Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Is the Story of Today’s America

A highlight of the Network for Public Education’s recent national conference was the keynote address from Jitu Brown, a gifted and dedicated Chicago community organizer and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  His remarks made me think about the meaning of the last two decades of corporate school reform and the conditions today in his city and here where I live in greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It is a sad story.

Brown reflected on his childhood experience at a West Side Chicago elementary school, a place where he remembers being exposed to a wide range of information and experience including the study of a foreign language. He wondered, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore? For children in poor neighborhoods, their education is not better.”

Brown described how No Child Left Behind’s basic drilling and test prep in the two subjects for which NCLB demands testing—math and language arts—eat up up more and more of the school day. We can consult Harvard University expert on testing, Daniel Koretz, for the details about why the testing regime has been particularly hard on children in schools where poverty is concentrated: “Inappropriate test preparation… is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 116-117)

Of course, a narrowed curriculum is only one factor in today’s inequity.  Derick W. Black and Axton Crolley explain: “(A) 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Again and again in his recent keynote address, Jitu Brown described the consequences of Chicago’s experiment with corporate accountability-based school reform.  Chicago is a city still coping with the effect of the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in June of 2013—part of the collateral damage of the Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion—a portfolio school reform program administered by Arne Duncan to open charter schools and close neighborhood schools deemed “failing,” as measured by standardized test scores. On top of the charter expansion, Chicago instituted student-based-budgeting, which has trapped a number of Chicago public schools in a downward spiral as students experiment with charter schools and as enrollment diminishes, both of which spawn staffing and program cuts and put the school on a path toward closure.

As Jitu Brown reflected on his inspiring elementary school experience a long time ago, I thought about a moving recent article by Carolyn Cooper, a long time resident of Cleveland, Ohio’s East Glenville neighborhood: “I received a stellar education in elementary, junior high, and high school from the… Cleveland Public School system… All of the schools I attended were within walking distance, or only a few miles from my home. And at Iowa-Maple Elementary School, a K-6 school at the time, I was able to join the French Club and study abroad for months in both Paris and Lyon, France… Flash forward to this present day… To fight the closure of both Iowa-Maple and Collinwood High School, a few alumni attended a school facilities meeting held in October 2019 at Glenville High School… Despite our best efforts, Collinwood remained open but Iowa-Maple still closed down… Several generations of my family, as well as the families of other people who lived on my street, were alumni there.  I felt it should have remained open because it was a 5-Star school, offering a variety of programs including gifted and advanced courses, special education, preschool offerings, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

In his keynote address last week, Jitu Brown explained: “Justice and opportunity depend on the institutions to which children have access.” Brown’s words brought to my mind another part of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood less than a mile from Iowa-Maple Elementary School. If you drive along Lakeview Road between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, you see a neighborhood with older homes of a size comfortable for families and scattered newer rental housing built about twenty years ago with support from tax credits. You also see many empty lots where houses were abandoned and later demolished in the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Separated by several blocks, you pass two large weedy tracts of land which were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—abandoned by the school district and boarded up for years before they were demolished. You pass by a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel.  Finally you pass a dilapidated, abandoned nursing home which for several years housed the Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school that advertised on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses until it shut down in 2018.

My children went to school in Cleveland Heights, only a couple of miles from Glenville. Cleveland Heights-University Heights is a mixed income, racially integrated, majority African American, inner-ring suburban school district. Our children can walk to neighborhood public schools that are a great source of community pride. Our community is not wealthy, but we have managed to pass our school levies to support our children with strong academics. We recently passed a bond issue to update and repair our old high school, where my children had the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra, and play sports in addition to the excellent academic program.

Jitu Brown helped organize and lead the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike, which forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a shuttered South Side Chicago high school. Brown does not believe that charter schools and vouchers are the way to increase opportunity for children in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides and Cleveland’s Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods.  He explains: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools…. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the powerful final essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, agrees with Jitu Brown about what ought to be the promise of public education for every child in America:

“Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education. A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

Important Perspectives on the Danger of Betsy DeVos

As Donald Trump begins his presidency, a danger is that those of us who care about public education will give up and neglect to stand up for this institution that has defined our society. Maybe—when the Affordable Care Act and stability in the Middle East and civil rights protections and the minimum wage and nuclear nonproliferation and programs to curtail climate change are all being threatened—we’ll just capitulate. Maybe we’ll just hope dysfunction in Washington will thwart Betsy DeVos’s radical quest to steal essential funds from Title I and the already paltry federal budget line for schools to serve children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and use the money to expand vouchers and charter schools nationwide.  Because we’ve taken our public school system for granted for so long, we may simply forget to defend public education.

Our democracy is complex enough, however, to entertain debate and develop policy simultaneously on a multitude of issues, and no one program or issue is more important than any other. Those of us who care about the public schools must speak up at this juncture when the schools that serve over 90 percent of our society’s children and adolescents are at risk from the policies of this new administration.  We cannot permit the protest against Betsy DeVos and her policies to be characterized merely as a battle between the teachers unions and the Trump administration. We all need to speak up.

Here are some examples of important ways people are speaking up to defend public education and opposing the nomination and likely policies of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.

In a wonderful column over the holidays for the NY Times, Timothy Egan profiles the governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, who made sure to mention the public schools in his interview with Egan: “Every morning my wife and I drop our kids off at the same public schools that we went to.”  Egan comments: “Public, that’s key. As in public land—the great shared turf of the American West. Public health, which the governor expanded in this poor state. Simple stuff, grounded in the nontoxic populism of the past. So when the Trump administration starts taking away people’s health care, trashing public schools with a church-lady billionaire as education secretary, or colluding with a Congress that wants to offload public land, Montana can offer a resistance playbook.”

Or one can focus on Betsy DeVos herself—her record and her words. In late December, Valerie Strauss posted a summary of and a commentary on a speech delivered just last year by Betsy DeVos, a speech to a conference filled with school privatizers.  DeVos characterized our public schools as “antiquated… and frankly embarrassing” and she declared: “Government really sucks. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power.” Betsy DeVos has literally no experience in government and no experience as a public school student or a public school parent or a public school teacher. Her only connection to public education has been as a philanthropist—contributing solely to organizations and politicians who support expanding vouchers and deregulating charter schools. Peter Greene, a public school teacher in Pennsylvania and a blogger, calls DeVos on her attack on government: “You know, I’m going to give her a point for pithy phraseology. And as she notes, parties and politics are one thing that she does actually know. And she reminds me of a question I’ve always had—if your main experience of government is using money to bend politicians to your will, just how far does that lower your opinion of and respect for politicians? … But she ignores the part where government has a role to stand between citizens and People with Power who want to do harm. She also ignores, as do all free market acolytes, the Great Failing of the Free Market—it will not serve all customers, and public education MUST serve all customers.”

The Rev. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina NAACP, lifts the moral voice. Barber always names the right for all to quality public schools as he frames his call for a third Reconstruction; Barber explains that the first Reconstruction followed the Civil War and the second was the Civil Rights Movement. Barber calls for a fusion coalition to confront the politics of backlash, and warns that we can see where a Trump administration will take us if we examine has been happening in North Carolina since 2008 when the governor and both houses of the legislature became dominated by conservative reactionaries: “Give tax breaks to corporations and to the wealthy, attack public education, deny people access to health care, attack immigrants, attack the LGBTQ community in the name of ‘religious liberty,’ strip environmental protections, and, finally, make it easier to get a gun than it is to vote.” Barber responds from his point of view in the church: “(W)e have to challenge the moral hypocrisy of the so-called Religious Right, which we should not even say because they are so wrong. They are engaging in a form of theological heresy. The greatest sin in the Bible is the sin of idolatry. The second greatest sin… whenever people worshiped themselves, was injustice toward other people. There are more than 2,000 scriptures in the Bible that deal with the issue of injustice toward women, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the unacceptable. You might have three about homosexuality, and not one of them trumps this scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Barber calls for a new Reconstruction through fusion politics, and he reminds us that the right to public education was central to the first Reconstruction: “These fusion coalitions 150 years ago built the first public schools and in state constitutions gave all persons a constitutional right to public education—something that to this day has not been done in the federal constitution.”

The activist and University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Bill Ayers reminds us about the essential bond between public education and democracy that has been the foundation of a progressive philosophy of education as framed by John Dewey a hundred years ago. As we think about responding to Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as our next Secretary of Education, Ayers would suggest we pose this question to ourselves: “Is education a product to be sold in the market or is it human right?”  Here is Ayers’ own answer to that question: “Education for free people is powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal. Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a work in progress and a force in motion, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force, each of us born equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience and agency, each deserving a dedicated place in the community of solidarity as well as a vital sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. Embracing that basic ethic and spirit, people recognize that the fullest development of each individual—given the tremendous range of ability and the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, points of origin, and background—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each. This has obvious implications for education policy.” (Demand the Impossible, p. 161)