If you need evidence that quite a few public school officials live in a different world than the rest of us, you don’t need to look too far. Just take a look at our public conversation over the past few months.
Recently, Board of Education member Liz Barrett summarized the situation well when she provided “Tips for running for a seat on the Board of Education” (published May 25 in the News-Post), correctly stating that “effective policy making and school system oversight always take a backseat to…[b]oard norms...largely unwritten, sometimes unspoken, and usually arbitrary rules that are meant to keep dissenting voices in check.” Engaging in anything other than “happy talk” isn’t allowed, even if publicly discussing uncomfortable truths could help children. The priority is the school system’s public image.
Some board members tend to think that if parents aren’t happy with the public schools, there’s probably something wrong with them. Former Board of Education member Lois Jarman misleadingly expressed her support for Finland’s education system and its supposed ban on private schools, claiming that the Finns “don’t want or need” them (“Remember all teachers have done for us”, May 6 in the News-Post). Actually, some Finns do enroll their children in one of the country’s 75 private schools, which, according to the BBC, comprise 2 percent of all Finnish schools.
The likely source of confusion about this issue is that all of these privately run schools are publicly funded. Private schools in Finland are not allowed to charge tuition, but they are still independently run. In other words, Finland effectively has what we in America call a voucher program. In European and Scandinavian circles, the term “subsidized” is more typically used instead of “voucher,” but both mean the same thing — the government funds the cost of both private and public schools through taxes instead of parents paying directly.
When Gov. Larry Hogan tried to help more poor children attend private schools in exactly this manner by increasing the BOOST program’s funding to a paltry $10 million for the entire state, he drew fire from the teachers union, which said “we have billions in unmet needs in our public schools, any dollar dedicated to private schools — whether it’s $5 million, $10 million or one dollar — keeps us from meeting those needs.”
Really? The Kirwan Commission’s enacted legislation will increase education spending by roughly $4 billion per year within the next nine years, ramping up by hundreds of millions of dollars each year. And the union thinks that a single dollar to help poor kids is too much? Maryland’s total spending is $15.9 billion already, which according to the Maryland Public Policy Institute, is already 22 percent above the national average on a per pupil basis.
Why is this same argument never made against public university funding or roads or any other part of the state budget? Dollars spent in those categories could have been spent on public school funding as well. The reason is that public schools don’t want competition from other providers of K-12 education, especially competition with equal financial footing like public and private schools in many Scandinavian and European countries have. It’s much easier to claim victory when you don’t have anyone to compare yourselves to, and why public schools will continue to fight efforts for funding equality.
The pandemic has made public education’s dysfunctional culture more obvious. Most private schools were open for in-person learning this year, as were most child care centers. Somehow those organizations managed to keep their doors open, but Frederick’s public schools couldn’t figure out how to do that until recently, and when they finally did, they faced opposition from the teachers union. Private schools aren’t perfect, but at least they are largely free from unions and elected board members whose political aspirations and interests often intertwine in ways that don’t serve children well. Despite claiming a successful year of learning, public schools didn’t release their latest test scores and won’t administer the complete test in the fall.
Public education’s message is rather disappointing: We don’t value dissenting voices’ important role in spurring improvements. We do want citizens to pay more and more money for the services that we provide but don’t want to be held accountable for results. We do all of this because we know what choices are best for parents. You see, we are special. Whether it is free speech, fiscal responsibility, accountability for academic results, or even literally opening our doors to those we serve, different rules apply to us. What we say is true because it’s us, and you better not question it.
Tom Neumark was the founding president of the Frederick Classical Charter School and has been involved in education reform for more than 20 years.