Whether savoring the remnants of summer or preparing for the work week ahead, we are reminded on this Labor Day to reassess the current state of education, work and generational progress in the U.S.
Our brief reprieve from daily tasks affords us the glossy sense of patriotism and countrywide unity typical of any American tradition; however, despite the day’s wholesome nature, the sentimentality of Labor Day and other national holidays often lends itself to exploitation by limelight-seeking politicians, eager to use any instance of emotionalism as a platform for self-promotion and ideological propaganda.
With campaign season for the 2016 presidential election underway, reflection and re-evaluation are prevalent amidst the melee of frothing candidates, many of whom spout nostalgic rhetoric of homegrown American principles to win sympathy from voters.
In one particularly distasteful blog post, candidate Jeb Bush describes on his campaign’s website a heartwarming memory of his underprivileged charter school students erecting an American flag. He writes, “That Monday morning, 90 kids raised the American flag together. That moment symbolized so much of what we were trying to do—give every kid a chance to be part of American opportunity” (Jeb 2016, “My Passion for Education Reform,” 09.05.15.). It’s a cosy image, but those kids won’t be “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” when they realize that “American opportunity” means nothing more than the stagnant social reform and political diversion tactics that another potential Bush administration is sure to perpetuate.
This Labor Day, Bush has capitalized on the relationship between unions and education reform to promote his fervent belief in the school choice and tax credit scholarship system. He established these practices in Florida over a decade ago after being elected governor, instituting a program in which individuals or corporations would be able to donate funds to charter schools and tax credit scholarships in exchange for a reduction in tax liability. The charter school education, which is constructed to be superior to that of the public school experience, is then afforded to low income households and students who previously had limited options in regards to schooling and high quality learning. He advertises the school choice method as one that narrows the learning gap between economically-diverse students, and one that incentivises schools to market to the specific needs of families in order to compete for pupils. Bush, as well as proponents of school choice, also provide that this financial scheme is ultimately cheaper than the state-funded public school system due to the fact that each child is not being accounted for in one overarching budget.
Continuing to exalt his program, Bush criticizes the Florida teachers’ unions filing lawsuits against school choice, denouncing them as entities acting in opposition to the welfare of children. On September 1st, 2015, he wrote a blog post on his campaign site titled “The Unions’ War on Parental Choice,” claiming that these liberal “special interests” groups are creating harsh environments for education reform and obliterating a family’s right to choose a certain path for its children. He affectionately dubs teachers’ unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Bill De Blasio “Hillary Clinton’s staunchest supporters,” slandering these agencies as being resistant to improving the nation’s schools (Jeb 2016, “The Unions’ War on Parental Choice,” 09.05.15.). This is not exactly the supportive verbiage that one might expect an eager-to-please politician to declaim on Labor Day.
In theory, Bush’s aims are practical and beneficial; he states that his intentions are to bolster academic performance in previously low-achieving areas and to present disadvantaged children with the chance to attend better schools.
However, the consequences of school choice and the tax credit scholarship program are less than desirable. The system is publicized as one oriented towards the well-being of impoverished or minority communities, and yet the minimum yearly income that a four-person household must make in order to qualify for scholarship eligibility has risen to about $62,000, which neglects an entire population of students living closer to, or beneath, the poverty line (The Gainesville Sun. 07.05.15. “Judicial review of school voucher program is badly needed.”). The quality of the education itself is even debatable, as the private schools funded by the tax credit system do not require teacher certification or textbooks and curricula that are aligned with the standards for all schools across the state. School choice neglects the public schools that are desperately in want of repair, distracting citizens with a gleaming opportunity for betterment while masking the need for a more centralized national public school curriculum that includes regulated and consistent standards for learning. After all, improving a public school offers a gateway to a safer and more prosperous surrounding community, and by drawing attention away from the work that needs to be done within neighborhoods and cities, Bush is ensuring that the lives of struggling students will continue to suffer.
Furthermore, a large portion of the tax credit money is being funneled into parochial schools, deceptively circumventing the principle of separation of Church and State, with many organizations demanding that their scholarship recipients attend a parochial institution. Almost 80 percent of all of the students on the school choice program joined these religious schools. Opponents of the system filed a lawsuit against Florida, arguing that it violated the “no-aid” clause in the state’s constitution, which proclaims that “… no revenue of the state … shall be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid … of any sectarian institution” (The Gainesville Sun, “Judicial review of school voucher program is badly needed,” 07.05.15.). Unfortunately, the Tallahassee court reviewing the case declared that no violation of state legislation had occurred. Bush recounts this fondly on his blog, saying, “I know we can do it [increase opportunity for every American] because I saw what happened when we took on the teachers union in Tallahassee and won, putting students first.”
Concerningly, in a world envisioned by Jeb Bush, it’s difficult to imagine what society may devolve into when these types of initiatives disguised as general welfare projects are continually enacted. With the unfolding of campaigning events, we can hope that this nauseating form of superficial politics will at least meet some successful bipartisan resistance, or that external appeals for change will prevail over the white noise of catty mudslinging and self-interested fundraising. If not, it is unlikely that the results of the 2016 election will do much, if anything at all, to inspire the real advancements that the nation craves.