U.S. Public Schools Are in Danger

by Ken Zeichner 

President-Elect Donald Trump has nominated school privatization advocate and billionaire Elizabeth (Betsy) DeVos of Grand Rapids Michigan to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. The appointment of DeVos as Secretary of Education will mean big trouble for efforts to strengthen public schools in the U.S., and will harm many children and families.

Ms. DeVos is thoroughly unqualified for the job of Secretary of Education. She has never attended a public school, sent her children to public schools, taught or worked in a public school district or a state education agency, overseen public education as a governor or governor’s aide, or studied the field of education. There has never been a more unqualified nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education in the history of the Department of Education.

The DeVos family’s has donated millions of dollars over the years to education causes through groups like the American Federation for Children and contributions to pro-“choice” political candidates to privatize public schools and turn their management over to corporations or religious groups. In Michigan, where DeVos has focused most of her efforts, about 80 % of charter schools are run by for-profit corporations as opposed to about 13% of charter schools nationally.

Ms. DeVos and her husband Dick who became billionaires mainly through earnings from their company, Amway, a Pyramid scheme[1] in which many people have lost a lot of money, have been very active in their home state of Michigan and elsewhere in promoting the spread of both unregulated charter schools and voucher schools.

Voucher schools involve the transfer of money from public schools to private and religious schools.

They began in the South during the civil rights era of the 1960s as a way for whites to maintain segregated schools after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision to integrate public schools.  The first modern day voucher program was started in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1989 and has transferred millions of dollars from the Milwaukee Public schools (MPS) to private groups and have made it more difficult for MPS to educate the children who remain in the public schools. Today there are voucher programs in about 30 states supporting some children living in poverty to attend private or religious schools.

The success of voucher schools in Milwaukee and elsewhere has been meager. Many voucher schools in Milwaukee have closed (about 40%) and they have not shown any consistent improvement over the performance of public schools even though 3% of their students have a disability in comparison with the public schools where 20 % of students have a disability.

Instead of giving families more voice in the education of their children as is promised, voucher schools erode the power of families to influence their children’s education because they are unaccountable to the public even though they use public tax money.

There are both good and bad charter schools in the U.S. The unregulated form of charters that Betsy DeVos and her husband have promoted has been widely criticized by education experts and the public. For example, one of the leading advocates for charter schools in the U.S. and most respected education researchers, Professor Doug Harris of Tulane University, has argued in a recent N.Y. Times op-ed “As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, she is party responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is one of the biggest school reform disasters in the country… She is widely seen as the main driver of the entire state’s school overhaul… It is hardly a surprise that the system, which has almost no oversight, has failed.” 

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education rejected Michigan’s application for a grant to expand its mostly privately run charter schools citing the lack of adequate oversight. Professor Harris concludes his op-ed by stating:  “The DeVos nomination is is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.”

A strong public school system is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society. Public schools do not affect just the individuals who use them, but as a public good, they also influence the quality of life in the society as a whole.

There is not a single example of a successful education system in the world that has relied primarily on deregulation, privatization and market competition, the kind of reform that Betsy DeVos wants to promote in the U.S.  Chile and Sweden are examples of countries where performance declined substantially after the growth of privatization in education.

The appointment of Betsy DeVos as the leader of public education in the U.S. should be strongly challenged by the U.S. Senate and the public given her total lack of qualification for the position and her desire to privatize public schools.  Please watch this 8-minute video[2] prepared by Brave New Films that summarizes the case against her confirmation as U.S. Education Secretary.

The Senate vote on her confirmation is scheduled to take place soon after the inauguration on January 20th Please call our two Senators Patty Murray (202-224-2621) and Maria Cantwell (202-224-3441) to let them know what you think about Betsy DeVos as our next Education Secretary.

(Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas, as having said school choice had failed. Professor Wolf’s comments were in reference to specific cases where parents had chosen schools with poor records)

Ken Zeichner is a Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington 

[1] http://time.com/4560168/john-oliver-pyramid-scheme-last-week-tonight/



5 thoughts on “U.S. Public Schools Are in Danger”

    1. Can you clarify your question?

      Knowing Dr. Zeichner’s work and writing over a long period of time, I am wondering if your question is simply a rhetorical one…are you questioning whether he supported the privatization policies under the Obama administration? Are you suggesting that he might need to read some Diane Ravitch?

      If you did a quick Google search: “Ken Zeichner” and “op-ed” or perhaps you know of the Washington Post’s ‘Answer Blog’ (Ravitch often publishes there), you will be able to read where Dr. Zeichner has been: arguing against privatization, charterization, and unconscionable definitions of ‘quality teachers’ instituted during the Obama administration.

  1. Why Obama is wrong about our schools

    March 19, 2009 | Issue 693 [1]
    BARACK OBAMA unveiled a wide-ranging set of education proposals in a high-profile speech March 10–and most Americans were eager to hear what the new president had to say about fixing our beleaguered public schools.

    Yet Obama’s speech and policy proposals on education are mostly recycled ideas from the Republican playbook: (1) Act like there’s no such thing as underfunding, overcrowding or segregation in America’s public schools; (2) Blame the straw men of “bad teachers” and “bad parents” for the problems; (3) Continue the privatization of education through expanding the number of allegedly “innovative” charter schools; (4) Exhort everyone to have “higher standards” without offering increased resources; and (5) Impose a corporate-style merit pay system on teachers.

    To be fair, Obama’s education plan does include small measures that are humane enough to send Dick Cheney’s pacemaker into palpitations: Increased funding for early childhood education, and improving Pell grants and other financial aid for working-class college students.

    However, both these proposals are a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed–and what the richest nation in the world can easily afford–to provide the universal access to pre-school and college that Obama’s speech hinted at.

    And as welcome as these two initiatives may be to the students and parents who need them the most, they aren’t enough to change the fundamentally conservative character of Obama’s education plan. Let’s look at it point by point:

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Universal pre-kindergarten education

    Using U.S. Census Bureau figures, one can estimate that there are about 8 million children aged 3 and 4 in the U.S. According to a recent Rand Corporation study, universal preschool would cost about $6,000 per student per year. That leads to a high estimate of $50 billion a year to provide universal preschool from coast to coast, which is about one-tenth of the U.S. military budget, not counting appropriations for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

    According to the White House press release that accompanied Obama’s speech, the president is “committed to helping states develop seamless, comprehensive and coordinated ‘Zero to Five’ systems to improve developmental outcomes and early learning for all children.”

    Fine words, but the only dollar amount Obama mentioned is the one-time $5 billion boost to federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs that was included in his recently passed stimulus package. Every penny of that money is welcome and needed, but it isn’t enough.

    Financial aid for college

    Today’s economic crisis is leading colleges and universities across the country to raise tuition and cut back staffing and course offerings. Any boost to federal financial aid programs can’t come a moment too soon.

    The president’s proposal will raise the maximum Pell Grant to $5,550 per year and offer a $2,500-a-year tuition tax credit. These reforms could mean the difference between dropping out and staying in school for thousands of college students.

    At the same time, tuition at the University of California (UC) (which was virtually free in the 1970s) currently costs $8,000 a year. So assuming that a UC student and her family qualify for the maximum Pell Grant and the tax credit, that would provide just enough for tuition. This student would have to look elsewhere for money for books, supplies, health fees, room and board, etc. Much more can and must be done to assist financially struggling college students.

    Explaining the achievement gap–or exploiting it?

    “Year after year,” Obama told his audience at a meeting of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “a stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African American and Latino classmates.” However, this and other passing references in Obama’s speech to racial disparities in student performance shed little light on the reasons why such a gap exists. We heard very similar talk about the “achievement gap” that came from the Bush administration.

    Politicians of both parties can talk a blue streak about the achievement gap and what to do about it, which helps them sound concerned about the plight of Black and Latino schoolchildren.

    Yet you won’t hear any of them admit our schools are more racially segregated today than at any time since 1968. Nor will they bring up the fact that mostly white suburban school districts typically receive thousands of dollars more per student than overwhelmingly Black and Latino schools of the nation’s inner cities.

    Education writer Jonathan Kozol has pointed out that as schools became more integrated between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, the gaps in test scores between white and nonwhite students steadily narrowed. In the last 20 years, a period of school re-segregation, those gaps opened up again.

    It is particularly disquieting to hear President Obama–whose election gave millions of Americans hope that this country’s long and bloody legacy of racism can finally be overcome–play the same political shell game as his predecessors when he discusses the racial disparities in our schools.

    Any politician who talks about the achievement gap while ignoring the funding gap and the integration gap in the public schools is only helping to paper over the real institutional obstacles slowing the progress of students of color, and low-income students generally.

    An attack on teachers

    The two parts of Obama’s plan that have generated the most press are his advocacy of “merit pay” for teachers and a massive expansion of semi-private charter schools. These positions have thrilled conservatives and the corporate media alike, who together have decided that every problem with public education today can be blamed on teachers and our unions.

    Charter schools have become Corporate America’s most successful method of introducing privatization and market-style competition into public education. That’s right–the same free-market dynamics that have wreaked havoc in the fields of health care, housing and high finance are coming to education.

    Supporters of charter schools describe them as laboratories of pedagogical innovation. In practice, most “high-performing” charter schools cherry-pick students and families that are already enjoying academic success and dump the children they find inconvenient to teach back into the mainstream public school system.

    As for Obama’s proposed merit pay for teachers, it would be based on the highly flawed institution of standardized testing. This would only add to the already high pressure on schools and teachers to “teach to the test”–that is, to distort the curriculum toward whatever will produce higher scores on tests, which don’t measure creativity, critical thinking, bilingualism, applied knowledge or interpersonal skills.

    Plus, there’s a very simple problem with the logic of “performance pay” for teachers. There is no honest scientific method by which “excellence in the classroom” can be quantified. Schools are not widget factories, where a simple production quota can be used to measure the “effectiveness” of any worker. (And even in a widget factory, such quotas would only be tools in the hands of the boss to force workers to compete with each other.)

    What will the teachers’ unions do?

    Obama’s support for merit pay and charter schools is bad news for students, teachers and public education. But you’d never guess that from the reactions of leaders of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).

    Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member NEA, went so far as to claim that the president was not advocating tying teacher pay to student test scores. But after the speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan confirmed that the administration does want “student achievement” (read: test scores) to be a factor in determining teachers’ pay.

    The NEA produced a “talking points” memo saying that the union “welcomes the vision President Obama is presenting” on education.

    For her part, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member AFT, went further. “Here in New York, the [United Federation of Teachers] has actively been on the forefront of many of the initiatives proposed by the president,” she gushed, boasting of her support for merit pay, charter schools and “use of data” (the key ideological justification for more standardized tests) as president of the New York City local of the AFT.

    One of the few high-profile critiques of Obama’s speech from any teachers’ union leaders came from United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, UTLA Vice President Josh Pechthalt said of merit pay, “It doesn’t work. You can’t create an educational community by pitting teachers against each other.”

    “It’s a bad idea,” added David Rapkin, a high school teacher in South Central Los Angeles and member of UTLA’s elected Board of Directors. “It will give administrators in the district the power to play favorites using standardized tests rather than really educating students.”

    Tellingly, just hours after making his speech on education, Obama proclaimed himself a “New Democrat,” identifying himself with the conservative faction of his party–the very people who have championed charter schools, merit pay and other attacks on teachers in the name of “school reform.”

    Any real school reform worthy of the name would fully fund early childhood education, eliminate the financial disparities between suburban and urban school districts, systematically desegregate the schools, and make higher education affordable for working-class students.

    The initiative for that kind of change isn’t going to come from inside the political system–so teachers, parents and community activists will have to step up the fight themselves.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Published by the International Socialist Organization.
    Material on this Web site is licensed by SocialistWorker.org, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0) [2] license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and SocialistWorker.org.

    [1] https://socialistworker.org/issue/693
    [2] http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0

  2. In defense of public education

    City schools are being dismantled and privatized–with Barack Obama’s approval.

    August 29, 2012
    WHEN EDUCATION Secretary Arne Duncan praised Hurricane Katrina a few years ago [2] as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans”–because it enabled the closure of most public schools and their replacement with charter schools–he was forced to apologize.

    But Duncan himself–backed by his boss, Barack Obama–has unleashed another destructive storm of corporate-driven “education reform,” and it’s bearing down on Chicago, where Duncan once ran the public school system, setting the stage for what could be the first teachers’ strike in Chicago in 25 years.

    Duncan and Co. have already wrecked public education in several cities. Detroit’s ravaged economy and declining population were as a pretext for an aggressive bipartisan assault that’s already led to the closure of 100 schools. Today, Detroit has two school systems [3]–the Detroit Public Schools and a state-run Education Achievement Authority–that compete to attract students, with 35 percent of Detroit kids attending charter schools.

    In Philadelphia, school authorities, backed by Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter, are seeking to dismantle the entire school system [4], handing operations over to an array of nonprofit organizations, charter school management groups and academic institutions.

    In Cleveland, another Democrat, Mayor Frank Jackson, worked with union-bashing Republican Gov. John Kasich to pass legislation funneling even more tax money to charters [5], giving them equal standing with traditional public schools.

    In driving these changes, Duncan is making use of the Bush-era federal law known as No Child Left Behind, which ties federal funds to state and local school officials’ willingness to close or “turn around” schools that fail to improve test scores.

    The Obama administration itself amped up the “school reform” agenda through its $4.3 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program. To have a chance at the money, state legislators had to pass new laws expanding charter schools and imposing harsh evaluation systems on teachers while weakening job security.

    What all this amounts to is the end of universal public education as we’ve known it–a cornerstone of U.S. society, in the North anyway, since the 1850s.

    If that sounds like an exaggeration or conspiracy theory, take it from Duncan himself. Once embarrassed at having cheered on a deadly catastrophe in a majority African American city, Duncan is now openly proud of post-Katrina education in New Orleans. “New Orleans is doing a fantastic job as far as improvement goes,” Duncan said of a city [6] where, before Katrina, just 1.5 percent of students attended charter schools. Today, 80 percent do.

    Remember that quote the next time someone says that you have to vote for Obama to stop Mitt Romney’s education agenda. As Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader wrote [7] about Romney’s program for education: “[I]n many respects, it reads like it could have been written by our very own union-busting, charter-school-loving Mayor Rahm Emanuel.” Emanuel, of course, was Obama’s chief of staff when the administration unleashed Race to the Top.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    TO UNDERSTAND what’s driving the school reform agenda, remember the slogan from the 1970s Watergate scandal: follow the money.

    Diane Ravitch, the former Bush Sr. education official-turned-critic of school reform, points to the “billionaires’ boys club” [8], including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and real estate magnate Eli Broad, who both run foundations that bankroll education reform.

    Even Facebook boss Mark Zuckerburg, looking for some good public relations after the feature film that portrayed him as a schmuck, decided to toss $100 million to the public schools in Newark, N.J., [9] a city with which he had no previous connection. And according to the New York Times Style section–which usually focuses on fashion design and the leisure pursuits of the rich and powerful–Wall Street players have taken up adopting charter schools. [10]

    But behind the feel-good politics and photo ops–see, the 1 percent really does care about poor kids!–there’s an aggressive program to reshape the U.S. working class to suit capital’s needs in the globalized 21st century economy.

    Unwilling to pay the kind of taxes necessary to support quality public education across the U.S., business and its political operatives like Duncan and Emanuel are creating a system in which access to good K-12 public education will be rationed, with working class and students of color funneled into either budget-strapped neighborhood schools or into charters with corporate and political clout, but dubious educational quality.

    The first part of this program has been in place for decades–housing policies and income inequalities enabled the white middle class to leave big cities and enroll their kids in better-funded public schools in the suburbs. Since school funding across the U.S. is overwhelmingly based on property taxes–and since factory closings drained old industrial cities of their tax base–inequality between urban and suburban school districts increased, with African American and Latino students concentrated in underfunded city schools.

    The result has been the re-segregation of public schools more than half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education found that separate Black and white schools were inherently unequal.

    Today, efforts to redress that racist legacy have all but ceased. To cite just two examples: in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, a judge in 1997 ended a desegregation plan that allowed Black students to be bussed to suburban, mostly white public schools. “What followed was essentially a reversal of desegregation,” according to two researchers at the University of North Carolina Urban Institute [11].

    In 2009, another federal judge lifted a court order that had forced Chicago Public Schools officials to take race into account [12] for enrolling students in magnet and selective enrollment schools. This despite the fact that a Harvard study found that Chicago schools were “only a few percentage points away from total apartheid.”

    As David Kirp, a University of California-Berkeley professor, wrote in the New York Times [13]:

    [D]esegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves. A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices.

    Today, students in racially segregated urban schools are being treated as lab rats by the corporate education reformers, who are teaming up with politicians to use the economic crisis as leverage.

    With the education money in the federal stimulus package of 2009 now gone, officials in Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland and other cities are using their busted budgets as a pretext to dismantle public education. Chicago is likely to follow suit, as the Board of Education in that city is deliberately spending all its reserve funds this year. Teachers’ union activists believe this is designed to create a crisis and justify the closure of as many as 100 schools.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    THAT’S WHY the stakes in the battle over public education in Chicago are so high.

    So far, neither the National Education Association nor the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has mounted a fight against corporate education reform. In fact, AFT President Randi Weingarten argues that the union must collaborate with reformers, arguing that teachers must “lead and propose” on the issues.

    By contrast, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)–which is Local 1 of the AFT–is gearing up for a fight not only for adequate pay and benefits, but for fully funded public education with smaller class sizes and an enriched curriculum. [14]

    For the business-backed education reformers, the stakes are high, too. If they can take down the CTU, they will be much further in their goal of gutting the teachers’ unions, which together constitute the largest organized labor groups in the U.S. That’s why it’s so important that everyone who supports public education–and the rights of those who work in them–stand with the CTU.

    CTU leaders–members of a rank-and-file caucus that swept to victory in local elections last year–have been mobilizing the whole membership for a fight. That paid off at the end of the last school year when 98 percent of members who cast a ballot voted to authorize the union to call a strike. Meanwhile, parents, students and community organizations have rallied behind the CTU in large numbers–a crucial development given the history of conflicts between these forces in some past struggles.

    The showdown is coming in September. Anybody who cares about the future for teachers and our schools–in Chicago and around the country–needs to act now to help the CTU win this fight.

    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    What you can do
    For updates on the Chicago teachers’ strike throughout the day, go to the SocialistWorker.org Facebook page [15].

    Other important sources of information include the Chicago Teachers Union website [16] and the CTU Twitter feed [17]. Also check out the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign Facebook page [18].

    The teachers need your financial support–please consider making a donation to the CTU Solidarity Fund [19].

    If you are in Chicago, picketing will take place at schools in the morning, starting at 6:30 a.m. On Tuesday, the union is calling for a mass rally downtown at Daley Plaza, across from City Hall, at 2:30 p.m.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Published by the International Socialist Organization.
    Material on this Web site is licensed by SocialistWorker.org, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0) [20] license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and SocialistWorker.org.

    [1] https://socialistworker.org/department/Opinion/Editorials
    [2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/29/AR2010012903259.html
    [3] http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120821/SCHOOLS/208210362/Detroit-schools–EAA-work-to-boost-enrollment
    [4] http://www.citypaper.net/cover_story/2012-05-03-whos-killing-philly-public-schools.html
    [5] http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2012/07/gov_john_kasich_signing_clevel.html
    [6] http://www.wwltv.com/news/US-top-education-official-NO-doing-fantastic-with-improvements-162298026.html
    [7] http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/romneys-plan-for-schools-sounds-like-rahms/Content?oid=6860548
    [8] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/ravitch-billionaires-and-millionaires-for-education-reform/2011/11/15/gIQAlDAHPN_blog.html
    [9] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/education/23newark.html
    [10] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/fashion/06charter.html
    [11] http://ui.uncc.edu/story/mapping-de-facto-segregation-charlotte-mecklenburg-schools
    [12] http://www.catalyst-chicago.org/notebook/2009/09/24/federal-judge-ends-chicago-schools-desegregation-decree
    [13] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/integration-worked-why-have-we-rejected-it.html
    [14] http://www.ctunet.com/blog/text/SCSD_Report-02-16-2012-1.pdf
    [15] http://www.facebook.com/SocialistWorker
    [16] http://www.ctunet.com/
    [17] https://twitter.com/ctulocal1
    [18] http://www.facebook.com/ChicagoTeachersSolidarity
    [19] https://afl.salsalabs.com/o/4013/c/468/p/salsa/donation/common/public/?donate_page_KEY=7204
    [20] http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0