Public Education under Siege, Part 2

Edd Doerr

Like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, teachers “don’t get no respect.” They and their unions have been getting sniped at for years by the likes of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; now eclipsed, disgraced former Washington, D.C., school superintendent Michelle Rhee; hordes of conservative pundits with no experience in classrooms; sectarian special interests seeking public funding for an array of faith-based private schools; and entrepreneurs salivating at the chance to cash in on some of the $600 billion-plus spent annually on public schools that serve over fifty million American K–12 students.

Teachers and their unions are blamed for the real or imagined shortcomings of our schools. Yes, our schools can and should be improved, but all we hear are criticisms of teachers and proposals to end teacher tenure and unions and plans to turn teachers into something like assembly-line robots and students into an undifferentiated mass of widgets. These would further discourage talented people from choosing careers in teaching. Little is ever said about the challenges of educating an infinite variety of young people from an incredible diversity of families, backgrounds, and income levels or about the efforts expended by overworked teachers and school staff.

Sadly, Americans have generally been taken in by all the negative propaganda. For years, only about 20 percent of respondents to the annual Gallup education polls have given the public schools nationally an A or B rating, though 70 percent would give an A or B to the public schools they know best—the ones attended by their oldest kids. And this when we know that ever so many inner-city schools are struggling with obsolete buildings and huge percentages of poor, deprived, and at-risk kids.

What we hear from the reformists and pseudo-reformers, few of whom ever actually taught school, is a lot of blather about vouchers and tax credits for private schools, which would fragment our school population along religious and other lines, and about the hyped wonders of charter schools. Little is heard about the 2014 Stanford University CREDO study, which showed that nearly 40 percent of charters are worse than regular public schools, while fewer than 20 percent are any better, generally because charter schools get to be more selective. Or of the recent study of charters in the District of Columbia, where over 40 percent of the kids attend highly rated charters. Nearly 90 percent of the charters serve smaller percentages of at-risk kids than nearby regular public schools. And this does not even mention the charter-school frauds or flops or generally failing cyber-charters.

Too little is heard of what serious, experienced educators know that we need to make our schools better for all kids in America, a quarter of whom live in poverty and half of whom qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches: more adequate and more equitably distributed funding; smaller classes; richer curricula; wraparound social and medical services; less emphasis on testing and evaluating teachers by student test results; an end to the diversion of public funds to special-interest private schools through vouchers and tax credits; and a halt in the expansion of charter schools.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act, making its way through Congress as this column is being written in early December, is a mix of good and bad. Among its not-so-good features is its retention of the emphasis on testing and its insistence that parents not be allowed to opt kids out of some testing, which runs counter to the 2015 Gallup education poll’s findings that 67 percent of Americans disapprove of excessive emphasis on testing and, by 47 percent to 40 percent, support the opt-out movement.

In other news on this all-important but little-reported front: in October, the Center for Inquiry, Americans for Religious Liberty, and over fifty other national organizations belonging to the National Coalition for Public Education urged Congress not to reauthorize the U.S.-taxpayer-supported District of Columbia school-voucher plan started by the Bush administration. GOP representatives pushed it through anyway, though it is not expected to reach President Barack Obama’s desk. Hillary Clinton in November came out for choice “within the public school system—not outside of it—because I am still a firm believer that the public school system is one of the real pillars of our democracy.”

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in September that the state’s charter-school law is unconstitutional because charters are not governed by elected school boards. Indiana’s Supreme Court, which upheld the state’s Republican school-voucher law even though it conflicts with two articles in the state constitution, ruled in 2015 that the right to a free public education does not guarantee free school-bus transportation. Wisconsin governor and failed GOP presidential aspirant Scott Walker, ignoring the fact that Milwaukee’s public schools outperform its voucher schools, is cutting the public-school budget while increasing voucher school funding by $258 million for the 2016–2017 school year. The Pastors for Texas Children, a pro-public education group, filed a brief with the Texas Supreme Court opposing a religious Right claim that denying tax aid to church schools “threatens religious freedom.” (The Texas constitution bans tax aid to sectarian schools.) Nevada’s 2015 school-voucher law, now being challenged in state court by the American Civil Liberties Union, is being used mainly by upper-income families, not the poor whom it was ostensibly intended to benefit. Arizona’s school-voucher plan mainly aids the affluent and has shown no improvement for the public schools. The Arkansas-based billionaire Waltons, of WalMart fame, failed in their 2015 effort to charterize/voucherize their state’s public schools.

New Books on Education

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, by Dale Russakoff (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), is a veteran journalist’s well-researched study of the efforts to salvage Newark’s poverty-ravaged public-school system. It would have been even better if the author had discussed the deleterious effects of New Jersey’s having nearly six hundred school districts, which tend to separate communities by income and race. (Comparably sized Maryland has only twenty-four school districts, which makes a big difference.)

Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools? by Mercedes K. Schneider (Teachers College Press, 2015): while a “common core” in K–12 math and reading education sounds like a good idea, veteran educator and author Schneider shows in this important new book that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS for short) “is a hastily produced product intended to impose high-stakes outcomes onto those without power over it. In general, CCSS is not owned and valued by those required to institute it—current public school teachers and administrators nationwide. This alone makes CCSS bound to fail.” CCSS, “with its dependence on high-stakes testing outcomes to ‘prove’ that education was occurring—or else,” she writes, was largely pushed by big-money entrepreneurs and so-called “reformers” with little actual connection to teaching. CCSS was never field-tested before being foisted on the states by the federal government. This powerful book easily rates five stars.

Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, by Linda K. Wertheimer (Beacon Press, 2015), is a respected journalist’s argument for more teaching “about” religion in public schools as, among other things, an antidote for intolerance. It is based largely on her investigations in half a dozen communities. Her intentions are good, but she does not highlight the difficulties. Few teachers are trained or qualified to teach properly about religion. The topic is a controversial hot potato for teachers and schools. There are few if any appropriate texts for public-school use. The curriculum in social studies is already overcrowded.

Blame Game, by Steven P. Jones (IAP, 2015), is a weak, oddly timid effort to deal with the subject I explored much more boldly in this column. Jones does usefully note, however, that blaming teachers and unions for the real or imagined problems of public schools ignores the fact that students’ homes and lives outside school are far more influential than what goes on in classrooms.

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.

“Teachers and their unions are blamed for the real or imagined shortcomings of our schools.”

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