The Need to Keep Education Public
Written By Kalen W., Teachers Unite Member
Early February, Betsy DeVos officially and appropriately joined the fascist posse of Donald Trump as the US Secretary of Education. As an educator and graduate of the NYC public schools system, I find Devos’ lack of knowledge about, and experience with, public education offensive. At this point, our newsfeeds have been covered in regurgitations of the same stories that demonstrate Betsy’s lack of qualifications for her new role. Her reference to grizzly bears as a reason for guns in schools, blatant anti-public school lobbying history, her desire to rely on philanthropy to fund education, her disregard for teachers as professionals, and her hostility towards teachers as an organized workforce are all frightening. Moreover, the Administration that DeVos is joining is already showing its disregard for law, and checks and balances, which makes any Cabinet selection exponentially more threatening.
Therefore, to transform education to the degree that is needed, there are a few inconvenient truths that progressives need to discuss:
First, from a policy standpoint, DeVos’ platform is not new. The gutting of district public schools in the name of “school choice” has existed and been tied to federal funds since Bill Clinton was in office. Yes, this includes President Obama’s major set of education policy, Race to the Top, which threatened to penalize states that did not allow uncapped charter school growth.
Charter schools are anti-public schools. Money is funneled from district public schools and given to charter schools (sometimes who share the same building), that are already funded by private or “non-profit” investors. This inequitable resource distribution creates a two-tiered system between the charter school and the district public school. On top of that, charters are known for having fewer students with disabilities, fewer students for whom English is a second language, and “counseling out” students who are struggling academically and/or behaviorally to the under-resourced district public school. The lack of accountability to community-based decision-making structures, the lack of budget transparency, and the fact most charter school teachers have less voice and turnover faster due to a lack of administrative, community and union support contribute to the charter school’s anti-public position.
The second truth is that the concept of “school choice” does resonate with many folks across the country. “School choice” provides the semblance of an alternative to real issues that plague our district public schools. Students, families, and communities are often given advisory or rubber stamp types of roles in schools, school districts, and cities, but rarely have direct control over major decisions. If our district public schools empowered students, families, and communities, an alternative system would not be as enticing.
The structure of school in terms of how, what, and why we should learn has changed very little over the past 100 years, making it one of the slowest evolving and least responsive institutions in the country. For example, curriculum in most public schools is still created by and for a white, middle class, cis-male perspective, which is culturally irrelevant, dishonest and oppressive to our students particularly students who identify as black, brown, poor, undocumented, queer, English Language learners and students with disabilities. Public schools (and some districts) have huge contracts with for-profit testing corporations that create testing materials, test prep materials and software, textbooks, and curriculum, essentially privatizing part of the role of a teacher. Public schools are also complacent in the privatization of education because they contract out more and more programs and services. This separates those programs and services from the core institution, financially and organizationally, making them expendable. Usually these are programs and services that are important to families: music, art, tutoring, counseling, to name a few.
Although the teachers union is an important political force and potential collective for change, the predominately white teachers union’s priorities are not always aligned with those of the black and brown communities the union mostly serves (see Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike). We need to move toward social justice unionism where we are fighting for our students and families beyond the brick and mortar of our schools. We need to fiercely stand up to politicians who are not comprehensively allied with the needs of our schools’ communities, even when they may agree to meet certain union demands. We need be more democratic, organized, and ready to take action when our students are being systemically left out of a quality education.
Despite these shortcomings of our current education system, public schools are still our best solution. Unlike privately funded institutions, schools funded by public money can be held accountable by the general public to make them learning institutions for the people and by the people. Let us re-envision schools as community hubs for personal and societal liberation. Any policy that does not align with that goal must be stopped. This is only possible if our public tax money and our elected officials have to answer to that process.
I want to see public schools centered on providing services necessary to uplift communities — healthcare, mental health counseling, continuing education for adults, job readiness, housing, food access, legal services, etc. — and on organizing with communities when they identify a need for change.
Two examples of community-led campaigns within public schools that are gaining momentum and seeing a number of wins are the Opt-Out Movement and the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC). The former is an effort to end the current system of profit-driven standardized testing and the latter is an effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline through the replacement of punitive practices with restorative practices. I work at a public school that pro-actively informs families of their rights to refuse state tests if they do not feel that they serve their student. Most schools do not make families aware of these rights and family-led bodies such as School Leadership Teams and Parent Associations have had to organize against their schools’ administrations to raise awareness around testing. I am involved with DSC through Teachers Unite, an independent membership organization of public school educators, which also finds itself at odds with school administrations, policymakers, and sometimes our own union in our fight to bring more just discipline practices to schools. These campaigns are only possible because of the weak, yet existent structures that force public schools to answer to the public.
With DeVos is office, even the façade of accountability to the public is threatened.
We need to be honest about the fact that the severe dysfunction of our education system as a whole — public, charter, private etc — did not begin the day DeVos was appointed. Our education system has always been one of many tools to maintain the status quo and keep marginalized people in line, so its dysfunction is in fact its function. The US education system was never based in liberation, or “choice.” Sadly, DeVos’ and the Trump Administration now have the opportunity to exploit this reality and use it to support a market-driven agenda that will unequivocally result in less choice Our public education system deserves all the critique from families it gets, but it is not beyond hope if we are honest and reflective about its deficits, and willing and ready to invest resources and energy into its transformation. We need to keep education public.