For generations our society has committed itself to the provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—as the best institution for balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the need to crate a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.
New articles published this week trace two specific ways we are veering from these ideals.
In the New York Times, Eduardo Porter reports that In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich. Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, who manages international educational assessments for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.): “The bottom line is that the vast majority of O.E.C.D. countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students. The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.” Porter provides stunning numbers that document educational investment disparities reminiscent of the Savage Inequalities Jonathan Kozol reported 22 years ago. According to Porter, “In New York… in 2011 the value of property in the poorest 10 percent of school districts amounted to some $287,000 per student…. In the richest districts it amounted, on average, to $1.9 million.” Porter reports that spending per-pupil across the states ranges from $19,000 in New York to $8,200 in Tennessee to $5,321 in Alpine, Utah.
Instead of setting out to equalize public investment from state to state or school district to school district, leaders of both political parties are pushing privatization and school choice as though they are a solution to the problems posed by child poverty, inequality, and vastly unequal school investment. Writing for SALON.com, Jeff Bryant explicates The Charter-School Lie: Market-Based Education Gambles with Our Children. According to Bryant, marketplace education reform is conceptualized around the idea of creative destruction—on-going churn. “The supposed benefit to all this is that parents get a ‘choice’ about where they send their children to school. But while parents are pushed to pick their schools in the increasingly turbulent bazaar of ‘choice,’ the game resembles much less a level playing field and much more a game of chance in which the house rules determine the odds.” “Abruptly opening and closing schools—leaving school children, parents and communities in the lurch and taxpayers holding the bag—is not a matter of happenstance. It’s by design.”
The school reform strategy Bryant describes has a name: “portfolio school reform”—school districts managed like a business portfolio of traditional public and charter or voucher alternatives all managed through ongoing ‘creative destruction’—new schools opening and others continually closing. Significantly the school districts listed as “portfolio school districts” on the website of the Center for Reinventing Public Education are the same kind of districts Porter describes in his NY Times piece. They are 35 big city school districts where poverty is concentrated, where inequality and segregation have been rigidified, and where state spending is not enough to bring investment per pupil to the level in the surrounding suburban school districts. They include Baltimore, Bridgeport, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Hartford, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis/Shelby County, New Haven, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.
Our society’s most urgent educational priority must be to invest in improving the public schools in the communities where family poverty is concentrated, very often the same places that lack property tax wealth. School choice, as Bryant points out, is at best a gamble in an era of constant churn with schools being opened and closed in an ongoing cycle. Our historic vision of public schools as the heart of our neighborhoods—schools that are publicly owned and publicly accountable—is a far better bet for our poorest children and for our society.