How 'public' is public education?

Welcome to Heights of Democracy, a new column that will explore the meaning and practice of democracy locally, in Cleveland Heights and University Heights. We will tackle questions such as: How have grassroots efforts by Heights individuals and groups promoted civic involvement and democracy in our communities? How do neighbors work together to make life better for everyone? How do residents interact with our municipal governments? What local governance practices might elicit increased and more-effective citizen participation? How is our local autonomy enhanced or limited by state and federal policies and economic priorities? If you have topics to suggest that shed light on these issues, we’d love to hear from you.

For decades, Heights citizens have been passionately and effectively involved in our communities, often resisting powerful interests, from stopping the Clark and Lee freeways in the 1960s, to fighting racially based blockbusting in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The Heights Coalition for Public Education is a grassroots group working in this tradition, as two young members illustrated early this year.

On Jan. 21, Elijah Snow-Rackley and Emma Schubert were among 17 citizens who addressed Cleveland Heights City Council regarding how corporate power and big money in politics threaten local communities and democracy itself. The two Heights High seniors, speaking on behalf of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Student Union, testified that corporate and philanthropic involvement in education undermines local control of public schools.

Local control through elected school boards is, Schubert pointed out, “one of the cornerstones of our democracy.” In recent decades, however, we have seen local authority usurped by federal legislation, such as No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act; by state-mandated high-stakes testing, unfair teacher evaluation requirements and district rankings; and by the siphoning of tax money to charter schools and voucher programs.

Congress and state legislatures enacted those measures, but private money tells the real story. “The Gates family has pumped about $230 million into organizations that created the Common Core standards and the campaigns that encouraged states [to adopt] them,” said Snow-Rackley.

“Pearson Education, Educational Testing Service, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw Hill [companies that develop and publish educational testing materials, including assessments based on the Common Core] have spent over $20 million in lobbying and [campaign] contributions,” continued Snow-Rackley. "Houghton Mifflin Harcourt posted revenues of $1.37 billion in 2014, with a market share of 44 percent, including Common Core instructional materials."    

Schubert, who will be a fourth-generation Heights graduate, focused on how for-profit entities undermine public education as taxpayer funds are transferred to the private sector: “The shift of resources [from] public to private comes in the form of charters, vouchers and EdChoice, a law unique to Ohio, which allows families to [put] the money that would go to the public schools directly into tuition for private schools. This means the money then has no public [oversight] . . . which can lead to the misuse of . . . tax dollars.

“As a student, I am directly affected by this,” Schubert continued. “My district, CH-UH, loses millions of dollars that are meant for my school, my classroom and my [education]." [This year, the figure was $5.5 million; 49 teachers were laid off earlier this spring.]

The great American educator John Dewey said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” Emma Schubert and Elijah Snow-Rackley exemplified Dewey’s insight with their public testimony. We wish for the Heights Class of 2016, and for all CH-UH students, a bright future leading to engaged and productive lives in a vibrant democracy.

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer who grew up in Cleveland Heights, and has lived here as an adult for more than 30 years. Contact them at

Read More on Heights of Democracy
Volume 9, Issue 6, Posted 10:43 AM, 05.30.2016