So I put together a little article connecting the teachers’ strikes and the recent resurgence of anti-charter school activism. I submitted it to a couple of places but didn’t get it accepted. Then I sent it to another place and never heard back. Turned out the editor had departed. This sort of thing happens. Then I was on the road for a week so the time on it has perhaps moved on a bit and I don’t have the energy/time to keep pitching it. So I’m going to publish it here.
Long one of the United States’ most cherished institutions and a symbol of universal democracy, free and universal public schools have come under a sharp attack in recent decades. Anti-tax Republicans, often resentful over public schools’ teaching of secular values and seeking a reduced tax base, have reduced state support for education, leading to underfunded schools with collapsing infrastructures, a decline in core programs such as music and art, and teachers having to use their own dwindling financial resources to pay for school supplies, even as they take second jobs to pay the bills.
Neoliberals in both political parties have contributed significantly to the decline of public schools, believing that the market solutions to education’s problems, embodied in charter schools, can solve our education problems. Even just a few years ago, charter school advocates played an outsized role in internal Democratic Party politics. Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. schools from 2007-10, infuriated teachers with her consistent attacks on their unions, closing neighborhood schools without input from the community, and her pushing of charters and school vouchers. For that matter, so-called education reformers were central to the Obama administration, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who went on to engage in a frontal assault on the Chicago Teachers Union through his period as mayor of Chicago.
Yet in the last year, we have seen a sharp grassroots revolt against both fronts of this assault on public education. Teachers in the reddest of states are in revolt against both their pitiful pay and the lack of school funding that makes it nearly impossible to teach effectively. Grassroots activists within the Democratic Party are rejecting charter schools with surprising militancy, shocking party elites. The teachers’ fight for themselves, their students, and their schools may be a pivotal moment in the future of our education system. And the fight against charters may say much about the future of the Democratic Party. Taken together, this may be at a critical moment in shaping the nation’s future.
Public schools are not just another part of our government. They are part of the best of the nation has been and can become again. The creation of America’s public school system began in the early nineteenth century, when an increasingly democratizing nation placed a great emphasis on universal and free education, for both boys and girls. By the 1840s, most northern states were subsidizing these schools, attempting to train educated citizens for an agrarian democracy based on an independent citizenry. The South resisted this, as it did the rest of the nation’s democratizing tendencies in the early nineteenth century as it proceeded toward an aristocratic slavocracy, but after the Civil War, free public schools became widespread in the South, even as educational levels remained significantly below the rest of the country.
Like the rest of American history, the promise of American public schools was never fulfilled, due to racial and religious prejudice. Catholic churches developed private schools in the nineteenth century as an alternative, rightfully concerned that Protestant teachers would attempt to convert their children. Segregation, de facto or de jure, has long defined our schools, north and south. Plessy v. Ferguson gave Supreme Court approval to segregation in 1896, but while Brown v. Board of Education reversed that decision in 1954, southern white parents largely responded by moving to the suburbs or starting private Christian schools. In the North, white rioting against busing schemes, most notably in South Boston, killed regional desegregation plans by the early 1980s. For that matter, California’s insistence on segregating its schools against Japanese-American children in the early 1900s, led to an international incident and the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan that ended most Japanese migration to the U.S. Today, our schools remain functionally segregated. No American institution has escaped the taint of our racist heritage.
Despite this, the successes of American public schools are also remarkable and worth cherishing today. Public education became a right in this nation, a land without landed aristocracy and where birth status meant far less than in Britain or other European nations. While many of our presidents came from elite backgrounds, many, including Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton came through the public schools and rose to prominence based on the common yet quality education they received.
Yet for decades, public schools have suffered from attacks that have severely hurt their credibility. This began in the post-Brown era, when white parents withdrew their children into Christian or private schools to keep them from having to share classrooms with African-Americans. The white backlash after the civil rights movements began targeting public schools as sites of liberal experimentation and the tax revolt that started in California with 1978’s Proposition 13 began reducing public school funding around the nation.
Whatever problems exist with public schools cannot be separated from poverty. We expect our schools to create an educated society, but in the face of unemployment, poor-quality housing, hunger, parents in the criminal justice system, and crumbling school facilities, educational opportunities for millions of students are severely limited, an issue that received popular attention in the fourth season of The Wire. Teachers, even when unionized with a collective organization to stand up for educational funding, can do little to solve these problems.
By the 1990s, the rise of neoliberalism into the upper ranks of both political parties led to calls for market solutions to failing schools, with the idea that business could overcome the burden of poverty in ways that the government could not. This led to the charter school era. Research suggests that collectively, they do no better in educating our students than public schools, while undercutting teachers’ unions and providing large salaries to administrators. Yet little could counter the charter push for years. Through 2016, it felt that the continued privatization of our schools seemed almost inevitable. Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, who had close relationships with the teachers’ unions, did not help.
Yet eighteen months later, public school teachers are revolting around the nation. First in West Virginia, and now in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado, teachers are demanding and winning both pay raises and increased school funding. That much of this is happening in the nation’s reddest states is notable and impressive. It shows that teachers have a tremendous amount of collective power, based both in their position as respected members of society, despite their pay, and the fact that many of these jobs pay so poorly that there is no credible threat that they can be fired and replaced. It’s also worth noting that these actions have built upon other teachers’ activism, often in less conservative states. In fact, teachers have been at the forefront of progressive fights for a decade now, leading the fight against Scott Walker during the occupation of the Wisconsin capital and the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s struggle against Rahm Emanuel’s program to close schools and undermine unions.
On top of this, we have seen a recent rejection of charter schools and other parts of the education reform program by grassroots Democratic activists. Charters have become increasingly associated with Republicans in the last two years, especially with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Civil rights groups have increasingly identified charter schools with segregation. Two weeks ago in Colorado, delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly booed the head of Democrats for Education Reform off the stage and passed a resolution that the organization stop claiming a connection to the Democratic Party. Charter advocates are funding Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign for the governor of California, but this is as likely to hurt him with California Democrats as help. And Massachusetts voters defeated a ballot measure to raise the state’s cap on charter schools in 2016 after the opposition focused on the need for good quality public schools, shocking the charter establishment.
The Trump election laid bare major issues in American politics, forcing many people to rethink their position. A lot of liberals who sat back and confidently felt that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would handle the nation’s problems were jolted into action. The crude, raucous nature of Trump rallies, his victory, and the rise of white nationalism in the aftermath have made millions of Americans realize they need to fight for the nation they want to create. The post-inauguration protests have had a wave impact upon American society. Many of the teachers in these red states no doubt voted for Trump, yet also feel they now must take to the streets to ensure the continuation of our public school tradition, in the face of the same Republican legislators they voted for and Trump’s own Department of Education. Americans are returning to believing in government as a tool to solve our collective problems rather than as a problem to be solved by corporate America. The growing rejection of the corporate education agenda is a sign of this.
The future of public schools is still an open question. But at least the resistance to Trump and to corporate domination over our lives is featuring them as a good to be treasured, valued, and improved upon. That is a heartwarming change from the very recent past.