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)

“Government Schools” vs. “Public Schools”

Last weekend, the NY Times published an important story by Julie Bosman about the political importance of how we name our institutions: “Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court… Somewhere along the way, the term ‘government schools’ entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system.”

Bosman briefly quotes George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on the metaphoric thinking that characterizes our politics.  In his book, Moral Politics, Lakoff describes the way savvy communicators frame political issues with language that connotes deep values and morals:  “(M)ost of our thought is unconscious—not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. We think and talk at too fast a rate and at too deep a level to have a conscious awareness and control over everything we think and say. We are even less conscious of the components of thoughts—concepts. When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system…  (M)etaphorical thought need not be poetic or especially rhetorical. It is normal, everyday thought. Not every common concept is metaphorical, but a surprising number are.” Moral Politics, (pp. 4-5).

To define the connotation of “government schools,” Bosman quotes John Locke, a linguist at the City University of New York, who worries that the term “government schools” is austere: “It has an oppressive ring to it.  It sounds rigid, the opposite of open or friendly or charming or congenial. The people who use that term are hoping those words will come to mind.”

Actually, I believe that in the context of today’s battle over school reform and privatization, the term “government schools” evokes far more than concerns about rigid and austere schools.  The term “government schools” works as a metaphor for a very different political frame.

As a pejorative, “government schools” immediately evokes the ideal opposite to which it contrasts: privatized charter schools—free of regulation, and vouchers that privilege the  private institution of the family over the calcified “government schools” that impose on the individual freedom and choice of parents. Those who disparage “government schools” are rejecting the twentieth century public school—paralyzed, as they see it, by bureaucracy, resistant to disruptive change and innovation.  “Government schools” lack the efficiency of schools kept accountable through marketplace competition, where individuals are free to choose, free to thrive, free to race to the top. And, especially in Kansas where there is a long-running school funding battle, “government schools” are known to impose a very heavy tax burden.

“Public schools,” on the other hand,  connotes democratic governance, public funding, universal accessibility, and accountability to the public. The term, “public schools” evokes  the ideals of equal opportunity, equal access, and protection, through democratic oversight, of students and tax dollars. Public schools that operate on a huge scale, constituting a universal system that pulls our society together, are comprehensive—intended to serve all children and protect their rights. Public schools are democratic institutions; citizens are expected to provide ongoing oversight and demand corrections by law.  And citizens are expected to pay taxes as a civic responsibility. Public schools privilege the public—the common good—as well as seeking to educate every individual child. Historically, public schools have been understood as a centerpiece of the social contract. “Public schools” as a term is a metaphor for public obligation and public responsibility.

For the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, the term “government school” would connote a particular individualist definition of the model citizen: “(M)odel citizens…. are those (1) who have conservative values and act to support them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant; (3) who uphold the morality of reward and punishment; (4) who work to protect moral citizens; and (5) who act in support of the moral order.  Those who best fit all these categories are successful, wealthy, law-abiding conservative businessmen who support a strong military and a strict criminal justice system, who are against government regulation, and who are against affirmative action… They are the people whom all Americans should emulate and from whom we have nothing to fear.  They deserve to be rewarded and respected.  These model citizens fit an elaborate mythology.  They have succeeded through hard work, have earned whatever they have through their own self-discipline, and deserve to keep what they have earned.  Through their success and wealth they create jobs, which they ‘give’ to other citizens.  Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings, they become philanthropists who ‘give’ jobs to others and thereby ‘create wealth’ for others.  Part of the myth is that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government and have made it on their own.” (Moral Politics, pp 169-170)

According to today’s school reformers, “privatized schools” are the ideal opposite of “government schools.” But for many of us, traditional public schools remain the best institution to serve our society.  Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, castigates the “government school” frame: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good… It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive… Privatization ideology today encourages us to believe that the market is not only efficient and flexible but can somehow turn its regressive impulses to the service of what is left of the idea of the public good… 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…  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)