The inequality of public education
Predictably, an attempt to put educational choice on the ballot has run into a legal challenge.
The Rogers Foundation filed lawsuits last week in Carson City District Court, describing the proposed ballot initiative as “a voucher scheme that hurts public schools, promotes discrimination and ignores accountability.” In a release announcing the lawsuits, Beverly Rogers proclaimed “we support public schools because they serve all students.”
But do they actually “serve” all students?
Judging by the racial and socioeconomic inequities in modern education, it’s pretty obvious they don’t. Indeed, under our current education system, public schools actually do engage in their own form of discrimination. It’s a discrimination based not on religious or ethnic grounds, but instead on ZIP codes — a method that has resulted in massive economic and racial segregation for much of the student population.
To think that all schools in Clark County, for example, are providing equal educational services would be an exercise in gross naivete. While there are undoubtedly classrooms that excel throughout the district, there are also plenty of families who live in neighborhoods with schools that consistently underperform — and due to the way students are assigned to their public schools, a child’s home address is often the leading factor in determining the quality of his or her education.
There are, in other words, vast inequities within public education — inequities that leave families who lack the financial resources to access private alternatives, or move to “better” neighborhoods, stuck in an economically segregated system.
Progressives such as Nikole Hannah-Jones — best known for her work on The 1619 Project — have lamented this systematic inequality. She noted that “classism is allowing rich white communities to exclusively fund just their own schools, and then to keep lower income folks out through exclusionary zoning and invisible but impenetrable school district boundaries.”
Of course, that is precisely why “open enrollment” and programs like Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarships have long been promoted by educational choice advocates. Both programs are aimed at giving disadvantaged and low-income students access to the kind of opportunities currently enjoyed only by wealthier families.
And yet, even those reforms — which are mild compared to the sweeping choice program proposed for the Nevada ballot — have run into relentless opposition from defenders of the traditional public school model. While it might be hard to imagine a world where politicians — many of whom represent underprivileged communities — oppose the expansion of scholarships for low-income families, that is precisely what has happened time and again in Nevada. Since its creation in 2015, for example, Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program has faced steady opposition from Democrats who feared it could affect public school budgets.
While that specific program doesn’t use “education” tax dollars (it’s funded by tax credits given to businesses that donate to scholarship organizations) there is, nonetheless, some legitimacy to the concern that certain districts could see a reduction in funding if large swaths of students fled to the private education sector. After all, public school funding is partially determined by student enrollment — so any exodus of students would likely have an impact on a district’s bottom line.
However, ways to mitigate that risk should be pursued in tandem with giving families greater opportunities and alternatives — not used as an excuse to deny such educational mobility in the first place. After all, keeping children in classrooms that are failing to meet their needs, simply to lessen the budgetary concerns of a bureaucratic government system, is a coldly unjust education policy. Children aren’t mere funding mechanisms for our public-education apparatus — and treating them as such by denying them the resources to seek alternatives should be seen as an affront to our shared principles of equity, equality and compassion.
If we’re serious about addressing the racial, socioeconomic and cultural inequalities that plague education, it may well require something more than the status quo is prepared to provide. It will require tearing down the institutional barriers that are keeping struggling families from finding classrooms that promise a better future for their children — regardless of whether those classrooms are found in public, charter or private institutions.
The lawsuit last week was virtually unavoidable, given the contentious history of educational reform here in the Silver State. Indeed, the debate over educational choice is one that will only intensify in the years to come — and, as such, it is entirely understandable that many Nevadans will share Rogers' concerns regarding public school funding and private school admission policies.
However, it would be a mistake for choice opponents to believe they own the patent on good intentions. After all, it’s difficult to imagine a system more discriminatory than the one we currently endure — where a child’s education is dependent almost entirely on their family’s ZIP code and level of income.
Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.