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John M. Crisp is an opinion columnist for Tribune News Service.
I like public schools for the same reason that William Faulkner hated the post office.
Before Faulkner became the great Southern novelist, he hired on as the postmaster at the University of Mississippi. By all accounts he was an indifferent postmaster, opening the P.O. when he felt like it and never letting the U.S. mail interfere with his hunting and golf. Students complained that the P.O. motto under Faulkner’s regime should be “Never put the mail up on time.”
After two years Faulkner and the Postal Service had had enough of each other. In a fit of wounded dignity, Faulkner resigned. He said that as long as he lived in a capitalist society, he expected to have his life “influenced by the demands of moneyed people.”
“But,” he sniffed, “I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”
But that’s what I like about the post office. Can we think of any American institution that better serves egalitarianism and democracy than the post office? What could be more American than our early determination — Ben Franklin was the first postmaster general — to provide the same quality service for the same low price to all Americans, regardless of their economic status?
Public schools demonstrate this same commitment to “the general welfare,” our willingness to provide every citizen with the same benefits of being an American. Few of our institutions have done more to promote equality of opportunity and the overall well-being of everyone in our society than public schools. At least, ideally.
The word “ideally” is important here since we haven’t always managed to provide the same services and facilities to all public school students. In fact, in many places public schools are largely funded by property taxes, and they reflect the economic status — and, often, the race — of their communities. Indeed, many public schools reflect the de facto segregation of their neighborhoods.
But public schools are too good an idea to give up on just because we’ve never been able to perfect them. We’ve always known how to produce good public schools, and we’ve regularly done so for much of our society. I had an excellent public school education; there’s a decent chance you did, too.
This is why rewarding the political right’s relentless effort to defund public schools by channeling taxpayer funds into the coffers of private schools is such a bad idea. The scheme is characterized by various euphemisms — school choice, vouchers, opportunity scholarships — but the effect is the same: the reduction of the capacity to provide a quality public education for all students.
Of course, the primary responsibility for their children’s education resides with parents, and for the most part they have the right to educate them as they see fit, including in private schools. But the case for doing so at taxpayer expense is a weak one.
Unlike public schools, which, like the post office, are a unifying force in our society, the effect of private schools is often divisive. At best they create a sense of separation — an “us” versus “them” mentality — usually based on economic class, test scores, sectarian religious beliefs and, all too often, race. Taxpayer money should be spent to unify society, not divide it.
The case for vouchers relies heavily on the idea that public schools are a disastrous failure. It’s far beyond the scope of this column to make the affirmative case for public schools’ effectiveness — or for the post office’s — but it’s worth remembering that the argument for diverting taxpayer money for private purposes is deeply grounded in the dubious conservative assertion that government is essentially bad and in the right’s commitment to keeping government of any sort as small and ineffective as possible.
The charge that public schools — and the post office — are inefficient and ineffective is an insidious canard that reflects a political agenda rather than facts. And while no institution is perfect, our commitment to the unifying force of public schools should be maintained and supported, rather than defunded.