponent (and funder) of defunding public schools, and funneling it to religious schools. During her confirmation hearings it became clear that she knew nothing about education, and provided plagiarized and laughably bad answers to questions, asserting that teachers need guns to ward off grizzly bear attacks.

Republican candidates talk about “school choice” and putting God and prayer back in schools. What they really want, though, will result in the end of public education for the poor, and disfavored minorities like LGBT people.

Their plan looks like this: Parents are given a voucher for several thousand dollars that comes out of the state education budget. The money can be spent on tuition for charter or private schools, microschools (collective homeschooling), or regular homeschooling. Republicans say the “money goes to the kids.” In reality, it reduces money going to public schools to a point where the schools will be dramatically underfunded.

Conservative states such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas have been particularly aggressive in “school choice” reform that undercuts school funding. Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate (and insurrectionist Christian nationalist) Doug Mastriano goes a step further. His educational plan is to eliminate property taxes, which is where half of the money for Pennsylvania schools comes from, and replace the lost revenue with vouchers for $9,000. This covers only half of what it costs to educate a student there.

Cutting public education spending by more than half would destroy public schools for millions of students. Unlike private religious schools, they must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other state and federal regulations, creating overhead. Drastic reductions in educational quality would be necessary to continue meeting even the most basic requirements, going far beyond eliminating art, music, PE, and school counselors.

In most cases, public schools would be forced to rely heavily on “cyberlearning,” where a child is handed a tablet and watches educational videos and learning programs, receiving little if any actual instructional time. Teacher pay and requirements would be dramatically reduced, to the point where anyone who passes a background check and can hand out tablets in the morning for minimum wage is eligible. There is already a desperate shortage of teachers in the United States, and drastic cuts to educational spending guarantees more unqualified people in classrooms.

Unfortunately, using vouchers for private schools is not viable for most people either. The dollar value of the vouchers is several thousand less than what most charter schools or private (usually religious) schools charge. In Arizona, even advocates of the school voucher program (also called Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs) admit that they cover only about two-thirds of tuition at most private schools, leaving parents responsible for thousands of dollars in costs out of pocket.

Florida’s history with vouchers shows us where this leads: poorer students promised a better education end up in low-cost, low-quality charter schools in abandoned strip malls that go out of business with little or no warning, with devastating results for the students. Republicans across the country have ensured that there is little to no oversight of charter schools, and that they do not have to meet many state education regulations. This is ostensibly to foster “innovation,” but in reality it is to make them more profitable, and conceal how shoddy many of them are. In Ohio, as Jane Mayer reported in her gripping new article about the destruction right-wing Republicans have wrought in that state, after a decade of GOP operatives siphoning off public school funding and directing it toward politically connected charter schools, state education rankings have slipped from fifth in the nation to 31st.

The result is tremendous variance in the quality of charter schools, mostly reflecting how much funding they have. “Allowing the market to decide” hasn’t created a rising tide that lifts all boats; students with less money get a worse education, and charter schools don’t seem to produce better results overall. You get out of a system what you put into it, and Republicans want to put as little as possible into education.

Oversight for homeschooling and microschools is even worse. There is no way to guarantee that ESA money is spent on real educational expenses, rather than being pocketed for other expenses. There are no standards or requirements for homeschooling. There are no home visits to homeschools or microschools to see if they are teaching what they are supposed to. Opting out of standardized testing is usually easy; all you have to do is find someone with a teaching certificate in the state to sign off on a form stating that a child is performing at grade level. This makes it simple to cover up malfeasance, abuse, fraud, and neglect.

Private religious schools are in many ways worse. Many of them were founded by segregationists in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and remain nearly all-white (and racist) today. There’s very little government oversight of religious schools, leading to opportunities for graft and abuse. They do not have to comply with the ADA or Title IX, leading to discrimination (but higher test scores overall, since poorer children and students with special needs are generally excluded). Nor do they have to comply with state civil rights laws protecting LGBT students, or even students with LGBT parents, relatives, or friends.

Similarly, these schools can function as outlets for religious and political indoctrination: teaching that the earth is 6,000 years old, or promoting the anti-historical jingoistic nonsense contained in The 1776 Report. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk has started a network of anti-“woke” Turning Point Academies in Arizona, with plans to expand nationally. The first school has around 600 students and will open in Glendale this fall, thanks to a partnership between Kirk and Phoenix megachurch Dream City.

If the above strategies are spread nationwide, the only way for a poor parents to give their children a decent education would require taking out loans, or send them to private schools operating as indoctrination camps. The Supreme Court is doing its part, ruling in Carson v. Makin that state laws cannot bar religious schools from public funds.

Additionally, Texas plans to challenge the Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which required that states make public education available to every student. Governor Greg Abbott’s challenge is based on the premise that the state has no obligation to educate students who are not U.S. citizens, but the impact could be much broader. The Supreme Court’s rulings (particularly Dobbs v. Jackson) have shown that it does not have a problem with issuing sweeping rulings that have devastating and widespread impacts. 

Thus, a broad ruling overturning Plyler entirely is very plausible, and would impact more than just undocumented students. It could broadly be used to slash education to the point where all public schools can afford to do is send a student home with nothing but a tablet and a list of online lessons to do. This would go far beyond the effects of budget cuts we already see, such as large class sizes, reduced school weeks, and unqualified teachers.

They would have broad discretion to refuse to educate anyone who failed to do their homework, got into disciplinary trouble, struggled with the technology, was not keeping up with grade level, or literally any other reason that does not technically violate federal law in an effort to cut costs. Doug Mastriano hinted at this, when he implied that it is not possible to educate some students because of their home lives, and that the state has no obligation to spend money trying to do so.

The end game gets even uglier; there are a host of predatory lenders and well-funded religious institutions that would love to see people taking out loans to put their kids in decent schools. All the GOP has to do is either let the value of vouchers and ESAs stagnate, or reduce them over time, to create the educational system they always wanted: one in which poor non-whites and LGBT people are unable to get a decent education, and conservative white Christians are heavily favored.