Corrected: A previous version of this essay has been updated to correct two errors—one regarding student test performance and the other on dollars spent on education.
The vast majority of the nation’s schoolchildren are out of school because of the deadly coronavirus. Parents are frantically trying to figure out how to keep their children engaged in learning, and many districts are providing online instruction or recommending resources for lessons. After teaching her two children for a week, Shonda Rhimes, the creator and producer of hit TV shows, tweeted, “I think teachers should be paid a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” Another parent forced into homeschooling joked, “Is there any way I can get one of my children transferred to someone else’s class?”
Most parents don’t feel qualified to teach their children at home, especially since museums, libraries, and other public spaces are also closed. They don’t long to be home schoolers; they long for schools to reopen. It turns out that parents and students alike really appreciate their local schools, really respect their teachers, and can’t wait for schools to restart.
Among the sweetest videos on Twitter these days are the teacher parades, such as the one in Lawrence, Kan., where elementary school teachers drive their cars in a slow line around the neighborhood, waving to their children, who stand on their porches and wave back to their teachers. Teachers in other places have launched their own parades, to send a message of love to their students.
I predict that when school resumes—and it probably won’t be until September in most places—teacher-bashing and public-school-bashing will be definitely out of place. The billionaires who have been funding the anti-public-school campaign for the past decade might even have the decency to find other hobbies.
This hiatus in schooling might be a good time for the “reformers” who have made war on the nation’s public schools to reassess why they continue to attack democratically governed public schools and to promote privately managed alternatives. The so-called reformers also might consider why they belittle experienced public school teachers.
As I show in my recent book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, the public in general does not support either charters or vouchers. When voters in Massachusetts and Georgia were asked to approve the expansion of charters in 2016, they voted overwhelmingly against the measures. Whenever voters in any state have been asked to approve vouchers for religious schools, they have uniformly opposed these referenda. The most recent referendum was in Arizona in 2018, where vouchers were rejected by a vote of 65 percent to 35 percent in a conservative state.
Poll after poll shows that the public has negative feelings about public schools in general, which is unsurprising after nearly four decades of bad-mouthing by politicians and other public figures. But when asked about their own school—the one their child attends—parents’ views are strongly positive. They like their public schools and they respect their teachers.
In most parts of the nation, public schools are the center of community life. They provide free meals, a nurse (usually), and instruction by certified teachers (unlike some charters and many of the religious schools that accept vouchers). Across America, public schools are woven into the lives of families. The schools have trophy cases with the names of parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, even grandparents. They sponsor performances where the community can see its children act, dance, sing, play sports, and show their talents.
The so-called “reform movement” wants to replace public schools with schools that are run by private organizations, corporations, or religious groups. They believe that the private sector does everything better than the public sector. They make dramatic promises about the success of schools run by private entities.
But, as I show in my book, none of their promises has come true. Charters, on average, get about the same test scores as public schools, and some (like those in Nevada and Ohio) are among the lowest-scoring schools in the state. In Louisiana, nearly half the charters in all-charter New Orleans earned failing grades on the state’s 2019 school report card. Typically, the charters that get astonishing test scores are also known for excluding the students with disabilities and English-language learners or pushing them out. Vouchers fare worse than charters; studies in Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio show that students in voucher schools perform worse on tests than their peers in public schools.
Other “reform” strategies have also failed to improve education. Evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students (that is, value-added assessment) has been found ineffective. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched an experiment in several districts and charter chains to test the theory that tougher teacher evaluations would improve student results, and a 2018 evaluation of their project by the RAND Corp. and the American Institutes of Research concluded that it made no difference.
The wave of teachers’ strikes that began in February 2018 in West Virginia exposed the basic truth about American education, which the “reformers” had denied: Our public schools are underfunded, and teachers are underpaid. Some states were spending less in 2018 than they had been spending in 2008.
Across the country, some parents have gone up against state legislators to stop school takeovers by charters and privatization. Some parents have fought against the misuse and overuse of standardized tests. Anyone who claims that such tests help students and will someday close achievement gaps is badly misinformed. Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve, which ensures we’ll always see poor performers on such tests. The bottom half of the curve is dominated by kids who are poor, have disabilities, or are English language learners. The top half is dominated by advantaged kids, whose parents make sure they have medical care and are well-nourished. Every standardized test is highly correlated with family income and education.
Pro-public-school activists understand that the tests and A-F state report cards for schools based on those tests are used to advance privatization. The activists realize that on the whole the private sector does not provide better education than the public sector. Charter schools have a high rate of closure, either for academic or financial reasons or because of fraudulent activities by their operators. Voucher schools—schools where parents use vouchers for tuition--in most states tend to be low-cost religious schools where academic quality is far inferior to public schools’.
Charters and vouchers divert badly needed funds from public schools. The competition for students and resources has meant that public schools have had to cut their budgets, lay off teachers, increase their class sizes, and eliminate electives. Around half of the states have not been willing to increase the real dollars spent on education since the recession years, and there is not enough money to fund two or three sectors. In the zero-sum game, students and teachers in regular public schools, which enroll between 80 and 90 percent of all students, suffer grievous harm.
When someday our schools reopen, we must renew our efforts to fund them so they are able to meet the needs of students and to pay teachers as professionals. We’ve seen once again in this crisis that Americans value their public schools. But a fact that stands out from the past decade is this: A society that is unwilling to pay what it costs so that all children have a good education is sacrificing its future.