Tag Archives: vouchers

What the Public Means by “Public Education”

Rick Hess asks what it means to be an enemy of public education and then links in an old essay he wrote.

There are really three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be “public”: We’ll call them the procedural, the input, and the outcome approaches . . . Traditionally, we lean on the procedural approach and term “public schools” those in which policymaking and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools, EMOs, and home schoolers, tend to be labeled “nonpublic.” The distinction is whether a formal political body is making decisions regarding service provision, since the fact that public officials stand for election or reappointment ensures some responsiveness to the larger voting “public.”

Yeah, that’s kind of….soulless. I don’t disagree with any particular part, but  education reform has just been handed a number of defeats over the past couple years, and this sort of definition hints at why.  Public education has a resonance, a heartbeat.  Public education in this country has spawned a million red schoolhouses, a billion dreams, battles that both inspire and embarrass us today, as communities fought, and still fight, passionately over who is, and isn’t, eligible for “public” education. And Hess’s definition misses all that.

So here’s an anecdote that in many ways covers the same point as Hess does with just a bit of heart:

In the August after my fifth birthday, my mom went down to the school to sign me up for kindergarten.

“I’m sorry, but the classes are full,” the clerk told her.

My mother was stunned. I’d been reading since I was three. I’d been talking non-stop about starting school since my birthday six months earlier, somehow having the impression I was able to start school right when I turned five and being very very disappointed, and loudly so, when I found out I still had to wait. I was oh so very ready. My mom was ready. I’m annoying; she had two toddlers still at home and would be pregnant again in less than a year. A break from me would be welcome.

“How can they be full?”

“We’re overcrowded this year. We only have four teachers. You should have signed up earlier. But we can guarantee you a spot next year.”

Mom asked to see principal X, who had the same answer. My mother related this story regularly for the next fifteen years or so, will still tell it whenever public school tales come up, and every telling makes it clear she probably still hates principal X. He actually sneered at her. We lived in a socio-economically (and somewhat racially) diverse town, and a mechanic’s wife who managed an apartment building was not high on his list of essential people who need to be kept happy. “There’s a waiting list. We often have kids drop out due to lack of readiness. Otherwise, you can start next year. I’m sure your child can wait.”

Mom persisted. The next day, she got out the phonebook and started calling other schools, who told her she wasn’t in their region, and that they were overcrowded, too. One of the clerks suggested calling the district. She called an assistant superintendent first, who shrugged her off and told her the principal had the authority here. She called the superintendent’s office, but he was on vacation. His secretary, however, listened carefully to Mom’s story and must have realized its import, because a couple days later–just before Labor Day weekend–the district superintendent called her back. He asked for her address, asked my age, and let my mom expostulate for a while before he told her she didn’t have a problem.

“I don’t?”

“No. Principal X has a problem, though. We’re a public school district. Public schools don’t get to say they’re full. So Principal X has about 4 days to hire a kindergarten teacher and open up a new class. I’ll get things started on our end. But you don’t worry any more. You just show up at school with Ed on Monday morning.”

Mom never failed to mention that superintendent’s name. Writing this account, it occurred to me to google the name and my elementary school. In a newspaper archive, I found a story from early September of 1967 reporting that the superintendent did indeed call an emergency school board meeting and get an authorization to open two more kindergarten classes for the severe overcrowding at my long-ago little school.

****************************************************************

My mom always repeated that point: Public schools don’t get to say they’re full.

It’s still true. So true that these days, a principal wouldn’t think for a moment he could fool a working-class mom into waiting another year. Public schools have to take kids even when they don’t have teachers with the right credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers with any credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers. Even when half the staff is long-term subs, or teachers don’t show up.

Public schools don’t get to say no.

I don’t want to romanticize things then or now. Communities creating public schools back in the early days of the country had no intention of giving all races equal funding, or even free education at all. To this day, we haven’t really found the perfect solution to ending the tension between equal access and parental desire to select peer groups, and many efforts have failed. Ending de jure segregation may have taken a century, but the parents just substituted the de facto version, which the courts tried their damnedest to end until some judges finally blinked.

But lord knows those judges didn’t blink at much else. Communities didn’t start public school to educate severely handicapped children. They didn’t start the local high school movement to guarantee everyone a diploma, much less grant a wide range of accommodations to kids with “learning disabilities”. They didn’t expect to be held responsible for disruptive kids being booted out.

Communities didn’t start schools with the idea of guaranteeing equal results for every student, or being held accountable if racial groups didn’t have exactly equal achievement outcomes. Most assuredly, communities didn’t begin public schools with the expectation that they be forced to teach students in their own language. Nor were they expecting that they’d be forced to treat girls as boys or vice versa or any particular gender any particular kid happens to happen upon.

The courts and the federal government have cheerfully, ruthlessly, often unthinkingly expanded “public” well beyond what any community would ever envision. With the arguable exception of special education funding, the communities of America haven’t effusively welcomed these expansions (and if they knew how few results we’ve gotten and how much we spend, they wouldn’t be keen about special education, either.)

If public education of 150 years ago had to live with all the mandates placed on it today, well. The public would have said no. If the public was given a say today, it’d probably still say no.

But if what it wants is no longer available, the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.

But what the public means by public education isn’t charters. It’s not those carefully managed magnet schools. No, those eight specialized New York high schools aren’t public, either. Vouchers for private schools certainly aren’t public, particularly not when existing private schools reject most applicants and most vouchers go to kids already in private schools or to create fraud opportunities by con men.

If a school can deny students access despite living within its mandated boundary; if attendance is a privilege and not a right, then it’s not public school. It’s merely a free school run by public dollars that doesn’t have to act like a public school.

But despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies. Both constituencies want to improve their children’s peers. Neither really believes  for a cold second that the free versions of private school are in any other way vastly superior to public schools. And both constituencies are limited by geography and demography.

All the demonizing, all the castigation, all the freebies, all the dedicated billionaires willing to write checks right up until they manage to kill teachers’ unions (and boy, watch the money dry up then), and yet there’s not much of a sale, is there?

Public schools aren’t anywhere near perfect. And I have no idea how to balance public access, public need, and public will.

But despite all demands piling on more services, more mandates, more expectations, our public education system comes closer to our country’s ideal of education than charters and private schools designed to hoover up vouchers can ever dream of.

Charters and vouchers have lobbyists, politicians, judges, and occasional carefully marketed tales.

Public education has history. It has resonance. It has heart. I hope that’s enough.

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Letter to Betsy (#1): Dance with the Ones Who Brung Him

Hey, Bets.

Before I start: My parents loved Amway products and I still think SA8, LOC, Pursue, and Trizyme are the awesome. Please give my best to your father-in-law. Now, to business.

Congrats on being a relatively uncontroversial Trump cabinet pick. You have been subjected to all sorts of advice, I know. But I have some qualifications that are not often found in combination.  I am the only college graduate in my family. I teach three subjects at a Title I high school.  I voted for Trump. You’re 0 for 3 thus far.

Plus, while I have no money, fame, or influence, I’m an original thinker.  You…aren’t. I’ve reviewed a number of interviews you’ve given before your nomination. I’ve read your quotes on education. Every comment you’ve made was said by others first. You’re not unintelligent. It’s just that up to now, your primary task hasn’t involved thinking, but rather signing. The education policy field is comprised of the occasional thinker, ideologically-driven funders, and far too many hacks grovelling for  whatever notion gets them the check. You’re the one in the middle.

So your contribution to education has been, literally, contributions, the checks you’ve written to further your conservative values through education reform, and therein lies a potential problem. Education reform was born out of the conservative movement, and education reform, traditional conservatives and the neo-liberals, went all in on Never Trump.  I mean, y’all didn’t even try to be nice. But then Trump won, and wow, talk about a lucky break: education is one of the areas that Trump doesn’t care about, so is happy to give out jobs to conservatives like kibble to puppies.

But precisely because Trump doesn’t care much about education, because he picked someone without giving much thought to policy, you could get into trouble. Remember that feeling all you traditional conservatives had during the primaries? The horrible, stomach-turning realization that most of the GOP didn’t give a damn about all your dearest principles? The realization that GOP voters had shrugged and voted for your candidates because they didn’t have any other choice? Except now they did?

Bets, you need to remember that feeling and hold onto it for dear life. You live in that traditional conservative bubble, the one that sees black kids getting shot by white cops and blames bad (white female) teachers.  Technically, education reform focuses on improving education, but the reason they get funding is conservative belief that decimating union clout in traditionally blue states, thus disrupting a faithful, powerful Democrat lobby, will make the world a better place.

What, you think I’m cynical? In the metric ton of writing Rick Hess does every year the words “West Virginia” rarely, if ever, appear. (I thought I’d found an example but  it turned out to be a guest blogger.) Michael Petrilli is equally uncaring about the Mountain State, and mentions Detroit often, Michigan rarely or never. Go through the list of education reform organizations and see how often they worry about those isolated Wyoming schools, or whether or not the children of those Syrian refugees Hamdi  Ulukaya brings into Idaho because apparently no native workers want employment in his Chobani yogurt factories.

Reformers might be conservative, but they target blue states and blue voters. Take a look at the school district with the greatest charter penetration  as of 2015:

charterschoolenrollment

Hey, that map looks familiar. Oh, yeah, it looks like this county by county election map for 2016:

Except it’s a weird mismatch, isn’t it? Conservative reformers have had their greatest strengths in  Democrat strongholds. Even the ones found in Trump territory are in majority-blue areas.

Here’s what the reformers never tell you while asking for funds: Charter support requires unhappy parents. But most parents are quite pleased with their schools, and most parents understand, despite years of attempts to convince them otherwise, that native ability and peers matter more than teachers and curriculum. Changing innate ability levels is tough, so selling charters means finding parents who are unhappy with their childrens’ peer groups. Put another way, all parents want their kids away from Those Kids. Charters are attractive to parents who can’t use geography to achieve that aim.

Practically, this means selling charters primarily to two groups of parents: 1) highly motivated but poor black and Hispanic parents in schools overwhelmed with low ability, low motivated kids (the KIPP sell) 2) white suburban professional parents in schools that are either too brown or too competitive for their students, but who aren’t rich enough for private school or a house in a less diverse district (the Summit sell, or the progressive suburban charter). These are very blue groups.

Understanding the charter constituency explains the discrepancies between the charter and election map, and why the discrepancies go mostly in one direction–that is, why are there blue spots on the map that don’t have significant charter penetration?

In overwhelmingly white districts, parents aren’t buying. Vermont, an all-white state, doesn’t even have a charter law, last I checked, despite being so progressive that networks called the state the minute the polls closed. The California Bay Area doesn’t have the battalion of charters you see in Los Angeles–and many of the ones that do exist are in Oakland, the only place in the Bay Area with enough blacks to support urban charters. The Bay Area and other wealthy suburbs with lots of Hispanics do get some limited support for progressive charters like Summit, in part because Hispanics aren’t easily districted out in the suburbs without inviting lawsuits and in part because suburban comprehensive high schools can be very competitive and some parents would prefer a softer environment for their snowflakes.

In dominant red states,  charters aren’t selling. Not a lot of charters in rural Mississippi and Alabama, despite the pockets of black voters, because teachers unions are historically weak in the South. Nothing of interest to conservatives. (See? Told you it wasn’t about making education better.)

Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants tend to build ethnic cocoons which create Asian majorities in public schools. Increased Asian presence in schools drive out whites, who find their approach to education….unattractive, giving a whole new meaning to the term white flight.  Asian immigrants are much better than whites at crafting race-segregated environments, and they aren’t terribly tolerant of blacks or Hispanics. Hence, not much need for charters. We’ll see how this all plays out when we get to third or fourth generation Asian American in significant numbers. When they don’t have enough numbers to create an enclave, Asian charter selection most closely mirrors whites–they like progressive charters or better yet, competitive ones.

None of this should be news. Michael Petrilli has been desperately trying to convince the suburbs that charters matter to them because their schools suck. Such a compelling message.

So charters, the only real success of the reform effort, have seen  their efforts pay off with quasi-private schools for people who aren’t going to be voting Republican any time soon.   GOP voters, those faithless bastards who voted in Trump, aren’t terribly interested in reform. Education Next surveys the public on those values traditional conservatives hold dear. You can see all the 10-year trends at this link, but I thought I’d pick out GOP and general public trends on a few select–and somewhat damning–questions:

First up: support for charters, unions and merit pay. GOP responses first, general public second. You can click to see the enlarged version, but  you can clearly see that two of them have flatlined and one of them is increasing slightly.

 

gop10yrtrendschartersunions

gp10yrtrendscharterunions

The increasing trendline? Union support. Yes, Bets, GOP belief that teacher unions are a net positive for schools is on  the rise. Charters and merit pay? Decreasing slightly, but look at them over time. No movement. Needle’s stopped. Public opinion, same.

I grant you, of course, that GOP voters still like unions less than Democrat ones. But I think you can agree these trendlines are all resistant to happy talk.

Next up: support for vouchers, both low income and universal.

Whoa, serious tanking there. Isn’t that your primary issue, Betsy? I’m assuming Trump hasn’t seen these numbers, or he’d wonder why he’s hiring a fool who’s gotten nothing for her money all these years. How the hell can education reformers demand merit pay when they’ve failed so miserably at their own assignments?

Reformers haven’t changed public opinion about the overall suckiness of teachers and unions or the fabulosity of vouchers.  Yeah, you’ve got more charters but not dramatically more public support for them–and the people who want and get charters aren’t grateful GOP voters. At least charters provide dramatically better academic outcomes. Oh, wait.

Where was I?

Oh. Yeah. Look. You didn’t get Trump here. The epic wave that gave Trump the win didn’t start or end with education reform. You gotta dance with the people who did get him the job. Your policies aren’t popular. Try to remember that. Try to act like that. Try to care about actually making education better, not enacting reforms that have already failed and don’t have popular support.

That doesn’t mean ignoring black and Hispanic kids.

It means coming up with education “reforms” that speak to all schools, all students. I’ll have some suggestions. I promise they won’t involve spending more money.  You won’t have to write a single check!

And remember: education reform has not traditionally been a friendly place for women in charge. Voters and parents have found them wanting. And the bosses haven’t shown much sympathy. Just ask Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson. You don’t want Trump to suddenly start caring about education for the wrong reasons, y’know?

Happy New Year.