Public Education: Have We Lost Our Bearings?

Maybe this time Wisconsin governor Scott Walker went too far.  At least I hope our broad amnesia will abate for once, and we won’t forget that in his proposed 2016-2017 biennial budget, Wisconsin’s governor tried to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin. In Ohio we have a name, “logrolling,” for hiding major changes in state law inside the fine print of the budget.  Logrolling is actually unconstitutional in Ohio, though it’s done all the time without people filing lawsuits to get the changes thrown out.  But Wisconsin’s governor Walker just tried to take logrolling to a whole new level.

Walker’s proposed budget bill declared that Wisconsin’s university system should meet “the state’s work force needs.”  Though Walker said later the removal of the old-fashioned language about the mission of the university—called by those who value education for its own sake “the Wisconsin Idea”—was a mere drafting error, that is hard to believe if you consider what Walker removed.

The NY Times editorial board describes the change: “It was not enough for Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin suddenly to propose a destructive 13 percent cut in state support for the University of Wisconsin’s widely respected system.  His biennial budget plan… reached gratuitously into the university’s hallowed 111-year-old mission statement to delete a bedrock principle: ‘Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth’… Brazenly deleted as well from the mission statement…were the far from controversial goals ‘to educate people and improve the human condition’ and ‘serve and stimulate society.’ It was as if a trade school agenda were substituted for the idea of a university.”

I am encouraged that Governor Walker felt compelled to notice public opinion, and that after massive public outcry he un-logrolled the changes to the university’s mission statement by removing these changes from his proposed budget.  I am especially encouraged that the public noticed Walker’s outrageous substitution of the principle of job preparedness for the university’s historic mission.  It isn’t really fashionable these days to think about public policy in terms of ideas and principles.

Today instead we are usually satisfied with an appeal to “studies prove,” even when the other side has studies that prove something entirely opposite. Studies, for example, prove that school funding matters, but if we want to, we can believe the Hoover Institution economist who has said for years that school funding levels don’t change student achievement at all.  Or maybe we just know the name of the celebrity who is pushing a particular education policy—Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who is now leading the charge to curtail teachers’ unions—Andre Agassi, the tennis star who has his own charter school—Cathie Black, the magazine executive at Cosmopolitan, who became for a few weeks the chancellor of the New York City schools—Reed Hastings of Netflix, who wants to eliminate local boards of education.  But I think the principles are worth considering.

Sometimes principles are important because they describe things there is no way to measure.  Consider the statement that sits permanently at the top of this blog.  It is from a lecture the late senator Paul Wellstone delivered fifteen years ago at Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  “Rights of our democracy.”  “Common purpose.”  “Common bond.”  Wellstone appeals to our sense of fairness, our understanding of human rights, and our society’s long commitment to the common good—all qualitative—all immeasurable.

Sometimes when politicians gloss over principles, the purpose is sinister, but we fail to protect ourselves when we don’t consider the principles.  Think about the change being discussed right now in a long-running Constitutional Modernization Commission in Ohio.  The chair of this commission’s education committee is determined to remove the education clause from Ohio’s constitution.  This clause was inserted into the constitution in 1851: “The General Assembly shall provide and fund a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”  In testimony he presented to the commission’s education committee, Charles Wilson of the college of law at the Ohio State University explains why the original constitutional language really matters.  The “thorough and efficient clause” provides the basis by which the judicial branch of government can protect Ohio’s citizens under law:  “Checks and balances are part of the wisdom of our system.” “I’m not sure I’d want to live in a society where there weren’t checks and balances.  It would open the door to tyranny.”  As a matter of fact, the people trying to remove Ohio’s education clause from the state constitution want to slash public school funding and move the money to the charter sector, and they don’t want the citizens to have a right under the constitution to bring a lawsuit to protect the public schools.

Then there is the debate going on right now in Congress about protecting the rights of America’s poorest public school students.  When I blogged on this issue last Thursday, the post predictably attracted few hits.  After all, it’s about the threat to a principle—educational equity.  If Congress were to adopt “Title I Portability” by ceasing to distribute weighted funding by formula to districts where masses of children are very poor, such a policy shift would sabotage the principle that federal funding for education should compensate for serious funding inequity that states refuse to or cannot afford to address. The principle, enshrined in the Title I formula of the federal education law since 1965, is threatened because not enough people really understand it.  Why pay attention when the issue is grounded not in what “studies prove” but in an ideal?

Finally there is the whole issue of privatization.  Public schools are more likely than privatized alternatives to be able to meet the needs and secure the rights of our nation’s children.  Whether marketplace school choice is a good idea has attracted some attention lately because Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution and Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington have been raising concerns about widespread lack of regulation of charter schools. Both have admitted they are worried that school choice isn’t working, even though both are long supporters of privatization. Lots of the discussion has focused on test scores (metrics).  Then Margaret Raymond tried to argue that if parents were given more accessible information, they would make better choices and schools would improve through competition. But the real question is neither about test scores nor the information available to drive the choices of parents. The issue is about the principle.  The more I learn about marketplace school choice in practice, the more I appreciate political philosopher Benjamin Barber’s thoughtful juxtaposition of public vs. private:

“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…. 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….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Right now in the debates about so called school “reform” we talk a lot about what studies prove and we note the celebrities who are promoting one or another kind of school or ideology.  I think we ought to pay much closer attention to the principles underneath the conversation.