By Jim Miller / Kelly Mayhew
As I wrote last week, 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.
This is not good news for American education or our democracy.
This week, again, 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.
Part Two: Why We Need to Protect Public Education:
How Demonizing Teachers and Unchecked Charterization Hurts Kids—and Our Democracy
By Kelly Mayhew
In last week’s column, I outlined the general issues facing public education and teachers, and noted that many systemic issues are sidestepped in order to promote charter schools.
This is how the privatization story goes: demonize public schools and their teachers, hold charter schools up as excellent alternatives, create corporate charters and charter chains that use management companies to do the daily operations and siphon public tax money for schools into private businesses, employ non-union teachers who you can hire and fire at will. That’s how it works in a nutshell.
As an Alternet piece on the NAACP’s resolution calling for a moratorium on charter expansion and more oversight for charter schools reported:
In a move increasingly typical of the K-12 privatization industry, the charter industry slammed the NAACP, claiming the industry is on the side of the children. This claim ignores what has become obvious to many in education circles: that charters are siphoning billions of public funds away from traditional public schools and leaving behind a trail of deep problems that need to be addressed, including unequal admissions and overly test-centered academics; private school boards replacing locally elected and appointed officials; and a business model that encourages fiscal corruption and self-dealing at taxpayer expense.
A sobering example of what the NAACP’s moratorium seeks to address is the Gompers Preparatory Academy story, where students’ low test scores don’t correlate with their high grades and many are not graduating prepared for the demands of college.
So far, inewsource has been in contact with 25 teachers and former students who’ve discussed the issues at the school: “Teachers described pressure at Gompers to pass failing students and intimidation if they refused. Several said they were told they were murdering or killing kids by giving them F’s. All talked about their dedication to students who had heartbreaking personal stories and came from homes where college was not an expectation.”
Organizations such as the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) in concert with rich philanthropists fuel the flames of parents’ fears about public schools and use the rhetoric of “competition” to justify their actions—that they “help” public schools improve by competing with them.
In the 2016 state legislative campaigns, the charterizers outspent the unions by a far larger margin, $20.5 million to $1.2 million.
They also fund efforts to stack school boards with charter school proponents to grease the wheels for more to open. A case in point were the recent Los Angeles School Board elections. As Harold Meyerson notes, “a number of billionaires, including Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings and two Walton family siblings, poured millions into the campaigns of two charter-school advocates.
These billionaire-sponsored candidates defeated two badly outspent opponents who took a more cautionary stance on expanding charters, lest they decimate the school district’s budget. In total, pro-charter groups outspent teacher unions, $9.7 million to $5.2 million. (In the 2016 state legislative campaigns, the charterizers outspent the unions by a far larger margin, $20.5 million to $1.2 million.)”
Charter school supporters along with others who either embrace a free-market ideology that sees the end public institutions as a good thing or other organizations who stand to benefit from the privatization of our schools also contribute to politicians of all stripes to introduce and pass legislation to increase the numbers of charter schools.
And these charter schools and chains target low-income and communities of color, which is why the NAACP was alarmed enough to pass the resolution calling for a moratorium on expansion and more oversight. A whole lot of money is going around. Imagine, if you will, that that money stayed in our public school systems instead of going to open up more and more charter schools, many of which serve students worse than the public schools in the same neighborhoods.
In fact, Gordon Lafer, a political economist and Associate Professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, just recently published a seminal report on charter school funding, growth, and accountability, where he investigates the wild west of charter school expansion.
The report is eye-opening in the ways charter operators have capitalized on especially California’s loose charter laws, which means that schools can open where ever and whenever, even if there are already existing public schools in the same areas. Lafer shines a light on the lack of oversight, planning, and accountability, and how charters drain much-needed resources out of public coffers, thus depriving children of educational opportunities.
Obviously not all “reformers” are moneyed interests and not all charter schools are corporatized. There are many charter schools that operate in the spirit in which they were created—as labs for best teaching practices. That original intent, however, has been hijacked.
In a blog written in the wake of a lawsuit aimed at eliminating teachers’ due process and tenure rights—the Vergara case, which lost on appeal—Diane Ravitch deals with one of the central enablers of bad corporate education reform efforts—mainstream media bias against teachers and unions along with their blindness to the influence and predatory nature of moneyed interests posing as “reformers.”
San Diego’s media is a particularly telling example of media bias against public education—especially in the opinion pages.
What’s alarming about corporate education reformers is how influential they are and how successful they’ve been at shaping the media’s reporting about education. San Diego’s media is a particularly telling example of media bias against public education—especially in the opinion pages. Not a week goes by without some article going after one of San Diego county’s school districts for something they see as egregious. This makes sense since the media has a corporate frame, and therefore they will find fault with a public institution for not being corporate enough. Which is also one of the reasons why teachers and their unions are frequently demonized and why charters get such a pass.
For one of charters’ selling points is that most of them are not unionized. This serves a couple of purposes. First, charters can pay their teachers less, offer fewer benefits and job protections, don’t have to collectively bargain contracts, and are able to hire and fire without due process. Charters also don’t have to adhere to the same stringent standards as public schools.
Secondly, by having a labor force that’s not unionized, charters blunt the political power of their employees. Teachers unions are active in education legislation and other kinds of politics, and they are empowered in their positions as well, taking the lead on curriculum and school committees. And unions help elect progressive politicians. One of the perhaps not-so-obvious aims of the corporate education reform movement is to eliminate teachers’ unions and their political influence and money.
A telling example of how this works was the Vergara case. In our 2014 article, “What’s Wrong with the Vergara Verdict for Teachers,” , Jim Miller and I outlined the implications of the case for public education in California. As we noted:
David Welch, a conservative Silicon Valley millionaire and corporate education reformer who has been funding a group called “Students Matter,” won the opening round in a salvo in a battle to deprive teachers of their constitutional due process and seniority rights.
The suit, which hid behind a group of poor and minority students, several of whom did not even attend schools where the teachers had tenure or due process rights, alleged that California’s teacher workplace rights infringe on the constitutional rights of students to an equal education–basically saying that hard-won job security, due process (i.e. that teachers cannot just be fired without a process), and seniority adversely impact low-income and minority students by keeping on “bad” teachers and too-often sticking inexperienced teachers in low-performing schools.
The case lost on appeal in 2016, but it’s an example of how teachers and their union negotiated contract rights are being targeted for political reasons. If we get rid of unions, the thinking goes, we get rid of the central roadblock to the wholesale privatization of public education. In fact, this case was widely seen as pitting students against teachers—another slam on teachers and unions. What is verboten these days in most quarters is recognizing the myriad ways that unionized teachers positively impact their students’ lives.
When one hears the constant drumbeat of “bad teachers” and their unions that protect them, it’s hard not to be swayed by that rhetoric—I heard it just this semester from one of my students who wanted to write her final research paper on education and technology. But that is just not reality.
…highly unionized districts actually fire MORE teachers.
The truth is that “bad” teachers can be and are fired. Lengthening the time it takes for teachers to get tenure, as a recent bill passed by the California Assembly seeks to do, won’t solve the problems facing public education—especially as it adds to the perception that teachers are the ONLY problem with our educational system.
And having unionized teachers makes for better schools. In her article “Think Teachers Can’t be Fired Because of Unions? Surprising Results from New Study”, Valerie Strauss includes an interview with economist Eunice Han, author of a 2016 study entitled “The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers.” Han found that highly unionized districts actually fire MORE teachers. As Han states:
By demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them. Using three different kinds of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I confirmed that unionized districts dismiss more low-quality teachers than those with weak unions or no unions. Unionized districts also retain more high-quality teachers relative to districts with weak unionism. No matter how and when I measured unionism I found that unions lowered teacher attrition. This is important because many studies have found that higher-quality teachers have a greater chance of leaving the profession.
Since unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers while keeping more good teachers, we should expect to observe higher teacher quality in highly unionized districts than less-unionized districts — and this is exactly what I found. Highly unionized districts have more qualified teachers compared to districts with weak unionism.
This is not the only study that has shown results similar to these. But do we often hear about them in the corporate media? No.
Teachers are easy scapegoats for a whole host of ills. And we’re targeted both in an effort to eliminate our unions, which give us power—especially the power to push back against privatization and corporate reform and to distract from the larger societal ills that face America’s children.
To go back to the beginning, our public schools are the linchpin of our democracy. Yet just as the rest of the country is under assault from an ideology that sees everything in terms of the market, they too are in real danger. We need to stand in the way of these attempts to destroy our school systems. We need to stand with our teachers. We need to support our kids. We need to stop demonizing unions and see them for what they are—protectors of the collective good.
What we can’t afford to do is sit back and watch the remaining fabric of our democracy unravel as public schools are sold off to the highest bidder.