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Who cares about public education?

Parents, children, teachers, support staff (a growing number of them UE-represented) — and a majority of citizens. In repeated surveys and elections, the American public has consistently supported investment in education. In the November election, voters in several states approved significant spending increases for public schools.

Recognizing the broad-based support for education, President George W. Bush on Feb. 27 unveiled budget proposals that call for increased funding — an overall increase of 11.5 percent for schools. He would dedicate $5 billion over five years to help children learn to read; the education budget would also increase funds to train and recruit teachers.

The apple President Bush would like to bring to class has worms in it: vouchers (although he does not use that term), privatization schemes and high stakes testing.

If the Bush plan to provide additional funds and advance reading is a response to the public’s demand for improved schools, the Administration’s "worms" are a concession to who are looking to profit at the expense of children’s education.

Education spending represents 10 percent of the United States gross national product, but only two-tenths of one percent (.002) of the stock market. This represents a fabulous opportunity for profit-taking to those entrepreneurs the National Education Association labels "edventurists." The New York Times predicts that education could be turned into "the next health care."



President Bush would dedicate public funds for payment of tuition at private schools. UE opposes vouchers, arguing that funds should not be siphoned off from public schools — especially those in greatest need.

Last November, two statewide voucher plans on the ballot in California and Michigan were defeated by wide margins. Michigan voters defeated by 69-31 percent a plan that would have subsidized the private school education of students abandoning problem schools. Although Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper spent $23 million on behalf of the school voucher initiative, 71 percent of California voters flunked Proposition 38.


‘Voucher plans increase inequality without making schools better. Even more significantly, privatization reduces the public effort to improve schooling since it relies on the free market to increase achievement. But the increase never occurs.’

— Martin Carnoy, professor of education and economics, Stanford University


(At the same time, California voters approved a proposition that will make it easier for local districts to raise money to fund school improvements.)

In previous elections, similar ballot initiatives in a number of states have also been rejected. Voters were concerned that allowing tax dollars to be used for tuition at private schools would undermine public schools. Many state legislatures have also gotten the message; state lawmakers have consistently voted down voucher proposals.

Only three states have implemented voucher plans — and their report cards aren’t the kind to bring home to parents.

The Milwaukee Voucher Program initially enrolled 341 students, out of a total student population of about 100,000, when the program began in the 1990-1991 school year. Now there are 8,000 students in 100 private schools, with vouchers worth about $5,000 a piece. A study of the first five years of the Milwaukee Voucher Program revealed no improvement in achievement between voucher students and comparable public school students — and a study of Milwaukee’s "P-5" public school program, which used extra resources to reduce class sizes, outperformed both voucher and regular public school students.

Critics point out that Milwaukee’s voucher schools:

  • Do not have to obey open meetings and records laws.

  • Do not have to hire certified teachers — or even require a college degree.

  • Do not have to release information on employee wages and benefits.

  • Do not have to administer the statewide tests required of public schools.

  • Do not have to publicly release data such as test scores, attendance figures or suspension and dropout rates.

  • Openly screen students based on religious convictions.

Although the theory behind the Milwaukee program — like other voucher plans, including the Bush proposal — was that this would provide an option to poorly functioning public schools, only about one-third of Milwaukee voucher students came from public schools. In other words, Wisconsin taxpayers have been subsidizing the private-school education of students already enrolled in private schools, at the expense of public education. That represented a net loss of $22 million to the public schools in the 1998-99 school year.


Voucher advocates claim that private school education is cost effective, but in Milwaukee, voucher schools received about $1,000 more per student than comparable public schools in 1996-97.

Studies of the Cleveland Voucher Program, established in 1996, indicate that students are no better off by attending private schools. In non-academic areas, however, the program flunked: in 1998, the program ran 41 percent over budget (this forced the state to take $2.9 million from public school funds to cover the overruns); $1.9 million was misspent, according to auditors; and only one-fourth of voucher students in private schools came from public schools.

A federal appeals court in December declared the Cleveland program unconstitutional. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that use of public money to send thousands of children to parochial schools violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.

But regardless of constitutional issues, the evidence suggests that vouchers are not an effective alternative to improving public schools. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Prof. Alex Molnar, who studied the Milwaukee program and reviewed data from class-reduction programs in Tennessee and Wisconsin, concludes, "In sum, no strong evidence exists that participation in a voucher program increases student achievement." On the other hand, Molnar says, "There is no longer any argument about whether or not reducing class size in the primary grades increases student achievement. The research is quite clear: It does."



Although the evidence suggests local voucher plans drain public education of needed funds, plans concocted by right-wing ideologues and "edventurist" entrepreneurs drive public schools out of business nationwide. The profit potential is enormous — but of course this is based on depriving children of services and opportunities.

The book Politics, Markets and American Schools by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, published by the Brookings Institution, lays out a plan for deregulation. Education of children would be treated like electricity or air travel. Chubb and Moe would end the public school "monopoly" and create a nationwide market-driven school choice program.

Schools with money ("good" schools) will survive, poor schools ("bad" schools) will suffer and die.

The experience of private, for-profit schools indicates why edventurists are so eager to sweep aside government oversight of schools.

Take, for example, Edison Schools Inc. Formerly the Edison Project, this company raised $122 million in a November 1999 initial public stock offering. Edison now operates 79 schools serving some 38,000 students.

In Boston, Edison promised a maximum class size of 21, parental involvement and longer school days and more of them. Instead, classes grew to 28, books and materials arrived late, faculty were replaced in mid-year and the principal clashed with parents and staff. By the middle of the first year, the Edison school (Boston Renaissance) had been reprimanded by the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals for its neglect of two children with learning disabilities. The Edison school experienced serious problems with discipline.

Another firm, Education Alternatives Inc., won contracts with troubled public school districts in Baltimore, Miami and Hartford, but lost them over disputes involving finances. EAI is now a publicly traded company called Tesseract Group Inc. which filed for bankruptcy in October 2000.

In Baltimore, EAI raised student/teacher ratios from 1:19 to 1:25 as 27 percent of the regular teaching, 50 percent of the special education and 63 percent of the paraprofessional positions were eliminated. Non-certified college interns, replacement workers were hired to cover for the lost paraprofessionals at wages of $7 an hour, with none of the regular benefits. Additional cuts were made in the areas of librarians, art, music, reading and resource teachers. Special education was virtually eliminated.


EAI project administrators pocketed $2.6 million in legal and accounting fees, corporate travel and profit. Meanwhile, in-classroom expenditures fell from $4,077 to $3,777. Food service went directly to corporate partner Johnson Controls without a bid.

How do schools "provide value" to the private shareholders of education ventures? Here are a few of the ways:

  • Reduce labor costs, through cuts in employment and compensation, unionbusting.

  • Provide fewer student services, like transportation, school lunches, intramural athletics, band and orchestra, and extracurricular activities.

  • Specialize in the education of less costly students — for example, regular K-12 students rather than limited-English or special-needs students.

  • Encourage and retain only those students most likely to succeed.

  • Substituting self-paced computer instruction or videos for a regular teaching staff.

  • Discriminate against kids who need special education.

  • Publicly subsidized rent.

  • Charge fees.

  • Install a cookie-cutter curriculum, geared to testing criteria and a packaged testing system.


Stockholders — and to the limited extent it still has a role, government — would be able to measure the educational product through testing. One education expert, David Stratman, sees high-stakes testing as having a role in making schools "lean and mean" much the way "continuous improvement" schemes operate in factories:


‘The best teachers just hate being in a testing straightjacket. High-stakes testing is channeling teaching to the kind of rote memorization drill that isn’t education... Even if you could get the testing right, before you start flunking students, you ought to at least make sure that each of them has the same opportunity to do well. We’re not meeting that test.’

— U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone
(D., Minn.)


"The reforms use testing to keep raising the standards which students and teachers must meet, far beyond what their parents were expected to achieve and beyond anything that would be of value," he writes. "The purpose is the same as ‘continuous improvement’ in a factory; raise the anxiety level and keep students and teachers running so fast to meet the goals set by the system that they have no time to think about their own goals for education or for their lives."

High stakes testing are state mandated tests administered to public school students in the 10th grade (and often other grades as well). Students must pass the test to be promoted, graduate or go to college — no matter how well they have done in school.

A major problem with high-stakes testing, say critics, is that districts and schools with overall low test rates become targeted for takeover or privatization. High-stakes testing is indispensable to these attacks on public schools.

Critics also point out that high-stakes testing encourages "teaching to the test" rather than teaching for genuine learning, thereby forcing curricula to become increasingly narrow and test-driven.

President Bush acknowledged this criticism in his Feb. 27 speech to Congress. "Critics of testing contend it distracts from learning," he said. "They talk about ‘teaching to the test.’ But let us put that logic to the test. If you test children on basic math and reading skills, and you are teaching math and reading. And that is the whole idea."

But there are problems with this rejoinder. As they advance educationally, children should be moving beyond basic skills. Children should be acquiring reasoning skills and more complex knowledge. Also, testing perpetuates inequality. Test results reflect a school district’s funding, not its educational levels.

Says Sen. Paul Wellstone (D., Minn.): "Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality and from equity.

"It is grossly unfair to not graduate, or to hold back a student based on a standardized test," Sen. Wellstone says, "if that student has not had the opportunity to learn the material covered on the test."

Last fall UE members in Massachusetts backed a Labor Party-initiated ballot question calling for an end to the use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test as a graduation requirement. Voters in six districts with large low-income, minority, immigrant and working-class populations approved the referendum question by large margins.

In voting "yes" on the referendum, voters also rejected vouchers and for-profit schools, and called for continued and equitable state funding of education, smaller class sizes and fair and authentic student assessment. "This vote serves notice to the legislature that our families want their schools under public control and not turned into profit-seeking businesses," says Bill Bumpus, a longtime community organizer and Labor Party member in Somerville.



Advertisements in classroom materials and programs, promotional messages and plugs in classroom teaching materials sponsored by corporations are also causing concern about corporate takeovers of schools. "School is . . . the ideal time to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products, test markets, promote sampling and trial usage, and — above all — to generate immediate sales," says Lifetime Learning Systems in an ad directed at corporate clients.

As this ad indicates, "corporate involvement in schools often goes beyond self-serving philanthropy to become commercial opportunism," says Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids in School. What this leads to is "Teachers using educational materials and programs in classrooms that are produced by commercial interests and contain biased, self-serving, and promotional information" as well as "Pressure on school administrators, teachers, and students to form partnerships with business that turn students into a captive audience for commercial messages, often in exchange for some needed resource."


What does it take to achieve the classic goals of education — to pass on the wisdom developed over the ages, develop mental capacity and help children to become responsible citizens who can deal with everyday problems and the bigger problems of the world? What should we expect our schools to look like — and what should union members fight for?

The UE program calls for:

  • Adequate funding. Increase federal and state investment in local school districts, assuring all communities equal economic resources to support quality education. Federal funding to achieve 20 years of free education for everyone, including early children and adult learning programs.

  • Adequate resources. Computers, books, pencils, desks, supplies for every school.

  • Adequate buildings. Build, restore and maintain public school buildings that are safe, handsome and meet current technological needs.

  • Small classroom size. Reduce class sizes, maintain class size with a student-to-teacher ratio of no more than 12:1.

  • Preserve and enhance multi-lingual education programs.

  • Preserve and enhance vocational educational programs.

  • Provide full services and accommodation for students with disabilities.

"These are our children’s schools and our children’s education," said delegates to the 65th UE Convention in August 2000. "Let’s fight for them!"

(This article is based on the workshop "Defending and Improving Public Education" developed by the UE Education Dept.)

UE News - 03/01

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