The Assault on Public Schools

The perception that the US has a failing education system is widespread. Even the British magazine, the Economist, accepts that of course American schools are failing.  Yet Gallup Polls show support for one's child's school is the highest ever measured while faith in the nation's public schools has plummeted since the 1980s. How could 77% of parents give their children's schools A's and B's yet only 18% award the same marks to public schools in general?  It is a triumph of the schools-for-profit crowd and those who see the public sector as inherently inefficient and corrupt.

School Choice

The rallying cry of those suspicious of public education is "school choice".  Where once this meant the ability to enroll your child at any public school regardless of residence, now it means public dollars for private schools.  They're called Charter Schools but private schools they certainly are.  Some are innovative and excellent.  Others are opportunistic.  Witness specifically those whose mission is to attract home school parents.  Take a look at the course offerings here.  This is not comprehensive education and it's certainly not about preparing students to pass federal testing requirements in Reading and Math.  State education dollars flow to charter schools to provide skiing and snowboarding lessons, piano lessons, guitar and other enrichment activities.  Some offer horseback riding lessons.  All good things and most parents would want them.  But most parents pay for these extras and only ask taxpayers to cover basic education.

Under recent school reforms -- at the national and state levels -- control over public schools has increased substantially, from testing requirements and curriculum constraints to teacher qualifications.  At the same time, charter schools have been encouraged with generous public financing and few constraints.  The mandates that burden public education are explicitly absent from charter schools.  Only testing requirements remain and results have not been promising.  In Oregon, charter schools began with federal authorization in 1995, grew to 17 in 2001 and there are now 110 charter schools in Oregon.  In spite of their popularity, the US Department of Education's analysis of charter school impacts found no significant advantages for students.

Public school funding in most states is threatened. Class sizes are exploding, art and music programs are disappearing and schools are being closed.  Districts are cutting school days (our district cut 15 days this year) or moving to 4-day school weeks.  Yet each year more and more of the education budget goes to charter schools.

Reaction to Public Employee Unions

So how have public schools fallen into such disfavor?  Part is the reaction to teachers' unions.  Since Ronald Reagan took on the Air Traffic Controllers in 1981, negative perceptions of labor unions have increased.  Unionized industries have diminished and few private sector workers now belong to labor unions (8%).  With real wages stagnant (and benefits eroding) for most Americans over the past 20 years, the benefits of government workers seem out of proportion to those of private sector workers.

Public-Private Comparisons

Throw into the mix persistent assaults on all public services.  Like public schools, the US Post Office is scorned while private competitors Fed Ex and UPS are celebrated.  Much easier to skim off the profitable parcel delivery portion.  Daily mail delivery to 115 million households and 8 million businesses is a costly affair.  Similarly, there's a popular perception that Medicare is a wasteful inefficient program.  Yet until the Bush Administration's prescription drug add-on -- the first Medicare program without cost containment measures -- Medicare was highly efficient, providing care for our highest cost citizens at reasonable costs and with the lowest overhead in the medical system.

The assault on public schools is part of a pattern that serves to undermine all public services and promote privatization.  There are many more examples -- prisons, higher education, public transportation and more.  Interestingly, most of the privatization forces still expect taxpayer dollars to foot the bills.

The Shame Game

The advent of school report cards and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) reports mailed annually to parents and published in the media help to foster  suspicion.  What does it mean if last year my child's school was Excellent and now it's Unsatisfactory?  What horrible thing happened in one year?  AYP is particularly punitive, demanding the impossible from schools, shaming them when they can't meet increasingly absurd targets and eventually closing them down to be reopened as charter or private schools.  The agenda is clear.

What Really has Changed?

So if the American public has such a negative view of public education in general, what actually is different?  What has changed since you and I were in school?  The biggest change I would argue is that the students sitting to your right and left are different.  Not so much that kids in general are different, but rather that now nearly everyone is in school.  Not that long ago, only students from affluent and middle class families went to high school.  Now we educate everyone (a good thing, for sure) but are alarmed that some students misbehave, don't do their homework, fail classes and don't graduate.  Take a look at the chart below, based on US Census Data.

2009:  89% completed high school
2000:  80%
1990:  75%
1980:  67%
1970:  53%
1960:  41%
1950:  34%
1940:  25% completed high school

So if education seems more problematic now, particularly high school education, keep in mind that educating an elite was not the same as educating everyone.  Not so long ago, those who struggled with high school just quit or were pushed out.  It's hard to read the above census data and not feel like celebrating the improvements in American education.  But it is not fashionable to praise our public schools and I suspect that none in the media or in government are likely to follow my humble lead.

See also: "Good Schools"


  1. Wow, that growth in high school graduation rates is simply amazing. 9% in just the last decade alone, 36% in the last 40 years.

  2. Well said. The failure of the public to support public education financially and in not giving the schools and teachers credit is saddening. It is much as if we were the problem. And I am sure you went into education for much the same reasons I did. We should be thanked. Would that be too much to expect?

    News: I have a job! I am now at MAC with the special ed. kiddos. LOVING IT! It is part time but more hours than I really want or need. Strange, with people in need of work, I have more than I want. And this month I got my first S. S. check! So I should be ...golfing and drinking cocktails in the afternoon, don't you think? Rox

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. have to say, I was amazed when the mother of Miss S's classmate said they moved to Portland from an Arizona school system for the schools. I was almost overcome with what I thought was an odd irony - see, I have soaked up a lot of the "Portland public schools are terrible" mindset. But, after almost 2 years with Miss S's school (and her incredible teachers) I am heartend and truly awed by the stellar teachers AND curriculum I see coming out of her school. In 2nd grade, each student had to research, plan, write and present on a topic of their choice. The teacher shared her rubric for "grading", and the kids seemed to take these criteria to heart. The teacher asked the students to share what they learned from each classmates' presentation, and THEN, each student was required to turn in a peer evaluation. And the most shocking to me? (Sadly, ashamedly) Each student DID it, and DID it very well. Why am I surprised? I think I have suffered the way others have, hearing the dire (yet inaccurate) information about our public schools. Since my cognitive dissonance is dissipating, I am more engaged then ever with what the school is offering, and am SO happy we chose not to send Miss S to the charter school she was accepted to.....I DO credit her first grade teacher with sharing his very heartfelt support of public, neighborhood school. You know, community is one of our most cherished values, after family and friends. I see neighborhood schools as a basic building block in the foundation of community - it is where we learn so much more than the curriculum. It is imperative that each American has a similar beginning, as that is what builds an educated, thinking, engaged public who votes and understands their rights and responsibilities in a democracy. Now, is that so "left wing"? If so, WHY????

  5. What is the reason that the British magazine, the Economist, accepts that American schools are failing?

    delivery service

  6. Good question. The article I linked to above didn't elaborate. But I'm sure hearing Americans from the President to Congress to Governors to even educators repeat the same mantra, they would assume it must be true. I hope some will speak out and challenge that.


Post a Comment

I'm interested in your comments.