School Privatizers Attack a Central Institution of American Democracy

Introducing a column by the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris on the explosion this year of legislation across the 50 state legislatures to expand school privatization, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss begins: “While many Americans see 2021 as the year that may bring back something close to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, it has instead been declared the ‘Year of School Choice’ by the American Federation for Children, an organization that promotes alternatives to public education and that was once headed by Betsy DeVos. Anyone who twas thinking that the departure of DeVos as U.S. education secretary would stem the movement to privatize public education should think again. In numerous states, legislatures have proposed or are considering legislation to expand alternatives to the public schools that educate most American schoolchildren, often using public funding to pay for private and religious school.”

In the piece that follows, Carol Burris examines the contention by Paul Petersen, the Harvard government professor who Burris reminds us is “a longtime cheerleader for market-based school reforms,” and Jeanne Allen who runs the Center for Education Reform, and who, “has never been shy in her hostility toward unions and traditional public schools,” that the legislatures considering school choice are doing so because parents are angry that public schools shut down during the pandemic.

Burris demonstrates that Petersen and Allen are wrong.  The states most active in promoting privatization are instead places where legislatures have tipped toward Republican majorities and in some cases Republican supermajorities.  And they are states where well-funded ideological lobbies for school privatization are working hard.

Burris describes today’s legislative climate for expansion of vouchers and charter schools: “Legislatures in 35 states have proposed bills to enact or expand voucher programs or charter schools. A few have passed; others have failed. Still others are sitting on governors’ desks or are stalled in the state’s House or Senate. Several are obvious attempts to please right-wing donors with no chance of moving out of committee. So far, eight states have enacted one or more bills.” She adds that despite what Petersen and Allen say, “red states with a high rate of open schools are where bills have been passed.”  So… this is definitely not a swelling of parents’ displeasure with public schools in the midst of a pandemic.

Burris covers several states according to a Burbio.com index which tracks the number of students who have been attending fully-open public schools. She explains that in Arkansas, whose legislature just passed a huge tuition tax credit voucher program, Burbio says that 96.8 percent of students were in school full time.  In Wyoming, where school districts have had the capacity to authorize charter schools but where, this spring the legislature created a new process (not yet signed by the governor) to expand charter school authorization to the state level, Burbio says 100 percent of students have been in full-time in-person schooling.  In West Virginia, where the legislature just expanded the number of charter schools, established state authorization of charter schools, permitted new virtual charter schools, and passed the biggest and most expensive Education Savings Account neovoucher program in the country, Burbio says 78 percent of students have been in full-time, in-person schooling.

If the pressure for expansion of vouchers and charter schools did not come from parents, who did it come from?  Burris lists the movers and shakers in four states:

  • In Arkansas, a group called the Reform Alliance (which operates another state voucher program paid for with state money) paid Trace Strategies $180,000 to lobby for the new voucher program. And the Walton Family Foundation donated $1,644,280 to the Reform Alliance.
  • In Wyoming, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools “bragged about how it lobbied for” passage of the new statewide authority to open charter schools.
  • In West Virginia, lobbyists included ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s organization); Stride (the new name of K12Inc.); the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; EdChoice Inc. (formerly the Friedman Foundation for EdChoice); Americans for Prosperity; and ACCEL (a for-profit charter chain run by Ron Packard, who formerly ran K12 Inc).
  • In Kentucky, lobbyists were Stride (formerly K12 Inc); the National Heritage Academies (a for-profit charter school chain); American for Prosperity; ExcelinEd; and Edchoice Kentucky (which Burris describes as a local branch of EdChoice Inc).

Burris concludes: “The movement’s agenda is clear in the minimal accountability and few protections for students included in these bills…. (T)he long-term goal is to undo public education—not only the institution but also the public funding of schools.”

It is a good time to review the ideology underneath the drive for school privatization and to contrast the values articulated by the privatizers with the values that have historically been the foundation of our system of public education since John Adams declared in 1785, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Here are four statements of principle that define the parameters of this debate:

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, an important book published last autumn, education historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire characterize the belief system of the promoters of marketplace school choice:  “An unquestioned faith in markets is at the very heart of the push to unmake public education. Just as consumers choose from a vast array of products in the marketplace… parents should be able to choose where and how their children are educated… Give consumers the freedom to choose where and how to educate their children and the woes of our public schools will finally be fixed…. ‘Bad’ schools will be forced to close as consumers flee them, while ‘good’ schools will proliferate to meet burgeoning consumer demand… Unlike the public education bureaucracy, the market is seen as a paragon of efficiency.  Rather than being directed by some central power, individuals in the market need only seek their own benefit… In this view, markets are a form of natural democracy—one in which individuals express their preferences and those preferences shape outcomes.  Consumers vote with dollars, and the aggregation of those individual votes produces a collective decision.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 15-17)

What’s wrong with this idea? The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber warns that while individuals may serve the needs of their own children, society loses, and the children of the least powerful parents lose the most: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber clarifies how the ideology of school privatization compromises the basic values that have historically been our society’s bedrock: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

In Schoolhouse Burning, another important book published last autumn, Derek Black more precisely defines what public education was imagined to accomplish: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

Groups like Americans for Prosperity, EdChoice, ExcelinEd, the Walton Family Foundation, the American Federation for Children, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools should not be determining the fate of public education in America.  The 50 state constitutions give citizens the responsibility, through the democratic process, of ensuring that their legislators provide public schools which are adequate, equitable, and accessible for all.

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.” —John Adams

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber believed that the American system of public schools—schools located in every community, schools accessible to all, schools paid for by the public—are the heart of our U.S. democracy. And he worried that school privatization and consumerist school choice threaten to fragment our society:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Tom Ultican is retired from a career teaching mathematics and physics at the public Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California.  A prolific California teacher-blogger, Ultican recently described what he learned about the important role of public schools in the small Idaho town where he grew up. The public schools were the engine of educational opportunity, but also the center of the community itself. Ultican lived on a ranch outside the town of Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, where his mother taught school: “It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path: if that education would continue and whether it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was that they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future… Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year-olds did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.”  Additionally Ultican recognizes: “The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school-based relationships.”

Ultican quotes John Adams in 1785 articulating the principles the Founders enacted that year in the first of the Northwest Ordinances, which established the blueprint for U.S. public schooling: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it not founded by a charitable individual but maintained at the expense of the people themselves.”

In his important book published last fall, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black looks back not only at the founding of U.S. public education but also at the major threats to the institution of public schooling throughout our history—the collapse of universal access and school funding in the South after Reconstruction, the bigotry of Jim Crow, the long fight leading to Brown v. Board of Education, and the legal and legislative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.

Black brings his history up to date and concludes that political forces today threaten the very idea of public schooling as seriously as in any of these troubled eras in our history: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together and prepared by public education. The idea is so central that public education became a right and delivering it the constitutional duty of states… The nation, of course, had major setbacks—economic and racial—but those setbacks even when they aimed to, never overcame the fundamental commitment to public education.  Education policies of the last decade, however, do not fit well within the nation’s historical arc. The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment (since the 2008 Recession) in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession…. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming.  To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Like Tom Ultican, U.S. Senator Jon Tester was educated in a small western town, Big Sandy, Montana (population 560), where he still farms today. Not only did Tester attend Big Sandy’s public schools, but he also once taught music at F. E. Miley Elementary School and served for nine years on Big Sandy’s board of education before becoming a Montana state senator and then a U.S. Senator. Tester actively worries about the impact school privatization could have on the public schools in small rural communities like Big Sandy: “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization. My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.” (Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,  pp. 279-280)

What makes the preservation of public education so important?  Here is how Derek Black concludes his history of American public education and what he understands as today’s threat: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

Disciplining Ourselves to Stay On Message and Make a Difference for Our Children and Their Public Schools

Over 50 million children and adolescents attend public schools in the United States. Our public schools are spread across every city, town, suburb and rural area. And because they are established and regulated by laws, they embody a promise to protect the rights and serve the needs of all children. The protections embodied in our laws have expanded over more than two centuries as our society’s understanding of children’s rights and needs has grown.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black reminds readers about the history and significance of our public system of education along with the protection of voting rights as the two central guarantees of our democracy: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together by public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 225) “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and CEO’s children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 250)

Here in Ohio, we’ve been discussing Derek Black’s new book—about 80 of us gathered on ZOOM. Despite the awkwardness of being together for an entirely online event, one advantage of ZOOM is that we were able to invite Derek Black himself to help launch our first evening’s conversation. He presented an introduction to the book’s history of the founding of public schools and all the subsequent threats to public education—as Reconstruction faded into the injustice of the Jim Crow South—as resistance to Brown v. Board of Education met with opposition strong enough to close public schools for four years between 1959 and 1963 and deny public schooling for the African American children in Prince Edward County, Virginia—and as today public schools face an overwhelming financial drain from charter schools and private school tuition vouchers in an era characterized by tax cutting across many states. Last Wednesday evening, Black concluded his formal remarks by reminding us—all supporters of public education—of the need for disciplined messaging as we try to fight the forces working to undermine our neighborhood public schools.

In the book itself Black explains: “Lawmakers, lobbyists, and commentators will tell you… they want to improve educational opportunity.  If you aren’t sure about that, you will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess… (T)oday’s policy debates skew our frame of reference, trick us into looking at the wrong measures of education’s value and purpose, and distract us from the fundamental questions about the role of public education in our democracy.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 49-50)

Derek Black himself discusses some of these same policy questions in his book, but he urges all of us who cover the debates in education policy to remember to pay close attention to framing the issues.  We need to articulate not only the threats but also the meaning and importance of the institution we are defending. And he would have us remember that today’s threats to taxpayer supported public education are historically connected to the period after the collapse of Reconstruction, when lawmakers in states recently readmitted to the union figured out how to segregate Black children and push them into inferior public schools by making education funding rely more and more on local property taxes. Historically we also should remember that the widespread racial and economic segregation of public schools today is the legacy of the more recent past—the post Civil Rights Movement, when wealth and privilege and racism expressed themselves in court decisions that banned desegregation across jurisdictional boundaries and encouraged families with means to insulate their children in exclusive exurbs.

One particular framing concern I find myself and others struggling to overcome is that, as we try to identify the people and organizations pushing bad policy, we forget to to follow through with a clear definition of precisely how that particular person or organization is undermining the public schools Derek Black holds up as our most important democratic institution.  While it is good to know, for example, that Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children or Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd or Democrats for Education Reform or the Heritage Foundation or EdChoice or the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is actively working to undermine public policy with dollars contributed by wealthy Americans, and while it is important to know the names of specific donors, these facts are not enough.  Advocates must also explicitly demonstrate first, what dangerous policy steps that organization or individual is taking to bring about an outcome; second, how that specific policy will directly undermine the public schools in our particular state or local school district; and third, the logic and steps we must employ to counter that policy.

In Chicago, for example, many people accepted Arne Duncan’s (and later Rahm Emanuel’s) neoliberal Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion project as a nice experiment that might bring more choices to Chicago’s families with few choices. But advocates like Jitu Brown—an organizer of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (and now leader of the Journey4Justice Alliance)—realized that what Renaissance 2010 was really accomplishing was the closure of neighborhood public schools across Chicago’s South and West Sides. In 2016, Jitu Brown and other advocates protested the closure of Dyett High School with a 34 day hunger strike. Their advocacy and their action eventually reopened Dyett High School as a public neighborhood high school. After 50 Chicago neighborhood public schools were shut down due to charter school competition in June of 2013, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and sociologist Eve Ewing chronicled the massive and widespread community grieving that followed. Renaissance 2010 is a Portfolio School Reform policy to expand charters, and it’s always good to point that out, and even to point out that the theory came from the Gates funded Center on Reinventing Public Education.  And it is fine to note that it was Arne’s policy later endorsed by Rahm. But what challenged Chicago to look hard at the danger of public-school-destruction was community advocacy about the meaning of the the school closures themselves. Advocates demonstrated that when Chicago tried Renaissance 2010, it destroyed public education across some of that city’s proud but poor Black neighborhoods.

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black pushes advocates to do a better job of framing: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.  As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then committed to during the civil rights movement… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, 238-243)

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber had a way of capturing the principles we must learn to name explicitly  as we advocate for the public schools.  Barber wrote:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber almost perfectly formulates the problem that threatens our public schools in 2021: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Betsy DeVos Still Doesn’t Get the Connection Between Democracy and Our System of Public Schools

A week ago, at one of the nation’s most conservative Christian colleges, Betsy DeVos delivered a vehement attack on the idea of public education. With the election coming up next week, we can hope it was the final attack on the institution of public schooling DeVos will deliver from per perch as U.S. Secretary of Education.

In a column last Wednesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s Hillsdale College address: “In 2015, billionaire Betsy DeVos declared that ‘government really sucks’—and after serving nearly four years as U.S. education secretary, she has not tempered that view one iota.  She gave a speech this week at a Christian college disparaging the U.S. public education system, saying it is set up to replace the home and family. While blasting the government is nothing new for DeVos—critics see her as the most ideological and anti-public-education secretary in the Education Department’s 40-plus-year history—she gave what may be her fiercest anti-government polemic at the Hillsdale College event in her home state…. She explained how her philosophy was formed by Abraham Kuyper, a neo-Calvinist Dutch theologian-turned-politician who was prime minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905 and who believed that Protestant, Catholic and secular groups should run their own independent schools and colleges. The United States could fix its education system, she said, if it were to ‘go Dutch’ by embracing ‘the family as the sovereign sphere that is, a sphere that predates government altogether.'”

Strauss reprints DeVos’s Hillsdale College speech in its entirety. In it DeVos confides to her audience the secret she has learned while serving as our education secretary: “I assume most of you have never stepped foot inside the U.S. Department of Education. And I can report, you haven’t missed much. These past few years I’ve gotten a close-up view of what that building focuses on. And let me tell you, it’s not on students. It’s on rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting ‘the system.'” Remember Betsy’s notorious rebuke all those years ago: “Government really sucks.”

DeVos brags about her accomplishments as Secretary of Education: “(W)e restored state, local, and family control of education by faithfully implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), by ending Common Core, and by urging Congress to put an end to education earmarks by consolidating nearly all Federal K-12 programs into one block grant.  We expanded the in-demand D.C. voucher program…. We supported the creation of more public charter schools… And we support the bipartisan School Choice Now Act.”  Strauss explains that ESSA was passed in 2015 before DeVos became Secretary of Education and tells us that the Common Core had already faded, though it is still in place in several states. Strauss reminds readers that many of the supposed accomplishments DeVos brags about were mere initiatives proposed but never enacted. Congress did not, for example, buy into consolidating all of the Department’s programs into a single block grant, and the School Choice Now Act, introduced by Senator Tim Scott, is merely a proposal for DeVos’s $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships, a tuition tax credit program DeVos has inserted into the department’s budget every year, but a budget appropriation Congress has repeatedly refused to enact. Scott introduced the program as a piece of stand-alone legislation this year, but Congress has not passed the law.

In her Hillsdale College address DeVos suggests that the average U.S. public school expenditure-per-pupil (encompassing federal, state and local dollars) of $15,000 should be given to families like a little portable backpack that the child could carry to whatever education institution the family chooses. Neglecting to point out that the bulk of that money pays for teachers and other essential school staff, DeVos says: “Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: ‘I could educate my child for 15 thousand dollars per year!’.. You could improve your child’s outcomes with that kind of money.  A single parent in Detroit, or Flint, or Grand Rapids could open the door to a better life for their child if only they had control of how taxpayer dollars are spent on their child’s education. America’s parents agree. There’s a mighty chorus, rising in volume and urgency, supporting parental ‘school choice.'”

While Betsy DeVos suggests that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, the political theorist Benjamin Barber explains why choices based on self interest fail to protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards necessary in a modern complex democracy: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)

Because our schools are public, over more than two centuries of our nation’s history, Congress and the 50 state legislatures have been able to pass statutes to protect the rights of all children, and the courts have interpreted these laws to ensure that the the meaning of the promise to protect every child’s rights has expanded. As primary civic institutions the public schools have inevitably embodied the biases and injustices embraced by our society, but over time as advocates have insisted that we learn to understand the ways our public schools have failed to live up to our nation’s promises, our legislative and legal systems have been able to ensure that schools have moved closer to justice.

We have already come a long way. Since the early nineteenth century the history of U.S. public education has been the story of the struggle—justified by the promise of equality in the founding documents—to expand the definition of the right to public education to include students who were previously discounted and excluded—to girls and women—to African Americans during and after the Civil War, freed slaves who had been intentionally excluded from literacy—to American Indians—to immigrants—to the disabled.

The battle to expand the meaning of equality included the struggle to ensure that African Americans would not be segregated into inferior and separate schools and once able to enter a city’s public schools, would not be pushed into manual training classes and excluded from the academic track.  Women, African Americans, and immigrants finally have increased the possibility of pursuing all kinds of professions that once excluded them. American Indians, once shunted into boarding schools for forced assimilation into the dominant culture, have fought for the right to attend public schools in their communities, schools which incorporate heritage languages and indigenous culture. Disabled students, formerly locked in institutions, have finally earned the right to attend public schools in the most inclusive settings possible and to not be excluded into sheltered classes. Immigrant students have fought for and won, in some states at least, the right to bilingual education. Undocumented students won the right to a public education only in a 1982 Supreme Court decision, but they are too often still denied financial assistance through in-state college tuition. The fight for justice and equality in our nation’s public schools is the history of citizens trying to win for their children the very equality promised in the founding documents.  If American education were transformed by Betsy DeVos’s vision of universal privatized parental choice, none of these rights could be protected.

In a wonderful new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Educaton and the Assault on American Democracy, Derek Black, a professor of constitutional law, demonstrates how, over the centuries since the founding of our nation, our society has been able to expand the democratic protection of every student’s right to public education: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

Betsy DeVos’s belief that we should “go Dutch” and adopt universal school choice for families is contrary to the promise of our American democracy.

Public Schools: Our Democracy’s Essential Institution

This blog recently discussed (here and here) Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on America Democracy, about the long battles to protect the right to public education under the principles embodied in the nation’s founding documents and the 50 state constitutions. Black believes that public schools are our nation’s essential public institution; he also argues that protecting public education and protecting democracy both require constant attention: “The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can, in effect, protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along?”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

Reading Black’s new book sent me back to some books on my shelf in which a political philosopher and a philosopher of education explore the role of our nation’s public schools for informing and preserving our democracy.

What about the threats today to the social contract—the idea that along with expecting government to protect our individual rights, we must all take responsibility for ensuring that our institutions and laws protect our collective wellbeing? What about a period like the one we are living through, when the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of Education insist that we turn away from “government” schools and instead divert our tax dollars to privatized (but publicly funded) charter schools and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay tuition at private and religious schools?

In a 2007 book, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, the late political theorist Benjamin Barber describes precisely how today’s move to privatize public schools in the name of expanding individual parents’ freedom to choose ultimately means that the powerful can serve their own purposes while society loses its capacity to protect the rights of vulnerable families and their children: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Derek Black defines public education as “the state’s absolute and foremost duty.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)  Exactly what is it that makes our public schools so essential for a viable democracy?  In a 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy, Benjamin Barber defines our schools’ public purpose precisely and what we will lose if we neglect to pay attention: “The logic of democracy begins with public education, proceeds to informed citizenship, and comes to fruition in the securing of rights and liberties. We have been nominally democratic for so long that we presume it is our natural condition rather than the product of persistent effort and tenacious responsibility. We have decoupled rights from civic responsibility and severed citizenship from education on the false assumption that citizens just happen. We have forgotten that the ‘public’ in public schools means not just paid for by the public but procreative of the very idea of a public. Public schools are how a public—a citizenry—is forged and how young, selfish individuals turn into conscientious, community-minded citizens.” (A Passion for Democracy, pp. 220-221)

Why is all this especially important at a time when the President of the United States has condemned public schools for teaching about the injustice of slavery and has advocated for public schools which whitewash our history?  Barber counters the President’s argument: “Our public schools are our point institutions in dealing with our nation’s oldest and most intractable problem: racism….(T)he ‘public’ in public schools (must) be understood as signifying plurality and diversity… America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony. Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity…  English will thrive as the first language of America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.”  (A Passion for Democracy, pp. 227-231)

In a profound 1998 book, Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, Walter Feinberg, professor emeritus of education philosophy at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, considers the urgent importance of a critical approach to the teaching of the nation’s history: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories’…  This means, among other things, that students must learn about the various meanings that people from different backgrounds might give to different events. They need to address these differences in ways that promote continuing discussion…  (T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, pp. 232-245) (emphasis in the original)

Finally to summarize the public role of our nation’s system of public schools, we can turn back to Benjamin Barber and his 1992 book, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America: “This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Framing a New Website Forced Us to Reconsider Public Education’s Core Principles

This week the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education launched a new website.  If you live in Central Ohio in Columbus or Marion or Chillicothe—or Southwest Ohio in Dayton or Cincinnati or Middletown—or Northwest Ohio in Toledo—or Southeast Ohio in Athens or along the Ohio River, you may not imagine that this website will be of interest to you. And if you live in another state, you are probably certain the new website is irrelevant. If you live in Northeast Ohio, however—in Cleveland or Akron or Youngstown, Lorain or East Cleveland (the three impoverished school districts which the state has taken over in recent years) or in any of the suburbs of these urban areas, maybe you’ll take a look.

I believe, however, that the website might, on some level, be important for anybody who cares about public education in America. The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education is a loose group of educators and advocates, and the way this new website evolved out of several broader conversations speaks to our times.

Federally and across the states, America’s public schools are emerging from two decades of federally mandated, rigid, high-stakes, standardized-test-based, public school accountability—punitive accountability with sanctions, and delivered without financial help for the mostly underfunded schools and school districts deemed “failing.” We had fifteen years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—softened in 2015, when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. The new version modified the punishments but continued to mandate the annual testing and the theory of sanctioning schools into better performance—performance still measured by each school’s aggregate standardized test scores.

Privatization was part of this. One of the federally mandated punishments for so-called “failing” schools was to privatize them—turn them into charter schools. Plus, since 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has persistently stimulated the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools.

Then, in 2016, President Trump made things worse for public schools by appointing Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos, founder and board member for years of the American Federation for Children, has been among the nation’s richest and most powerful advocates for tuition vouchers for private and religious education. Under DeVos, we have watched four years of lack of attention to the public schools by the Department of Education, along with massive conflict in education policy and educational philosophy.

And since last April, schools have struggled to operate during a pandemic which the President has failed to control.  After a difficult spring and the sudden closure of public schools, it was assumed that public schools would find a way to open safely for the fall semester. But instead we are watching a miasma of approaches—hybrid schedules to bring a limited and safe number of children into buildings each day—public schools opening in some places full-time everyday—schools open only for virtual learning—alarming inequity as many children lack internet capability—increasing outbreaks of COVID-19 among students and staff in districts that have fully reopened—schools opening and quickly forced to close—wealthy families grouping together to hire private teachers for tiny schools in the basement or the attic.

In this leaderless situation with schools struggling everywhere, no matter their efforts to prepare, questions of policy have just sort of faded away—except that the privatizers are doggedly trying to co-opt the chaos in every way they can. In Ohio, the Legislature has taken advantage of the time while the public is distracted by COVID-19 to explode the number of EdChoice vouchers for private schools at the expense of public school district budgets, to neglect to address the injustices of our state’s punitive, autocratic state takeovers of the public schools in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland, and to put off for over a year discussion of a proposed plan to fix a state school funding formula so broken that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts (80 percent) have fallen off a grossly under-funded old formula.

In recent years, most Ohio school districts have been getting exactly as much state funding as they got last year and the year before that and the year before that even if their overall enrollment has increased, the number poor children has risen, or the number of special education students has grown. And all this got even worse under the current two-year state budget, in which school funding was simply frozen for every school district at the amount allocated in fiscal year 2019.  That is until this past June, when, due to the revenue shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Governor cut an additional $330 million from the money already budgeted for public schools in the fiscal year that ended June 30, thus forcing school districts to reduce their own budgets below what they had been promised. With much hoopla in the spring of 2019, the new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan was proposed. A year ago, however, research indicated (see here and here) that—partly thanks to the past decade of tax cuts in Ohio and partly due to problems in the new distribution formula itself—the new school funding proposal failed to help the state’s poorest schools districts. The analysis said that a lot of work would be required to make the plan equitable.  New hearings are planned this fall, but nobody has yet reported on whether or how the Cupp-Patterson Plan has been readjusted.

In this context, discussions in the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education focused on our need to help ourselves and the citizens in our school districts find our way.  What are the big issues? What information will help us explore and advocate effectively for policies that will ensure our schools are funded adequately and that funding is distributed equitably? In Ohio, how can we effectively push the Legislature to collect enough revenue to be able to fund the state’s 610 school districts without dumping the entire burden onto local school districts passing voted property tax levies? How can we help stop what feels like a privatization juggernaut in the Ohio Legislature? And how can federal policy be made to invest in and help the nation’s most vulnerable public schools?

The idea of a website emerged, with the idea of highlighting four core principles—with a cache of information in each section: Why Public Schools?  Why More School Funding? Why Not Privatization? and Why Educational Equity?  Although we have noticed that much public school advocacy these days emphasizes what public school supporters are against, we decided to frame our website instead about what we stand for as “friends of public education” even though our opposition to charter schools and private school tuition vouchers is evident in our website.

Our framing around key ways to support public public education is consistent with thinking in other periods in our nation’s history when policy discussion regarding public schools has centered more narrowly on three of the public school questions which organize the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website: Why Public Schools?, Why More School Funding?, and Why Educational Equity?

Not too long ago, before the kind of thinking that culminated in No Child Left Behind flooded across the country, in a 1993 book called An Aristocracy of Everyone, political philosopher Benjamin Barber described public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15)

Educational historian David Tyack reflected on the public role of public education in his 2003, Seeking Common Ground: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not. The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering. Almost anywhere a school age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend. Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)

In 2004, James Banks, the father of multicultural education, anticipated issues that have now culminated in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Banks explicitly rejected dominant culture hegemony as he described the public purpose of the public schools: “A significant challenge facing educators… is how to respect and acknowledge community cultures… while at the same time helping to construct a democratic public community with an overarching set of values to which all students will have a commitment and with which all will identify.” (Diversity and Citizenship, p. 12)

All the way back, in 1785, John Adams declared: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  (Center on Education Policy, Why We Still Need Public Schools, 2007, p. 1.)

The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website reframes our organization’s work according to the old principle that it is our civic responsibility to protect our nation’s and our state’s commitment to our children and our future in a system of well-funded public schools.

Biden and Democrats Turn Away from Two Decades of Test-Based Public School Accountability and Privatization

Joe Biden’s education plan and the Democratic Platform on education this year should be recognized as a significant development. Biden’s plan embodies something new for Democrats—a turn away from two decades when Democrats bought into neoliberal experimentation in education. Biden supports expanding opportunity for children through better federal funding of public schools and at the same time curtailing abuses in charter schools.

This blog will take a short end of summer break.  Look for a new post Wednesday, September 9.

Donald Trump’s stance on education has not changed. For four years, the President has been endorsing marketplace school choice—code language for the expansion of school privatization at public expense. As a candidate for reelection, Trump merely says he will go on trying to expand marketplace school choice if he wins a second term. He and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos endorse the continuation of the federal Charter Schools Program. Trump and DeVos are also pushing a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit program they got got someone to introduce into both the House and Senate as “The School Choice Now Act.” This is the same  Education Freedom Scholarship Program DeVos has inserted year after year into  the President’s proposed federal budget. Every year Congress has made sure that it didn’t make it into the final appropriations bill as passed. While the President says he will push school choice—more charters and an expansion of tuition tax credit school vouchers to pay for private school tuition—he never mentions the public schools except for demanding that they reopen as the vehicle for getting parents back to work.

But for Democrats, the direction of education policy seems finally to have shifted.  Shifted in a very positive direction.

Some History: Two Decades of Education “Reform”

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted by Congress with bipartisan support in 2001 and signed by Republican President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  In NCLB, Democrats and Republicans collaborated on an omnibus law designed to hold teachers and schools accountable for ever-rising standardized test scores. The law was designed to “incentivize” teachers and school administrators to work harder and smarter and push kids harder.  All schools were expected to make “adequate yearly progress” until all students posted proficient scores by 2014. Schools that couldn’t raise scores quickly were to be punished, and the punishments included the idea that so called “failing” public schools could be “improved” by turning them over to private operators of charter schools. It was assumed that private management would, through business principles, more efficiently and more cheaply drive improvements in school performance.

Then in 2008, when Biden was serving as Vice President, President Barack Obama chose Arne Duncan as his Education Secretary. Duncan, a Chicago basketball buddy of the President, had managed Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, an early neoliberal “portfolio school reform” plan in which a school district commits to managing public and charter schools alike as though they are a business portfolio—shedding the bad investments (as measured by aggregate standardized test scores) and expanding the number of high-scoring schools.  The plan spawned the growth of Chicago’s privatized charter sector and culminated several years after Duncan left in the closure, in 2013, of 50 traditional public schools, most of them in the poorest Black and Brown neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides. Whole neighborhoods were left without neighborhood public schools to anchor them.  Children traveled across the city for a school choice program which did not turn out to have transformed school achievement. In 2009, when he became U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan set out to impose neoliberal education theory nationally in programs like Race to the Top and a large Office of Innovation and Improvement charged with spawning the startup of local charter schools and the expansion of charter school management companies.  We now know that NCLB and Duncan’s policies didn’t make all children proficient.  When, as the 2014 deadline loomed and the list of so-called failing schools grew too long, Duncan created waivers to let states off the hook, but he still tried to use test scores to evaluate and punish teachers.

Joe Biden and Other Democrats Now Look to a New Direction

As a candidate for President, Joe Biden has turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration.  Education Week‘s Evie Blad recently described the change in educational philosophy: “Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from (Obama), that self-described supporter of education reform.  Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top Grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.  By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration.  Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-stakes testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools.”

Jill Biden was a public high school English teacher before Biden became Vice President. During the Bidens’ eight years in Washington, she taught in the English department at Northern Virginia Community College. During the Democratic Convention, Jill Biden addressed the nation from her former high school classroom in Wilmington, Delaware.  Many people believe Biden’s turn toward strengthening traditional public schools instead of following the neoliberal Obama-Duncan agenda is due to his wife’s commitment, and, of course, Jill has very likely played a role.  But last December, when seven of the Democratic candidates for President addressed the MSNBC-televised forum in Pittsburgh, almost all of them had turned away from the test-and-punish and pro-privatization policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Biden was not alone in refocusing the conversation around the desperate needs of the nation’s public schools.

Democrats have been paying attention.  A wave of statewide teachers strikes beginning in West Virginia and moving through Kentucky and Oklahoma in 2018 and 2019 demonstrated the school funding collapse lingering in too many states a decade after the Great Recession. And when the strikes moved to cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago, we all learned about huge class sizes and outrageous caseloads for school counselors. Like the rest of us, Joe Biden and other Democrats learned about schools without nurses and schools with shuttered libraries. Democrats paid attention when they heard that school districts in Oklahoma and some California cities pay so little they cannot hold onto teachers from year to year—school districts where salaries are so low that teachers cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the district in which they teach. Research studies began to show (see here and here) that the growth of school privatization is draining the budgets of local school districts where charters have expanded and vouchers are sending money to pay private school tuition, often for children who have always attended private and religious schools and never attended the public school losing money to the vouchers.  Reports (here, here, and here) have surfaced about widespread fraud in charter schools, the high rate of instability as charters shut down sometimes mid-school year, and punitive discipline programs that violate students’ rights in unregulated private and charter schools.

Today Democrats have a better understanding of what it means for children and families that private voucher schools are not regulated by law and that state legislators designing charter school enabling legislation cared more about experimenting and innovating than protecting students’ rights. Like the rest of us, Democrats can think of real life examples when we read this warning from the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Maybe Democrats have also paid attention to a book by Chris Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, and his wife, Sarah, a professor of education at the University of Illinois.  In 2014, the Lubienskis published a book reporting on their research showing a public school advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experience in the home… (A)fter further investigation and more targeted analysis, the results held up.  And they held up (or were more ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… These results indicate that, despite reformers’ adulation of autonomy enjoyed by private and charter schools, this factor may in fact be the reason these schools are underperforming.  That is, contrary to the dominant thinking on this issue, the data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices….” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, p. xvii)

Biden’s 2020 Public Education Plan

Today Joe Biden and other Democrats are responding to the growing evidence that the past two decades of test-based school accountability and experiments with neoliberal school privatization have not accomplished what was originally promised. Today millions of the nation’s poorest children continue to be left behind. Biden has released an education plan which sets out to improve the public schools which serve 90 percent of America’s children and prioritizes equity in the public schools.  Biden’s plan promises that if Biden is elected, he will ensure the federal government: “Invests in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few. Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.'” Biden also pledges to, “Make sure children with disabilities have the support to succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education required by the bill. Currently, the federal government only covers roughly 14% of this cost, failing to live up to our commitment. The Biden Administration will fully fund this obligation within ten years. We must ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed.”

2020 Democratic Platform on Public Education

And Biden is not merely some kind of maverick among Democrats. There has been a significant turn across the Democratic Party, which has left test-based accountability and school privatization behind. The Democratic Party Platform declares the following principles as its educational priority:  “As Democrats, we believe that education is a critical public good—not a commodity—and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every child, everywhere, is able to receive a world-class education that enables them to lead meaningful lives, no matter their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability status, language status, immigration or citizenship status, household income, or ZIP code… Our public schools are bedrock community institutions, and yet our educators are underpaid, our classrooms are overstuffed, and our school buildings have been
neglected, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Roughly six in 10 jobs require at least some education beyond high school, and yet the ever-rising cost of college tuition and fees leaves higher education out of reach—or saddles students with a lifetime of debt… Democrats believe we can and must do better for our children, our educators, and our country. We are committed to making the investments our students and teachers need to build equity and safeguard humanity in our educational system and guarantee every child can receive a great education. To this end, we support K-12 instruction in civics and climate literacy. We will support evidence-based programs and pedagogical approaches, including assessments that consider the well-being of the whole student and recognize the range of ways students can demonstrate learning. We will reimagine our education system guided by the stakeholders and qualified, first-class, well-trained, passionate educators who know these issues best: young people, educators, parents, and community leaders. Democrats fundamentally believe our education system should prepare all our students—indeed, all of us—for college, careers, lifelong learning, and to be informed, engaged citizens of our communities, our country, and our planet.”

No Matter What Trump Says, School Choice Is Not the Civil Rights Issue of our Times

Twice in the past couple of weeks, President Donald Trump has been out promoting school choice as the civil rights issue of our times.

Trump went to Dallas,Texas, supposedly to discuss the recent tragic police killings of unarmed African Americans. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes what happened: “At Gateway Church in Dallas, Trump met with law enforcement officials, pastors and business owners and talked about his four-point plan to ‘build safety and opportunity and dignity’ for communities of color. He did not discuss why the police chief, sheriff and district attorney of Dallas—all of whom are African Americans, were not invited to the event focused on injustice and policing. Trump bashed public schools, calling them ‘bad government schools’ in which African Americans get ‘trapped’—although Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said at the same event that it was important for schools to reopen safely as soon as possible.”

Then last Tuesday, The Hill‘s Brett Samuels reported that in remarks at the White House Rose Garden, Trump once again mentioned school choice: “We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights (issue) of all time in this country… Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade and probably beyond because all children have to have access to quality education.”

I certainly agree with the President that all children must have access to quality education, but I also appreciate what Samuels noticed: “The comments describing school choice as the preeminent civil rights issue of the day appeared out of place as the nation is gripped by protests over the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement.”

Perhaps the President has recently turned to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to help him define primary themes for his reelection campaign.  If so, some reminders are in order.

At the most basic level, the cost of school privatization is prohibitive in the midst of this COVID-19 recession we are all experiencing.  While many states are in essence supporting three kinds of schooling—traditional public schools, charter schools, and tuition vouchers for private and religious schools—in data released last week, the National Education Association demonstrates that unless Congress appropriates a large infusion of federal HEROES Act spending to prop up state budgets over the next three years, there will likely to be a loss of 1.9 million teachers and other school staff—about one-fifth of the public education workforce across the United States (see here and here).

For Shawgi Tell, a professor at New York’s Nazareth College, it is obvious why Trump’s idea of expanding school privatization is financially unsustainable: “Now is not the time to divert even more public funds to private businesses like charter schools…  The nation’s public schools have been suffering budget cuts for years, and now with the “COVID Pandemic” they will experience deeper funding cuts.  Yet the federal government and state governments continue to funnel huge sums of public funds to segregated non-profit and for-profit charter schools that operate without transparency and (that) close regularly… Society needs a public authority that provides the human right to education with a guarantee in practice, which means fully funding all public schools and making sure high quality public schools are available to all for free in every neighborhood. Funding ‘free market’ arrangements in education while letting the nation’s public schools go underfunded is especially absurd given the repeated failure of the free market to produce stability and success for all.”

Political economist Gordon Lafer explains definitively why charter schools are fiscally unsustainable—robbing the Oakland Unified School District in California of $57.3 million each year that could be spent on the needs of the city’s public schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

Indigo Oliver reports for In These Times, that as a recession threatens public school budgets, one of the biggest private, for-profit, online charter school companies is positioning itself to profit: “On its most recent quarterly earnings call, Timothy Medina, chief financial executive for virtual charter school operator K12Inc., said, ‘We believe the effects of Covid-19 will be a lasting tailwind to online education.’ The company was founded in 2000 by former Wall Street investment banker and McKinsey & Co. consultant Ron Packard…. Since then, K12 has grown into one of the largest for-profit education companies in the world, with revenue topping $1 billion last year. Now, amid uncertainty about the future of in-person education, the company sees an opportunity to extend its reach even further.  K12 has been involved in targeted lobbying campaigns through the American Legislative Exchange Council for nearly two decades, and company executives suggested during the earnings call that they have been working with state legislators and school districts to expand the market for online learning this fall. They’ve also worked with the Heritage Foundation… to draft policy recommendations on Covid-19 Recovery efforts.  K12 operates more than 70 online schools, the majority of them tuition-free and publicly funded through partnerships with school districts.  K12 tuition-free online public schools account for nearly 30% of all virtual school enrollments in the country.”

Over the weekend, Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen attacked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for failing to lead the U.S. Department of Education as citizens have a right to expect—to provide guidance for getting the nation’s 98,000 public schools up and running in the fall: “The Education Department… is all but silent, issuing little in the way of guidance…. It’s not that DeVos isn’t hard at work—it’s just that she’s not devoting her efforts to what we would assume a federal education head should be prioritizing. For DeVos, the pandemic is no obstacle to pushing her long crusade for charter schools and ‘school choice’…. She’s attempted to reroute a portion of the $13.5 billion in the CARES Act dedicated for K-12 funding needs—money that’s supposed to be distributed based on poverty and need formulas—to independent and religious schools.”

Professor Tell concludes: “Treating education as a commodity or consumer good… is not the way forward… Social responsibilities must not be outsourced to private interests and subjected to the inhumanity of the ‘free market.’… Thousands of families have already been abandoned by… charter schools that have closed over the years for financial malfeasance and poor academic performance.”

Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but they also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. Only in the public schools, which are governed democratically according to the law, can our society protect the rights of all children.

The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, warns about what we all lose when we try to privatize the public good: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Misguiding Public School Policy: The Role of Giant Philanthropy and Technocracy

This blog will take Memorial Day off.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Several years ago, I was privileged to receive an invitation from a school psychologist at our local high school to visit the school and write about what I saw during that visit. The most memorable experience  was a social science elective class open to high school juniors and seniors—a high school level course introducing political philosophy.  The students were discussing Voltaire’s Candide, and the teacher began by presenting the class with a list of questions for discussion and asking the students to choose where to begin. By challenging the students to begin with the hardest question, which would help them explore what they were struggling to understand, the teacher disarmed the students’ anxieties and gave them the freedom to participate actively. In the discussion that followed—which the teacher struggled to wrap up even as students had to move on to the next class—students engaged each other, the teacher probed the students’ understanding of the book, and students demanded background to fill in their limited experience with this sort of reading. One girl, sitting in a chair at the back of the room near the windows, became so engaged that she climbed up to sit on top of a radiator in order to be able to see everyone who was talking and participate more actively in the conversation.

This is the best high school class I have ever observed. The engagement—between the teacher and students and the students with each other— was spontaneous, emotional, and intellectual. I don’t think that experience could really have happened on Zoom, though I’m sure that same teacher has done his best in these past two months to engage his students in this year’s version of that class.  We all do the best we can in an emergency.  In our current emergency, Zoom and other programs like it are all we have.

I thought about that high school political philosophy class when I read that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has sought the help of Bill Gates to realize Cuomo’s latest proposal—“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”  These days, so many of us are considering all the ways in which online encounters with our friends and relatives—and children’s virtual discussions with their peers and their teachers—aren’t quite the same as the real live connection we feel when we can sit down and talk or feel the energy that flows among a group of students all together in a classroom.  It feels bizarre that so-called experts and their politician friends are trying to convince us that virtual schools are going to be the future of public education.

Why is Cuomo considering the advice of Bill Gates instead of consulting New York’s teachers who know how to create the kind of engaged high school class I visited all those years ago?  One contributing factor has been the growing role of mega-philanthropy driving education policy.  In a 2014 study, published by the American Educational Research Association, Michigan State University’s Sarah Reckhow and Jeffrey Snyder describe the ways giant philanthropic investment has increasingly shaped public policy across America’s public schools.  Reckow and Snyder document that in the decade from 2000 to 2010, grants from major foundations vastly increased policy advocacy by national  organizations with paid staff who produce reports and have a presence in Washington, D.C.: “As education philanthropy evolves, funds flow increasingly toward national advocacy.  Many of these groups are highly active in policy debates on issues such as common standards and charter school expansion.  Moreover, foundations are finding new strategies to link nonprofit work with advocacy.”

The growth in philanthropic funding for education policy has neither supported traditional public schools nor traditional professional training for teachers and administrators: “Major foundations in education have simultaneously shifted away from funding traditional educational institutions towards support for organizations that could create competition for the public sector. This suggests a pattern of convergence in grant making—major foundations supporting the same kinds of activities and policy priorities.  If foundations are not only funding organizations with similar functions, but also providing financial support for the same organizations, this would indicate significant overlap in the agenda and policy goals of top education funders.”

Reckow and Snyder conclude: “Philanthropy is commonly viewed as a charitable activity, and philanthropists have traditionally approached political advocacy tentatively, if at all.  Yet major education foundations are increasingly politically engaged.  Their work includes supporting groups involved in policy advocacy, funding organizations that promote competition with public sector institutions, and providing convergent funds to key groups advancing favored policy priorities.  Coordinated policy-focused and advocacy-oriented philanthropy provides an important pathway for political influence among foundations… Foundations have simultaneously invested greater sums into jurisdictional challengers while divesting from more traditional educational institutions… Philanthropists have acted as patrons for new voices in education politics, funding increasing numbers of national advocacy groups… Philanthropic support for jurisdictional challengers suggests strong alignment of funding for research, advocacy, and implementation to advance a policy agenda.”

On Monday of this week, the University of Wisconsin’s Kathryn Moeller and Penn State’s Rebecca Tarlau pick up the same theme in an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  Commenting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new partnership with Bill Gates to “reimagine” public education in New York, Moeller and Tarlau declare: “Gates Foundation’s tactics to remake public education during pandemic are undemocratic.”  Describing the role of today’s education philanthropy, they write: “Powerful foundations like the Gates Foundation do not simply impose policies on governments like New York State… Rather, they influence state officials’ consensus about which policies to adopt by positioning themselves as experts on education, garnering widespread support for their policy proposals, and offering economic and organizational support to put those policies in effect.  In our research, we refer to this as a process of ‘philanthropizing consent’ for highly controversial policy solutions.”

While Reckow and Snyder describe the recent philanthropic preference for jurisdictional challengers—charter schools rather than traditional public schools or alternative and quick teacher certification programs like Teach for America— Moeller and Tarlau describe an additional trend in today’s philanthropically driven education policy: (R)esearch shows that philanthropic experts often work to find technical solutions to systemic inequities without addressing their underlying causes.”  The threat to the public operation and governance of public schools is not merely because foundations lack public accountability, but also because their proposed solutions are likely to replace democratic institutions with technocracy.

In an essay “Pangloss, Pandora, or Jefferson,” which was a chapter in the 1998 book of essays, A Passion for Democracy, and reprinted here, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber considers the problem of rapidly accelerating technology as a potential threat to democracy itself.  Barber reminds readers: “Henry Adams… observed at the beginning of this century that between the years 1800-1900, ‘measured by any standard known to science—by horsepower, calories, volts, mass in any shape… the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were fully a thousand times greater.’ … The internal combustion engine, and the typewriter came of age between the two World Wars, and television, microchips, and lasers are still more recent. The first computer built after the war filled a large room and performed less complex calculations for its ardent cybernetic attendants than a handheld instrument performs for students today.”

In the more than two decades since Barber published his essay, we now do have the technology to put New York state’s public schools entirely online, which Governor Cuomo seems to believe would cheaper, more efficient, and safer if another wave of the pandemic should hit his state. My sense, however, is that Barber would caution Cuomo about entirely turning over what are today’s democratically governed and operated New York public schools to the technological wizards and tech philanthropists. Barber would worry about our society’s capacity to meet the needs and protect the legal rights of all students if the technocrats were put in charge.

Barber warns: “There are, in fact, at least three prospects for the future of technology and democracy—three scenarios of their relationship—that are within the realm of technological possibility. I will call them, rather fancifully, the Pangloss scenario, which is rooted in complacency and is simply a projection of current attitudes and trends; the Pandora scenario, which looks at the worst possible case in terms of the inherent dangers of technological determinism, and the Jeffersonian scenario, which seeks out the affirmative uses of the new technology in the nurturing of modern democratic life.”

The students in the high school political philosophy class that I observed knew about Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, who, in any situation saw, “the best of all possible worlds.” Barber explains: “Anyone who reads good-time pop-futurology knows the penchant of the future mongers for Panglossian parody.  Their view of the future is always relentlessly upbeat and ahistorical, mindlessly naive about power and corruption as conditioners of all human politics.  They assume that the technological present and the future it will naturally produce are wholly benevolent and without costs.”  Governor Cuomo, turning to Bill Gates to create an educational future all online to replace “all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” is a Dr. Pangloss.

The second scenario involves Pandora, the mortal woman created by the Greek gods and given many gifts. One gift was a box she was forbidden to open. Subject to curiosity, Pandora opened the box and released all the plagues, miseries and sorrows of mankind.  Describing the lure of today’s technology, Barber explains: “Pangloss is a peril to every society, but the greater danger to democracy comes form Pandora’s scenario, which envisions what might happen if a government consciously set out to utilize the new technologies for purposes of standardization, control, or repression.”

Of course, Barber prefers what he calls the Jeffersonian scenario: “Despite the potential of the… technology… for abuse, the new technologies, in themselves, can also offer powerful assistance to the life of democracy… In this sense, a guarded optimism is possible about technology and democracy, but only if citizen groups and governments take action in adapting the new technology to their needs.”  However, “In considering the Jeffersonian scenario we do not want to fall into Pangloss’s error and persuade ourselves that technology, properly used, can solve all the problems of democracy. Next to Pangloss, Pandora and Jefferson lurks Icarus, to remind us of the ultimate limits of all human technology—the modern extension of human hubris… Democracy can be reinforced by technology and it can be corrupted by technology, but democracy’s survival depends on human not machine inspiration.”

Even Though Schools Are Closed, Advocates Must Keep on Pushing to End Dangerous School “Deformer” Policies

Those of us who care about American public schools have spent nearly twenty years working to undo the damage of a school accountability and privatization movement that has ruined our schools, heaped pressure on teachers and children, and created a publicly funded, private education sector. School privatization on top of widespread state tax slashing has robbed education budgets—ensuring that our children can have neither the basic services they need nor the kind of stimulating, exciting and rigorous education our wealthiest society in the world ought to be able to provide for them.

The pause this month, as public schools are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, has forced a lot of people to notice that public schools are a more important institution than many had perhaps realized.  We are noticing, for example, that virtual learning cannot substitute for real live teachers working personally to support children as they learn together. And we’ve been forced to notice all the ways we count on schools, as a universal system that provides care and supervision every day and even ensures that hungry children are fed.

At some point, however, schools will reopen, and when they do, I hope those of us who have been working for decades to repair the damage of twenty years of “school deform” won’t have been distracted.  Because we are a society with a short memory, it’s worth reviewing the goals we were working to realize before March, 2020 when the pandemic shut down our public schools.  There is a likelihood that the economic damage from the pandemic may bring added challenges, and we will no doubt be told that the new crisis, whatever it is, is the only thing that matters.

Diane Ravitch’s just-published book, Slaying Goliath, is a particularly timely guide for public school advocates in the months ahead. Ravitch explicitly traces how policy around the public schools has gone badly wrong, and she profiles the work of individuals and emerging movements to save public education after the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. She also names the lavishly funded advocacy groups pushing policies that undermine public education; they are dogged people who are not going to give up.

Ravitch describes the proponents of test-based, corporate driven education policy as “Disrupters”: “Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing… Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation because high tech businesses do it, so it must be good.. They love charter schools because charters are start-ups without histories just like many new businesses in the modern corporate world… The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter… Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training… because it costs less… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders… The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority…. They are devoted to cutting taxes, cutting spending on public schools, and turning control of public schools over to private corporations….”  (Slaying Goliath, pp. 28-30)  “Years from now,” writes Ravitch, “historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50.)

Certainly those of us who support public school improvement do not want merely to return to the past. Correcting injustices in our public system, improving teaching, and expanding the opportunity to learn for all children means neither returning to the past nor endorsing the status quo.  We do, however, agree with the goals Ravitch identifies as the traditional domain of constructive advocates for public schools: “Before the current era, true reformers wanted to make public schools better. They wanted public schools to have more resources. They wanted better prepared teachers or better curriculum, or better teaching materials. They wanted teachers to have higher salaries and smaller classes. They wanted districts to have modern buildings and better playing fields and better physical equipment. They wanted schools to be racially integrated so that all children had the chance to learn alongside others who were different from themselves. They wanted schools to have nurses, health clinics, social workers, psychologists, librarians and libraries, up-to-date technology, and programs for students with disabilities and English language learners.  They wanted all children to have equality of educational opportunity.  They wanted to have good schools with good teachers.” (Slaying Goliath, pp. 27-28)

Schools are closed this spring, but eventually our children and their teachers will return, and the well-funded Disrupters will be back at work trying to push their panoply of policies.

For those of us who stand with the public schools, here are four basic goals to remember throughout this interlude of school closures and as children and their teachers return to their classrooms:

SUPPORT ADEQUATE SCHOOL FUNDING     Champions of public education need to be prepared to advocate strenuously for states to maintain their support for public education even if another recession follows the coronavirus pandemic. After the Great Recession, school funding collapsed across the states. In a 2019 report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documented that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. Additionally, because decades of research confirm that segregation by family and neighborhood income is the primary driver of school achievement gaps, advocates will need to pay attention to broader public public programs designed to support families and ameliorate family poverty, press for more full-service wraparound Community Schools, and press for funding to support, rather than punish school districts where test scores are low.  It isn’t merely state budgets which have fallen behind.  This year, Democratic candidates for President have been supporting at least tripling federal Title I funding that invests in school districts where poverty is concentrated, and advocating that the federal government meet its 1975 promise of paying 40 percent of the cost of federally mandated programming under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Today the federal government is covering less than 15 percent of those costs.

PRESS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTING     Standardized testing must be significantly reduced and must be decoupled from the kind of high stakes that have dominated federal and state policy since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January, 2002.  We now know that No Child Left Behind and the policies it mandated across the states did not work; scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have flatlined in recent years. Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains why using widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.  Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

SUPPORT CHILDREN BY PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT TEACHERS’ STRIKES HAVE TAUGHT US     Teachers’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions.  Across the country in 2018 and 2019, striking schoolteachers exposed inexcusable conditions in their public schools from West Virginia, to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago.  We learned about outrageous class sizes; shortages of counselors, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses; and salaries so low in some school districts that teachers cannot afford to pay rent on a one bedroom apartment.  Striking teachers have forced us to see the crisis that exists in some entire states along with the financial crisis that prevails across the nation’s urban school districts. Teachers have exposed our society’s failure to create the political will to fund the school districts that serve our poorest children.  Many states have persisted in punishing school districts where child poverty is concentrated and where test scores are low. Only a few states, most recently Massachusetts, with a new funding system, have made the effort significantly to help these districts where the need is greatest.

OPPOSE SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION:  CHARTER SCHOOL EXPANSION AND VOUCHER GROWTH STARVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF NECESSARY RESOURCES AND FAIL TO PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS AND THE INTERESTS OF THE PUBLIC     Disrupters have led us to deny that rampant privatization at public expense is destroying our public schools. However, research confirms that school privatization  through charter school expansion and the growth of vouchers siphons millions of dollars out of the public systems where the majority of our children remain enrolled.

Privatization poses additional problems beyond funding: School choice advocates frame their arguments in libertarian rhetoric about the rights of individuals. Rather, it is only through laws and government regulations that society can protect the rights of students to appropriate services—whatever their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—whether they are English language learners or disabled students with special needs. Private schools to which students carry public vouchers on the other hand, do not protect students’ rights. They can neither be required by law to protect children from religious indoctrination, nor to guarantee a full curriculum, nor even to teach history without bias or promote proven scientific theories. And in state after state the absence of adequate regulation has helped unscrupulous charter school operators steal scarce tax dollars as profits.

It is always worth remembering the warning of the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)