Kids Deserve a Quality Education – not the PURSUIT of a Quality Education

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On Tuesday, Dannah Wilson, a 17-year-old student in Detroit came to Washington, D.C., with a message for Betsy DeVos, the current nominee for Education Secretary.

She said:

“My four siblings and I have attended 22 schools in search of satisfaction. … A satisfaction that our eyes haven’t seen. A satisfaction that our hearts can only hope for. A satisfaction that has been stolen from me for way too long because of the naive and narrow policies pushed by Betsy DeVos. That Detroit students are denied daily due to the privately institutional lies by Betsy DeVos and her duplicates.”

After three hours of confirmation hearings, DeVos was nowhere to be seen.

Running on only 3 hours of sleep and after waiting for 7 hours to speak with DeVos, Wilson spoke, instead, to people who would listen – a gathering of members of the AFL-CIO.

Her powerful statement was recorded by the members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and posted to their Facebook page where it has gone viral.

As with anything involving unions, skeptics will dismiss the whole thing as a publicity stunt. That the AFT decided to add an annoying musical score to the video will only heighten that skepticism.

However, there is one thing that can’t be denied – Wilson’s sincerity. Her eyes tear up and her voice chokes as she tries to get the words out. You may discount her as a talented actress, but she rings true to me.

Moreover, speaking out in this way is decidedly against her own self interest. She attends Cornerstone Leadership and Business High School, a Detroit private school with a $5,000 annual tuition. Expanding voucher programs likely would reduce the cost of attending her school.

But no. Wilson is firmly against DeVos, who has spent $200 million or more pushing lawmakers in Michigan and throughout the nation to enact vouchers and reduce charter school regulations.

What struck me most was her story of searching for a quality school and being unable to find one.

Corporate school reformers aren’t pushing for quality schools. They’re pushing for choice.

It’s the difference between a right and a freedom.

The Declaration of Independence famously defines “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as “inalienable rights.” As such, it guarantees “Life” and “Liberty” outright, but as to “Happiness” we are only guaranteed “the pursuit” of it.

(Today we recognize certain limitation on both Life and Liberty, but even at its inception, the framers limited our right to Happiness as merely the freedom with which to pursue it.)

There is a similar limitation being made with regard to school choice.

Supporters want students to be able to pick between public and private schools. But that doesn’t mean they have to do anything about ensuring any of these schools actually do a good job at helping kids learn.

It’s a subtle point but one that’s often overlooked.

Parents and children want a quality education. They don’t want choice unless it will lead to that quality education.

If we only guarantee choice, we aren’t giving parents and children what they want and need. In fact, we’re ignoring them in favor of those who would benefit from mere choice – charter and private school operators.

Parents don’t want to have to search through dozens of schools to find one that will actually teach their children. Nor would transferring from school-to-school in a desperate attempt to find one of quality be beneficial to students. No, parents want whichever school their children attend to be excellent.

And once we see that, we see Wilson’s point.

There is no federal right to an education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students with disabilities are provided a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE), but that’s as far as the federal government goes. As it stands, it only applies to certain children who qualify, and even then it is under constant legal challenge and review.

Traditionally the responsibility has fallen to the states through interpretation of the 10th and 14th amendments. Likewise, most states explicitly guarantee an education as part of their individual state constitutions. However, issues of fairness, quality and equity are constantly in doubt.

It’s hard to underestimate how backwards the US is in this regard. According to the Constitute Project, 174 countries include a right to education in their Constitutions – nearly every one included in the available global record. A child’s right to an education is included in international laws like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The latter agreement, the most widely accepted human rights treaty in history, has been ratified by every member of the United Nations except Somalia and the United States.

Policymakers love to demean the US education system in relation to international test scores. It should be noted that almost all of the countries our students are being compared to guarantee their children’s right to be educated.

Instead, we’re trying to avoid any national responsibility. States are trying to limit their responsibility. And school choice legislation is attempting to throw it all on parents without giving them any tools except guaranteed options.

The real issue at the heart of this debate is the value of private vs public systems. Choice advocates say only privatized schools will provide the best schools, but this is demonstrably false.

Many of our public schools are excellent. You’ll find them especially in richer neighborhoods where they spend more per pupil than poorer districts with less local tax revenue to draw upon. Imagine if we committed to fairly funding them all. Imagine if we committed to bringing all of them up to that same standard.

School choice is a shell game meant to district you from this point. If the goal is providing all children with an equal, free, and adequate education, the policies of someone like Betsy DeVos take us in the wrong direction.

They will only lead us to more tears from brave children like Wilson who have to travel far from their homes to confront uncaring would-be Education Secretaries.

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Trump says our schools are “Flush with Cash!?” They’re Falling Apart!

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Donald Trump lies.

If you haven’t learned that yet, America, you’ve got four more cringe-inducing years to do so.

Even in his inaugural address, he couldn’t help but let loose a whooper about US public schools.

“Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves,” he said. “But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. … An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

To which nearly every poor, nonwhite public school parent, student and teacher in the country replied, “What’s that heck did he just say now!?”

Los Angeles Unified School district routinely has broken desks and chairs, missing ceiling tiles, damaged flooring, broken sprinklers, damaged lunch tables and broken toilet paper dispensers.

They’re flush with cash!?

New York City public schools removed more than 160 toxic light fixtures containing polychlorinated biphenyls, a cancer causing agent that also hinders cognitive and neurological development. Yet many schools are still waiting on a fix, especially those serving minority students.

They’re flush with cash!?

At Charles L. Spain school in Detroit, the air vents are so warped and moldy, turning on the heat brings a rancid stench. Water drips from a leaky roof into the gym, warping the floor tiles. Cockroaches literally scurry around some children’s classrooms until they are squashed by student volunteers.

They’re flush with freakin cash!?

Are you serious, Donald Trump!?

And this same picture is repeated at thousands of public schools across the nation especially in impoverished neighborhoods. Especially in communities serving a disproportionate number of black, Latino or other minority students.

In predominantly white, upper class neighborhoods, the schools often ARE “flush with cash.” Olympic size swimming pools, pristine bathrooms – heck – air conditioning! But in another America across the tracks, schools are defunded, ignored and left to rot.

A full 35 states provide less overall state funding for education today than they did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on reducing poverty and inequality. Most states still haven’t recovered from George W. Bush’s Great Recession and the subsequent state and local budget cuts it caused. In fact, over the same period, per pupil funding fell in 27 states and still hasn’t recovered.

And the federal government has done little to help alleviate the situation. Since 2011, spending on major K-12 programs – including Title I grants for underprivileged students and special education – has been basically flat.

The problem is further exacerbated by the incredibly backward way we allocate funding at the local level which bears the majority of the cost of education.

While most advanced countries divide their school dollars evenly between students, the United States does not. Some students get more, some get less. It all depends on local wealth.

The average per pupil expenditure for U.S. secondary students is $12,731. But that figure is deceiving. It is an average. Some kids get much more. Many get much less. It all depends on where you live. If your home is in a rich neighborhood, more money is spent on your education than if you live in a poor neighborhood.

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

So, no. Our schools are not “flush with cash.” Just the opposite in many cases.
But what about Trump’s other claim – the much touted narrative of failing schools?

Trump says our schools “leave… our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

Not true.

Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent. Moreover, for the first time minority students are catching up with their white counterparts.

It’s only international comparisons of standardized test scores that support this popular myth of academic failure. And, frankly, even that is based on a warped and unfair reading of those results.

It depends on how you interpret the data.

Raw data shows US children far from the top of the scale. It puts us somewhere in the middle – where we’ve always been for all the decades since they’ve been making these comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

However, this ignores a critical factor – poverty. We’ve known for decades that standardized tests are poor measures of academic success. Bubble tests can assess simple things but nothing complex. After all, they’re scored based on answers to multiple choice questions. In fact, the only thing they seem to measure with any degree of accuracy is the parental income of the test-taker. Kids from rich families score well, and poor kids score badly.

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking these exams have much less child poverty than the U.S. If they had the same percentage of poor students that we do, their scores would be lower than ours. Likewise, if we had the same percentage of poor students that they do, our scores would go through the roof! We would have the best scores in the world!

Moreover, the U.S. education system does something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME of theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

This suggests that the majority of problems with our public schools aren’t bad teachers, or a lack of charter schools and school choice. It’s money, pure and simple.

We invest the majority of our education funding in rich white kids. The poor and minorities are left to fend for themselves.

This won’t be solved by Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and her school choice schemes. In fact, that’s exactly what’s weakened public schools across the country by leaching away what meager funding these districts have left. Nor will it be solved by a demagogue telling fairy tales to Washington’s credulous and ignorant.

We need to make a real investment in our public schools. We need to make a commitment to funding poor black kids as fairly as we do rich white kids.

Otherwise, the only thing flushed will be children’s future.