A Primer for the Public Education Voter in this Fall’s Midterm Election

The midterm election is only weeks away. The airwaves are filled with attack ads that sensationalize and distort the issues.  Even in states where public education has not emerged as a central issue, it ought to be, because K-12 education and higher education are among the biggest lines in every state’s budget.  Without naming states and without naming candidates or particular ballot issues, today’s blog will serve as a voters’ primer about what to consider on November 6, if you think of yourself a public education voter. These reports present simple information about each state.  If a candidate for your legislature or governor, for example, claims to be an “education” candidate, having invested significantly in education, you can check his or her promises against the facts.  I hope you’ll take a look at how your state has been supporting or failing to support the mass of children who attend public schools and the teachers who serve them.

The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education put the importance of public schools into perspective: “In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75% of private school students) attending religious private schools.”

In 1899, the philosopher of education, John Dewey explained the public purpose of education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Public schools are the institutions most likely to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.  Public schools are publicly owned, publicly funded, and democratically governed under law.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. No school is likely to perfectly serve all children, but because public schools are subject to government regulation under law, our society has been able to protect the right to an education for an ever growing number of children over the generations.

Key Resources for Voters in Fall, 2018—Public School Funding

The current decade began as the Great Recession devastated state budgets. While some states have recovered, many have struggled, and some have further cut taxes.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ most recent update on public K-12 funding across the states is A Punishing Decade for School Funding, dated November 29, 2017.  This is the essential annual report comparing public K-12 investment across the states. The numbers remain discouraging: We learn that 29 states continue to provide less total state funding for public schools than they did in 2008, prior to the Great Recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also just released its annual report on higher education funding: Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, which notes that in 31 states, per-student funding for public colleges and universities dropped between 2017 and 2018, while average tuition has continued to rise. Along with its report on higher education, CBPP even provides an online tool by which you can call up a short, detailed brief on higher education funding trends in each state.

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers published its own fine report on funding of public education across the states, A Decade of Neglect, which concluded: “(C)uts states have made since the Great Recession have led to reduced student math and English achievement, and this was most severe for school districts serving more low-income and minority students, especially in districts that saw large reductions in the numbers of teachers.”  The report describes overall trends followed by a series of two page briefs summarizing and presenting graphically the public school funding trend in each state since the 2004-2005 school year.

Key Resource for Voters in Fall, 2018—Marketplace School Privatization Undermines Democracy and Robs Public Schools of Essential Resources

In his 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the commodification of public institutions: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

Not only is school privatization undemocratic, but it also drains state funding away from public school districts into charter schools and various kinds of tuition vouchers for private school. School privatization laws differ across the states along with the amount of money driven out of state public education budgets into the various school privatization schemes. In June of this year, the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education jointly published Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report’s introduction states its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. The report ranks the states by the degree to which they have privatized education.

Barber summarizes privatization’s corrosive role—fragmenting and undermining our society: “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)

As you vote in this fall’s election, please consider the resources suggested here as well as the principles that define public education’s public role in our society.

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Betsy DeVos: The First of Her Two Top Accomplishments This Year

Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, has been circulating a New Year’s resolution and asking people endorse it and send it on to their legislators and anyone who has a role in making education policy. The resolution was written by Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association, who adapted it from a statement of the Network for Public Education  (See pp. 47-48 of the NPE Report)

I BELIEVE that public education is the pillar of our democracy. I believe in the common school envisioned by Horace Mann. A common school is a public institution, which nurtures and teaches all who live within its boundaries, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sexual orientation or learning ability. All may enroll – regardless of when they seek to enter the school or where they were educated before.

I BELIEVE that taxpayers bear the responsibility for funding those schools and that funding should be ample and equitable to address the needs of the served community. I also believe that taxpayers have the right to examine how schools use tax dollars to educate children.

I BELIEVE that such schools should be accountable to the community they serve, and that community residents have the right and responsibility to elect those who govern the school. Citizens also have the right to insist that schooling be done in a manner that best serves the needs of all children.

In so stating these beliefs, I will do whatever I can to support and promote public education in Ohio.

What seems amazing to me about the project of asking people to endorse and send this resolution to policy makers is that, as we begin 2018, it seems so urgently necessary. When my own children were in elementary school in the late 1980s—a time when I was working hard to help pass school levies in my community and when I first met Bill Phillis, who was then assistant superintendent of public instruction here in Ohio—such a resolution would have seemed more than a little strange. At that time most people merely assumed that one sent one’s children to the public elementary to which they were assigned and the designated middle school and high school.  As a parent in the 1980s and early 1990s, I did not fully appreciate the right to public education; I merely took it for granted.

Betsy DeVos, who has been the U.S. Secretary of Education for a year, did not invent school choice, and certainly school privatization had been underway through vouchers and the proliferation of charter schools before she was appointed.  But her biggest accomplishment during this year has been to use her position to undermine confidence in and support for the public schools her federal department is supposed to oversee.

Betsy DeVos is perhaps our society’s longest and most experienced lobbyist for school choice—her life’s cause and the object of her lavish philanthropy that has supported organizations including the American Federation for Children, EdChoice, the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, National School Choice Week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and the Great Lakes Education Project.

While Betsy DeVos has long supported the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which churns out model bills for school privatization, this year DeVos has not succeeded in delivering a federal school voucher program. Neither did she succeed in getting a large tuition tax credit program or education savings account program inserted, as many had feared she would, into the tax overhaul Congress passed in December. There is an expansion of what are called 529 college savings accounts on which the interest is tax-free, enabling people with such accounts to use them to pay not only for college but also for private school tuition, but this will affect only the very wealthy who can afford such accounts.

The deepest damage is what DeVos has inflicted through her relentless story about parental choice. DeVos has doggedly disparaged public schools. Ignoring that, by definition, justice must be systemic, she has attacked our education system as a bureaucracy unresponsive to parents and the needs of  “individual” (her favorite word) children.  That government’s primary role is protecting the rights of vulnerable children through laws and the enforcement of the laws through democratic governance is meaningless to DeVos.  She assumes parents will shop around until they find ideal services for each of their children; if one school doesn’t work, parents ought to merely try another one. DeVos carefully avoids acknowledging that privatized schools can find ways to select the most appealing children and push out the students they don’t want to serve. She obliviously ignores the arithmetic problems when taxes are cut and at the same time the public would find itself paying for charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all out of the old but diminished public school budget.

You may not accept Betsy DeVos’s argument for the glories of school choice. But I suspect that more than last January, you just sigh. On some level haven’t we all just begun to accept that more privatization—along with the lack of protection for vulnerable students and the expense of funding several kinds of education—is just the way things are these days.

Please don’t give up. Read the principles in the resolution from the Network for Public Education via Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association. I suspect that although your fatalism makes you fear that Betsy DeVos’s view is winning the day, you really still agree with the resolution.  Your first and most important action is to consider it and decide whether the principles remain important.  After that, send it to at least one policy maker. Take out the word ” in Ohio” at the end, and send it to Senator Patty Murray, for example, the ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  She and her staff would be delighted to know that she has your support as she continues to push back against DeVos and other Republicans who relentlessly promote the nonsense of privatization.

Why Betsy DeVos Is Wrong about Privatization of Education: Growing Consensus about Charters

U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos relentlessly promotes school privatization—framed as parental choice—through such schemes as charter schools and virtual charter schools, and vouchers and neo-vouchers like tax credits and education savings accounts.  If you need clarification, Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, has published a primer to explain all these ways of redirecting public money to schools that are not publicly operated.

As DeVos relentlessly assaults our system of public education, a danger for our society is that, becoming exhausted, citizens will merely accommodate themselves to what begins to seem inevitable or capitulate and accept some sort of compromise. In the case of school choice, any compromise that directs tax dollars away from the public institution that serves the majority of our children is a poor policy.

Those who have watched charter school growth in their communities, academic researchers, and national organizations continue to explore the challenges posed by the expansion of charter schools.

Last week the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a comprehensive critique—a Statement on Charter Schools—which begins by reviewing the primary importance of public education: “A common school is a public institution, which nurtures and teaches all who live within its boundaries, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sexual preference or learning ability. All may enroll—regardless of when they seek to enter the school or where they were educated before…. (T)axpayers bear the responsibility for funding those schools and… funding should be ample and equitable to address the needs of the served community.”

Despite the claims of their proponents who dub them “public”charter schools, NPE explains: “By definition, a charter school is not a public school. Charter schools are formed when a private organization contracts with a government authorizer to open and run a school. Charters are managed by private boards, often with no connection to the community they serve. The boards of many leading charter chains are populated by billionaires who often live far away from the school they govern.”

“Charter schools do not serve all children… By means of school closures and failed takeover practices… disadvantaged communities lose their public schools to charter schools. Not only do such communities lose the school, but they also lose their voice in school governance.”

The Network for Public Education demands “an immediate moratorium on the creation of new charter schools, including no replication or expansion of existing charter schools” and “look(s) forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards, but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level.”  NPE adds that until charter schools are publicly governed, there is a need for legislation and regulation to ensure public accountability over the stewardship of tax dollars, transparent public governance, protection of students’ rights and each school’s attention to academic standards and qualifications of teachers.

NPE’s Statement on Charter Schools is short and comprehensive. Please read and consider it.  NPE backs up the statement with a toolkit of resources about the danger of school privatization.

At the end of May, from a very different social location, Jitu Brown published a critique of charter school expansion in America’s black and brown communities. Brown is a Chicago community organizer and the director of the national Journey for Justice Alliance. He was a leader in Chicago’s 2015 hunger strike that forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a neighborhood comprehensive high school in the South Side, Bronzeville neighborhood. Brown challenges Betsy DeVos:  “Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems not to hear the fierce protests of parents, teachers and school officials over school closings and charter expansion in New York, Chicago, Oakland, Detroit and other American cities… In truth, school choice does not exist in most black and brown communities in the United States… What DeVos fails to understand is the intentional structural racism that has been accepted by Democrats and Republicans, where children from black and brown communities are intentionally underserved by the system all citizens pay taxes into.  In Chicago, a child who goes to a neighborhood school near DePaul University enjoys a teacher’s aide in every class, robotics, debate teams, fully stocked libraries and after-school programs; while on the south side of the same city, in some schools there is one teacher’s aide in the building, with no library, no world language and 42 kindergarten students in one class… DeVos has not yet learned that we, meaning black and brown families, don’t have the choice of great neighborhood schools within safe walking distance of our homes. In addition to the harm school closings inflict on students’ academic development and safety, only one out of five charter schools outperforms traditional public schools, despite the fact they can pick the children they want and discard the ones they don’t.”

Brown asks not for expanded school choice, but instead for quality neighborhood public schools in the poorest communities—“what many children from middle-class white and upper-income families enjoy: a robust, rigorous and relevant curriculum, support for high quality teaching (smaller classes, teacher aides, effective professonal development), wrap-around supports for every child (nurses, counselors, clubs, after-school programs), a student-centered school climate, transformative parent and community engagement and inclusive school leadership.”

And last week Mark Weber, the school finance researcher in New Jersey, summed up on his personal blog conclusions drawn from  growing charter school research in Newark: “As a proportion of total population, the Newark Public Schools enroll many more students with the costliest special education disabilities. We’ve been over this time and again: while some Newark charters have upped their enrollments of special education students, the students they do take tend to have the less-costly disabilities: Specific Learning Disabilities… and Speech/Language Disabilities. The charters take very few students who are emotionally disturbed, or hearing impaired, or have intellectual disabilities, or any of the other higher-cost disabilities… Just to be clear: I don’t think charters should be attempting to educate these students with special needs. By all indications, they don’t have the capacity to do the job correctly. NPS (Newark Public Schools) has a much lower ‘student load’ per support staff member than the charters. These support staff include counselors, occupational and physical therapists, nurses, psychologists, social workers, learning disability teacher consultants, reading specialists, sign language interpreters, speech correction specialists, and so on. It would be highly inefficient to staff every charter school and network in the city with all of these staff.”

All of this recent work amplifies a growing consensus among researchers and advocates. Rutgers University professor of school finance, Bruce Baker, has explained the collateral damage to the public school system and to entire communities when charters are expanded.  In a report published last November by the Economic Policy Institute, Baker showed how expansion of charter schools destabilizes big city school districts: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. Some of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Baker continues: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Finally, last autumn, the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights organization, raised serious concerns when its national convention passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment or expansion of charter schools until:

  • “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools;
  • “Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system;
  • “Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate;
  • (Charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

All of these individuals and organizations understand that, because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools serve all children. While no enormous network of schools can be perfect, the public schools remain the best system for serving the needs and protecting the rights of all our children.

Extra: The Network for Public Education Will Live-Stream Event Saturday Afternoon, October 11

As you plan your weekend, consider joining a conversation on Saturday afternoon, October 11—PUBLIC EDUCATION NATION, a series of panels that will bring authentic educators to speak to crucial education issues that are too often tracked in the media by people who have little experience with public schools.  The voices of teachers, principals, and others close to public schools have too often been absent.  The program begins at noon (Eastern) and concludes at 5 PM (Eastern).

PUBLIC EDUCATION NATION will be live-streamed from a public school in Brooklyn, New York.  If you’ll be in New York City on Saturday and would like to attend in person, you can register here.  The school is Brooklyn New School at 610 Henry Street.

But if, like me, you are not anywhere near New York City, you can still participate.  The event will be live-streamed starting at noon, (Eastern) (9 AM Pacific time) and concluding at 5 PM (Eastern).  Here is the url for the live stream:  http://www.schoolhouselive.org.

You may, of course, listen all afternoon or choose the segments you care most about.  Here are the five panels (in the order in which they will appear):

Testing and the Common Core — New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris will moderate a conversation with educators Takeima Bunche-Smith, Rosa Rivera-McCutchen and Alan Aja.  Burris is an award winning New York City high school principal and frequent guest writer about the Common Core on Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” blog on the website of the Washington Post.

Support Our Schools, Don’t Close Them — Chicago teacher Xian Barrett will talk with education professor Yohuru Williams and two high school student organizers—Hiram Rivera of the Philadelphia Student Union, and Tanaisa Brown of the Newark Student Union.

Charter Schools — North Carolina writer and activist Jeff Bryant will host a discussion with New Orleans parent activist Karran Harper Royal, New York teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein, and Connecticut writer and activist Wendy Lecker.  Bryant edits the weekly newsletter of the Education Opportunity Network, a publication for which he writes the lead column.  He is also a frequent writer for Salon.com.

Authentic Reform Success Stories — Network for Public Education executive director Robin Hiller will talk with New York teacher and activist Brian Jones, and Greg Anrig, author of Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.

Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown, In Conversation — The event will conclude with a conversation between two national leaders in the struggle to protect public schools: community activist Jitu Brown and Diane Ravitch. Together they will consider what kind of progress is being made to build a movement for real improvement in our schools. Brown is among the most effective parent community organizers in America today—a longtime leader in Chicago’s Kenwood-Oakland Association where he has led protests against the closure of public schools—and now an organizer with the national Journey4Justice Alliance, where he has been involved in protests in Philadelphia and Newark.  Diane Ravitch, of course, is one of the founders of the Network for Public Education.  She is a well known education historian and author who has most recently has published Reign of Error and The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Here is how the Network for Public Education describes its mission:  “The Network for Public Education is an advocacy group whose goal is to fight to protect, preserve and strengthen our public school system, an essential institution in a democratic society.  Our mission is to protect, preserve, promote, and strengthen public schools and the education of current and future generations of students.”