“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.”
― Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World
President Trump has made school choice his top domestic policy priority for a second term. The President has framed school choice as a civil rights issue, and it has strong support in Black and minority communities where the public school monopoly has systemically failed. The National Education Association, teachers unions and the Democratic Party see school choice as an existential threat to their political and economic power, and so the stage is set for a national debate on education policy.
It is long overdue. It has been more than 75 years since the first GI Bill brought school choice to American higher education, and more than 50 years since Nobel laureate Milton Friedman suggested that subsidizing students rather than schools (and teacher unions) and promoting competition rather than a monopoly would improve K-12 education. It’s been almost a decade since Maine (finally) passed charter school legislation (arguably the weakest version of school choice), and two years since the Democrats, the Maine Education Association and Governor Mills passed legislation to strangle them.
The time is right. The Chicom COVID pandemic has forced a move to distance education and home-schooling. The left’s decades-long efforts to control the curriculum in our public schools have led to lessons on US history, climate change, capitalism, socialism, religion, sexuality and race that are more indoctrination than education. The Maine Education Association has strongly backed a series of socialist referenda initiatives, although you had to dig pretty deep to uncover their efforts, as such reporting was beneath the Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald and Maine Public Radio (whose reporters are MEA members!). Most recently, Harvard education “experts” and union advocates have been warning about the dangers of parental influence and control, and how awful “nice white parents” are for the prospects of “correctly” educating our children.
Maine has had school choice for over 200 years. The town academies, such as Washington Academy, were the original charter schools. Small towns without their own elementary or high schools have school choice (it’s highly valued in Cooper). Anti-Catholic prejudice led to efforts to bar school choice for religious schools, forcing John Bapst to renounce their religious founding and curriculum. Last June the Supreme Court ruled such religious discrimination unconstitutional, and while our Democratic legislature will not do anything about it, the federal courts will, and probably sooner rather than later. I want my tax dollars to benefit students and their families first, as they choose. Unfortunately, that is not what the Maine Education and National Education Associations want.
Education, especially K-12 education, was supposed to be primarily a state and local matter. Thomas Jefferson helped write Maine’s constitution that tried to ensure local control. National control via a federal Department of Education was pushed by Democrats. It started with Jimmy Carter in the service of teacher unions and social control and was continued by well-meaning, if misguided, Republicans (Bush 43’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” stands out). It reached a high (or low) point with the Obama administrations’ Title IX sexuality and due process edicts and disciplinary reforms that led to ignoring complaints about minority kids who eventually became school shooters.
An increasingly strong and invasive federal Department of Education was just fine with the left until President Trump was elected and nominated school choice advocate Betsy Devos as Education Secretary. Trump and Devos are a threat to the education monopoly that sustains the partnership between the Democrats and the teachers’ unions. It will be highly ironic if it is the feds who restore truly local (as in parental) control. Of course, we should also keep Mr. Clemens’ sage analysis in mind.
Disclaimer: In 1998 the author campaigned for Congress on the issue of school choice.
Jon Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias. His views are his own.Mr. Reisman welcomes comments as letters to the editor here, or to him directly via email at email@example.com.