Challenging the narrative about education funding

Children say the darnedest things.

One of the many ways Zagara’s Marketplace supports our community is by hosting local groups raising funds for youth activities. I’m an easy target for those earnest young volunteers selling candy bars, raffle tickets, popcorn or Girl Scout cookies.

A recent sales encounter really set me back. An enthusiastic sports team member asked me to buy a raffle ticket. After handing over my money, I asked the young salesgirl where she attended school. Much to my disappointment, she named a charter school and then offered quite innocently, “You know private schools are better.”

I was devastated. In one sentence a young student rejected public education, the historic guarantor of access and opportunity for all. She assumed that her charter school was private and that that made it better. It appears that the narrative of failure that justified breaking into the public purse to offer choice and competition as the guardians of quality education has affected our youth.

Has the for-profit education industry won the nearly 30-year-long war on public education? Despite the reality that charters have a dismal record, the proponents of competition and unregulated use of public funds seem to have infected the public discourse.

As I tried to process my sadness, I wondered what made her think her school was private and that this label made it better. What did she know about public schools? What did she know about the dismal record of charter schools both for abuse of funds and failure to educate? Did she have any idea that her rogue institution was more likely to put profit ahead of her needs, and less likely to be stable or inclusive or protect her rights?

I am fairly certain that no one has explained the idea of the common good to this innocent. Nor has anyone explained to her the harm that is done to other students by a punitive state education funding system that promises each charter student more funds than it actually supplies and then demands that the local school districts where they live pony up the difference. She has no idea that her friends in public schools are paying for her “private education.”

It troubles me that our American education tradition that binds us together in mutual self-interest has been disfigured and replaced by education as a consumer commodity. Every man for himself.

The common good is not a quaint or outdated idea, but charters, testing and vouchers are driving Ohio’s education policy. Competition and profit are overshadowing the common good. This is damaging communities and restricting the power of public education to further the wellbeing of our democracy.

The cost to local school districts is significant. During the last school year, all but two of Ohio’s 612 school districts lost funds to charter schools. Last year, 21 of 31 districts in Cuyahoga County lost more than 10 percent of their state funds to charters; some lost as much as 60 percent.

Since 2000, the year Ohio lawmakers started to divert state funding for public schools to charter schools, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district has lost more than $22.5 million. Bill Phillis of the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy estimates that, during that time, charters have extracted more than $9 billion from local districts in Ohio.

Resistance is difficult. Reversing this damaging system is going to take time. It will take leadership and visible opposition.

At the June 7 meeting of the CH-UH Board of Education, Ron Register introduced a resolution to invoice the state of Ohio for the $22.5 million in funding that has been lost to charters since the state created this damaging dual system. Board members spoke with passion about the need for change and the need for political action to protect the interests of students and the taxpayers who invest in them.

They passed the resolution and joined 60 other districts from communities of all sizes across Ohio in protesting this misuse of public funds at the expense of high-quality public education.

The invoice resolution is one way to voice commitment to the common good. Boards of education are charged with ensuring that the children in local schools are well served. Because of the current attack on public schools, they cannot sit by and watch bad policy destroy a wonderful community asset.

We have to challenge the policy and we have to challenge the narrative. This is a great first step. More is needed to awaken concern and mobilize opposition.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 9, Issue 7, Posted 9:32 AM, 07.01.2016