Public education: essential but not invincible
Drip, drip, drip.
Canyons, bluffs and barren hillsides attest to the power of slow, persistent attacks by the elements. Seemingly impenetrable spaces are shaped and reshaped subtly over time.
I think public education and democracy are like mammoth landforms. When you look at them, they appear to be strong and enduring. They are a given. They define our reality and provide sources of security and comfort.
In the last 30 years, however, as power and wealth have shifted in our society, once-unthinkable fissures are now visible in our most essential institutions. Schools and democracy itself are being eroded.
Anti-government, anti-tax, anti-equality, anti-civil rights ideology has taken aim at public education. Rather than being embraced as essential to the common good, public schools are dismissed as “government schools.” Individual choice becomes more important than protecting the public’s need for an educated citizenry. Who cares about protecting equal access for all children or the separation of church and state? Inject some competition and everyone will work harder.
Values are turned upside down. In the name of serving poor children, policies punish school districts that serve children living in poverty by labeling them as failed, belittling their teachers, raising barriers and taking away precious public funds and pouring them into unregulated charter schools or vouchers.
Instead of treating each child as unique and embracing human development, test-based judgments require all children to be the same and to perform exactly the same at exactly the same moment using an unreliable system for measuring that uniformity. This system rejects education as a human development journey and incentivizes leaving the public system to avoid high-stakes testing.
Drip, drip, drip.
At first it seemed that public schools could weather the demeaning and damaging impact of testing and privatization. Educators could find a way to hold on to what mattered most in teaching, put up with the tests and stay motivated. At report card time, school leaders promise to do better and sadly validate the system they know to be invalid. What else can they do?
Three decades of judgment based on a rigged system that punishes teachers and schools that serve children living in poverty takes its toll. Good teachers are discouraged, with more retiring early and fewer entering the profession. For sanity’s sake, some great teachers take refuge in other districts. How does that help the neediest students?
In my October column I quoted a hero of public education in Ohio, Bill Phillis, who is outraged by the lack of outrage about what has happened to our public school system. I am outraged but at times feel paralyzed about what to do about it.
I think some of the inaction stems from our basic belief that public schools are bedrock institutions that will survive and somehow not be harmed. Oddly, this confidence makes us passive.
The assault on this foundational institution isn’t just a spring rain. Public education is being buffeted by a hurricane! This is the moment when the sleeping giant of public education supporters needs to wake up and stop the erosion that is now visible and dangerous.
I am grateful that the treasurer, superintendent and board of education of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District are no longer mum about how these policies are affecting our community. They have become willing to share this information in public and work with other districts to rally opposition. Because our district serves many children living in poverty and is home to a large population that welcomes vouchers to support its use of religious schools, we are a bellwether for the damage brought by privatization. Our children are being punished for low test performance. Our schools are losing significant funds to vouchers, making it harder to serve the district’s students. Our needy students are being punished for being needy.
Public education deserves our advocacy. The many Ohio voters who have been educated in our public schools and value their role in our democracy need to face our collective vulnerability and speak up.
Those close to schools know exactly how these policies harm our children. We need to free our educators to tell the truth, and each of us needs to help our neighbors and friends face the truth. We need to challenge every candidate running for the Ohio legislature.
Protesters took to the streets and burned their draft cards to resist the Vietnam War. Is it time for us to sit in at the legislature and burn our state report cards?
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.