Taking the Public Out of Public Education

I recently went to a talk by my old professor and mentor, Art Pearl. Art has been a political activist, writer and teacher, focusing on issues of democratic education for over four decades. Now in his 80s, he is still teaching, writing and acting on his beliefs. He spoke about the attack on public schools, on unions, and the need for democratic education. In this column, I am going to use his talk as a springboard for expanding my own ideas on the current attack on public education and the unions representing public school teachers.

One can trace the beginning of this movement to the report, A Nation at Risk, written in 1983 written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, at the behest of then Secretary of Education Bell. The report was really a call to arms to reframe the debate about education. It made a rhetorical claim that the mediocrity of our educational system put our nation at risk—equating it with an attack by a foreign country. No evidence was provided to support this claim. In fact, while every decade throughout the history of public education, headlines have proclaimed that it is going to hell in a hand basket, and bemoaning the loss of the good old days, most evidence we have only points to continual progress, at least up through the 1990s (see The Way We Were? by Richard Rothstein, and The Manufactured Crisis by David C. Berliner and Bruce Biddle for extensive discussion and data on this topic).

School_ChoiceOne aspect of this effort to undermine public education has been to reframe the purpose of education as purely preparation for the workforce. In the past, public schools have been considered to have multiple purposes—socialization in its many forms, citizenship in its many forms, and providing students with a well rounded general education—cultural and “academic,” meeting both individual potential aims as well as societal aims. Since that report, the public media discussion of education, including the U.S. Department of Education, has cast the purpose of education purely in terms of its economic impact. They, as did the report, describe the threat of a failing educational system as a threat to our national economy. They sell education for its ability to get one a better job, a better income—using educational attainment to income correlation data. Today, one virtually never hears mention of any other purpose for schools in the mainstream media or from government spokespeople.

Even if we accepted that schools should be about job training, the economic argument used by the government and media is mostly based on lies and false information. The claim of A Nation at Risk, (one that has constantly been repeated since) is that our mediocre schools are leading to our economic downfall. However, there is no causal link in developed countries between schooling and the health of the economy (such a cause-effect link does exist in developing countries that do not already have a basically educated population). If there were such a link, why didn’t we hear those same forces cheering what a great job our schools must have been doing when we had an economic boom in the 1990s? In fact, that would have been the work force that was in our public schools during the time to which A Nation at Risk referred. If this cause-effect relationship were correct, then our schools could not have been as bad as they claimed.

In fact, the relationship between schooling and the economy in developed countries is mostly non-existent, or the reverse of that claimed. To some extent, schools do respond to the job market. For example, in the early 1990s almost nobody studied computer technology in school. The early dot-commers were often self-educated in terms of technology. However, soon colleges and universities were establishing new programs in the computer sciences, quickly filling up with students. Then when the tech bust hit a decade later, the job market was flooded with these new graduates and the recently laid off workers.

However, for the most part, having an educated workforce neither creates nor destroys jobs. We now live in a global economy where such things have more to do with larger economic forces. Job loss in the U.S. has mostly been due to outsourcing, first of manufacturing jobs, and lately other technical and professional jobs as well. The driving competitive force is that people in certain countries will work for less, often much, much less. The way we can compete with them in a free market economy is to take lower wages, less benefits, and accept other reductions in workplace quality and safety, as well as lowering environmental protections. Having better educated people to compete for these jobs will not bring them back to the U.S.

The only area of the job market that is increasing (at least in numbers that are significant in terms of the size of the U.S. workforce) is in the service sector, jobs that actually require little in the way of schooling, and certainly not a college education. However, employers of such workers do want workers who are obedient, punctual and docile—just the sort of education that children in schools serving poor and minority children are receiving, even if they do get low test scores (WalMart, for instance, is one of the largest employers in the U.S.).

While getting a “good” education may make you, as an individual, in a better position to compete for what jobs do exist, there is no evidence that a better-educated population would in any way lead to job creation. If however, schools are just job training sites, then while it is clear that I want my child to get the best education possible, it is less clear why the “public” should care or even want good schools for all. This may be especially true if all children getting a good education means they might out-compete my child for those scarce good jobs! This promotion of schools as the pathway to better jobs makes the free market and student as consumer mentality for schooling more appealing. I need only concern myself with finding the best school for my child at a price I can afford.

However, thinkers as different as John Dewey and Horace Mann from the early days of public education, to more recent thinkers as disparate as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, have all argued that what and how children are taught at school matters for the survival of a democratic society, not just solely for how well trained for the workforce the students will be. Schools are the place where children move from the private sphere of the family to the public sphere of the larger society. It is the habits and knowledge formed and developed in these public institutions that in part frame students’ understanding of their larger place in society. When public schooling is about preparing students to be citizens for a democratic society, then clearly we all have a stake in what it means to be an educated citizen, in what habits and understandings are promoted there, in what knowledge is imparted there.

Another connected strand to this attack on public education is an attack on unions. We have lost a large segment of our skilled workforce to other countries, and we have had several Federal administrations unfriendly to organized labor. Due to these forces, the U.S. (once the leader in organized labor) now has among the lowest percentage of unionized workers compared to any other democratic industrialized nation. However, the one place where organized labor is still strong is in the public sector. The attack on public school is part of an attack of that last bastion of organized labor, the last place where workers can speak in a unified manner as a counterpoint to the powerful voices of corporate interests.

More and more, teachers and their unions are being blamed for the supposed failure of our public school system. It is brought out in a way that connects to the general public’s emotions and immediate experience. There is a lot of current fanfare in the media that incompetent teachers are hard to fire and teachers unions block reforms (both claims central to the premise of the movie “Waiting for Superman” for instance) Do they provide evidence? Very little. An easy way to check the validity of their claim would be to compare non-union states to union states, as many states do not allow teachers to unionize. There is either no correlation or a positive correlation between states that have unions and academic success as measured by high school completion and test scores. In addition, most of the reforms that are touted as successful by the administration and think-tanks have taken place in cities with strong teachers unions.

While it may be true that it is not easy to fire poor teachers, no evidence is provided that too many poor teachers really is a major problem. Moreover, the principals I talk to all tell me that, while not being easy, they have always been able to get rid of the poor teachers they had. Is my sample of principals unrepresentative? Maybe—but then one could say that the problem is poor principals (though I hold them no more to blame than the teachers). When you make it easier to fire bad teachers, you also make it easier to fire the good ones as well. What “tenure” provides is not a guarantee of a job for life, but that the teacher cannot be fired without cause, and it puts the burden of proof for that cause on the employer. The question framed that way becomes, do we believe in due process? It is just such due process that teachers unions and the “tenure” process protect.

Charter schools and vouchers are currently the “reforms” of choice. Charter, private and parochial schools typically do not have teacher unions. These schools also bypass publicly elected school boards that oversee their vision, mission and curriculum. They often also exclude unionized or public employees for many other positions in schools—such as custodial and food services. The normal checks and balances of the democratic process are bypassed in the name of “efficiency” and the advantages of “market forces.” These forces see charter chains, and private forms of education, which answer to their own private boards, as competing for the students. Parents and children are merely consumers of this commodity, and the more effective and efficient schools will get a bigger market share. The only thing left that will be public is that it is the public’s money being used to pay for them.

This attack on the public nature of schools is in line with other current agendas of the free marketers—such as the privatization of Social Security and undermining public health care reforms. These are all part of a clear and premeditated mission to have this country run only by the dictates of the “free-market” economy (read as: run by trans-national corporations and financiers). Schooling is just one of these fronts.

The only thing that can stand in their way is a truly democratic citizenry that takes action and speaks out. That means you!

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