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By Paul Horton.

Because I have been asked to comment on problems facing public schools in the United States, I would like to begin by saying that there are a great many things right with public education. Two friends, Ellen Allensworth, Director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research, and Chris Lubienski, professor of education policy at Indiana University, tell me that public sector innovation in the classroom in Chicago and beyond surpasses much, if not most, of the innovation that we see in the charter and independent sectors in the United States. The problem is that willingness to innovate and implementation of innovation in public schools is largely unreported in corporate media.

With this in mind, I would say that the single largest factor facing public education today is inadequate funding in rural areas, inner cities and inner-ring suburbs. We still face a situation in this country with what Jonathan Kozol once called Savage Inequalities that are made worse by increasing income inequality, structural unemployment, and persistent segregation. Black, brown, and white families are facing what Thomas Shapiro calls “toxic Inequality” that makes it almost impossible for poor families to gain any measure of financial stability.

Richard Rothstein of the Institute for Policy Studies has recently written a book, The Color of Law, that argues that public policy created segregation and that segregation is most responsible for underfunded schools and the “hyper-poverty” that education reformers are attempting to target.

I part ways with many policy makers when they advocate for charters, vouchers, and an end to neighborhood schools. Like John Dewey, I believe that schools should serve as community centers and that public schools have an important in role in the construction of strong community institutions beyond buildings.

In my view, many of those who support public education reform have good intentions, but mixed motives. I tend to agree with the McArthur Award winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones who said that

White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white. If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice. We have a system where white people control the outcomes, and the outcome that most white Americans want is segregation.

Every statistical study done about test scores in the United States for the last fifty years points to one fact: the biggest gains in test scores in the United States were achieved in the mid 1970s when schools reached their zenith of integration. We have gone back toward racial and class segregation since, and the charter and voucher movements are merely accelerating the pace of segregation in the opinion of a wide consensus of policy experts.

Our current problem is that these simple facts are rejected by the billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Ken Griffin, the Kochs, and the Waltons who push charters and vouchers to gain market share in a thirteen billion dollar a year industry. Philanthropy is a tool to open markets. The Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations are filled with market zealots who seek to disrupt public education to sell product, gentrify inner-city neighborhoods, and make their bosses look better.

These same billionaires contribute heavily to university education departments that rubber stamp their ideas. The Gates foundation heavily subsidizes education research at Harvard University and the Walton Foundation has deep pockets for education research at the University of Arkansas.

In one recent case Citadel Capital Management founder Ken Griffin succeeded in getting his ideas about education into print in the form of a book published by the chairman of the University of Chicago Economics Department. After the book was published, the University’s Booth School of Business received a gift of $125 million. The book, coauthored by John List, simply regurgitates much of what Milton Friedman and Gary Becker have to say about education and a free market. In two chapters (“How Can Poor Kids Catch Rich Kids in Just Months?” and “What Seven Words Can End Discrimination?”) of The Why Axis, dismiss an ocean historical and sociological literature on segregation to embrace a bonus pay plan that may or may not have succeeded in Chicago Heights, Illinois.

Peer reviewed history and sociology mean absolutely nothing in the creation of education propaganda from the free market school of education. The de jure history of segregation that requires legal remedy is replace by a simple graph or two and the expert word of a billionaire who has made a great deal of money. Rather than deal with deep rooted historical problems, billionaires seek band-aid fixes that they can profit from in the near term through investment in education privatization. It is as easy as “win-win.”

This is precisely how the free market education reform movement operates: forget an ocean of peer-viewed research, funnel large sums of money into big name universities, and billionaires can give voice to their own half-baked ideas with the stamp of approval from major academic brands.

Multiply this by control of major editorial boards, the noise created by Foundation created PR firms, and the AstroTurf funding of such groups and Democrats for Education Reform, and the echo chamber drowns out most of the peer reviewed research.

It does not hurt that these same billionaires can hate on our Education Secretary in public, but cheer her every move in private.

Billionaires are practicing a bait and switch. Their narrative about the decline of public education is repeated in most major newspaper and network outlets on cue. But public schools are out innovating them in the trenches and this innovation is seldom reported.

Many public-school teachers live in neighborhoods that are historically segregated and they understand that “free market” band aide approaches that make money for investors and gentrifiers work to deepen segregation: their solutions simply move segregation to other inner-city areas, inner ring suburbs, and “selective enrollment” schools that segregate on test scores and therefore on class.

Only policies that decrease segregation will create a more equitable school system; public policies must target de jure segregation and more resources need to be committed to all public schools.

The billionaires can easily buy academic credibility and the broader public has difficulty determining who more accurately represents the reality of schools and schooling. Billionaires seek to create a dual school system, but charters and vouchers resegregate students in violation of their civil rights and drain underserved public schools of resources needed to operate libraries, and special education, art and physical education programs.

Only a unified grassroots effort of parents, students, teachers, responsible public servants, and credible academics can push the truth into broader public discourse.

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

Image by Walmart, used with Creative Commons license.

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Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

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