The two major political parties are drafting their platforms. Here is my platform, based on the ideas I believe our society has forgotten after fifteen years of test-and-punish accountability. I believe we have been traveling down the wrong road for such a long time that we have lost our way.
Introduction A comprehensive system of public education, that serves all children and is democratically governed, publicly funded, universally accessible, and accountable to the public, is central to the common good. Historically it has been the role of the 50 states to establish and implement a fair system of funding and regulating public education; of local school districts to share the responsibility for funding and to administer the schools in their localities; and of the federal government to protect the civil rights of our nation’s children by ensuring that schools serve all groups of children—children of every race, ethnicity, economic level—and ensuring that schools serve children with special needs— children with disabilities and children learning English.
A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. Likewise public schools are intended to serve the needs of particular children and at the same time to serve our society by preparing citizens to participate actively in our democracy. Today, our society has moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self-interest at the expense of community responsibility. The result has been the abandonment of the common good. While some may suggest that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the needs of society, there is no evidence that individual choices based on self-interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population. As a matter of justice, our society must strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by government for those who have lacked rights and recognize the important role of government for providing public services on behalf of the community.
Close Opportunity Gaps at School Resources available to provide services for children in their public schools are wildly uneven across the United States. Opportunity gaps are the differences in resources that society provides for children and schools from place to place. Large in-school opportunity gaps define the differences in public resources available to public schools. While children in wealthy suburban schools have access to advanced curricula, abundant technology, the most experienced teachers, and a rich exposure to art, music and other enrichments and a wide array of co-curricular activities, children in our city schools and rural schools lack these amenities that more privileged children merely take for granted.
- States must be pressed to provide adequate funding, equitably distributed. The federal government should expand the support provided by the Title I Formula for the schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, should fulfill its promise that the federal government will pay 40 percent of the cost of services required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and should proactively create penalties for states that persist in funding public education inequitably.
- Our society’s highest education priority must be to invest in and support—instead of punishing—the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.
- It is time to guarantee for all children in the United States a comparable opportunity to learn that includes a quality early childhood education, highly qualified teachers, a curriculum that will prepare students for college, work and community, and equitable instructional resources.
- Punitive, zero tolerance, and so-called “broken windows” school discipline must be replaced with school discipline that is restorative and that models human respect.
Close Opportunity Gaps in the Community by Supporting Students Whose Needs are Greatest A half century of research demonstrates the correlation between children’s low achievement at school and family poverty. Poor children can surely thrive and do well at school, but in the aggregate, children whose families face severe economic challenges are less likely to do well at school. Further, as integral neighborhood institutions, public schools and their students and teachers are affected by social and political policies that undermine families and neighborhoods. Policies that affect families and communities outside school directly impact on the capacity of public schools.
- Tax and budget policies need to reduce disparities between rich and poor, strengthen democracy, and provide greater opportunity. Paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses. The tax code must be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means.
- Families benefit from the careful and intentional development of full-service, wraparound Community Schools that bring social and health services—health clinics, dental clinics, mental health clinics, after school programs, Head Start, and parent support programs—right into the school building. Community Schools ensure that the public school is the center of the neighborhood.
- Families need affordable, accessible, quality child care.
- Families need a guaranteed living wage and labor policies that protect workers by establishing work schedules and ensuring that employers inform their employees in advance of their work hours. Families need employers to provide medical leave and maternity leave.
- Families need access to affordable housing. Families depend on Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
- Families need access to diverse neighborhoods protected by enforcement of fair housing laws and the development of creative programs like inter-district magnet schools as models for economic and racial integration.
Reject Abrogation of Democracy through Privatization and Top-Down Appointed Governance Privatization and top-down management of schools and districts by appointed overseers are being posed today as the way to improve education by bringing efficiency and the supposed cost savings of market competition to the poorest schools of our cities. Such “school reforms” have eliminated democracy, particularly in poor communities of color.
Privatization is being expanded across the states through vouchers and tuition tax credits which use public funds to pay for students to attend private and parochial schools. Charter schools are another form of privatization. While charter schools are publicly funded, they are defined by their private management; in fact, in a number of key decisions the courts have now defined charter schools as a form of school privatization.
Privatization, framed as free choice and freedom from the constraints imposed by government, raises serious questions, however. Isn’t it a mistake in scale to assume we can improve the public schools that serve over 50 million students with a reform imagined one school at a time? Is it possible to build an education system that offers good choices for each child while providing quality services for all children? Is growing reliance on charter schools and other privatized strategies creating one set of schools for the most promising children while turning traditional public schools across our cities into schools of last resort? Aren’t we relying on a lifeboat strategy for a relatively few children when instead we need to invest in buoying up the public system, especially in America’s poorest communities?
- State takeover of schools and entire school districts followed by the appointment of management czars with the power to override the decisions of elected school boards and nullify union contracts is undemocratic, unaccountable, and without democratic checks and balances. Such takeovers almost always lead to privatization when private management companies are hired to operate the schools as charters. Top-down, imposed state takeovers should be eliminated.
- Mayoral governance with appointed school boards undermines democracy and frequently results in “Portfolio School Management” in which a school district is understood like a stock portfolio—new charters opened—low scoring schools closed—in a cycle of constant churn as all of the district’s schools are pitted against each other through competition for higher test scores. Schools should be restored to governance by democratically elected school boards.
- The theory of Portfolio School Reform (being promoted across a network of big-city school districts by the Center on Reinventing Public Education) is damaging to public education because it pits schools against each other in a perpetual competition for ever higher test scores. Portfolio School Reform should be avoided. Almost inevitably Portfolio School Reform results in the closure of the public schools that anchor the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities. By encouraging the ongoing expansion of charter schools, Portfolio School Reform undermines the fiscal viability of the very school districts it purports to save as dollars increasingly flow out of the school district budget to the new privatized alternatives at the same time the school district must serve students who are the most expensive to educate—the poorest students, severely disabled students, and English learners. The theory of Portfolio School Reform is the provision of “good choices” for all children in every neighborhood; there is no evidence, however, that all children can be provided good choices when the privatized schools that compete with public schools fail to serve the children with expensive needs and/or children whose test scores are likely to be low.
- Vouchers and tuition tax credits must be ended because they suck desperately needed dollars out of state education budgets and because they undermine the protection of religious liberty as defined by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
- There should be a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools and these schools ought eventually to be phased out. While several organizations have provided excellent recommendations for the regulation of charter schools, it is clear that with uncontrolled financial donations to state legislators along with the activities of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it is virtually impossible for state legislatures to pass adequate regulations to protect public investment and to ensure academic quality.
- The American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization that pairs member corporate lobbyists and member state legislators collaboratively to write model bills that can be introduced in any of the 50 state legislatures, should be denied its current status by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit. It must be treated as a lobbying organization.
- Charter schools should be immediately closed when it can be demonstrated that they neglect to serve all children due to enrollment caps and the imposition of obvious and subtle selection screens.
- For-profit charter schools should be eliminated. Tax dollars should not be transferred into private profits.
Restore Respect for a Profession of Well Trained, Certified Teachers Our society must stop scapegoating school teachers. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act demanded that teachers become accountable for students’ test scores, but the law failed to invest in improving schools and addressing poverty. Its strategy was to threaten teachers whose students’ scores did not quickly rise. Subsequent federal policies followed—turning around schools by firing 50 percent or more of a school’s teachers and forcing states to pass laws that incorporated students’ test scores in formal evaluations of teachers. The new, 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act uncouples, in federal law, the formal evaluation of teachers from students’ standardized test scores.
- Federal law now uncouples evaluation of school teachers from students’ test scores. Efforts are essential across the states to revise the wave of state laws—passed by legislatures to comply with federal policies— that tied teacher evaluation to standardized test scores. Extensive research demonstrates that value-added formulas to judge teachers by their students’ scores are unreliable and inaccurate.
- Programs like Teach for America that replace certified, college-trained teachers with alternatively credentialed college graduates—who have no training in education and only a five-week summer program as preparation—have been shown to fill our nation’s poorest school districts with inexperienced teachers and to increase churn among teachers, when the recruits sign up for two year stints. Congress should cease to define alternatively credentialed teachers as “highly qualified.”
- It is time to recognize that states and school districts with the strongest teachers unions have been shown by research to be the highest achieving. Unjustified attacks on teachers unions must be rejected.
End Test-and-Punish No Child Left Behind embedded into federal law a mammoth infrastructure of high stakes testing. All students were tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Their scores were aggregated by race, ethnicity, and economic level. Schools were judged by their capacity to raise the scores of all students. Federally approved punishments followed for schools unable quickly to raise scores. The reauthorized federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December of 2015 mandates the continuation of high stakes testing for all students on the same schedule. The only difference is that the states, not the federal government, are now required to develop plans to remediate the schools that cannot quickly raise scores.
- New scores released in April of 2016 for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a national test considered the best gauge of our public schools over time, demonstrate that a 15 year regimen of high stakes testing has neither improved school achievement nor closed achievement gaps. After a generation of high stakes testing, high school seniors’ math scores declined, reading scores flat-lined, and the test scores of the lowest achieving students dropped farther than those of other students. The tests have narrowed the curriculum to the tested subjects of reading and math, and have filled the school day with mind-numbing drilling and test prep. If national standardized testing is to be continued, grade-span testing—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school is preferable to annual testing.
- High stakes should be removed, and neither school districts, nor schools nor teachers should be punished for students’ scores. When parents opt their children out of testing, neither child, nor school, nor school district, nor state should be penalized. A philosophy of punishment should be replaced by one of school investment and improvement.
Conclusion Public schools are not utopian; as primary civic institutions, they are likely to reflect the injustices of our society. Citizens must provide ongoing oversight and demand corrections by law. Justice in public education—the distribution of opportunity for all children and not just for some— can only be achieved systemically. The public schools are the optimal institutions for balancing the needs of each particular child and family and at the same time securing the rights and addressing the needs of all children.