By Jim Miller / Kelly Mayhew
These are dire times for public education. With Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education leading the charge for big budget cuts, charter schools, and a radical privatization agenda, the possibility that free quality public education for all in America could soon be a thing of the past is real.
One would think that such clear and present danger to a cornerstone of our democracy coming from the right would unite Democrats behind the mantle of defending public education.
Sadly, however, that is not the case as even now, in the face of this assault, we see Democrats lining up with the billionaire-funded charter school lobby to wage holy war on teachers’ unions in name of making it easier to get rid of “bad teachers” to save the children.
Such was the rhetoric in the most expensive education board race in the history of the United States in Los Angeles where the billionaire boys club bought the LA school board and is set to greatly expand charters, many of them unregulated hence undermining the funding of traditional public schools.
… it seems that we have one party that has declared war on the very idea of public education and another that has become a very fickle defender of the educational commons.
But in the face of this, too many Democrats, including many prominent local electeds, have recently been busy working to extend the time it takes for a teacher to receive tenure rather than vigorously defending public education as it faces an existential threat. The reality is that we are suffering from a teacher shortage that is growing to crisis levels statewide, yet these lawmakers seem hell-bent to “take on the teachers’ unions” in the name of solving the wrong problem.
This says much more about the victory of neoliberal ideology inside the Democratic party when it comes to education issues than it does about actual problems our teachers face every day in the classroom.
So, at present, it seems that we have one party that has declared war on the very idea of public education and another that has become a very fickle defender of the educational commons.
This is not good news for American education or our democracy.
This week, I cede my column space to my wife and comrade in arms in the battle to defend public education to explain why this is the case.
Why We Need to Protect Public Education:
How Demonizing Teachers and Unchecked Charterization Hurts Kids—and Our Democracy
By Kelly Mayhew
I stand squarely at the crossroads of public education in the United States. A product of public schools, I went to UCLA’s lab school and traditional public junior high and high schools, got my BA at UC Santa Barbara, my MA at San Diego State, and my Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I teach English, Humanities, and Gender Studies at San Diego City College, where I also coordinate the Honors and Labor Studies Programs, and where I am also a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1931. And, finally and crucially, I am the mother of a 13-year-old 7th grader at Roosevelt Middle School, a public institution, where I also serve on the Site Governance Team as well as the School Site Council. Education permeates every aspect of my life, to put it mildly.
So when people start talking about “reforming” education, and about “crumbling schools,” and about “bad teachers,” my ears perk up. These phrases and more—the “teachers vs. children” framing of issues, for example—have dominated public education discourse for at least the last several years. From No Child Left Behind to the reliance on standardized tests to the promotion of charter schools, public education has been a political football for both Republicans and Democrats, and it’s only gotten worse under Trump and his nightmare of a Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
But public education wasn’t a picnic under President Obama either, as his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, proved to be a neoliberal education “reformer.” If we want to know why the DeVos appointment will be extra devastating to our schools and our teachers, we should look no further than the Obama administration and the bipartisan assaults on public education that took place during that time, and which are still continuing today.
Obviously, we need to do something to close achievement gaps between white children and children of color and to make sure every student is served. I teach in an urban school where most of our students are economically challenged and of color, and we have learner gaps that we’re killing ourselves to close through a variety of programs aimed at supporting at-risk students going to school.
I’m tired of giving any ground to the reformers and have come to distrust the most earnest-seeming endeavors.
These efforts rarely make the front pages of the newspapers. Instead, we get a litany of how many terrible teachers there are and that our public schools are “failing.” And given the looming shortage of teachers and how difficult it is to retain a lot of them, the blame the teacher rhetoric is utterly counterproductive.
My focus here, though, is on our larger societal structures and the ways those structures are being dismantled to bring down one of the cornerstones of our democracy. I’m tired of giving any ground to the reformers and have come to distrust the most earnest-seeming endeavors.
At this juncture, I’m more interested in highlighting the heroism of educators who’ve chosen to stay in our profession, to teach in the most challenging schools, to grapple with arcane and often arbitrary curricular changes, to negotiate with having to give soul-crushing standardized tests—and to prep their kids to the best of their ability to take them, to skip lunch or stay after school to tutor their at-risk students, to do what they can to support children who are hungry or who don’t get to see their parents because they have to work so much, to applaud the efforts of their struggling kids, to withstand almost yearly pink-slipping, and to do all of this and more, very often, with amazing equanimity.
There are vastly more of these quiet folks than there are “bad teachers,” but they don’t get much press, save for the yearly “Teacher of the Year” awards and such.
How in the world can you “reform” an institution by routinely trashing the people who are tasked with making it function? When did we go from honoring teachers to bashing them? I think of this at every sporting event when we salute the military. We almost never salute our teachers—and certainly not at every game.
Something like 80+% of children in the U.S. are in public schools. Those are kids from every ethnicity and economic class, English language learners, immigrants, and who have a wide range of learning abilities. Public school teachers have to teach every child who walks in their door. And yet, we greet them so frequently these days with scorn and derision.
Jim Miller eloquently sums it up in his article “What’s the Matter with Corporate Education Reform?”
So perhaps, rather than attacking teachers, progressives need to start addressing the deep inequalities that have and will continue to threaten our democracy on many levels. Simply put, it’s not about the need for more “meritocracy” and market-based solutions, it’s about the necessity for more resources and, at base, more solidarity and democracy.
How Did We Get Here?
Public schools are unique institutions because they are one of the ways that we experience our American diversity in all its glory. To have to go to school with a broad swathe of human beings different than ourselves is one way to assure a functioning democracy. But not all schools are created equal—not all states are equal in terms of their commitment to educational funding. Not all kids have the same opportunities, obviously. And therein lies our conundrum.
To have to go to school with a broad swathe of human beings different than ourselves is one way to assure a functioning democracy.
How do you educate children in a country so dominated by economic and racial inequality? How do you make sure every child, every student can live up to their potential? That is at the heart of our problems within public education. In a society built upon vast economic and racial inequality, people suffer. And children suffer even more. And we expect our public schools to somehow overcome the suffering that derives from such broadly unequal systems without giving them adequate tools to do so.
Instead, schools are targeted by individuals and groups who want to sidestep the systemic issues facing our children to impose their model of success and/or to profit from the public dollars that go into our school systems. The first group (and there are obvious overlaps) are millionaires and billionaires with wads of cash to spend on pet projects (the Eli Broads, the Bill Gates, the Walton family). As Harold Meyerson cogently observes in a recent Los Angeles Times article following the election of pro-charter school board members:
What Carnegie and today’s pro-charter rich have in common is a belief in individual betterment — but not only that. They also share a fierce opposition to collective betterment, manifested in their respective battles against unions and, in many cases, against governmentally established standards and services.
Living in separate eras when the middle class was — and is — embattled and the gap between rich and poor was — and is — immense, billionaires have largely shunned the fights that might truly narrow that gap: raising the minimum wage, making public colleges and universities free, funding sufficient public investment to create genuine full employment, reviving collective bargaining and raising progressive taxes to pay for all of that.
As the billionaires see it, it’s the lack of skills, not the dysfunctions of the larger economic system that they (or their parents) mastered, that is the cause of our national woes. Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself. How very comforting for them.
The second group who wants to sidestep systemic issues are the privatizers with deep ties to charter schools and educational materials companies. They want to shift public tax dollars into private, for-profit hands with little to no accountability or transparency. As Assemblyman Kevin McCarty and California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt observe in the Sacramento Bee:
In California, 34 charter schools operated by five for-profit education management organizations enroll about 25,000 students. These for-profit charter schools siphon hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money away from students to generate massive corporate profits, and in many cases provide an inferior education.
They exploit loopholes in California’s charter school law allowing them to cheat our students and reap huge profits at taxpayer expense.
This is why Assemblyman McCarty and CFT teamed up to introduce AB 406, which would prohibit for-profit corporations from operating public charter schools—it passed the Assembly in late May and has moved on to the Senate.
Both the billionaires and the privatizers have had great success in shifting the discourse surrounding public schools and their teachers to gain influence over the public. And both groups have teachers—and their unions especially—in their crosshairs.
Diane Ravitch, in her books on education reform and privatization, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010) and Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013), outlines the forces arrayed against public education and teachers.
In fact, children don’t seem to be the point of a lot of education “reform” efforts at all—making money off them through school privatization is one of the real threats to their well-being.
From ham-handed data and testing driven efforts to close achievement gaps and curriculum designed by educational materials companies to the “billionaire’s boy’s club” of the Broads and Gates, Ravitch has chronicled how public education has been demonized and dismantled to benefit all sorts of grown-ups but not so many kids. In fact, children don’t seem to be the point of a lot of education “reform” efforts at all—making money off them through school privatization is one of the real threats to their well-being.
This will only get worse in the Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary. As Miller has noted in his San Diego Free Press column, DeVos came to her position not because she knows anything about public education—she doesn’t—but because of her status as an operative in the world of rightwing think tanks and foundations and for her efforts to voucherize and privatize Michigan’s public schools. This last bit has been terrible for students in that state.
As Ravitch pointed out in an article on DeVos in In These Times, “Since the onset of school choice, Michigan’s performance on national tests has steadily declined.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK…..