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Public Schools for Public Good

May 5, 2010

One of my favorite education bloggers, Claus von Zastrow, writes the Public School Insights (PSI) blog as part of the Learning First Alliance (LFA).  His approach is decidedly non-sensationalistic and level-headed.  The blog highlights success stories that provide a much-needed antidote to the catastrophe narrative so in vogue right now.  In his EdWeek blog, Reality Check, Walt Gardner recently dubbed this phenomenon “The Education Disaster Campaign.”

You’ll also find that von Zastrow tackles a variety of education policy issues, and lately he seems to be looking at education finances, an appropriate focus in our current economic climate.  What caught my eye today was an interview with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who discussed the shift in our economic engine over the years.  Perhaps going after the financial industry is a bit easy right now – kick ’em when they’re down, right? – but Reich makes a point worth repeating.  Much of the investment banking activity that has caused so much trouble has been the speculative gambling and continual exchange of money and debt.  They’re not actually producing anything of value.  There’s an exchange of money, debt, equity, etc., but no actual improvement in the quality of any product, service, or people.  Reich questions how it is that we’ve allowed so few people to “earn” such obscene amounts of money without providing any public good.  Spare me the cries of “socialist” or “communist.”  I’m not against profit, but I know that we can’t have a thriving, modern economy without government and without taxation.  We also have a relatively low tax burden compared to other developed economies in major nations.  Taxation policies are an instrument for guiding a society towards certain priorities, and right now, we’re not using taxation to improve our investment in our own future well-being – in the form of education.  Reich discusses a proposed 0.5% transaction tax that would tap into some of the non-productive speculative trading that enriches Wall Street without imposing a significant burden, but would actually yield some significant dollars to reinvest in our “human capital” – our students, who in the near future will be the engines of the economy.

There are certain people who have a knee-jerk reaction against any new tax or fee.  In California, we have a minority who rules the state because of they have enough power in the legislature to thwart a two-thirds vote needed on a budget.  Their commitment to this lower taxes, lower fees vision lacks any long-term sensibility: to borrow an agrarian analogy, they’re forcing us to eat our seed corn – reducing access to quality education to such a degree that we’ll produce fewer skilled workers, or workers with less skill, and find ourselves less capable of providing the necessary labor to grow our economy.

I say all of this not because I want higher pay, though teacher salaries in some parts of the state have not even kept with inflation for many years, even prior to the recession.  The problem is much worse than teacher salaries, however.  California schools need more teachers, better libraries and more librarians, more school site administrators, and many more counsellors.  We lag behind the rest of the nation in almost all of those categories, and relative to our per capita income, we invest less than other states in education.  Our class sizes and administrator ratios are among the highest in the nation, and with regards to counsellors, California is the worst in the nation, ranked 51st.  As a classroom teacher, I rely on all of these people to support our students, to be part of the team that is supposed to be bringing various kinds of expertise to serve children in schools.  We cannot expect to “race to the top” when we insist on spending at the bottom, and no one-time funds for data analysis systems are going to make a difference if we don’t address many of the woefully underfunded pieces of education infrastructure that generate those data.  Why do we want to get better at quantifying our problems rather than solving them?  We already know what’s wrong.

In times of such economic duress, any source of money looks that much more attractive.  As a result, we see states plunging ahead in the Race to the Top, despite what many see as the programs flawed assumptions and unfunded mandates.  We see an influx of private philanthropy in schools, though again, Claus von Zastrow does us all a great service by raising questions about the nature of the bargains we make.  Rich foundations hold the “Power of the Purse” and though they are not accountable to the voters or the public, they are able to shape public policy.  Citing a story in the Washington Post, von Zastrow passes along this cautionary anecdote:

A group of foundations warned that they might not keep the money flowing into Washington DC’s school reform efforts if the district’s leadership changes. In other words, the funds may dry up if a new mayor takes the reins. Not surprisingly, this warning has caused an outcry over the influence of foundations on the mayoral race.

So, put it all together, and we have supposedly philanthropic organizations arrogantly seizing an opportunity to decide for themselves what is in the public’s best interest.  In this unique historical moment where we’ve shifted increasing proportions of wealth towards money shifters and deprived children of basic needs in schools, organizations with enough money to throw around are stepping into the crisis to take advantage of our financial need; they use their clout to advance educational changes that suit their interests, and stifle debate or change by threatening to cut off the investment if voters or elected officials don’t continue to cooperate.  With friends like that, it’s been said, who needs enemies?  Is this really a model of how to operate in the public sphere for the public good?

EDIT/UPDATE (May 6):  Susan Graham, a fellow member of Teacher Leaders Network, and author of A Place at the Table (a blog at Teacher Magazine), also wrote about “philanthropy” in Washington D.C. in a post titled, “Going, Going, Gone.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2010 9:59 pm

    Thanks for pointing out the threat of the foundations: people who are trained in the private sector and believe tactics applied there can work anywhere. Certainly not true. Education is a public good. Ravitch writes a decent chapter about this in her most recent book.

    Also, concerning speculative gambling and the continual trading of money and debt for profit despite zero good being provided to society: AN ABSOLUTE ATROCITY. I don’t think Adam Smith would be happy. This bs is not the intended function of a free-market society and calling it for what it is certainly doesn’t make you a socialist.

    Thanks for the links.

  2. John Norton permalink
    May 11, 2010 7:38 am

    Thanks for calling attention to the blog work of Claus von Zastrow. I agree that “his approach is decidedly non-sensationalistic and level-headed” while still being timely, engaging and critical when it needs to be. Claus (and several of his colleagues who also post at Public School Insights) is a master at securing interesting interviews with many folks who are not the usual education suspects. And then there’s the regular PSI stories about schools enjoying success. All good stuff.

  3. Anne V permalink
    May 18, 2010 7:42 pm

    A local newspaper’s headline this week read “Budget cuts hurt educators”. Not quite right. That should be “Budget cuts hurt education”

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