GEORGE: Now, just remember that this thing isn’t as black as it appears.
As George speaks, sirens are heard passing in the street below. The crowd turn to the windows, then back to George.
GEORGE: I have some news for you, folks. I’ve just talked to old man Potter, and he’s guaranteed cash payments at the bank. The bank’s going to reopen next week.
ED: But, George, I got my money here.
CHARLIE: Did he guarantee this place?
GEORGE: Well, no, Charlie. I didn’t even ask him. We don’t need Potter over here.
Mary and Ernie have come into the room during this scene.
Mary stands watching silently.
CHARLIE: I’ll take mine now.
GEORGE: No, but you… you… you’re thinking of this place all wrong.
As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here
Your money’s in Joe’s house…
(to one of the men)
…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.
Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?
TOM: I got two hundred and forty-two dollars in here, and two hundred and forty-two dollars isn’t going to break anybody.
GEORGE: (handing him a slip) Okay, Tom. All right. Here you are. You sign this. You’ll get your money in sixty days.
TOM: Sixty days?
GEORGE: Well, now that’s what you agreed to when you bought your shares.
There is a commotion at the outer doors.
A man (Randall)comes in and makes his way up to Tom.
RANDALL: Tom… Tom, did you get your money?
RANDALL: Well, I did. Old man Potter’ll pay fifty cents on the dollar for every share you got.
CROWD: Fifty cents on the dollar!
RANDALL: Yes, cash!
TOM: (to George) Well, what do you say?
GEORGE: Now, Tom, you have to stick to your original agreement. Now give us sixty days on this.
TOM: (turning to Randall) Okay, Randall.
Tom starts out…
A few other people start for the door. George vaults over the counter quickly, speaking to the people.
GEORGE: Tom! Tom! Randall! Now wait… now listen… now listen to me.
I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the bank. He’s got the bus line. He’s got the department. And now he’s after us. Why? Well, it’s very simple. Because we’re cutting in on his business, that’s why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides.
The people are still trying to get out, but some of them have stood still, listening to him. George has begun to make an impression on them.
GEORGE: Joe, you lived in one of his houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack?
Here, Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren’t going so well, and you couldn’t make your payments. You didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it?
(turns to address the room again)
Can’t you understand what’s happening? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
– It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The scene outlined above is one of my favorites from one of my favorite Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life. George is, of course, making the case why the individual member of the community who is being served by the local building and loan must not decide to pull their funds out at once or else the whole institution will collapse. George is having a hard time convincing the individuals to think larger than themselves and to consider the institution and what it provides to the community. I found myself mentally coming back to this particular scene as I thought about the recent efforts to push so-called “school choice” in Mississippi. I believe this particular scene in the movie provides us with great insight into our present situation in Mississippi public education by illustrating the main elements of the “school choice” movement in regards to motivation, action, and consequences.
In the film, there is a “run” on the building and loan by many of the customers with deposit accounts (checking and savings). The “building and loan” which Bailey managed was basically a small community bank which shareholders throughout the community owned. The customers in the building and loan were the actual shareholders as all had a stake in it. This is in contrast to the larger bank in town which was run mainly by Mr. Potter. The “building and loan” in the film was designed to serve the community by reinvesting funds back into the community. While in the film, the bank’s primary function was to maximize profits. At the moment of the “run” on the building and loan, many of the customers with deposit accounts had no loans from the building and loan. But, when they needed its lending services in the past, it was the only option which could meet their lending needs by providing loans for quality homes at fair and reasonable interest rates. In effect, the building and loan was a sort of social insurance to the whole community when and if they had a need for it. Yet this insurance could only exist by all members of the group sticking together and staying in the “pool” of customers, some borrowing money and many more depositing money which the building and loan used to make the loans. With the recent push by lobbying groups and politicians to increase “school choice” by enabling per student tax dollars to follow the student and flow into alternative charter or private schools, it seems especially important to remind taxpayers of how their local, public school provides a form of educational insurance to meet the sometimes extreme needs of students much like Bailey’s Building and Loan met its community’s financial needs.
At this point, I believe we all know how the “school choice” system (or scheme) works. Schools are funded by the state based upon each student who attends. The state has a certain amount it gives to the public school district per individual child enrolled to educate students in the district. “School choice” seeks to allow that money to be used to fund tuition at a non-public school by giving the child a voucher or tax credit to spend based upon this money. the charter or private school then receives this per student funding. If the amount of state reimbursement is $3,500/year and one student left to attend a non-public school, that $3,500/year money would flow to the non-public school which the child chose to attend. These funds would thus be diverted from the public school in that community and would essentially be cut from its budget or the shared budget of all public schools from state funding. This sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface. I mean, if the state gives $3,500/year to educate a child, then what does it matter if the money and that child leave the public school? The school where the child enrolls gets the money and one might think this will simply reimburse the charter/private school for the cost of his or her education. However, there is only one problem with that logic, and this problem rests in one simple word, “average.”
Funding amounts per student are based upon averages, not real dollar amounts required to educate a particular child. This key difference can be illustrated by using a business analogy. Imagine you work for a company as a full-time (40+ hours per week) employee. However, this company has only ten full-time employees, counting you, with many more being part-time (less than 20 hours per week). In fact, the company works a total of twenty-five part-time employees in comparison to the ten full-time. At the end of the week it is pay day and the company has a meeting when it is time to give out the checks. The boss tells all employees there has been a slight change in the way everyone will be paid this week. Instead of different check amounts, all employees will now make the exact same for their week of work. Both, full-time and part-time regardless of experience or any other factor will make the exact same. This is, of course, perfectly fair from the bosses perspective because the exact same amount is being paid out by management this week as the week before. The only difference is that now everyone will make the “average” rate of pay calculated per employee. Naturally, you and the other nine full-time employees would be very supportive of this change, correct? No, both common sense and fairness require the pay to not be based upon an “average.” As you can see, in the real world of dollars and cents, the average is good for very little other than having a mathematical conversation.
Likewise, the school district is reimbursed on this same average amount to pay for the expenses to provide a free and appropriate education for each child. However, the cost of such an education can vary a great deal from this average. The child who has autism and requires intensive therapies by specialized staff during the day requires much more to educate than this average. The child from a poor family who has moved eight times during the last year and who stays for hours by herself every evening as her parents go to their second job will probably require greater help to stay caught up in reading than a child without these disadvantages. This help will require more money for the interventionists and tutors who work with her in a small group while the other students are all working in the regular classroom. There are countless other examples of students who require more resources to educate during the day than other students. Students without these special situations, who are able to keep up in the regular classroom without extra help, require much less funding to receive a quality education than these others. However, the average sees all of these children the same in regards to the cost of their education.
To return to the movie analogy, if you are fortunate enough to have a child who requires no additional help to keep up and receive a quality education, you are much like the large group of deposit account holders at the building and loan. The average amount of dollars which follow your child more than cover the cost of your child’s education. What happens to these excess funds that exceed the cost of your child’s education? The excess amount funds the needs of the other students within the school district who have educational needs which require more money than their average amount is able to afford. Those students with these extra needs are like those who borrow money from the Bailey Building and Loan to obtain decent housing or to cover expenses. Just as George told those depositors in the film, your money is not in a safe the back of the building, “your money is in Joe’s house.” The building and loan was a cooperative organization with all of its members depending on the one another to provide enough funding for the common benefit and to provide a sort of insurance against the risk of needing a loan in the future at reasonable terms and being unable to get it. Just like you as the parent of the child who is educated without the extra services with their expenses, your child is in effect paying for the education of the other children since his or her educational services cost less. However, the exchange is that when you have your next child and that child is born with Down Syndrome, that child will now receive the same “insurance coverage” from the excess funds provided by their counterparts in the school district who do not require their full “average” funding to meet their needs. The funding following your child is not in the back room or the school bank account; the funding following your child is literally in the child across the room or down the hall.
If you are with me thus far, you can see how the public schools function as the same type of cooperative providing needed services and risk protection for all children in the state just as the building and loan provided for the needs and protection from risk for the members of the community of Bedford Falls. However, there is another institution which we have a need to recognize in this analogy. That is Potter’s bank. Potter’s bank in the story is an institution driven by profits primarily for Mr. Potter and whatever other few shareholders the bank possesses. This is the situation with many of the “charter schools” which operate for a profit in states where “school choice” is being implemented. Many of these companies are for-profit businesses which seek to educate children for less than the money reimbursed by the state and keep the remainder as profit. How do they do this? Are they really that much more efficient than the public schools? While there is no doubt there are examples of waste out of the thousands and thousands of public schools in our country, efficiency is not behind the potential profits of the charter/private school receiving average student reimbursement from the state in a “school choice” scenario. No, the secret formula of their profits lies again in one word, “average.” The students who attend the charter or private school are not the students who require the greatest needs and with those needs the greater expenses. While there are many reasons and ways that these schools only end up enrolling these students with less expensive needs, they are too lengthy to go into here. However, in short, charter and private schools traditionally market themselves to parents based upon greater and more rigorous academics in preparation for college. However, as you might imagine, for many parents of students with special needs children is not their chief concern. These parents of special needs children are much more likely to be more concerned with life skills and the abilities which allow independent living. There are also financial aspects which allow children with less financially stable home situations who are more likely to be behind their peers due to stress and less time available for their parents to be provide academic help at home to be filtered out of the charter school enrollees. Many, if not most, charter or private schools do not provide free transportation and transporting a student to and from school by car requires greater expenses on the part of parents and the time off work to provide this transportation. Through these and many other “filters” charter or private schools end up with a pool of students who are generally more affluent, more involved with their student’s education, or a combination of both of these traits. Thus, charter schools are like Potter’s bank, they desire to have the cash depositors (students who can be educated with less expense) to bring their money (the average state reimbursement which follows the student) from the building and loan (the public school) and put in into Potter’s bank (the charter or private school).
If the “run” on the bank happens, the deposit account holders will go to Potter’s bank taking their funds leaving only those with loans at the Bailey Building and Loan. I think we all know what happens to the Bailey Building and Loan in this scenario, it collapses unable to provide the loan services it needs to those customers without the capital funds of the depositors. The only way the Bailey Building and Loan would not collapse in this scenario would be to have a sudden infusion of funds allowing it to still provide loans. Essentially, someone like the government would have to bail out the building and loan to keep it from closing altogether. I think we all have enough common sense to know who foots the bill when the government has to bail someone out, you the taxpayer. Unless you are willing to allow the building and loan to collapse, much more money will be spent propping it up financially while still sending the average funding to the charter/private school to make its profits than ever was required before the charter siphoned off the children whose education is less expensive to provide. This is the reason “school choice” with tax money following the student into the accounts of the charter/private school, if allowed to continue unhindered will inevitably result in public school districts either closing their doors or requiring huge infusions of taxpayer cash to cover the actual education expenses of the students who are left (the students with the greatest needs). Yes, money is made in “school choice” schemes, but the money is made on the back of the taxpayer and goes into the pocket of the company operating the charter/private school.
The crisis scene of It’s a Wonderful Life ends on a happy note as most of the community members with money in the building and loan realize the sense in what George is telling them. They see that they are investors and partners in a cooperative partnership with the other community members providing resources and opportunities when and if they need the services of the institution. This type of partnership cannot be accomplished without everyone paying into the pool, both those who need the greater services and those who do not. My friends, we are all taxpayers, we have no choice in the matter and our state constitution mandates that all children will receive a free education. Therefore, we cannot opt out of paying for this education for each and every child. The only question is whether we want to invest these tax funds into the students who need the services and into our community members, or whether we will give the investment to Mr. Potter and his handful of shareholders and abandon the cooperative we have together. Make no mistake, the end result in years to come can only be the ending of education for every child or even more money required to fund the education of children needing higher than average expenses while at the same time maintaining the profit margin of the charter/private school shareholders.