Why Disciplined Messaging on Public School Policy Is So Important

In some states, the new school year has already begun, the COVID Delta Variant is surging, and already everybody is worrying, and legitimately so, about whether and how public schools will reopen. But that is not really the deepest concern for many of us who care about the future of public schools.

Certainly far-right ideologues investing millions of dollars to push corporate school reform and promote school privatization are messaging their own agenda instead of focusing on whether or not schools reopen in person or whether students and/or teachers are required to vaccinate or wear masks. Newspapers, many of which are losing their education reporters to collapsing advertising budgets, have pretty much opted for the obvious topic—school reopening and masking requirements.  You can be sure, however, that ALEC is instead doggedly promoting the expansion of vouchers as its members lobby inside state legislatures, and Nina Rees, who leads the National Association of Public Charter Schools, is ignoring the effects of COVID-19 while she loudly demands that Congress continue to fund charter schools operated by for-profit charter management companies.

Message discipline is a priority for the far right, and, when Betsy DeVos was Trump’s education secretary, her consistent framing was, in one respect, a plus for public school advocates. She was the perfect foil we could attack week after week as she harangued against “government schools,” rejected the need for a “system” of education, and enthused about serving the needs of individual children and catering to the taste of individual parents. Not once did DeVos acknowledge the benefit of public schooling as the center of the social contract.

We could thank Betsy DeVos for keeping us on message, but Chris Lubienski of Indiana University, Amanda Potterson of the University of Kentucky, and Joel Malin of Miami University in Ohio worry about the longer term impact of the language of the far fight on public education policy. These education policy researchers remind us: “Language shapes the ways we think and feel about ourselves and others, institutions such as our schools, and (more generally) about our world. As applied to education policy, it matters whether our nation’s public schools are described as such, or if instead they are framed as ‘failing government schools,’ like they were by President Trump in his 2020 State of the Union Address. Accepting this truth about the power of language holds many implications. So what happens when language is used to build up narratives that contradict accumulating evidence? Can language reconfigure our perceptions of schools in ways that re-orient their purpose?  More specifically, we assert that disparaging language about our schools unhelpfully limits our policy imaginations. Likewise, we show how casting schools as ‘businesses’— and parents as ‘customers’—shapes commonsensical assumptions about the purposes of public schools, but ignores much of the research evidence about how public schools function…  Regarding this language and imagery, for educational leaders and community stakeholders, we encourage vigilant critical analysis of the language used regarding education.”

Certainly under President Biden, the situation for public schools has improved. Biden has articulated support for public schools and public school teachers. And apart from the language he uses, he has made a lot more federal funding available through COVID-relief.  He has promoted—in his FY22 federal budget proposal—investing in Title I with significantly more money for schools in America’s poorest communities, addressing the federal government’s decades-old failure to fund the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and radically expanding federal investment in wraparound Full Service Community Schools.  But Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Education Secretary, has failed to use language to frame a well conceptualized public school agenda. So far, he has chosen not to speak much at all about the past 20 years of corporate, high-stakes-test-based school accountability.

In the absence of vision from Secretary Cardona and with the rapid decline of sufficient exploration of the key issues in the press, it seems important to devote some serious attention to framing a disciplined set of principles. Lubienski, Potterson, and Malin’s article challenged me clearly to name the principles by which I frame this blog. That way, I’ll be able to check back every week or so to be sure I’m staying on-message.

Here are five principles which, I believe, make up the foundation of this blog.

  1. An equitable and comprehensive system of public schools—publicly operated and regulated by law—is essential for protecting the right of every child to appropriate and equitable services and for ensuring an educated public.
  2. School privatization threatens our public schools, threatens educational equity, and threatens who we are as a nation. No state can afford to support three education sectors—traditional public schools, charter schools, and publicly funded private schools.
  3. Rejecting high-stakes, test-based public school accountability is essential for the future of public education. High-stakes testing has narrowed and undermined what our teachers can do in America’s classrooms, undermined the reputation of public schools and public school teachers, driven privatization and public school closures, exacerbated racial and economic segregation, and undermined the future of children and adolescents living in concentrated poverty.
  4. Our society must ameliorate the effects of past and ongoing racial and economic injustice and aggressively support the public schools that serve our nation’s poorest children.
  5. Public school funding across America’s schools is urgently important. Taxation ought to be progressive and must raise enough money to pay for essential basic services including small classes and necessities like libraries and music and art programs. State and federal funding must be distributed equitably to compensate for the alarming disparities in local taxing capacity across America’s public school districts.

Two new books have pointed to the severity of today’s attack on public education even as the Biden administration has begun to turn more attention to the needs of public schools and away from the relentless Trump/DeVos attack. This winter and spring an alarming number of bills were introduced across the state legislatures to expand vouchers, and tiny clauses were hidden in state budgets to divert public revenue out of the public schools and into charter schools and an array of voucher and neo-voucher programs.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire argue: “(T)he present assault on public education represents a fundamentally new threat, driven by a new kind of pressure group. Put simply, the overarching vision entails unmaking public education as an institution.  An increasingly potent network of conservative state and federal elected officials, advocacy groups, and think tanks, all backed by deep-pocketed funders, has aligned behind a vision of a radical reinvention.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. xix)

In Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores our nation’s history of public education as it is reflected in our founding documents and the fifty state constitutions, and as legal attacks have forced the courts to continue to explore how these documents protect  public schooling and students’ rights as our nation’s promises have been threatened.  Black worries that today’s threats are different in character:  “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

The Civic Importance of Public Education: Valuing What We Take for Granted

How can we learn to value what we take for granted?

Public schools are institutions we have taken for granted for so long that it’s hard to imagine they could disappear.  In Cleveland’s saddest neighborhoods, I am jarred every time I drive by an empty lot where I used to see a school that has now been torn down.  I still remember the names of each of the elementary schools in my small Montana town.  Schools are the institutional anchors by which I define neighborhoods.  But when people attack public education, as lots of people do these days, I struggle to know how to put into words my defense of this core civic institution.

One way to learn to appreciate the public schools is to read the philosophies and histories of public education.  David Tyack, the education historian, writes: “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.” (Seeking Common Ground: Public schools in a Diverse Society, p. 182)

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, Harvard economists, share another perspective on the importance of public education in our nation’s history. They identify a set of virtues of public education: “By virtues, we mean a set of characteristics that originated in basic democratic and egalitarian principles and that influenced the educational system.  The virtues… include public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.  These virtuous features are summarized by the word ‘egalitarianism.’ They have held the promise (if not always the reality) of equality of opportunity and a common education for all U.S. children.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 130)

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was designed to hold schools accountable for outcomes. For the purpose of forcing everybody to try harder, No Child Left Behind set utopian and unreachable test score targets.  Schools that could not quickly and consistently raise scores every year until all children were deemed proficient by 2014 were labeled “failing.”  More and more schools were marked as “failing”  every year, and the federal government was finally forced to create waivers for schools from the punishments that were supposed to follow.  But the waivers have not diminished the sting of the widespread label of “failure.”  These days when people think about public education, their minds are driven by the media to the need for turnaround and accountability.  This happens so frequently that I have actually felt compelled to formulate a response: Public schools cannot be perfect, but a system of public education provides society’s best chance for meeting the needs and protecting the rights of all of our children.

Of course, such responses are theoretical; they miss the heart of the matter.  There is one book, however, that explores public schools in a very different way.  Last week in the Washington Post, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Possible Lives, Valerie Strauss printed a guest column from its author, Mike Rose, research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.  Possible Lives is a wonderful and inspiring book, the result of a series of Rose’s visits to the classrooms of extraordinary teachers across the United States.  In last week’s column, Rose writes: “Possible Lives is my favorite of my books because of the many encounters and discoveries it afforded me.  I began with the intention of writing about school and ended up writing as well about our country.  About its physical and social landscape…  You can’t really write—or think or talk—about schools in any comprehensive way without writing about all that surrounds them, for schools are so embedded in place.  Schools are porous; whatever is going on outside quickly makes its way into the classroom.  And schools—memory of them, the experience of them—for good or bad shape individual and communal life.”  In this book Rose takes his readers into classrooms from Calexico, California to Chicago to rural Kentucky to a one room school in Polaris, Montana. Teachers in these places and dozens more respect and nurture children, challenge them to think and reflect.  Possible Lives is over 400 pages, but I felt so sad when I finished it.  It is the one education book I can enthusiastically recommend as a great summer read, though its content is serious, or as a good way to mark the beginning of the 2015-1016 school year.

In the preface Rose wrote for the 2006 edition, he points out that this book does not intend to gloss over the problems with our public schools: “Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools.  This book is not a defense of the status quo.  The reader will gain sharp perspective on the ills of public education from the teachers and students in the classrooms we visit.  It is necessary for a citizenry to assess the performance of its public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter… (B)efore we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its variables and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We would also want to ask why we’re evaluating.  To what end?” (Possible Lives, p. xv)

Rose concludes that preface: “Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.  This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent.  It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language.  It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled.  When a local affair or a regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word.  When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward.  When a student said that his teacher ‘coaxes our thinking along.’… There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic.  Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.  As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades.  Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p, xxviii)