Teachers’ Unions Defend Public Education


By Diane Ravitch

The only things that stand between the privatization movement and its destruction of public education are teachers’ unions.

For the past three decades, a well-organized and wealthy alliance has created a false narrative about the “failure” of public schools and the necessity of turning children over to privately managed schools, private schools, religious schools, and even cyber schools. Their stated goal is “school choice,” but their true goal is to redirect public funding to private hands. As Rupert Murdoch memorably said, the $500 billion public education market is a market ripe for entrepreneurs. 

Free public education—open to all and democratically controlled—is one of the pillars of our democracy. The privatization movement is led by billionaire-funded nonprofits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the right-wing Walton Family Foundation. Hedge fund managers, equity investors, technology companies, and Wall Street have donated millions of dollars to create new charter schools and to aid state and local political candidates who support them. The great appeal of charter schools to entrepreneurs and Wall Street is that more than 90% of them are non-union. Every Republican governor and legislature has endorsed charter schools, and many have enacted voucher programs, despite the specific prohibitions in their state constitutions against sending public money to religious schools.

Some Democratic governors—such as Andrew Cuomo in New York and Dannel Malloy in Connecticut—have been as friendly to charters as their Republican counterparts, because they rely on hedge funders for campaign cash. Behind most of the anti-public school, anti-teacher, anti-union legislation is the corporate-sponsored, right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which fights for deregulation of schools, the environment, the workplace, and gun ownership.

The selling of privatization began with the claim that U.S. public education was failing and obsolete. Since publication of the report called “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 by a Reagan-era commission, we have been told repeatedly that our public schools are failing and that we are falling behind in global competition because of them. The narrative of failure has been echoed by captains of industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and even the Council on Foreign Relations, which issued a report in 2012 saying that the public schools were so terrible that they were a “threat to national security.”

All of these claims are false. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Education website, the facts are these:

1. As of 2013, test scores for white students, black students, Hispanic students, and Asian students were the highest in U.S. history. The scores are from the only federal test that has longitudinal data, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Scores leveled off in 2015, possibly because of the long-term negative impact of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, which prioritized testing over all other school activities.

2. High school graduation rates are the highest they have ever been in U.S. history. About 82% of all students graduate within four years; with six years, graduation rates exceed 90%.

3. Dropout rates are the lowest they have ever been in U.S. history.

Because they can’t get much support from national assessments, privatizers love to point to international test scores to bemoan the state of U.S. education. U.S. students rank about average on these tests. What privatizers ignore is that U.S. students never ranked high on international tests. When the first such tests were given to national samples in 1964, twelve nations took the test in mathematics. American seniors placed dead last. Our eighth graders were next to last. Yet in the fifty-plus years that followed, the United States surpassed the other eleven nations in gross domestic product, economic productivity, cultural and technological innovation, military might, and by every other measure. The international tests have no predictive value.

What standardized tests—including the international ones—do measure is family income. No matter whether it is a state test, a national test, the SAT or ACT, or an international test, those with the top scores are the most affluent, and those at the bottom are the poorest. The SAT posts a list each year showing the correlation between test scores and family income. As family income rises, so do test scores.

Poverty is the reason behind our consistently mediocre international test scores and behind the low scores recorded in districts such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. The United States has the highest rate of child poverty of any advanced nation in the world. From poor maternal health care to lack of quality preschool programs, the United States lags far behind other industrialized countries while outstripping them in resources.

Ignoring the well-documented causes of low performance on tests in school, privatizers target “bad” teachers and “failing” schools. It’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of such teachers and schools are located in impoverished neighborhoods where they enroll high proportions of children of color, children with disabilities, and English language learners. In red states, hostile legislatures have eliminated collective bargaining rights, making it easier to defund public schools and transfer public money to charter schools and vouchers.

The privatizers say that “education is the civil rights issue of our time,” and they present themselves as crusaders for civil rights when they demand that teachers be fired, public schools closed, and that privately managed charter schools and vouchers be provided. This was the mantra of Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, both cheerleaders for the charter school movement. And it is now the mantra of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, who speak the same language about “saving poor kids from failing schools” by funding private and religious schools. To advance this right-wing agenda, they must cripple teachers’ unions. Why? Because teachers’ unions are the most effective force to repel attacks on public schools and on the teaching profession itself.

The privatizers have launched court challenges—in California, Minnesota, and New Jersey—to strip away teacher tenure, which is not a guarantee of a lifetime job but a guarantee of due process in the event of termination. They have attacked seniority, which honors the value of experience. They have lavished millions of dollars to bring untrained amateurs into teaching via Teach for America.

State after state has enacted hostile legislation that strips teachers of professional autonomy and of job security in a low-paying profession. With Trump as president and DeVos as secretary of education, the attack on public schools and on unions will deepen. Experienced teachers are leaving their careers behind, because the working conditions and pay are intolerable. Enrollments in education schools have sharply declined. This situation does not concern the privatizers, because their long-term goal is to cut costs by replacing teachers with technology.

None of this is good news for U.S. education. Students need teachers who are experienced and well prepared. Technology should be a tool, not a replacement for teachers. Teachers need the support of strong unions that will protect their rights and the funding of their schools.

The privatizers want the public to believe that resistance is futile. But teachers and parents are fighting back. In New York, activists have gained political power by opting out of state testing. In red states, activists are forming alliances to inform the public and oust inept and abusive political leaders.

Without resistance, the U.S. public is in danger of losing the teaching profession and public education. The teachers’ unions are the point of the spear. They have the resources and staff to educate, activate, and resist the privatization movement. And that is why the corporate reform movement has put a target on their backs and is busily engaged in opening non-union schools.

The battle to save public education from privatization should enlist everyone, not just teachers and parents. Whether you have children in public school, whether your children are grown, whether you have no children, we must work together to preserve and improve the promise of equal opportunity of education.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and research professor of education at New York University. She is the author, among other works, of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools and founder, with Anthony Cody, of the Network for Public Education networkforpubliceducation.org.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

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