How to Kill Public Schools

Well, we had a good run. For the past hundred-fifty years or so—depending on where you live—Americans have had public schools. I don’t mean to be Chicken Little here, but from an historical perspective, it looks like Queen Betsy has figured out a way to get rid of em.

simpsons school

Who will pay to educate Mr. Burns’s doctor?

In some senses, of course, the United States has always had schools FOR the public. Even before the Revolution, there were schools that students without tuition money could attend. I’m finding out way more than I want to about the funding of early American “public” schools in my current research. As I’m finding, these “charity” schools had a wild mix of financial backers. Churches, taxpayers, wealthy individuals, and even not-so-wealthy people gave a lot or a little to educate impecunious children.

At different times in different places, a funding revolution swept the world of American education in the 1800s. Basically, this revolution replaced schools that were FOR the public with schools that were BY and FOR the public. That is, instead of parents, charities, philanthropists, churches, and governments all kicking in here and there to fund worthy students and schools, local and state governments committed to provided tax-funded educations to children. Those governments took tax money from everyone—whether or not they sent kids to the public schools—and in return promised to run schools for the benefit of the entire community.

There were big problems with this funding revolution. Not all children were included. Most egregiously, African-American students were often segregated out of public schools, or shunted off to lower-quality schools. And not all states participated equally. New England and the Northeast jumped early to the new model, while other regions hesitated. Plus, people without children and people who chose not to send their children to the public schools ended up paying for schools they didn’t personally use.

The heart and soul of public education, however, was that the public schools would be administered as a public good, like fire departments and roads. Everyone paid for them, everyone could use them, and everyone could in theory claim a right to co-control them. Even if your house didn’t catch fire, in other words, you paid taxes to support the firefighters. And even if you didn’t drive a car, you paid to maintain the public roads. And those firefighters and road crews were under the supervision of publicly elected officials, answerable in the end to taxpayers. Public schools would be the same way.

This funding arrangement has always been the heart and soul of public education. And it is on the chopping block. Queen Betsy recently proposed a five-billion dollar federal tax-credit scholarship scheme. Like the tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in eighteen states, this plan would allow taxpayers to claim a credit for donations to certain non-profit organizations that would then send the money to private schools.

In some cases, donors can claim up to 100% of their donations back. For every dollar they “donate,” that is, they get a full dollar rebated from their tax bills. Tax-credit scholarship schemes serve to divert tax money from public education—administered by the public—to private schools without any public oversight.

[Confused? Me, too. For more on the ins and outs of tax-credit scholarships, check out this episode of Have You Heard, featuring the explanations of Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.]

lancaster friend of the poor

Back to this future?

What’s the big deal? In essence, these schemes return us to the world before the public-education $$$ revolution. They return us to the world Joseph Lancaster knew so well in the first decades of the 1800s, where funding for schools was an impossibly tangled mess. Back then, parents who could afford it could send their kids to great schools. Parents who couldn’t had to hope their kids might get lucky and attract the attention of a wealthy philanthropist or a church-run charity program. They had to hope that a mix of government money, private tuition, church support, and philanthropist largesse could support their kids’ educations.

By allowing taxpayers to pick and choose whether or not to support public education, Queen Betsy’s proposal takes us back to those bad old days. Are we really ready to throw in the towel on public education? Ready to return to the old system, with “charity” schools run FOR the public by wealthy benefactors who wouldn’t send their own kids there?

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Bad News for Lefties?

I’ll plead guilty. As a teacher, I have a deep faith that I can help students be better citizens. I can help them understand how power works in society. Ultimately, their engagement can transform society, can make things fairer and more just. But is my faith in local democracy just another of my lefty biases? As recent studies show, are the scales so tipped in local elections that richer, whiter, GOP-er people have extra power?

Here’s what we know: The74 looked at new research about local school boards. It’s not really much of a surprise, but the authors concluded that school board elections tend to favor people with more money. Those people tend to be richer, whiter, and more often members of the Republican Party.

74 school board elections

More money, more representation…

The researchers looked at 610 school districts in Ohio for two election cycles. They looked closely at the winners of school-board election. Where did they live? How much money did they make? How did they tend to vote? Their conclusions weren’t too shocking:

We find that more citizens from affluent areas run for school board, and because a large proportion of school board elections feature minimal competition, these higher propensities to run explain disparities in representation.

What are the implications for school politics? And here’s the dilemma for my fellow lefties: Is there any way to address this election trend without trashing the basic function of local democracy?

The Keto Diet of Ed Reform

Why is it so difficult to find out if school reforms are working? Journalists tell us that big investments often don’t lead to big results. Why not? The real “dirty secret” of ed reform isn’t the difficulty involved. It is that reformers tend to fall into the Keto-diet trap. Instead of promoting things that work, they scramble for headline-grabbing new labels and gimmicks. Then they are forced to use skewed ways to measure their own success.

hechinger reform chart

What works? We need less flash and more uncomfortable conversations

Here’s what we know: Hechinger reported recently on the disappointing results of $1.5 billion+ in i3 funds from the Education Department. Only a few of the funded “innovations” actually led to measurable improvements in student test scores.

The researcher charged with measuring the success of this school reform investment explained,

That’s the dirty secret of all of education research. . . . It is really hard to change student achievement. We have rarely been able to do it. It’s harder than anybody thinks.

As she lamented,

We are desperate to find what works.

Except we’re not. Not really. We KNOW what works to improve schools and educational outcomes. Schools work better when they are connected to healthy communities. Schools work better when families and students have abundant resources, including flexible work schedules and access to community resources.

The problem is that those things are more difficult to talk about. As I’m arguing in my new book, it has always been easier to slap flashy “innovations” on schools for low-income kids than it has been to address the topics of inequality and poverty in the USA.

What does this have to do with Keto dieting? Just this: Like healthy eating, healthy schools are not really all that mysterious. They require investments of time and resources. They need involved teachers, families, students, neighbors, and administrators. They need to be connected to their communities and in touch with the dreams and backgrounds of their families and students.

keto diet

Let’s be real: No one buys books titled, “Good Food Is Good for You.”

It’s not a mysterious recipe, but it is a difficult one to pitch to grant programs. Instead, like the Keto diet, reformers are forced to create new names and new programs that highlight their “innovations.” Like the Keto diet, they are forced to focus—to an obviously unhealthy degree—on short-term, quantifiable outcomes.

What would be better? How about measuring education reforms by something other than student test scores? Why not survey families to see how happy they are in their schools? Why not hire trained researchers to gather qualitative data about a fuller range of improvements in students’ lives?

Like the authors of fad-diet books, too many grant funders are tied to flashy headlines and quick-but-fake improvements. What we need instead is a willingness to focus on the non-flashy things that we know will work.

From the Archives: Bad News for Striking Teachers

History might not be destiny, but it can be depressing. As I’ve worked in the Philadelphia archives for my new book, I’ve found some reminders that teachers have always had to shell out their own money just to do their jobs.

Friend of Man 1 cover

Working without pay has always been considered part of the job…

These days, teacher protests have focused on both low pay and low school funding. As in Oklahoma, teachers have generated sympathy and political power by pointing out how shoddy their classrooms are, and how often they dip into their own wallets to pay for basic classroom materials.

oklahoma textbooks 1

Teachers shouldn’t have to pay for everything, but they’ve always had to…

As I read Joseph Lancaster’s 1821 newsletter I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing parallel. When Lancaster started his career as an educator, he wrote, he visited the nearby town of Stockport, near Manchester. The schools had been terrible until teachers stepped up. They needed better supplies. They needed an expensive new school building. As Lancaster described, the teachers

as a body, offered to work extra hours at their trades, and from their own earnings, to save and devote the sum of five hundred pounds sterling to the proposed building—within twelve months.

Joseph Lancaster told this as a happy tale, showing the possibilities of education if we all pulled together. Almost two hundred years later, though, I can’t help but be a little bummed out that teachers are still expected to donate their scanty mite in order to keep the school lights on.

 

Why AZ Teachers Still Aren’t Happy

Seems like a big fat win for Arizona’s striking teachers. Headlines this morning announced a whopping 20% salary raise over three years. So why are some teachers still mad?

az teacher strike

Is RedforEd Dead?

For one thing, many of Arizona’s teachers wanted more than a pay raise. As the legislators voted on the new budget that included their pay raises, the crowd of striking teachers applauded the “no” votes, not the yeses. As one striker told USA Today,

This was never about teachers’ salaries. This was about the future of our kids and the future of education in Arizona.

Striking teachers didn’t only want increased salaries. They wanted a vastly increased budget for public education in general. They wanted funding restored for programs and staffing.

As another strike leader told Jacobin magazine, the new budget—including promises of salary raises—is really only a stopgap, a half-measure meant to distract attention from the state’s real educational funding problems. As she put it,

We’re opposed to this budget, it does not give us what we want. It does not put $1.1 billion back in the funding. What it does give us is a tiny piece of the puzzle, $400 million dollars. Which means we’re responsible for going and getting that other $700 million. We’re going to pivot and go fight to get that money ourselves. We need to fight for the money for our kids and colleagues, because they’ve been left out — and that’s one of the main reasons why we don’t support this budget.

I didn’t hear any strikers mention it, but I can’t help but think that some striking teachers are also peeved at the way they are being talked about by some conservative politicians. I know I would be. For example, even as the budget was being passed, one republican legislator tried to cram in three anti-teacher amendments.

The first would have banned any school closures, except in case of non-political emergency. The second would have allowed lawmakers to call for an investigation of any school district that seemed to be too sympathetic to teachers. The one best calculated to provoke the ire of striking teachers, though, would have prohibited teachers from spouting political ideology in their classrooms, including possible fines of up to $5,000. As this conservative legislator fumed,

It’s far beyond time we rein in indoctrination in our public schools.

As I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, this notion that sneaky subversive teachers are using their positions to warp students’ minds has a long and bitter history. Conservative pundits and politicians have long assumed that left-wing teachers were out to corrode children’s faith in America and capitalism. And for most teachers, those sorts of accusations are not only bizarre, but profoundly insulting.

In addition, then, to feeling shorted on their real goals of increasing school funding and reining in charters, I imagine some Arizona teachers must be chagrined to be subjected to this sort of continuing casual slander from their state leaders.

A Story We Should Care More About

Every new story about creationist teachers or praying cheerleaders gets lots of attention, but the news we should really care about involves the humdrum topics of taxes and school funding. As creationist hero William Jennings Bryan put it in the 1920s, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In Alabama, conservatives passed a law allowing taxpayers to write their paychecks in a different way. Yesterday, the state Supreme Court started hearing arguments about this new conservative strategy. This story is one we should all follow as if it were interesting. After all, it promises to give an answer that no praying cheerleader ever could: Will conservative taxpayers be able to rule the school?

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

The Alabama Accountability Act allows taxpayers to divert their tax money away from public schools and toward private ones. Alabama is not alone. More than a dozen states have similar laws on the books. What the justices decide in Alabama might direct debate about these laws nationwide.

Of course, not all the laws are the same. As the National Council of State Legislatures reported, as of April 2014, 14 states had some sort of tax-direction law. In general, these laws allow people to shift some of their taxes to scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). Instead of the tax money going to the government, it goes to these organizations. In turn, the SFOs defray the cost of private school for selected students.

Why should we care? Some critics of these laws insist that the laws are intended to break down the wall of separation between church and state. By allowing students to attend private religious schools, some say, these laws use tax dollars to pay for religious indoctrination.

In Georgia, for example, enemies of that state’s law have worried that students will be sent to conservative schools.  At some schools, foes announce, students are forced to pray and banned from supporting homosexual rights.

Conservative supporters of the laws, such as the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, insist that these laws are the last best chance for low-income students. With tax-funded scholarships, low-income students will be able to escape failing public schools. The real issue, according to the Institute for Justice, is the “right of all . . . parents to send their children to the school of their choice.”

Historically, since the 1930s conservatives have agreed that public schools have been taken over by a grasping, out-of-touch academic elite. Any effort to weaken public schools and strengthen private ones has been seen by many conservatives as a win. As I argue in my upcoming book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, this notion has been both enormously influential and widely shared among very different sorts of conservatives.

Religious conservatives have insisted that secularizing “humanists” like John Dewey have taken over public education. Free-market conservatives have worried that the same power-drunk Keynesian economics that dominated public policy between 1930 and 1980 had turned public schools into intellectual cesspools. Patriotic conservatives fretted that sneaky subversion had become the public-school norm. And we can’t forget, of course, that white racial conservatives considered desegregated public schools to be worse than no schools at all.

This sort of tax-direction law is the most recent strategy conservatives have used to move students out of public schools. Will it work? We should all be riveted to the noises coming out the Alabama Supreme Court. Their decision could set a precedent other states will have to notice.

Broun and the Budget

US Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) garnered a lot of attention last year, including a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education by yours truly, for his claim that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were lies from the pit of hell.

Today Broun took to the pages of the New York Times to call for more drastic budget cuts.  Broun calls Representative Paul Ryan’s budget cuts too mild.  Instead, Broun insists, we need to cut the federal government drastically, including eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy.

Broun writes,

Constitutionally speaking, the federal government should not have a role in K-12 public education anyway. Overpaid Washington bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding how to provide for teachers and students, whose own state and local governments are better equipped to understand their needs. A Heritage Foundation study showed that in 2010, the average salary of an Education Department employee reached $103,000 — nearly double the average public-school teacher’s salary. Let’s phase out a large portion of the department’s roughly $70 billion budget. We can transfer the remaining dollars directly to the states, where they will be used more wisely.

Broun’s missive demonstrates the tight connections between various strains of conservative educational ideology.  Does Broun want less evolution taught in public schools?  Yes.  Does he also want a smaller, leaner, more local government?  Yes.

In Broun’s conservative thinking, these are not utterly separate ideas, but facets of the same good ideas.  If education decisions were made closer to home, Broun argues, they would be made “more wisely.”  Local governments, Broun writes, are “better equipped to understand [teachers’ and students’] needs.”  In short, not only would an elimination the Education Department make good fiscal sense, Broun insists, but it would allow schools to respect the religious views of local creationist parents.