Sounding the alarm on threats to public schools

It’s no secret that public education is under attack, in Indiana and in other states. But it’s easy to miss just how radical and well organized the assault is – and how it is part of a longstanding political drive to undermine the very concept of the common good.

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain in their new book, “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.” They show how free-market ideologues, driven by hostility to government and fueled by deep-pocketed donors, are endangering a cornerstone of American democracy.

“The threat to public education … is grave,” they write. “A radical vision for unmaking the very idea of public schools has moved from the realm of ideological pipe dream to legitimate policy.”

Berkshire, a journalist, and Schneider, an education historian, make their case in a clear, readable style that echoes their casual give-and-take on the education podcast “Have You Heard?” They draw from U.S. education history, studies and policy briefs, and recent news stories to make their case.

“A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” focuses on a fundamental debate on the nature of schools. Education, the authors argue, is best treated as a public good that belongs to everyone.

“Like clean air, a well-educated populace is something with wide-reaching benefits,” Berkshire and Schneider write. “That’s why we treat public education more like a park than a country club. We tax ourselves to pay for it, and we open it to everyone.”

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Where did all the students go?

Chalkbeat Indiana reported that enrollment dropped by almost 15,000 students this fall in Indiana public schools. I wrote that the loss to school districts was over 17,000 students. It gets worse. Judging by recent state data, enrollment in local public schools fell by over 24,000 students.

Where did they go? Several thousand moved to online schools, either virtual charter schools or online programs operated by other school districts. Some families apparently opted out of enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten. A majority of the missing students are probably home-schooling.

In terms of state funding, the loss of 24,000 students translates to a loss of nearly $150 million for public schools in the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost as much money as the schools lose to Indiana’s voucher program, which provides tuition funding for students who attend private schools.

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1920s Klan fought to control schools

Schools were a key battleground as the Ku Klux Klan fought to dominate Indiana’s political and cultural life in the 1920s. The Klan promoted Bible reading and prayer in schools and demonized the spread of parochial schools and an imagined Catholic influence in public education.

Klan members thought Catholics were taking over America, Indiana University historian James Madison writes, and “the first point of takeover was public schools. Like generations of American reformers before and since, the Klan saw education reform as necessary for the nation’s revival.”

Book cover of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland

Madison’s new book, “The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland,” focuses on a shameful era in Indiana’s past, when the Klan gained remarkable power and controlled public offices from the Statehouse to local school boards. The organization largely died out within a decade, but its influence continued in racially segregated schools and other aspects of Hoosier life.

Importantly, the 1920s Klan saw itself as mainstream, not an outlier. It promoted patriotism, civic duty and “100% Americanism.” It held massive rallies and marches, complete with marching bands and women’s auxiliaries. It raised money for churches and sponsored musical groups and youth basketball and baseball leagues. Its cross-burnings were spectacles that wowed audiences.

It has been estimated that 30% of white, native-born, Protestant men joined the Klan in Indiana. These were not disaffected loners; they were not the Proud Boys of their day.

“Klansmen came from the middle ranks of white-collar and skilled workers who could afford the $10 initiation fee and the monthly dues,” Madison writes. “Some blue-collar workers joined, but more members were lawyers, physicians, government employees, and owners of small and medium-sized businesses.” Protestant clergy provided important support.

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Grateful for in-person school

This post was first published Sept. 26 as a guest column in the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Times.

Given the choice of having fully online schooling, 70% of families in the Monroe County Community School Corp. have opted instead to send their children to school in person. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Enrolling your child in the local public school has always been an act of profound trust. Families trust schools to keep their children safe from accidents, bullies, shootings and threats they haven’t imagined. They trust schools to build character and have a positive influence on behavior. Fundamentally, they trust schools and teachers to understand what students need to know and to make sure they learn it.

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Reconstruction and public schools

The 1619 Project, the New York Times magazine’s special issue on the history and legacy of slavery in America, includes poignant details and powerful insights on nearly every page. For me, one of the most meaningful passages is in the powerful introductory essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

She’s writing about Reconstruction, the brief period after the Civil War when African-Americans, including formerly enslaved people, were elected to Congress and to state legislatures. Black office-holders, she writes, joined with white Republicans to adopt “the most egalitarian state constitutions the South had ever seen,” enacting fair taxes and bans on discrimination. Continue reading

Phyllis Bush, champion of public schools

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

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.”

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‘Charter schools are public’ claim doesn’t hold up

Seven Oaks Classical School headmaster Stephen Shipp makes several debatable claims in his Herald-Times guest column arguing that charter schools are public schools.

He suggests charter schools are public because they “are judged by the state’s A-F accountability system.” But in Indiana, so are private schools that receive vouchers. He says charter schools are “accountable to an authorizer who can shut them down.” Yes, but that almost never happens. Seven Oaks’ authorizer, Grace College, does not answer to the public.

Shipp claims charter schools are at a disadvantage because they can’t levy property taxes to pay for buildings and transportation. But they don’t have to provide transportation (Seven Oaks doesn’t). And, unlike public schools, charter schools in Indiana receive state funding — soon to be $1,000 per student — for those costs. They also qualify for grants, like the $900,000 recently awarded Seven Oaks.

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Reason for optimism at Network for Public Education conference

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.

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PDK poll finds support for teacher strikes

Four in five public-school parents would support local teachers if they went on strike for higher pay, according to results of this year’s PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools.

Seventy-three percent of the overall public would back a strike by local teachers, the poll found. Even among Republicans, support for a teachers’ strike was 60 percent.

The poll, released this week by Phi Delta Kappa, has tracked public opinion on schools and teachers since 1969. This year’s poll surveyed a random sample of over 1,000 adults in May 2018.

The support for teacher strikes is remarkable at a time when union membership is shriveling, strikes are rare and government officials from state legislators to the Supreme Court have declared war on organized labor. But walkouts last spring by teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky received a lot of attention, and the poll suggest the public was sympathetic.

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Indiana gets an F for school privatization

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.

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