Friday, October 2, 2009

Public education after Bush: Sleeper Issue?

by Ben Sears

On Wed September 30 a bizarre trio of prominent personalities visited charter schools in Philadelphia. U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan, Reverend Al Sharpton, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich are on tour pushing what is touted a "program" for improving America's public schools. Support for charter schools is part of that program. Philadelphia, and other cities, have seen a proliferation of charters in recent years, and the number keeps going up. Presently over 30,000 of the city's nearly 200,000 school age youngsters attend 67 such schools.

Charter schools, according to PA state law (and apparently laws in other states) are public schools and get a share of the budget in the school district where they are located, but they operate outside the supervision of the local schoolboard and in some cases are supported by independent funding sources. A significant wrinkle in the PA law (which may be true in other states; I don't know) prohibits teachers in Philadelphia charter schools from joining the teachers' union local that represents Phila school employees, thus preventing them from adding their strength to the approximately 18,000 member AFT Local 3. The teachers in each charter school can, if they go through the legal process, organize their own union and become a local of a larger organization, but as you can imagine, this process of organizing one small work location at a time as its own entity is proving very, very slow. Some observers have dared to suggest that this provision, put in place a decade ago under a Republican governor, was the key part of the charter school law and the one that conservative state political forces most wanted to include.

The accompanying piece includes thoughts that I put down on paper in July and are, in my opinion, still relevant. The intent is to stimulate discussion and action:

There is a battle going on for the ear of the President. On the one side we have the “reformers” pushing charter schools, merit pay, and other schemes as the way to improve public education.

On the other side we have a broad range of forces with a more comprehensive view of how to move schools forward: teacher/school employee unions, parent and community groups, educational researchers at universities. This side of the argument tends to advocate a more comprehensive approach. A key part of this approach is that public schools need increased federal support and funding:

--fund and equip all schools adequately

--hire the necessary educational and medical personnel

--make class sizes and teacher-student ratios manageable

--train and support teachers

--break down barriers of geography, race and class so that the youth of America experiences the diversity of the nation’s history and its present.

Right now the charter school, merit pay “reformers” are winning. Why?

--They are getting financial support from private sources;

--They include activists (non-union) in the Democratic Party;

--Their program appeals to those looking for quick fixes, including parents frustrated with the public school experience.

Does this have to be a “battle”? There is not a real argument here. Only one side has a program or ideas that offer long term educational improvements for the great majority of children. And it is not the self styled, well-funded “reformers”. They do not, after all, represent grass roots sentiment and do not have grass roots support, for the most part.

Needed: Unity of the broader, more comprehensive forces. Philadelphia offers an example of the problems and the possibilities. Here we have a new school superintendent (I think she is called the CEO) with experience in other cities: DC and San Francisco. She has been here a year and is getting good press for her makeover proposals. Her proposals are a mixture, but they include much that appeals to the charter-merit pay “reformers” and place her in their camp along with the new Secretary of Education from Chicago. Her good press, her experience, etc. would seem to make her an effective advocate for the children and schools of Philadelphia. Yet she has succeeded in getting a lot of people angry with her approach and her policies.

For example, her announced intention to close 35 low performing schools has not made many people happy, teachers or parents. A recent court settlement of a long standing desegregation case gives her new leverage in pushing her plans, but it is widely recognized that her plan (titled “Imagine 2014”) is basically a bare-bones, deal with scarce resources approach. It is not satisfying to people—parents and teachers and others—who live with the crisis conditions in the schools everyday.

A major problem is that the recent developments, including state legislation, court decisions, favorable press and the desire of unions and others who worked in the 2009 presidential campaign to be supportive of the President, has had the effect of disarming the union (in our case AFT 3) and other forces that could be leading a real movement for change. The challenge for us is to bring the natural allies together and fight for progress on basic real issues such as the ones mentioned above. There is some history of such efforts here, as there is elsewhere—we are not starting from scratch, but we have much to do in this regard.

Such a program should appeal to broad sections of the American people. Support for Public Education should be seen as part of any stimulus package: training teachers, hiring more teachers, paying them adequately.

Right now such a process has only begun. There is some $$ in the stimulus package for education. However, indications are that it comes with the wrong strings attached: that is, Will stimulus $$ be earmarked for school districts that agree to institute some kind of merit pay scheme??

The thinking in this brief was influenced by 2 articles, as well as my own experience and talking to other teachers:

    1) “The Selling of School Reform” by Dana Goldstein in The Nation, June 15, 2009

2) “Some Warn of Anti-Teacher Agenda in School Inequities Report” by Sue Webb in the People’s Weekly World, April 28, 2009.