Bob Braun, the retired education reporter for the Newark Star Ledger and an avid blogger in Newark, NJ, has articulated a big worry. Commenting on a recent conference of public education supporters and advocates in New Jersey, he writes:
“A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education—Betsy DeVos—to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope… What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates—good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one—why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?”
Braun continues: “Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state…. (P)ublic education in New Jersey—and throughout the nation—is in serious trouble. It is underfunded. It is racially segregated. It is in danger of being swept away by charters. Its employees are demoralized. It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic. In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.”
Taking a more positive approach in a recent NY Times commentary, Nikole Hannah-Jones expresses the very same concern. “Even when they (public schools) fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit. The for-profit charters DeVos helped expand have not provided an appreciably better education for Detroit’s children, yet they’ve continued to expand because they are profitable—or as Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent, said, ‘In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.’ ”
Hannah-Jones continues: “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract, and we’ve seen what happens in cities where the social contract is broken: white residents vote against tax hikes to fund schools where they don’t send their children, parks go untended and libraries shutter because affluent people feel no obligation to help pay for things they don’t need… If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public—and on ourselves.”
Both writers hope supporters of public education will be able to sustain the surprising and fascinating outcry that emerged around the DeVos confirmation process in the Senate. For the first time in years we heard Senators and their constituents alike speaking about the value of the public schools for their children and their communities. What will it take to keep that message alive?
I believe there are several reasons public school supporters struggle to sustain a strong voice in support of public education. First there is all the money being spent to undermine public education. As long as the law permits unlimited political contributions from individuals, PACs, Super PACs, Dark Money Groups, and corporate-driven lobbying organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it will be difficult for the folks who use the public schools—the parents of 90 percent of our children and their allies—to be heard above the din. Public education policy for decades now has been driven by the One Percent, even though public schools serve the children of the 99 Percent. That is why Bob Braun begs public school advocates to discipline themselves to one well-framed narrative that can be relentlessly driven home.
Second there is the problem created by the privatizers’ clever messaging. The ideologues who have framed the privatizers’ message know how to touch the heart by evoking the beloved story of the American Dream—the story that success is individual, accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience in a tough and competitive world. This narrative teaches that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place. Of course we may acknowledge that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others. So… we adjust our thinking—celebrating the outliers who have surmounted the obstacles and succeeded anyway. We create a voucher or a charter school for the childhood strivers who seem to have earned it. Some of us are even willing to articulate this strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve to escape.” But when Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration suggest we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape into the lifeboat of vouchers or charter schools, they are presenting a plan that would further isolate the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them.
The problem here is ethical; it is not really a matter of public policy. Do we believe in individualism and competition above all, or are we committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who 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.”
A third problem is in the realm of public policy, but it is an issue nobody is willing to name. Extreme poverty and inequality are undermining children’s opportunities. Public school supporters will sometimes acknowledge the issue of poverty, but the varied strategies by which they dance around this huge problem undermine their capacity to frame a strong central narrative of support for public education. Opponents of public schools, of course, determinedly prescribe privatization as the cure, without a shred of evidence that privatizing schools helps poor children.
Years’ of research confirm conclusively that, in the aggregate, test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more than they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty—in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income—has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty. Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.
On top of our failure to name and address family poverty, our school accountability system demands quick school turnarounds. The federal testing and accountability agenda—created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002 and still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act—makes it even harder for our society to acknowledge the role of poverty in school achievement. The federal government judges our schools by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and federal law punishes (and insists that states punish) the schools and the school teachers and children in the very poorest schools where test scores don’t quickly rise. Instead of investing in and supporting the schools in our poorest communities, we close the the schools or replace their principals or their teachers. Or we privatize the schools when charter and voucher supporters like Trump or Pence or DeVos tell us that will solve the problem.
For public education supporters, one big challenge is political: to create the will for society to address honestly the well documented educational implications of extreme poverty. A second challenge is a matter of public ethics: to replace the far-right’s American Dream narrative (based on competition and escapes for the most able children) with a compelling narrative of social responsibility for lifting up every child.
A system of public schools, while never perfect, is the best way to meet the needs of all of our children and, through democratic governance, to protect their rights.