Jeanne Allen called it a backpack full of cash, strapped to the back of each student, who would carry it from school to school like a young mule.
It's the child's money. It's the family's money. The money should follow the child.
It has been the reformster mantra for years, and it is enjoying a comeback as we discuss very particular dollars, i.e. the stimulus dollars being thrown at the country to fix everything. Betsy DeVos has been reminding us that she has always believed that money should be tied to "students, not systems" as she does her level best to turn education stimulus money into a windfall for private and charter schools.
So it's worth remembering that the whole rhetorical device of money following children is a kind of genius bit of misdirection. Two points.
First, "the money follows the child" one ups the old passive voice trick of who's actually performing the action here. What's that money there behind you, Pat? I don't know, Mom. It just sort of followed me home.
The money follows the child. It's tied to the child. Something something empowered family. It's money that has just sort of appeared rather than having been collected from taxpayers for a specified purpose and destination. And somehow it is magically divided up into shares-per-student, something that doesn't happen with any other pile of taxpayer money (Where is my share of the highway funding? What's my cut of military spending?) The rhetoric creates the impression that this is all just a natural process that can be tweaked a bit, by someone. It all absolves folks like DeVos of having to say anything like, "I want to give a bunch of taxpayer dollars to that private school."
Which is the second point. It's not about the relationship between the money and the child. It never has been. If that were the reformsters' actual concern, we could have been talking about some method of letting students move from public school district to public school district. We could have proposed some plan that erases the school district lines between East Egg and West Egg school systems and let's enrollment sort itself out with finances to follow. And there are places here and there where such ideas have brought up by folks.
But mostly "money follows the child" is not at all about who or what the money follows-- it's about where the money ends up. Reformsters don't want to make sure that every child gets a nice backpack filled with cash; they want to make sure that they can give taxpayer dollars to privately owned and operated schools.
The argument has never really been that school funding should have some connection to school enrollment. It's about a fig leaf to cover a different idea-- "We want to give public tax dollars to privately owned and operated edu-businesses. We want to give public tax dollars to church schools."
It's about where the money ends up, not how it gets there. It's not about empowering families to carry backpacks full of money around; it's about empowering private and religious entities to collect taxpayer dollars. Don't keep your eye on the backpack. That's just a bit of misdirection--the real trick is happening elsewhere.