We are citizens, not customers

We are citizens, not customers

- in Weekly Briefing


Why the fight over school vouchers is about more than education

The House Education Committee voted 27-21 yesterday to approve a controversial bill that would bring school vouchers to North Carolina. As has been the case with many contentious actions taken by the General Assembly this session, the committee vote came at the conclusion of a strange and disjointed debate that lurched back and forth, in no particular order, between sound bites from the public (“comments” or “testimony” would be too generous given the tiny time slots allotted to each speaker), awkward snippets of dialogue and questioning between committee members (and between members and legislative staff), truncated attempts at a couple of amendments and a handful of coherent speeches.

Included in the latter group was a strong statement by a Republican Representative from western North Carolina named Chris Whitmire. As Clayton Henkel reported on The Progressive Pulse blog:

The Transylvania County Republican argued the public schools within the three counties he represents have served students well, yet would be punished with less state funding if this bill becomes law.

When you continually take away, take away, take away… folks, no matter what their political dominion is, their kids end up taking it in the shorts.’

Whitmire warned that a $4,200 voucher would not begin to cover private school tuition, adding that the non-public schools in his area did not have the capacity to serve more than a handful of new students.

And in the end I have great issues with the transparency of accountability,’ explained Whitmire, a former school board chairman.”

You can watch Whitmore’s statement by clicking here.

As Policy Watch reporter Lindsay Wagner reported here, there were other comments that captured the essence of the debate.

[North Carolina Association of Educators President] Rodney Ellis…spoke against the bill, citing the fact that households do not typically have the funds necessary to cover the difference between the $4,200 voucher and the average cost of attendance at a private school.

Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) presented statistics looking at the average costs of private elementary, middle and high schools in the state. Tuition amounts ranged from $5,000 on average for elementary schools to $9,000 for high schools. 

Rep. Rosa Gill (D-Wake) put forth an amendment to make private school tuition and fees more transparent to the public, in light of the fact that they could receive taxpayer funds. The amendment failed.

What happens to those kids … in counties where you don’t have the private schools,’ questioned Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham), wondering how this bill would provide those students with school choice.

We know private schools cherry-pick,’ said Michaux. ‘Why aren’t we putting a diversity clause in this bill?’

Rep. Bert Jones (R-Caswell, Rockingham) compared offering parents their ‘God-given right’ to school choice to selecting which kind of milk they prefer.

Just because you support HB 944 would not mean, as the opponents would make it seem, that you are against public education,’ said Jones. ‘That basically means that … just because you purchase 2% milk means that something is wrong with whole milk, or 1%, or chocolate milk, or fat free milk, or all the milks out there now that aren’t even milk.’”

Spokespersons for some religious and private schools echoed Jones’ comments and said the proposal was about “parental choice.”

A larger, unspoken debate

One issue that, sadly, has yet to be aired explicitly during the discussion over vouchers is the matter of what their introduction would portend for the future of the relationship between citizens and their government.

Though he probably had no idea he had touched on it, Rep. Jones came closest to the essence of the matter yesterday with his mostly inane comments about God and milk. Sadly, Jones’ position roughly summarizes a core belief of the state’s modern, Tea Partying right-wing: that citizens have a divine right to relate to their government as they relate to a big box store.

This is not an exaggeration or a parody. Governor McCrory has made this idea one of the centerpieces of his new administration with his repeated references to treating North Carolinians as “customers.”

In the modern conservative worldview, all human relationships are driven by the interactions of the marketplace. Many of these ideologues have genuinely come to believe that humans have been commanded by the Almighty to pursue their own self-interest in virtually all matters of economic and social interaction and that when they do, the “invisible hand” will somehow lead us all to the best possible (or, at least, the most just) societal result.

Hence the notion that North Carolina’s education ills can be cured by giving parents the kinds of “choices” afforded to “customers” and forcing schools to compete for their “business.” It’s really a quite remarkable and coldly Darwinian argument – especially coming as it does from a group that so frequently espouses a full-throated conservative Christianity.

The future of citizenship and the social contract

In touting their voucher proposal, some proponents have alleged that the idea’s merit is confirmed by the results of the nation’s oldest experiment with the subject in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This is a strange and surprising argument since the results in Milwaukee over the last few decades have been anything but encouraging. Sure, some children subsidized by vouchers to attend private and parochial schools are doing well. Some of these children are even of low and moderate income.

But on the whole, study after study shows no measurable improvement for Milwaukee’s schools (or the city itself) overall. To the contrary, large swaths of the city and its school system struggle mightily with the effects of intense deprivation and segregation. Some analysts have called Milwaukee the nation’s “most segregated city.” Perhaps more to the point, however, is its growing similarity to Detroit – a place of shocking contrasts in which vast swaths of decrepit housing, urban blight and obscene poverty abut comfortable yuppiedom.

But, of course, this should not be surprising. Such results have always afflicted communities all over the world where common good public structures and systems are weak and “survival of the fittest” competition is carried to its logical extreme. Sure “free markets” can produce remarkable wealth and success (and need to be harnessed), but unfettered markets combined with weak public structures frequently produce something else: a mass of egregiously divided “winners” and “losers.”

And when citizens are treated like “customers” rather than owner/stakeholders, a subtle but important attitude shift is abetted. Rather than caring for their entire community as a whole, inhabitants are encouraged to worry about themselves, treat their neighbors as competitors and threats and confine their communal instincts to private charity.

Does this explain all of Milwaukee’s racial divides or economic blight? No, of course not; but it does shine an important window on the struggles of this once-thriving city. And, sadly, unless a change in course is effected soon, this attitude shift could soon come to afflict North Carolina on a mass scale as well.

This is why so many caring and thoughtful people are so desperately worried about the introduction of school vouchers in North Carolina. It’s not the immediate demise of public education they worry about; they know that public schools will cobble together a way to survive in the near term (just as they have muddled along through the budget cuts of recent years).

What worries these advocates and observers most is that vouchers will expedite the ongoing demise of citizenship and the social contract that once bound North Carolinians together in a united society. And sadly, judging by the attitudes and rhetoric of voucher supporters, this is a well-founded concern.