During the George W. Bush administration, I had a conversation with a friend about wealth. We were sitting in his well-appointed, $750,000 home.
He argued that between his mortgage, private school tuition for his children, the nice cars and the vacations, he was barely scraping by. He resented that he was not considered lower middle class and thus didn’t deserve the kind of assistance we as a nation provide to the needy.
Maybe you’re reading this and nodding. After all, Epstein is expensive, and the kids need a safe neighborhood with the right sort of neighbors, so what choices do you have?
Or maybe you’re reading this and shaking your head because you’re not sure how you’re going to get your 12-year-old car to pass the emissions inspection next year, and you need it to make your 20-mile commute from your $150,000 home in a school district that is not winning any awards.
Point/Counterpoint: Public Funds for Private Schools
The Georgia General Assembly this spring passed legislation to increase from $58 million to $100 million the annual cap on a tax credit for donations that fund scholarships to private schools. Should public money support private schools?
All of this is relevant because, just like 15 years ago, a Republican administration is working to give school vouchers to parents who choose to move their children to private school.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that wealthy people need help too. If your county spends $9,000 to $12,000 a year educating students, why should private school families be excluded from that? After all, publicly funded sidewalks are free to walk on, whether you make a lot or a little. There’s no means testing for accessing public parks.
On the other hand, it would be a little weird if instead of investing in parks, the city of Brookhaven gave each resident a voucher for $48 a year to spend on the private or public park of their choice.
What would happen? Well, the better-off residents who belong to a neighborhood swim and tennis club (aka private park) would use the voucher to reduce what they spent. Meanwhile, because $48 can’t fund a park space for most residents, the city would pool what was left to help pay for Blackburn or the PATH trails in the city, except that it wouldn’t be enough anymore.
Obviously, nothing in the city would be made better by this. There would be fewer, lower-quality parks, not more. There would be no increase in private parks either, although maybe they’d raise their prices by, oh, $48.
This scenario makes sense only in a world in which you believe cities should not fund public parks, in which all park funding is voluntary, and in which there is no expectation of a public space open to everyone. Once you go down that path, you can extend the thinking to everything.
Why should governments fund police? Brookhaven could give every resident a $156 security voucher for private security. How about an $11 voucher for arbitration services instead of a municipal court?
This arrangement seems just fine to some people. It appeals to the wealthy, who already pay for private versions of public services, and to those religious people who believe that interacting with anyone outside their small community is corrupting them. And to the growing groups of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who want complete separation from people of color. And, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, to the oligarchs who know that a strong, vibrant, publicly educated populace has kept America strong and free.
An America in which you can siphon money from programs that don’t benefit you personally is one where nobody has shared responsibility. Where nobody owes the community any participation. Where mitzvot don’t exist and tikkun olam is a globalist SJW conspiracy.
I find that America horrifying, and I refuse to be silent while the right wing pretends that this is a dry, technical topic about tax deductions and municipal funding and confuses us with straw-man arguments about school choice. They want you to think this is disconnected from every other action they’ve taken, from cutting corporate taxes to trying to prevent universal health care to restricting voting to killing environmental regulations.
School vouchers are a small piece of fundamentally changing how America works. For 200 years, the right to a publicly funded education has steadily expanded. Let’s continue that work and make sure the United States remains a place where we live our values.
You’ve read the Counterpoint; don’t miss Dan Israel’s Point.