Public Education under Siege

Edd Doerr

About nine out of ten American parents have, have had, or will have children in a public school. So it is shocking that American public schools have been under a prolonged, vicious siege by an asso rtment of special interests, wealthy foundations, religious Right activists, a very large percentage of Republicans in Congress and state legislatures, and conservative media. The elements of the siege include increasingly successful efforts to slash funding, increase class size, thin out curricula, divert public funds to faith-based and other private schools through vouchers and tax credits, and convert public schools to charter schools unaccountable to taxpayers.

Sadly, little of this decades-long subversion has attracted the broad media coverage it deserves. Fortunately, however, information Americans need to defend the vitally important institution of public education has been provided every August for the past forty-seven years by the PDK/Gallup Poll sponsored by Phi Delta Kappa, the professional education fraternity and publisher of The Kappan, a leading education journal. (Disclosure: as a teacher, I was a member of PDK for many years and have had articles published in its journal.) As the popular media rarely adequately report the results of the PDK/Gallup education polls, I will do so here.

Probably the most important question in the poll concerns public opinion regarding the diversion of public funds to private schools. The very neutral question that PDK/Gallup has used for many years—to get a valid measure of opinion over a long span of time—is this: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” In 2015, respondents were opposed by a 57 percent to 31 percent margin. The results have been similar for many years; importantly, they track the outcomes of some twenty-eight state referendum elections between 1966 and 2014 in which school vouchers, tax credits, and similar devices for diverting public funds to private schools were rejected by an average two to one margin.

Especially interesting is how opinion breaks down along political party preference lines. Republicans (R) are evenly divided, 46 to 46 percent. Democrats (D) are opposed by 71 to 16 percent, and Independents (I) are opposed by 63 to 29 percent.

The PDK/Gallup poll question is so neutral that it does not even hint that the overwhelming majority of private schools are operated by two dozen or more pervasively sectarian Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim systems. It should be obvious that public funding of pervasively sectarian private schools would increase fragmentation of the school population along religious, ideological, social class, ethnic, and other lines.

Equally important are the results of poll questions about how the public rates public schools. Asked to give public schools nationally an A, B, C, D, or F rating, a mere 21 percent of all respondents gave public schools nationally an A or B. Public-school parents rated 19 percent A or B. Here is how party preferences break down: R, 15 percent; D, 23 percent; I, 24 percent. When asked to rate the schools “in your community,” the A or B rating jumped to 51 percent overall and 57 percent of public-school parents. These were the results according to party preference: R, 54 percent; D, 55 percent; I, 48 percent. When asked to grade the “school your oldest child attends,” 70 percent of public-school parents gave an A or B rating. The results by party preference were: R, 66 percent; D, 75 percent; I, 74 percent. In thirty years of using this rating question, the resulting percentages have been remarkably similar.

The negative national rating seems to be related to the unending propaganda war against public schools by sectarian and conservative special interests seeking tax support for private and charter schools. Of course, too many public schools are suffering from inadequate and inequitably distributed funding, excessively large classes, continuing segregation by race and class, excessive testing that crowds out useful instruction, teacher burnout, and other factors.

Moving on, 67 percent of public-school parents say there is too much emphasis on testing, which accelerated under the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law. One reaction to the over-testing is the recent “opt-out” movement in which parents withdraw their children from comprehensive testing. Public-school parents support opt-out by 47 percent to 40 percent. Further, conservatives would like to base teacher evaluations on student test performance, which would clearly work to the disadvantage of teachers of lower socioeconomic status students. The Gallup poll found respondents opposed to this by 55 percent to 43 percent, though a separate poll by telephone registered opposition at 63 percent to 37 percent.

As is well-known, Common Core state standards (for math and reading) have become controversial, and at this point in time parents polled are opposed to Common Core by 54 percent to 25 percent. Let me recommend veteran teacher Dr. Mercedes K. Schneider’s important, well researched and documented new book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools? (Williston, Vt.: Teachers College Press, 2015). Schneider shows that the whole Common Core movement has been promoted by well-funded private interests that involve few actual experienced educators—but many who salivate at the chance to find profit in the $500 billion–plus K–12 education arena.

While Common Core is essentially a top-down federally promoted program, the overwhelming majority of Americans favor state and local decision-making on textbooks, teaching methods, student accountability, and testing. As for the funding of public education, 42 percent say this should be done by each state, while federal and local support should be split 28 percent to 28 percent. In today’s real world, about 10 percent of school funding comes from the federal government while state and local governments each provide about 45 percent. Of course the formulas vary widely from state to state. Ironically, “red” states generally get more federal aid than “blue” states.

With all the ballyhoo and puffery about publicly funded charter schools in recent years, it is not surprising that in this year’s Gallup poll, respondents favored charters by 64 to 25 percent. Unknown is how many respondents are aware of the 2009 and 2014 Stanford University CREDO studies of charters. The 2014 study found that nearly 40 percent of charter schools are worse than regular public schools, while fewer than 20 percent of them are better—and that mainly because they are selective in ways that regular public schools cannot be. Further, charter schools nationwide are racked with all sorts of scandals, few of which are adequately reported.

When asked what is the biggest problem facing public schools, the leading answer by far is “lack of financial support,” followed further down by the related problem of “overcrowded schools.” But educators have always known this.

To wrap this up, let me repeat: American public schools are under attack by a confluence of conservative, Republican, private, profit-seeking, and clericalist private interests who would privatize education, enrich private corporations, reduce teaching to the level of widget manufacturing, ruin the teaching profession, destroy public-employee unions, undermine religious liberty and church-state separation, and fragment school populations along religious, ideological, socioeconomic, ethnic, and other lines. Sadly, all this gets far too little media attention.

How to keep informed? One good way is through leading educator Diane Ravitch’s blog, a rich, daily update on what’s going on in this field. Then there is Americans for Religious Liberty’s quarterly journal Voice of Reason, which I have edited for the last thirty-four years. Books I would recommend include Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013); Christopher and Sarah Lubienski’s The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (2014); Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine’s Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education (2012); and Mercedes Schneider’s A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education (2014).

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

“American public schools are under attack by a confluence of conservative, Republican, private, profit-seeking, and clericalist private interests.”

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