Public Education Enemies: Let’s Declare War
By M. Donald Thomas
Today we are at war. Not with any external enemy. Not with any foreign power. Our war is with wealthy extremist forces in our own nation – individuals and organizations hell-bent on destroying American public education. The war is over unions, budgets, merit pay, teacher evaluation, curriculum and every other aspect of schooling. The declaration of war began in Wisconsin; and the battles are now being fought in a dozen states.
What the critics of our schools do not appreciate is the many benefits that public education has provided for the masses, or “the people.” They do not support education for the “common good.” Rather, their intent is to restrict education for all. As one critic once told me: “If we educate well all children, who will be left to clean our toilets?”
It has been clearly established that public schools produce substantial social benefits. One dollar spent in early childhood education produces seven dollars in economic gain. One dollar spent to fully educate one student saves thirteen dollars in potential social costs by not educating the student.
Public education has been the backbone of our democracy. It is the essential ingredient for the self-governing of a people. When Thomas Jefferson was asked what was his greatest accomplishment this is what he said: “The introduction of a bill in the Virginia Legislature to establish the common school.”
Public education has accomplished a great set of benefits:
- Educated millions of immigrants and forged a common ideal from extreme diversity;
- Educated the poor, the under-motivated, the handicapped and special needs children and done it extremely well;
- Prepared millions for college and assisted those in need with scholarships and grants;
- Contributed to the economic welfare of the nation and saved billions in potential social costs;
- Made this nation one of the most literate in the world;
- Protected the personal liberties of the people; and
- Kept the American dream alive for everyone.
The enemies of public education are social and economic conservatives. They are supported by massive wealth accumulated in the past 20-30 years. Individuals leading the war against our schools are: David Koch, Charles Koch, Rupert Murdock, Allen A. Zoll, Eli Broad, Checker E. Finn, Jr., William Bennett, Rick Perry, John Stossel, Bill Hammond, Charles Murray, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Frederick M. Hess, Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Arthur Levine, Karl Rove and David Horowitz. As there are others, it is not possible to list all of them. As a group, they consist of a large, wealthy force powerful enough to be considered a war-like enemy of our schools.
In addition to individuals there are organizations, foundations, think tanks, and businesses that support the war against public education with huge amounts of money. They are: The Koch Foundations, Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, Fox cable television, the Heritage Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Institute for Justice, the Mercatus Center, the American Legislative Council and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.
With massive resources, these individuals And organizations are fighting to eliminate unions, trampling on the due process rights of educators and attempting to deny an equal education for all children. They proclaim that federal aid to education is a sure step to communism, that most textbooks are subversive, that teachers are incompetent and schools are destroying “basic American principles.”
These enemies of public education are guided by a trilogy:
- Weaken unions and due process protection of educators;
- Starve public schools; and
- Privatize all schooling for our children.
At an alarming rate extremely conservative state legislative bodies are enacting legislation to eliminate collective bargaining and reduce the power of unions. Unions, they say, protect incompetent employees and provide them with life-time employment security.
School employees have never had life-time employment. Historically, they have been at the mercy of the attitude of individual board of education members. It has been through the efforts of unions that due process rights have been protected. Some school employees have “continuing contracts.” This, however, does not prevent termination for “just cause.”
The problem is that many school districts do not follow appropriate procedures to provide due process protection. This includes notification of unsatisfactory service, attempts to remediate. Termination is not difficult to conduct if the process is followed correctly.
An examination of reform efforts indicates that they have been hostile to employees and have been ineffective in improving the quality of education provided to students. Reforms are possible when educators design the reforms, control teaching strategies and have freedom to select teaching materials. Only then will accountability for results be established.
The “money doesn’t make a difference” refrain is one of the cesspool of ideas used to starve public schools. Another is “there are too many high paid administrators in our schools.” The third is “there is a lot of waste in the education budget.” All of these claims are patently false. Any analysis of school budgets will show that salaries are low, that administrative costs are 2-3 percent of the budget, that teachers lack adequate supplies and equipment and that working situations can be improved with additional resources. As is commonly known student achievement tends to correlate with expenditure per pupil. Compared to most businesses, schools are terribly under funded.
As in any aspect of life, money does make a difference. It buys one a better home, a more efficient car, more nourishing food, more expensive health care and a higher quality of life. The same is true in schools. Money attracts better teachers, reduces class size, provides adequate materials, makes it possible to have staff development services and creates better working conditions. All of these conditions result in higher student achievement and greater personal satisfaction for adults.
Efforts to privatize public education began with charter schools within the school district. Then charter schools became independent. Now the aim is to privatize them and operate them as a for-profit business. The attraction, of course, is to get control of school finances and use schools for private purposes. This effort to privatize public schools is the greatest danger to our democracy. A privatized education system no longer operates for the “common good.” Rather, it is established to serve the narrow interest of the powerful at the expense to the rest of the people.
Further, an examination of the hundreds of charter schools shows that charters do not perform better than comparable public schools. Occasionally, charter schools, under more favorable conditions have students who score higher on criterion-referenced tests. They do not, however, score higher on nationally normed examinations. Propaganda to the contrary, the record on charter schools is not a favorable one – either in achievement or effective use of resources. The record would be much worse with private schools. This was in between those who care about the future of our country and those who believe they can buy that future for their own private purposes. It is a war that “the people” must win.
Let’s get real! We are at war. It is a war we cannot lose. It is an obligation of all who believe in an effective democracy to support public education. We must do whatever is necessary to end this effort, by the rich, to privatize our schools, scapegoating educators, weakening our unions and starving public education. Remember Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment: “The introduction of a bill in the Virginia Legislature to establish the common school.”