Why Is America Seemingly Giving Up on Public Education?

The question of “Why has America seemingly given up on public education?” has troubled me for a long time. How is it that a country founded in large part on the concept of a “free and appropriate public education” has come to this struggle between public and private schooling? When did the public start buying into the false narrative that our public schools are failing and therefore need to be replaced by private alternatives?

The change in attitude has been slow and insidious. In my opinion, it started 30 years ago with the 1983 publication of the Nation at Risk report that very recklessly made claims that started slowly but surely to erode the public's confidence in their public schools. Ironically, for decades after that report came out, Gerald Bracey (1940-2009) refuted the claims of the education reformers who had not yet coalesced into a formal group but were beginning the slow and steady drumbeat of accusations about the perceived failings of public education in America. For 18 years, Dr. Bracey oversaw the research that was published annually as “The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education in America” in Phi Delta KappanThat report revealed year after year that while Americans were buying into the negative rhetoric about American schools in general, most Americans reported a high level of satisfaction with their own neighborhood schools. The irony was apparent to those paying attention, but it is no secret that the public at large is easily swayed by media and the biases that are allowed to be mistaken as factual reporting.

Dr. Bracey was also in charge of  EDDRA or Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency, and the year that he died, Dr. Bracey published a book entitled, Education Hell:  Rhetoric Vs. Reality.

Unfortunately, while most of the claims about the failures of America's schools are exaggerated and highly overrated, the general media (as in journalists and those in a position to actually inform Americans as opposed to pawning off propaganda) have largely failed in their job of digging for facts, doing their homework, and questioning some of the basic assumptions that have become part and parcel of the education debate.

Indeed, unfortunately, we now have only few “champions” like Dr. Bracey who are willing to buck the general trend. Thankfully we still have Dr. Diane Ravitch and Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond on the side of teachers and administrators who know the truth, but the people who seem (at the moment at least) to be winning the debate are the very people who have the most to gain by undermining and dismantling public education in America. Those are the people who are making lots of money by speaking to the problems of public education and claim that the answer is in privatization, vouchers, charter schools, and choice in general.

I watch what is happening in North Carolina with dismay. I worry about what will happen to the children in Detroit as it goes bankrupt and in Philadelphia and Chicago where mass school closings are taking place. I worry about other large urban centers where the education infrastructure is being allowed to be dismantled, schools are being closed, and children–and their teachers–are being displaced. I am concerned that many children are being relegated to schools with ever dwindling resources, larger class sizes, and the bulk of the financial resources going to testing companies and companies in charge of aligning curriculum with the last fad (including Common Core) instead of teacher salaries and safe buildings because their political leaders are being paid off by groups like ALEC and individuals like the Koch brothers who only care about profit margin, free enterprise and dismantling government involvement in anything and everything from roads to schools to public safety.

Unfortunately, too many have bought into the false narrative that all of our schools are failing and ironically, because they have bought into the false narrative, the very parents who could have (and should be) helping to make our public schools stronger with their support are looking for alternatives and in some cases at least, we are fulfilling the very prophecy which started out as pure fiction. Everyone has heard the phrase, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes believed and then becomes the truth.” I fear that we are fast approaching that sad juncture.

I haven't given up hope completely, however, that we can still turn this around. I take heart at the formation of the Bad Ass Teachers group that sprang up just a few weeks ago. I know that the teacher leaders who are working hard through their associations (NEA and AFT) are working hard to combat the false narrative and to turn the public opinion tide to one of support for public schools. In the end, I believe that most Americans still believe that we need a system of quality public education…but to date we have too few who are willing to fight for it. Everyone who cares needs to start attending school board meetings and speaking out. Everyone who has a child they care about needs to pay attention to what is happening and to take an active stand in supporting a public option because it is just not going to be possible for enough private options to educate every child, and we cannot afford to let a single child fall through the cracks. We need every child to be given an opportunity to learn, achieve, and succeed. Our parents did that for us. It is our turn to do it for our children and our grandchildren.