We Need to Win the War on Public Education
I came of age as a professional educator before the advent of so-called education reform, which most notably became federal policy under Bush (W) as No Child Left Behind and sadly continued under Obama with his Race to the Top directives. Of course, it is even more ominous in the Trump era and an Education Secretary who sees vouchers as “the conservative answer to what ails public education.”
This reform agenda was the bane of my profession, eventually causing an early (and now blissful) retirement. It continues to be an issue I care deeply about. I still work as a substitute teacher. I still have friends toiling in the system. I still love children. And I still believe in the need in our democracy for an informed citizenry. The struggle continues even though I am no longer in the war. But in this era of chaos and confusion, I am provoked to do my part to advocate for public education.
Why is public education important? The opposite of public school is private school. Parents have their personal reasons for wanting their children to attend private school, and if they have the means (including financial aid), they will make that choice. I struggled with this conflict when my daughter went into middle school. I explored options to public middle school, believing that this was a vulnerable time, and I wanted to protect her. I arranged for her to attend an all-girls Catholic school with a full scholarship. She hated it. And the next year, she attended the middle school in our district, a feeder from a public housing project, that turned out to be a phenomenal school. Her high school experience was equally impressive, and she got into a very good college with scholarships and good financial aid.
Face it. There is a form of indoctrination in both private and public schools. In a religious school, a parent might be relieved to know that the school will not contradict their beliefs. What happens in public schools? In public schools, it is secular, not anti-religious, but a-religious. The ideal is to teach students to think, to teach them how to learn, to teach how to reason and problem-solve, what it means to be a good citizen. In science, we teach students to look for evidence in research and the scientific method. In reading, we teach them to read critically, responding to and interacting with the text. In language arts, we teach them to communicate. In social studies, we learn about history and civics, about people and places, about the value of inclusivity and acceptance.
Private schools may tout these as their values too. Fantastic. Teach on. Continue on your path for your students. All the power to you. Anything that promotes kindness, acceptance, and civility is fine by me.
The difference is, in public schools, we are living and breathing diversity (except maybe that public school students do not get to know many rich kids). I remember in my high school, there was one kid from a very rich family who got kicked out of private school for his rebelliousness, and he loved hanging and being accepted in the public school environment. You just can’t buy the kind of education that teaches you to interact with, become friends with, and learn from students who are very different from you, who don’t have many advantages.
In public schools we take all comers. This is beautiful but it is also fraught with tension and conflict. We take those who are difficult to teach. We take those who don’t speak English. We take those who don’t have shoes. We take anyone the private schools reject. They would not reject high-performing, well-behaved kids.
Public education has the potential to be the great equalizer, a very realistic means to success and prosperity. The big problem has been and continues to be — that somehow the powers-that-be realized this, and set out to destroy the system. They call it education “reform”, but over all these years since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002, the results have been the opposite. Its real purpose is being revealed, which was to destroy public education, or as the current president said in his recent State of the Union address -- “ failing government schools.”
The sad thing about this is — it is hard to keep promoting public schools when they are enmeshed in this trap. Because they believe they must do what the powers-that-be tell them, they bring in one initiative after the other with the sole purpose of raising test scores. Text-books, education consulting, laptops, computer programs — there are so many ways to profit from reform. You will find brave and innovative educators who do not make test scores their sole focus, but they do it in spite of the system, fighting the system, rather than being encouraged by a healthy, child-centered system.
There are some very troubled children in the public schools. They get identified as soon as they can, and if they qualify for special education, they get services. Special education teachers are my super-heroes. They have challenging students, especially if the students are defiant and emotionally disabled. There are out-of-control kids who disrupt and even destroy classrooms and may have injured their teachers. You can understand why parents would not want to have their child in this kind of environment. But this is NOT the norm. Most kids are not like this. Most kids respond to good teaching practices, but one difficult child can have a huge impact. It is one of the great needs in public schools and in society in general. These troubled kids grow up to be troubled adults if we do not find a way to help them.
My purpose for writing this is to put my voice out there to support these courageous and hard-working public school educators. I want to be as honest as I can about the problems so that they can be addressed. While I believe in the need for stellar public schools, I also believe in the need to address the problems.
What about charter schools? In my community, there are a few charter schools that are thriving and offer a private-school like education. The one with the best reputation has a lottery and a winning ticket is quite coveted. In the national picture, the charter school industry has spawned incidence after incidence of corruption and incompetence. In my state, there have been similar stories of malfeasance, but not on the scale as in other parts of the country. I have friends who work in charter schools, and who send their children and grandchildren to these schools. In any conflict, you have to take a position. I cannot see closing down successful charter schools. But stop already. Cap it. Charter schools draw down resources available to the regular public schools, so they do hurt public schools in this way. Instead of expanding charter schools with public funds, why not improve the regular schools? Besides money, a valuable resource is the population. Students who attend charter schools have parents who are advocates for their children. Parents are the secret sauce. Charter school parents are the parents in the know. They watch out for lottery deadlines, they know that there are such options, and they are able and willing to drive them to school. How a charter school student does has more to do with this secret sauce (parents) than anything else.
I hadn’t intended this to be about the presidential election, but it seems to call for that. It is a deal-breaker for me, a candidate’s stand on education. Sanders came out early with a plan that includes ending the “unaccountable profit motive of charter schools.” Warren followed with her plan to address the attempts at privatization and corruption in this arena. Both of these candidates are listening to those of us who believe in the value of strong public schools.
I do want to yell at the regular schools! Stop the focus on testing. Provide schools that meet children’s needs for a well-rounded education. Yes, help new and struggling teachers, but let veteran, experienced, capable teachers teach. Live up to your potential to be great damnit!
What about vouchers? The argument is: Why can’t my tax money follow my child? Why do I need to support other people’s children? With the voucher, I can send my child to the school of my choice. So what’s the problem? The problem is that public education is what provides a cohesive education to the general population. It is a way to facilitate a society’s ideals. In a democracy, this is more important than the ideals of individual religions or sectors of society because they address what is good for the whole. Taxes should go to promote the common good: police, parks, public schools (among many other things). If parents want to remove their children from this secular education, that is their choice, of course. But public funds need to go towards public education for the common good of the society.
The common good is a concept has been deteriorating more and more. We have become voracious about securing what we can for our own — and that is all. Supporting something that we do not see as benefiting us or our family is a dissonant and even disagreeable concept. A journalist who made the decision to put her child in a high poverty school rather than a more exclusive one garnered a lot of criticism with comments like: “Your kid only has one education and you can’t experiment with it.”
I admire my goddaughter in Guam who is extremely confident in her children’s school, which is also in a high poverty area. She knows that there are capable teachers there, and she and her husband have faith in their own parenting skills to know that their children are thriving.
There is a quote meme that circulates every once in a while and reminds me of that it means to promote the common good:
We must continue to have limits on charter schools. If we allow them to expand, the only students left in the public schools will be the high needs students, and then the ideal of diversity and equality is lost, as well as funding being reduced. If our public schools can provide our children with a high-quality education that is not based on test scores, but on educational principles that foster healthy and engaged citizens who value diversity and human kindness, then we will have a country like this. I prefer this ideal to the dystopian potential of the opposite — a world where you care only for your own. Because of your uber-parenting, you have made them the center of your universe, and they will come to believe that the universe caters to them. This is how you raise narcissistic children, by the way.
Diane Aoki is a writer who explores other modes of creativity as her intuition leads her.