The Dismantling of Public Education

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  In 1647, the Massachusetts General Court required every town in the colony with a population of more than fifty people to found, operate and fund schools. Today, public education in the United States today has grown to encompass more than 15,000 separate school districts across the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2013-14, there were 98,000 public schools. The Center also reports that total expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in the United States in 2013-14 amounted to $634 billion, or $12,509 per public school student enrolled in the fall (in constant 2015-16 dollars). 

Image result for cartoons about the privitization of  public education

           Lately, much has appeared in the print media about the malaise of public education in the United States. Numerous reforms have been proposed, many of which involve empowering school administrators, testing students regularly, eliminating collective bargaining rights and tenure for teachers, holding teachers accountable for student performance, and creating more charter schools. None of these proposals, however, address the root problems of public education in the United States.

The compensation paid to public school teachers is one indicator of the low-esteem in which public service and public education is held. Long before the Great Recession of 2007, the salaries paid to public school teachers in the United States lagged fair behind similarly educated employees in the private sector.  As previously discussed, at a time when the public sector is being gutted, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than all kindergarten teachers in U.S.  The estimated1 58,000 kindergarten teachers in the United States earned an average teacher salary of $53,480 for a collective income of about $8.5 billion for 2012.  By contrast, the 25 top hedge fund managers found were paid $11.62 billion in 2014.

  As of 2017, at the higher end of the pay scale, teachers in Alaska and New York were paid an average salary of  $77,843 and $76,953. At the other extreme, teachers in Mississippi and Oklahoma were paid an average salary of $42,043 and $42,647, respectively. As result of the tax breaks and budget cuts in public spending enacted in many of the GOP controlled  legislatures, the plight of public school teachers and the schools in which they teach have  worsened in many of the red states. In desperation, teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma staged state-wide wild-cat strikes in the in the spring of 2018 while a similar threat confronted GOP legislators in Kansas.  

In Arizona, another state where  teacher- inspired protests spread in 2018, teachers' salaries are $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year.  Rather than increase taxes, the Pendergast Elementary School District, a district that includes parts of Glendale, Avondale and north Phoenix, has recruited more than 50 teachers from the Philippines since 2015 who were given J-1 visas.  Patricia Davis-Tussey, the district's head of human resources director, was effusive in endorsement of the recruiting process, "In these times, you have to be innovative and creative in recruiting. We embrace diversity and really gain a lot from the cultural exchange experience. Our students do as well."

  In 2011, during a time when states across the nation drastically slashed spending for public education budgets, 41 states introduced 145 pieces of private school choice legislation. The net effect of the more extreme proposals would be to remove education from public oversight and regulation, and permit unlicensed, poorly-paid and poorly-educated individuals to teach creationism, others forms of pseudo-science, extremist religious doctrines, and right-wing politics, history and economics without fear of censure and without any accountability whatsoever.

  Some of the more outrageous measures would dismantle public education almost entirely and taxpayer funds to replace it with a system of vouchers for use in private schools and for-profit schools. By 2017, "private school choice" programs, as these vouchers are called by the Alliance for School Choice, have been enacted in 13 states and the District of Columbia. 

         The amendments to the 529 "educational savings plan" that President Trump signed into law in 2018 are  by far the most drastic attack to date upon public education in the United States.  Christianity Today was effusive in its praise:" Parents now have another way to save for Christian school tuition--and this one comes with tax benefits. Thanks to the GOP-led tax reforms, the 529 college savings vehicle--so named for the relevant section of the Internal Revenue Code--can now also be used to save money to pay tuition at any "elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school."

  A number of the reforms that have gained cachet in the mainstream media were touted by President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and former D.C. Superintendent of Schools, Michelle Rhee, among others. Interestingly, none of these proponents of public school reform ever taught in a public school or had any direct experience in trying to challenge students, particularly students under stress, to learn. The larger question, however, is: will any f their proposed reforms actually improve public education in the United States or will they further undermine it?
At the post-secondary school level, the crisis is equally dire. A report from the Brookings Institution documents so many young people with extraordinary debt. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of students holding education debt increased to 42 million, and their total outstanding debt outstanding quadrupled  to a staggering sum in excess of $1 trillion. In 2000, there was only one for-profit institution among the 25 colleges and universities where students held the most student-loan debt. In 2014, there were thirteen such institutions with the University of Phoenix at the top of t he list. The amount of debt owed by those attending for-profit colleges grew from $39 billion in 2000 to $229 billion in 2014. 

These for-profit  colleges, through the use of sophisticated and unscrupulous advertising and recruiting, preyed upon the most vulnerable part of are young adult population - those who were poorly prepared for success in work force and often didn't have the skills, the finances or the time to attend a local college or university. Between 2000 and 2011, the total enrollment at for-profit colleges increased from grew from 3 percent of total fall enrollment to 9 percent of total fall enrollment.

President Trump's Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a zealot who disguises her antipathy to public education by insisting that she is an advocate of education "reform." A Michigan billionaire and conservative activist, she decries public education as a"state monopoly," and she has spent millions of dollars in successful efforts to expand voucher programs and to use taxpayer dollars to enable families to pay for private and religious chools. Ms. DeVos - who never attended a public school and home-schooled her children -  would reform public education by privatizing it. 

In February of 2018,  DeVos called on Americans to embrace a vision of "education freedom" that would, she said, empower students and parents with a "multitude of pathways" toward new opportunities. Appearing at the right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference, Ms. DeVos advocated the use of educational savings accounts to benefit military families who didn't want to send their children to "failing public schools." "For too many decades" Americans have had a singular focus on going to a four-year college or university," DeVos said during the exchange with Kay Coles James, president of The Heritage Foundation. "But there is [sic] a multitude of pathways [with] many opportunities beyond high school."

Consistent with her antipathy to public regulation of education, in July of 2018, Ms. DeVos announced  plans to eliminate regulations that forced for-profit colleges to prove that they provided gainful employment to the students they enrolled. Those gainful employment regulations were put in place by the Obama administration and were designed to preclude  federally guaranteed student loans to colleges if their graduates did not earn enough money to pay them off. Ms. DeVos's announcement was intended to placate the many for-profit colleges nd universities whose economic fortunes were jeopardized  because too many of their alumni were too poorly educated to find decent jobs.  In stark contrast to the Obama administration,  by December, 2017, DeVos' department had approved only a fraction of the applications for student loan forgiveness.
  Nicole Allen has documented the travails of American public education in the Atlantic magazine. Students in the United States ranked 21st among counties in Science; 14th in reading skills, and 30th in Mathematics skills, according to the International Student Assessment for 2009. By contrast, students in Finland ranked 2nd in Science, 3rd in reading sills, and 6th in Mathematics skills. 

  Many might argue that any comparison between Finland and the U.S. is meaningless, given the size of the population and racial diversity of the U.S. in contrast to Finland. But is it possible that the example of Finland can still instruct, and if so, how?   
First, Finland has created uniformly high standards for all of its students and those standards are supported and insured throughout the entire country. This is in stark contrast to he U.S. where the federal government and the states impose, at best, minimal requirements upon local school districts.

  Secondly, only 7% of the applicants to the University of Helsinki's teacher programs are accepted. Upon completion of their education and practicum, teachers in Finland are paid more than 80% of the average of full-time earnings of college-educated adults in that country. By contrast, in the United States, teachers are uniformly poorly paid and are often recruited  from the bottom quartile of college graduates. As the Atlantic data shows, even in more selective education programs such as those at Johns Hopkins School of Education and at olumbia University's Teachers College, 53% and 56% of the applicants respectively are accepted.

  Third, teachers in Finland, as recognized and valued professionals  - all of whom are also unionized - are given great latitude in their methods of teaching; and collegiality, rather than a top-down management model, governs decision-making in the schools. By contrast, here in the United States, the GE management model of public execution and intimidation  - exemplified by the likes of Michelle Rhee - controls educational discourse.

  Lastly, and most importantly, Finland's education system succeeds because its students are ready and prepared to learn. As a social democracy, Finland has perhaps the Western world's most extensive safety net. The country has universal medical care, strong family-support, child welfare, nutritional programs, minimal poverty and its population 
would never tolerate the kind of extreme economic inequality that is blithely accepted as inevitable in the United States.
  By contrast, the evidence shows that here in the United States the problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education are compounded by the existence and tolerance of widespread economic and social inequality which also explains, in large part, the uneven outcomes in America's decentralized education system and the dismal performance of so many of the children who are enrolled.
David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, analyzed those "out-of-school factors" (OSFs) which "play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps" that continue to undermine the purpose of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act.  Berliner, in a wide-ranging review of the existing data and summary of the educational literature, identified six significant factors among poor children that adversely affected their health and learning opportunities and which therefore "limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth weight and non- genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics."

         These six factors, Berliner concluded, "are related to a host of poverty- induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic under-development, and oppositional behavior." Berliner further observed that, "Because America's schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier communities, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed."

  The data which Berliner cites showed that, in 2006-2007, the average white student attended a public school in which about 30 percent of the students were classified as low-income. By contrast, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which nearly 60 percent of the students were classified as low-income, while the average American Indian was enrolled in a school where more than half of the students were poor. "These schools," Berliner concluded, "are often dominated by the many dimensions of intense, concentrated, and isolated poverty that shape the lives of students and families."
  Horace Mann believed that education had the potential to become  "the great equalizer in the conditions of men." For that reason, he became an early advocate of the importance of public education for all citizens. Later, John Dewey insisted that "Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education."   

The growth of the charter school movement and the use of vouchers, non-taxable educational savings accounts, the increasing popularity of home schooling and on-line learning epitomize the fragmentation of American public education. These trends threaten to further cripple one of the few remaining institutions that has historically enabled many Americans to share common experiences, develop friendships across the race and class-divides, and acquire commonly-held civic values. The resulting social and intellectual isolation - coupled with the relentless, continuing assault upon teachers and their unions, the imposition of management models dawn from the private sector, the continued dumbing down of curricula, and proposals to turn public education over to religious zealots, entrepreneurs and for-profit foundations  - are precisely the wrong direction for this country to meet the challenges posed by a global economy. Sadly, these trends underscore how far this country has strayed from the grand visions of Horace Mann.

  Our democracy is fragile and an educated citizenry is essential to its preservation.  Every sentient person should be alarmed about the continued corporatization and privatization of American public education. But concern alone is not sufficient to defeat the tidal wave of dark money that is bent on shaping the vision of  American that, if unchecked, will increasingly resemble the kind of dystopia described by Thomas Hobbes of life outside of society in which the "life of man was solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short."

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