Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Will Obama Turn Back The Assault On Public Education?


My friend Bertis is an attorney living in Athens, Georgia. I got to know him when I worked at Warner Bros and he was R.E.M.'s manager. Today I know him as activist for public education. Yesterday he told me about tomorrow's Write President Obama A Letter campaign, the Campaign for Our Public Schools. Like many parents, Bertis worries that the Establishment is driving every middle class family out of public schools and into some version of private/charter/taxcredit scam situation... "thus destroying the premise of Good Schools For All Kids." In Georgia and other states where ALEC is dominant the anti-public school sentiment is massive and a major threat to democracy itself. Obama hasn't been good on the issue. Here's the letter Bertis wrote as his contribution to the Campaign for Our Public Schools.

Dear President Obama,

I only have one main point:

Please. Stop. The. Madness.

Also, and it is a corollary:

Do. Not. Repeat. Republican. Talking. Points.

Of all the things you could choose to abdicate to the worst Republican ideas, you choose k12 education.

Come on-- they, and you, are barking up the wrong tree.

It is not only about "other people's kids"  It is about my kids too.  And all of our kids.

Stop the madness, hire Linda Darling Hammond or Richard Rothstein or Anthony Cody and use your second term to really REALLY reform education in our country.  Make all our school more like Sidwell Friends, where your kids go, or Clarke Central HA, where mine does.

In the words of John Dewey more than a century ago:  "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy."

Your and Arne Duncan's "leadership" on these issues has been the same dispiriting nostrums that your corporatist Republicans started-- surely you can do better in your second term and please, our children, all our children, deserve better.

And I am one of your biggest supporters--  but your education policies have been a grave disappointment for me and more importantly a real threat to our ongoing viability as a nation.


Bertis Downs, attorney, parent, advocate for good schools for all kids, Athens GA

p.s. how I really feel:

The Slow and Steady Dismantling of Public Education in Georgia

Georgia Constitution, Article VIII, Section 1:

The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.


Sue Peters, Parents Across America:

“I am not a defender of the status quo in public education because the status quo is currently No Child Left Behind and its spin-off, Race to the Top.  In fact, I decry the state of public education...because a beleaguered, underfunded system has been disparaged and ravaged even further this last decade by damaging policies based on failed concepts pushed by those who want to privatize our public schools.”


Joe Martin, a lifelong Methodist, preaching in a Presbyterian church a few years ago:

“Public schools have helped make America great, providing a shared experience for many of our citizens and having been the means by which our nation developed its awesome productive capacity, and assimilating millions of people from diverse backgrounds into a common culture.  Our public schools have been the common meeting ground and the primary unifying force in our society.  They also have been the route by which people of limited means and lowly status could enter the mainstream of society.  If we ever reach the point where we only have private schools for the rich and public schools for the poor, we will all be in peril.”

  _______________________________________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________________

I am a parent of two public school children, and I fear for the future of public education in Georgia.

I have always assumed that while people might respectfully disagree on the ways to get there, everyone agrees that a strong public education system is the ultimate goal.  But lately I am having my doubts.  With the relentless attacks on and disinvestment in our state's schools, it becomes clearer every day that my assumption is flawed.  Actions speak louder than words.  Much of Georgia’s ruling political class seems to have placed a hard-edged political agenda ahead of making a genuine commitment to public education.

As a result, our children's educational futures are dimming, and our beloved state of Georgia will slowly but surely slip further into mediocrity.  As a state, we simply cannot afford to give up on public education-- too much is at stake for all of us.  Better schools truly equal stronger communities, and only a viable system of public education can provide broad access to opportunity and positive outcomes for all children.


John Dewey, The School and Society, 1900:

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.”  Quoted in Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education (2010).


During the past ten years, the state of Georgia has cut its allotment to local school districts by 25 percent per student (adjusted for inflation).  The consequences of these severe budget tactics are well known:  fewer school days, additional furlough days, larger class sizes, and a reduced curriculum.  These cuts affect ALL public schools-- whether they are small, large, urban, rural, in-town, white, black, brown, diverse, suburban-- all schools everywhere.  Public education truly affects every Georgian.  Budget cuts to public schools should not be politically polarizing, as public education serves families of all political and socioeconomic backgrounds.  If anything, public education should be a largely nonpartisan issue.  A well-educated citizenry is a public good from which we all benefit.

We continue to see cuts in state education budgets for K-12, and our politicians seem to ignore real, pressing problems with existing laws.  One example is the charter school amendment to the Georgia constitution.  In a widely read commentary, Dick Yarbrough recently spelled out the real world effects of charter schools run by for-profit management companies in Florida.  The piece highlighted the insider games of real estate developers, charter school management companies, and compliant politicians making the “Business of Education" increasingly accepted as the norm.  “This amendment is not about the kids,” he said.  “It is about money.”  Do these politicians really think that this is a good way to spend our tax dollars, all the while starving local systems for funds and forcing larger classes, more layoffs and the lessened outcomes?  A far more sensible explanation for these policies is that they want to weaken the state's public schools by starving them of proper funding, thus opening up opportunities for “edu-preneurs” to “innovate.”  And, of course, the leaders advocating these policies are the favorites of the very businesses that will prosper under the new charter-heavy regime.  That may well be business and politics as usual in Georgia but it does not bode well for our kids’ educational futures.  And it does not inspire confidence that “it’s all about the child” as the proponents protest (too much in my view).


Grover Norquist, noted mission conservative:

“Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”


Our state seems determined to establish a parallel system of charters and so-called “special” schools at the direct expense of the traditional schools-- costs be damned!  We need a shift in thinking-- one that recognizes and strives to meet the challenge of improving opportunities for all of Georgia's children, not just a select few.  Now is not the time to give up on public education in this state but to redouble our efforts to build on its strengths and improve its effectiveness.  Of course, there is also the perennial favorite in Georgia:  the tax credit scholarship law that has been expanded despite massive public education budget cuts and a dearth of information about the money flow or the results of the program.  Wealthy taxpayers divert a portion of their taxes to entities that support private schools, with no accountability as to how these funds are used, no disclosure on who receives the funds, and no limits on how much is paid to the people who administer these funds.  It is an arrangement that suits those it benefits just fine-- but one that perpetuates the drain of resources from public schools which educate most of the state's children.

The New York Times recently exposed the inner workings of this diversionary boondoggle, at times in embarrassing detail.  Reporter Stephanie Saul peeled back the cynical shell game that directly benefits the cut-rate private and parochial schools-- all against the backdrop of lean and mean budgetary times for regular schools.  These laws, coupled with the consistent underfunding of Georgia's public schools, indicate that many of our elected leaders must not want what most Georgians want:  a public education system that serves all students and works to improve and build on the significant strengths it possesses.

So-called “school choice” initiatives are embraced by many as a rallying cry for policies that undermine funding and support that allow schools to provide a quality education for all children.  That means a safe and healthy learning environment, skilled and experienced teachers, adequate facilities, involved parents and a school community as a center of learning.  While, of course, people have a right to choose where their children attend school, these choices should not be subsidized by taxpayer funding with voucher programs, charters that re-segregate, and tax credit scholarships.  Each one is an idea straight from the privateer’s playbook (see, e.g., American Legislative Exchange Council - ALEC) and each one diminishes, distracts and diverts from the goal of providing a quality education to all children.  Meanwhile, resources and support for public schools are diminished year after year -- the drip, drip, drip of Death By A Thousand Cuts.  Witness the process playing out in every district in Georgia this summer as administrators and community leaders cope with yet another round of austerity cuts, reduced opportunities for students and a declining educational future for Georgia's schoolchildren.

Indeed, much of Georgia's political leadership is setting up a not-too-distant future of charters, vouchers and primary schools (taxpayer subsidized, of course) for one kind of kid, and for-profit, privately-managed charters and underfunded traditional public schools for the “other kids,” the unlucky and disadvantaged kids left behind.  These negative forces at work under the Gold Dome exert a powerful effect on many of our representatives who say they are “for” public education.  They certainly have a funny way of showing it (one that isn’t very funny at all).

In Clarke County, our district is doing all kinds of innovative and effective things to improve educational outcomes for every child, regardless of their background or level of achievement.  We have made major strides in narrowing the achievement gap (recently recognized as #1 in the state).  Every elementary school has made Adequate Yearly Progress the past two years.  Our least advantaged middle school is also one of our highest achieving.  We have a new Career Academy that will allow students to graduate with a joint degree from Athens Tech if they apply themselves and plan accordingly.  A well-established Advanced Placement program and select college possibilities are there for our town’s high-achieving students (although our schools struggle to make these opportunities a reality for all students).  A new international Baccalaureate program, in only its first year, is adding rigor and relevance to the curriculum at all our middle and high schools.  At a time when other districts are cutting fine arts and learning experiences outside the classroom, art programs and field trips are still available in the Clarke County School District, and motivated teachers are coming up with original and creative ways of teaching their students and making connections that change lives for the better.

There’s much more to report and many other districts with similar successes, but there is a breaking point.  Teachers won’t likely continue indefinitely with more pressure, less support, more furlough days, flat pay scales, and larger classes.  If we continue to cut our schools’ funding, we will lose people-- teachers, students, families.  Student achievement will suffer.  Kids will never get those years back or another chance to make up what they missed.  Our lawmakers’ relentless cuts to public education will eventually come home to roost in the self-fulfilling prophecy of weaker schools and falling achievement, which is not what I think any right-minded person wants.  Where in the world is having a weaker public education system considered a good thing?  Better education for all students is the only way to sustain the kind of economic development our state and its citizens want and need.  Better education for all students has to be our common goal-- anything else is just noise.

When it comes to education, what does Georgia want?  I think most average citizens must want strong public schools for all of Georgia's kids.  So I wonder why so many of our elected representatives continue to vote in lockstep with those who clearly want weaker public schools so they can push their corporately-driven, privatized nostrums -- tax credit scholarships, charters and vouchers?

If you know politicians “for” public education, make sure they vote that way.  Ask them if they really want to be part of a generation of Georgia legislators under whom a viable public education in our state was lost?  Don’t Georgia's children deserve better?  Don’t all of us deserve better?  Surely “public education" is not just another “interest group” rather than a key part of the civil compact that we all recognize as one of the state's core functions.  Surely public education shouldn’t become just another set of sugar-plums for a compromised political process to play around with.  The failure of Georgia's state government to fulfill its constitutional obligation to our students has grave consequences:  shortchanging our children, stunting the vitality of our economy in a fast-changing world, and relegating our state to a well-earned mediocrity.

An old proverb provides, “You never miss the water till the well runs dry.”  We are really getting toward the bottom, and it will not be pretty when we arrive.  Yes, our schools need to improve.  Yes, there is work to be done.  But the General Assembly is taking us in the wrong direction, and Georgia cannot afford the results ahead.  We all know what it takes to make great schools great-- and there are plenty of examples of those schools still going strong in Georgia, in every corner of our state, with all the challenges and hurdles they overcome daily.  Now we need some politicians as good as our state's teachers are-- and who are ready to focus on the significant work ahead.  After all, day after day, year after year, that’s what our kids and their teachers do-- they get on with it.  It is time for our politicians to support public schools-- and mean it.

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At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Barry B said...

"Of all the things you could choose to abdicate to the worst Republican ideas, you choose k12 education."

Don't they get it yet? Politics is not Policy. Obama is not a traditional Dem on policy. He would fit comfortably with most GOPers. He differs only in terms of political party. And he is willful and close-minded. He only gives way to challenges from further to the right, which leads one to suspect those were his actual positions, in any case.

Give up his assault on public education? Obama came up in Illinois politics. What can you threaten him with that really will hurt him, besides the tiny ouchie of lamentations from voters who choose him, anyway?


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