“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.” —John Adams

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber believed that the American system of public schools—schools located in every community, schools accessible to all, schools paid for by the public—are the heart of our U.S. democracy. And he worried that school privatization and consumerist school choice threaten to fragment our society:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Tom Ultican is retired from a career teaching mathematics and physics at the public Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California.  A prolific California teacher-blogger, Ultican recently described what he learned about the important role of public schools in the small Idaho town where he grew up. The public schools were the engine of educational opportunity, but also the center of the community itself. Ultican lived on a ranch outside the town of Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, where his mother taught school: “It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path: if that education would continue and whether it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was that they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future… Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year-olds did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.”  Additionally Ultican recognizes: “The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school-based relationships.”

Ultican quotes John Adams in 1785 articulating the principles the Founders enacted that year in the first of the Northwest Ordinances, which established the blueprint for U.S. public schooling: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must 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 expense of the people themselves.”

In his important book published last fall, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black looks back not only at the founding of U.S. public education but also at the major threats to the institution of public schooling throughout our history—the collapse of universal access and school funding in the South after Reconstruction, the bigotry of Jim Crow, the long fight leading to Brown v. Board of Education, and the legal and legislative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.

Black brings his history up to date and concludes that political forces today threaten the very idea of public schooling as seriously as in any of these troubled eras in our history: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together and prepared by public education. The idea is so central that public education became a right and delivering it the constitutional duty of states… The nation, of course, had major setbacks—economic and racial—but those setbacks even when they aimed to, never overcame the fundamental commitment to public education.  Education policies of the last decade, however, do not fit well within the nation’s historical arc. The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment (since the 2008 Recession) in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession…. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming.  To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Like Tom Ultican, U.S. Senator Jon Tester was educated in a small western town, Big Sandy, Montana (population 560), where he still farms today. Not only did Tester attend Big Sandy’s public schools, but he also once taught music at F. E. Miley Elementary School and served for nine years on Big Sandy’s board of education before becoming a Montana state senator and then a U.S. Senator. Tester actively worries about the impact school privatization could have on the public schools in small rural communities like Big Sandy: “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization. My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.” (Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,  pp. 279-280)

What makes the preservation of public education so important?  Here is how Derek Black concludes his history of American public education and what he understands as today’s threat: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

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.