With Betsy DeVos promoting her one idea—that parents ought to have a right to choose a school—and all the money and politics swirling around the issue today, maybe you’ve forgotten how distorted the conversation about public education has really become. Who and what is really behind the push for school choice? And what are we being asked to forget about the role of public education in America?
First there is all the money being ideologically invested in creating the message that privatized education is better. Here, for example, is Kimberly Hefling’s report for POLITICO on the Koch brothers’ huge anti-public school campaign in the Hispanic community: “One of the newest campaigns is the Libre Inititive, a grassroots drive targeting Hispanic families in 11 states so far, under the umbrella of the Charles and David Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity…. While the Koch network has long been involved in school choice battles, the push by Libre represents a new front in the fight by targeting Hispanic families—and a recognition that with Congress gridlocked, it’s on the ground at the state level where the network can disrupt the educational status quo. The Koch message on schools is shared by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime ally… Like DeVos, Koch organizers insist the push isn’t about dissolving public education, but about making more options available to Hispanic and other families. And like DeVos and her husband, Charles Koch has been a longtime supporter of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has advocated for state laws that encourage private school choice expansion.”
Beyond all the money behind privatization, there has been a bipartisan papering over the real purpose of the dogged ideologues. But early in October, the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli exposed the real libertarian foundational principles underneath school privatization. Ironically he admits that the social justice framing which promoted charter schools as a way to close achievement gaps was just rhetoric—merely a way to co-opt Democrats into supporting privatization: “While the charter movement has historically received proud bipartisan backing in Washington—Presidents Clinton and Obama both strongly supported charter schools, as have Presidents Bush II and Trump—charters are almost entirely a GOP accomplishment at the state level, where charter policy is made… (T)he charter movement has relied on strong Republican support to sustain it. If that support evaporates, the movement could hit a brick wall… Instead, many leaders of the charter movement have spent the past decade displaying their progressive credentials and chasing after Democratic votes that almost never materialize. Thus the case for charter schools today is almost always made in social-justice terms—promoting charters’ success in closing achievement gaps, boosting poor kids’ chances of upward mobility, and alleviating systemic inequities… But it becomes self-defeating when it erodes support among conservatives and Republicans… So how to keep conservatives in the charter fold other than by tying the issue to particular politicians, especially one as toxic as Trump?… A simpler, more direct way to boost conservative support is to remind people what made charter schools conservative in the first place. This means emphasizing personal freedom and parental choice—how charters liberate families from a system in which the government assigns you a public school, take it or leave it. Choice brings free-market dynamics into public education, using the magic of competition to lift all boats… But there’s another aspect of charter schools that gets very little attention these days… Most are non-union… It’s hugely important.”
Support for public education has been catastrophically hurt not only by the kind of money being invested by the Americans for Prosperity and by the libertarian rhetoric Petrilli endorses but also by the narrowing of the conversation about public schools to the sole focus on test scores. Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade (see here) documents our society’s catastrophic adoption of high stakes test-and-punish—a regime that has been in place for nearly two decades—as the sole yardstick to measure the quality of public schools.
Jack Schneider, professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, urges supporters of public schools to insist on a different way of judging schools and a new language for assessment: “The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school. As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores—about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools. Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do. Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking. School quality is multidimensional… Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools. One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality.”
There is considerable irony in the fact that, while today the very wealthy far-right dominates the political rhetoric promoting the privatization of schooling, 50 million children across the United States attend traditional public schools. As privatization encroaches, the damage is much deeper than most of us realize. Jennifer Berkshire just posted a podcast and transcript of her interview with Sally Nuamah, a Chicago political scientist who has been studying the impact on that city’s neighborhoods when the school district closed 50 public schools in 2013, after the rapid growth of charter schools in Chicago had lured many families away from neighborhood schools. Public schools are core community institutions, and for decades it has been known that school closures have broad and traumatic consequences for neighborhoods. Nuamah documents similar consequences in Chicago since the mass public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “(Y)ou see these communities are further losing population. There’s less will, or less faith, in the traditional public school system across this poplulation, because they are afraid they’re going to be betrayed again, they’re going to have to move schools again, and that’s a very volatile situation.”
Nuamah continues: “Then there is the economic piece, and the fact that the number of African American teachers in Chicago has declined by 40%… It was very clear, just from talking to people, that they feared the larger consequences of what the closure of the school means, what it symbolizes, and the direct resources it takes from a community. People would constantly refer to the fact that if this community’s institutions close down, it would affect their ability to have healthcare, it would affect their ability to have employment. It would affect their ability to live in a neighborhood that is safe, because right now, the closed-down structure is acting as an eyesore.”
Nuamah describes the deeper impact on the self esteem among the adults in the neighborhood of the closed school: “I would hear people specifically say that people would think that they failed…. because the institutions that their kids attended were being closed down and they couldn’t protect it. So (school closings) have to do not just with social and economic issues but also in terms of what people are modeling, what they’re teaching to their younger people. What they’re able to protect for the next generation to come. They were… (losing) assets that were passed down to them from prior generations, especially because schools have always been at the center of civil rights and the fight for equality… It has more to do with the larger historical, social, and community-based roles that schools have played. In African American communities in particular, public schools had (a) long history of being the first public institutions in which African Americans got access… But not just that: schools historically have been a main social mechanism for the black middle class. A lot of people end up in the black middle class… through jobs in the education sector.”
Billionaire Betsy DeVos and her friends in the far-right, libertarian sector are actively promoting the privatization of America’s public schools. The Republican and Democratic technocratic politicians have brought us twenty years’ of test-and-punish to discredit public education. It is up to us—parents and teachers who are the core stakeholders in the public schools and citizens who care about public education—to create a more nuanced narrative about the role of our nation’s 90 thousand public schools as an essential public institution.