What difference does it make if the US has a strong system of public education – one that provides easy access, excellent opportunities to learn and support for all? Why should it be primarily public and not private?
Thomas Jefferson, our third president, is often quoted as saying that “democracy is only possible with an informed citizenry.” An overarching goal of public education is to provide that common understanding of the foundations of democracy so each of us can become that informed citizen. Understanding democracy is the basis for the common ground we are now seeking as a country. As we have splintered, isolated ourselves, or live away from one another, we have created the corrosive divisiveness that we are experiencing in the US today.
Public education is the primary way to ensure that all students understand democracy, American values that they have access and opportunity, and are ready
Today we have a well-established public education sector comprised of K-12, community college, and higher education and a growing early education component. The first focus is on elementary, middle and high school because funding K-12 education consumes the lions share of most state funding and reaches the most students.
Public education is free and available to all including those children of immigrants who are not legal citizens. Multiple languages are spoken in US schools with Spanish being the most common, after English. The primary goal of schools is to provide an education but in fact, schools are often the center of the community as well. They provide many other functions such as transportation, serving breakfast and lunch and are staffed with librarians, counselors, and nurses. Local schools are an essential part of the social fabric of our culture and help us all in the transmission of American values.
There are over 50 million students in public school, K-12, with another 5 plus million in private school. Public education is delivered though a coordinated effort of the Federal government, the 50 states and DC and a nationwide network of 13,500 districts and almost 100,000 schools, both rural and urban. There are an estimate 6,500 charters and online schools are primarily located in urban areas. Approximately 20.5 million students are estimated to be enrolled in higher education.
K-12 education is one of the, if not the, largest component of any state budget. The overall education budget for 2016 is approximately 584.6 billion for K-12. Education, both K-12 and higher education is vast, representing a major percentage of GDP of the economy, employing over 3 million teachers.
For the first time in 2016, a collective of minority students entering, the classroom will be in the majority at 50.3 and the remaining 48.7 percent are white students. These children, entering kindergarten for the first time this year, represent America’s future in every way.
The current president campaigned on promises
Bannon, the president’s strategic advisor, is following through on plans to install Cabinet members who are openly hostile to the agency they are leading. Betsy DeVos clearly fits that description facing a tremendous public outcry during her confirmation process. The stated goal of this administration, per Steve Bannon, is to disrupt and destroy the current “administrative state”. For more indepth analysis, see the Bannon section.
The current president has also voiced views that education in the country is bad, there is too much government, too much regulation and not enough local control – all aligned with the general conservative narrative. The major options for improvement, put forth by conservatives, are providing additional “choice” to parents and injecting competition into the education industry. Generally, these are political solutions to education problems, which should be a red flag for the making decisions.
In addition there is scant to no evidence, or research, that these “choice” ideas are effective strategies. It is also unclear, and unproven, how scalable these solutions may be. In fact there are a number of recent studies that indicate that two “choice” options – vouchers and online schools – are not effective and their students lag behind their public school counterparts by up to a year in some studies. Charter schools, another “choice” ,are highly variable in performance across the nation. Overall they average no better and no worse than public schools.
A better path is to focus on solving or designing the education solution first and making sure that any change or reform is an improvement before deciding on political solutions.
From an education perspective the overall achievement of US students has not improved much over the last two decades, as measured by National Association for Education Progress (NAEP) also known as the “nation’s report card.” The most recent year results from 2015 show a statistically significant decline in math scores for the first time. Many other evaluations and formal national/state assessments and international comparison such as (PISA} come to the same conclusion, The problem of low academic achievement of American students was first described in the report “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 commissioned by President Reagan.
At the same time, over the past two decades, other countries have radically improved their education systems so that now the US is slightly below average in international rankings behind the leaders of Singapore, Korea, Canada, Finland and many other European nations. The general conclusion is not that the US system is slipping, but rather that other countries are improving much more rapidly. These results present a huge, looming economic and quality-of-life problem for US competitiveness.
The trend of globalization means that American citizens are now required to compete globally, not just locally, competing against a better-educated workforce in other countries. The impact of technology is pushing the demand for more highly educated workers and US students are not uniformly prepared with the skills, knowledge and abilities they need to compete.
Unfortunately education has been highly politicized and polarized in the last few years. Recently a Charter School Defense Fund was organized and there are court challenges in various states. While everyone wants the same good outcomes for students, two major camps exist advocating paths to good outcomes that are very different.
The supporters of a strong public education system believe that the public system can be improved immensely and want taxpayer money to be spent on public institutions. Others are supportive of an approach that amounts to privatization of some of the system with charter schools, online schools and vouchers seen as replacement rather than incubators of innovation. A voucher program would enable parents to decide how to spend the voucher funds where they want to spend it, including spending on religion-based schools. This camp often does not want Federal oversight, accountability, and favors a states rights approach.
The states rights approach, which was in effect until the early 2000s, before George Bush legislated No Child Left Behind (NCLB), resulted in low standards and low achievement in many states while other states embraced high standards and high achievement. This achievement gap was the exact problem the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) were trying to solve with the Common Core State Standards – to answer the question. Why should a child in Massachusetts, Maryland or New Jersey receive a great public school education while students in Mississippi, Alabama or Arizona receive a less robust education?
The extreme polarization and bipartisanship has created an environment characterized by bitter conflict and mistrust. The fighting has been a major distraction and has consumed considerable resources, especially time, from educators who have to address politics on a constant basis now.
It is highly likely that the conflict, fighting and polarization will become more intense over the next few years. The key issue is that taking funds away from public education and giving those funds to charter schools will almost surely weakens the public school system. The best example is Philadelphia where the public school system shut down while charter schools were unaffected and an oversupply of charter schools in Detroit leading to excessive competition. Another point of contention is the role of private sector management and profit making. Another contentious issue is providing funds to religion-based schools.
We have had national experience with charter and online schools spanning 20 years, the results indicate that charter schools are comparable, on average to public schools, not better, not worse. Charter schools experience all of the same problems that public schools do. We now have two parallel, often uncoordinated systems that are performing same in terms in student achievement, have unequal funding, are competing for the same funds and are the source of extreme levels of misinformation, conflict, partisan politics.
An incredible amount of research and information on every single aspect of public education is easily available online, in print, at conferences and through excellent advocacy organizations. The volume is overwhelming and difficult to sort. A list of the best sources of information on education is presented in the list section for further information. The best implementation of education in the US is in Massachusetts, a state that is competitively ranked with the top-scoring PISA nations.
Massachusetts, the state with the best implementation of an education system in the country, provides the way forward on how to integrate charter schools with public schools as well as how to develop a world class, high performance education system. The features are