Let's take it to Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates: Here's how Democrats should talk about education tonight

Charter schools, Race to the Top, public education -- none of it came up in the '12 debates. Let's change that now

By Diane Ravitch
Published October 13, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)
  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)

During the 2012 presidential campaign, the subject of K-12 education was largely ignored.  Mitt Romney issued a white paper supporting privatization, including charter schools and vouchers. President Obama stood behind his Race to the Top program, which promotes high-stakes testing and charter schools, but not vouchers. The topic never came up in the three presidential debates. Neither candidate questioned the direction in which the nation is headed for our nation’s children, our educators, and our public schools.

The media and citizens at public forums must not let that happen again. Education is central to our future as a nation; it is also the single largest item in every state’s budget. Yet the candidates for the 2016 race in both parties are talking only about pre-kindergarten and higher education, skipping right over the important issues that face millions of children and educators in public schools today.

The Network for Public Education, a national organization of educators and parents, has written a K-12 education agenda for 2016. We encourage members of the media to question candidates for the presidency on these issues. American public education is currently under an attack by a well-organized, well-funded privatization movement. Standardized testing and privatization are the weapons used to undermine public schools and to deter efforts to improve our schools.

Here are our questions and the rationale behind them:


Will you end the federal mandate for annual high-stakes testing?

We oppose annual standardized testing. No high performing nation in the world tests every child every year. The hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars and the weeks of instructional time now devoted to preparing to take these tests and to administering them is a misuse of money and time.

We oppose high-stakes testing, in which test results are used to evaluate teachers, grade schools, award bonuses, fire staff, or close schools. Putting so much emphasis on bubble tests of questionable educational value and quality encourages teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum only to what is tested, gaming the system, cheating, and distorts the purpose of education.

We believe that tests should be made by teachers, not by corporate conglomerates.  Teachers know what they taught and what their students need to learn. We oppose the use of standardized testing in the early grades, and we oppose their misuse and overuse in grades 3-12. These tests should be used only for their diagnostic value in helping teachers understand what children need. The current Common Core tests provide very little useful information. Those who wish to compare the test scores of states can refer to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has been gathering this information since 1992.

We support assessments that measure what was taught, through projects, portfolios, teacher-designed tests and activities in which students can demonstrate what they have learned, rather than check off one of four boxes.

We support the evaluation of teachers by professionals, not by unreliable test scores.


Will you put an end to school closures based on test scores?

We oppose the closing of public schools based on test scores because standardized test scores are primarily a measure of family income, rather than the quality of schools. We must address the issues of poverty at the same time we are improving our schools. We support helping schools that are struggling by providing additional resources, not by closing or privatizing them. School closures have primarily targeted neighborhood schools in African American and Latino communities, damaging the fabric of those communities.


Will you put an end to the privatization of public education?

We support public education because it is a pillar of our democratic society. Public schools should not be outsourced, privatized, or given away to for profit corporations, and teaching should not be outsourced to private corporations or replaced by online instruction.

We oppose the transfer of public funds to privately managed charter schools unless those charter schools are dedicated to enrolling children with needs that public schools are unable to meet. We oppose charter schools that siphon off public funds to enroll high-performing students or that exclude students with disabilities or students who are English language learners.

We oppose the funding by the public of for-profit schools. All schools that enroll public school students and receive public dollars should operate not-for-profit and should not outsource their management or instruction to for-profit corporations.

We oppose the outsourcing of instruction to online vendors, which entails putting students in front of computers for many hours a day, engaged in rote learning, rather than receiving feedback from their teachers and fellow students, which encourages critical thinking and debate.


Will you ensure public schools are equitably funded?

We support the equitable funding of public schools with extra resources for schools that enroll students with the greatest needs.

We support funding of schools so they have the trained staff they need, such as guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, and psychologists.

We support enough funding so schools can have reasonable class sizes (no more than 20 in elementary schools, no more than 25 in high schools). Reducing class sizes will give teachers time to help students and give them the individual attention they require.

We support providing funding so schools are able to offer a full and rich curriculum to all children, including the arts, physical education, history, civics, foreign languages, literature, mathematics, and the sciences.


Will you ensure that all students have equal access to the services and resources they need?

We support early childhood education because the achievement gap begins before the first day of school.

We support wraparound services for students, such as health clinics and after-school programs, as well as counselors and school nurses in elementary schools.

We support funding of restorative justice programs and oppose “no tolerance” policies that affect students of color and male students disproportionately.

We oppose using high-stakes standardized tests to unfairly label students of color, special needs students, and English language learners as failures, further disadvantaging them.


What is your position on the deprofessionalization of teachers?

We support high standards of professionalism for teachers, principals, district superintendents, and state superintendents. No amateurs need apply.

We believe that every classroom should be led by a teacher who is well educated, well prepared as a professional teacher, certified to teach, and well supported during the first few years of teaching.

We support treating teachers as professionals, by including them in decisions about curriculum, teaching methods, assessments, and selection of teaching materials.


Will you ensure equity in education without eroding democratic control at the state and local level?

We oppose federal intrusion into state and local decisions about curriculum, standards, and assessments.

We support schools that are subject to democratic control by members of their community, not mayoral control, state control, emergency managers, or corporate control.

We support parent involvement in decisions about their children.


Will you defend student privacy?

We support the confidentiality of student data and believe that it must never be released to anyone without parental consent.

The Political Landscape

Public education is at a critical turning point. Many states are now in the hands of governors (both Democrat and Republican) who support the privatization agenda and are funding private alternatives to public education. Many have eliminated teacher collective bargaining rights, due process protections, and salary increases for teachers based on experience and education. As a result of these punitive policies, the nation now faces a serious teacher shortage. Their initiatives and policies are usually based on model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization dedicated to privatization and deregulation favoring corporate interests over the public interest.

The culture of high-stakes testing has become so omnipresent and toxic that hundreds of thousands of parents now refuse to allow their children to take the mandated state tests, despite threats and possible sanctions to them and their school.

Preserving Public Responsibility for Public Education

For the first time in our history as a nation, the very existence of public education as a public responsibility is in question. Under pressure from the federal government, most states now transfer public funds to privately managed charter schools; under pressure from rightwing ideologues, nearly half the states have adopted some form of voucher program permitting public funds to be transferred to religious and private schools. For the first time in the history of our nation, for-profit charter chains of dubious quality are enriching their owners and investors with taxpayers’ money that was intended for support of public schools. In some states, like Nevada and Indiana, vouchers have been enacted even though the state constitution explicitly says that public money should be reserved for public schools. The ideology of “choice”, long relegated to the far corners of the rightwing, has entered the mainstream as a mortal challenge to our cherished institution of democratically controlled public education.

The Radical Free-Market Attack on Public Education

This is not a challenge from genuine conservatives. Conservatives conserve traditional institutions. Conservatives do not destroy institutions that are the anchors of their communities. This attack on public education is radical in nature, intended to supplant public schools with a market-based approach to education. The free market will lead to winners and losers; it sacrifices the American ideal of equality of educational opportunity. Abandoning that ideal when we are so far from realizing it will not bring it closer but take it farther away. The free-market will do what it always does: it will favor the haves over the have-nots; it will encourage segregation by race, class, religion, and income. That will be the death knell for equality of educational opportunity and a blow to our nation’s democratic aspirations for the future.


Diane Ravitch

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