A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education–Betsy DeVos–to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope. The meeting’s organizers, including members and staff of such pro-public education groups as the Education Law Center and Save Our Schools, depicted the election later this year of a new governor to replace Chris Christie as an opportunity–as, indeed, it is.
Christie, after all, shares DeVos’s views of a privately operated but publicly funded system of education and was one of a handful of governors to endorse her appointment by President Donald Trump. He called her choice “inspired.”
What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates–good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one–why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?
The title of the conference was “New Jersey Education Policy Agenda for the Next Gubernatorial Administration.” I could not stay for afternoon sessions on testing and training, but I did listen to discussions of school funding, charters, governance, and accountability. I was disheartened by what I heard.
Part of the problem is that, among this group of advocates–and others, including the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union–Phil Murphy is the heir apparent for what passes for progressivism in New Jersey politics. Yet Murphy–like Jon Corzine, a Goldman-Sachs alumnus–has said virtually nothing about public education and his message is as inspiring and thought-provoking as a lecture on lawn mowing.
Trump and DeVos want to turn public education upside down and shake out all the money from its pockets so it can flow to corporate managers. We know that. What will Murphy do? What do these advocates want done?
It’s not as if the problems aren’t known. Bruce Baker, the Rutgers professor who is probably the smartest and most cutting critic of state educational policy, warned both about the regressive nature of school funding under Christie–and the growing acceptance of the segregating effects of charter schools, privately-operated, public-funded schools that help frightened parents run away from public schools.
“We’ve lost momentum on the idea that pubic schools should be inclusive,” he said. “They”–the critics of public schools–“are making the opposite argument and they are winning.”
In short, the fundamental idea that public schools are and should be engines of equality and diversity is losing support.
And how will it be restored? Baker and others–including Theresa Luhm of the Education Law Center (ELC)–were not hopeful. No, it’s not that they were pessimistic–they were all hopeful the last eight years of Christie’s contempt for public education could be reversed. But they also warned that any effort to rewrite school funding laws were inherently dangerous because they invited political interference in the pursuit of true equity. Better to leave well enough alone and tinker with the edges.
Like Phil Murphy’s expected candidacy, this is simply not enough. Something akin to a political tsunami has occurred that is about to wash away public education as we know it and something more than the restoration of the Bourbons to public education is needed.
Participants in the conference danced around the danger of charters–but they are starving public schools. Yet even charter critics like Mark Weber–better known as the blogger Jersey Jazzman–offered palliatives when, in fact, bulldozers are needed. Charters suspend and expel 20 to 30 times more students than do public schools, a good way of enhancing their student test results, and such behavior raises serious moral as well as political issues.
Charters are cancers. There are no good cancers–and charter schools are metastasizing throughout education.
Mary Bennett, a former Newark high school principal, spoke about governance–specifically the return of local control to the Newark schools. But she neglected to mention that the path to local control was impeded, not by the will of the Newark people willing to fight for their schools, but by the unfortunate deal cut between Christie and Mayor Ras Baraka to end criticism of Christie’s policies in the city, including the vast expansion–doubling in ten years–of charter school enrollment.
Baraka, in short, impeded the pace of a return to local control and now takes credit for expediting it. The dangers public schools face now cannot allow such delusional political thinking–the enemies in Washington are too real and too powerful.
In the audience, Newark activist Roberto Cabanas pointed out the obvious: If the people of Newark just waited out Christie’s term, local control would be returned in 2018 when he leaves–even if Baraka had lost to pro-charter Shavar Jeffries in the 2014 mayoral contest. All the marches and rallies and speeches were pretty much useless.
“We could have done nothing and achieved the same result,” he said.
Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state, and believed that a mayor who hires school board members really means it when he talks about independent public education.
Even if Phil Murphy is elected, public education in New Jersey–and throughout the nation–is in serious trouble.
It is underfunded.
It is racially segregated.
It is in danger of being swept away by charters.
Its employees are demoralized.
It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic.
In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.