As the 2022-2023 school year begins, it is a good time to consider how best to work to protect public education—our nation’s system of schools that are publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, ensures the rights of all students.
If protecting public schooling is our goal, what should be our priorities in the upcoming school year? While school administrators and teachers as well as students and their families will still be negotiating the complexities of preventing the spread of COVID-19, it is easy to be distracted from the policy concerns that underpin the very operation of a system of public schools. In addition to scattered issues that come up from time to time, here are five broad, enduring policy concerns on which this blog will focus in the coming school year.
(1) Adequate and more equitably distributed public school funding
In the newest (December 2021) annual school funding report released by the Albert Shanker Institute, school finance expert Bruce Baker explains that states’ fiscal effort to fund schools has declined: “Fiscal effort is state and local expenditures in each state as a proportion of its gross state product. Effort indicators assess how much states leverage their ability to raise revenue, and help to differentiate states that lack the capacity to meet their students’ needs from those that refuse to devote sufficient resources to their public schools.” Baker concludes: “U.S. average effort is at its lowest level in at last 20 years. In 37 states, effort is lower than it was on average during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools. Decreasing effort since 2007 ‘cost’ U.S. schools almost $70 billion in 2019 alone… The total cumulative ‘loss’ between 2013 and 2019 is $400 billion, 9 percent of total spending over this time period.”
Because education is established in each state constitution, the issue of adequate and equitable school funding is likely to be state-specific. How do rural and urban school districts fare compared to the wealthy exurbs which can more easily compensate for inadequate funding by raising property taxes?
This priority intersects with concerns about rising school privatization because states that expand vouchers and increase charter school funding are sucking essential dollars out of the public schools.
I know of no community or state that indulges students with an education that is too lavish. Instead, despite years of lawsuits and legislative battles, too many rural and urban school districts are able to provide only a bare minimum. Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago explains: “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)
(2) Reducing public school accountability based on standardized tests
Back in 2004, beloved educator, Deborah Meier predicted the America we live in today: “The very definition of what constitutes an educated person is now dictated by federal legislation. A well-educated person is one who scores high on standardized math and reading tests. And ergo a good school is one that either has very high test scores or is moving toward them at a prescribed rate of improvement. Period… No Child Left Behind (NCLB) takes this one giant step forward—pitting every child against every other child to look good and get ahead, and every school against every other school, and it does so with a measurement tool that barely acknowledges anything but test scores as a measure of a sound education… By suggesting that public schools can produce equity regardless of social inequity, NCLB sets up local districts for failure. This failure will lead to calls for the ultimate limitation of local, democratic authority, that is, calls for the privatization of our pubic schools.” (Deborah Meier, Many Children Left Behind, pp. 67-71)
Test-and-punish school accountability is still the operating mechanism of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015. ESSA requires that public schools test all students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. High stakes consequences continue to flow from this law which requires states to rate and rank their schools and take steps to turn around so-called failing schools which struggle to raise aggregate test scores. Harvard University expert on testing explains how the high-stakes testing regime damages opportunity for students segregated in schools serving concentrations of children in poverty: “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)
(3) Reducing school privatization at public expense
The late political theorist Benjamin Barber sums up the ultimate consequence of privatizing schools: “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)
We must push hard against the growth of school voucher programs and education savings account vouchers. In my state and very likely in yours, far right legislators are pushing for universal “education savings account” vouchers, which give parents who opt out of public schools a credit card-like voucher the parents can use for whatever private school they choose, or for home schooling. Other state legislatures are rapidly expanding existing voucher programs at the expense of the state public education budget. Research shows that in addition to sucking money from the public schools, private schools accepting vouchers are not required to protect students’ civil rights, are unlikely to serve students academically as well as the neighboring public schools, and are likely to exacerbate racial segregation.
States are also expanding the number of privately operated charter schools and redirecting public education budget dollars to increasing state funding for charter schools. In recent months the Biden administration strengthened regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) including an important ban on federal grants to charter schools that are operated by large for-profit Charter Management Organizations. The well-funded charter school lobby continues to push back against the Department of Education’s new rule insisting that to qualify for federal CSP funding, charter school startups must demonstrate the community’s need for the new charter school. It will be urgently important to support the Department’s enforcement of the new rules on the Charter Schools Program.
(4) Closing opportunity gaps across our nation’s public schools and more broadly in students’ lives
In a massive, data-based study, Is Separate Still Unequal, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon explains that we must pay serious attention to opportunity gaps: “By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”
Educational opportunity gaps fall into two categories. The first are the vast gaps that continue to exist today in access to small classes, advanced curriculum, school guidance counselors, education social workers, mental health supports, school nurses, music and art programs, and school libraries. These inequities are the result of continuing public school funding inequity and require ongoing advocacy at the state level for fairer distribution of state education funding and local advocacy for the equal distribution of resources within school districts.
A second kind of opportunity gaps result from economic inequality and child poverty. Congressional action in the 2021, American Rescue Plan significantly relieved childhood poverty by making the federal Child Tax Credit fully refundable. Before the American Rescue plan, families with six figure incomes qualified for the Child Tax Credit, but this program excluded America’s poorest families who did not pay enough taxes to receive a tax credit. For 2021 as part of COVID relief, Congress qualified families without any income by making the tax credit “fully refundable,” but Congress failed to make this policy permanent, and it ended at the beginning of 2022. First Focus on Children reports: “According to a UNICEF report card of the world’s wealthiest countries, the U.S. performs lower than most similarly situated countries on various child well-being indicators, including poverty, healthcare accessibility, nutrition, and education. A recent report found that the COVID-19 pandemic undermined years of progress in child well-being globally and instead exacerbated child poverty, violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation. Children, particularly in marginalized populations, suffer all these harms disproportionately due to systemic inequities and discrimination.” While Congress recently passed important climate and drug pricing policies that were part of the original Build Back Better, the unaddressed basic needs of America’s poorest children and their families were cut from the bill by Congress. There is a strong need for continued advocacy to address the extraordinary challenges that impair children’s opportunity to learn.
(5) Ensuring equitable access for all students to schools that affirm their heritage and their identity and that accurately teach about our history
Retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Bill Ayers explains why honoring each student is a public moral obligation: “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.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 161)
Following the lead of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, many states are also considering laws to eliminate courses for teens about human sexuality and any mention of gender identity. Such laws stigmatize students whose parents are gay or lesbian and violate students’ rights. Here is the ACLU of Ohio defining the rights of LGBTQ students: “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) students have a right to be who they are and express themselves at school. If your school allows any nonacademic student organization, it must allow you to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. Schools are not allowed to prohibit student organizations based on viewpoint alone. Additionally, all schools have the responsibility to protect students from bullying and harassment, including that based on LGBTQ+ status. This includes teasing, social exclusion, threat, intimidation, stalking, physical violence, theft, sexual, religious, or racial harassment, public or private humiliation, and/or destruction of property.” Not only do laws like the one in Florida humiliate and isolate students, but they also violate students’ civil rights as protected by law.
Efforts inspired and funded by far-right groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Goldwater Institute, and the parent groups they support such as Moms for Liberty to ban discussion of race, slavery and racism are clearly an effort to teach a biased and incomplete history of the United States that ignores slavery and the treatment of American Indian peoples and other ethnic minorities.
Far right advocates claim that any teaching about divisive subjects frightens some children or makes them ashamed. However, in a statement from 135 national organizations and led by The American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and PEN America, signers explain why this kind of “sanitized” and simplistic teaching about American history is so dangerous: “Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration… Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.”