fresh voices from the front lines of change







Legend has, political disputes are supposed to be resolvable only when parties "meet in the middle" and shake hands on points of agreement that are possible.

But in the much-contested issue of "education reform," only one of the disputing parties in the debate tends to be implored to seek compromise.

The latest example of this came from conservative commentator Juan Williams. Writing for The Hill, Williams claimed differing opinions of how to improve the nation's schools are "stuck in partisan paralysis." He beseeched "two of the nation’s most politically powerful black men," President Obama and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to make a "deal" on "hotly debated education reforms" and embrace the cause of charter schools.

Such a "grand bargain," Williams assured, would "deliver on the promise of equal opportunity and solve this generation’s top civil rights problem."

Similarly, in the same week, liberal columnist Jonathan Chait wrote for New York magazine that the fate of the nation's schools was caught up in a "weird ideological divide" between people who promote charter schools as a solution for the nation's education problems and those who have doubts about that.

Chait blamed that "divide" on education historian Diane Ravitch who, according to Chait, "portrays charter schools as a corporate plot." What's necessary, Chait maintained, is the "Ravitch and union view of the world" to give up "a nostalgic embrace of the old-fashioned organization of public school" and accept "attempts to apply empirical metrics" that apparently characterize charter schools.

Each of these popular columnists jumps to sweeping conclusions without citing any evidence.

Williams claimed schools are "failing to do their part" to address under achievement of black and Latino students. Yet, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that these students have made great strides in improving performance. Chait claimed neighborhood schools in Washington D.C. and New York City "are open to children who live close by and restricted to everybody else" – which is not true – and "charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards" – when actually, charter proponents often do all they can to help charters evade accountability measures.

But what's most troubling about both of these columns – and the loads of others that repeat these themes – is that neither author seems to be aware that maybe what "traditional public schools" face is not so much a gentleman's dispute as it is an existential threat.

Signs abound that public schools increasingly find themselves pressed to the ropes by opposing forces fed by an extremist ideology bent on privatizing the system.

What doesn't help at all is the seemingly compliant leadership currently in power in many places and the throngs of Very Serious People on the sidelines who scold public school supporters for not making nice with their determined and uncompromising opponents.

A Battle Plan Long In Making

For quite some time, there has been a well-orchestrated, well-funded, and extremely influential movement to literally get rid of public schools.

Writing for Rethinking Schools, Barbara Miner warned, over a decade ago, "Eliminating public education may seem unAmerican. But a growing number of movement conservatives have signed a proclamation from the Alliance for the Separation of School and State that favors 'ending government involvement in education.'"

Miner quoted powerful conservatives such as Grover Norquist who "view [school] vouchers as a key ingredient in their effort to 'downsize' government services." In an interview in a libertarian website, Norquist compared taxpayer funds for public institutions like schools to "a big cake" that needed to be "thrown in the trash so that the cockroaches don't have something to come for."

Flash forward to just last month, we now see school vouchers being promoted on Capitol Hill by a senator often viewed as being a mainstream education advocate.

With the rise of the tea-party faction in the Republican Party, we've witnessed the growing influence of those who advocate ending public school. In 2011, a faction of the tea party that operates in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania openly declared its intention to get rid of public schools. In a recent article in TruthOut, Teri Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party and a leading advocate of passage of school voucher bills, stated flat-out, "We think public schools should go away," and, "Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only."

In the most recent presidential election, there was a legitimate candidate, Rick Santorum, in the Republican party what advocated ending public education.

The role charter schools play in this debate is that they inhabit an extremely slippery space where, although they receive public funds, they more often act like private institutions that take away desperately needed funding from traditional public schools.

In that respect, the cause of charter school expansion is increasingly viewed as in league with mounting efforts to abandon traditional public education.

For a close-up view of that assault, look what's happening in the state of North Carolina.

Anatomy Of An Attack On Public Schools

When tea party factions rose to a level of super majority in both chambers of the North Carolina state legislature, it brought into power an ideology with a declared animosity to public schools.

A key component of that agenda was to lift the cap on charter schools and reduce the restrictions on their governance, so that many charters now resemble private schools that receive public money.

The result has been a steady, multiyear eroding of the state's public education system. Nearly a year ago, Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch wrote, "North Carolina is now virtually last in the county in how much we invest in educating our kids and how much we pay the teachers who we demand work harder and harder to improve student achievement."

Teacher pay "is simply a scandal," he declared. "A starting teacher must work 15 years before earning a $40,000 salary." And the state' per-pupil expenditure for public education has now "fallen to 48th in the country."

Some more recent numbers Fitzsimon offered: Last year's state budget cut $286.4 million in funding for classroom teachers by increasing student-to-teacher ratios. This was accompanied by a 20 percent reduction in the number of teacher assistants. The state now provides $15 in state funding per student for textbooks, although state funding per student for textbooks was $68 in 2007-2008.

The state now sends $653 less per student on K-12 education than it budgeted in 2007-2008. And for pre-K, the number of available slots has fallen from 34,876 to 27,500.

With average teacher compensation now ranking 46th nationally, "North Carolina’s teacher pipeline is leaking at both ends," reported the Raleigh News and Observer. "Public school teachers are leaving in bigger numbers, while fewer people are pursuing education degrees at the state’s universities."

A recent letter to the editor by a classroom teacher explained, "Right now there is no reason why I should want to be a teacher, considering the sad state of public education in North Carolina.

Legislation has been put in place to eliminate teacher tenure and instead give the top 25 percent of teachers in each district an extra $500 a year for four years. The North Carolina legislature is completely demoralizing public education with this ridiculous notion; good teachers cannot be quantified solely by test scores."

A recent announcement by state Governor Pat McCrory to propose a new teacher salary plan was derided by watchdogs at NC Policy Watch as "shallow," confining raises to "starting teachers and those who have spent only a few years in the classroom."

In a recent editorial for the Raleigh News and Observer, education policy experts Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd noted that teacher salaries are so bad, "teachers in our state routinely take second jobs. Some even qualify for Medicaid and food assistance … Perhaps most humiliating, teachers must now compete against one another for yearly $500 pay raises, undermining the collaborative climate that marks successful schools.

Topping it off, a small tax-credit subsidy passed in 2011, for parents to transfer their special-needs children from public to private schools has now morphed into a multimillion-dollar give-away of taxpayer money to vouchers that can be used for parents to send their children to private schools, even those that are religiously based.

As Fiske and Ladd concluded, "If one were to devise a strategy for destroying public education in North Carolina, it might look like" what the state is actually doing – "starving schools of funds, undermining teachers and badmouthing their profession," and "putting public funds in the hands of unaccountable private interests."

These actions "look a lot like a systematic effort to destroy a public education system that took more than a century to build and that, once destroyed, could take decades to restore."

Rather than compromising with forces determined to undo the state's system of public schools, tens of thousands of the state's citizens took to the streets in Raleigh recently in a Moral March to oppose these and other actions of the state legislature.

Attacks Proliferate

Existential threats to public education aren't limited to right-wing rabble rousing in Southern states. Actions by what's commonly viewed as "mainstream government" have been especially hostile to public schools as well.

Government funding for public schools has been cut so dramatically that now most states are funding schools less than before the recession.

What this looks like in one of the nation's largest school district, Los Angeles, came to the attention of many recently when a Facebook campaign led by a local teacher provided a cavalcade of photographs showing the deplorable conditions of that city's public schools. "The images," reported the Los Angeles Times, include missing ceiling tiles, broken sinks and water fountains, ant invasions, dead roaches and rat droppings."

Another understandable outcome from lack of funding is that schools become so dysfunctional they're abandoned by their constituents or declared worthy of being abandoned. Historic school closures that have taken place in Chicago and Philadelphia – which prompted NBC's Chris Hayes to question if this what "a strategy to … kill public education” – are signs of a growing belief that these public institutions are expendable.

In October, Reuters reported that the credit rating agency Moody's Investors Services warned that public schools "face financial stress due to the movement of students to charters … Another major credit agency, Standard & Poor's Ratings Service warned the rise of charter schools could pose credit risks to districts, too."

While schools have been enduring these hardships, they've also been beset by a raft of new accountability mandates that continue to sap their funding and occupy more and more of teachers' time and energy. Just one of those mandates – to implement new Common Core state standards – will cost schools an estimated $10 billion up front and many hundreds of millions more over the next several years.

In the meantime, the student population schools serve grows more and more challenging. As last month’s release of an annual report by The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) called "The State of America’s Children" found, childhood poverty has reached record levels – one in five children in the country is poor. The number of homeless children has increased 73 percent since 2007. One in nine children lacks access to adequate food.

Another report, this one from the Southern Education Foundation, found "a majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades," reported The Washington Post. The Post reporter quoted Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, who observed that "the rapid spike in poverty" helped explain, "why the United States is lagging in comparison with other countries in international tests."

All these factors – the deliberate assault on public schools and the declining resources, despite growing challenges – never seem to be considered in arguments by a pundit class that continues to rebuke public school supporters for being strident and uncompromising.

Not many of us have had actual experiences with having our very lives threatened – which is as it should be. But it's not hard to imagine that when that does happen, your first instinct is not to reach out and shake your assailant's hand.

Until critics of public education supporters recognize and understand that, their calls for compromise will ring hollow in the increasingly desperate hallways of our nation's endangered public schools.

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