Way back in the founding days of our great nation, the men constructing a new nation out of whole cloth were faced with a number of challenges about the proper role of government. Having just tossed off an oppressive king, the crew of Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, Adams and the rest were disinclined to create a new country where the government was in charge of too many aspects of regular folks’ lives. It is true that Hamilton wanted a stronger central government than the others, but limits on the actual tasks assigned to all levels of government were on everyone’s mind. Jefferson and others of a similar mindset wanted a government that basically delivered the mail and patrolled the coastal waters and little else. There was no support for creating, say, a national police force, fire departments, public health offices or nearly every other type of government action. Those matters, it was thought, were a private affair. You protected your home from fire by having a contract with a local fire insurance company, for example.
Thus it is interesting to see that in 1817 Jefferson drafted a bill that would create a system of free public education in Virginia. Jefferson — the champion of limited government — thought a public-school system was vitally important and worth spending taxpayer dollars on. As you know, this idea caught on nationally.
Growing up in a middle-class family in a Midwest town, going to public school was just what was done. A handful of my friends went to the local Catholic school, but the taxpayer funded local school system was where most of us found ourselves. There was one fancy private school that we knew of, but it was for the “rich” kids and, heck, the local schools were good. After 12 years in a public school, I attended a public university. You could say that I’m one of many poster kids for public education.
And it is that very public-school education that is now under increasing and mystifying attack from the Trump administration, and his very odd and dangerous Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. You may recall DeVos and her bizarre confirmation hearings when she suggested schools in Alaska might need rifles due to the threat from grizzly bears. Far more troubling in her hearing was her inability to answer a very basic question about education policy and her refusal to declare that she would not seek massive cuts in public school funding. This is not surprising if you know something about DeVos and her background as a billionaire who has spent millions promoting private schools and vouchers.
Which, of course, brings me to a complaint filed with DeVos from Colorado’s private schools. A recent Colorado Springs Gazette article reported on a protest regarding how COVID-19 education relief funding is being disbursed in Colorado. For technical and other reasons well explained in the article, the state Department of Education has concluded that none of these public taxpayer funds can be given to private schools. Not surprisingly, the private schools are not happy with that decision and are asking DeVos to step in and force the state to give money to the private schools. (I’m tempted to once again mount my hobby horse of outrage and vent about “small government Republicans” once again rejecting any notion of “states rights,” but I’ll forgo that joust until a later time.)
At the start of this rant of mine, I made it clear that I am a public-school product. I believe in the public schools, and I want them constantly striving to improve themselves. I have no particular beef with private schools, as long as they remain, well, private. By that I mean that if a parent wants to send his or her kid to a private school, that’s fine, but just don’t ask me to pay for it. If you want to hire a private company to, say, keep an eye on your house to make sure it doesn’t burn down, that’s fine, but don’t ask me to pay for part of it, when we already have a local fire department. And if you think you want your kid to have a, say, religious education, that is also your choice, but don’t ask me to pay for part of it when there already is a public school system available. I oppose public funds to Catholic schools, Islamic school, Druid schools, and heck, if such a thing existed, an atheist school. Jefferson’s famous wall of separation is particularly vital in educational matters.
I’ve never quite understood Trump’s hatred of what he calls “government schools.” He uses that term because he thinks it will make them sound somehow evil in a way that the term “public school” does not. But I stand with Jefferson on this one. We have a public-school system, run by citizens on school boards and our taxes pay for it. Private schools should not receive a penny of public tax dollars, in my view, be it during normal times or a pandemic. Given her history, I won’t bet against DeVos storming into Colorado to ensure funding for her adored private schools, but I hope not. Public funds are for public schools, and we should be proud of them.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.