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.