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.

Small Local Group Uncovers Widespread Opposition to Confirmation of DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary

On Tuesday, January 3, as everybody crawled out from under holiday cooking, gifting and celebrating, leaders of our local Heights Coalition for Public Education met to consider mounting some kind of local response to the existential threat of a Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education. President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy Devos alarms us because her only connection with public schools has been a lifelong commitment to using her billionaire philanthropy to privatize education. We’ve all personally sent letters or signed petitions to protest Trump’s nomination of Devos to be our next education secretary, and we looked for a way to expand our advocacy to include our broader community.

We crafted a sign-on letter for organizations and assigned different people to reach out to leaders they knew to see of their organizations would consider signing on. On Wednesday, we learned there was some time pressure: DeVos’s hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (Senate HELP) Committee had now been scheduled for January 11.

Everything sped up. When some organizations lacked a way to meet formally to consider our letter, they polled their members. People responded by telling leaders of their organizations their own stories and their concerns about the danger of losing democratically controlled public schools whose mission it is to serve all children.  One person complained: “Betsy DeVos has refused to pay a $5.3 million fine for campaign violations by her PAC in Ohio. She’s not only an anti-public education ideologue but also a scofflaw and a deadbeat to boot.” Another sent his dismay as a former longtime resident of Michigan: “Thanks for this letter. We spent most of our lives in Michigan and are very well acquainted with the anti-government, anti-public education beliefs and advocacy of Betsy DeVos.  Trump could not have picked a worse person to head public education in his administration.” As they rejected the idea of expanding a school choice marketplace, many declared their commitment to improving access and opportunity in our public schools.

We discovered this week that a mass of people from across our community, across Greater Cleveland, in surrounding counties, and across Ohio were delighted their organization had been given an opportunity to weigh in on this important matter that will affect our public schools, our communities, our state, and our society.

On Monday, with members of the organizations that signed on, we will deliver our letter personally to the Cleveland offices of our U.S. Senators, Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman. While neither of our senators serves on the Senate HELP Committee, we are putting them on notice that we expect both of them to pay attention to next week’s Senate HELP Committee hearing on the DeVos nomination. We are asking them both to oppose the DeVos nomination when it comes before the full Senate.

Here is our letter:

Ohio Organizations Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary

January 9, 2017 — President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As local and state Ohio organizations committed to protecting and improving one of America’s primary civic institutions, our public schools, we oppose confirmation of Ms. Devos.  Based on her record, it is clear that Ms. DeVos is not an advocate of public education and would use her position to undermine this essential democratic institution to the detriment of children, communities, our economy and our democracy.

Every human being is valuable. We are committed to the principle that our public school system, regulated by law and overseen through democratic governance, is the institution most able to serve the needs and protect the rights of all of our nation’s children. Public schools are also the best way to ensure that valuable public resources achieve public purposes.

Traditional public schools serve 90 percent – approximately 50 million – of our nation’s children and adolescents, yet Betsy DeVos has no experience with public education. She has never attended a public school, nor did she educate her own children in public schools. Neither is she a public school teacher. She lacks relevant expertise, never having served in a school or studied pedagogy, or school administration, or school psychology, or the philosophy of education.

Betsy DeVos is explicitly hostile to public education. She has said that public education is “antiquated and frankly embarrassing” — “a dead end.” In a speech last year she declared: “Government really sucks.” (Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, To Trump’s Education Pick, the U.S. Public School System is a ‘Dead End,’ December 21, 2016)

Betsy DeVos is a billionaire whose only experience with public schools is her extensive philanthropy that has underwritten lobbying to privatize public education. Ms. DeVos has used her position to promote the expansion of private school vouchers and to oppose responsible regulation of charter schools. The American Federation for Children––the organization founded by Ms. DeVos and the organization on whose board she served until her nomination as Secretary of Education—helped design Donald Trump’s plan to create a $20 billion federal block grant to states to incentivize them to expand vouchers for children to pay private and parochial school tuition and to expand charter schools. The Great Lakes Education Project, a Michigan lobbying group founded by and supported by Ms. DeVos and her husband, blocked legislation in the Michigan House to responsibly regulate charter schools, a plan that had already been agreed upon as part of the Detroit City Schools bailout. 

Marketplace competition, by definition, creates winners and losers. Turning over education to a privatized education marketplace would abandon our commitment to all children. It would leave behind children likely to score low on the tests by which our society now judges schools, children with special needs, and children whose parents are unable to participate in or are not interested in school choice.

We support public schools that are required by law to serve all children and protect their civil rights, principles that we fear would be lost under the leadership of Betsy DeVos.

  • Central Ohio Friends of Public Education
  • Cleveland Caucus to Reclaim Our Schools
  • Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, Local 795, American Federation of Teachers
  • Cleveland Teachers Union, Local 279, American Federation of Teachers
  • Cuyahoga County Educator Summit
  • Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus
  • Heights Coalition for Public Education
  • Lorain County Parents Supporting Our Children and Teachers
  • Northeast Ohio Branch, American Association of University Women
  • Northeast Ohio Education Association, Board of Directors
  • Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education
  • Northwest Ohio Friends of Public Education
  • Ohio BATS
  • Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding
  • Ohio Education Association
  • Ohio Federation of Teachers
  • Orange Teachers Association
  • Public Education Partners Ohio
  • Reaching Heights
  • Refuse of Cuyahoga County
  • Roxboro Middle School PTA
  • Roxboro Orchestra and Band Organization
  • Summit County Progressive Democrats, Board of Directors