When Traditional Public School Educators Set Public Policy and Speak for Public Schools, It Makes a Difference

If you are a proponent of the Jeb Bush-“Chiefs for Change” model of corporate school reform, you conceptualize school governance in terms of tough management overriding the interests of local educators who are said to be unable to handle the inevitable and often competing pressures within a community.  In its formula for state takeover of low-scoring school districts, Chiefs for Change prescribes: “unflinching” appointed leadership; the appointed leader’s absolute autonomy to control staffing, teachers, and school culture; the appointed leader’s capacity to demand and get results or fire staff; and the appointment of an “unbiased” third-party consultant “external to the school system.”

Traditional educators understand the role of public schools very differently. Working with a community and building collaboration are skills practiced by traditional school administrators.  Last Thursday, for example, the PBS NewsHour‘s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Tony McGee, the school superintendent in Mississippi’s Scott County Public Schools when Brown wanted to learn about the how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids had affected families and children in Scott County.  Superintendent McGee told Brown: “We had approximately 154 students across our district, mainly Hispanic and Latino… that were absent from school today.  And so we have started reaching out to those families to find out about boys and girls—where they’re at or how they’re doing—just making sure that they know school is a safe place for them—it can be a safe harbor for boys and girls—and that we’re here to care for those kids… We have a lot of organizations in Scott County that are deeply rooted into the Hispanic community. And so they came to lend support to our school people… and making sure that everybody felt safe… On our end, especially in the community and the school, we had no prior knowledge. And so it was—it was pretty—pretty shocking. It was really a tough day emotionally for our educators and students and families.”

There is an ongoing battle of values and language that shapes the way we think about and talk about education.  The current threats across several states of state takeover of school districts are perhaps the best example of this conflict.  According to the Chiefs for Change model, the school district in Providence has recently been taken over by the state of Rhode Island.  Texas now threatens to take over the public schools in Houston. In Ohio, four years of state takeover has created chaos in Lorain and dissatisfaction in Youngstown.  East Cleveland is now in the process of being taken over, and the Legislature has instituted a one-year moratorium while lawmakers figure out whether to proceed with threatened takeovers of the public school districts in Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.

Among the most painful situations this summer is the threatened closure of the high school or the state takeover of the school district in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a segregated African American community and one of the poorest in the state.  Michigan has actively expanded school choice with charter schools and an inter-district open enrollment program in which students carry away their school funding. The statewide expansion of charters and inter-district school choice has undermined the most vulnerable school districts and triggered a number of state takeover actions.  Michigan State University’s David Arnsen explains: “In Michigan, all the money moves with the students. So it doesn’t take account of the impact on the districts and students who are not active choosers… When the child leaves, all the state and local funding moves with that student. The revenue moves immediately and that drops faster than the costs… In every case they (districts losing students to Schools of Choice) are districts that are predominantly African American and poor children and they suffered terrific losses of enrollment and revenue….”

Benton Harbor—heavily in debt and struggling academically—has been threatened with state intervention like Inkster, Buena Vista, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights—whole school districts which were closed, charterized, or put under emergency manager control by former governor Rick Snyder.  Now the new Governor Gretchen Whitmer has threatened to close the high school in Benton Harbor or eventually close the district.

However, the State Board of Education in Michigan, an elected body with the power to choose the state school superintendent, has appointed a public school educator who doesn’t value the corporate, Chiefs for Change model. Michael Rice understands the role of public schools in a community. Rice, who began his tenure as state superintendent last week, was the school superintendent in Kalamazoo until his recent appointment to state office.  Bridge Magazine‘s Ron French explains the significance of Rice’s appointment: “As state superintendent, Rice is independent from the… governor’s office.  Rice was appointed to his position by the State Board of Education, which has eight members who are elected in statewide elections.”  “Having the state’s highest ranking school official come out against the (high school) closure could put more pressure on officials in the governor’s office and the Treasury Department to find a way to keep the high school open… Rice’s stance is also significant because it undercuts one avenue the state could use to dissolve the school district (which Whitmer threatened to do if the Benton Harbor school board didn’t agree to shutter the high school).  The state treasurer and the state superintendent can agree to close a school district if certain metrics are met. If Rice is a firm no on closure, that avenue is closed.”

French describes State Superintendent Rice’s understanding of his role in working out what has become a political crisis in Benton Harbor: “In an interview in his office on his seventh day on the job, Rice minced no words in expressing his position on the controversy.  When asked if the high school should close Rice answered with one word: ‘No.’ ‘We, collectively in the state, need to figure out how to stabilize Benton Harbor’s finances and academics such that (closing) is not necessary.'”  Rice continues: “There’s going to be a conversation around finances, and that’s the province of Treasury… And I’m not trying to force myself into that world.  That being said, there’s an academic component to it and I will be involved in the academic component of it.  As you can see, I have strong feelings about the importance of community, and about the importance of the strength of the community relative to its public schools… A high school is the center of a community.”

The Kalamazoo school superintendent has become the new state superintendent in Michigan.  In Wisconsin, the state superintendent of public instruction was elected last November as the new governor.  Governor Tony Evers calls the new budget he signed “a start” to help Wisconsin’s public schools recover from former Governor Scott Walker’s tax cuts and the budget slashing that followed. Governor Evers has lost no opportunity for sharing his support for the state’s public school districts.  He has showed up and presented keynote addresses at all five Summer Summit gatherings of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The LaCrosse Tribune‘s Kyle Farris shares Heather DuBois Bourenane’s  assessment of what it means to have a public school educator instead of a tax cutter leading the state.  DuBois Bourenane is the director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network: “Having a budget worth fighting for was such a welcome challenge… Electing a public educator to the office of governor is amazing for kids.  We have somebody who knows how schools work in that office, which is new.”

Once inflation is factored in, the public school budget in Wisconsin is still behind where it was before Scott Walker’s election, but Farris describes how Evers has begun to make a difference: “Evers used his veto pen to allocate $87 million more in K-12 public education spending than Republican legislators had intended. He increased funding for special education, school mental health programs, and per-pupil aid—and vowed to fund two-thirds of schools’ overall costs in the future.” And Evers has been relentlessly talking about the importance—for kids and for communities—of these investments.

When public school educators frame the education conversation around the public good, it is a reminder of the essential role of a democratically governed public system designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children.

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