Year in Review: Why We Must Both Defend and Criticize Public Education

Why We Must Both Defend and Criticize Public Education

Everyone acknowledges that public schools in the United States are in crisis. But unity ends there.

Businesses call for the privatization of public education and the need to instill business discipline into our schools. Right-wing fundamentalists demand a return to reading, writing and ‘rithmetic and an end to reforms that emphasize multiculturalism and critical thinking. Taxpayers seem to have lost hope and routinely reject building construction referenda and funding proposals. The Clinton administration, meanwhile, proceeds with ho-hum education reforms that are short on resources and long on rhetoric about standards.

Clearly, public schools have become a battleground. And the significance of the skirmishes go far beyond school walls. Public schools are a key front in the broader war over this country’s future and whether we will strive to make real our democratic principles or will sink further into narrow self interest and growing divisions between rich and poor, Black and white, urban and suburban.

The Nation

One of the biggest developments in the last year was the defeat of former President George Bush. Overnight, the right-wing lost White House support for dismantling our public school system and funneling public tax dollars to private schools as part of private school voucher plans.

But Bill Clinton is no savior of public schools. He’s better than Bush — but that seems the best you can say. The White House seems unprepared to provide the vision and concern with equity — to say nothing of the resources — that are needed to propel public school reform.

Some of the most heartening developments in the past year were the gains made in promoting multiculturalism. Across the country, multicultural perspectives were increasingly emphasized in classrooms, schools, and districts. Conservatives are rapidly organizing against such gains — but such organizing is in direct relation to the strength of the gains that have seeped into the very culture and structure of schools, in particular in urban school districts with large numbers of students of color.

In a clear example of such advances, the Columbus Quincentennial was transformed from a homage to the man who “discovered” the Americas to a broadside reevaluation of Eurocentric views of history. Across the country, thousands of teachers — many for the first time — looked anew at the assumptions behind the Columbus myth.

Nationwide, the most severe problem facing schools is lack of funding. While this crisis has particularly devastated urban and rural districts, even some suburban schools are feeling the impact of insufficient resources not just from local property taxes, but from the state and federal governments as well. Whether it was unpaid furloughs of teachers in our nation’s capital, a 10% wage cut for Los Angeles teachers, or the closing of schools in Kalkaska, Mich., three months early, the result is the same: children suffer when our political leaders refuse to adequately fund public schools.

Where will this funding crisis lead? On the positive side, policymakers on both local and national levels are, for the first time, acknowledging that our entire system of school financing is both inherently unequal and unable to serve the needs of all children. Further, in the past four months alone, courts in four states have declared unconstitutional their state’s school funding system because it denies children the right to an equitable education by allowing widely disparate funding of school districts.

On the negative side, despite all the professed concern with this funding crisis there is little political leadership to force a reordering of federal and state spending and taxing priorities in order to give schools the money they need to do their job.

Outlines of an Agenda

Throughout the year, Rethinking Schools has sketched the outlines of what we believe should be the focus of a progressive agenda for schools. We would like to briefly reiterate and expand upon those observations, not as a solution, but as part of a broad discussion.

To begin, progressives must have two key objectives:

  • To defend the concept of public education. Unlike education reform debates of 10 years ago, the very locus of controversy has shifted. In recent years, calls have escalated for the dismantling of our public schools and replacing them with private schools and private ventures. Yet the defense of public education must go beyond defending the schools as they currently exist. We must both demand more resources and learn how, with existing resources, to implement significant structural and curricular reform.

    In this era of growing business concern with schools, we must not allow corporate officials and their political supporters to define the nature of school reform. We must challenge the business ideology that equates education with efficiency, that measures academic achievement by standardized tests, that sponsors critical thinking only to the extent it is used to figure out how we can best the Japanese. As W.E.B. DuBois so eloquently noted some 50 years ago: “The ideals of education, whether men are taught to teach or to plow, to weave or to write, must not be allowed to sink to a sordid utilitarianism. Education must keep broad ideals before it, and never forget that it is dealing with Souls and not with Dollars.”
  • To focus on equity. There are so many issues in education that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what is most important. While tactically one may concentrate on this issue or that, we believe the strategic goal is clear: We must demand reforms that address the sharp inequities in our public schools, inequities that routinely deny low-income students and students of color the opportunities and resources given to white, middle-class students.

As we wrote in our Winter issue in an open letter to President Clinton: “It’s not that our society doesn’t know how to teach or raise children well, but that we do so unequally…. If schools are to fulfill their democratic mission, they must forcefully address the issue of inequity.”

Schools vary greatly by district. In some, debates may focus on funding. In others, the issue may be tracking, standardized testing, or vocational education. Still others may find a dismally low number of teachers of color. Such issues have a common thread: concern with equity.


What of developments in Wisconsin and Milwaukee? How did they reflect concerns over equity and the future role of public schools?

On a statewide level, near disaster was averted when voters rejected the candidacy of conservative Linda Cross for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. An advocate of private school “choice” and an unabashed anti-unionist, Cross became the darling of national conservatives such as former education secretary William Bennett, and was openly supported by national publications such as the Wall Street Journal.

Overall, however, Wisconsin public schools are in for rough times in coming years. On a state level, several factors have converged to bolster a conservative, anti-public school agenda. First, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation — the leading conservative foundation in the country — is sprinkling money throughout the state to help support conservative causes such as private voucher plans. Second, Wisconsin has a strong fundamentalist movement that is building grass-roots support for conservative initiatives. Third, Gov. Tommy Thompson is sure to further nourish his hot-house projects of school choice, Learnfare, and cost controls as examples of conservative social engineering that might propel him into the race for the ‘96 Republican nomination for President.

These troublesome realities are somewhat offset by the growing recognition that Wisconsin’s reliance on local property taxes — with the state only providing about 38% of school funding — must be fundamentally changed. For the first time, there is significant organizing around such funding issues even though it is all but certain that Thompson’s plans for property tax rate freeze will prevail in the current biennial budget before the legislature. This would represent a step backward from an already dismal status quo.


Locally, key issues in the last year were the unsuccessful Feb. 16th school construction referendum, and developments involving the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA).

In the face of hysteria over taxes and appeals to racism, the referendum went down to a 3-1 defeat. More clearly than almost any other event in recent years, the referendum exposed the sharp racial divisions in Milwaukee. Predominantly white neighborhoods rejected the referendum, while predominantly African-American neighborhoods supported it. The referendum also exposed the difficulty of building voter support for MPS. While 74% of MPS students are students of color, 68% of the city’s voting-age population is white.

On the positive side, a multiracial coalition of labor, parent, community, and religious groups came together in support of the referendum, beginning the process of building relations among the many groups that need to work together if education reform is to move forward in Milwaukee.

Opponents of the referendum, particularly politicians such as Mayor John Norquist, ignored some of the positive reforms within MPS, particularly in curriculum. These reforms include: the deepening of the K-12 reform initiative, the growth in the Multi-cultural Curriculum Council and the High School Humanities Council, and the algebra initiative which has trained all middle school math teachers and will require that all ninth graders take algebra.

No sum-up of the year would be complete without mentioning the teachers’ union, in particular the union election this spring and the controversy over the African-American immersion schools.

The results of the MTEA elections this spring don’t bode well for a more forward-thinking union leadership in the next two years. A group of progressive teachers, which included two Rethinking Schools editors, had held a majority on the executive board for two years. The progressives found that during their two-year term in office, many of their goals were stymied by key people in the 12-person, full-time staff who resisted change and did not want to relinquish the broad powers they had assumed over the years. The progressive slate was defeated by “old guard” candidates who emphasized getting rid of the residency requirement, getting disrupters out of the classrooms, and improving wages and pension benefits. Nowhere did they talk of serving the needs of students or building ties with the community.

In the public arena the most volatile union-related issue concerned the staffing at the African-American immersion schools — Martin Luther King Elementary School and Malcolm X Middle School.

The controversy began when administration violated the teachers’ contract and staffed the schools with seven more African-American staff than the contract guidelines permitted. The guidelines, based on the 15-year-old desegregation settlement, set a maximum and minimum number of African American teachers in each school, based on the district-wide average. Because the contract had been broken the union filed a grievance, even though no white teacher who wanted to teach at the school was denied access and the positions for African-American teachers were filled on the basis of seniority.

The case ultimately ended up in the hands of an arbitrator with the union “winning.” The union’s failure to resolve this difference with the administration prior to the completion of the arbitration was an indication of the union’s shortsightedness and inflexibility toward reform. The message to the community was that the teachers’ union doesn’t care about reform, particularly as it might benefit African-American children, so long as the rights of white teachers are defended and the contract is upheld. The public’s justifiable rage over this issue, particularly in the Black community, clearly damaged the union and further undercut public support for teachers and public schools.

To make matters worse, after the arbitrator ruled in favor of the union, a union negotiator suggested that the union would allow for staffing above the guidelines if the school board gave up its requirement that MPS teachers live in the city of Milwaukee. Once again, key union officials put the self-interest of teachers against the needs of children.

How the MTEA positions itself around similar issues over the next few years will directly affect educational reform in particular and public education in general. Will the union circle its wagons and use the contract as an excuse to inflexibly reject reform proposals? Will all teachers be smeared with the brush of the union’s seeming indifference to the crisis facing our children? Or will the union leaders build alliances with community, religious, and labor groups to demand far-reaching reforms so that public schools are truly worthy of support? Will they come to understand that there is no fundamental contradiction between protecting the rights of teachers and ensuring all our children a quality education?

The School Board

In analyzing developments in the last year, the administration and school board also have made their share of mistakes. While claiming they wanted to build a “win-win” approach with employees, their actions fell far short. The board, for example, refused to settle outstanding contracts with the educational assistants, sticking to its view that the assistants must pick up 5% of the cost of their health insurance. The board refused to compromise even though the union offered alternative health care proposals with the potential of significant long-term cost savings. The board’s stance had a devastating effect on the morale of the assistants, some of the district’s lowest paid employees. In addition it significantly weakened support for the Feb. 16th building referendum among educational assistants, the majority of whom are African American and Latino.

Perhaps the most telling example of the board’s adversarial attitude toward its employees, however, is the fact that none of the 13 bargaining units with MPS have a contract. Some have been working without a contract for as long as two years.

The board and the administration have also unnecessarily jeopardized experiments with site-based management of schools, undercutting many years of hard work by teachers and principals to make the councils work. The contract with the teachers’ union had outlined the terms of the site-based councils; when the contract expired last July the board and administration did not extend those sections dealing with the councils, even though they had the power to do so.

In Milwaukee, as in many cities around the country, even modest reform efforts are threatened by devastating budget cuts.

Urban school districts, increasingly populated by students of color, are having the levels of funding slashed by policy makers who don’t recognize or don’t care that the health of our cities and our nation is intimately tied to the future of the youth who will suffer the most from the cuts.

There is no doubt that a strong political movement needs to be built around progressive educational issues. We must not only transform our public schools, but defend their very existence.