Framing a New Website Forced Us to Reconsider Public Education’s Core Principles

This week the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education launched a new website.  If you live in Central Ohio in Columbus or Marion or Chillicothe—or Southwest Ohio in Dayton or Cincinnati or Middletown—or Northwest Ohio in Toledo—or Southeast Ohio in Athens or along the Ohio River, you may not imagine that this website will be of interest to you. And if you live in another state, you are probably certain the new website is irrelevant. If you live in Northeast Ohio, however—in Cleveland or Akron or Youngstown, Lorain or East Cleveland (the three impoverished school districts which the state has taken over in recent years) or in any of the suburbs of these urban areas, maybe you’ll take a look.

I believe, however, that the website might, on some level, be important for anybody who cares about public education in America. The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education is a loose group of educators and advocates, and the way this new website evolved out of several broader conversations speaks to our times.

Federally and across the states, America’s public schools are emerging from two decades of federally mandated, rigid, high-stakes, standardized-test-based, public school accountability—punitive accountability with sanctions, and delivered without financial help for the mostly underfunded schools and school districts deemed “failing.” We had fifteen years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—softened in 2015, when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. The new version modified the punishments but continued to mandate the annual testing and the theory of sanctioning schools into better performance—performance still measured by each school’s aggregate standardized test scores.

Privatization was part of this. One of the federally mandated punishments for so-called “failing” schools was to privatize them—turn them into charter schools. Plus, since 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has persistently stimulated the startup or expansion of 40 percent of the nation’s charter schools.

Then, in 2016, President Trump made things worse for public schools by appointing Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos, founder and board member for years of the American Federation for Children, has been among the nation’s richest and most powerful advocates for tuition vouchers for private and religious education. Under DeVos, we have watched four years of lack of attention to the public schools by the Department of Education, along with massive conflict in education policy and educational philosophy.

And since last April, schools have struggled to operate during a pandemic which the President has failed to control.  After a difficult spring and the sudden closure of public schools, it was assumed that public schools would find a way to open safely for the fall semester. But instead we are watching a miasma of approaches—hybrid schedules to bring a limited and safe number of children into buildings each day—public schools opening in some places full-time everyday—schools open only for virtual learning—alarming inequity as many children lack internet capability—increasing outbreaks of COVID-19 among students and staff in districts that have fully reopened—schools opening and quickly forced to close—wealthy families grouping together to hire private teachers for tiny schools in the basement or the attic.

In this leaderless situation with schools struggling everywhere, no matter their efforts to prepare, questions of policy have just sort of faded away—except that the privatizers are doggedly trying to co-opt the chaos in every way they can. In Ohio, the Legislature has taken advantage of the time while the public is distracted by COVID-19 to explode the number of EdChoice vouchers for private schools at the expense of public school district budgets, to neglect to address the injustices of our state’s punitive, autocratic state takeovers of the public schools in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland, and to put off for over a year discussion of a proposed plan to fix a state school funding formula so broken that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts (80 percent) have fallen off a grossly under-funded old formula.

In recent years, most Ohio school districts have been getting exactly as much state funding as they got last year and the year before that and the year before that even if their overall enrollment has increased, the number poor children has risen, or the number of special education students has grown. And all this got even worse under the current two-year state budget, in which school funding was simply frozen for every school district at the amount allocated in fiscal year 2019.  That is until this past June, when, due to the revenue shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Governor cut an additional $330 million from the money already budgeted for public schools in the fiscal year that ended June 30, thus forcing school districts to reduce their own budgets below what they had been promised. With much hoopla in the spring of 2019, the new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan was proposed. A year ago, however, research indicated (see here and here) that—partly thanks to the past decade of tax cuts in Ohio and partly due to problems in the new distribution formula itself—the new school funding proposal failed to help the state’s poorest schools districts. The analysis said that a lot of work would be required to make the plan equitable.  New hearings are planned this fall, but nobody has yet reported on whether or how the Cupp-Patterson Plan has been readjusted.

In this context, discussions in the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education focused on our need to help ourselves and the citizens in our school districts find our way.  What are the big issues? What information will help us explore and advocate effectively for policies that will ensure our schools are funded adequately and that funding is distributed equitably? In Ohio, how can we effectively push the Legislature to collect enough revenue to be able to fund the state’s 610 school districts without dumping the entire burden onto local school districts passing voted property tax levies? How can we help stop what feels like a privatization juggernaut in the Ohio Legislature? And how can federal policy be made to invest in and help the nation’s most vulnerable public schools?

The idea of a website emerged, with the idea of highlighting four core principles—with a cache of information in each section: Why Public Schools?  Why More School Funding? Why Not Privatization? and Why Educational Equity?  Although we have noticed that much public school advocacy these days emphasizes what public school supporters are against, we decided to frame our website instead about what we stand for as “friends of public education” even though our opposition to charter schools and private school tuition vouchers is evident in our website.

Our framing around key ways to support public public education is consistent with thinking in other periods in our nation’s history when policy discussion regarding public schools has centered more narrowly on three of the public school questions which organize the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website: Why Public Schools?, Why More School Funding?, and Why Educational Equity?

Not too long ago, before the kind of thinking that culminated in No Child Left Behind flooded across the country, in a 1993 book called An Aristocracy of Everyone, political philosopher Benjamin Barber described public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15)

Educational historian David Tyack reflected on the public role of public education in his 2003, Seeking Common Ground: “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. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)

In 2004, James Banks, the father of multicultural education, anticipated issues that have now culminated in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Banks explicitly rejected dominant culture hegemony as he described the public purpose of the public schools: “A significant challenge facing educators… is how to respect and acknowledge community cultures… while at the same time helping to construct a democratic public community with an overarching set of values to which all students will have a commitment and with which all will identify.” (Diversity and Citizenship, p. 12)

All the way back, in 1785, John Adams declared: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  (Center on Education Policy, Why We Still Need Public Schools, 2007, p. 1.)

The Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education’s new website reframes our organization’s work according to the old principle that it is our civic responsibility to protect our nation’s and our state’s commitment to our children and our future in a system of well-funded public schools.

Universal Public Education and the Common Good

President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be our next U.S. Secretary of Education has been a wake up call.

You may disagree with some of the particulars raised by the Senators who have been debating the DeVos nomination, but the hearings have diminished talk about the smaller issues and highlighted one thing: our universal public education in the United States is a primary civic institution of great value.

In Tuesday’s hearing, when the Senators on the HELP Committee took a vote and decided to send the DeVos nomination on to the full Senate for consideration, just about everybody talked about the public outcry—the volume of phone calls, e-mails, unusual requests for meetings, crowds and rallies pushing the Senators to protect public education. Many Senators declared their insistence that our education secretary at least value the public schools, understand the terms of the debate that has been sweeping around public education now for two decades, and realize that the U.S. Department of Education’s fundamental mission is protecting the rights of children who have historically been marginalized. It became clear that the party loyalty of some of the Republicans on the committee was being tested by the outcry of their constituents, and it became clearer yesterday afternoon when Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski promised they will vote against the DeVos confirmation when the full Senate votes.

The federal policy debates about public schools over the past twenty years have been largely shaped by our society’s computerized capacity to produce and analyze huge data sets—the test scores produced by the mandates of No Child Left Behind—and a drive by many policy makers to increase schools’ accountability for the test scores of their students. Data have demonstrated that schools in poor communities, on average, do not “produce” the same kind of high test scores as the schools in very wealthy enclaves, and the Bush and Obama administrations have demanded a punitive accountability system to try to pressure schools quickly to raise test scores.  The accountability debate is unresolved.  It must remain among our society’s highest domestic priorities to find a way to support the communities, schools, and teachers where our nation’s poorest children are educated. But it is also true that in the midst of the raging  fight about accountability not enough of us have remembered to consider the role of a universal public school system itself for shaping a society. The prospect of an Education Secretary who fails to value public schools has reminded us that the presence of a widespread public system is important.

Here is some history, beginning with the point of view of Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz: “By the middle of the nineteenth century the United States had the most educated youth in the world. Mass elementary schooling had swept through much of America and came to many states even before it was fully funded by local governments. The citizens of other industrializing nations would have to wait another three to four decades to attain elementary school enrollment rates comparable to those in 1860 America… But just as Europe began to narrow the educational gap with America at the elementary school level, a second great educational transformation started to gather steam in the United States… The second educational transformation that catapulted the United States to another peak in mass education, and one that would last for much of the twentieth century, was known then and today as the ‘high school movement.’… The high school movement rapidly changed the education of American youth. The typical young, native-born American in 1900 had a common school education, about the equivalent of six to eight grades. But the average young person in 1940 was a high school graduate. Outside the South, the transition was more rapid: as early as 1930 the median youth in the New England states and parts of the West was a high school graduate.”  (The Race Between Education and Technology, pp. 163-164)

Goldin and Katz conclude: “The American system can be characterized… as open, forgiving, lacking in universal standards, and having an academic yet practical curriculum. The European system, in contrast, was generally closed, unforgiving, with uniform standards, and an academic curriculum for some and an industrial one for others. One system was egalitarian; the other was elite.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 28)  “At the end of the twentieth century almost all nations have discovered what America knew at the beginning of the century. Human capital, embodied in one’s people, is the most fundamental part of the wealth of nations.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 41)

One of the most graphic contemporary depictions by a writer of life with what Goldin and Katz call an elite rather then inclusive system of public schools is fictional—Elena Ferrante’s runaway best selling series of novels about mid-twentieth century Naples. The four novels trace the life trajectories of two Italian girls—the one “brilliant friend” whose parents won’t pay for the tutoring for the exam that would secure her admittance to an academic high school—and the other a diligent girl whose teachers push her and parents permit her to soar academically beyond the limits of the neighborhood. The lives of both women involve troubles and sorrow, but the novels clearly identify the role of educational opportunity and its absence in a society that does not provide universal education. One of the books is titled “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.”

Goldin and Katz, economists, write about public schools’ contribution to human capital and the wealth of nations. Others consider the importance of public education  more broadly.  Here is education historian David Tyack: “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. And one way to begin that impoverishment is to privatize the purposes of education. 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. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)

How does privatization of education affect society?  Jonathan Kozol described what he imagines would be the consequences in a Boston Globe commentary last October, as voters in that state prepared to vote on a statewide ballot issue to remove a cap on the authorization of new charter schools. The measure failed overwhelmingly on election day, perhaps because many in Massachusetts agree with Kozol’s concerns: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy. What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters. It isn’t good for Massachusetts, and it’s not good for democracy.”

In the United States, expanding opportunity for marginalized populations of students in our so-called universal education system has involved two centuries of political struggle —securing admittance and equal opportunity for girls, for American Indians, for African American children of former slaves, for immigrant students, and for disabled students—many of them formerly institutionalized. In the words of the Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, “We’ve come too far to go back now.”

Our public schools are a reflection of the society in which they are set. They reflect our geographic and cultural regions and our society’s economic and racial segregation. While they cannot possibly be utopian institutions, public schools—universally available, publicly funded, amenable to public oversight through the democratic process—remain the best system for ensuring that our society can serve the needs of a broad range of students and communities and for protecting the human rights of our nation’s young people.

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, has spent her life and her fortune pursuing one goal—to privatize the public schools. All Senate Democrats have pledged to vote against her confirmation, and yesterday afternoon, Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski pledged to vote “no” as well.  Her confirmation would be defeated if one additional Republican Senator would vote “no.”  Please continue to call your Senators. Ask them to oppose Betsy DeVos’s confirmation when the full Senate votes. Or if you prefer to write, you can do so on your Senators’ websites. Or the Network for Public Education has a new action alert letter ready for you to use.

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)

Individualism vs. Community: the Tragedy of Small Thinking and Small Hopes

Arthur Camins is the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology, but Camins is a humanist, not a technocrat.  In a new piece at Huffington Post, Camins explains that what’s gone wrong with our thinking about public education is at the level of our deepest values: “The anthem of the civil rights movement was not, I will get ahead, but We Shall Overcome.  The vehicle for ‘bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice’ was not winning competitions with neighbors or winning a competition with fellow workers for merit bonuses, but rather walking hand-in-hand.  Maybe the most important historical lesson is that only mass collective action guided by a moral vision will pressure elected leaders to prioritize the interest of the many over the selfish demands of the few.”

How does all this apply to public education policy? “(A)dvocacy for charter schools and vouchers is framed as the personal right to choose a school.”  “In contrast to the collective spirit of previous social and economic justice efforts, the core value of current education reform policies is individual advancement.  In fact, its advocates seek to undermine collective action, democracy and community responsibility.  They explicitly accept the notion of improvement for the few at the expense of the many.  This value is reflected in the idea that parents should secure their children’s future by competing for a slot in a charter school. It is evident in the idea that teachers will work harder and smarter when they compete to achieve better student scores than their colleagues in order to receive a financial reward.”  A policy that aims to help a relative few children compete to escape cannot possibly improve the schools that serve the mass of children who are left in what competition has made into big city school districts of last resort for the children who have not won the lottery.

Camins’ thinking is in the tradition of the kind of philosophy that has guided the development of public education for over two centuries.  Consider his words in the context of these other education thinkers:

From the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “(T)he object of public schools is not to credential the educated but to educate the uncredentialed; that is, to change and transform pupils, not merely to exploit their strengths. The challenge in a democracy is to transform every child into an apt pupil, and give every pupil the chance to become an autonomous, thinking person and a deliberative, self-governing citizen: that is to say, to achieve excellence…  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…  Learning begins at birth, and much of it takes place at home or in the marketplace, in the streets or in front of the television.  Yet, what happens in these venues is largely a private matter… That makes formal schooling, however inadequate, our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goals, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.  Can we afford to privatize the only public institutions we possess?”  (Benjamin Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone, 1992, pp 12-15)

From philosopher of education, Walter Feinberg: “(T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.”  (Walter Feinberg, Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference, 1998, p. 245)

From Mike Rose, UCLA professor of education: “There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more, from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise… Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere…. downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar driven… We have to do better than this.  We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education.” (Why School? 2014 Revised and Expanded Edition, pp. 204-206)

From education historian David Tyack, “But wait. Is education primarily a consumer good or a common good?… If Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey were now to enter policy discussions on public education, they might well ask if Americans have lost their way.  Democracy is about making wise collective choices, not individual consumer choices.  Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time.  They have never been more essential to wise self rule than they are today.” (David Tyack, “Introduction,” School: The Story of American Public Education, 2001, p. 8)

Arthur Camins believes our public education thinking these days derives from what he calls “the audacity of small hopes”: “In the shadow of the Great Recession and after several decades of increasing wealth disparity in the United States, the politically and financially powerful have the audacity to call upon the nation to accept small dreams.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the pathetically small hope that consequential testing and competition—among parents for entry into charter schools, among schools for students, and among teachers for (bonus) pay increases—can lead to substantial education improvement and be a solution to poverty… We can be better than the audacity of small hopes.  The next anthem for equity needs to include the unifying theme: We’re in this together for jobs, justice, and equitable education.”