The Only Real Issue in Public Schools: Keeping Them Alive (from 6-29-15)

Over-testing. Test validity. Test reliability. Testing narrowing the curriculum. Value Added Measures for rating teachers. School grades. The killing of arts programs. Standards and national standards. No Child Left Behind. Race To the Top. Scripted curriculum. Teacher demoralization. Drop out rates and graduation rates. STEM and STEAM. Reading Wars. Tenure. Teacher pay, teacher turn-over, and teacher retention.

The list of issues surrounding public education goes on and on and on. And we debate all these issues over and over online and at school board meetings. But all of these little issues are, to a certain extent, a smoke screen distracting us from what has become the real issue. The only issue. 

Near the beginning of my teaching career, nearly twenty years ago, back when Florida was just beginning its education reform policies under then governor, now presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, I was at a district workshop at the beginning of the school year. The workshop leaders spent considerable time explaining how the new FCAT testing would work, how schools would be graded, and how students in low performing schools would be able to get vouchers to go to private schools. 

An older teacher approached some of us at the front of the school auditorium, where we were talking during a break. As we talked about the merits and problems of this new system, she said something I will never forget for its prescience. “You know what this is really all about, don’t you? Give it some time, but within 20 years they will be trying to shut down the public schools.” 

Though I didn’t say it to her, I thought she was being paranoid. I now realize she was absolutely right. 

It is easy to get lost in a shuffle of competing issues in education. There are so many things wrong. I know–I think about them and write about them and draw cartoons about them nearly every day. But what I’ve come to realize is that what is at stake is the future of public education. 

The privatizers and those who support their agenda use terms like public school monopoly and government schools. They talk about school choice and market-based reforms as if they are the silver bullets that will create an educational utopia where every child will have a cornucopia of excellent school choices. They talk as if they are altruistic, children-first saviors of our nation’s educational future. 

Here’s what school choice really means: the one product you won’t be able to chose is an excellent public school education at a local school with career teachers who are motivated by their love of teaching and kids, with a rich curriculum of core subjects and the arts that invests in children’s minds, not just in test scores.

Everything that was supposed to improve public schools over the last twenty years was actually designed to ruin them, to make families want to look for alternatives.

By using vouchers, which allow parents to take their child to any school, religious or otherwise, using public funds, by promoting parent trigger laws, which encourage parents to hand their public schools over to private, for-profit companies, by encouraging charter schools and private virtual schools, by funding political campaigns that will put pro-privatization candidates on local school boards (which has happened in my own district), anti-public school forces have been chipping away at public schools bit by bit. And private companies are reaping the rewards, making billions of dollars by running these for-profit schools, by creating standardized tests and the textbooks and standardized test-prep materials that go with them. 

It is the commodification of education, education as a product, education as just another thing to buy.

Two questions need to be answered. 

1. Are our public schools really failing?

2. Should we replace public schools with for-profit schools in the name of school choice?

Our schools are not failing. Are they perfect? No. They vary in quality from state to state, district to district, and within districts. The one constant, though, is that the higher a poverty rate at a school, the harder it is to educate the students. Standardized test scores are more a barometer of poverty and wealth than of educational quality. In middle class and wealthy districts, our students generally out-perform other nations. 

Should we replace our public schools with for-profit, free market schools? If you are ideologically of the opinion that free market solutions are always best, then you will say yes based on your ideology. 

Ideology aside, though, charter schools do not, on the whole, perform any better than their public school counterparts on test scores (though I hate using test scores as evidence). Some charters are excellent (I have a friend who teaches at an excellent school for the arts), but charter schools also have a record of financial scandals, mid-year closures, and profiteering that makes them more a gamble than a sure bet. In other words, the quality of private schools and charter schools varies just as much, if not more, than the quality of public schools. 

Public schools serve the community they are in. They give students from different walks of life, different religions, different races, a chance to learn, and live, and work and play together. At their best they are a microcosm of American society at its best. Public schools take any student, without applications, without lotteries, without question. Public schools are democratically controlled and are open to public input, public scrutiny, and public oversight. Public schools cannot solve all of societies problems, but they can make a difference nonetheless. 

If you want to maintain public schools, have an say in how they run through a local school board, and not have to go shopping around for the best educational “product,” it is time to speak up in favor of public schools. When you give up on public schools, you give up the right to have a say in the schools. 

Public education and public school teachers are up against billionaire reformers who know nothing about education, but plenty about making money and using politics to help them make more of it. There are other issues in education, but they all come back to this one, big issue. They want to shut down public education. The scary thing is, I think most parents seem to be unaware that it is happening. Many teachers, I think, are just waking up to what is happening. 

Our own children are out of public school now. My son is in college and our daughter just graduated and is getting ready to start college. The only things that made us unhappy with their schooling the past 15 years is the ways in which “education reform” messed up the system and made their schooling all about the scores, all about grades, all about jumping through hoops. What we loved about their schooling was the fact that they had many, many outstanding, caring, creative teachers who helped them to grow academically and personally and invested in them as whole people. They looked at our students, at all students, and saw human potential.

Not that I’m ready to contemplate grandparent-hood just yet, but my fear is that by the time I have grandchildren, things will be different. I fear that there will be many school choices, but public schools won’t be one of them. I fear that the schools they attend will be run by people who look at the students in their care and see, not human potential, but potential profits.