Public schools lost a true champion with the death this week of Phyllis Bush, a retired Fort Wayne teacher and tireless activist who inspired us all with her with her truth-telling and optimism.
Phyllis Bush, right, and Donna Roof at the 2018 Network for Public Education conference.
Her passion for public schools was in no way abstract or ideological. It came from experience and relationships. She taught school for 32 years, including 24 years at Fort Wayne South Side High School. And she radiated love and loyalty for her fellow teachers and former students.
When she spoke out against school vouchers and charter schools, it was because she hated what they were doing to her beloved public schools and the 90 percent of students who attend them.
She died Tuesday after a lengthy battle against cancer, which she chronicled in a blog that she referred to, with characteristic humor, as “Cancer Schmantzer.”
The movement to support public schools is big, diverse and deeply committed. That’s the obvious take-away from the fifth annual conference of the Network for Public Education, which took place last weekend in downtown Indianapolis.
The network has grown like crazy since its start a mere five years ago, boosted by the reputation of co-founder Diane Ravitch but also by a hunger among teachers, parents and activists for a way to voice their concerns about the threats facing public education. The conference drew nearly 400 people.
And they came from all over – from California, New York, Washington and Puerto Rico, and from across Indiana, where public schools have been under fierce attack from the Republican-dominated state government and bunch of generously funded advocacy groups.
The mood in Indy was optimistic and determined. Teacher walkouts last spring in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and the public support they garnered, were still on everyone’s minds. The expansion of charter schools has slowed, studies have found that vouchers don’t work and news media have caught on to how unregulated school choice promotes segregation and inequality.
Indiana fares poorly in a “Grading the States” report issued this month by the Network for Public Education. One of 17 states to receive an F for its school privatization policies, it is near the bottom overall and for its policies on vouchers and charter schools.
That’s hardly surprising. Indiana’s Republican-dominated government has aggressively promoted charter schools for over a decade and vouchers for years. For a time, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council advised states to “do what Indiana does” on education.
But it seems that other states may have caught up. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Nevada all rank lower than Indiana in supporting public education, according to the Network for Public Education report. Indiana is 46th overall, 45th for vouchers and 42nd for charter schools.
The 29-page report, written by Tanya Clay House, a former U.S. Department of Education official, starts with the position that charter schools and voucher programs undermine the public schools that serve most students in the United States.