As the School Year Ends, Public Education is in Doubt

Across the country, people in communities of all kinds and sizes are rising up against the decades-long effort to corporatize and privatize the public education system. (Photo: Basheer Tome/flickr/cc)

As the School Year Ends, Public Education is in Doubt

School is out for the summer, and kids are overjoyed. But across the country, the future of public education is in serious jeopardy.

Where will public schools be in a year?

School is out for the summer, and kids are overjoyed. But across the country, the future of public education is in serious jeopardy.

Where will public schools be in a year?

Here is a quick primer on some of the key issues that relate to the fundamental question: Will America maintain or destroy that most basic democratic institution, the public school?

Are Public Schools "Failing"?

The idea that public schools have "failed" and that private market solutions are the answer to this problem is the heart of a campaign promoted by rightwing foundations, particularly the Bradley Foundation, over the last 30 years.

Recent cuts in school budgets by Bradley-supported politicians, including Wisconsin's Scott Walker, is creating more "failure."

As Wisconsin Public Education Network director Heather DuBois Bourenane observes, "The entire myth of the "failing school" depends on a refusal to acknowledge the ways that poverty impacts local communities, and how austerity policies and years of underfunding have led to the crises we see now."

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New reports show that most states continue to put less money into public schools than they did before the recession, and about half put less money into schools that serve low-income students than schools that serve the wealthy.

"We can point to countless success stories of districts that adopted community schools models or established practices that help meet the needs of the whole child (with wrap-around services, peer tutoring, family-focused resources, etc.) Bourenane adds.

"Many of the schools labeled as "failing," in fact, can produce evidence of enormously successful programming and gains in student growth, but might not rank highly when standardized test scores are the primary criteria for success of their vulnerable student populations."

Opt-Out Meets #BlackLivesMatter

This year, the nationwide movement to opt out of standardized tests grew to become a massive phenomenon--especially on the East Coast. One in six students in New York refused to take standardized tests in 2015, The New York Times reports, "more than double and possibly triple the number who did so in 2014."

When large numbers of New York students were labeled "not proficient" on statewide tests--including kids in well funded suburban schools--a massive walkout ensued. Parents rebelled against a plan to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, and the threat of labeling schools as "failing" based on new, tougher standards.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has derided parents whose kids opt out of standardized tests as a bunch of "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought."

But a broad and diverse opt-out movement is picking up steam all across the country. "We've had requests from all fifty states for our opt-out guides," says United Opt-Out co-founder Tim Slekar.

In Seattle, teacher-author Jesse Hagopian, who helped organize the successful MAPS test boycott at Seattle's Garfield High School, is leading a multiracial coalition of parents, teachers, local civil rights groups, and students who see the stripped-down, test-focused education as bad for all kids--including low-income kids and kids of color.

That's a big deal, because national civil rights groups have taken a position against opt-out, on the theory that kids of color need standardized tests to determine whether schools are failing kids who have been underserved.

Jesse Hagopian articulates a different view:

"The idea that our school system implements standardized testing in the early grades to make students "career and college ready" (in the language of the Common Core standards) is an utter absurdity--especially when you consider that one of the most popular career choices for a 5-year-old is being Spider Man."

"And yet high-stakes are attached to the the MAP test--already in kindergarten!--using it as an arbitrator of who will be placed on the advanced track," Hagopian writes.

"[T]he Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region," adds Gerald Hankerson of the Seattle/King County NAACP. "Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants 'lesser,' while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country,"

Since standardized tests have been used to label students, teachers, and schools as "failing," and to trigger the take-over of public schools by private operators, the opt-out movement is focused on taking back local, democratic control of the schools.

As Slekar puts it: "We are not an anti-testing movement, we are a revolutionary movement against the corporate takeover of education."

Common Core Bait and Switch

As education writer and Public School Shakedown contributor Jeff Bryant writes, Common Core has become a toxic issue for Republican presidential candidates thanks to Tea Party opposition. Chris Christie is the latest candidate to turn his back on the national standards he once supported.

Democrats, on the other hand, have been busy mounting a dubious defense of Common Core, Bryant points out. But the issue of the standards themselves is a big distraction.

The real question on Common Core is not whether national educational standards are a socialist plot, as the Republican base seems to think, or whether they are doing wonders for kids, as the Democrats claim, with little real evidence. The real question is whether public education for all kids, espeically poor kids, is adequately supported.

It doesn't help when assessments tied to the Common Core are used to label schools as "failing," fire teachers, shut down schools, and hand them over to private charter-school operators.

This test-and-punish approach, not the national standards, is the real threat to public education.

Charter Schools: From Good to Bad

This year marked the beginning of the great unraveling of the for-profit mass charter movement.

There were the financial scandals: We learned that Ohio poured millions into charter schools that don't exist. Across the country, there was story after story about charter-school waste, fraud, and abuse.

And then there was the failure to produce results: in New Orleans, data show that the big claims about improved outcomes in a school district that went all-charter right after Katrina don't hold water.

Given these terrible results, Jeff Bryant has called for a national moratorium on charter schools.

Charter schools were first conceived decades ago as a progressive education innovation. Small, alternative schools, schools for the arts, and language-immersion schools flourished and provided experimental models that traditional public schools could adopt.

But big charter-school chains like Rocketship have taken over in urban areas including Milwaukee and Washington, DC, and lobbied for new laws that exempt them from school-board oversight, as they drain public education dollars out of local districts.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed taking away the cap on private charter schools for the entire state of New York, selling charters as the solution to "failing" public schools.

That plan ran into a major speed bump in New York, when parents rejected the idea that their children had suddenly become a lot less smart, and have not been eager to embrace the charter school "solution".

"It's really shock doctrine--where blow something up and then come in and say we need to fix this," Slekar says about the combination of tests that show mass "failure" and the charter-school expansion.

Nowhere is this more evident than in New Orleans, the nation's first all-charter school district, which just happens to be hosting the national charter schools conference next week. Stay tuned for more reporting from the Progressive on that.


School vouchers started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 25 years ago as a "ticket out" for poor kids who could use the money spent to educate them in public school to attend private schools.

Today, a new sector of cheap, fly-by-night academies has popped up to take advantage of school vouchers.

Despite poor results, Republicans in Wisconsin have expanded the voucher program statewide, and the school voucher concept has spread to thirteen states and Washington, DC.

More than 75 percent of new voucher recipients are families that never sent their kids to public schools. School vouchers drain money from the public school system to provide a straight subsidy for private school parents who get a break on tuition.

I wrote about the shocking state of Milwaukee's voucher schools in crumbling office buildings, strip malls, and former car dealerships last year

I watched an eighth-grade science class learning creationism, and observed a school where kids are learning the Bob Jones curriculum.

An anti-intellectual current is part of the attack on schools.

Last fall, in Colorado, students walked out of Jefferson County schools over a rightwing revision of the AP history curriculum.

Attacks on teachers and schools

Likewise, the attacks on teachers we've seen from the likes of Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal draw on a deep strain of cultural antipathy toward education. Whether they are busting teachers unions, replacing professional teachers with Teach for America volunteers, or doing away with certification requirements so anyone can teach, there is a concerted attack on this female-dominated profession.

Defending Schools Drives Electoral Victories

One year ago, Ras Baraka, a high school principal and member of the Newark City Council, won election as mayor of Newark despite massive opposition from Chris Christie and the hedge fund managers and corporate education "reformers" who want to turn over more public schools to corporate charter school chains. On her blog, Diane Ravich quoted supporters who called it "the most important election in the nation regarding the future of public education."

This year, the Los Angeles school board elections pitted charter-school advocates against public-school proponents, and the results were mixed in the school district with the nation's largest number of charter-school students. "The billionaires dropped a few million into the L.A. race, principally to defeat [public-school defender] Bennett Kayser," Diane Ravitch pointed out. They suceeded in replacing him with charter founder Ref Rodrigueaz, but charter proponent Tamar Galatzan also lost her seat to a retired public school teacher.

Tom Wolf beat Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett in a race that focused on Corbett's failed educational "reforms." The new state budget in Pennsylvania includes more funding for schools that serve the neediest kids. Wolf has also signaled that he is ready to to end Pennsylvania's charter-school expansion.

In the California race for state schools chief, Tom Torlakson beat Marshall Tuck despte millions of dollars in support for Tuck from the charter school industry.

Now what?

In 2016, one of the biggest national political questions in the Presidential election will be what to do about public schools?

Will the rightwing assault on education succeeed, based on decades of propaganda funded by the Bradley foundation to spread the message that "public schools have failed"?

Or will Democrats and Republicans alike take a stand for public education?

A lot will depend on how much pressure a growing pro-public-school movement can put on the candidates.

All across the country, there are real signs of hope.

Superintendents, school boards, as well as administrators of local public schools have been writing letters and testifying against the privatization and defunding of public education.

Parents are engaged as never before.

Communities, from urban mostly black and brown districts to conservative, rural areas, are rising up against budget cuts and the threat of school closures.

"It's not too late," one impassioned letter from a group of school superintendents declared, urging citizens to stand up and resist the defunding of public schools and their privatization.

Let's hope they are right.

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