Sunday, April 2, 2017

Defending Public Education from Trump's Tyranny

Last week on his show, Real Time, Bill Maher introduced the Yale professor and author, Timothy Snyder, whose new book is entitled, On Tyranny. The book outlines 20 lessons we can learn from the rise of fascism and communism in the 20th century to make sure the same does not happen to us in the 21st century. Lesson #2 caught my ear immediately: Defend Institutions. Snyder says

It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about - a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union - and take its side.

OK, Professor Snyder, I choose public education as my institution to defend.

One way we can be sure that Trump and his minions are coming after our institutions is to see who the Tweeter-in-chief has chosen to head up various government departments. Almost to a person (Pruitt, Perry, Price), people who are opposed to the very institutions they are leading have been put in charge. If public education is to survive, we are going to have to fight for it. We cannot sit back and wait for this current nightmare to pass because by the time we wake up, it may be too late. It should be clear to all of us that the institution of public education is under a very real threat from the authoritarian Trump administration and its anti-public schools Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

The appointment of DeVos was the clearest indication from the new Trump administration that public education would be under siege. Next came the Trump budget proposal that, as Jeff Bryant reports here, strips money from after-school programs for poor children, reduces the overall budget of the department by 13%, but still finds billions of dollars for various school choice schemes.

As I have discussed in other posts, DeVos is a choice champion to beat all choice champions. Her recent pronunciations have doubled down on her favorite themes of education focusing on the "individual child", by which she appears to mean treating children like consumers in a market driven free-for-all. This will ultimately further enrich DeVos' already rich cronies and prop-up struggling ideologically driven religious schools. At a talk at the Brookings institution, DeVos likened her vision of education to the ride-sharing service Uber. So, that is her vision. Education as a phone app, where kids plug in their info and get a teacher named Ricky, who may or may not know anything about teaching. Apparently DeVos would like to spread her market driven vision of schooling uber alles.

Make no mistake about it, school choice will destroy public education. Americans always respond well to the idea of choice, but this is a choice that Americans cannot live with. School choice means less money for the schools that 80% of children attend. School choice means public funds going to religious schools that teach creationism and a literal interpretation of the Bible. School choice means schools employing uncertified, unqualified teachers. School choice means children attending schools that are not held accountable for the quality of their curriculum, teaching, or programs. School choice means that parents and community members lose their voice in the education of their children. 

And so as Professor Snyder warns us, we must act now to defend this greatest of all American institutions. By defending public education, we do not need to ignore the problems in public schools, but we do need to make sure the public knows that choice is not the answer to those problems. Public schools are a common good and a common responsibility. The choice we must be championing is the choice that most Americans still want - a well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local, neighborhood public school. The school choice schemes of DeVos and Trump make this clear choice less likely.

What can we do to defend our great institution? I would suggest the following:
  • Be informed - DeVos' concept of choice simply does not work and study after study has found this. Here is a place to start reading. And charter schools have failed to deliver on their promise as well. Here is Bruce Baker in a recent study on charters. The education reform industry is well-financed and has propagated the narrative of failing public schools. We all need to push back at this narrative with information. A good clearing house for this information is found through Diane Ravitch's blog, which provides the best information on what is going on in reform from the anti-reform movement perspective.
  • Speak up - All voices are needed. Some speak up through blogs, some speak up through emails and letters to their congressional representatives, some speak up by marching in the streets. We can all speak up through our membership in groups that are defending public education and who have a voice in Washington and on the internet. One such group is the Network for Public Education, which has become an effective voice against the corporate reform privatizers. Another effective group is the Badass Teacher's Association, which has proven over the last few years to truly live up to its name. And while you may not always agree with the positions of the national teacher unions, Snyder has warned us that tyrants seek to discredit and destroy unions as one way to seize power. DeVos is notably anti-union and so are many of Trump's cabinet cronies. It is time to set petty differences aside and make sure teacher unions stay strong.
  • Get involved - One of the central strengths of the institution of public education is local control. Elected local school board members set policy, pass budgets, review curriculum, and build and repair infrastructure based on their best understanding of the wants and needs of the taxpayers, parents and students of the local municipality. It is no coincidence that when privatizers seek to establish themselves in local communities, the first thing they do is try to subvert democratic process. This is what has happened in the major cities where privatization has taken hold, like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. It is the same model that led to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Lately, citizens have been waking up to what is happening and are responding by running for local council and school board positions to make sure that local control remains a central part of our public schools. Not all of us can run for public office, but most of us can find the time to attend school board meetings and council meetings and make sure politicians are representing the best interests of the community and when they are not, making sure they hear about it in their meetings and at the ballot box. 
Our institutions are under assault. One of the most vulnerable of these institutions is public education. If we do not fight for it, we will lose it. If we do fight for it, perhaps we can turn the conversation about schools around and focus on what is really causing our educational problems - income inequity, prejudice, and segregation.