Democrats need to provide a winning alternative to privatization of America’s public schools. The outpouring of opposition to Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education provides an opening– if Democrats seize the opportunity. Suddenly, education is on the national stage where it should have been during the presidential campaign. What, after all, is more important to parents than the education of their children? What is more vital for the nation’s future?
Unfortunately, it took the nomination of a stunningly unqualified and ethically compromised despiser of equitable, democratically-governed public education to catalyze public outcry.
The confirmation of DeVos is certainly an incalculable setback. However, the deluge of calls and messages to senators to vote “NO” was unprecedented. This response offers hope for a protracted struggle for equitable democratic education. That will not happen without continued citizen pressure. Valuable energy will be consumed defending decades of gains. But that defense will be insufficient.
Donald Trump’s ideas were in plain view all along. He loves deregulation and privatization when it benefits the wealthy. He embraces a “just be out for yourself” ethos. He does not care about the rights and wellbeing of non-whites, the poor, immigrants, or even the average worker. Campaign rhetoric aside, he only loves those he considers “winners.” He has contempt for the disabled and embodies the behavior and values of a bully. He was proud of buying politicians and getting away with paying as little taxes as possible, rejecting any notion of social responsibility. No surprise, he chose a nominee for Secretary of Education who shares his values and behavior.
Republicans are clear. The GOP wants to unleash the same unregulated market forces on education that brought us stagnating wages, accelerating inequality and increasing school segregation. The essence of their education policy is schools competing for students, parents competing with one another for entrance into schools, and turning schools into profit centers for corporations. They intend to preserve and enhance privilege. However, they have cleverly wrapped this selfishness agenda in the distracting, democratic-sounding language of “choice”.
If Not Privatization, Then What?
Unfortunately, many Democrats long ago embraced this same language, leaving them with no credible alternative on a potentially starkly differentiating issue. Republicans triumphed at the state and federal levels in part because too few potential voters believed Democrats stood for a more compelling alternative. Successful opposition requires pressure on currently serving and aspiring local, state and national Democrats to fight for an equity-driven education agenda with broad multiracial appeal.
Many, but not enough Americans find Trump and DeVos repugnant.
Here is the winning Democratic education alternative to privatization.
Almost all parents want the same thing for their children — an education that will prepare them well for life, work and citizenship. They want classrooms in which their children are known and valued. They want a well-rounded education that engages their children to stimulate and expand their interests, critical thinking, and imagination. They want well-prepared teachers who continue to grow in expertise, just like other professionals. They want high-quality neighborhood schools that remain open. They want a say in the governance of schools in their communities.
This is a shared dream that cuts across the racial, religious, socio-economic and geographic differences that too often divide us. The past several decades have moved us away from, not toward this dream. It is time for move forward again.
Here is what we need to do.
We need to move away from inequitable local property tax-based school funding that rewards the wealthy and penalizes everyone else. Some may say we cannot afford to do this. I say we cannot afford not to. The human and economic costs of inequity are too high a price to pay. We can afford this investment if we reorient our national priorities and tax structures.
Improvement for ALL
We need to invest in ensuring the quality of the community public schools we already have rather than in escape schemes for individuals such as expanding the number of charter schools or funding vouchers for private schools. We need systemic strategies for all, not escape hatches for the few. We are all diminished when some of our children don’t get the highest quality education.
Integrated Schools for a Diverse Country
We need federal incentives to promote well-integrated schools. We live in an increasingly diverse country. In fact, diversity is our strength. Putting our heads in the sand divides us, while protecting the privileges of the few. Learning to live and work together is essential for all of our futures. That begins with our children’s education.
Small Class Size
We need classes that are small enough so that every child gets attention. It’s simple. Small classes facilitate meeting students’ individual needs and enable the key to all learning: more active student engagement.
Respected Well-Prepared Teachers
We need federal support for well-prepared, career educators who have the time and resources to continue to hone their knowledge and expertise. Teaching children and meeting their diverse needs is every bit as complex as practicing medicine or law. We need to treat teachers as professionals with this same level of support and respect.
Full Funding for Special Education
We need to fund special education so that meeting the needs of some children does not drain local resources away from meeting the needs of all children.
Useful Everyday Assessment
We need to shift federal resources toward supporting teachers’ expertise with assessment and feedback about everyday classwork and away from over-testing students and punishment of their teachers based on flawed data.
Finally, we need classrooms in which every child is valued and known. That means classrooms that address the emotional and social needs of every student. That means classrooms that go beyond a narrow vision of “the basics” to engage students in science and engineering, social studies and the arts. That means schools and communities that support families so that students come to school ready to learn.
These are the bold steps we need to take to achieve our dreams for all of our children. It will not be easy. We cannot do it by competing with one another or treating our schools like businesses competing in the marketplace. We can only achieve the dream as a community.
We can do this together. It’s time! If not now, then when?
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. Most recently, he was the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.
His writings are collected at www.arthurcamins.com
Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins