If we're going to improve public schools in America, we need three things: 1) The abolition of charter schools and voucher programs -- all public funds should be spent on schools under voter control. 2) A reaffirmation of neighborhood schools -- kids should be assigned to the schools nearest them (with options for kids with unique talent to go to other schools with specialized, audition- or application-based programs). 3) Aggressive new funding to support kids from poor families -- this includes restoring state funding for extracurricular activities as well as for lowering class sizes and paying for after-school and vacation-time tutoring and child care.
What we don't need? 1) More standardized testing -- let's better replicate "real life" by asking students to demonstrate their ability by creating projects in the subjects that interest them instead of taking tests that don't replicate any real job experience. 2) Tying school funding to test results -- that's a death spiral that chokes funding from schools serving poor kids, who are more likely to score poorly on standardized tests. 3) Changing work rules to leave teachers with lower pay, fewer pensions, and weaker job security -- if we want better even teachers, we need to offer better compensation, not worse.
Education suffers when we view it as something for "them" rather than something that is a cooperative effort by all of us. That's why charter schools and voucher programs are so corrosive. They reduce education to a consumer product, provided by organizations separate from community oversight and control. We need to restore community support for our local schools. Attacking the corporate-funded lies about American public education is just a first step. (When you account for differences in family income, American school test scores are rising, and rank among the top in the world, despite the public beating that our politicians have been administering to schools since the Reagan administration.) The next step is to quit making public schools behave like consumer products, and to allow them to once again focus on serving the kids in the neighborhoods nearest them.
The "education problem" in America isn't one of teachers, of curriculum, or of administration. It's the problem of child poverty, which has been growing for more than a generation as tax, trade and employment policies in America have worked to destroy our middle class. If we want to improve educational outcomes for all American children, we need to attack child poverty by helping their parents -- working men and women -- to get a larger share of the value that their work creates, rather than allowing so much of that value to be sucked upstream by owners and CEOs.
While we do that, we need to support the emerging majority of American students who come from families too poor to provide for their children without public support by providing that support. We need to spend more to provide more and better meals to ensure that students get the nutrition they need, and not simply empty calories that leave them overweight and undernourished. We need to spend more to restore state funding for a full range of extracurricular programs, to keep more students engaged in school by providing activities that awaken their passion for life. And we need to spend more for after-school and vacation-time tutoring to provide the help, guidance and engagement that children who can't count on getting that support at home. How will we get that money? Easy -- we grow the backbone to finally raise taxes on those owners and CEOs who have grown richer than ever.
Look: Public education is one of government's greatest expenditures, along with defense, health care, and retirement support. That's made it a juicy target for business people who want to get their hands of some of those billions of tax dollars. Like Harold Hill trying to convince the people of Iowa that they have a problem with their youth in order to sell them band instruments, these "reformers" have been trying to sell the American public on the idea that the nation's poverty problem really is just a problem with teachers and principals, and if we only just give our money to the business people instead, all our problems will go away.
Except that they don't. And won't. So let's try another approach. Let's turn away from charter schools, voucher programs, and standardized testing. Let's do away with all that corporate welfare and try spending money on the true education professionals -- the teachers, counselors, coaches, and principals in publicly-controlled schools who need our support, not our scorn, to help our children achieve their great potential.
This post first appeared on my blog, SensibleTalk.com.