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Advocates of Public Education: Be Very Afraid
Written by Dr. Jeff Howard
We may be running out of time. In the big cities, student outcomes are stuck at unacceptably low levels. Education budgets have been slashed, and more cuts are probably on the way. There are too few new ideas to capture the public imagination, and little confidence that anyone really knows what to do. The current situation should be exceedingly alarming for those who believe, as I do, that public education is the essential institution for equality of opportunity, upward mobility for the less privileged, and generally for the future of democracy.
The threats are clear and numerous:
- Failure to Improve
It is a real problem that, after 30 years of attempts to reform public schools, we have failed to dramatically improve student performance in most urban communities. Everyone is dissatisfied; parents want a better future for their children; taxpayers want a better return on their investment; civic and political leaders want young people coming out of the schools who will be employable, make good citizens, and become net contributors to the community, rather than be dependent upon it. Few believe that urban systems are producing graduates who rise to these standards.
- Resistance to Educator Accountability
In the face of this failure, parents and the public are often confronted with organized resistance to educator accountability for poor student outcomes. Those who resist accountability have their reasons, often based on strongly held convictions about the uncontrollable circumstances they face; but it is a hard argument to sell when the costs of public education are so high, and the results are so often inadequate. The public is about out of patience and increasingly asking a question with hard implications for the future of public education: “If the people we pay to educate our kids can’t be held accountable for whether they learn, then what exactly are we paying for?” Resistance to accountability is, I believe, an important factor in the declining support for public school systems.
- Charter Schools
If public schools continue to produce poor results, they may soon be overtaken by clusters of charter schools poised to become the dominant force in big-city education. The large-scale flight to charter schools in many of our big-city districts represents the public ‘voting with their feet’—giving up on public schools. The new notion of "proven providers," being pioneered in Massachusetts, adds a significant new element to the threat. Although most charter schools perform no better than others in their districts, proven providers are charter school operators who have demonstrated that they do, in fact, substantially outperform the public schools from which they draw their students. The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has recently empowered several of these proven operators to run multiple schools in their communities; this sets up real possibility of multiple new, small "systems" of charter schools competing for students and tax dollars with fully public districts in the same cities. So we may well be headed toward a new kind of ‘sort and select’ system, where the more organized and upwardly mobile families get their children admitted to ‘proven provider’ charter schools systems, and the poorest families, with the neediest or hardest to educate children are left behind in the ‘public’ schools.
- The Anti-Tax Agenda
In an era dominated by anti-tax sentiment, public schools are one of the largest consumers of tax dollars, and so are squarely in the sights of the conservative ideologues committed to radically reducing the size and scope of government. If these people continue to win elections, especially state legislatures and governors' offices that have primary control of state education budgets, we should expect they will intensify the attack on funding for public schools. They may also be expected to push for restrictions on what the schools are allowed to teach, with a special focus on aligning science with their own religious beliefs, and social studies and history with their own world-views. And they tend to favor “lifting the caps” on charters—eliminating any limits on the number of charters schools that can break off from traditional public systems.
- The Economy
It is very possible that we are in the midst of a long-term economic decline, not just a temporary recession. If so, state and local tax collections, the primary funding source for public education, will decline along with the rest of the economy. In this environment, teacher contracts and collective bargaining are already under attack in Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey, among others. As I write this, California has just increased its estimate of the state budget deficit from $9 to $16 billion; the already decimated state education budget is being targeted for further cuts. Public school advocates hoping to fight these trends have a very weak position when the public is so dissatisfied with the performance of the schools.
- Rapid Turnover of Superintendents
The Council of Great City Schools recently reported that in 2010 the average tenure of urban superintendents was 3.6 years—and that represents an improvement from the 2.3 years reported in 1999 (www.districtadministration.com/article/superintendent-staying-power). It takes time to plan, win acceptance, and execute effective reform strategies, and most urban superintendents are not in place long enough to do these things. There is a range of reasons for this, from difficult relations with local school boards, to conflict with unions, to close, often highly critical scrutiny from local media and the public, to the sheer weight of the hours and responsibilities superintendents are expected to shoulder. Whatever the causes, the bottom line is instability in the very leadership role expected to lead us through fundamental reform.
The forces that seem to be undermining public education do not appear to me to have sufficient counterweight. The status quo is indefensible, unsupportable, and ultimately unsustainable. I am becoming increasingly concerned that unless we show dramatic improvement in student outcomes, we will see a major withdrawal of support for public education, and the deliberate decision to unwind public school systems, especially urban school systems, as we have known them. Something has to give, and soon.
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