Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident?

Here are words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Busy working, maintaining house and yard, swimming in an ocean of information in our media-driven, consumer society, most of us aren’t, perhaps, likely to spend a lot of time considering these principles, but it would certainly be wonderful if the officials we have chosen as our leaders were to demonstrate that, for them, at least, these truths are self-evident.

After all, we’ve spent two and a half centuries making some progress by ensuring that our laws protect more than just the rights of men. And we have defined more precisely the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These struggles for redefinition have very often centered in the public schools—the right for the descendants of slaves to educational equality, the right for American Indian children to attend schools that reflect their indigenous cultures—the right for immigrant children to instruction in English and for the undocumented, the right to a K-12 public school education—the right of LGBT students to be safe, respected and understood.

Now it seems that our leaders have stepped back—even that they are willing to lead us backward.  For President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, what does not seem self-evident is “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  The most blatant recent example is Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Abusing his position as a public official, Arpaio ran his department without concern for the rights of  the Hispanic residents of Phoenix—in flagrant violation of the rule of law. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. But the President, unfazed by the nature of Arpaio’s crime, called Arpaio a good man.  Here is the Washington Post: “(T)he White House’s official statement lauding Mr. Arpaio failed to mention the charge for which Mr. Trump had granted clemency: a criminal conviction of contempt of court for defying an order to halt racial profiling… Despite Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Mr. Arpaio was ‘convicted for doing his job,’ a federal judge found the former sheriff guilty of contempt when he refused to cease rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants on the basis of appearance alone. But Mr. Arpaio’s abuse of his authority as sheriff went well beyond racial profiling. With pride, he detained inmates in inhumane conditions and humiliated them in the name of deterring crime.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, like Trump, seems unclear that, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  In a keynote address earlier this summer, she wondered: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families—and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” She added: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.” Demonstrating her unconcern for the government’s role in operating a  system of education to protect students’ rights, DeVos has begun limiting investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to the details of formal complaints as filed, without examining the three years of previous evidence to look for systemic violations. Her department has also wrapped up a large backlog of civil rights complaints without findings in most cases.

Trump and DeVos freely disparage the institution of public education—with DeVos persistently extolling privatized charter schools and various private school tuition voucher schemes.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the damage being inflicted by Trump and DeVos on the very government institution for which they are responsible. After Trump once again disdained, at a recent Phoenix, Arizona event, “the failures of our public schools,” Strauss wrote: “But the larger effect of Trump’s remark is not that it is wrong but rather that it is part of a pattern of his — and of DeVos’s — to disparage public education as they promote programs that take resources away from public school systems…Such sentiments by Trump and DeVos, consistently expressed publicly, reinforce the myth that traditional public education is broadly failing students and that the answer is using public money for privately run and/or owned schools.”

Last week, in Losing Our Purpose, Measuring the Wrong Things, William Mathis, Vice-Chairman of the Vermont Board of Education and Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, considered what ought to be self-evident to all of us in an era when our leaders seem to have lost an understanding of the meaning of public education.  Mathis traces our problems not just to Trump and DeVos, but also to the test-and-punish accountability agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations: “By declaring schools “failures,” public monies were increasingly diverted to private corporations. Yet, after a half-century of trials, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial score declines. The plain fact is that privatization, even at its best, does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap — but it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. This proposed solution works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.”

Mathis calls us all to remember the purposes of public education: “For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties….In the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, ’Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ Through the twentieth century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society.”

Society has struggled, however, to ensure justice and realize the promise of our public schools: “But our social progress is checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society, economy and schools. Unfortunately, rather than addressing politically unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand schools solve these problems… No serious effort was made to assure equal opportunities, for example. Thus, the achievement gap was finessed by blaming the victim. Instead of advancing democracy, our neediest schools were underfunded. The new purpose, test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough and punitive; to liberals because it illuminated the plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – the costs were passed on to the schools.”

Here is Bill Mathis’s challenge for the future of public education: “If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores take us off-purpose. They distract our attention. Rather, our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good…  We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.”

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What Can Betsy DeVos Be Thinking?

What can she be thinking?  Can she be thinking at all?  That is what I wondered when I read what Betsy DeVos told the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last Thursday.

Here is what our U.S. Secretary of Education said: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them.” She continued: “Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…’Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.'”

In her ALEC speech, DeVos continued, explaining her disagreement with the American Federation of Teachers: “I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

DeVos continued—defining her own philosophy of education as derived from England’s Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked.  ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.'”

Finally, DeVos summed up what she learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

I guess DeVos has now explained what she meant in 2015 when she declared, “Government really sucks.”  I guess she believes the common good will magically arrive when all this self-seeking is aggregated.

I have a lot of problems with this kind of magical thinking. First, the idea is that government ought to get out of the way, but at the same time, there is the assumption that government ought to pay for it all with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts on top of the traditional schools.  Who is going to want to pay taxes for all of this and why should we?  If individuals are on their own, maybe individuals and families ought to take care of it.

Except that poor families, and families in marginalized groups, and families whose children are severely handicapped, and families whose children need to learn English, and families who live in isolated rural areas and families who live in the poorest neighborhoods of big cities are going to struggle to find places where they can go to find the exact kind of education their children need.  They will struggle to discern the truth through the glitzy advertising, and there may not be good choices in every town and every neighborhood, without the government schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.  And many of these families may not be able to afford it, because they won’t have enough money to add to the voucher to pay for many of the privatized alternatives. And finally, some of the privatized schools (that are not required by government to serve all children) will turn away or push out their children, especially the children who require expensive special services and the children who are likely to post low test scores.

Betsy DeVos demonstrates an amazing cluelessness about what life is like for people who aren’t billionaires like herself. Although people like DeVos may be able to afford any of a wide range of choices, most parents in our country—about 90 percent of them—send their children to the schools the government has provided—schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.

The most serious problem, however, with Betsy DeVos’s libertarian, government-free fantasy is that she seems unaware that government is the institution that protects children’s rights by law and ensures, by law, that education is provided for all children in our country.  High school students in civics class and immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam learn about the three branches of our government—defined in each case in relation to the concept of a government by law. The legislative branch makes the laws; the executive branch administers the laws; and the judicial branch interprets the laws.

The law is what ensures that public schools serve all those groups of parents that we listed—poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. The law also protects the rights of individuals from injustice committed in or by any of these institutions.

When society is failing to fulfill its obligation according to the law, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide.  The law provides the framework by which, in a democratic and transparent system, we can all demand better services for vulnerable families who have been left out.  Advocacy for enforcement by law is why California has once again begun providing bilingual education after extremists shut down those programs a quarter century ago and instituted English only. Advocacy for enforcement of the law is what forced states to stop de jure school segregation after 1954.  In the past decade, advocacy for enforcement of the law has brought protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in public schools.

Justice is never about isolated individuals; it is always about the rights of individuals as together they form a society. Justice also involves the balance of power among the institutions that societies create. In the tweet Betsy DeVos quoted in her speech, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) described the need to protect our system of education. The AFT recognizes the need to protect institutional and structural justice, not merely the choices of individuals. Why?  History tells us that individuals who choose the best education they can get for their own children too frequently forget other people’s children.

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)

Last year, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson published a book that covers the lesson too many Americans have forgotten from their civics classes about the role of government.  Here is how they begin: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion.  Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community.  To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends.” (American Amnesia, p. 1).

Hacker and Pierson continue, quoting James Madison: “There never was a Government without force. What is the meaning of government?  An institution to make people do their duty.  A Government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of Government, or rather no Government at all.”  (American Amnesia, pp. 1-2)

And these political scientists conclude: “We suffer, in short, from a kind of mass historical forgetting, a distinctively ‘American Amnesia.’  At a time when we face serious challenges that can be addressed only through a stronger, more effective government—a strained middle class, a weakened system for generating life-improving innovation, a dangerously warming planet—we ignore what both our history and basic economic theory suggest: We need a constructive and mutually beneficial tension between markets and government rather than the jealous rivalry that so many misperceive—and in that misperception, help foster.  Above all, we need a government strong and capable enough to rise above narrow private interests and carry out long-term courses of action on behalf of broader concerns.” American Amnesia, p. 2, emphasis in the original)

It may not be possible to silence Betsy DeVos and her long rant against the government system she is supposed to be administering.  At the very least, however, those of us who prize America’s institution of public education must just as insistently reject her foolishness.

Arne Duncan, Social Entrepreneur, Led U.S. Dept. of Education on Long Detour

Even though Arne Duncan has left Washington and John King now heads up the U.S. Department of Education, I have continued to puzzle about exactly what went haywire on a deep level during the seven years of Duncan’s tenure. When I learned last week that Duncan has taken a new job—opening a Chicago office for the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy—and that Duncan will, according to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, be supporting “entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in neglected neighborhoods and… (creating and expanding) training programs that equip young people with skills they need to get those jobs,” I began to think about Duncan in the context of social entrepreneurship.

I know the idea of social entrepreneurship is trendy right now, but because I was unable precisely to define it for myself, I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein writes, “Historically, these organizations have been defined in the negative—as nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.  Today they are understood to comprise a new ‘sector,’ variously dubbed the ‘independent sector,’ ‘nonprofit sector,’ ‘third sector,’ or, the term favored in this book, the ‘citizen sector.’ (pp 4-5)

Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”  But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.  In the past, citizen sector organizations have been insulated from the forces of head-to-head competition.  However, as the sector continues to attract talent, competition is likely to intensify—particularly as social entrepreneurs seek to ‘capture’ the benefits of their innovations and as funders, journalists, and citizens come to demand better performance.”(p. 276)

Finally, Bornstein adds, “Historically, religious organizations and wealthy patrons were responsible for the delivery of social goods.  However, the rapid economic growth of the past two centuries allowed governments to tax private wealth to finance public goods—canals, schools, mental institutions, rural electrification, and the like.  With the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century, the fulfillment of social needs came to be seen not only as the government’s responsibility, but one of its primary operational functions.  Government, however, remained insulated from the pressures and incentives that forced businesses to continually improve their products.” (p. 274)

We can see that, as Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.  He castigates government as top-down and abjures centralized decision making and the engine of a planned economy.  A society of social entrepreneurs will harness the wide-ranging talents and fierce determination of millions of citizens, create new models, inspire new ideas, vision and innovation, and hone it all through competition.

Because, as Bornstein reminds us, historically, religious organizations took care of many social needs (including education, the area with which Arne Duncan was most involved as U.S. Secretary of Education), let’s consider a respected religious leader’s understanding of the roles of charity and government for providing such services—the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York’s Riverside Church: “Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (Credo, p. 56)

While Bornstein emphasizes the very American value of the power of the individual, government is the ultimate institutional expression of the collective in a democratic society and the essential institution for protecting the rights of citizens.  As the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan presided over a federal department historically designed to distribute Title I funds for supplying at least a measure of equity in our nation’s poorest schools, to regulate and fund services for children with special needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to provide support for the nation’s school teachers through Title II, to oversee the protection of students’ civil rights, and a host of other functions.  Yet Duncan’s primary contribution was spawning a massive experiment in social entrepreneurship.  One example was the rapid expansion of charter schools launched by social entrepreneurs.  A serious problem with charters as a solution to America’s primary education challenges is the enormous mismatch in scale. Public schools in the United States serve 50 million children and adolescents, but, according to the National Charter School Resource Center, “As of the start of the 2015-16 school year, there are 6,723 charter schools in the United States.”

And what about diverting millions of dollars to Teach for America, a relatively small experiment in social entrepreneurship? Teach for America is supplying  8,800 active teachers in schools across 35 states this year, compared to 3.5 million teachers serving the nation’s public schools. According to a recent post by Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education… (gave) Teach for America hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone….”   What if that money had been spent on a new federal program to provide incentives to attract the most experienced teachers to work in the public schools of cities like Gary and Flint?  What if the money had been spent instead on reducing class size by hiring additional public school teachers in Newark and Oakland?  In his book on social entrepreneurship, Bornstein describes the goal of harnessing and nurturing the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens.  How better to do this in the United States than by supporting the efforts of our nation’s 3.5 million credentialed public school teachers?

What about government’s regulatory function?  Only government has the capacity to protect the investment of taxpayers.  And surely the federal government is responsible for ensuring that public schools and the specific programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education serve the needs and protect the rights of the nation’s children.  Here are just two examples of the regulatory failure that was a hallmark of Duncan’s Department of Education.

  • In June of 2015,  the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cited a 2012 audit by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG)  that “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.”  The Alliance’s report explains that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states and lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring.
  • In the fall of 2015, the federal Charter Schools Program awarded a grant of $71 million to Ohio to expand charter schools. The grant was put on hold only after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and newspapers across the state demanded that the U.S. Department of Education insist that Ohio do a better job of regulating its charter schools before the U.S. Department of Education spends millions of dollars expanding what has been a mismanaged and unregulated program.

What about the Department’s failure to invest in expanding the essential, but chronically underfunded, public school programs that are the very reason for the existence of the U.S. Department of Education—Duncan’s failure to run government itself with vision? Under Arne Duncan, funds were diverted from the Title I formula to the competitive Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant programs.  While Title I awards funds by formula for educational enrichment in schools that serve a large number and high concentration of very poor children, Duncan’s competitive grant programs diverted money to states with winning grant proposals, reducing funds available to schools serving poor children in states that lost the competition. And too often, because one-time grants cannot be used to hire long-term teachers, the funds were spent on consultants.

It is surely a very good thing for Arne Duncan to take a job as a social entrepreneur with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. Emma Brown reports that he “hopes that creating new pathways to jobs will help stem the violence that has wracked Chicago, especially its impoverished neighborhoods on the West and South sides.”  He is reported to have told the Washington Post, “The thesis is, if we can help young men and women get real skills that will lead to real jobs and pay them to gain those skills, then you give them a reason to not sell drugs and not get caught in the violence.”  I wish him well in this endeavor as he returns to Chicago.

The problem is that during his stint as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan thought about policy as though he were a social entrepreneur instead of using the power at his disposal to ensure that government could fulfill its most basic obligations. There is a role in our society for social entrepreneurs.  There is also a desperate need for well functioning government.  In Fire in the Ashes, a retrospective book about his years’ writing about children and schools, Jonathan Kozol affirms the need for charity at the same time he distinguishes the purpose of charity from the role of government: “Charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… The public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 304)

Franklin Roosevelt on the Role of Government to Protect the Public

During a recent driving trip across the country, my husband and I sometimes felt we were threading our way across a map of American consumerism: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, and even Pita Pit. It can be argued that our society’s growing diversity has improved the food—Mexican, Lebanese, Thai, and even a Kathmandu Café in Rapid City, South Dakota, but as Benjamin Barber has pointed out, in marketplaces, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.”  (Consumed, p. 139) And competition among the choices has not necessarily delivered food that is tasty and nutritious.

As I looked at the fast food marketplace from freeway interchange to freeway interchange, it was sobering to consider that this is the model many are trying to adopt for our schools.

Franklin Roosevelt had a different philosophy, one that I worry is beginning to feel frankly old fashioned. Eighty years ago, in August of 1934, President Roosevelt visited Glacier National Park. The President was traveling by train, making visits to new dams.  He had visited Grand Coulee in Washington and was headed to Fort Peck in Montana. On August 5, Roosevelt delivered his weekly radio address from the lodge at Glacier Park’s Two Medicine Lake: “Today, for the first time in my life, I have seen Glacier Park. Perhaps I can best express to you my thrill and delight by saying that I wish every American, old and young, could have been with me today. The great mountains, the glaciers, the lakes and the trees make me long to stay here for all the rest of the summer.”

His address became sober as he described what he believed is the role of government and the importance of the public space: “Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 by Act of Congress as a ‘pleasuring ground’ for the people. I like that phrase because, in the years that have followed, our great series of parks in every part of the Union have become indeed a ‘pleasuring ground’ for millions of Americans… As is the case in the long fight for the preservation of national forests and water power and mineral deposits and other national possessions, it has been a long and fierce fight against many private interests which were entrenched in political and economic power. So, too, it has been a constant struggle to continue to protect the public interest, once it was saved from private exploitation at the hands of the selfish few.”

President Roosevelt understood that the marketplace enriches private individuals not the commons and responds to the power of money. He believed that an essential role of government is to protect the common good and he looked to the well-being of future generations as well as those who might prosper today. Speaking about the National Park Service, Roosevelt said, “It took a bitter struggle to teach the country at large that our national resources are not inexhaustible and that, when public domain is stolen, a twofold injury is done, for it is a theft of the treasure of the present and at the same time bars the road of opportunity to the future…We have won the greater part of the fight to obtain and to retain these great public park properties for the benefit of the public. We are at the threshold of an even more important battle to save our resources of agriculture and industry from the selfishness of individuals.”

President Roosevelt’s 1934 radio address from Glacier National Park did not touch on the role of ambitious individuals trying to commodify education. Nobody in 1934 would have imagined creating an education marketplace. But Roosevelt’s speech about the role of government to protect the environment for the benefit of the public speaks directly to what is happening 80 years later as entrepreneurs try to privatize K-12 public schools.