Keeping Schools Public

None of these people believes in public education.

Here's a non sequitur for an essay about how bad things are about to be: there are far scarier things in the Trump agenda than appointing Betsy DeVos, a charter school advocate with no training or experience in public education, to run the Department of Education. The reason is perspective. Federal subsidies actually account for just eight per cent of public school funding overall, and much of that comes from departments other than Education, subsidizing meal programs and Head Start. Directing some of that money toward charter schools and vouchers is still problematic, but the local impact of whatever nastiness DeVos can push through is going to be minor compared to the abomination that was No Child Left Behind. Stack it up against protectionist global trade policies and climate change denial, and it seems even less of a worry.

What stinks about it is what it says about these ersatz populists who are now going to pick the pockets of the working class people who put them in office.

American public education was, to a large extent, the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson. For all the high-minded rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was not a believer in the literal equality of all human beings. Rather, he thought there was a natural elite, individuals born with the potential to become great leaders, provided they received a proper education. For them to rise up from the masses, there had to be a level playing field, a system of public schools that gave every American an equal opportunity to shine. The greatest education reformers have held that vision in common: give every child the best schools public funding can provide. To do any less is to risk losing great minds. As the United Negro College Fund used to put it, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste."

It took time for this principle to be augmented by the notion of equity, and the belief in education as not just the responsibility of a democracy seeking to nurture future leaders, but a basic human right. But come it did, refined from generation to generation, until modern public education is a model of the nation of the founders' dreams: a network of communities that do far more than teach important skills and knowledge so that children grow up with the tools to function in the adult world. To a great extent, public schools are a model for the democracy we seek to inhabit. In public schools, all are admitted, and all granted the best education skilled instructors can provide, differentiated to meet their individual needs of language, social status, and ability. Teachers and administrators work together to create an environment that nurtures them, helps them through difficult times, feeds them (in many places) two meals a day, trains them in social problem-solving, affirms and even celebrates their individual uniqueness, then hands them back to their parents for a few hours.

All the things that public schools do can, and often do, happen in charter schools and private schools, but with one significant difference: rarely is equity a concern. In fact, it is the ability of these schools to turn away students with academic difficulties, disabilities, behavioral disorders, and other challenges that artificially inflates their schoolwide scores on standardized tests, which in turn adds to the tired but endlessly repeated myth that they are inherently better than public schools at educating children.

Don't get me wrong: there are a lot of things about private schools that may lead public school teachers to consider taking cuts in their already modest pay to make the leap to the private realm. Class sizes are smaller, children are better-behaved, and often facilities, thanks to generous donations by families and alumni, are in better repair, and better equipped, than the neighborhood public school. But all this comes at a cost. The one year I taught in a Catholic school, seeing (as I do now) every child in the school, I had a total of three students who were persons of color. All my students were native English speakers, and none was lower than me in economic status. It was a school of privilege.

My current gig, in a middle class suburban school, is wonderful, and at times it feels almost as easy as that long-ago private school job. But there are differences: I have several students who are on IEPs for behavioral or developmental problems. I also have a significant number--though not enough to make this a Title I school, like most I have worked at--who are English Language Learners. Many of these children struggle with various parts of the curriculum, but all of them enjoy coming to music. Some even find it the one place at school where they can shine. None would be in my classroom if this was a private school. If it was a charter school, I would most likely only be teaching high performing students--if there was even a music program, as charter schools are often allowed to channel money away from subjects that do not directly contribute to higher math and literacy test scores.

Simply put, public schools are the one place in American society where children have a chance to become well-rounded citizens, building relationships that transcend class, ethnicity, language, gender, ability, status, and any of the other qualities progressives believe should not disqualify an individual from fully participating in society. Is it any wonder, then, that the xenophobic, racist, misogynist masterminds of the Trump campaign have guided him to choose for his Education secretary a wealthy individual who wants to redirect federal education funding to promoting private schools, instead?

Fortunately, as I said above, DeVos will have say over a relatively small portion of the average public school's budget. Most funding for public schools comes at the local and state levels. In Oregon, at least, we can count on our legislatures and school boards continuing to support the vision of inclusiveness that has been the mission of every district I've worked in. Schools in other parts of the country, especially in Trump states, will not be so fortunate--though again, since education spending and policy are largely set at the local and state level, it's unlikely DeVos will be able to (as some have imagined) dismantle the entire public education system. She might want to, but there are tens of thousands of education professionals standing in her way. I think I can speak for the vast majority of my colleagues when I say this: we're not going anywhere. We're going to continue to teach every shade of the beautiful rainbow of children passing through our classrooms. We'll advocate that they go on receiving the best education our tax dollars can provide. If that funding dips because of DeVos's misguided policies, we'll work with our communities to raise money to fill the gaps. And four years from now (please don't let it be eight!), we'll work to replace Donald Trump and his elitist minions with an administration that represents all the people, and believes in educating all of them, as well. We survived NCLB; we can survive Betsy DeVos.


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