Starting with the rush towards laissez-faire economics in the 1980s, free-market theorists, corporate strategists, and opportunists entrepreneurs, pushed elected representatives at the Federal and State level to favor the privatization of education by moving tax dollars from traditional public schools to for-profit entities.
To help accomplish this, could it be that they built the myth about public schools failing, with teachers and their unions being the cause? A direct attack to public schoolteachers, by the most part well respected educators, who helped generations of children to read, write, learn, become successful adults and good citizens, who helped building our democracy?
In Arizona the relentless cuts in public education funding, over the years, caused what was initially a myth to become a reality. According to the US Census Bureau, by fiscal year 2011, Arizona had the second lowest spending in the country per pupil for Public Elementary-Secondary Schools: $7,666. And, more cuts will be coming.
The consequences are there for everyone to see. A student of a local public high school I talked with mentioned that in his grade four students have to share the same math textbook, meaning that each student can take the book home only once a week. How can we expect them to learn? A teacher of a highly rated public high school commented on how shrinking funds caused their excellent labs not to be able to replace essential equipment.
With the stated objective to favor private education, the AZ legislature has repeatedly cut funding from public schools or diverted and dispersed funds to a myriad of small private school. These often do not have the critical mass to build any labs, or gyms, nor to provide high quality education. Rather, some charter schools have a ratio of up to 40 to 50 students per teacher. Others have failed and closed, after the owners made handsome profits off the tax dollars received. To be fair, there are charter schools that are well run. They spend every dollar of their resources to educate students the best way they know how, and doing a good job of it. However, favoring private education has opened the door to profiteering by unscrupulous entrepreneurs.
One in five American children now live in poverty, one in three children in Tucson. A good education is their only hope to break out of generational poverty when they become adults.
As Vincentians, we are very concerned about the shortage of funding for public schools, because the vast majority of the children of the people we serve attend public schools, some of which, especially in poor neighborhoods, no longer meet educational standards for lack of resources. We know from the families we serve how inadequate education leads to a life of poverty or worse. You probably already heard that there is an undeniable connection between literacy skills and future incarceration rates.
Good public education is a Common Good issue - all Catholics should care about it. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul supports the right to good education and has a formal position paper on the matter.
A few Arizona majority legislators still support public education. We heard last summer from one of them: “Parental choice starts with well-funded and well-functioning public schools”. Then, continued: “Further discussion can occur once we fix our funding formulas, once we make our public school system one of the best in the nation”.
Our Catholic bishops are obviously concerned with ensuring the future of Catholic Schools. They welcome the help by the state through the tax credits that taxpayers can directly allocate to Catholic Schools’ tuition support in their yearly returns. In this sense, the privatization movement indirectly favored Catholic Schools. Many Catholics are happy with this choice and elect to contribute to Catholic education.
On the USCCB website, we read the following:
“The USCCB actively monitors all federal [and state] legislation relating to elementary and secondary education. As the Church’s representative for Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the United States, the USCCB supports policies that recognize the right of parents to be the primary educators of their children. We also advocate for legislation that assists parents in defraying the costs of choosing the type of schooling most appropriate for their children, including education in Catholic schools. The USCCB works to ensure that all students, regardless of where they attend school, share federal benefits and services equitably.”
It is the last sentence that gives the people we serve some hope. It is time that more Catholics understand the crisis of the Public Education system and help with their vote and advocacy to bring public schools to higher standards, while still maintaining the Catholic education choice for those who desire it.