It began happening in the ’90s—mostly throughout the South, the Midwest and the Southwest: Right-wing opponents of public education, often with an evangelical bent, began quietly taking over local school boards. Book bannings and bizarre curricula such as “creation science” followed closely behind. So did the push to establish charter schools—publicly funded by privately run education institutions with various degrees of oversight.
The rationale was to improve education in poor and poorly performing districts by allowing some freedom for innovative teaching, all carried out under the watchful eye of public boards of education.
The reality has played out differently. Critics accused the charter school movement of diverting public funds to what are essentially elite private schools, either academically (high admissions standards and tough curricula), economically (for example, not providing bussing, so that children without a stay-at-home caregiver can’t attend), or religiously.
If Betsy DeVos is confirmed as secretary of Education, the use of public money to fund private education will only increase. DeVos is a major supporter of charter schools and “school choice,” leading Michigan’s efforts to divert public education funds to private entities and expected to do the same throughout the country.
Currently Sussex County has one charter school, the Sussex County Charter School for Technology (for middle school students) which is funded largely by Sparta property taxes (a little over two thirds) and federal and state grants. There are 24 private schools, half of which are religious (mostly Christian, including Roman Catholic).
Under a voucher program, individuals would receive X amount of public funds to offset private-school tuition. Critics point out this 1) violates the separation of church and state, and 2) diverts resources from public schools, leaving the choice of either an inferior education for one segment of students or raising property taxes to offset the drain.
None of this needs to happen; the public can safeguard public education. In New Jersey, which has a strong tradition of home rule when it comes to education, this is especially possible—but only by greasing the school board machinery.
Sussex County has a dismal record when it comes to overseeing education. In 2012, Straus News reported that 16 school districts elected candidates who ran unopposed, while some had no candidates at all.
Placing proponents of public education on local school boards thus would seem to be a relatively simple way to safeguard local school districts and resist this facet of the Trump privatization agenda.