Albert Shanker was past president of the United Federation of Teachers (1964 -1985) and past president of the American Federation of Teachers (1974-1997). During his tenure at AFT, Mr. Shanker brought up the idea of a public school where teachers would have the opportunity to experiment with new, innovative ways of teaching students. In these so-called charter schools, teachers would have the opportunity to create high-performing educational laboratories to model for traditional public schools (NY Times).
The idea of charter schools was inspired by Shanker’s 1987 visit to a public school in Cologne, Germany. Teachers made critical decisions about what and how to teach their students, and stayed with the same students for six years. Students in Cologne came from a mix of abilities, family incomes and ethnic origins.
Teachers making critical decisions??? Richard M. Ingersoll, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that where teachers have more say in how their school is run, the school climate improves and teachers stay longer (NY Times). This is also supported by data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showing that low-income fourth graders who attend economically integrated schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.
So what happened to Shanker’s idea?
Ten years after his visit to Germany, charter schools morphed into something very different from his original idea, as conservatives promoted charters as more of an open marketplace where families would have the opportunity to choose schools.
What conservatives were creating however, were more segregated schools. Charter schools on average are more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools, according to a recent study from the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A.
Today we see a strong push for more charters, which are problematic on so many levels; segregation is only one of them.
In 1955 Milton Friedman had an idea that was also radical for its time. Friedman, a Nobel Laureate economist, was among the first to propose the financing of education be separated from the administration of schools, the core idea behind school vouchers (Education Next).
In his famous essay written in 1955 “The Role of Government in Education, Friedman argued that there is no need for government to run schools. Instead, families could be provided with publicly financed vouchers for use at the K-12 educational institutions of their choice. The idea boiled down to taxpayer funded but privately run schools. Such a system, Friedman believed, would promote competition among schools vying to attract students, thus improving quality, driving down costs, and creating a more dynamic education system.
According to Friedman, families should have the freedom to choose which school to use their funding. A voucher is equal to the government’s per-pupil spending amount. This would allow parents to pick a school and use the voucher to cover all or part of the tuition. Friedman said school choice would help racial minorities. “There is not a single thing you could do in this world that would do more to improve the condition of the black people in the lowest income classes …than the voucher scheme” (Washington Examiner).
Many argue that Friedman’s essay, published a year after the Brown v. Board decision, addresses the question of vouchers and school segregation, but perhaps in a way that supported segregation. First, he said: “I deplore segregation and racial prejudice.” Then he asserts his opposition to “forced non-segregation” of public schools (Dissent). Friedman stood behind a Virginia law that authorized school vouchers, arguing it would have the “unintended effect of undermining racial segregation” (Dissent). Mixed messages.
According to Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, “empirical studies of vouchers programs in the United States and internationally show they increase segregation in schools” (The Century Foundation).
Halley Potter of the Century Foundation writes, “The best available data on the impact of school vouchers, tracking the movement of students in two different voucher programs that enrolled mostly black students, shows that voucher students by and large did not see an increase in access to integrated schools as a result of the programs. Two-thirds of school transfers in one program and 90 percent of transfers in the other program increased segregation in private schools, public schools, or both sector” (The Century Foundation).
In an administration with a high level of distractibility (what I call the “look over here”), and an agenda to privatize public education, we must be mindful of what is being said and how it’s different from what history has taught us. What started as an innovative idea is now leading the privatization movement, but it is far from its original intention.
Privatizing public schools is being advocated by the secretary of education, billionaire philanthropists and others who are profiting from this movement, and the general public who is taking the hand fed bullshit about this being the cure for the ills of American public education.
These are my reflections for today.
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