Report: Charter School Vampires Drain Traditional PA Districts Dry

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If you ever needed proof that charter schools harm traditional public school districts, look no further.

A new report by Pennsylvania’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee concludes that these privately run but publicly financed schools often drain traditional public districts of funding.

The report conducted at the behest of the state House and Senate found that charter schools have attached themselves in some way to almost every district in the Commonwealth, but not equally. Half of the state’s traditional public schools suffer from 80% of the state’s charter parasites.

Moreover, 40% of traditional districts with “significant” charter enrollment are struggling to make ends meet. The reason: unfair state mandates about how traditional districts must pay their charter school hangers-on.

The report is based on interviews with 36 superintendents. A total of 29 of these leaders said charter schools hurt their districts. Only four superintendents mentioned any positive impacts at all.

Much of the damage comes from Pennsylvania’s insistence on funding charter schools out of traditional public school budgets. Instead of charter school money coming directly from the state, much of it comes from the traditional district where it has set up shop.

In effect, it’s like a leach sucking away money that could be going to traditional public school students. We’re one of only 13 states that does this.

It leads to many problems.

Chief among them are the state’s special education laws. Local districts are required to pay their charters extra money for special education students. But this additional funding isn’t based on the number of special needs students actually present in the charter school. It’s based on an arbitrary 16%. Local districts pay charters as if these schools had 16% special education students whether they do or not. This incentivizes charters to enroll less than 16% and pocket the difference.

It’s a system so corrupt that only one other state – Massachusetts – uses it.

We’ve always known the system allows for fraud. We just couldn’t prove it was actually taking place – until now. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), in the 2014-2015 school year alone, local districts gave roughly $294.8 million in special ed supplements to charter schools. However, actual charter expenditures on special ed were only $193.1 million.

That’s $101.7 million in profit for charter operators! Ca-ching!

It’s also more than $100 million set aside to educate children that’s not being used for that purpose!

But that’s not the only way charter schools are sucking out local districts’ finances.
Times are tough. Money is hard to come by. If a district struggles to pay its charter schools, the state steps in and withholds the amount of money due to the charter schools from the state funding it would normally send the district – and sends that money directly to the charters instead.

In effect, the state ensures charters are fully funded, while local districts are left to struggle.

And to make matters worse, when charters file a complaint, the state doesn’t even verify if it’s true. The state doesn’t check to see if the district actually did pay its charters or not. It just withholds whatever money charter operators say they’re owed.

Local districts can appeal overpayments to charters. Right now there are 317 general appeals pending for a total of nearly $30 million in disputed funding – half of which is from Philadelphia, alone!

Nor is this the only area where charters are given preferential treatment. When a charter school attaches itself to a traditional public school, that traditional district must pay to transport kids to the charter school – but it is not required to provide transportation to its own students.

Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states to require transportation to charter schools.

But that’s not the worst of it.

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Now we come to cyber charter schools – the Count Draculas of the charter world.

The report estimates an additional $100 million in overpayments to cyber charters because of state law that overestimates their expenses. They are collecting much more money than they need to operate. They don’t have the same costs as brick-and-mortar institutions.

Cyber charter school students are given a computer and internet access. That’s about it. No costly building to run. Students usually do their lessons at home. Even when taking into account cyber charter staff, expenses are much lower than at other kinds of schools yet they are calculated without consideration of these differences.

Once again, state tax dollars that could be used to educate students become pure profit for charter operators. It is businessmen who win and students who lose.

The legislature used to acknowledge the burden charter schools put on local districts. The state budget used to include a line item reimbursing local districts for a percentage of their payments to charters. In 2010-11, that was $225 million. However, this money disappeared during the Gov. Tom Corbett administration when Republicans gained control of the legislature and prioritized tax cuts over charter school relief.

Though Corbett was defeated by Democrat Tom Wolf for the governorship, the legislature is still controlled by Republicans and the charter school reimbursement remains a distant memory.

But perhaps this new report signals a change in policy.

It contains several suggestions to fix Pennsylvania’s broken charter school laws. These include:

  • Permitting school districts to negotiate charter per pupil payment rates and methods.
  • Eliminating mandates for transportation that are inconsistent with services offered for district-operated schools.
  • Requiring the state to check with local districts when charter schools complain of underpayment.
  • Requiring greater transparency and fiscal accountability addressing problems like shell ownership, leasing, state payments, and conflict of interest policies.
  • Allowing audits of charter school funds.
  • Prohibiting the guaranteeing of loans where there is no direct school involvement.
  • Requiring charters to submit financial records for the district to review.
  • Requiring parents who place students in charters to first register with the local school district and then notify the district of changes in status.
  • Eliminating public school districts’ responsibility for charter school compliance with compulsory attendance requirements.

However, perhaps the biggest game changer is how charters set up shop in the first place.

Right now when charter operators want to open a school in a local district, the local school board gets to say yea or nay. However, school directors aren’t allowed to consider how this will financially impact the district. The report suggests this be changed; Districts should be allowed to approve or deny charters based on dollars and cents.

Currently local school directors are forced to approve charters that they know will hurt their students. This change would require charters to be equal partners with traditional districts or else be blocked. In effect, it would transform them from parasites to symbiotic organisms.

And as luck would have it, there are already two separate but similar bills that have been introduced that propose many of these changes.

One (Senate Bill 670) was introduced by Sen. Jim Brewster (D-McKeesport). The other (Senate Bill 198) was introduced by Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). Brewster’s bill would “realign and redefine how local school districts, charter schools, students and taxpayers interact.” Hughes’ legislation would “provide local school boards with the tools to better oversee charter schools in their school districts.”

Charter school reform is something that members of both parties have expressed interest in. However, until recently Republican efforts at it have been light on reform and heavy on destructive means to further deregulate an already dangerously unregulated industry, thus worsening the problem.

Charter support has been strongly bipartisan. Champions of this new report claim that these suggested reforms aren’t anti-charter. They’re an effort to make both charters and traditional public schools work together instead of against each other.

Time will tell whether lawmakers are willing to do so.

Given the large donations received from the charter industry to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, true reform may be difficult.

But at least we now have a state-sanctioned report to point to when referencing the multitude of problems associated with the industry.

Charters have been officially recognized by the state as parasites.

Will lawmakers do something to stop that unending sucking sound?

Hero of New CW Action Series to be a Charter School Principal

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Charter schools are incredibly contentious.

 

They serve about 7% of American students, but siphon away funding from traditional public schools serving the majority of the population.

 

They are rife with scandals: Many close suddenly without warning. They often hire teachers without certifications from accredited universities. Administrators have been known to buy yachts and expensive gifts with tax dollars meant to educate children. They cherry pick the easiest students to educate and kick out the most difficult.

 

And that just scratches the surface!

 

Why would you want to purposefully set your action adventure series there!?

 

That’s exactly what the CW has done with its new series Black Lightning.

 

The network released an extended description for the show today in an announcement for its fall schedule:

 

 

“Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a man wrestling with a secret. As the father of two daughters and principal of a charter high school that also serves as a safe haven for young people in a New Orleans neighborhood overrun by gang violence, he is a hero to his community…”

 

To which I can’t help but wonder, “WHY!?

 

Why, CW!? Why put your hero at the head of a charter school?

 

In the original DC comic book on which this television series is based, Pierce is a principal at Garfield High School in the fictional city of Metropolis.

 

When the writers moved the setting to New Orleans and made the hero a charter school principal, they were making purposeful changes to the mythology.

 

Why?

 

What does it add to the series with the inclusion of this extra detail?

 

Yes, Jefferson Pierce is African American. It’s about time we have more black super heroes. Marvel did an amazing job with its Netflix show based on Luke Cage, a character also created by writer Tony Isabella.

 

But charter schools are not uniquely black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a moratorium on charter school expansion just last year. The national civil rights organization has been publically critical of charter schools’ impact on children of color since 2010.

 

Specifically, the resolution states:

 

“…the NAACP opposes the privatization of public schools and/or public subsidizing or funding of for-profit or charter schools…”

 

“…the NAACP calls for full funding and support of high quality free public education for all children…”

 

The resolution goes on to oppose tax breaks to support charter schools and calls for new legislation to increase charter school transparency. Moreover, charters should not be allowed to kick students out for disciplinary reasons.

 

Yet THIS is where the CW decides to set its Sci Fi/Fantasy series!?

 

 

Perhaps the writers wanted to place the action in historic New Orleans, a city that has had almost nothing but charter schools since Hurricane Katrina.

 

But this is far from a success story.

 

After one of the worst natural disasters to hit the US in decades, the state fired almost all of its public school teachers, disbanded almost all local public school districts and reopened them as charter schools. New Orleans is now the only nearly all charter school city in the country.

 

Though supporters claim that this has resulted in increased test scores and graduation rates, the city’s schools cannot honestly be described as having turned around.

 

The district is still the fourth lowest performing educational institution in the country. Moreover, when compared with traditional public school districts in the state and controlling for factors like race, ethnicity, and poverty, New Orleans charter school students do much worse academically. For instance, on eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins—2 to 3 standard deviations.

 

These are the largest gaps between public and charter schools in the nation!

 

And that’s not all! Before becoming an all-charter district, the city had a substantial amount of teachers of color. Now they’re mostly gone.

 

This is where your escapist superhero fantasy is taking place?

 

New Orleans charter schools are notorious for strict discipline policies where students describe feeling like they’re in prison.

 

You want your hero to be a principal HERE!?

 

Teachers and parents describe feeling demoralized and ignored. They filed a federal civil rights complaint in 2014 and still pine for the community schools they experienced when they were children.

 

And this is where you’re shooting your action adventure series?

 

I can’t help but wonder why the CW would greenlight such an irresponsible drama.

 

Perhaps Black Lightning will fight to turn his nefarious charter school back into a traditional public institution with an elected school board, public meetings and sensible regulations.

 

Other than that, I cannot imagine why any sane television network would actively decide to champion school privatization.

 

In the original comic book, Pierce eventually was made Secretary of Education by President Lex Luthor. Perhaps the CW is drawing a parallel between their hero and our current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

 

President Donald Trump certainly brings to mind the super-villain Luthor – except that Luthor is known for being an evil genius and Trump is only known for one of those things…

 

But why would you want to associate your superhero with the most unpopular Education Secretary in history. DeVos only got her position after a split Senate confirmation and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. She has been publicly booed at a graduation ceremony at an all black college where she spoke. Parents and protesters have physically stopped her from entering several schools.

 

You want us to associate your hero with THAT!?

 

Full disclosure, I love CW’s superhero line-up. The Flash is delightful Sci-Fi fun. Arrow is escapist vigilante justice. Supergirl is girl power drama. Legends of Tomorrow is time travel fun.

 

But what the heck will Black Lightning be!?

 

Moreover, I loved Netflix’s Luke Cage. I think it was one of the best Marvel superhero series – something that transcended the genre and seemed to be addressing authentic social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, etc.

 

I can’t imagine how Black Lightning would do any of that.

 

Having a political subtext can elevate a TV show and put it in the center of the cultural zeitgeist. But it has to be done with sensitivity and intelligence.

 

Having CW’s hero be a charter school principal is a ham-handed nod to school privatizers and equity managers. Audiences want someone who fights for the underdog – not investment bankers.

 

I just don’t get it, CW.

Charter Schools and Voucher Schools are Virtually Identical

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The stark orange monolith that was Donald Trump is starting to crumble.

And with it so are the dreams of corporate education reformers everywhere.

Where in previous administrations they could pass off their policies as Democratic or Republican depending on whichever way the wind blows, today their brand has been so damaged by Trump’s advocacy, they fear it may never recover.

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they could champion both charter schools and school vouchers with impunity. But now the privatizers and profiteers hiding in progressive clothing are trying desperately to rebrand.

Not only is Trump’s voucher plan deeply unpopular, but the public has already begun to associate any kind of school privatization with a doomed President.

So like cockroaches, neoliberals have begun to skitter to one type of privatization over another. Fake Democrats hide beneath unfettered charter school expansion. Bought-and-sold Republicans cling to the idea that we should spend taxpayer dollars on private and parochial schools.

But is there a real substantial difference between each of these so-called “choice” schemes? Or are they both just scams when compared with traditional public schools?

THE DIFFERENCES

Charter Schools and Private Schools are basically the same thing.

The biggest difference between the two is funding.

Charter schools are completely funded by tax dollars. Private schools – even when school vouchers are used – often need to be subsidized by parents. For instance, many private schools charge tuition of $30,000 – $40,000 a year. Vouchers rarely provide more than $6,000. So at best they bring the cost down but still make it impossible for most students to attend private schools.

Sure they may start as an effort to allow only impoverished children to use tax dollars towards private and parochial school tuition. But they soon grow to include middle class and wealthy children, thus partially subsidizing attendance at the most exclusive schools in the country for those families who can already afford it.

Parochial schools, meanwhile, are exactly the same except for one meaningful difference. They teach religion.

Their entire curriculum comes from a distinctly religious point of view. They indoctrinate youth into a way of seeing the world that is distinctly non-secular.

Progressives complain that using tax dollars to pay for student tuition at such schools – even only partial tuition – violates a foundational principal of our nation.

Using public money to pay for religious teaching has historically been interpreted as a violation of the establishment clause of the first Amendment to the Constitution – namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

This is further exacerbated in many parochial schools where religious teaching includes a blatant political bias toward conservatism. Children at many of these schools are taught that supply side economics, voter disenfranchisement and prejudice are normative bedrock truths.

These are the main distinctions between voucher and charter schools.

In short, they’re not all exactly the same. And corporate reform apologist are trying to rebuild their brand on these split hairs.

But the similarities between these types of school are much more striking.

THE SIMILARITIES

The biggest commonality between these types of educational institutions is how they’re run. Unlike traditional public schools – which are governed by duly-elected school boards – charter, private and parochial schools are overseen by private interests. They are administered by independent management firms. They rarely have elected school boards. Their operators rarely make decisions in public, and their budgets and other documents are not open to review by taxpayers. This is true despite the fact that they are funded to varying degrees by public tax dollars.

So in all three cases, these schools are run privately, but taxpayers pick up the tab.

It’s ironic. Sending kids to charters, private and parochial schools with public money is called school choice. However, each of these types of schools gives taxpayers much less choice about how their money is being spent.

The community funds the school, but almost all decisions are made by people outside of the community – people appointed, in fact, by bureaucrats or business managers.

To be sure, parents can express their displeasure of administrative decisions by disenrolling their children in the school. But beyond this nuclear option, they are powerless. Even more troubling, taxpayers without children or with children who do not attend these schools have no say whatsoever about how their money is spent.

And to add insult to injury, it doesn’t even really allow the parents to choose which schools their children attend. They can put in a request for their kids to attend a choice school, but enrollment decisions are made by these same private equity managers. In short, administrators make the ultimate choice – not parents.

If the religious school doesn’t want to accept your child for whatever reason including operators’ disapproval of your religious beliefs, they don’t have to accept him. If the private school doesn’t want to accept your child based on race, gender or nationality, they don’t have to accept him. If the charter school doesn’t want to accept your child because of bad grades or troublesome behaviors, they don’t have to accept him.

The traditional public school, however, cannot refuse a child who lives in district borders for any of these reasons. In effect, school choice really isn’t about parental choice. It’s about increasing choice for the operators of privatized schools – letting them choose their students and how to spend your money without any meaningful input from you.

And it’s true at all three types of school!

Those are pretty considerable similarities. Moreover, they highlight major differences between these so-called choice schools and traditional public schools.

This is important because we don’t even have to get into the academic records of individual schools. The way each type of school is structured shows the clear inferiority of choice schools compared to traditional public schools.

By their very structure, public schools give parents and taxpayers much more agency in children’s education and how taxpayer money is spent.

Second, the latitude for school administrators to perpetrate fraud on the public is maximized in so-called choice schools and minimized in public schools. This doesn’t mean public schools are perfect, but it is much better to have a school under public scrutiny and local control than otherwise. This is demonstrated by the huge numbers of charter school scandals popping up in the news every day, where charters close suddenly, money is misspent on luxury items for operators that have nothing to do with education, and – especially in cyber charters – the quality of education students receive is literally lower than having no formal education at all.

Finally, if public schools struggle, it is almost always due to a lack of equitable funding and a surplus of impoverished students. It is no accident that poor students receive less resources and larger class sizes than middle class or wealthy ones. Nor is it an accident that we judge the effectiveness of schools primarily on standardized tests which are so good at highlighting the results of lack of resources rather than any academic deficiency.

If we spent our education dollars ensuring equitable resources instead of funneling tax dollars to charter, private and parochial schools, we would better increase the quality of children’s education. But for the last few decades that has not been the goal of education policy. It has instead been to enrich these same privatized school managers and investors – the corporate education reform industry. Nor is it a coincidence that this industry and its subsidiaries counts itself as major donors to both political parties.

Before she was elevated to Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos was exactly that – a billionaire mega-donor pushing school privatization while getting richer off investments in the same. Now that she’s driving school vouchers off a cliff in the Trump train, her co-conspirators are getting nervous.

Neoliberal Democrats may try to save the movement by claiming charter schools are completely different. But they aren’t. They are fundamentally the same.

The public sees the clear similarities between these kinds of schools. And much of that is thanks to the incompetent boobery of Donald J. Trump.

Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, America!

All over the country, millions of educators can look forward to a free burrito. Or maybe an Arby’s sandwich. Or a complimentary donut.

Because we REALLY appreciate teachers here.

What a pathetic joke!

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful.

I’ll redeem my coupon at Chipotle. I’ll take that Roast Beef Classic. I’ll grab that Dunkin’ Cruller.

But let’s be honest. These cheesy buy-one-get-one coupons don’t demonstrate appreciation. They’re guilt.

They’re a manifestation of the feeling that we SHOULD appreciate teachers, but don’t. Not really.

Not for one week, not for one day!

Why else would we begrudge them a middle class income? Why else would we provide them with so few resources and so much responsibility? Why else would we bar them from making any meaningful decisions about how their students should be taught yet hold them accountable for everything their students do?

Appreciate teachers? We don’t LISTEN to them. We don’t RESPECT them. Many of us don’t even LIKE them.

The only time we value teachers is when a maniac enters a school with a gun. Then – when they protect our children with their very lives – then we praise them as heroes!

On that day and that day only. But every other day – not so much.

We won’t do anything to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. At most we want to arm teachersGreat! Something else to be responsible for on top of education, counseling and children’s all around well-being. But otherwise, we won’t do anything to help teachers do their jobs. And we certainly won’t listen to their professional opinions on anything!

That would be living in a culture of life. But we live in a culture of death.

We do the barest minimum for children – especially poor and minority kids. Instead we invest in parasitic business interests that provide zero value for students and parents.

We’ve got nothing for teachers or proven educational practices but we throw public money at charter, private and parochial schools that only accept the cream of the crop and turn down everyone else – yet still rarely do better than inclusive public schools. We defund public schools until they can no longer operate – and then we close them as failures. We promote lightly trained Teach for America temps to the same status as authentic educators with a 4-5 year degree and decades of experience. And we do everything we can to bust their unions and take away collective bargaining rights.

Yet everywhere I look I see people congratulating themselves for donating to some teacher’s GoFundMe project. This may come as a shock to you, but we shouldn’t be resorting to charity to fund our public schools! That should be a given!

In almost every classroom in America, teachers reach into their own pockets to make up the difference when our federal, state and local governments come up short. When kids don’t have pencils, we provide them. When kids don’t have books, we buy them. When kids come to school hungry, we even feed them.

Yet you’re getting excited that anonymous folks on the Internet put a few virtual coins in the cup!

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. Next year I can look forward to another increase in class size. And I’ll probably have to teach an additional grade level or two. No extra resources to help me do it. No extra salary. Just more of a drain on my time to get the job done. And if I somehow stumble and fall, it will be my fault.

It won’t be the federal government’s fault even though they keep providing less financial help and more standardized testing, Common Core, and so-called school choice policies that rob my district of necessary funding.

It won’t be the state’s fault as they refuse to heal years worth of budget cuts in order to lower taxes on the wealthy, a scheme that, by the way, did nothing to boost the economy – in fact, it actually stalled business development. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they continue to blame me for the high cost of pensions they forgot to pay years ago while both my district and I paid on time. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they try to strip me of sick days, preserve loopholes that benefit charter schools at my district’s expense and experiment with a new funding scheme that further drains my district’s coffers.

It won’t be my local school board or administration’s fault, either, as they make cuts to core educational resources so they can preserve the state champion football team and less vital faculty office and administrative staff who are only working there because of nepotism and/or politics.

It’ll be MY fault. Mine and mine alone. That’s how much we appreciate teachers.

And none of it is even close to changing. No one is even considering altering the tiniest fraction of it. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, black people, white people, gay people, straight people, the young, the old – no one is doing anything about it!

And why should we? We’ve already got a scapegoat. We’ve already got someone to blame.

Well, look in the mirror, America. Because you’re the one to blame – each and every star-spangled banner and amber wave of grain.

We’ve made it like this. All of us.

I don’t mean to be so negative, but all these Pollyanna platitudes about that one special teacher obscure a basic truth. As individuals, we sometimes appreciate teachers – often when we’re years beyond graduation, or sometimes only when we’re parents, ourselves, and see what they do for our children. But that’s personal. That’s individuals.

When we think about the nations teachers, when we think about the profession in general, we don’t appreciate them one bit.
Because if we did, we’d act much differently.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d hire more of them. We wouldn’t demand they do more with less. When we were deciding school policy at any level – federal, state or local – we’d include them in the process – in fact, they’d be the deciding factor!

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t wait – as many folks do – until they call us to find out how our children are doing in school. We’d be proactive. And if our kids aren’t doing well, we wouldn’t blame the teacher. We’d hold our own kids responsible and look for solutions.

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t blame them for their summer breaks. We’d understand that they aren’t paid for this time yet they often take professional development courses on their own dime or work retail just to make ends meet.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d respect them as professionals, and we’d pay them accordingly. We’d respect their rights to a positive working environment both for themselves and for our own children.

So seriously – you can stuff your ridiculous Teacher Appreciation Week.

A free cookie just isn’t going to do it.

Don’t Trash the Department of Education. Fix It.

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How do you get people to refuse a helping hand?

Answer: Prove to them that it’s not helping.

That’s the strategy of the Trump administration in regard to his cabinet of billionaires. The Reality TV star turned President has nominated a series of out-of-touch and unqualified one percenters to head various federal government agencies.

Rex Tillerson, Rick Perry, Ben Carson – Each of these silver spooned numbskulls was put in place to “prove” to the American public how inane and useless the federal government is – by making the federal government inane and useless.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the Department of Education with its Republican mega-donor turned Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.

DeVos has spent her entire adult life buying off mostly Republican lawmakers throughout the country to destroy public schools and replace them with charter, private and parochial schools.

She is a self-inflicted cancer on the system, a know-nothing religious zealot who spouts more factually challenged whoopers than Sean Spicer and Donald Trump combined.

But the endgame for putting a person who barely ever walked into a public school in charge of nationwide public school policy is clear – she’s there to demonstrate why the department should be disbanded.

With every idiotic statement, every Unconstitutional policy suggestion – she’s a corporate sponsored demo of why we need to trash this cabinet position altogether.

This has been the conservative dream since President Ronald Reagan. How dare his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter create a Department of Education, in the first place! Not only did Ronnie, the B-movie actor turned chief executive, have to defeat Carter, he needed to erase all of his predecessor’s policies. (Sound familiar? [Cough!] [Obamacare!] [Cough!])

And with Betsy DeVos’ help, Trump may finally get to realize Reagan’s dream.

To be fair, President George W. Bush did his fair share to make the department unpalatable. And so did Barack Obama!

Under Carter, the department was an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which tried to bring equity to America’s public schools. However, Bush transformed it into No Child Left Behind, a blatant federal power grab changing the focus to high stakes standardized testing and punishing schools that taught poor children.

Obama took this terrible legislation to its inevitable conclusion and transformed the Department of Education into a bribe factory, dangling federal help before impoverished schools only if these schools would spend it on test prep, edutech software and Common Core. Never mind that these “reforms” don’t actually help children. It was all about helping the corporations behind them.

Much of the modern zeitgeist behind the continued movement to disband the department comes from authentic bipartisan opposition to these changes. The modern Department of Education hasn’t been much of a helping hand for almost two decades. It’s been a cruel taskmaster and a money laundering service for the publishing and testing industry. And it’s overstepped its federal authority coercing states to do as Washington bureaucrats (or at least their wealthy donors) demand.

Add to that the new wrinkle of DeVos – a representative who is all of those things but also transparently self-serving and – frankly – stupid.

No wonder people want to disband the department!

It’s a rallying cry that’s not hard to get behind. Unless you think about it for two minutes.

Because it’s not the Department of Education that’s the problem. It’s what we’ve done to it.

The department has a vital and important role to play in making sure our system of public education serves everyone. Speaking in broad terms, the department should be dedicated to these three things: ensuring public schools are being properly funded, student and parent civil rights are not being violated and to be a repository for national data and research.

These are incredibly important. Right now we have one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the world. The majority of public education funding comes not from the federal government or the states, but from individual communities. If you live in a poor neighborhood, your kids get less education funding. If you live in a rich neighborhood, your kids get more. This is why the nearly 50% of all public school children living in poverty are struggling academically – we aren’t providing them with the resources to succeed.

The state and federal government could be doing something about that. At the federal level, the department of education oversees billions of dollars in grants to poor schools. Admittedly much of that money is tied to standardized testing and other corporate education reforms. We should cut those ties. We should provide help for proven, authentic education practices freely chosen by these districts. That’s something that could have a huge impact on student success. And it’s a project we should expand, not destroy under draconian budget cuts or the closure of the department.

Second, we have to admit that parents’ and students’ civil rights are often in jeopardy. This means special education students seeking an appropriate learning environment and modifications. This means students being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. This means minority students facing disproportionate discipline policies, unfair grading and/or lack of opportunities offered to other racial or ethnic groups. This means women and transgender students suffering discriminatory dress codes or bathroom policies. In short, it means that someone needs to be the moderator and protector of student and parent rights.

And finally, there needs to be a repository of national student data. This has gotten a negative connotation lately because of Bush and Obama’s incredibly permissive policies allowing edutech companies to collect a horde of student data for economic purposes. Let me be clear: The department shouldn’t be doing that at all. Student privacy should be respected. Computer programs and apps should not collect sensitive information about individual students to be sold to advertisers or used to market products to them.

But there is an incredible amount of aggregate information about student groups collected by the federal government that could be used to help improve the lives of students. This includes information on the racial proficiency gap and the amount of resources provided by states and municipalities. Moreover, we need an impartial entity to fund educational research about which reforms actually help students learn. Relying on corporations to fund research that “proves” the efficacy of their own products is not good science.

In short, disbanding the Department of Education would be a disaster. What would happen to Pell Grants, for instance? What would happen to the bundles of federal money that boost our public schools? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?

If we got rid of the department, at best these jobs would fall back on other government agencies that haven’t the funding, staff or ability to accomplish them. More likely, it would result in the elimination of billions of education dollars that the states simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) replace. Abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.

I sympathize with those who wish to make government more efficient, but the Department of Education is not a place to make cuts. If you really wanted to close an unnecessary federal department, start with the most recent one – the Department of Homeland Security. Nowhere else is there a more obvious duplication of services and waste of tax dollars to provide a service that was already being provided. But you never hear anyone suggest we close this department because (1) it was proposed by a Republican, and (2) as a nation, we have a broad, bipartisan priority on the safety of our citizens.

If only we had the same for public education!

But we don’t. In fact, many conservatives scoff at the very idea of public schools on the grounds that it’s “socialism” – as if social security, Medicare and a standing military were not!

Too many people have bought into the lie that there is something unAmerican about public school. On the contrary, our system is implicit in our very form of government and the flower of our founding fathers’ thoughts.

The rich and powerful don’t want a robust system of public education because it goes against their interests. An informed, thinking public is harder to control. They especially don’t want minorities or the poor to be well-educated because once people realize how much they’re being exploited, they won’t continue to submit to the status quo.

In short, the Department of Education needs to change. It needs to be revitalized from the ground up. And DeVos is not the person to do it.

However, we shouldn’t let her incompetence make us throw it all away. We need to find ways to agitate, resist and survive the Trump administration while preserving as much as we can of our Democracy – and our sanity – in the process. We need to find and support prospective lawmakers and public servants who will actually represent us, the people, instead of Trump’s billionaire buddies. We need a robust, grassroots movement to take back our government.

And then we can begin the hard work of making our government work for us again. Part of that will involve the Department of Education.

Koch Bros Funded Publication Criticizes – ME – on School Choice!

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You know you’ve made it when the Koch Brothers are funding a critique of your work.

Most of the time I just toil in obscurity.

I sit behind my computer furiously pounding away at the keys sending my little blog entries out onto the Interwebs never expecting much of a reply.

Sure I get fervent wishes for my death.

And the occasional racist diatribe that only tangentially has anything to do with what I wrote.

But a response from a conservative Web magazine funded by the world’s most famous billionaire brothers!?

I guess this is what the big time feels like!

The article appeared in The Federalist, an Internet publication mostly known for anti-LGBT diatribes and climate change denial. But I had the audacity to write something called “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice.”

I had to be taken down.

And they had just the person to do it – far right religious author Mary C. Tillotson.

You may remember her from such hard hitting pieces as “How Praying a Novena Helped Me Process This Election,” “Sometimes, Holiness is Boring,” and “Why It’s Idiotic to Blame Christians for the Orlando Attack.”
This week her article is called “Top 10 Reasons HuffPo Doesn’t Get School Choice.”

Which is kinda’ wrong from the get-go.

Yes, I published my article in the Huffington Post, but it is not exactly indicative of the editorial slant of that publication. Sure, HuffPo leans left, but it routinely published articles that are extremely favorable to school choice. Heck! Michelle Rhee is a freakin’ contributor!

So I don’t think it’s fair to blame HuffPo for my ideas on school choice. A better title might have been “Top 10 Reasons Singer Doesn’t Get School Choice,” but who the Heck is Singer and why should anyone care!?

Then she gives a quick summary of how my whole piece is just plain wrong: “Steven Singer of The Huffington Post would have you believe that when parents have more choices, they have fewer choices.”

That’s like writing “Steven Singer of Consumer Reports would have you believe buying a used car means you may not be able to get anywhere.”

I stand by that statement. They’re both scams, Mary. The perpetrators of school choice want to convince you to choose a school that gives you fewer choices than public schools do. Just like a used car salesmen may try to convince you to buy a clunker that won’t get you from point A to B.

Claim 1: ‘Voucher programs almost never provide students with full tuition.’

She says I’m wrong because I’m right. She basically admits most vouchers won’t pay the full tuition but that it’s still a help.

Okay. But parents have already paid for a full K-12 public school education that they will not have to supplement at all. That’s a much better value.

Moreover, Mary, you pretend that the cost of the voucher is going to pay for at least 2/3 of private school tuition. This isn’t true. Most of Donald Trump’s kids went to the Hill School in Pennsylvania for more than $55,000 a year. A thousand or two isn’t going to help much.

But Mary disagrees. Most rich folks aren’t eligible for voucher programs, she says, so the hyper elite academies are off the table.

It’s true that most vouchers are given to poor students, but that’s only temporary. The goal is to increase them to middle and upper class students. It’s the first thing they do after initially limiting vouchers to the poor. And she knows this. She’s read Milton Friedman, the conservative nutjob who thought up this scheme to destroy public schools. “The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system…” he said. How? “Privately conducted schools… can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools and mixed schools,” Friedman wrote.

What a brave new world you’re defending, Mary!

Claim 2: Choice schools don’t have to accept everyone.

She writes, “Singer would have you believe that charter schools and private schools receiving voucher money are cherry-picking the best students to stoke their egos and stats. This isn’t true, and even if it were, it would still provide more choices.”

Um. Okay. So you admit this could be true but it doesn’t matter. Choice is all that matters. Very telling.

Then she goes on to talk about schools that actually do pick their own students, and she argues that it’s okay.

It’s not, Mary. Schools that accept tax dollars should have to accept all students. Otherwise, you’re just guessing that somewhere out there is a school for all kids, but you’re doing nothing to ensure this is true.

Children and families from places destroyed by vouchers and underfunding of public schools such as Detroit have been complaining of this very thing. They go from school to school never able to find one that meets their needs. It’s not that this is a failure of the system either – this IS the system working properly! This IS school choice – a system that only ensures choice but never quality or excellence. It is predicated on the semi-religious belief that the market will take care of everything.

It doesn’t. Ask Dannah Wilson about it.

Claim 3: Charter schools are notorious for kicking out hard-to-teach students.

She acknowledges the point and then changes the subject. She says there are great charters out there like KIPP. Yes, KIPP – a system that does exactly what I just said it does! Look at the huge numbers of students KIPP schools kick out. Look at the very few who make it to graduation. This is a terrible model for your school. I guess Mary lives in a universe of alternative facts where terrible equals great.

I’m kind of embarrassed for you. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Claim 4: Choice schools actually give parents less choice than traditional public schools.

Mary says that every parent should have the right to vote with their feet? Why? I’m not sure. Maybe this explains her position:

“Singer writes, “If you don’t like what your public school is doing, you can organize, vote for new leadership or even take a leadership role, yourself.” But seriously, who has time for that? Some people, yes, but not the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet. It’s a lot easier—and a lot faster, which matters in the life of a child—to enroll a child in a different school than to slog through the political process.”

So it’s a lot easier to have fewer options? Mary, you just argued AGAINST choice. You just said choice is too much work. No one has time for choice? Make up your mind.

That is ridiculous. But moreover it’s untrue. Do you really believe parents have the time to go shopping for new schools every week? That single mom doesn’t have time to go to board meetings but she has the time to enter these charter school lotteries and hope her kids get in? And if they don’t, she has time to trudge across town to another school and when it closes suddenly, she has time to start the process all over again? And again? THIS is the time saving process!? When she could actually be building something as part of her community?

Claim 5: Charter schools don’t perform better than traditional public schools.

She just says both can be good or bad. This sidesteps exactly how bad charter schools can be. Charter operators can take all the money and run. Charters can close without warning. Cyber charters have been found to actually provide less education in math and reading than not going to school at all.

Traditional public schools can struggle, and when they do it’s almost always because they’re underfunded. Yet, they NEVER provide an education that is as bad as the worst charter schools. And most traditional public schools do the best they can with what they have. The problem is strategic disinvestment. We could make almost every traditional public school excellent if we just funded them fairly. But unfortunately billionaires like the Kochs are paying for people like Mary to convince us otherwise.

Claim 6: Charters and vouchers increase segregation.

She basically offers a defense of white parents who want their kids schooled separately from black ones. That’s just choice, baby, and choice is always good.
No, it’s not. We’ve seen that it is better for everyone if children are educated with diverse people. It helps them understand people unlike themselves. It builds a more tolerant and just America.

Yes, our traditional public schools have become more segregated because of the way district lines are drawn. But that doesn’t mean we should double down on segregation. It means we should fight to reverse it.

Then she tells a fairytale about Obama attacking choice schools in Louisiana. He CREATED that system! He was a booster of the all-charter system! He was not an enemy of school choice. Corporate Democrats are not the enemy of school choice! They love it! They are the allies of your own corporate masters, Mary. Do some research.

Claim 7: Charter and voucher schools take away funding from traditional schools.

She basically agrees with me and then says public schools should find a way to deal with it. That’s what private schools do.

But public schools can’t operate like private schools and they shouldn’t for many of the reasons already enumerated here. They accept everyone. They don’t intentionally segregate. Etc.

Moreover, instability is a terrible basis for a school. You want to ensure it will be there for children when they need it. You don’t want schools competing with each other for resources like businesses. Most businesses fail. You don’t want that for schools. You need them to succeed. That means artificially ensuring their success with a steady, reliable stream of funding just like you give to the military. You wouldn’t suggest the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines compete for funding. Why do that to our public schools?

Claim 8: Funding a variety of schools would be wasteful and expensive.

She says I’m thinking “bureaucratically, considering ‘school systems’ instead of the actual children who are the reason schools exist in the first place.”

Uh, these systems serve children. You need to be able to run them FOR THOSE STUDENTS.

Claim 9: School choice distracts from the real problems: poverty and funding equity.

She agrees that poverty is important. Then she pulls the old “throwing money at problems is a terrible idea” card. Public schools just need to find ways to cut costs. They spend too much. Blah, blah, blah.

She ignores the facts. Public schools spend dramatically different sums on students depending on whether they’re rich or poor. We need equitable school funding. That means spending more on poor children and not complaining about “throwing money” at the problem. No one complains about that at the rich schools where they spend so much more than the poor schools. No one calls it “throwing money” when it’s your own child. That’s “investing in children.” It’s only when it’s THOSE kids that it’s “throwing money” at the problem. It betrays a class conscious prejudice against the poor and – most likely – children of color.

She then goes on to complain about the increase in administrative costs at public schools. This is laughable! Charter schools spend so much more on administrative costs than traditional public schools! A study by Michigan State University and the University of Utah found that charter schools spend on average $774 more per student on administration and $1,140 less on instruction than do traditional public schools.

And then she talks about student achievement not increasing at public schools. Actually, it depends on how you measure it. Standardized testing is a poor measure of achievement. And when you adjust for poverty, our schools are some of the best in the world.

Claim 10: School choice is supported by billionaires, not the grassroots.

Here she just talks about all the events planned during school choice week.

Mary, these are attended by private and parochial schools during the school day. The staff is literally paid to be there. The school children are literally forced to be there because their schools are closed and they are bused in to these events.

That’s not grassroots. That’s the definition of astroturf.

Do some people support school choice? Yes. Less than 10 percent of America’s students attend these schools. But the overwhelming majority of Americans support public schools.

Mary goes on about all the people applying for vouchers but she ignores a much more pertinent fact. Whenever school vouchers have been put to a referendum, voters have always turned it down. This despite who-knows-how-many-millions of dollars in advertising and propaganda to influence voters to support it!

No matter what the position, you can find someone to support it. But the majority of school choice proponents are billionaires and corporatists trying to fool regular people into doing what’s not it their own best interests.

Just ask your editors at the Federalist, Mary. You and your article are a case in point.

But thank you so much for critiquing my article. I’m just a public school teacher. I so rarely get corporate employees writing responses to my work.

Frankly, I didn’t find your piece very convincing, but what do I know? I’m a union thug with an advanced degree, a masters and a national certification. I don’t represent Trump’s America like you do.

I just represent the majority who may one day wake up and take it all back.

America’s Founding Fathers Were Against School Choice

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One of the founding principles of the United States is public education.

 

We fought a bloody revolution against England for many reasons, but chief among them was to create a society where all people could be educated.

 

Certainly we had disagreements about who counted as a person. Women? Probably not. Black people? Doubtful. But the ideal of providing a quality education for all was a central part of our fledgling Democracy regardless of how well we actually lived up to it.

 

In fact, without it, our system of self-government just wouldn’t work. A functioning Democracy, it was thought, couldn’t exist in a nation where the common person was ignorant. We needed everyone to be knowledgeable and enlightened.

 

That’s why we have public schools – so that an educated citizenry will lead to a good government.

 

Our founders didn’t want a system of private schools each teaching students various things about the world coloring their minds with religious dogma. They didn’t want a system of schools run like businesses that were only concerned with pumping out students to be good cogs in the machinery of the marketplace.

 

No. They wanted one public system created for the good of all, paid for at public expense, and democratically governed by the taxpayers, themselves.

 

Don’t believe me?

 

Just look at what the founders, themselves, had to say about it.

 

More than any other fathers of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson preached the Gospel of education and its necessity for free governance.

 

As he wrote in a letter to Dr. Price (1789), “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

 

He expanded on it in a letter to C. Yancy (1816), “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

 

James Madison agreed. As the author of the Second Amendment, he is often credited with giving gun rights primary importance. However, he clearly thought education similarly indispensable. In a letter to W. T. Barry (1822), he wrote:

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

 

Our first President, George Washington, saw this to mean that the goal of education should be knowledge of good government. He wrote in Maxims (1854):

“And a primary object of such an Institution [Public Education], should be the education of our youth in the SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT. In a Republic what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty is more pressing on its legislature, than to patronize a plan, for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

 

For his part, Jefferson had even more egalitarian ends in mind. For him, the most important aspect of public schooling was that it should be open to all social strata of society.

 

He wrote in his response to the American Philosophical Society, (1808), “I feel … an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.”

 

In short, Jefferson envisioned a public school system that educated everyone regardless of social class or wealth.

 

This is very different from 18th Century education in the United Kingdom. Rich children went to grammar schools with vastly different curriculums for boys and girls. But the poor were left to their own devices. Though many English towns had established charity schools – sometimes called Blue Coat Schools because of the color of children’s uniforms – there was no general law guaranteeing an education to the poor. Moreover, most schools included religious instruction, usually that of the Church of England. Children who belonged to other denominations often went to their own academies. In many cases, a formal education was eschewed altogether in favor of a 7-year apprenticeship for a trade or working at home.

So what Jefferson and others were proposing – free, secular education for all – was revolutionary.

 

Moreover, it would be essentially public, not private. Jefferson’s immediate predecessor as President, John Adams, famously said in Defense of Constitutions (1787):

 

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

 

 

The result of such a national commitment to public education was immediately felt. Schools were built quickly throughout the country but especially in the more urban North. By 1800, the literacy rate exceeded 90 percent in some regions – extraordinary for the time period.

 

Data from indentured servant contracts of German immigrant children in Pennsylvania show that the number of children receiving an education increased from 33.3% in 1771–1773 to 69% in 1787–1804.

 

 

By 1900, there were 34 states with compulsory schooling laws; four of which were in the South. Thirty of those states even required attendance until age 14 or higher. As a result, by 1910, a full 72 percent of American children attended school. By 1918, every state required students to complete at least elementary school.

 

 

And these schools became increasingly public. Though the Colonial period was marked by more private schools than public, by the close of the 19th century, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones. This was just as Jefferson had foreseen.

 

He believed there was a place for private enterprise, but education wasn’t it. In his sixth Annual Message (1806) as President, Jefferson wrote:

 

“Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.”

 

In other words, Jefferson saw room for some aspects of schooling to be private such as selling books, supplies, etc. Some things are accomplished better by private enterprise, but not all. Only the “ordinary branches” of schooling can be best served by “private enterprise.” The roots of the tree, however, must be public. It just makes sense, after all. You wouldn’t run a business like a school. Why would you want to run a school like a business?

 

He stressed that only an institution focused on the public good, only a public school system, can provide the best education. And he again stressed its necessity for the health of the entire country.

 

In Notes on Virginia (1782), Jefferson wrote:

 

“An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.”

 

Truly, the founders saw public education as a way of stopping their new nation from becoming as corrupt as England. By spreading the vote to more people, it was necessary to increase the education of the citizenry. That way, it would be difficult for special interests to sway the government unless what they were proposing was for the good of all.

 

Chief among the corrupting influences of English education was religion. It wasn’t that our founders were irreligious. They were skeptical of dogma, of the close relationship between church and state in the United Kingdom and how the one was used to enforce the other.

 

As Madison wrote in a letter to Edward Livingston (1822), “Religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

 

Jefferson made this clear in his letter to Thomas Cooper (1822):

 

“After stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences… And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”

 

In other words, Jefferson desired those interested in religious matters to broaden their knowledge beyond their own belief system. It was essential that American minds were not closed by strict canonical religious instruction. He saw this as necessary to the exercise of free government.

 

One can only imagine at what horror he would regard the modern voucher system, where tax dollars are used to fund parochial schools teaching just this same primacy of doctrine in the formation of students’ worldviews. He wanted Americans with open minds full of competing ideas, not mentalities instructed in the one “right” way to act and think.

 

And the cost of providing such an education – though considerable – was worth it.

 

Ben Franklin (as later quoted in Exercises in English Grammar (1909) by M. A. Morse) allegedly said:

“If a man empties his purse into his head no man can take it from him. An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

 

Adams concurred in his 1776 Papers:

 

“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

 

And Jefferson in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell (1816) wrote, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”

 

Moreover, as a man of wealth, himself, Jefferson had no problem bearing the burden of the cost of a robust public school system. In his Autobiography (1821), he wrote, “The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor.”

 

How far we have strayed from these ideals.

 

Our current policymakers are doing just the opposite of the founders. They skimp on education, slashing budgets especially for the poor. They seem to champion both private schools and ignorance. Education is not a necessary public good – it is something to be hidden and kept away from the masses.

 

Today’s policymakers and politicians seem to actually want voters to be uninformed so they’ll vote for ignorant lawmakers and bad policies. They’ll vote against their own interests.

 

This goes against everything our founders stood for. It is counter to the ideals of the American Revolution. It is un-American.

 

There is nothing more representative of the ideals of our nation than the public school system. And anyone who attacks it attacks the heart of the nation.