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To fix public education, let’s eliminate private schools

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While hard-core progressives and tea-party activists continue cozying up to each other in a shared rejection of the common core, I have a radical proposal to make — and it might just be crazy enough to garner an equally eclectic coalition of support:

Let’s eliminate private schools altogether. Or, better yet, let’s make every school both public and private.

If that idea doesn’t make sense to you, consider this: It’s already happening at The Sharon Academy, a school in Vermont that offers, in its words, “the best of both private and public school education.” Kids who live near the school can attend TSA just as they would any neighborhood school. Kids who live outside the attendance zone can attend as well, as long as they pay tuition. And the genius of the Vermont system is that those fees are not paid by the family; they’re paid by the hometown of the student.

This sort of arrangement is possible thanks to a 1997 state law that was drafted in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision that said the state’s existing educational funding system was unconstitutional, and that it must provide “substantially equal access” to education for all Vermont students, regardless of where they live.

As a result, every town in Vermont is required to pay a school up to the amount of the state’s average tuition. Schools can charge more than the average, but TSA pegs its tuition to whatever that number may be (typically no more than $12,000). As a result, no student — I repeat, no student — pays any additional tuition, and TSA commits to cover whatever shortfall exists via its own fundraising efforts.

If this seems too good to be true, it’s worth noting that other countries around the world have found a way to ensure equity. Education in Finland, for example, is free to all beginning at the voluntary pre-primary level and continuing through upper secondary school. Funding responsibilities are divided between the federal and local governments. And not surprisingly, there are very few private schools in Finland. Simply put, in a system that has prioritized (indeed, standardized) equity, they have no niche to fill.

These sorts of efforts stand in stark, uncomfortable contrast to America’s long history of separate and unequal schooling. The closest we came to correcting the inequity was 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, reversed a lower court’s decision in favor of a group of poor Texas parents who had claimed that their state’s tolerance of the wide disparity in school resources violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Gone from the court’s 1973 ruling was its 1954 contention in Brown v. Board of Education that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Gone, too, was its assertion that “it is doubtful any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity,” wrote a unanimous court in Brown, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Instead, the five-justice majority in San Antonio v. Rodriguez wrote simply that while the Texas school system “can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust … it does not follow that this system violates the Constitution. Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution.” If it were, the majority conceded, “virtually every State will not pass muster.”

For Justice Thurgood Marshall, that was precisely the point. “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed,” he wrote, even though “no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society’s well being.”

Marshall understood that without equal access to a high-quality public education, democracy doesn’t work. “Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights,” he explained. “Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution.”

Were he alive today, Marshall would take solace in Vermont’s decision to chart a different course. And while it is nearly impossible to imagine a future landscape in which Americans refuse the opportunity to give their child a competitive advantage in favor of ensuring equal educational opportunities for all, schools like Sharon Academy are there to remind us that a different model is possible. The rest is up to us.

Sam Chaltain (@samchaltain) began his career as an English teacher in New York City. He writes about the intersection of education and democracy at