Equity & Diversity Opinion

An Assault on Public Schools

By Guest Blogger — April 29, 2014 5 min read
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Author and advocate Mike Klonsky again writes to Deborah Meier today. The two are currently co-blogging on Bridging Differences.


What a week it’s been!

I’m feeling a little shocked-and-awed by the Supreme Court’s Schuette decision. It’s another nail in the coffin of affirmative action (but not white affirmative action, of course, nor affirmative action for the children of the wealthy donors or alums). Schuette is rightly being called this court’s Plessy v. Ferguson.

It follows on the heels of the Court’s rollback of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and continues to make the possibility of higher education more a pipe dream than a reality for all but the wealthy.

I hope you’ve read Justice Sotomayor’s brilliant and powerful dissent.

Race matters ... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination."

I’m still hoping President Obama as well as leading voices in the field of education will say something about this horrendous decision. It deserves our condemnation.

Teachers and schools will never be left alone to decide how best to educate children. No matter how badly some wish for an end to “politics” in schools, it’s like wishing that winter won’t show itself next January. Better to bundle up and get ready.

Back in the early ‘90s, the main problem facing small-school-ers seemed to be how to carve out some space within the massive school bureaucracy for small, innovative, teacher-led schools. Who would have imagined that, some 20 years later, the entire urban public school system would be under attack and many of the civil rights victories that we and so many others struggled for would be rolled back?

OK, shock-and-awe is wearing off. Let me respond to your previous post. You write:

So many of the progressive schools I knew best, and admired, were highly selective and inclined to get rid of kids who didn't fit. As such they could hardly be the model for what I thought best for all children—and essential for developing and sustaining democratic habits.

On this we agree. I’ll take it a step further. Not only are such schools not a “model,” but highly selective schools that “get rid of kids who don’t fit” are neither progressive nor admirable.

You raise the question of neighborhood schools versus “schools of choice.” Like you, I have an appreciation of small neighborhood schools, especially elementary schools, that are within walking distance of home, closely connected to the day-to-day life of the community, and with teachers living nearby. Those are the schools we chose for our own children.

What we are facing at this moment though, is not so much the problem of choice schools vs. neighborhood schools, or progressive schools vs. traditional schools. Rather, it’s an assault on public schools and public space in general. This situation demands a change in the educational discourse as well as a rethinking of political alliances.

It’s true that the language of both choice and community has been captured by the corporate reformers in much the same way that the segregationists in the 1950s and ‘60s captured the language of states’ rights. But I think it’s always preferable and possible to build both choice and community into neighborhood and area schools, if the will and sense of purpose is strong enough.

To me, the Achilles heel of the progressive movement has been elitism and disconnection between schools and society. How can we have progressive or democratic public schools that aren’t also about transforming the society in which they exist? Wasn’t this the dilemma Dewey raised in Democracy and Education and The Public and Its Problems? Here’s another way to put the question facing us today: Can we have truly public schools minus the public; i.e., corporate-style reform? I don’t think so.

I think we largely agree on this, but we may be looking at the problem from two different perspectives, which should be good for this ongoing dialogue.

In the ‘90s, you and I both tried our best to situate the young, dynamic small-schools movement within a larger social-justice context. Interested readers might want to get a copy of A Simple Justice (Ayers, Klonsky, & Lyon Eds.), which connected us organically with our predecessors in the ‘60s civil rights and freedom school movements (see Charles Payne’s chapter on the Mississippi Freedom schools). That book includes essays by you and several other critical writers and researchers, whose shared thesis was that schools had to engage students by making education meaningful, challenging, and connected to solving real-world problems like poverty, war, racism, and inequality.

I’m looking back on that period somewhat nostalgically now as we face, with so few arrows in our quivers, a well-financed and coordinated attack on our schools, our rights, our unions, and the teaching profession.

Last week in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked school board (oh how I curse mayoral control of the schools) announced plans to build yet another selective-enrollment high school. This one will be named Barack Obama College Prepand will be located in the city’s upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood. (Hard to tell if the irony of this announcement is intentional.) This, after they closed 50 schools in predominantly black and Latino communities and handed dozens of others over to private operators of charter schools.

How could we possibly support such a plan, even if the internal structure of Obama High was thought to be “democratic” (which it won’t be) or the curriculum “progressive” (which it won’t be)? Could you? I couldn’t.

Finally, in your previous post you raise the question of necessary “trade-offs.” Yes, we all make ‘em. For example, that’s what collective bargaining is all about. (Does it still exist? I haven’t yet read this morning’s paper.)

You ask if it’s possible to “preserve both the needed internal democracy and also build deep roots in a potentially powerful political constituency that might thus protect their children from outsider ‘interests’”?

For me, that’s not so much a “trade-off” as a social imperative since neither school nor community can sustain itself without the other. Yes, as you have often pointed out, there are many times when educators have to make tactical decisions about what goes on in the classroom. Some of those decisions parents and community members might not understand or favor and have to be struggled out. But for me, that’s not so much a sacrifice of internal democracy, as you frame it, but a problem that goes with the territory of teaching other people’s children. Democracy has to be internal and external.

I hope this week is better than the last one. No more court decisions for a while, please.


Michael Klonsky teaches in the College of Education at DePaul University. He is the co-founder and director of the Small Schools Workshop and is a co-author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. He blogs daily at Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog, at//michaelklonsky.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on Twitter at://twitter.com/mikeklonsky.

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