New Extremists In The Education Debate

For people who like to think of themselves as being “exceptional,” Americans can sometimes abandon the very principles their exceptionality is founded on. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current debate of education policy. A feature that has long made America’s public school system exceptional for sure is its governance through democratically elected … Continue reading “New Extremists In The Education Debate”

For people who like to think of themselves as being “exceptional,” Americans can sometimes abandon the very principles their exceptionality is founded on.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current debate of education policy.

A feature that has long made America’s public school system exceptional for sure is its governance through democratically elected local school boards. The way this has been working, according to the National School Boards Association, is that your local school board “represents the public’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance for what the public schools need and what the community wants.”

Any power a school board has is generated through the exercise of democracy. When you don’t agree with decisions made by your board members, “it is your right as a voter to select new board members who will see to it that your students and your schools succeed.”

How American is that?

But now, many of the loudest voices in the nation’s education debate tell us that is completely and utterly wrong.

These new extremists are Republicans and Democrats. They are extremely well financed and connected. They adorn their arguments with the language of “opportunity” and “sustained excellence.” But what they really represent is a mindset unwilling to fight things out on a democratic playing field, no matter how unlevel. Instead, they aim to eliminate the playing field altogether.

Since When Is Democracy ‘Socialism?’

Among the new extremists in the education policy debate are those who would have us believe that the schools Americans have democratically decided to build and govern are actually downright un-American.

Recently, folks at the TPM news outlet flagged an example of this from Ohio Republican State Representative Andrew Brenner, who wrote on his personal website that “Public education in America is socialism.”

In Brenner’s bizarre historical account, public education “has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.” Apparently, this system, consisting primarily “one room school houses,” was adequate a mere “100 years ago,” but “does not work well today.” (Despite producing the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners, more patents than the rest of the world combined, and the most powerful economy the planet has ever seen, mind you.)

The solution according to Brenner is “a more privatized system” in which “the schools that fail will go out of business” in a “free-market system.” (So Brenner’s next campaign pledge will be, “I promise to create more schools that will fail?”)

Brenner’s outburst – with its preposterous recasting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams as forerunners to Karl Marx – would be easily laughed off if it weren’t for the fact that it typifies the Republican Party’s entire education agenda.

Republican leaders at all levels – from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to Governors Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, to state lawmakers in North Carolina and Indiana – are pushing to give parents vouchers or “scholarships” and tell them to take their chances in an “open market.” This “opportunity” to take a chance in a loosely regulated crapshoot is somehow preferable to the “socialism” of democratic governance.

But in places where parents have had these voucher systems, what has the “open market” provided?

In Washington DC, according to The Washington Post, the district’s voucher program has lead to “hundreds of students” using voucher dollars to “attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings … The government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information.” And the city’s “achievement gap” the voucher was intended to correct has “in fact widened.”

Outside of DC, “vouchers don’t do much for students,” Stephanie Simon recently reported at Politico:

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

And across Louisiana, many of the most popular private schools for voucher students posted miserable scores in math, reading, science and social studies.

Self-Perpetuating Plutocracy

Unfortunately, Republicans aren’t alone in their disdain for democracy and public control of education.

Also proclaiming an end to democratic rule of schools are an equally powerful and well financed faction who pushes for privately run charter schools unencumbered by public disagreements.

One of their chief spokesmen, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, spoke recently at a meeting of the California Charter Schools Association and stated that schools “are prisoners” of democratic governance. He declared that the “chaos” of freely elected school boards where board membership changes based on the will of voters “leads to schools not having sustained excellence.”

What’s needed instead, Hastings insisted, is a network of charter schools with the “self-perpetuating governance” of non-profit and for-profit boards, where board members pick their successors and the whole system is spared the interruption of messy elections.

“Self-perpetuating governance among organizations that compete with each other,” he maintained, is already accomplishing wonderful things in cities like New Orleans, where “nearly all the schools are charters ” and are getting “amazing results.”

Hastings conceded, “If we go to the general public and say here’s why we should get rid of school boards, of course, no one is going to go for that … school boards have been iconic part of America for over 200 years.” But because charter schools have progressed like a “rocket ship compared to basic ideas like democracy,” Hastings foresaw a system dominated by charters as virtually inevitable in 20-30 years.

Like Rep. Brenner above, Hastings added a bizarre reading of history to his theory, in his case, connecting the triumph of his cause back through the Civil Rights Movement and the American Revolution, to the establishment of “government by the consent of the governed” and rejection of the divine right of kings. What a triumph that must be for him!

Mostly, however, it’s a triumph built on fantasy. The “amazing results” of private charter governance in NOLA Recovery School District are, according to education blogger Gary Rubenstein, a result of distorting the data and constantly changing achievement criteria to make the system’s numbers look good.

In the meantime, as Louisiana teacher Mercedes Schneider has noted on her blog, NOLA “parents have no legislatively-protected say regarding the quality of education provided by New Orleans charters. Louisiana parents do not exercise any democratically recognized authority over the charters in their districts … Parents enforce no formalized power over either charter presence or practices in their districts.”

In a school district like New York City, which Hastings also extolled, where years of imposed mayoral control has eliminated the meaningful input of school boards, improvements in student test scores have been “mediocre at best” according to data crunching done by a New Jersey music teacher and blogger Jersey Jazzman.

In other schools that have been relieved of the democratic governance of school boards, public disempowerment has been the principal legacy of such as system. In Newark, New Jersey, as my colleague Richard Eskow recently wrote, state takeover with elimination of local control has led to “cutting school funding and turning schools over to charter organizations while a hand-picked superintendent runs roughshod over local school officials, community leaders, and the city’s children.”

No wonder, as education historian Diane Ravitch noted in her post about the Hastings speech, “No high-performing nation in the world has handed its schools over to private management.”

Whose Schools? Our Schools!

In episode ten of the excellent video series “A Year at Mission Hill, “ Deborah Meier, the renowned educator whose principles and ideas guide the Mission Hill school, explained the centrality of democracy to the current confusion over education policy.

“I think what we’re facing in America today and around the world,” Meier said, “is not a crisis in education but a crisis in faith and respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people.”

The ordinary people, of course, in our nation’s public schools are the teachers, school leaders, and local officials who oversee the school every day and who are entrusted by the parents and the rest of the community to educate all our children.

What extremists in the education debate are calling for now is to remove all trust and respect from these ordinary people and deposit that faith into a competitive market system operated by people who more often than not don’t even live in the same community the children and parents do.

As a San Francisco school board member recently wrote, also in response to the Hastings speech,”School boards are not an anachronistic carry-over from the years of the one-room schoolhouse … School boards exist because public schools belong to and are directly accountable to the communities they serve. That is what makes them public … Bureaucrats or benevolent billionaires alone will never suffice.”

The idea of democratic governance of schools as a principal means for ensuring the quality of schools has never worked perfectly for sure.

It’s true that too few people bother to vote in school board elections. The electoral system is often prone to manipulation from powerful individuals and self-interested groups. Elected boards are often overly contentious to the point of dysfunction. And the country’s history is replete with examples of local boards that perpetuated widespread mistreatment of minorities to the point where outside intervention was necessary.

But where else has democratic governance achieved perfection? There are democratic solutions to these problems: Do more to increase voter education and turnout, limit the influence of money and factional interests, and ensure checks and balances from outside authorities that are also democratically elected.

If we want to give ordinary people more of a voice in determining the education destinies of their children and their communities, the solution is more democracy, not less.

8 thoughts on “New Extremists In The Education Debate”

  1. Public schools have produced some of the best minds that shaped our country in every field. The children are taught facts, not what the ones who own the charter schools want them to learn which is not always factual. i resent money taught from the taxes we pay given to other than public schools. The money for charter schools should have been used to improve our public schools so every child would attend a good school. It has been proven that charter schools do not fare better than public schools.Lots of them are failing and closing their doors for lack of funds. Where is that money we give them going??? I say close them all and re-open them with qualified teachers that have to pass a test just as public school teachers do. Charter schools were a bad experiment. Let us fix it.

    1. Audrey, great writing. I agree. These people who want to divide this nation up using religion and what better way than through the educational portal. I just read a Salon article on Creationism being taught in these voucher schools and how dangerous this is for our children’s education. I am outraged at this. Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Mass. Board of Education and the Father of American public schools, developed a philosophy of education based on the principle that the tax-supported public school is, “the well-spring of freedom and a ladder of opportunity…..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. It gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist selfishness of other men. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor”.
      That Netflix founder and CEO is off my list. I am boycotting anyone who is pushing these charters schools, who don’t believe in equal education for all, and who don’t believe in democracy!
      I am protesting my taxpayer money going to charter schools!

  2. Jeff, it would be great if you could write a follow up to this article — one that centered on the last three paragraphs herein. For example, how do we get people to vote in school board elections? How do we get knowledgeable people who can work well together to run for school board positions? How do we ensure that parents’ and students’ civil rights are being upheld through school boards? How do we ensure school staffs are held accountable for quality programming and student performance? To your point, too many elected school boards across the country “are often overly contentious to the point of dysfunction.” How do we both ensure representation AND guarantee quality programming and performance? Lastly, how do we get elected school boards to represent parent and student wishes? Many questions…

  3. “In Washington DC, according to The Washington Post, the district’s voucher program has lead to ‘hundreds of students’ using voucher dollars to ‘attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings … The government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information.’ And the city’s ‘achievement gap’ the voucher was intended to correct has ‘in fact widened.’”

    This example sounds like a more democratic approach. Where “the government has no say over curriculum” is the kind of place I choose to learn and grow. Let’s give education back to the people wherever they are and whatever they believe in, whatever language they prefer to speak and to whatever god they want to worship. Let’s get off the bandwagon of “achievement” and find our paths to fulfillment, freedom and higher consciousness in the unity of truth.

    1. As a teacher the reason I see a need for a nationwide curriculum is only so that we make sure everyone gets the basics in the same grade, so that with our mobile military, or business families the children will make an easier move into their new school. Over the last 36 years I’ve had at least a hundred students come and go. I had a few new 2nd graders who were behind us in some math because their book chapters were in a different order, and I had a student write back to me that his new class was already on multiplication before us. All in all the system worked well from California to Washington to Florida to New York to Illinois to Wisconsin to Hawaii to ? because of our common curriculum. Now I was not happy when the history book was changed because the Texas School Board wanted changes made and the book companies went along with it. Five pages of Columbus and the Spanish explorers in north and central America including the building of the oldest continuously occupied city in America, St. Augustine, was whittled down to one sentence about Columbus coming to America with no mention of the Spanish, they have been delegitimized. That should not have been allowed to happen, but what happens in Texas goes for the nation because they place the largest book order, and we are stuck with it. It’s our responsibility to the next generation to give them every opportunity to learn as much as they can so they are prepared when it comes time to make choices for college, technical school, or developing skills they have.

  4. It surely is extremist to want to destroy public schools and do away with school boards. But not everyone who supports charters wants that. I have visited a number of charter schools whose leaders are trying to operate in accord with the Declaration to Rebuild America. Charter schools are also public schools and they are supposed to also be governed by boards accountable to the public. I believe we need experimentation to seek better ways to educate today’s young people for a very uncertain, challenging future. Some charters provide the variation and innovation that some school systems fail to encourage.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Ron. I agree that not all folks who like the idea of charter schools want to do away with public schools and school boards. But where are they? When people turn out in mass to protest having their neighborhood school starved of funds, turned over to a private management group in a distant city, or shut down, where are the charter school advocates? When people push for legislation to limit the number of charter schools that can be pushed onto them by the state or put more teeth into regulations that would ensure charter schools are just as accountable as public schools, the well-paid lobbyists of the charter industry are on the other side opposing them. When charter schools file lawsuits – like the one we’ve just seen in New York City – that exempt their institutions from being audited by the state or enforce labor conditions similar to other public institutions (see Arizona), where are the charter advocates saying, “That’s wrong.” Why are charter school advocates hugely supportive of the administrations of Governors and Mayors who have removed local authority from cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Newark, and New York City? Like you, I agreed with Al Shanker’s original idea for charter schools being laboratories for “variation and innovation.” And I know there are some charter schools actually engaged in that good work. But mostly what we’re seeing from the burgeoning new charter industry is a fervor for creating a competitive school system outside the purview of democratic control. And of course they want public money. But that doesn’t make them “public.”

  5. Jeff,

    Tell me what you know about the history of democracy. Are you opposed to socialism? How much Karl Marx have you read?

    As a socialist when you throw some of these terms around so loosely it makes me wonder as to your knowledge on the matter.

    Your doing some good work here in exposing the fraud that is the well-financed educational-complex and the role played by Dems and Repubs. Now dig a little deeper and tie it in with the systemic features of the very nature of this countries origins.

    BTW democracy was never intended to empower the people. And let’s not laud the “founding fathers” as that myth needs to be buried along with the rest of the lies that are the American catechism.

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