A Primer for the Public Education Voter in this Fall’s Midterm Election

The midterm election is only weeks away. The airwaves are filled with attack ads that sensationalize and distort the issues.  Even in states where public education has not emerged as a central issue, it ought to be, because K-12 education and higher education are among the biggest lines in every state’s budget.  Without naming states and without naming candidates or particular ballot issues, today’s blog will serve as a voters’ primer about what to consider on November 6, if you think of yourself a public education voter. These reports present simple information about each state.  If a candidate for your legislature or governor, for example, claims to be an “education” candidate, having invested significantly in education, you can check his or her promises against the facts.  I hope you’ll take a look at how your state has been supporting or failing to support the mass of children who attend public schools and the teachers who serve them.

The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education put the importance of public schools into perspective: “In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75% of private school students) attending religious private schools.”

In 1899, the philosopher of education, John Dewey explained the public purpose of education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Public schools are the institutions most likely to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.  Public schools are publicly owned, publicly funded, and democratically governed under law.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. No school is likely to perfectly serve all children, but because public schools are subject to government regulation under law, our society has been able to protect the right to an education for an ever growing number of children over the generations.

Key Resources for Voters in Fall, 2018—Public School Funding

The current decade began as the Great Recession devastated state budgets. While some states have recovered, many have struggled, and some have further cut taxes.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ most recent update on public K-12 funding across the states is A Punishing Decade for School Funding, dated November 29, 2017.  This is the essential annual report comparing public K-12 investment across the states. The numbers remain discouraging: We learn that 29 states continue to provide less total state funding for public schools than they did in 2008, prior to the Great Recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also just released its annual report on higher education funding: Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, which notes that in 31 states, per-student funding for public colleges and universities dropped between 2017 and 2018, while average tuition has continued to rise. Along with its report on higher education, CBPP even provides an online tool by which you can call up a short, detailed brief on higher education funding trends in each state.

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers published its own fine report on funding of public education across the states, A Decade of Neglect, which concluded: “(C)uts states have made since the Great Recession have led to reduced student math and English achievement, and this was most severe for school districts serving more low-income and minority students, especially in districts that saw large reductions in the numbers of teachers.”  The report describes overall trends followed by a series of two page briefs summarizing and presenting graphically the public school funding trend in each state since the 2004-2005 school year.

Key Resource for Voters in Fall, 2018—Marketplace School Privatization Undermines Democracy and Robs Public Schools of Essential Resources

In his 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the commodification of public institutions: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

Not only is school privatization undemocratic, but it also drains state funding away from public school districts into charter schools and various kinds of tuition vouchers for private school. School privatization laws differ across the states along with the amount of money driven out of state public education budgets into the various school privatization schemes. In June of this year, the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education jointly published Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report’s introduction states its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. The report ranks the states by the degree to which they have privatized education.

Barber summarizes privatization’s corrosive role—fragmenting and undermining our society: “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)

As you vote in this fall’s election, please consider the resources suggested here as well as the principles that define public education’s public role in our society.

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Have We Been Sitting Idly By While the Meaning of the Term “Public Education” Has Been Corrupted?

George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist now retired from the University of California at Berkeley, introduced many of us to the idea that metaphoric moral frames shape our political thinking.  Lakoff concludes his 1996 Moral Politics with an epilogue on the problems posed for public discourse when most of us assume we can neutrally discuss public policy.  Instead, explains Lakoff, political language is always laden with moral judgements that remain invisible to most of us  as we listen, speak, or argue. There is no such thing as neutral, objective political dialogue:

“Conservative and liberal political positions are impossible to compare on an issue-by-issue basis.  Instead, understanding a political position on an issue requires fitting it into an unconscious matrix of… morality… There are no neutral concepts and no neutral language for expressing political positions within a moral context…. (N)ews reporting assumes that concepts are literal and nonpartisan. But concepts, and the language that expresses them, are typically partisan, especially in the moral and political spheres…  To use language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system… (T)he very nature of political discourse in this country makes it difficult to discuss the relationship between morality and politics at all.  The separation of church and state has implicitly left the church as the institution that is seen as guarding morality.  It has been assumed that all political discussions are issue-oriented and morally neutral.” (Moral Politics, pp. 384-387)

One must read Lakoff’s book to learn about the moral frames he believes are juxtaposed in the politics of the right and the left, but Lakoff’s thesis that our political language is never neutral surely speaks, more than 20 years after he published Moral Politics, to the proliferation of politically polarized news media and to rancorous accusations today from right and left about biased media and fake news.  Lakoff’s thesis ought to remind us to pay close attention to the biases implicit in the words we hear in public discourse.

I thought of Lakoff last week, when a news reporter delivering a supposedly unbiased story on immigration casually adopted the language of the Trump administration to describe immigrant families in America bringing grandparents or siblings to this country.  We all know families who have, quite legally for many years, brought their loved ones as immigrants to our communities. But the reporter, seemingly without any awareness of her bias, adopted the anti-immigration and anti-immigrant term, “chain migration.”

Then there was the fine piece about political language in Sunday’s NY Times: Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway?.  The reporters comment on growing use of the term “able-bodied” as a condition to preclude public assistance or as a test for health care eligibility: “The ‘able-bodied’ are now everywhere among government programs for the poor, Republican officials point out. They’re on food stamps. They’re collecting welfare. They’re living in subsidized housing. And their numbers have swelled on Medicaid, a program that critics say was never designed to serve them. These so-called able-bodied are defined in many ways by what they are not: not disabled, not elderly, not children, not pregnant, not blind.  They are effectively everyone left, and they have become the focus of resurgent conservative proposals to overhaul government aid, such as one announced last month by the Trump administration that would allow states to test work requirements for Medicaid. Able-bodied is not truly a demographic label, though: There is no standard for physical or mental ability that makes a person able.  Rather, the term has long been a political one.  Across centuries of use, it has consistently implied another negative: The able-bodied could work, but are not working (or working hard enough).  And, as such, they don’t deserve our aid… In Washington, ‘able-bodied’ has retained its moral connotations but lost much of its historical context.  The term dates back 400 years, when English lawmakers used it the same way, to separate poor people who were physically incapable of supporting themselves from the poor who ought to be able to.  Debates over poverty in America today follow a direct line from that era.”

So what about “public  education”?  Has it begun to take on the connotations of the other public programs that are thought to be only for those who are not able-bodied—the kind of people conservatives condemn as living in “public housing” or who are on “public assistance”?  Have people begun to absorb Betsy DeVos’s admiration for parents with the gumption to go out and shop for a school that will more perfectly suit each child’s needs or each parent’s wishes?  Should we admire those with the will to try to escape to something that a mere “public” school cannot provide?  The biases I worry about here admire individual grit and associate “public” with something less—something that parents might accept if they are just takers and are too lazy to look around.

I worry that we have begun to permit one of our society’s longest and most admired institutions to be tarnished by the political linguistics of people who  idolize markets and choice and everything private.  By contrast as public institutions, public schools protect students’ rights by law and promise access for all students to appropriate services for their educational needs. Too often, we who believe in the public schools neglect to point that out.

Here is the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker in a 2016 interview about the positive role of government—the institution that represents the public.  Hacker focuses on the positive role of government—the public—for the economy, and he identifies the role of public education as central to that public benefit: “The mixed economy is the effective combination of government authority and private markets… The mixed economy made us not just richer in terms of material wellbeing, but also vastly richer in terms of health and education… The United states led the world in massively increasing educational levels with the creation of universal high school and then the encouragement of college degrees.  Additionally, there was the investment in science and research that began in the 1930s and really blossomed during and after World War II… The combination of the right political conditions and the development of science and knowledge, in part because of the increased public investment, allowed private actors and public leaders to capitalize on the opportunities created by an increasingly prosperous and interconnected society.”

Hacker blames growing inequality and the growing power of financial and business elites since the 1970s for widespread loss of faith in the role of government: “It’s true, of course, that Americans are much less trusting of government than they were in the past. The decline began in the late 1960s, accelerated in the ’70s, and has reached a point, now, where only a small minority of Americans say they trust the government to do what’s right…. I think the shift in the broader ideology around government has been led by business and political elites. We went from an industrial economy to a financial economy… Business associations moved dramatically to the right. The Business Roundtable moved from supporting the mixed economy along with the larger interests of the business community to being much more focused on CEOs’ bottom lines. The Chamber of Commerce became closely tied to the Republican Party and effectively a lobbyist for hire for narrow business interests. And Charles and David Koch, committed libertarians, created their own network that rivals now the Chamber of Commerce in size. They created a set of advocacy organizations and lobbyists who push for a small-government philosophy.”

It is important to note that one of the members of the Kochs’ elite circle, Betsy DeVos, who founded, funded and chaired the Koch-friendly American Federation of Children, has now become the fox guarding the hen house.  As U.S. Secretary of Education, DeVos is responsible for overseeing the federal government’s role in supporting the 90,000 public schools across America that continue to serve 50 million students.  As Betsy DeVos persistently extols the individual parents who shop around in her imagined market place of privatized schools and as she disparages the need for a public system of education, we need to listen to her rhetoric for what George Lakoff would call its moral connotations.  Her philosophy of education represents a political-moral frame that idealizes the role of the family and the private marketplace but derides any sort of public system.

In his recent work Hacker reflects more generally on government’s role in general for balancing the power of markets.  Here are the words of another political philosopher, the late Benjamin Barber, who sought to define the meaning and importance of the concept of the public specifically in the context America’s creation of a vast system of public schools:

“Through (school) 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)

Roosevelt University Study: Rapid Charter Growth Has Cannibalized Chicago Public Schools

A new poll by the Associated Press exposes widespread support for school choice even though most people don’t know much about what it is:

“(M)ost Americans know little about charter schools or private school voucher programs.  Still, more Americans feel positively than negatively about expanding these programs, according to a new poll released Friday… All told, 58 percent of respondents say they know little or nothing at all about charter schools and 66 percent report the same about private school voucher programs… Even though they are unfamiliar to many, Americans have largely positive reactions to charter schools and vouchers.”

The finding that most people have some sort of positive affinity with the idea of school choice doesn’t really surprise me. After all, our new U.S. Secretary of Education advertises the importance of “parents’ right to choose” every time she opens her mouth.  I believe Betsy DeVos’s support for what she calls “the right” of parents to choose a school is ideological.  She has been affiliated for years with libertarian think tanks that privilege individualism over the public good. I think she also believes in the importance of Christian religious schools or the right of parents to insulate their children by homeschooling them. And I don’t think DeVos has an adequately developed sense of opportunity cost—the reality in this case that school budgets are fixed and if you cut more pieces in the budget pie, all the servings get smaller and smaller.

By talking relentlessly about “parents’ right to choose a school,” DeVos is on-message all the time, driving home the idea that school choice is a right, and that right is currently being denied to poor parents. Hence DeVos talks about the need for more charter schools or publicly funded school vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts—public money to pay for parents’ private choice.

Let’s stop for a moment to remember that parental choice in a privatized education marketplace is not what is protected by the education clauses in the 50 state constitutions, which instead include language about the state’s responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools to serve the children of the state and the well-being of the public. The state constitutions allocate tax dollars for what has long been understood as a public purpose.

A new study from Roosevelt University in Chicago explains precisely how school choice—in this case Chicago’s rapid expansion of charter schools—can destroy the public good. The authors summarize the history of school accountability in conjunction with the explosive growth of charter schools in Chicago: “During the Mayor Richard M. Daley Administration of the 1990s, Chicago Public Schools was shaped by educational accountability practices… Once identified as ‘underperforming’ a school would be subject to a litany of school actions including probation, reconstitution… or closure… By 2001, Chicago augmented its accountability practices with a school choice philosophy… In order to give parents school choice, the public schools system was directed to introduce a greater menu of school choices….”

And the school district closed so-called “failing” schools: “As became apparent, nearly 90% of the school closures for low academic performance impacted predominantly low-income and working class African-American communities… (in) the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods.  These schools… predominantly served a vulnerable student population who ‘were more likely to receive a free or reduced price lunch, special education services, be too old for their grade, and families change residences in prior year.’  Furthermore, children from closed schools did not go on to attend higher-performing schools. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research 2009 study of Ren10 (Renaissance 2010 was a school closure and charter expansion plan.) schools found that 82% of students from 18 closed elementary schools in their study moved from one underperforming school to another underperforming school including schools already on academic probation.”

Then came Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mass closure of public schools in 2011: “In addition to poor academic performance, schools with low enrollment would also be closed in order ‘right size’ the district… Using the Chicago Board of Education ‘under-utilization’ metric, Mayor Emanuel shuttered 49 so-called underutilized schools, almost 10% of CPS’s entire school stock. Mayor Emanuel justified the massive closures as a strategy to contend with CPS’ billion-dollar deficit….”

By then, unbeknownst to many, Chicago was participating in Portfolio School Reform—the idea that a school district be managed like a stock portfolio by shedding failed investments and adding new investments—through what is called a District-Charter Collaboration Compact supported by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Through this relationship, CPS agreed to open another 60 charter schools in the next five years, even as CPS enrollments were shrinking and existing charter schools could not fill 11,000 vacant seats in their schools. Many of the 40 new charters opened since the Gates Compact agreement have been located within 1.5 miles of the 49 public schools closed due to low enrollments.”

You might call this turmoil, but the promoters of Portfolio School Reform call it “creative disruption,” a business school concept that is supposed to improve things. Except it didn’t work that way in Chicago.  The school district’s budget has continued to shrink (due partly to problems with the state budget and more problems with Illinois school funding and other problems with an underfunded pension system), and all this disruption has resulted in massive cuts to programs and services in the public schools themselves. Here is the conclusion of the new Roosevelt University report: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system.  While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

Here is Jeff Bryant, commenting last week for the Education Opportunity Network, on what school choice means for the public.  Commenting on pleas from people like Betsy DeVos to let all parents have a choice, Bryant writes: “All of this sounds just so sensible until you take into consideration that individuals don’t pay for public education; the taxpayers do. And the choices parents make about their children’s education don’t just affect their children; they have an impact on the whole community. Businesses are free to create whatever demand they want in the marketplace, whether it’s for better-tasting food or for more convenient service, and how individuals choose to respond to those demands is of no concern to the greater public unless it endangers lives or infringes on freedoms.  But the demand for education is a given, it’s universal, and it’s ultimately of interest to our whole society.”

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher who died last month, very precisely summarizes, in more theoretical terms, what has happened in Chicago: “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)

The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“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.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in 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.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

“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’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated.

“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)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

The New Orleans mother understood exactly what Benjamin Barber explains here: “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)

What Might Seem to Benefit the Educational Consumer Turns Out to Be a Disaster for Society

This week the Senate will consider President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be our next U.S. Secretary of Education.  Tomorrow the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will very likely vote to recommend DeVos’s confirmation for a vote on the Senate Floor. Her nomination has become extremely contentious. Please call your U.S. Senators again today to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.

Because Betsy DeVos has devoted her life and her financial fortune to replacing our society’s system of public education with publicly funded tuition vouchers that children can carry to private schools and with unregulated charter schools that are publicly funded by privately operated, much attention has been paid this month to weighing public vs. privatized education.  Valerie Strauss has published another excellent piece by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, that enumerates What Taxpayers Should Know About the Cost of School Choice.  “School choice” is, of course, another name for school privatization—always framed by its supporters through the much prized values of freedom and choice without naming their social consequences.

Burris examines the financial implications of school privatization. She explains: “American taxpayers cannot afford to run the multiple systems of K-12 education that the ‘choicers’ desire, nor would it be in the best interest of children to do so. We have been experimenting with taxpayer-funded choice for two decades, and the evidence is clear. We have wasted billions in tax dollars, with no comprehensive evidence that charters, online schools and vouchers have resulted in increased academic performance of American students.  It is time we have an honest discussion about the true cost of school choice.”

Here is Burris’s argument.  I urge you to read her entire article to grasp the quantity of evidence she amasses to demonstrate each of her propositions:

  1. “Billions of federal tax dollars have poured into charter school promotion, without regard for success and with insufficient oversight.”  Burris explains that by 2015 the federal Charter Schools Program had spent $3.7 billion in startup grants for charter schools to states along with another $333 million in 2016, but many of these schools were unsustainable and have since closed.
  2. “Some charter schools spend more tax dollars on administration and less on teaching.”  Burris describes two national charter school chains, for example, Imagine, Inc. and the Leona Group, whose Arizona affiliates were shown by researchers to have spent $28 million more last year on management fees and real estate rental fees than they spent in support for students in the classroom.
  3. “Charter schools drain tax dollars from your community schools.” Burris shows that in some states like Pennsylvania, each student carries his or her per-pupil funding to the charter school right out of the district’s budget. But school districts are unable to adjust staffing and costs to the loss of a few students here and there across many buildings. She adds: “Whether charters receive funding from the district, or directly from the state, the costs of running an additional school system are passed on to taxpayers.”
  4. “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases.” Burris points out that the public cannot afford to undertake paying all or even part of private school tuition across the country through some kind of national voucher program. Although Indiana’s voucher program started small, serving only poor children, it has been rapidly expanded and now costs the state $131.5 million annually. Burris adds that because no state requires private schools to accept all students, the financial burden on  public schools spikes as expensive-to-educate students become concentrated in public district schools.
  5. “Charter schools and voucher schools have minimal transparency and limited accountability. That lack of transparency results in scandal and theft.”  Burris explains: “(I)n many states charters are virtually unregulated.” Her examples are from Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Texas, California, Nevada, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Burris concludes: “I suspect that Betsy DeVos and her followers would say that all of the above is the price we must pay to keep charters free of regulations. But if regulations are the problem, and deregulation the solution, why don’t the ‘choicers’ push to deregulate public schools?  Shouldn’t their creativity be unleashed as well?  The reason they do not is obvious. For ‘choicers.’ the marketplace is the first love. Contemporary, extreme conservatism sees government as having only two functions—policing and defense. True believers do not want communities assuming the responsibility of educating children; they believe that education is the responsibility of the family.”

It is helpful always to consider privatization more theoretically with help from the political philosopher Benjamin Barber, who explains how marketplaces undermine the distribution of public goods: “The paradox of public and private that sets capitalism against civilization works to defeat common aspirations by ’empowering’ private wants. We lose the capacity to shape our lives together because we are persuaded by the prevailing ethos that freedom means expressing our desires in isolation. In the area of education, for example… the defects of public schooling are thought to be remediable by the virtues of private parental choice… 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… As citizens, we would never consciously suggest 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, pp. 131-132)

Protecting Public Education Will Be a Challenge under the Trump Administration

Today we mark the inauguration of a new U.S. President and a new administration. Public education is perhaps the quintessential American institution, designed to educate all children—helping them develop personally and forming an educated public. All indications are that President Donald Trump’s administration will set our society back by undermining public education.

A group of 175 deans of colleges of education and chairs of college departments of education has released a declaration of principles to remind us all what we must try to preserve as the new administration takes over federal policy and seeks to privatize education.

First, “U.S. public education policy should: Uphold the role of public schools as a central institution in the strengthening of our democracy... Students are not merely commodities or consumers, and when we treat education as a competitive marketplace fueled by privatization we set up a system that ensures that some win while many others lose…”

Second, “Protect the human and civil rights of all children and youth, especially those from historically marginalized communities. The federal government has historically played a leading role in advancing educational access and equity, as with the passage and enforcement of civil rights laws, targeted funding to address poverty and resource inequities, and appropriate supports for English-language learners and students with disabilities…”

Third, “Develop and implement policies, laws, and reform initiatives by building on a democratic vision for public education and on sound educational research… The U.S. educational system is plagued with oversimplified policies and reform initiatives that were developed and imposed without support of a compelling body of rigorous research or even with a track record of failure.  We urge you to build on the ample evidence from the high-quality research that exists….”

Finally these academic professionals ask our society to support the work they do: “Support and partner with colleges and schools of education to advance these goals.”  They are speaking for the need to sustain an education profession informed by academic research—teachers who know what the fields of psychology and sociology can tell them about their students and their communities—teachers who understand pedagogy and technique and motivation—teachers who have studied education philosophy and considered the ways in which education is more than mere job training.

These principles directly confront the priorities of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U. S. Secretary of Education. At her recent hearing, DeVos showed neither understanding of education policy nor respect for the Department of Education’s responsibility to  protect the civil rights of the children who are descendants of slavery and Jim Crow, immigrant children and English learners, disabled children, and others we’ve marginalized throughout our history.  While many of us might prefer that she forget about test-and-punish accountability and the punitive tone of federal policy since 2002, the civil rights protections we have managed to secure for children ought to be non-negotiable.

The most concise summary of the pitfalls of the Trump-DeVos pledge to privatize our schools is from political philosopher Benjamin Barber who warns that ultimately such policies will serve the privileged and further disadvantage the nation’s poorest children and their parents who lack power.  While “parents’ right to choose” is the education motto of the new administration, Barber warns, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”(Consumed, p. 139) “Inequality is built into the market system, which too often becomes a race to the top for those who are wealthy and a race to the bottom for everyone else. Inequality is not incidental to privatization, it is its very premise. The implicit tactic employed by the well off is to leave behind those who get more in public services than they contribute as taxpayers in a residual ‘public’ sector… and throw in with those who have plenty to contribute in their own private ‘commons.’ The result is two levels of service—two societies—hostile, divided, and deeply unequal.” (Consumed, p. 157)

Barber concludes: “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…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all… 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…” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

A retreat under the leadership of President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos will slow what has been a halting journey toward justice for American children. In March of 2000, the late Senator Paul Wellstone reminded the students at Teachers College, Columbia University, “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

What the Washington Post’s Editorial Promoting School Privatization Neglects to Consider

In an editorial earlier this week, Fred Hiatt the editorial page director of the Washington Post, endorses marketplace school choice along with Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Trump and DeVos are both strong supporters of private school vouchers and the rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools. Hiatt writes from the point of view of individual parents and endorses the ethos of the American Dream, the individualistic notion that school choice should not be merely the privilege of the rich who can afford to move to exclusive suburban school districts or to enroll their children in private schools.

Advocates for school choice like Hiatt propose to reward poorer parents who demonstrate gumption by searching for a school, filling out what may be a complex application, and then, in many cases providing their own transportation to a distant school or letting their children ride the subway. Embodying America’s ethos of individual success, school choice is designed to reward strivers. But such a plan also concentrates, in what quickly become schools of last resort, the children in families who are doubled up or moving from shelter to shelter and isolates these children in even poorer public schools. Are these children less worthy than the children of the parents who have the time and stability to enter the school choice marketplace?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson identifies the primary flaw in school choice: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  Marketplaces are races—competitions to see who can get a place. Races and competitions reward winners and leave the losers behind.  These days as states evaluate (and even close schools) according to the test scores their students produce, the schools themselves have an incentive to steer away (sometimes reject and sometimes quietly counsel out) students who struggle academically and children with behavior problems. It has been demonstrated again and again that in many places the charter schools that are a central part of the school choice movement, serve fewer students with serious disabilities—blindness and autism, for example—and fewer English language learners.

In cities where school choice has been in place for a while, such expensive-to-educate children have become concentrated in the traditional public schools, even as more and more money has flowed out of these districts to follow children through vouchers and to charter schools.  In Chicago and Detroit, where charters have been rapidly expanded, there is evidence that the parasite charters are killing the host school district. As schools compete for students and low scoring schools are closed, some neighborhoods in both cities have found themselves without, for example, a comprehensive high school ready to serve all the adolescents who live in the area.  For this very reason, in the November election when data were made public to demonstrate the likely fiscal impact on the Boston Public Schools of Massachusetts Question 2—the ballot issue to lift the cap on the authorization of new charter schools—the voters definitively blocked the expansion of school choice.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, explains what happens, even when the consequences are unintended: “(P)rivate choices do inevitably have social consequences and public outcomes. When these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often socially irrational and unintended: at wide variance with the kind of society we might choose through collective deliberation and democratic decision-making.” (Consumed, p 128)

In his recent editorial, Fred Hiatt correctly identifies a serious problem with today’s de facto school choice, the byproduct of America’s explosive inequality. Parents with money—who choose the expensive private schools they can afford and wealthy exurban school districts—have driven the acceleration of income-based housing segregation across America’s metropolitan areas, with the mass of poor children concentrated in cities and inner-suburban schools while their wealthy peers grow up in exclusive enclaves. Here is Barber’s observation (describing the consequences of urban flight by the wealthy as well as their retreat to private schools): “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…. Certainly that is not what we opt for when we express our personal wants with respect to our own kids. 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)

There are a number of reasons, however, why expansion of marketplace school choice is not the solution to today’s economic and educational inequality. Charter schools were designed to be free from bureaucratic regulation and free to innovate.  Public schools, regulated by law and overseen by democratically elected boards, can be required to protect the rights of the public and the civil rights of the students. We are all familiar with the disastrous lack of regulation of charter schools in many places. In Ohio, for example, thanks to generous political contributions, the legislature has refused even to regulate attendance to ensure that the state is paying tax dollars for the students who are present at online charter schools for at least five hours per day. The state education department is set to claw back $60 million in over-payments (due to inflated attendance reporting) from  one online charter school last year alone, but the legislature has refused to crack down. The political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson bemoan our fading understanding of the role of government oversight to correct the excesses of the marketplace: “It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to the school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p 1)

Barber also confronts the failure of the marketplace to provide oversight on behalf of the public: “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…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.” (Consumed, pp 143-144)

Hacker and Pierson are explicit in defining education as a public function: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen.” (American Amnesia, p.65).

Finally, universal public education—not a fragmented education marketplace—is important because our public schools define our society’s highest ideals. Here is John Dewey, from The School and Society in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Public education represents our commitment to community, not merely to rugged individualism.