Montana’s Senator Jon Tester Says Democrats Can Win in Red States By Prioritizing Public Education

In mid-December, the NY TimesJonathan Martin interviewed Montana Senator Jon Tester about his new book, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America. Tester, a Democrat and U.S. Senator in his third term, represents a deep red state.

Tester tells Martin: “Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana.”

Although I now live in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in in Havre, Montana, 35 miles up the road from Tester’s farm just outside of Big Sandy.  As I read that NY Times interview, I was particularly interested in Tester’s statement about the threat school privatization poses in rural communities, which is why I was surprised and delighted to find a copy of Tester’s book wrapped up for me under the Christmas tree.

Many hope President Joe Biden’s administration will significantly reshape federal education policy. During last year’s campaign for President, Biden, the candidate, declared a public education agenda that contrasts sharply with what happened to federal policy in public education beginning in the 1990s and culminating in the 2002 No Child Left Behind and later in 2009 in Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire describe the past couple of decades: “Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools.  And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers….”

Now with Biden’s election, many are looking for a turn by prominent Democrats back to the urgent needs of the public schools as a new COVID-19 recession compounds funding problems lingering in state budgets from the Great Recession a dozen years ago and as school privatization through charter school expansion and vouchers continues to thrust public schools deeper into fiscal crisis. Senator Jon Tester believes Democrats can rebuild support in rural America by attending to the needs of rural public education.

Tester’s new book folds policy ideas into memoir, with the back story a tribute to small town public schooling.  An indifferent high school student, Tester was encouraged by a debate coach, “who taught me how to articulate political arguments” and “taught us how to structure speeches to build an arc of suspense. He taught us the importance of clarity and simple language.”  Tester was elected student body president at Big Sandy High School: “For Government Day, on behalf of Big Sandy’s students, I invited one of our area’s most familiar elected leaders to visit with us about his long career in public service… Senator James was a tall, soft-spoken old farmer who accepted my invitation graciously and visited with us Big Sandy students for the better part of a day. He made the art and war of state politics sound fun.”

A trumpet player and college music major, Tester taught elementary school music at F.E. Miley Elementary School but was forced to resign when the paltry salary, even on top of what he could earn from farming, made it impossible for his family to get by. Tester ran for the local board of education and served for nearly a decade, including stints as vice chair and chair: “To this day, I’m asked about my most difficult job in politics. Without a doubt, my answer is the nine years I spent on the Big Sandy school board; it seemed everyone had strong opinions about public school policies, disciplinary actions, money, pay, taxes, ethics, graduations, grades, teacher performance, coaches, bullies, scholarships—it was a nine-year roller-coaster ride, and I loved every twist and turn.”

Tester ran for the Montana state senate, serving eventually as Senate President in the years when the state legislature enacted school funding reform: “Though we had already tackled school funding earlier in the year to satisfy the 2004 mandate from the Montana Supreme Court, the legislature still needed to pass a more permanent funding plan.  And with power and speed, we did. In only two days, with a clear vision and a smart, organized plan, the Democratic-controlled Montana Legislature passed a much-needed 10.6 percent increase in public education funding, over the loud objections of the Republicans.”

How did these years of experience prepare Tester to confront public education policy in the U.S. Senate?

Here is Tester describing his personal interview with Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos:  “DeVos said it (public education) was failing, and that her solution would be to pull successful kids out of failing public schools and give them vouchers to attend private schools.” Later opposing her appointment, Tester told the Senate: “‘If we …(privatize the schools)  I am here to tell the people of the Senate today that we will destroy the foundation of this country and we will destroy—it will take a few years—we will destroy our democracy.’… I told my Senate colleagues how my Swedish-born grandmother Christine Pearson made sure her four kids understood the transformative value of public education, and how my mother, also a former teacher, passed that value down to me. I said I had to quit teaching in the late seventies because I could make more money on one Saturday butchering meat than an entire week of teaching music at my tiny hometown elementary school.”

What about charter schools? “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.”

What about the racial and ethnic intolerance fanned for four years by President Trump? Tester believes that public schools are a setting for confronting intolerance: “Rural America often refuses to examine the impacts of racism and the privilege that people like my homesteader grandparents benefited from while the first Americans here were pushed away. Montana’s (1972) Constitution mandates a program called Indian Education for All to ensure that all public school kids learn the accurate history of indigenous people. But we’ve got a hell of a lot more work to do to better understand one another, so that all communities can prosper without having to fear other communities, without having to push them down…  Without our nation having built a foundation of respect and understanding through education, a populist like Donald Trump can easily convince rural America that the status quo in politics isn’t working, and others are to blame….”

Tester—a  Democrat who supports the Affordable Care Act, gay rights, and the Manchin-Toomey gun background check amendment; who opposes Citizens United and opposed the 2017 tax cuts for the rich; and who killed President Trump’s appointment of Dr. Ronny Jackson as Director of Veterans Affairs— is serving a third term as a U.S. Senator representing deep red Montana.

Character and authenticity are Tester’s code. But there are also the core issues: “I’ve won each of my elections because I gave voters a reason. Good public education. Quality, affordable health care. Accountability. Freedom. Montana’s way of life. Those are things that everyone can relate to, regardless of political party.”  He adds: “Democrats need to understand that we cannot give up on rural America… (W)e have no choice but to reach out and bring all of America along.”

Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part 2

On Monday, this blog examined Derek Black’s important new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, threads together the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history, but persistently revived: that our system of public schools, where all children are welcome and where their fundamental right to education is protected by law, is the one institution most essential for preserving our democratic society.

Monday’s post explored  Black’s history of that idea which has animated our society’s durable support for public education for more than 200 years. Today’s post will examine challenges in today’s ideological and political climate which Black believes threaten the very idea of public schooling. His book is a history of the constitutional protection of public schools—federally throughout our nation’s history and over time embedded in every one of the state constitutions. Can these laws and the principles they articulate protect public schools today?  Black explains:

“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can… protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along? How strong is the commitment to the right to education and a system of public schools for all in the public’s mind today? There are now forces afoot, like there were during Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, aiming to overwhelm public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

“Education reformers,” Black writes, “do not state their agenda as an attack on public education or students’ rights. Their pitch is gentler. They say public schools already have enough resources; they just need to spend what they have more wisely.  Or the problem is not low teacher salaries but tenure and ineffective teaching. They say charter schools and vouchers offer the common man the chance to escape a flawed public education system and trade it for something else… Those who would deprive individuals of that choice are the ones who are antidemocratic and elitist, they say.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 18)

Derek Black names several problems at the heart of today’s threat to public education: the expansion of school privatization via charters and vouchers, massive fortunes invested by far-right libertarians to attack so-called ‘government schools,’ attacks on school teachers and their unions, and persistent tax cutting by state legislatures and the consequent ratcheting down of state funding for public education:  “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.”  But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  Black cites research demonstrating that states have reneged on their public education promise particularly in areas where the public schools serve poor children: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Black explains that over the same decade: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… In Ohio, charter school incentives fueled so much growth so quickly that fraud and corruption took hold… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015.  While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-3014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a  hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 34-36)

Again, equity and racial justice were compromised: “The Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Northwest—the parts of America with the fewest racial minorities—have suffered only modest privatization. Their public school systems, for the most part, do not face major privatization threats… But the Southeast—the Confederacy’s old stronghold—tells the exact opposite story: large percentages of African American students and, save one state, their public schools are facing deep privatization forces.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 239)

All during the recent decade, the federal government’s education policy has also promoted school privatization. During the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos’s efforts to promote vouchers, her lifelong cause, have been well known. But the effort has been bipartisan: “Obama… tapped Arne Duncan… someone whose track record in Chicago involved substantially expanding charters… For the next several years, the federal government promoted and sometimes forced charter school expansion… The Obama administration basically condoned everything states were doing with school funding and made it a little worse. Federal funding for public schools remained flat while the federal budget for charter schools increased by nearly 20 percent between 2008 and 2013.  President Obama called for another 50 percent increase for charters on top of that in 2016 (though he didn’t get it).  The real surprise, though, is how much Duncan managed to accomplish through administrative action… His biggest coup was the process he set up for doling out innovation funds during the recession. As part of the economic recovery legislation, Congress had set aside a substantial chunk of money for education innovation but didn’t specify exactly what schools could spend it on. Duncan, however, told states that if they wanted access to the money, charter schools had to be part of the mix. States that ‘put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools,’ he said, ‘will jeopardize their grant applications.’… The overall result of these state and federal actions was stark—nearly 40 percent growth in the number of charter schools and 200 percent growth in their enrollment.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 36-37)

Derek Black identifies the Red4Ed teacher walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 as the greatest symbol of hope that the idea of American public schooling can survive: “In 2018, teachers finally reached their breaking point and started talking about strikes and walkouts. Media attention then helped educate the general public about what had happened to public education funding and the teaching profession over the past decade… And it happened in the most unlikely of places—in deep Republican country, in nonunion states, and in the South, not in bastions of liberalism or pro-labor sentiment… The first teacher strike was in West Virginia in 2018… The second teacher walkout was in Kentucky… After that, the protests and walkouts jumped westward to Oklahoma and Arizona… From there, major protests seemed to pop up every month in every place imaginable… Colorado, California, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Oregon, and Washington.” Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 244-245)

Derek Black concludes his new book positively by reminding readers of America’s education idea, which has survived since 1787: “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself…. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values. We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea… The pursuit of that idea, both in fact and in mind, has long set us apart from the world….” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 250)

Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part I

Derek Black’s stunning new book, School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, threads together a history that has rarely been collected in one volume. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, presents the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history but persistently revived and reanimated: that a system of public education is the one institution most essential for our democratic society. And, while the specific language defining a public education as each child’s fundamental right is absent from the U.S. Constitution, the guarantee of that right is embedded in the nation’s other founding documents, in the history of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, in the second Reconstruction during the Civil Rights Movement, and in every one of the state constitutions.

Today’s post will skim the history as Derek Black presents it; on Wednesday, this blog will explore how Black believes both public education and democracy are threatened today.

While the U.S. Constitution never formally names public education as the nation’s fundamental and necessary institution, the provision for public education is the centerpiece of the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787: “The Ordinances, and education’s role in them, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is one of the most significant legal documents in our nation’s history and the current United States Code treats it as such… In many important ways, the history and effect of the Constitution and the Ordinances are inseparable.  First, the documents were passed by many of the same people… Second, the Northwest Ordinance’s substance is a constitutional charter of sorts. Practically speaking, it established the foundational structure for the nation to grow and organize itself for the next two centuries. Precise rules for dividing up the land, developing the nation’s vast territories, and detailing the path that these territories would follow to become states are not the work of everyday legislation. They are the work of a national charter.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 64-65).  “The 1785 Ordinance specified how every square inch of the territories would be divided into counties and towns. Every new town had to set aside one-ninth of its land and one-third of its natural resources for the financial support of education. And every town had to reserve one of its lots for the operation of a public school.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 62)  The Northwest Ordinances named the urgent purpose of public education and prescribed a means of funding the schools.

Jumping way ahead to the early 1970s, after President Richard Nixon replaced Chief Justice Earl Warren with Chief Justice Warren Burger and the U.S. Supreme Court moved away from the principles embodied in Brown v. Board of Education, Black describes the significance of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court case which declared that because the U.S. Constitution itself does not explicitly protect the right to public education, public schooling is not a fundamental right. Black believes the founding documents should be read to include the Northwest Ordinances and that the fundamental role of education is further affirmed through our nation’s troubled history: “(I)f you asked modern legal scholars whether education is a fundamental right protected by the federal Constitution, they would tell you no, and they would be correct in one sense. The United States Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) refused to recognize education as a fundamental right in 1972, reasoning that the Constitution neither explicitly nor implicitly protects education. The Court feared that nothing distinguished education from the various other things that are important in life, like food and shelter. The foregoing history, however, reveals that education is far different than anything else government might offer its citizens (other than the right to vote). The nation’s very concept of government is premised on an educated citizenry. From its infancy, the United States has sought to distinguish itself with education. More particularly, education has been the tool though which the nation has sought to perfect its democratic ideas.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 133)

In Black’s chapter on the state constitutional conventions during Reconstruction in the Southern states after the Civil War, we read about thousands of freed slaves desperate to learn in whatever setting where they could locate a teacher. We also learn that, by the era of the Civil War, even in the North few of the states had managed to set up the kind of schooling described in the ideals of the Northwest Ordinances. The Reconstruction Acts made the provision of universal education one of the conditions for Confederate states to gain readmission to the Union, and Southern states which had been dominated by aristocratic planters and which had never established systemic public schools even for poor whites were now forced to create widespread public schooling. The meaning of Reconstruction extended beyond the Southern states: “Once the South acted—as a whole by 1868—the education revolution had the clarity and strength to solidify expectations for the rest of the nation moving forward. The history of the right to education, quite simply, divides into the world before and after 1868. Uncertainty pervaded the preceding years and nothing would ever be the same again in the subsequent years… Several Northern states revised their constitutions following the war. Congress had no leverage over them, but the recommitment to a republican form of government swept over them too.  As they revised their constitutions, they included education clauses, and by 1875, every state except one had an education clause.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp, 126-129)

After Reconstruction ended, after Plessy V. Ferguson established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” and after Jim Crow segregated schools across the South, states reneged on funding schools for black students and left poor, black communities to scrape together inadequate revenue on their own.  Derek Black reports, however, that the idea of public education as the centerpiece of democratic governance still survived: “Yet for all the terrible moments and trends, one very important silver lining runs through this dark period that almost no one has ever stopped to consider: whereas attacks on public education were a centerpiece of the assault on black citizenship, the right to education (first vested in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War) nonetheless lived on… The idea of public education had taken hold in a region where it was previously foreign…. That silver lining… became the foundation for a second reconstruction—the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century—and the rebirth of the constitutional right to education in the 1970s and 1980s.” (pp, 150-155)

Derek Black traces two decades of history from the mid 1930s until 1954 as the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys mounted a calculated series of lawsuits first to ensure that black students could be admitted to state institutions of higher education and, once admitted not be segregated in inferior programs provided only for blacks.  Finally, after inching toward justice for years, the NAACP launched lawsuits in several locations to challenge explicit de jure racial segregation of K-12 public schools. The NAACP’s long efforts culminated, after these cases had been combined together, in the principles declared in the unanimous 1954 opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, in Brown v. Board of Education—principles that embody the very idea Derek Black has traced from the days of the Northwest Ordinances:

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.  Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditure for education both dominate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.  It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities even service in the armed forces.  It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrumental in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.  In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, quoting the 1954 Decision in Brown v. Board of Education, p. 174)

What followed, of course, was another backlash, the Southern Manifesto, signed by 19 U.S. Senators and 82 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The Manifesto “charged that the court in Brown had abused its power.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 179)  Protests against the Brown decision happened in the streets and in the school boards and legislatures.  Prince Edward County, Virginia launched the first publicly funded private school tuition voucher program—for white students only—along with the shutdown, from 1959 to 1963, of the public schools which were the only local schools serving black students, who then went without education during those years.

Derek Black leads us through three crucial U.S. Supreme Court Decisions during the early 1970s which reestablished segregated schools and rejected the principles embodied in the Brown decision: Keyes v. School District No 1,  which declared that discriminatory acts must be proven to have been intentional; Milliken v. Bradley, which banned busing for school integration across school district jurisdictional lines; and San Antonio v. Rodriguez, which declared that “a right cannot be fundamental if it isn’t explicitly spelled out in the Constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 189) “Over the next twenty years, the Burger Court and then the Rehnquist Court further chipped away at desegregation, regularly issuing decisions that curtailed lower courts’ desegregation orders and powers, even it it did not entirely foreclose them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 197)

And yet, after San Antonio v. Rodriguez blocked federal school equity cases, Derek Black describes a wave of advocates pursuing the idea of each child’s right to an equal education under the provisions of the state constitutions.  While myriad cases have been filed from state to state over the decades since the early 1970s, and while most of them focused on adequate and equitable school funding. Black believes more was at stake: “State supreme courts once again were intervening to enforce the constitutional right to education…. Money is certainly relevant, but the real issues in these cases had always been students’ access to quality teachers, safe school facilities, small class sizes, modern curricula, and support services.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 211)

I hope you will read Derek Black’s new book, for these comments merely skim the surface of his fascinating history of the American idea of public education. As he concludes his history, Black summarizes the book’s thesis: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)  Black reminds us, however: “The founders articulated educational goals not with any certainty that they would spring into reality simply by writing them down, but in the hope that we might one day live into them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 71)

Derek Black’s new book also explores how the idea of public education is faring right now a decade after the collapse of public school funding during the Great Recession and after years of growing school privatization. Wednesday’s post will explore how recent events threaten not only our public schools but also our democracy.

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.

The Public Good? Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Get It.

When she spoke recently at the Education Writers Association, Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, swallowed whatever humility she has and presumed to redefine the role public education in our society.  Betsy loves freedom from government (even though she works for the government), and she can’t seem to discern any difference between what is good for the individual and what is good for us all together.

Here is what she told the nation’s education journalists: “I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families. Notice that I said ‘families,’ not government… I am a common-sense conservative with a healthy distrust of centralized government. Instead, I trust the American people to live their own lives and to decide their own destinies… Margaret Thatcher said that government ‘has no source of money other than the money people earn themselves.’ There is no such thing as ‘public money.’ The Iron Lady was right! … Let’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of ‘the public,’ then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to ‘the public.’ That should be the new definition of public education.” So Betsy defines public schools and charter schools and private schools funded with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts, and home schooling and maybe even Girl Scouts and piano lessons as public education.  It is pretty hard to see where she would draw the line.

In a recent Washington Post column, Adam Laats, a professor of education at the State University of New York in Binghamton, refutes DeVos’s new definition of public education as entirely impractical.  Laats looks back at education in the United States very early in the nineteenth century, when we basically had a public-private model, and shows why we replaced that old model with something that worked better—universal, publicly funded education:

“DeVos’s ‘new definition’ is exactly how American elites thought about public education in the first half of the 19th century… (T)he first generation of education leaders begged and borrowed from governments and private philanthropists to create schools for all, believing their project was of benefit to the American public. Back then, a public school was simply one that served the public; the funding usually came from a blend of public and private sources, and the schools themselves were usually run by churches and private charitable organizations, not government agencies… In a sense, that first generation of school reformers had a good excuse for hoping they could truly serve the needs of  all schoolchildren, rich and poor, without adequate public funding. After all, it was uncharted territory. They hoped they could rely on the ‘hand of charity’ and the ‘munificence’ of legislators to keep their public schools running.” “(E)ventually citizens all across the nation realized that only regular taxes could fill the holes in school budgets and offer predictable funding streams.  As a result, they established the tax-funding model we still rely on today—the model DeVos is so quick to dismiss… With the experience of two centuries of public education, we have no excuse to believe public education can be left to the whims of well-meaning philanthropists and the optional largesse of legislators. Our public schools are not ‘charity.’ Their budgets are not ‘munificence,’ subject to the whims of corporate benefactors, but rather the hard-won legacy of public funding for all, by all.”

The development of our public education system wasn’t merely a function of how our schools could be financed, however. Even before our society achieved a universal system of publicly funded schools, people were considering that education ought to serve a public purpose. In 1785, pronouncing public purpose and public ownership as necessary for America’s schools, 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.”  Incorporating such a sense of public purpose, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside one section of each township for a school, but, as Laats points out, it wasn’t until the 1830s and the 1840s that states began to establish real public systems.

Public education has been conceived for generations as the the foundation for the formation of an American public. The education historian David Tyack defines the kind of public purpose for schools that Betsy DeVos, in her fervent individualism, seems unable to conceptualize: “The founders of the nation were convinced that the republic could survive only if its citizens were properly educated. This was a collective purpose, not simply an individual benefit or payoff to an interest group… The common school… was a place for both young and adult citizens to discover common ground, and when they did not  agree, to seek principled compromise.” (Finding Common Ground, pp. 1-2)

In 1915, the education philosopher John Dewey declared: “A government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in the voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.” (Democracy and Education, p. 87)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a commitment to education’s collective purpose in a letter to his children: “I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are.  For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”

In a stunning 2009 letter he sent to President Barack Obama and published widely, the Chicago education professor Bill Ayers similarly defines the collective purpose of public education: “Surely school leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matter, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other.  What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal… that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.”  Lacking nuanced thinking, Betsy DeVos limits herself to the full development of each.

We have not achieved justice in our public system of education. But critics advocating for improving the public system continue to believe a universal public system is the only place where equity and access can be protected by law. Realizing that justice is, by definition, structural and systemic, with a society’s laws and primary institutions the mechanisms for distributing opportunity, the Rev. Jesse Jackson condemned a prominent 2009 education reform program at the same time he defined universal education as a moral imperative and the only possible path to equity: “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.” (December, 2011 Town Hall, Schott Foundation for Public Education)

Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman concisely identifies the flaw in the kind of schooling Betsy DeVos would prefer—a marketplace of increasingly privatized educational alternatives to the public schools (but, of course, all publicly funded): “As more and more government functions get privatized, states become pay-to-play paradises in which both political contributions and contracts for friends and relatives become a quid pro quo for getting government business…. a corrupt nexus of privatization and patronage that is undermining government across much of our nation.”

Writing about charter schools specifically, New York professors Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine condemn our society’s anti-tax, anti-public ethos: “Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? , p 87)

With Betsy DeVos, however, it all comes down to freedom, which she refuses to consider might possibly be enhanced by a legal system designed to protect each person’s rights. Instead Betsy believes strongly in freedom FROM government. Public commitment formalized in the social contract is too burdensome for Betsy DeVos. The American way, in DeVos’s system, has to do with individual freedom to compete and prosper.

Which brings us to the extremely lucid formulation by the late political theorist, Benjamin Barber: “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)

More on the Public Purpose of Our Public Schools and the Role of Public Governance

There has recently been a debate among guest writers in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column in the Washington Post. The Network for Public Education’s  Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch published a defense of public governance of public schools, a column which critiqued a new report from the Learning Policy Institute.  The Learning Policy Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond responded with a defense of the Learning Policy Institute’s report, which defends school choice including privately governed and operated charter schools. Finally Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris responded to Darling-Hammond’s response. This blog weighed in here last week.

As it happens, Stanford University emeritus professor of education, David Labaree enhances this conversation with a new column on the public purpose of public education at Phi Delta Kappan: “We Americans tend to talk about public schooling as though we know what that term means.  But in the complex educational landscape of the 21st century… it’s becoming less and less obvious….”

A spoiler: There is no equivocation in Labaree’s analysis.  He is a strong supporter of public education, and he worries that by prizing the personal and individualistic benefit of education, our society may have lost sight of our schools’ public purpose: “A public good is one that benefits all members of the community, whether or not they contribute to its upkeep or make use of it personally.  In contrast, private goods benefit individuals, serving only those people who take advantage of them. Thus, schooling is a public good to the extent that it helps everyone (including people who don’t have children in school). And schooling is a private good to the extent that it provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and credentials they can use to distinguish themselves from other people and get ahead in life.”

Labaree traces the history of public education through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but he believes more recently: “Over the subsequent decades… growing numbers of Americans came to view schooling mainly as a private good, producing credentials that allow individuals to get ahead, or stay ahead, in the competition for money and social status.  All but gone is the assumption that the purpose of schooling is to benefit the community at large. Less and less often do Americans conceive of education as a cooperative effort in nation-building or collective investment in workforce development.”

Labaree does not explicitly address growing school privatization, but he generalizes about the growing individualistic American ethos that accommodates privatization: “At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling. The invisible hand of the market may work for the general benefit in the economic activities of the butcher and the baker but not in the political project of creating citizens.”

Labaree holds the education of citizens as among the central purposes of our grandparents and their forebears as they envisioned public schools: “The goal of these schools wasn’t just to teach young people to internalize democratic norms but also to make it possible for capitalism to coexist with republicanism. For the free market to function, the state had to relax its control over individuals, allowing them to make their own decisions as rational actors. By learning to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors within the space of the classroom, students would become prepared both for commerce and citizenship, able to pursue their self-interests in the economic marketplace while at the same time participating in the political marketplace of ideas… But when the public good is forever postponed, the effects are punishing indeed. And when schooling comes to be viewed solely as a means of private advancement, the consequences are dismal for both school and society.”

Beyond Labaree’s philosophical defense of public education’s communitarian purpose and his condemnation of our society’s love of individual competition today, there are other concerns with the abandonment of public purpose and the abandonment of public governance of education.  We can no longer ignore the failure of our state legislatures to protect the tax dollars raised by the public but ripped off by unscrupulous edupreneurs who build mansions and take lavish trips with the money they steal in states which have failed to prevent conflicts of interest and outright fraud by operators of privatized schools. We can no longer ignore the instability for students when privately governed charter schools suddenly shut down without warning—often in the middle of the school year. And we can no longer ignore the impact of the rapid authorization of charter schools and growth of voucher programs as they suck money out of states’ already meager public education budgets and at the same time destabilize their host school districts.

Labaree connects the growth of school privatization with our society’s competitive individualism which reserves a spot at the top for able children of the privileged and settles for cheaper alternatives for the children we have always left behind. I once heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson poignantly describe the ethical lapse in a system featuring individualism: “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.”

Another perfect formulation of Labaree’s concern is from the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Barber adds another important component of public governance, however: the protection of the rights of students and families by law in public institutions: “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)

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.

Taking Stock As School Begins

Another school year begins this week here in Cleveland, with school starting between August 15 and the first week of September across the country.  As children we all marked these dates—a new teacher—new books—maybe a new chance.  This is a time to stop and take a look at how we are attending to the needs of our children.  But the rubric we are using for the analysis rarely names the children.

Across our cities, school districts are reconstituting Title I schools at the behest of the federal government, which has conditioned receipt of federal money in struggling schools on such “reforms” as closing these schools altogether, or firing or reassigning teachers and principals, or charterizing what were traditional public schools.  Cleveland is promoting the beginning of school with spreads in the newspaper that describe the relocation of entire student bodies to refurbished buildings; schools where the students and the building are the same but the staff is all new; and teachers being trained by consultants hired to remake the culture in what are called the “intervention schools.”

The School District of Philadelphia and the Chicago Public Schools are both opening in an atmosphere of crisis after a summer of upheaval.  In Philadelphia, after more than ten years of state control and major cutbacks in state funding over many years, the schools will open on time only after the superintendent presented an ultimatum to the mayor and governor:  “Find $50 million to rehire minimal staff by August 16 or we can’t open.”  The money has been found, as it was in the budget crisis two years ago after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from the state’s contribution to public education, by borrowing through the sale of bonds, this time by the City of Philadelphia.  Superintendent William Hite is now trying to hire back some of the over 3,000 district staff laid off in the spring, though the more than 20 schools closed will not re-open.  Aaron Kase describes the ongoing crisis in what is understandably an angry, but also very accurate analysis:  “Indescribably Insane”: A Public School System from Hell.

In Chicago, after closing nearly fifty supposedly “underutilized” schools last spring, the school district has, according to the Chicago Sun Times posted a request for proposals for new charter schools in north and west neighborhoods said to be “overcrowded.” Catalyst-Chicago reports , “just a few months after the district decided to close 49 neighborhood schools, tensions and skepticism about new schools runs high…”  The Sun Times continues:  “And all summer, neighborhood schools have been grappling with CPS’ new budgeting system, which many say leaves them with big budget cuts and forces layoffs.”  Ben Joravsky, writing for the local Chicago Reader, interviews the principal of a school described by Joravsky as “not among the highest-or lowest-scoring in the system, just somewhere in the great middle.”  The principal recounts that budget cuts imposed this summer forced her to fire the teachers she struggled to find and hire last year including the reading specialist.

In this school year’s first newsletter from the Forum for Education and Democracy, George Wood, executive director, and public school superintendent in a progressive rural school district near Athens, Ohio, reflects on ethical lapses among education reformers that have created “a summer of discontent.”  Wood recounts the resignation of state superintendent Tony Bennett in Florida after a school-grade-fixing-scandal during his previous tenure in Indiana; describes the new Ohio budget that awards the biggest boost in state aid (bigger than for any public schools or even successful charter schools) to the for-profit, White Hat management company that runs poorly-rated charter schools but whose owner David Brennan is among the biggest legislative campaign contributors; and describes the alleged but never investigated Michelle Rhee-cheating scandal in the nation’s capital.

Wood wonders, “So where is the public outrage?  Hundreds of millions of public dollars are funneled, year after year, into top-down, corporate-driven ‘solutions’ like vouchers and for-profit charters that simply do not work.  Meanwhile, schools that are serving our most vulnerable students are threatened with closure or sanction because they do not meet some arbitrary test score cutoff; administrators spend most of their days meeting mountains of regulations; and too many good teachers, who have had profound, positive effects on the lives of children, are leaving the field.”

As an educator, however, Wood concludes by returning to the interests of the children.  He pledges to “follow the advice Queen Elizabeth gave to her subjects during World War II:  ‘Keep calm and carry on’…   Our district has just approved a set of deeply progressive operating principles that could put us in opposition to many of the current mandates.  It will be my job to keep us within the limits of the law, but to test every boundary that stops us from acting in the best interests of children, families and teachers…  Carrying on will have to do.”