We’ve always known how to make good public schools

by John M. Crisp

Let’s talk about school choice.

But first consider this old saw: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ”

President Ronald Reagan popularized this expression in 1986. I first heard it at a graduation ceremony in the late 1980s, from the mouth of John Cornyn, then a judicial court judge in Texas and now a leading Republican senator.

The phrase has served many rising Republicans well. The insinuation that private citizens are better off without the government flatters them by implying that they are independent and self-reliant. The suggestion that government is inherently incompetent — doing more harm than good — probably reflects some of our national DNA; our nation emerged out of its dissatisfaction with Britain’s exploitative and incompetent governance of its colonies.

Contempt for government is a long-standing Republican principle, and no expression embodies it better than this one. Republicans use it constantly, but the government never actually says it. When firemen show up at a house fire, they never say, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” No, they put out the fire and Democrats and Republicans alike are extremely grateful.

What else has the government done competently? Won World War II; built an interstate highway system; took us to the moon; created the most powerful military in history; initiated the internet; created some of the world’s best universities; and so on.

In fact, because of competent government at local and federal levels, I can visit any city in the U.S. and drink the water and eat the food with confidence that I won’t get sick. Because of governmental competence I can scribble an address on an envelope, slap a “Forever” stamp on it, drop it in a mailbox and believe, with a very high degree of certainty, that a few days later it will be delivered to any address I wish, even the most remote.

This long preamble serves as the context for a battle currently taking place in the Texas legislature: Gov. Greg Abbott recently called a special session to focus on a much-desired goal of Republicans in Texas and elsewhere: school choice.

This idea has gone by other euphemisms such as opportunity scholarships or education savings accounts or, less euphemistically, vouchers. But they all amount to the same thing: using public money to pay for education in private schools.

As a rule, proponents tout school choice as a program to help poor students escape their failing public schools. But I suspect that the biggest beneficiaries of school choice programs are parents who already have enough money to send their children to private schools and are currently already doing so.

There are more good reasons not to fund private education with public money than can be covered in this column, so let’s focus on the basic proposition that undergirds all efforts to implement school choice: Public schools are sinkholes of inefficiency and incompetence.

This is false. We’ve always known how to produce good public schools, and in neighborhoods where we’ve been willing to support and fund them, we’ve always had good schools.

I attended a good public school; you probably did, too. I suspect we have that in common. In fact, public schools have always played a big role in uniting rather than dividing us. They’re part of what makes us a nation.

But is the government competent to produce good schools for everyone?

Last week the New York Times reported on one of the most successful school systems in the U.S. It outscored every other jurisdiction in math and reading last year and managed to avoid significant learning losses during the pandemic.

This system had the highest outcomes in the country for Black and Hispanic students and made steady gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress while other districts have stagnated.

Who runs this successful system that educates 66,000 students whose parents are military service members or civilian employees? The Department of Defense.

The challenge, of course, is to produce this sort of success for everyone. We’ve always known how to do it; what we lack is the will.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.