Yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion at the Washington Post about national issues in education with Robert Pondiscio of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Dean Bridget Terry Long of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This followed a few other panels, including one in which Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his chosen school superintendent Janice Jackson lavished praise on their successful efforts to transform the public schools of Chicago, with nary a dissent.

Our panel did include dissent, since I was critical of school choice and the other two panelists supported it. I was critical of standardized testing, and Dean Long supported it.

Valerie Strauss did a great job moderating and keeping us on track.

In my opening statement, I argued that the key education issue of our time was the defunding of public schools by the federal and state governments. NCLB and Race to the Top had failed, because they emphasized testing and choice. But at the same time that the federal government disrupted schools and misdirected them with mandates, most states pursued a policy of cutting taxes, cutting school funding, and substituting “school choice” for adequate funding. I cited the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report showing that 29 states spent less on education in the decade after the 2008 recession.

In our discussion of school choice, I said that school choice is the rightwing agenda that has been funded by Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, and the Walton family for decades. It was unfortunate that some Democrats joined their crusade to privatize education. I cited the blistering report about charter schools by Integrity Florida, which showed that rightwing money had promoted charters and vouchers and insulated them from any accountability. Furthermore, the money directed to charter schools had undermined the fiscal stability of public schools.

Robert Pondiscio retorted that school choice was not a “rightwing agenda,” it was a “moral agenda.”

In other words, he echoed the religious/moral rhetoric of Betsy DeVos.

He snidely said that both he and I had sent our children to private schools, so why shouldn’t poor families have the same choices?

This, I thought, was a low blow, because my husband and I didn’t ask for public funds to send our children to private schools 50 years ago. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake not to send them to public schools; it would have benefited them. But that is one of many mistakes I have made in my life.

Today, we know that charter and voucher schools do the choosing more often than parents. If you are the parent of a child with special needs, the odds are high that he/she will not be accepted by any charter school unless the disability is very mild and remediable. Furthermore, the public money available for vouchers will NOT enable poor parents to have the same choices as rich parents, since most voucher payments are in the range of $5,000-7,000 and elite private schools are usually $40,000-60,000. So, no, a voucher will not be enough to send your child to the Hill School, where the Trump children went.

He implied that it was “moral” to take money away from underfunded public schools so that a small percentage of students could choose to go to a charter school or religious school. If it was the former, it might close in a few months or it might kick the student out because of his or her behavior or disability; if it was the latter, the children might have an uncertified teacher or be exposed to textbooks that justify slavery and teach creation science.

He did not suggest that states and the federal government should appropriate more money to pay for choice. If there is not more money, then the schools that enroll 95% of the community’s children lose funding, cut teachers, have larger-sized classes, and lose electives and the arts.

It would be easier to argue that underfunding the public schools that most children attend is immoral. And that paying professional teachers so little that they have to work two or three extra jobs to make ends meet is immoral. And that denying the nation’s public school children the resources they need to have reasonable class sizes, professional teachers, the arts, and time for physical activity is immoral.

I offered the examples of Detroit and Milwaukee as school districts awash in school choice where students have not benefited. They are both among the lowest performing districts in the nation. No response from my fellow panelists.

I contend that it is immoral, unjust, and inequitable to advocate for policies that hurt 95% of students so that 5% can go to a private school. It is even more unjust to destabilize an entire school district by introducing a welter of confusing choices, including schools that open and close like day lilies.

Why don’t the advocates of school choice also advocate for funding to replace the money removed from the public schools?

PS: Thanks to Mike Petrilli for sending me the link to our panel.