Want to make America great again? Take back government of, by and for the people. That is what the 2020 election is about.
Public school are the bedrocks of democracy and equity. They are a great place to start reclaiming government because they are under assault by market enthusiasts who promote charter schools.
At best, charter schools–publicly funded but privately governed–benefit a few at the expense of the many. The evidence is in. At worst, they drain funds from public school districts, exacerbate segregation, facilitate corruption, and promote competition rather than solidarity among diverse constituencies for education quality and equity. It is time to hammer the nails in the charter school coffin.
In a dramatic and welcome shift for presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have announced their opposition to continued federal support for charter schools. However, don’t make plans for the Democratic funeral just yet. The charter school lobby has deep pockets for legislative and electoral influence. However, we are seeing a political shift in response to changing public opinion, possibly a reaction to Betsy DeVos’s flagrant distain for public schools and recurring charter school corruption.
Since Albert Shankar abandoned his flirtation with charter schools as an end run around stultifying bureaucracy, advocacy for so-called school choice has been primarily about undermining unions, avoiding systemic solutions to poverty, and promoting unregulated markets in opposition to government responsibility. Public acceptance of charter schools reflects a desperate response to years of abandonment and bipartisan support for and bashing of public schools. I don’t blame parents for choosing charter schools or the teacher who work in them. The responsibility falls on the politicians who allowed schools to deteriorate and poverty to continue, and with the profiteers who seek to make a buck at children’s expense. We will need to find a responsible way to reintegrate current charter school students into the public school system.
The market notion is that when schools compete for students and parent compete for their children’s entry into charter school equity and quality will improve. That is a zombie idea. The absence of evidence notwithstanding, it just will not die. With billionaire funding it just keeps coming back to life.
Just for fun, I did a search on the term, “How to kill a zombie.” It appears that the only way to kill off zombies is to attack their brains. We need to attack the brainchild of markets-fix-everything limited government enthusiasts The American majority needs to take back the role of government as an essential support of a decent life for everyone. We need to take back the idea of social responsibility. The education of our children– all of them –could be the vanguard of that struggle.
Government for the people has been under sustained assault since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. We all know the result: idolization of unregulated markets, stagnating income, increasing inequality, mass incarceration, undermining voting rights, accelerating global warming, declining union membership, increasing racial and socioeconomic segregation, incarceration of asylum seekers in private prisons, and most alarming, citizen cynicism coupled with a frontal attack on the truth by authoritarians and their enablers.
Most Americans believe in human decency especially with respect to how we treat children, yet education policy for the last forty years has violated that core value. President Reagan announced the opposing value in his inaugural address. "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." His alternative was unregulated markets. However, this rhetorical flourish was an intentional obfuscation of his goals. While most of us attend to our daily struggles for equity and a decent life, Reagan and his conservative allies laser focused on lifting all restrictions on wealth accumulation. Our environmental, health, safety, financial, and workspace protections, unions, and voter participation were obstacles to be eliminated.
Free market acolytes– a distinct minority– were well aware of the divergence between their goals and those of the American majority. To be successful, they needed diversionary strategies. First up was the time-honored demonizing of racial minorities and the poor as undeserving in order to promote divisiveness. A dose of media-driven wealth worship provided an extra boost. These provided the grease to defund and thereby undermine the effectiveness of all manner of public services, which in turn served to chip away public confidence in government effectiveness. Schools were no exception. The coup-de-grace was a well-funded ideological campaign to facilitate the public embrace of or at least acquiescence to an everyone-out-for-themselves ethos.
The Republican-led campaign was so successful with respect to education policy that it was adopted by successive Democratic presidents including Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama who fully embraced charter schools as well as the value-laden conservative language of personal responsibility and getting a fair shake when you “work hard and play by the rules.” That language gave tacit, if not direct, support for poverty as an individual problem rather than an inevitable result of the social, political, and economic domination of extreme wealth over government decisions. Similarly, they adopted the faux democratic language of individual choice as a substitute for democratic engagement of the whole community on behalf of all children.
Until recently, that policy framing was rarely challenged by other Democrats. Fortunately, that is changing. The growing popularity of progressive candidates–despite the distain of many in mainstream media–is encouraging. Similarly, voter participation the 2018 mid-term was up across groups but especially among young people.
The proper role of government is not to broker the wellbeing of its people in the context of the primacy of private profit or to protect the privileges of the few. It is to ensure the human rights of everyone. Unfortunately, inequity is the status quo in education.
Two candidates, Sander and Warren, have put equity in K-12 education and reclaiming of government responsibility at the core of their campaigns. That’s great. Let’s applaud their leadership. However, to sustain it and put it into action we will need persistent public pressure.