On This Holiday Honoring Dr. King, Consider the Plight of Children Today in Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District

Today is the holiday set aside for reflection on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Peter Greene’s new history of the ruination of Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland Public Schools, published last week in Forbes, ought to be required reading on this holiday to remind us how badly our society has stumbled along the journey for justice for America’s poorest African American children.

On Wednesday, Joseph R. Biden will be inaugurated as U.S. President.  Look for a new post on Friday, January 22.

Greene explains: “As the new year begins, one Pennsylvania public school district faces the prospect of being completely dismantled and handed over to charter operators. Chester Upland School District is poised to become an example of what can happen to a public school district that needs assistance, and gets nothing but trouble instead.  CUSD has weathered every sort of challenge a district can face, but may now be on its last legs, about to make history as the first Pennsylvania district to be completely privatized.”

I have known about the tragedy in Chester Upland since the mid-1990s, but Greene explains how its segregated history goes back to the years before Brown, when the district educated Black and white children separately as a matter of policy. Greene reports that only after 1964 was Chester Upland ordered to desegregate, but middle class white flight followed, and “the 1960s saw an exodus of major employers like Ford Motor and Baldwin Locomotive. People and solid middle class jobs were both leaving, and the school district’s tax base was evaporating.”

Then came the so-called solution: accountability-based school reform. Chester Upland earned a D+ rating from the state at the same time its next-door neighbor, Wallingford-Swarthmore earned an A+: “By 1994, the district was named the worst-performing school in the state…. In 2000, the state declared the district financially distressed, meaning that they could be taken over by a state-appointed Board of Control.”  The state hired the for-profit Edison Schools to manage the Chester Upland District, until the corporation quit in 2005, saying they had not been fully paid and that ‘we were no longer going to be enough of an active agent for positive change.'”

A succession of state overseer boards followed, but in the meantime Vahan Gureghian opened the nonprofit, Chester Community Charter School, and the for-profit Charter School Management, Inc., which then became the nonprofit’s manager. Gureghian earned so much that he built a Palm Beach mansion he later sold for $84.5 million.

Some of Gureghian’s profits came from Pennsylvania’s mechanism for funding special education in charter schools at a flat rate of $40,000 per student no matter whether the child is autistic, blind, a victim of severe multiple handicaps or impaired by a speech impediment.  Greene reports that, in a court decision, Judge Chad Kenney declared: “The Charter Schools serving Chester Upland special education students reported in 2013-14… that they did not have any special education students costing them anything outside the zero to twenty-five thousand dollar range, and yet, this is remarkable considering they receive forty thousand dollars for each one of these special education students under a legislatively mandated formula.”

Still under state takeover and a succession of emergency management boards, the school district experienced escalating financial problems. Teachers went through periods when they agreed to work without pay to serve the students. Greene reports: “The recovery plan of December, 2019, laid out the troubles that faced the district. Since 2012, four recovery plans, four receivers, three chief recovery officers. Constant turnover in staff and faculty. The school district had ‘failed to maximize potential benefits from’ from previous plans, aka, the previous plans hadn’t worked.  100% of the student body eligible for free and reduced lunch; 89% Black, 7% Hispanic. Substantial amounts of ‘deferred maintenance’ and ‘underfunded capital improvements budgets’ were blamed for dropped enrollment.”

Greene continues: “At the same time, the three charter schools in Chester, even though they only covered grades K-8, had enrolled over half the students in the district. Chester Community Charter School has become the largest bricks-and-mortar charter school in the state… and Pennsylvania’s funding gap between rich and poor districts has continued to be one of the worst in the country.  Chester Upland has been on the losing side of all these issues, with the added impact of repeated, failed state takeovers, using a receivership model that puts the court-appointed receiver in charge with huge powers….”

Last September, administrative services in the school district were handed over to a Chester County regional authority, which reduced staff.  And a request for proposals was circulated “to outsource operation of the schools.”  Everyone must wait to see who gets the contract, but it looks as though Chester Upland will become an all-charter school district.  A big question involves the future of the still-public high school.

Greene concludes: “The death spiral occurs when charters strip resources from the public system, leaving that system further struggling, which fuels more parent departure for charters… What is the hope for Chester Upland schools? … State-mandated takeovers have been disastrously unsuccessful, and the state itself has left the district woefully underfunded (low test scores did not lead the state to target resources to aid the district).  Bad charter laws have striped them of funding they could not spare, and returned results that seem no better…. The district’s story is complicated… but the lesson is simple.  When a district is segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources, it suffers.  And when the state, rather than aiding it, allows it to be picked over and fed upon by private for-profit businesses, it suffers more, creating the possibility of a community that is no longer able to fulfill the promise of a free public education for all of its children.”

This is the story of one Pennsylvania school district. But the story of a state experimenting with state takeovers and charter management companies and a state failing to provide help for Its poorest school districts is about more than Pennsylvania. What Greene describes is also the story of Rick Snyder’s school district emergency managers in Michigan—the story of Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, and Highland Park.  It is the story of the Ohio state takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  It is the story of charter school expansion in Gary, Indiana. It is the New Jersey story of decades of school district takeovers in Paterson and Newark and Camden. It is the story of state governments looking for cheap, trendy ways to shed responsibility for educating the Black and Brown children in America’s poorest and most racially segregated communities.  It is also the story of charter school entrepreneurs who profit from power and political connections at the expense of poor children.

In this Teacher Appreciation Week, Fair Pay Would Show Our Teachers They Really Are Appreciated

In 1962, when my mother taught first grade in Havre, Montana, she felt appreciated as a teacher even though the rule was that she had to take the kids outside for recess unless it was below 15 degrees below zero. (Remember that wind chill as a term hadn’t been invented in those days.) She wasn’t paid particularly well, but school did close for an hour at midday, while everybody went home for lunch. She saw her students’ parents all the time in the grocery store, however, and she knew that her opinions and her expertise were valued.

This week has been formally designated as the 2019 Teacher Appreciation Week. But teachers these days aren’t really appreciated. While the Washington Post reports that, merely to sit on Boeing’s board of directors, Caroline Kennedy and Nikki Haley are paid $324,000 annually in cash and stock to attend a day-long meeting every-other-month, school teachers’ salaries haven’t been keeping up at all.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel just released a report about persistent growth in a teacher wage penalty, which reached an all time high in 2018: “(R)elative teacher wages, as well as total compensation—compared with the wages and total compensation of other college graduates—have been eroding for over half a century.  These trends influence the career choices of college students, biasing them against the teaching profession, and also make it difficult to keep current teachers in the classroom.”

Allegretto and Mishel explain the trend: “(W)omen teachers enjoyed a wage premium in 1960, meaning they were paid more than comparably educated and experienced women workers in other fields. By the early 1980s, the wage premium for women teachers had transformed into a wage penalty… The mid-1990s marks the start of a period of sharply eroding teacher weekly wages and an escalating teacher weekly wage penalty.  Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $21 from 1996-2018, from $1,216 to $1,195 (in 2018 dollars).  In contrast, weekly wages of college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777, over this period.”

And the wage penalty is for both women and men: “The wage premium that women teachers enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s has long been erased…. Our previous research found that in 1960 women teachers earned 14.7 percent more in weekly wages than comparable women workers… And the wage premium for women teachers gradually faded over the 1980s and 1990s, until it was eventually replaced by a large and growing wage penalty in the 2000s and 2010s.  In 2018, women public school teachers were making 15.1 percent less in wages than comparable women workers.  The wage penalty for men teachers is much larger. The weekly wage penalty for men teachers was 17.8 percent in 1979… In 2018, men teaching public school were making 31.5 percent less in wages than comparable men in other professions.” Overall in 2018, the wage penalty for school teachers reached 21.4 percent.

Teachers benefits, on average, are higher than those of workers in other professions.  Allegretto and Mishel explain: “As a result of their growing benefit share of compensation, teachers are enjoying a ‘benefits advantage’ over other professionals… However this benefits advantage has not been enough to offset the growing wage penalty… The bottom line is that the teacher (total) compensation penalty grew by 10.2 percentage points from 1993-2018.”

There is not a lot of mystery behind how the teacher pay gap has grown.  Allegretto and Mishel blame a wave of tax cuts across the states for the revenue shortages that have driven down compensation for teachers: “The erosion of teacher weekly wages relative to weekly wages of other college graduates… reflects state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges brought on by the Great Recession. A recent study… found that most of the 25 states that were still spending less for K-12 education in 2016 than before the recession had also enacted tax cuts between 2008 and 2016.  In fact, eight of the 10 states with the largest reductions in education funding since 2008 were states that had reduced their overall ‘tax effort’—meaning through tax cuts or other measures they were collecting less in taxes relative to their capacity to generate tax revenue. These eight states were Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.”

Lots of experts including the Economic Policy Institute and the Learning Policy Institute have been tracking the result of extremely difficult teaching conditions in understaffed schools along with low pay for teachers. They have identified what they call the resulting widespread teacher shortage, particularly a shortage of well prepared and experienced teachers.  And they have emphasized the tragedy of increasing churn in the teaching profession as more and more teachers give up and leave the classroom.

But the teacher-blogger, Peter Greene insists we call what is happening something different: “There is no teacher shortage. There’s a slow-motion walkout, a one-by-one exodus, a piecemeal rejection of the terms of employment for educators in 2019… ‘We’ve got a teacher shortage,’ assumes… that there just aren’t enough teachers out there in the world…. That’s where teacher shortage talk takes us—to a search for teacher substitutes. Maybe we can just lower the bar. Only require a college degree in anything at all…  A few hundred students with a ‘mentor’ and a computer would be just as good as one of those teachers that we’re short of, anyway, right?”

Greene defines the problem another way: “Teaching has become such unattractive work that few people want to do it.”  And having defined the problem, he believes there are some ways to address it: “‘Offer them more money’… is certainly an Economics 101 answer… But as the #Red forEd walkouts remind us, money isn’t the whole issue.  Respect. Support.  The tools necessary to do a great job.  Autonomy.  Treating people like actual functioning adults  These are all things that would make teaching jobs far more appealing… There are other factors that make the job less attractive. The incessant focus on testing. The constant stream of new policies crafted by people who couldn’t do a teacher’s job for fifteen minutes. The huge workload, including a constant mountainous river of… paperwork…. the moves to deprofessionalize the work.  The national scale drumbeat of criticism and complaint….”

I believe the collapse in respect for teachers has also been driven by the strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act, which neglected to fund adequate staffing and school improvement and set out to motivate educators with the fear their school would be named “failing” if they could not raise test scores quickly for all children. They were supposed to work harder and smarter. We now know that No Child Left Behind’s demand that all schools could make their students proficient by 2014 didn’t work. Arne Duncan had to waiver states from this requirement to avoid an embarrassing reality: All American schools were going to be branded “failing.”  But today our national education strategy is still driven by the same test-and-punish.

Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz warns us about the dangers of our test-based accountability regime in a 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Koretz is an expert on the design and use of standardized testing as the basis for evaluating of schools and schoolteachers. He demonstrates how this strategy unfairly brands teachers as failures when they teach in the schools serving our society’s poorest and most vulnerable children: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

We have been watching a yearlong wave of walkouts by teachers—a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, the lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay. They have showed us what would support them and their students: smaller classes, more counselors and social workers, school nurses, librarians, a generous and enriched curriculum, and salaries adequate enough to pay the rent for a modest apartment, attract new teachers to the profession, and keep experienced teachers.

In this 2019 Teacher Appreciation Week it is a tragedy that so many state legislatures continue to debate further tax cuts. The situation calls to mind the warning of McMaster University education professor of Henry Giroux: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public…”

Essential Reading: Peter Greene’s Expose of Ohio’s State Takeover of the Lorain City Schools

Retired high school English teacher in Western Pennsylvania, prolific blogger—and recently a columnist on education at Forbes Magazine, Peter Greene has published the tragic story of the state takeover of the school district where he spent his very first year of teaching—in Lorain, Ohio.

His post is long and filled with details, but if you live in Ohio, you should feel guilty if you don’t sit down and read the whole thing.

And if you live in another state, you should also read OH: Lorain, HB 70, and a Reformy Attack.  Why?  Because it is very same story as what happened in Flint, Michigan (see here and here) when a state-appointed emergency manager arrogantly and ignorantly oversaw the lead poisoning of the city’s water supply.  And it is the very same story as what happened to Newark, New Jersey’s schools under the bungled state-appointed manager, Cami Anderson, (see here) who refused to attend the meetings of the locally elected school board.

Greene’s tale of Lorain, Ohio is the story of the actions of the legislatures in lots of states where people from rural areas and little towns disdain the people who live in urban communities where poverty is concentrated—places where the poorest citizens are segregated in school districts where test scores lag. These days lots of states prefer to punish the school district instead of investing.  Ignoring decades of research that correlate lagging test scores with neighborhood and family poverty, and wooed by corporate reform ideologues preaching school governance by appointed school boards and CEOs, our society has allowed itself be snookered by politicians who think it is best to deny local control in poor school districts.

Greene’s story is about Ohio and House Bill 70, slammed through the Legislature in one day without debate in June of 2015.  The Legislature was considering a bill that would have expanded full-service, wraparound schools—the kind with health and dental clinics and social services for families right at school.  But Governor John Kasich and his friend Dick Ross, then state superintendent, had created a long amendment that would permit the state to take over any school district with three years of low ratings.  It was introduced; debate was not permitted; and a vote was taken.  The amendment gutted the bill’s original purpose and instead brought us the Youngstown takeover, then the Lorain takeover, and now, this year, the East Cleveland takeover.

HB 70 state takeovers are a big concern in Ohio today, because, as in other states, Ohio’s test scores are not steadily rising (as No Child Left Behind promised they would), and within the next few years more and more districts will fall under the axe of HB 70. Under this law, when the state takes over, the state appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which in turn hires a CEO to manage the district.

Peter Greene describes the power HB 70 awards to the state-appointed school district CEO: “replacing administration and central office staff, assigning employees to schools, allocating teacher class loads and class sizes, (writing) job descriptions for employees, setting the school calendar, setting the district budget, setting grade ‘configuration,’ determining the school curriculum, selecting instructional materials and assessments, making reductions in staff, (and) establishing employee compensation.”

Greene also fills in the details of the collapse of community support and morale under the Lorain District’s first appointed CEO: David Hardy.  It began when the Lorain Academic Distress Commission hired a search firm to find a CEO, Atlantic Research Partners based in Chicago: “ARP was co-founded by Joseph Wise, after he was fired from the superintendent post in Duval County, Florida for ‘serious ‘conduct’ deemed ‘injurious’ which included ‘not communicating or acting in good faith with board members during budget discussions’… Of the five finalists, ARP had connections to four.  One of the four was connected by virtue of attending the National Superintendents Academy, another property that Wise bought up. The National Superintendents Academy was previously known as SUPES Academy—a name you may remember from the massive sandal involving Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her federal indictment for bribery in Chicago… The National Superintendents Academy graduate was David Hardy, Jr., and his resume is loaded with reform credentials.”

Greene describes Hardy’s “corporate education reform” career with an adjective I did not previously know, but it perfectly describes the people who move from job to job within the ideological “corporate education reform” world.  No matter how the person fails to turn around schools in one particular job, that person rises.  Greene calls it “failing upward.”

Greene depicts the arrogance Hardy has demonstrated in Lorain. Hardy drives to work in Lorain each day from Lakewood, Ohio, because he has been very clear that he cannot possibly be expected to move his family to Lorain.

HB 70 leaves a school district’s locally elected board of education intact, while it removes virtually all of the school board’s power.  Like Cami Anderson in Newark, Hardy has refused to attend meetings of Lorain’s elected school board: “On the one hand, his (strategic) plan is loaded with community building and community partnerships.  But on the other hand, Hardy has had troubled relationships with many of the parties during his time. The school board was an early opponent—not entirely a surprise… and they passed a unanimous resolution of ‘no confidence’ in March, saying that Hardy ‘has irresponsibly spent taxpayer money on administration and out of state firms and has made zero investment in the classroom.’  They have also complained about the lack of communication, information and cooperation. The board invited Hardy to meetings, but he declined, indicating that he doesn’t have to attend board meetings because he doesn’t answer to them. By November the board president was asking the state to investigate, listing fourteen separate bones of contention.”

“And then there’s the State of the District speech, a state of the union speech for the district usually delivered to live stakeholders.  Hardy chose to deliver it by video instead.”

Greene points to one hopeful sign: Ohio’s new Governor Mike DeWine, unlike Governor Kasich who disdained school teachers and drove through HB 70, has articulated some sensitivity to the problems in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland. Greene quotes Governor DeWine:  “One of the concerns, one of the things that we have seen in Youngstown, Lorain, is the obvious loss of local control, and we’re seeing some of the dynamics that result from the loss of local control.  We are a very local government state… We like it that way, most of us do.  Most of us think that problems get solved locally, so I’ve got some people working on this and we are working with some legislators on this, actually, but I really can’t go into any more details at this point.”

If you live in Ohio, please read all of Peter Greene’s detailed and profound story of the destruction of democracy—and of the school district—in Lorain.  Follow up by writing Governor DeWine to thank him for his concern about HB 70 and to ask him to work with his colleagues in the Legislature to get the law repealed.  Unless state takeovers of schools are stopped, Ohio is on a path to take over more and more local school districts.

State takeovers have not worked anywhere where they have been tried.  Michigan’s title for its state-appointed CEOs actually names their purpose: emergency fiscal managers. School districts where all the children are very poor—districts with concentrated poverty—need additional funding to meet the needs of their students and families.  But state takeovers are supposed to substitute for investment. The CEOs and emergency managers are instead supposed to raise test scores without additional investment.

Vermont Warns Parents about Arbitrary Nature of Cut Scores—Not to Worry So Much

What does it mean about our society that we are so obsessed with standardized tests?  There is lots of evidence that we’ve become obsessed.  We worry about international rankings. We have allowed our federal government and states to put in place a system of punishments for teachers and schools based on scores on mandated standardized tests. We shop for real estate based on test scores.

Maybe part of our obsession is that testing fits so perfectly with our love of competition.  The tests are like high school football scores; we like to name a champion. We also like our children to be winners, and if test scores on the SAT or ACT are not high enough, maybe our children won’t get into the right college.  But there is something else going on.  These days comparison of test scores is being manipulated by politicians for political purposes.  Most of us don’t really understand what is happening and that makes us fearful.  Maybe tests mean more than we know. Maybe the tests mean something is wrong with our school or our community or our children. Maybe tests show our nation to be a failure.

Over the past week, in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss has published columns that demystify the scores on the Common Core tests, the test scores from last spring that are only now coming back to some states and being released to parents.  Late last week, the Vermont State Board of Education and Vermont’s secretary of education Rebecca Holcombe sent a letter to parents to reassure them that the state’s Common Core tests should not be taken too seriously. (Scroll down to the end of Strauss’s column to read the letter itself.) Vermont is part of the the Smarter Balanced consortium, a group of states that have agreed to use one of the two major providers’ Common Core tests.

We can assume, from what the Vermont State Board of Education’s letter says that members of the board and Secretary Holcomb are concerned about a scoring scale that is going to make too many of Vermont’s children look like failures.  Here is part of what the State Board’s letter  says to parents:  “We call your attention to the box labeled ‘scale score and overall performance.’ These levels give too simplistic and too negative a message to students and parents.  The tests are at a very high level.  In fact, no nation has ever achieved at such a level.  Do not let the results wrongly discourage your child from pursuing his or her talents, ambitions, hopes or dreams.  These tests are based on a narrow definition of ‘college and career ready.’  In truth, there are many different careers and colleges and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests.  If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future.”

The issue, of course, is the setting of cut scores on the test.  What score should be marked passing? What score means “proficient”?  What score determines failure?

Just last week, for the purpose of addressing just such questions about scoring scales on standardized tests, Strauss republished a post by Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania school teacher and author of the blog Curmudgucation.  Greene used last week’s transition off Daylight Savings Time to reflect on the labels we use to describe and attach meaning to our reality. Labels, including Daylight Savings Time as well as cut scores on standardized tests, are mere symbols we attach to particular phenomena to make them mean something.

The day after Daylight Savings Time ended, Greene wrote: “Here’s the thing—it will get precisely as dark as it got yesterday… The distribution of light and dark through the day, the distribution of the sun’s high points and low points—it will be pretty much the same today as it was yesterday… What changed is not the distribution of light and dark, but the labels that we put on it…  This is a fine way to explain cut scores. The distribution of student scores, the lights and darks, the highs and lows—that stays pretty much the same. What changes is how people choose to label them. We can take the highest point of the curve and we can call it ‘on level’ or ‘above expectations’ or ‘below expectations.’ And the labels we use are our reality.”  The numbers of correct and incorrect answers comprise the raw data, “But what we label it… is just a label, even an arbitrary label, that we have slapped on the raw data to give it meaning.  And we can give it any meaning we want.”

Like officials in Vermont, Ohio’s education leaders were displeased with Ohio’s scores on the Common Core test—in Ohio’s case, the test of the PARCC consortium.  Less willing to write a letter that might undermine support for our obsession with standardized testing, Ohio’s legislature simply dismissed the PARCC test and plans next year to go with one from the American Institutes of Research.  And at the same time, Ohio’s state board of education bumped up the cut scores.  Some people, who believe tests really mean something objective, have complained that Ohio has just become soft like Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), our federal testing law, was intended to make schools and teachers work harder—to improve students’ academic achievement—through the manipulation of test scores.  Test scores were required by NCLB to rise every year until all children reached a level deemed “proficient.”  Because in the real world not all children can score “proficient,” a mass of schools began to be labeled “failing,” and the U.S. Department of Education had to begin to offer waivers from this provision of the law.  Now the Common Core tests are being scored the same way. The cut score for “passing” is being set so high that in many places two-thirds of students are turning out to be failures, and, based on students’ scores, their teachers’ ratings  are collapsing.

We need to ask whether threatening children and their teachers with artificially imposed failing labels is the best way to motivate everyone to try harder. There is a growing consensus that this strategy is not improving our schools.

“Lift from the Bottom”—not “Race to the Top”— Is the Moral Imperative

Four years ago I listened as the Rev. Jesse Jackson defined what is wrong with today’s policies that shape the public schools.  His formulation was so pithy and so perfectly pointed at the real problem that I will never forget it.  Here is what he said: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Our deepest problem in public education is not really about some kind of technical solution to a teaching problem. Neither is it primarily a governance problem relating to elected or mayoral-appointed school boards. Neither is it about the advisability or use or administration of standards and tests, though that (very real and problematic) subject is dominating the press right now.  Our great dilemma these days is one of public morality—how we think about ourselves in community—the degree to which we care for one another—whether we address that concern in the public institutions that  serve the whole community not just individuals one at a time.  “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Blogger and Pennsylvania school teacher Peter Greene captures this reality in a recent and very prophetic blog post: “Charter fans brag about their successes.  They tell the starfish story.  They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners… and allowing them to rise.  And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting… Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It’s left behind, abandoned.  There’s no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow.  Just cut it loose.  Let it go.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we’ve decided are Worth Saving… This is a societal model based on discarding people.  This is a school model based on discarding students… I repeat: It is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement. But I keep thinking of the ballast.”

The notion of “lifting from the bottom” has historically been at the heart of America’s understanding of public education.  In 1899, philosopher John Dewey declared, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” (The School and Society, p. 1)  Public education has been central to our definition of public responsibility.  We have believed that we are all responsible for the children who are the future citizens and leaders of our democracy—everybody.

That the idea of “race to the top” seems to have replaced the ideal of “lift from the bottom” says something about our culture’s current love affair with individualism and competition. We admire the individuals who win the race, but we don’t worry so much about everybody else. In a piece last week, the Rev. John Thomas, the former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, describes The Shrinking Public: “One of our great national stories is the flowering of public institutions—public libraries, public parks, public schools, public services, public highways, public office, public transportation, public universities, public health agencies…. Yet today that public is shrinking… Privately operated charter schools replacing closed public schools.  Tax credits for private donations to private schools, financed by public dollars.  Reduced staffing and hours at public libraries.  Rentals of public parks for the exclusive galas of private individuals.  Decaying public infrastructure, especially for public transportation.  Toll roads sold to private enterprises.  Slashed funding for public universities and, in places like Wisconsin, attempts to transform the intellectual underpinnings of higher education with the pinched goal of merely serving the employment needs of private business… Today’s wars are being fought not by a public army but by private contractors like the infamous Blackwater Corporation.  And as is obscenely apparent across the political spectrum, political campaigns for public office are being financed by an elite group of extremely wealthy private donors who will expect winners to serve their narrow private interests.”

Edwardo Porter, writing for the NY Times, describes the consequences of the substitution of an ethos of “racing to the top” for an ethic of “lifting up the bottom”: “Three or four decades ago, the United States was the most prosperous country on earth.  It had the mightiest military and the most advanced technologies known to humanity.  Today, it’s still the richest, strongest and most inventive.  But when it comes to the health, well-being and shared prosperity of its people, the United States has fallen far behind… (B)laming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy.  Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries.  What set the United States apart—what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense—was the nature of its response.  Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together… Call it a failure of solidarity.  The conservative narrative of America’s social downfall, articulated by the likes of Charles Murray… posits that a large welfare state, built from the time of the New Deal in the 1030s through the era of the Great Society in the 1960s, sapped Americans’ industriousness and undermined their moral fiber.  A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of…  Call it a failure of solidarity.”

Porter cites statistics that demonstrate where our ethos of “racing to the top” has taken us.  Life expectancy has fallen for newborn girls to the degree that the U.S. now ranks 29th of 34 industrialized nations.  U.S. infant mortality continues to rise.  And in the area of public education, Porter presents the research of Stanford sociologist, Sean Reardon that, “the achievement gap between rich and poor children seems to have been steadily expanding for the last 50 years.”