As a pastor, I can’t endorse candidates for elected office. I can, however, share my political perspective when candidates propose harmful ideas. With that in mind, let me say a word about Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s education plan. In June 12th article in The New York Times entitled “Vouchers Unspoken, Romney Hails School Choice” reported that Mr. Romney would make $25 million in Title I funds for public schools with economically disadvantaged students directly available to parents to send their children to the public, private, charter or online schools of their choice.
According to the Times story, Mr. Romney said, “I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way,” with the supposition that market competition will strengthen all schools and allow parents to “vote with their feet” and walk away from schools that don’t measure up academically. While his proposal is shocking, it’s not surprising. Mr. Romney’s comments on everything from the economy to his lifestyle are indicative of a privileged candidate with a limited world view and a faithful devotion to the idea that market economics can cure all ills.
Mr. Romney and his education advisors don’t understand that those with paper thin soles on their economic shoes have a hard time “voting with their feet.” People who can’t get credit at major banks often have few alternatives to borrowing from loan companies at high interest rates, whether they want to or not. People in economically struggling communities, where major grocery chains refuse to locate, have limited choices of where to shop and are further limited if they have no transportation. What’s true of “choice” when it comes to financial institutions and grocery stores is also true when it comes to choosing schools.
South Carolina has flirted for years with plans for tax dollars to follow children wherever their parents choose to send them to school. Those dollars, however, won’t cover the cost of tuition at many private schools and in cases where they would, parents would still have to handle the extra cost of things like transportation, uniforms, books, supplies and extracurricular activity fees.
The result of Mr. Romney’s plan would be that parents with the financial wherewithal to “vote with their feet” would pull their children out of public schools labeled as “failing,” leaving behind those children whose parents don’t have the means to send them elsewhere. Their doing so would take precious funds out of those schools and decrease educational diversity, so that children who could benefit from positive academic peer influence would have few positive academic peers. Rather than rising to academic excellence, many of those schools would become quagmires for mediocrity.
Mr. Romney and those of like mind might argue that kind and affluent people would contribute private funds to help needy parents and schools. That doesn’t, however, always work. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley created a foundation to allow the wealthy to put their money into the same public schools she wants to financially gut. It’s instructive and ironic that her foundation’s first major effort in impoverished Allendale County is not to augment meager funds for academic achievement, but to build a new sports facility.
Try as they may, Mr. Romney and Governor Haley cannot make the free market a place of noble virtue. The free market, which “decides” who will sink or swim and puts those with resources in a position of advantage, is an amoral concept. Our nation long ago embraced public education as a means of equalizing opportunity, and we should strengthen rather than weakening public education today. That happened in 1954, when the United States Supreme Court struck down the idea of racially “separate but equal” public schools.
As people of faith, we must fight the same fight today and see that those who have been trying to re-segregate our schools since 1954 don’t have the opportunity to do so. That’s the unspoken motive that drives today’s calls for “choice” and “competition,” and we should remember that no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, it’s still a pig.