Top-Down Control of Schools Is Alluring—But It Never Works

Jal Mehta, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has published at Salon an excerpt from his new book, The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling. Mehta’s analysis of the history of public school reform in the United States is fascinating.

I disagree with the elitism of Mehta’s critique of today’s schooling in the last section of the article, and I’ll clarify my critique right at the beginning.  Mehta blames today’s teachers: “The people we draw into teaching are less than our most talented; we give them short or nonexistent training and equip them with little relevant knowledge…”

What we need, according to Mehta, is to improve teachers and then reduce bureaucratic regulation.  I believe we certainly ought to do our best to train teachers and we ought to attract promising candidates to become teachers, but I do not think our education problems today derive primarily from incompetent teachers.  International studies clearly demonstrate that American schools in wealthy communities produce among the world’s highest scores.  And as many have pointed out, there is no reason to believe that all of our nation’s teaching talent has avoided the schools where children’s scores are low.  Broader social problems like rising inequality and hypersegregation of students by race and poverty have been demonstrated again and again to impact children’s learning.

And what about Mehta’s worry about bureaucratic regulation? Today’s catastrophic experiment with unregulated charters demonstrates the precise reason why the kind of oversight we have today in public school districts is important: we need regulations to protect the children, to protect the rights of the teachers, and to protect the investment of the public.  I am concerned that like many education critics, Mehta situates his critique within the schools when I believe the serious problems in urban education are located in society itself.  (Mehta actually admits to the role of broader social problems, but then turns back to improving teaching as a more viable strategy for raising achievement.)

All that said, Mehta’s history of test-and-punish—the first two-thirds of his article—is a brilliant analysis of the failure during the 20th century of “repeated efforts to ‘order’ schools from above… Why have American reformers repeatedly invested such high hopes in these instruments of control despite their track record of mixed results at best?  What assumptions about human nature, individual psychology, organizational sociology, teachers, and students underlie these repeated efforts to ‘rationalize’ schooling?  Politically, why have the recent movements triumphed despite the resistance of the strongest interest group in the arena, the teachers unions?”

Mehta describes “Taylorism,” a movement that transformed schools before 1920 after muckrakers criticized an “inefficient patchwork” of schools.  “At the top of this pyramid was a group of city superintendents, who utilized rudimentary tests and cost accounting procedures to compare teachers and schools in an effort to hold practitioners accountable…. Using scientific management techniques, they transformed a set of one-room schoolhouses into the bureaucratic ‘one best system’ of city administration that still persists today.”  Then in the 1960s and 1970s another movement “generated more than 70 state laws seeking to create educational accountability…. The supporting logic this time came not only from industry but also from the U.S. Defense Department, whose pioneering quantitative techniques were transposed to education.”

Both of these movements and today’s wave of test-and-punish share what Mehta describes as “the allure of order.”  “In the name of efficiency, all three sought to reduce variation among schools in favor of greater centralized standardization and control…. In each of these cases power shifted upwards, away from teachers and schools and toward central administrators.  Similar conceptions of motivation drove the three sets of reformers, each using some version of standards and testing to incentivize teachers to do their biding.  Each of the movements prized quantitative data and elevated a scientific vision of data driven improvement over a more humanistic view of educational purposes.”

Mehta continues: “By comparative standards, America has a weak welfare state, a decentralized education system, a segregated and unequal social geography, an under-professionalized educational field, and very high expectations for its schools.  Within this context, ‘crises’ of schooling are inevitable…. Policymakers… quite reasonably seek to act but act within constraints imposed by a fairly conservative political economy.  They want to improve schools, but they cannot (or perceive they cannot) integrate students by race or income level or provide significantly stronger social supports.  Within this context, a logic of scientific rationalization is an attractive solution. Backed by science and drawing on the logic of industry, it promises to impose efficiency across an unruly educational landscape—centralizing a decentralized system, holding educators accountable, and protecting taxpayer money.  Unfortunately, standards and accountability are a weak technology to produce the outcomes policymakers seek.”

By all means we ought to do all we can to attract great candidates to our colleges of education and we ought to improve the education of our prospective teachers and support them with ongoing enrichment.  However, I continue to believe that unless we reduce inequality, address segregation by race and also by class, and ameliorate child poverty, our schools will be challenged by the very difficult circumstances in children’s lives. I agree with Mehta that, “Education reformers have it all wrong; accountability from above never works.”  He adds: “Great teaching always does.”  I would correct Mehta by pointing out that concentrated poverty in a hypersegregated school setting challenges even the best teachers.

Wisconsin Republican Compromise Ups State Ed Budget, Then Steals the Money for Vouchers

Wisconsin, led by extreme-right Governor Scott Walker, demonstrates how one party state government can execute a compromise.  In February, Walker proposed cutting $127 million out of the budget for K-12 public education.  Last week the Republican dominated state legislature put back a good part of that money.  Then the legislature re-directed much of it away from public education to private and parochial schools.

Here is how Jessie Opoien of the Capital Times describes what happened: “The co-chairs of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee said on Tuesday its Republican members have reached an agreement to provide an additional $200 million for K-12 education than what Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his two-year budget.  The funds will restore a $127 million cut next year that was proposed in Walker’s budget, and will provide an additional $100 per pupil in state aid the following year.”

Except here’s the catch, according to Wisconsin Public Radio: “Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee filled Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed cut to public schools… but they also changed the way the state pays for school vouchers.  From now on, public and private voucher schools will both be competing for the same pot of money.  In the first year of the budget, that means voucher schools will get $18 million more while public schools get $18 million less.”

An Associated Press report explains the details.  The plan would lift a 1,000 student cap statewide on the number of vouchers and let any public school student apply.  Students in grades K-8 would receive $7,210 from their local school district to attend a voucher school.  School districts would have to provide $7,856 for any high school student.  In the 2014-2015 school year more than 3,500 students applied for a voucher, indicating that the new legislation would rapidly expand school choice beyond the current 1,000 student cap.  Like other states with voucher programs, Wisconsin does not require a student to have been enrolled in a public school  before applying for a voucher.  This means that students already enrolled in private and parochial schools could qualify for public funds to underwrite their private school education.

Ruth Conniff of The Progressive enumerates the provisions that will expand privatization across Wisconsin:

  • “A much-touted ‘restoration’ of school funding cuts proposed by Governor Walker, but, at the same time, a statewide voucher expansion which will direct much of that funding to private schools.
  • “Special needs vouchers for disabled children….
  • “Apples-and-oranges testing requirements that hold charter and voucher schools to a different assessment standard than regular public schools.
  • “A provision allowing teachers to become licensed based on work experience if they hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • “A phased-in takeover of high-poverty, low-performing Milwaukee public schools.”

Conniff adds that what is proposed for Milwaukee is a sort of Recovery School District like the one in New Orleans. It would take over so-called failing schools and very likely lead to closing schools and firing teachers.

Democratic members of Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee proposed their own plan that would have invested in public education, but the final vote was along party lines. Because Republicans are in the majority in both legislative chambers, their proposal won.

“Lift from the Bottom”—not “Race to the Top”— Is the Moral Imperative

Four years ago I listened as the Rev. Jesse Jackson defined what is wrong with today’s policies that shape the public schools.  His formulation was so pithy and so perfectly pointed at the real problem that I will never forget it.  Here is what he said: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Our deepest problem in public education is not really about some kind of technical solution to a teaching problem. Neither is it primarily a governance problem relating to elected or mayoral-appointed school boards. Neither is it about the advisability or use or administration of standards and tests, though that (very real and problematic) subject is dominating the press right now.  Our great dilemma these days is one of public morality—how we think about ourselves in community—the degree to which we care for one another—whether we address that concern in the public institutions that  serve the whole community not just individuals one at a time.  “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Blogger and Pennsylvania school teacher Peter Greene captures this reality in a recent and very prophetic blog post: “Charter fans brag about their successes.  They tell the starfish story.  They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners… and allowing them to rise.  And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting… Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It’s left behind, abandoned.  There’s no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow.  Just cut it loose.  Let it go.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we’ve decided are Worth Saving… This is a societal model based on discarding people.  This is a school model based on discarding students… I repeat: It is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement. But I keep thinking of the ballast.”

The notion of “lifting from the bottom” has historically been at the heart of America’s understanding of public education.  In 1899, philosopher John Dewey declared, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” (The School and Society, p. 1)  Public education has been central to our definition of public responsibility.  We have believed that we are all responsible for the children who are the future citizens and leaders of our democracy—everybody.

That the idea of “race to the top” seems to have replaced the ideal of “lift from the bottom” says something about our culture’s current love affair with individualism and competition. We admire the individuals who win the race, but we don’t worry so much about everybody else. In a piece last week, the Rev. John Thomas, the former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, describes The Shrinking Public: “One of our great national stories is the flowering of public institutions—public libraries, public parks, public schools, public services, public highways, public office, public transportation, public universities, public health agencies…. Yet today that public is shrinking… Privately operated charter schools replacing closed public schools.  Tax credits for private donations to private schools, financed by public dollars.  Reduced staffing and hours at public libraries.  Rentals of public parks for the exclusive galas of private individuals.  Decaying public infrastructure, especially for public transportation.  Toll roads sold to private enterprises.  Slashed funding for public universities and, in places like Wisconsin, attempts to transform the intellectual underpinnings of higher education with the pinched goal of merely serving the employment needs of private business… Today’s wars are being fought not by a public army but by private contractors like the infamous Blackwater Corporation.  And as is obscenely apparent across the political spectrum, political campaigns for public office are being financed by an elite group of extremely wealthy private donors who will expect winners to serve their narrow private interests.”

Edwardo Porter, writing for the NY Times, describes the consequences of the substitution of an ethos of “racing to the top” for an ethic of “lifting up the bottom”: “Three or four decades ago, the United States was the most prosperous country on earth.  It had the mightiest military and the most advanced technologies known to humanity.  Today, it’s still the richest, strongest and most inventive.  But when it comes to the health, well-being and shared prosperity of its people, the United States has fallen far behind… (B)laming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy.  Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries.  What set the United States apart—what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense—was the nature of its response.  Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together… Call it a failure of solidarity.  The conservative narrative of America’s social downfall, articulated by the likes of Charles Murray… posits that a large welfare state, built from the time of the New Deal in the 1030s through the era of the Great Society in the 1960s, sapped Americans’ industriousness and undermined their moral fiber.  A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of…  Call it a failure of solidarity.”

Porter cites statistics that demonstrate where our ethos of “racing to the top” has taken us.  Life expectancy has fallen for newborn girls to the degree that the U.S. now ranks 29th of 34 industrialized nations.  U.S. infant mortality continues to rise.  And in the area of public education, Porter presents the research of Stanford sociologist, Sean Reardon that, “the achievement gap between rich and poor children seems to have been steadily expanding for the last 50 years.”

Public Agenda Releases In-Depth Resources on Charter Schools

Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation have just published on-line a rich and informative set of resources on charter schools.  You will find a comprehensive summary of facts and details about charter schools and questions you should be asking yourself when you hear about or read about them.  This is a nonpartisan summary of current research.  Because the experiment with charter schools is ideological—charters are the centerpiece of an experiment with marketplace school choice—and because charters are so different from place to place, you won’t find the answer in this publication to the ultimate question: Are charter schools a good idea?

Several shorter pieces accompany the longer report. Two short resources—10 Questions for Journalists and 10 Questions for Policymakers—target specific constituencies.  A third, Are Charter Schools a Good Way to Improve Education in Our Community?, is a discussion starter for a parent or civic organization. In a few pages it presents facts about charter schools—that they are largely an urban phenomenon and make up about 6 percent of publicly funded schools today—and broad questions to consider.

Public Agenda’s new publication is fair and comprehensive in its description of the research.  Explaining why authoritative research about charter schools is hard to find, the Guide to Research describes serious challenges: “Students, schools and the laws governing them vary considerably across the country… Some charter schools are freestanding, while others are managed by larger organizations. States vary in their regulations, including whether or not they cap the number of charter schools that are allowed to open and the certifications they require for teachers. States, districts and schools differ in many ways, such as school financing and in demographics. And most charter school studies use samples of charter schools and students that are not representative of all charter schools and students. Researchers can therefore generalize their findings only to the specific student population, geographic location or type of charter school that they studied.”

Public Agenda’s resources, filled with facts and the questions policy makers, journalists, and citizens should ask, remind us that we ought to be questioning far more deeply the rapid expansion of charter schools and wondering what all this means for our children, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our society.  The longer Guide to Research provides background research summaries and the key questions people ought to ask in a number of areas—such issues as Key Facts about Charter Schools, Reading the Research, Student Achievement, Diversity and Inclusion, Teachers and Teaching, Innovation, Finances, Governance and Regulation, Charter School Operators, Families, Public Opinion, and Questions for Future Research.

Each section is an in-depth, nonpartisan summary of a mass of current research.  Many readers will need guidance to begin to digest all this information.  Users of the guide will still need to search for journalism by researchers who have key contacts (including whistle blowers) who know some of the answers about how all this is working on the ground: Stephanie Simon’s piece several years ago for Reuters, for example, or last summer’s Detroit Free Press‘s week-long expose on the charter fiasco in Detroit, or some serious questioning by Robin Lake, the promoter of portfolio school reform who has begun raising concerns about her own organization’s strategy as it is playing out in charter schools in Detroit.  And, of course, there is all the controversy in New York City about promotion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters by wealthy hedge fund managers.  Finally the Cashing In On Kids website regularly posts investigations of charter schools—answers to some of the questions Public Agenda raises.  Cashing In On Kids, for example, has recently posted a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy & Coalition for Community Schools, System Failure: Louisiana’s Broken Charter School Law, an investigation that makes no attempt to disguise the problems with how the New Orleans charter school experiment has failed, from the point of view of the report’s authors: “Underinvestment in oversight leaves Louisiana’s charter schools vulnerable to financial fraud and academic failures.”  Such candor about a report’s point of view is regularly present in the pieces posted at Cashing In On Kids.

Public Agenda’s Discussion Starter does ask the essential question: “Are charter schools a good way to improve education in our community?”  But because the new publication is nonpartisan, Public Agenda does not answer this essentially political question. The Discussion Starter offers three possible answers to the question—“three broad perspectives to think over and discuss.” They are good prompts, as they define three of the most common frames around charter schools: (1) “Charter schools offer parents more and better choices…. And that should be our goal—giving families the power to choose….”  (2) “Charter schools undermine our existing neighborhood schools. They siphon off tax dollars and separate some of the most motivated and knowledgeable parents from our regular schools. (3) Charter schools offer a much-needed chance to try out new ideas and approaches….”

I’ll close by sharing this blog’s point of view: (2) is the correct answer. Charter schools undermine our existing neighborhood schools.  Why? Even though public schools in America have never been perfect and our society has historically under-served groups of students who were marginalized—black and brown students, American Indian students, English language learners, disabled students, poor students, girls— democracy itself has enabled advocates to fight for and win reforms. While our society urgently needs to find ways to expand educational opportunity for vulnerable children, a democratically governed system incorporates public engagement and electoral politics as mechanisms for reform.  We all benefit from public ownership and oversight by state governments and local school boards. And a comprehensive network of public schools, rather than a fragmented patchwork of privately operated alternatives, creates systemic programming that can ensure services for a mass of children with many needs.  As students whose families know how to play the school choice process go to charters, they leave behind in the public schools the students least likely to be acceptable in charters because they are very poor or English learners, or seriously disabled.  The rapid growth of charters is turning our big city school districts into places of last resort for the children whose needs are greatest.  At the same time, as school choice alternatives siphon off more public dollars, public school districts struggle with fewer resources.

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber says it best: “Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Daniel Katz Wonders: Have We Wasted a Decade?

Daniel Katz is the director of Secondary Education and Secondary Special Education Teacher Preparation at Seton Hall University.  In a thoughtful piece he asks the question we all ought to find ourselves wondering when we think about the huge battle around policy to address inequality in public schools: Have We Wasted Over a Decade?  I think I know the answer.  How about you?

Katz examines the history of the education wars, dating back to 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s committee published A Nation at Risk that “alleged persistent failures of our education system,” particularly compared to other nations whose students were scoring higher on standardized tests.  Katz suggests that “the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated than the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983.”

Katz points out that international comparisons show that public schools in the United States score far higher than worriers about America’s loss of competitive edge admit—as long as we evaluate those schools in the United States that serve few poor children.  In a study of results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) test, in the United States: “Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore…. At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students and ‘tied’ with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

Katz also examines a report released last winter by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League, The Iceberg  Effect: An International Look at Often Overlooked Education Indicators.  Katz writes, “The report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes. In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers… These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.”  This blog examined the report here.

Katz would agree with the authors of the report that we need to look beneath the tip of the iceberg: “United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.” “‘Test—Label—Punish’ we have crafted a ‘reform’ environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing—except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators….”

Katz continues: “This calls for a fundamental rebalancing—which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children.  As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.”

What can be done?  Katz lists some choices Congress might have made that would have been superior policies to those prescribed by No Child Left Behind: “What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education at at 40% of average cost which has never been done?  What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ and pledged to invest in school capital improvement…? What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?  What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title I schools? What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?”

Katz knows that even these investments would not have entirely equalized educational opportunity.  But we should join him now in advocating for such reforms as these—instead of test-and-punish.

Vouchers Across the States… and Proposed for New York

Last week when I learned that New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been going around that supposedly progressive state in the Northeast promoting a state Parental Choice in Education Act—a kind of school vouchers, I wondered if maybe we’ve really lost the battle against the privatization of public education, one of our society’s great achievements.  Here is this blog’s post last week on Governor Cuomo’s new proposal for tuition tax credits in New York state.

Vouchers and tuition tax credits both award public dollars as scholarships to students to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Vouchers give away tax dollars directly as scholarships.  Tuition tax credits give big tax breaks to those who contribute to funds for creating the scholarships.  The state education budget—on which public school districts depend—ends up much smaller in both instances.

Here is the Albany Times Union editorial board’s commentary on Governor Cuomo’s proposed tuition tax credits: “A governor who perennially complains about schools’ insatiable appetite for money has suddenly found millions of dollars to burn through for his Parental Choice in Education Act.  It’s a public-private partnership of the worst sort—the public pays the tab, private schools and wealthy donors reap the benefits.  Perhaps Mr. Cuomo sees this as another way to break what he calls the ‘public education monopoly’—as if public schools were not something in which we all have a stake.  But Mr. Cuomo seems to have conflated public education with his animosity for teachers’ unions.”

How does the proposal work? Private donors could “take a tax credit of 75 percent of their donations to nonprofit education foundations, up to $1 million.  Senate and Assembly versions of the bill would allow up to 90 percent.  That’s money shaved off a person’s or a corporation’s tax bill—and they could roll it from year to year if the credit exceeded their tax liability.”

Vouchers have always been popular on the far right. When I read about Cuomo’s new proposal, I wondered if they are trending up across the states.  But here is what I discovered.  Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have programs they identify as vouchers: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  Fifteen states have enacted tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.  Sixteen of these states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin—are one-party states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors.  Pennsylvania, an industrial state in the Northeast, was a Republican one-party state until former Governor Tom Corbett was voted out of office last November in large part due policies that have punished the public schools in cities like Philadelphia, Reading, and Allentown. Clearly a number of states have undertaken such school privatization plans, but expansion of vouchers has not taken off.

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education reports that earlier this week three dozen organizations banded together in New York to “decry the tax break as one that siphons taxpayer money from public schools and funnels it into the pockets of millionaires and billionaires.” The organizations that have joined in coalition represent the 99 Percent—constituents whose members depend on strong public schools for their children and the strength of their communities. It is heartening to see such a broad based coalition— including civic, religious, education, and labor organizations—gathering to defend public education: A. Philip Randolph Institute, AFSCME, Advocates for Children of New York, Alliance for Quality Education, Balcony, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Citizen Action of New York, Citizen Budget Commission, CSEA, DC 37-AFSCME, Interfaith Impact of New York State, La Fuente, League of Women Voters of New York State, Long Island Jobs with Justice, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Make the Road New York, NAACP-New York State Chapter, New York City Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York State AFL-CIO, New York State Association of School Business Officials, New York State Federation of School Administrators, New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York State School Boards Association, New York State United Teachers, New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, Public Employees Federation, Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, Rochester-Finger Lakes Pride @ Work , Rural Schools Association of New York State, School Administrators Association of New York State, Strong Economy for All, The Black Institute, The Council of School Superintendents, United Federation of Teachers, and Working Families Party.

The Albany Times Union editorial board charges Cuomo with refusing fully to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity remedy the state agreed to back in 2006: “What’s perhaps most troubling here is how Mr. Cuomo has railed about the need to put public education on a crash diet, even as advocates accuse him of underfunding needy schools in cities and less affluent rural areas.  Now, suddenly, a state that supposedly could not afford to keep throwing money at public schools has $50 million to $150 million a year for private and parochial schools?”

David Little, Executive Director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State, is quoted in the Alliance for Quality Education’s press release announcing the anti-tax credit coalition: “For New York State to consider diverting available funds away from public education while it has a law that unconstitutionally withholds funds from school districts is unconscionable.  If the state cannot afford its public educational system, it certainly can’t afford a second one.”

Individualism vs. Community: the Tragedy of Small Thinking and Small Hopes

Arthur Camins is the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology, but Camins is a humanist, not a technocrat.  In a new piece at Huffington Post, Camins explains that what’s gone wrong with our thinking about public education is at the level of our deepest values: “The anthem of the civil rights movement was not, I will get ahead, but We Shall Overcome.  The vehicle for ‘bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice’ was not winning competitions with neighbors or winning a competition with fellow workers for merit bonuses, but rather walking hand-in-hand.  Maybe the most important historical lesson is that only mass collective action guided by a moral vision will pressure elected leaders to prioritize the interest of the many over the selfish demands of the few.”

How does all this apply to public education policy? “(A)dvocacy for charter schools and vouchers is framed as the personal right to choose a school.”  “In contrast to the collective spirit of previous social and economic justice efforts, the core value of current education reform policies is individual advancement.  In fact, its advocates seek to undermine collective action, democracy and community responsibility.  They explicitly accept the notion of improvement for the few at the expense of the many.  This value is reflected in the idea that parents should secure their children’s future by competing for a slot in a charter school. It is evident in the idea that teachers will work harder and smarter when they compete to achieve better student scores than their colleagues in order to receive a financial reward.”  A policy that aims to help a relative few children compete to escape cannot possibly improve the schools that serve the mass of children who are left in what competition has made into big city school districts of last resort for the children who have not won the lottery.

Camins’ thinking is in the tradition of the kind of philosophy that has guided the development of public education for over two centuries.  Consider his words in the context of these other education thinkers:

From the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “(T)he object of public schools is not to credential the educated but to educate the uncredentialed; that is, to change and transform pupils, not merely to exploit their strengths. The challenge in a democracy is to transform every child into an apt pupil, and give every pupil the chance to become an autonomous, thinking person and a deliberative, self-governing citizen: that is to say, to achieve excellence…  Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer.  Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical…  Learning begins at birth, and much of it takes place at home or in the marketplace, in the streets or in front of the television.  Yet, what happens in these venues is largely a private matter… That makes formal schooling, however inadequate, our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goals, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.  Can we afford to privatize the only public institutions we possess?”  (Benjamin Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone, 1992, pp 12-15)

From philosopher of education, Walter Feinberg: “(T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.”  (Walter Feinberg, Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference, 1998, p. 245)

From Mike Rose, UCLA professor of education: “There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more, from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise… Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere…. downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar driven… We have to do better than this.  We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education.” (Why School? 2014 Revised and Expanded Edition, pp. 204-206)

From education historian David Tyack, “But wait. Is education primarily a consumer good or a common good?… If Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey were now to enter policy discussions on public education, they might well ask if Americans have lost their way.  Democracy is about making wise collective choices, not individual consumer choices.  Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time.  They have never been more essential to wise self rule than they are today.” (David Tyack, “Introduction,” School: The Story of American Public Education, 2001, p. 8)

Arthur Camins believes our public education thinking these days derives from what he calls “the audacity of small hopes”: “In the shadow of the Great Recession and after several decades of increasing wealth disparity in the United States, the politically and financially powerful have the audacity to call upon the nation to accept small dreams.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the pathetically small hope that consequential testing and competition—among parents for entry into charter schools, among schools for students, and among teachers for (bonus) pay increases—can lead to substantial education improvement and be a solution to poverty… We can be better than the audacity of small hopes.  The next anthem for equity needs to include the unifying theme: We’re in this together for jobs, justice, and equitable education.”