How Did We Forget That We’re All Stakeholders in the Public Schools

In the November election, by a startling margin of 60 percent to 40 percent, voters defeated Georgia’s constitutional amendment to allow the establishment of a state-takeover school district.  During the campaign as voters learned that the state would likely operate struggling schools through huge, private, charter management companies, they turned against the plan. It’s amazing that anybody except right-wing ideologues thought the Georgia Opportunity District was a good idea in the first place, but maybe until the campaign for Amendment 1 got under way, people were relatively uninformed. Unless we are teachers or parents, we may not be paying close enough attention to public education these days to understand the ins and outs of any particular school governance plan.  When was it that so many of us stopped really considering ourselves active stakeholders in the way our community educates its children?

Myra Blackmon, writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, considers the role of the public in the defeat of Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity School District: “Liberals and conservatives, rural and urban residents, people of all races decided that a state takeover of local schools deemed poor performers is not a tolerable solution. At the same time, there was no ballot initiative that let people weigh in on exactly how they want to improve education.”  Blackmon explains that people gathered together when they were informed enough to fear a bad plan. She encourages people to stay engaged and work together to improve the schools that would have been turned over to the state: “Georgians have a unique opportunity to continue to work across partisan and demographic lines to address problems in schools that serve large populations of poor people in communities that often lack resources. There are several possibilities for this unusual alliance to continue its newfound influence.”

What kind of information did it take to get voters’ attention and defeat Amendment 1 in Georgia?  A fact sheet about state takeover school districts from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools provides some of the disturbing data about such districts that are already  operating in three states—Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee:

  • “Most schools, once absorbed by the state district, are converted to charters.  Although all 3 state takeover laws provided for other options, 107 of the 116 schools currently operating have been converted to charter schools.”
  • “Of the 44,000 students enrolled in these schools, 96% are African American or Latino.”
  • “Student results have not justified the takeovers. In Louisiana where the Recovery School District (RSD) is the nation’s first all-charter district, 41% of the schools received a D or F grade under the state’s accountability system. In Tennessee, student results under the Achievement School District (ASD) lagged behind those of students in schools that were being supported by the local district… In Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) 79% of students either showed no improvement, or lost ground on state assessments.”
  • Finally there is the issue of rapid turnover of teachers—in Michigan, a turnover rate of 50 percent in the first two years.  In Tennessee, after the first year, 46% of teachers left their jobs.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools instead prescribes some research-based reforms that are “consistently associated with stronger student outcomes”—all of them directed at improving the traditional public schools that serve the mass of our children: ensuring high quality early childhood and pre-K programs for all children; filling the public schools with experienced educators who collaborate; making sure all students have access to a broad, engaging and culturally relevant curriculum; creating a school climate that is safe, nurturing and respectful; engaging parents; and in poor communities, adding wraparound supports for children and families including health and social services and co-curricular enrichment for children. Most essential is ensuring opportunity by taxing ourselves to provide adequate school resources, equitably distributed.  The Alliance asks society to recognize its basic moral responsibility to provide what is necessary for children.

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (see here and here) instead have a plan for privatization—different than Governor Deal’s idea in Georgia but even more devastating.  They say they will redirect federal funds away from the public schools to create block grants for states to expand vouchers and charter schools. Instead of supporting the public institutions that serve over 90 percent of our children across the United States, they say they will use federal dollars (and leverage the reallocation of state dollars) to help children “escape.”

Last night I heard a TV news broadcaster mispronounce Betsy DeVos’s name and, without any comment on her agenda for the Department of Education, merely dub her a minor Cabinet nominee. What will it take from those of us who actively support public education to make sure everybody cares enough to learn that Betsy DeVos is a powerful, wealthy philanthropist who has spent millions and millions of dollars over a lifetime promoting the destruction of public education in the name of privatization and marketplace school choice?  Those of us who value public education will need to make sure far more citizens are paying attention. We will need to mobilize around the idea that public education matters. Public schools—publicly funded, publicly owned and publicly accountable through democratic governance—are the institutions best able to serve the needs of all kinds of students and the only institutions that can protect their rights.


6 thoughts on “How Did We Forget That We’re All Stakeholders in the Public Schools

  1. Thanks, Jan, for another excellent article. I think you’ve just given me my next topic for a letter to the editor of our area newspaper.

  2. Thank you for your plea for public engagement in public education.
    But how does one meaningfully become engaged? That is, how do we ‘follow’ the issue of what to do in public education?
    The problem of ‘expert’ knowledge is radically different than ‘common sense’. I’m not sure I have confidence in either side of that divide.
    (And how much time and reflection is required for a citizen to understand policy decisions, beyond their intuitive and/or personal experiences? Let alone considering ‘the law of unintended consequences.’)
    Do I have confidence that schooling and policy at the local level is any more sensible than at the state or federal policy level?
    Because the issue will be ‘what is the goal?’ of public education?
    (Let alone the not-so peripheral education of parochial and private education?)
    With charter schools and educational vouchers, we have created a plethora of failed ‘choices’, even if there are individual cases of satisfaction and ‘success.’
    These are my questions, my challenges, I suppose.
    So, my regular mantra is ‘become engaged in the ‘schooling’ experience.’ Whether it is your own child, or a family member’s. Read the book they are reading. And visit the school, during the day, if possible. Volunteer there if you have ‘any’ time.
    Otherwise, the world of education (public or otherwise) will pass you by.
    Because on the surface, education looks like ‘processing’ and ‘packaging’ of the next generation, so they can join the system of ‘consumer capitalism’, with low-paying jobs, or be one of the managers of that system, (or in the non-profit world, ‘assisting the casualties’, though maybe leading the ‘hollowing out of the public sector’ is what some ‘think-tanks’ are about.)
    There are alternatives to this negative trajectory.
    But we live in such a complex world, that we have ‘off-shored’ the educating of our people, the very substance of ‘who we are.’
    So, take the step into a personal engagement of ‘the education world.’ It will illuminate the issues and one will find one’s bearings by doing it.
    It is what Paulo Freire understands by ‘praxis’: ‘action that is engaged from reflection and personal experience.’ It will lead you to community. Or it comes from being in a community, needing to address its basic needs (and colonization of its life, world, by outside forces.)

    • Mr. Fiala, you raise many, many good questions, points, and issues in your comment to the article Jan has written. In my mind, so many of your points and issues are addressed and questions answered the best way possible through locally controlled, democratically elected school board members representing the taxpayers, citizens, and students. When local control is removed via privately managed charters, vouchers and virtual schools your points, issues and questions will go unanswered and ignored. Thank you for giving me much to think about in your comments.

  3. Mr. Johnson,
    I agree with your thoughts about ‘local’ control and decision-making, even though I raise serious doubts about them in my initial thoughts.
    I think of ‘democracy’ as ‘voting with our feet,’ on the LOCAL LEVEL.
    Or another way, ‘Elect Yourself.’
    (No one should be ‘in charge’ of 330 million people. When such people make an error, it has a big footprint. My mistakes, while serious, don’t ‘destroy’ a planet.
    Or as Wendell Berry has put it aptly, Think LOCALLY, act locally.
    The dangers of local control and decision-making are ‘tribalism,’ which I respect despite its flaws.)
    So, I reiterate my agreement with you.

    I also reiterate my challenge which is I lack confidence (which means ‘trust’ or ‘faith’) in people in power, decision-making authority. It doesn’t mean they don’t make ‘good’ decisions’ or the best decision possible in the moment. or that they are not sincerely trying.
    they have such limited vision often enough, or are confused/absorbed by the ‘bureaucracy’ that they (are ‘lost in thinking they HAVE TO do something’) or lack the personalism, considered reflection, and/or the courage to stand against ‘received opinion’.
    I speak in this vein from a long history of personal failure.

    But I always have hope ‘in the moment.’ We are always free to be ‘open’, to use our vast or limited knowledge, actually to help …. ‘public education’ and all its people within it.
    But to help we need first to love people in the concrete feeling of warmth and personal connection.
    Actually to love all of our parents of our children. And the most difficult children and parents. .. to love them especially. This is such a daily, continuous challenge, that I respect failures, as long as we understand our intent.
    What, then, is the purpose of public education? Well, … to love our planet and everything within it, in the concrete reality of its diversity, multiplicity. And First, to love the place we are in, the watersheds, the people, the architecture, the injustice being transformed into Justice. Nothing less real.

  4. You have written an interesting article. In the USA, education consumed 7.3% of GDP in 2010. No country on earth spends more, and still the USA lags behind other advanced nations in educational achievement.

    The status quo is unacceptable. Spending more money on failed educational policy is not going to garner any public support. That is why it is time to try school choice. Parents need to be empowered to have more control over their education spending.

    No one is talking about the destruction of publicly-supported education. But, our new president-elect, and Ms. DeVos are going to work towards expanding choices for parents, to withdraw their children from dysfunctional schools. Excellent schools have nothing to fear from a voucher plan.

    Has anyone noticed, that the politicians who fight school choice, most often send their children to private/parochial school? Why doesn’t the NEA/AFT insist that politicians send their children to the public schools, which the NEA/AFT champion?

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