Defending public schools at a conference full of free-market enthusiasts is a Herculean task, but Tick Segerblom felt up to the challenge Friday.
The Nevada state senator participated in a mock trial where the nation’s public education system was accused of fraud for failing to properly educate and protect students. The event was part of FreedomFest, an annual gathering of libertarians (of both the capital L and lowercase L variety). Each year, organizers of the festival choose an issue to put on trial and invite advocates with differing opinions. Previous topics have included climate change, police and Wall Street.
FreedomFest mock trials are not solemn, nuanced conversations or particularly thorough debates. They are entertaining, rapid-fire forays. MTV VJ turned Fox Business host Lisa Kennedy presided as judge with some assistance from festival host Naomi Blackwell, best known as “Bitcoin Girl.”
Despite the theatrics and a few jokes about bribing jury members with free booze or marijuana, the mock trial offered some insight into how defenders of public school systems and school-choice advocates butt heads and how each frames the conversation about education.
This year’s topic — the public school system — is especially timely. Teacher unrest over low salaries and benefits have led to demonstrations and walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. Nevada legislators fought tooth and nail over education savings accounts during the last legislative session, and the state’s largest school district plans on pushing back against public charter schools that take their students and the funding that comes with them.
“In the school choice arena, Nevada was seen as a rockstar until the (state) supreme court undermined the will of the people and legislators,” says Bob Bowdon, a school choice advocate and founder of Choice Media, referring to a 2016 ruling declaring the funding mechanism for educational savings account unconstitutional.
Bowdon served as prosecutor during the mock trial. He opened by pointing to a myriad of mainstream news articles covering public school systems around the country, including stories of widespread sexual harassment and districts pushing short-term “catch-up” classes that give students credits without properly teaching them. He characterized the latter practice as “legalized education fraud” and argued that public education as it exists currently is a “chronically broken system” that cannot be fixed with more money.
Also speaking on the prosecution’s side were two researchers — Vicki Alger, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Corey DeAngelis, a policy analyst at the Cato Center for Educational Freedom.
The latter cited research suggesting private schools and charter schools produce better outcomes than public schools.
Alger argued that public schools have allowed sexual harassment, bullying and other bad behavior to run rampant because of watered-down consequences for bad apples. Parents deserve a way to opt out. She similarly took issue with teacher evaluations being solely based off evaluation and nothing else.
Segerblom began his portion of the mock trial by acknowledging that public schools have their problems.
“That doesn’t means we have to throw it out,” he said.
Segerblom opposed educational savings accounts when the were first pushed through the legislature and again when fixes to the unconstitutional funding formula arose last year. Segerblom told the Current he was referred to the festival by conservative Chuck Muth and decided to participate despite knowing the crowd would largely be in support of school privatization. Someone has to, he said.
He stressed public education as a foundation of democracy too important to cede to corporate control. Pushing back against the idea that charter schools are particularly useful for low-income students, Segerblom noted that even with public dollars being contributed to an educational savings account, sending a child to a charter or private school could be cost prohibitive and riddled with hurdles for poor families.
Joining Segerblom in defense of public education was Julian Vasquez Heilig, a Sacramento State professor and vocal critic of charter schools. Heilig countered the claim that charters and private schools outperform public schools. The opposite is true, he says, citing other academic studies.
Heilig also advocated for community-driven approaches to schools, saying that fixes to the public education system need to happen at the local level. He suggested that simply moving low-income students into charter or private schools wouldn’t solve the underlying issues affecting their education and lives.
“We think somehow if we change governance that will change the situation of the students coming to school,” he said, adding that it won’t, regardless of who or what kind of entity is running the school.
In the end, the trial ended with a hung jury — six guilty votes, six non-guilty votes. The audience, who was given the option to vote through an online website, voted overwhelmingly to convict public education of fraud.
“Thank god for the jury system,” joked Segerblom.