Sunday, November 27, 2011

Protect Public Schools and Preserve Democracy

In this era of the Scott Walker onslaught, uninformed criticisms of teachers and public sector workers are nothing new. More troubling, however, are the attacks on the very idea of community-wide responsibility for protecting the public good.

Public schools, public parks, public transportation, public social services – long recognized as the bedrock of a vibrant community – are being abandoned in the name of efficiency and lower taxes.

Educational writer Barbara Miner, in a Nov. 20 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op ed “Take a Stand Against Vouchers,” shows how the attack on public education threatens our very democracy. (Again, this should be no surprise given Gov. Walker’s disregard for democratic decision-making and his obsequiousness to rich people and corporations.) As Miner writes, it is no accident that every state constitution in the country enshrines the right to a free and public education for all children. Public schools are where we, as a community, decide how to educate our children so that they can lead healthy, productive lives and contribute to the common good.

Across the United States public education is in crisis, particularly in urban centers such as Milwaukee. Public schools are underfunded, too often reflecting the racial, cultural and socioeconomic disparities that plague our country.  Too many of our urban neighborhoods lack family-sustaining jobs, affordable housing and quality health care. 

For more than 30 years, I have worked in the classroom and in the community to improve teaching and learning and to fight for social justice. I know that we can, and must, do better for all children. Despite these difficult times, we must instill in our children a sense of hope and a vision of a better world.

Unfortunately, some people are using the very real problems in public schools as a reason to dismantle the system of public education itself.  In particular, supporters of vouchers — publicly funded subsidies of private education —seek to replace this country’s long-standing tradition of public education with a marketplace-based system of private voucher schools and/or semi-private charter schools. In their worldview, education is just another consumer item, with no relationship to democracy or community-wide responsibility for ensuring a quality future for all children.

To protect our democracy, build our children’s future, and promote the common good, we must renew our commitment to improving public education. We must also defend the institution of public education—education “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

When a democratic institution isn’t working properly, the solution is to fix it, not to abandon it.

Benjamin Barber writing in a recent issue of Nov. 7, 2011 issue of The Nation put it this way:

So to be a liberal today means to fight for more democracy, to fight against the corruption of politics by money and plutocratic special interests that delegitimize it [democracy] in the eyes of wary citizens. But it also means fighting against that insidious “war on government” being waged by conservatives. Because that war is really a war against “we the people,” against all we share, and hence against democracy itself. Conservatives claim that democracy is ailing, and they are right. Yet as Jefferson said, the remedy for the ills of democracy is more democracy, while those who assail government are opting for less democracy, opting to suspend the social contract that undergirds our democratic civilization.

Schools themselves must also be run more democratically. This ranges from the design, implementation and assessment of curriculum, to the classroom level where student opinions and interests are respected. The current obsession with standardized testing, scripted curriculum and rigid pacing guides has distorted education. These undemocratic top-down mandates leave little room for input from parents, educators or students. “Data” has become not a tool, but an end in itself. Rather than being “data-driven,” our schools should be “child-driven and data informed.”

How do we move forward in defending democracy and public institutions? Jeffery Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University laid out three things that need to be done. In a Nov. 12 opinion, The New Progressive Movement, in the New York Times he writes:

The first is a revival of crucial public services, especially education, training, public investment and environmental protection. The second is the end of a climate of impunity that encouraged nearly every Wall Street firm to commit financial fraud. The third is to re-establish the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in Washington.

In Wisconsin we need to do the same. We recall Walker and reclaim Wisconsin. We defend public schools as a bedrock of democracy. We transform all our public schools into vibrant, democratic, community-based institutions serving all children.

Three articles of interest:
Benjamin Barbers, Nov. 7, 20111, The Nation,  Calling All Liberals: It’s Time to Fight
Barbara Miner, Nov. 20, 2011, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Take a Stand Against School Vouchers
Jeffery Sachs, in the New York Times, The New Progressive Movement

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