What I Told The White House About Public Education

You have five minutes to talk to the White House about something that you really care about – what are you going to say?

I had this rare opportunity last Friday when the President’s Office of Public Engagement invited 150 community leaders from Pennsylvania to the White House for a briefing. Through my work with our grassroots public education movement and Yinzercation, I was invited to attend the White House with Education Voters PA and Keystone Progress.

I actually spoke twice. First, in the morning, at a listening session with Jon Carson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. We had just heard policy briefings from Cecelia Munoz, Assistant to the President and Director, Domestic Policy Council (education falls under her purview); Elizabeth Fowler, Special Assistant to the President for Health Care Policy (it was the second anniversary of the Affordable Care Act); and Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President, Energy and Climate Change (lots of fracking concerns).

I explained to Mr. Carson that while I was at the White House representing a movement for sustainable and equitable funding for public education, I saw a real connection between the many issues we had been discussing. After the policy briefings and talking with my fellow delegates, it became clear that in the big picture, we are all struggling with a significant erosion of the “public good,” or the “common good.” Speaking also as a historian of working families and social reform, I suggested that this represents a historic loss of faith in the ability of the government to do the right thing and to help people.

We are witnessing a massive effort to privatize, or re-privatize (going back to conditions in the 19th century), our public goods – everything from public education, to public transportation, parks, healthcare, and even our drinking water. In Pennsylvania, we need look no further than Governor Corbett’s agenda of privatizing education with vouchers and charter schools while refusing to seriously aid financially distressed districts currently circling the drain, including Chester Upland, Harrisburg, and Duquesne.

I told the White House administration that I would like to see us having more of a conversation nationally about the value of the public good. And that the conversation can connect the work we are doing at the local level to the state and federal level.

In the afternoon, I had a second chance to speak, building on these comments in a policy breakout session with Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education. In this session, twenty of us discussed the terrible impact of state budget cuts, laid out succinctly by the superintendent of schools in Lancaster. A member of the Harrisburg school board questioned the administration’s focus on innovation, when students in his district don’t even have books. Delegates from Reading, one of the poorest cities in the nation, spoke movingly about the dire need for equity in school funding. Two students asked how they were going to afford a college education. And an 80 year old teacher from Philadelphia shook her finger, reminding the administration that it has an ethical imperative to “Do something!” when we have worse racial segregation (and socio-economic stratification in our schools) than in the 1950s at the time of Brown vs. the Board of Education.

While the federal government plays a limited role financially, providing, on average, only ten cents out of every dollar spent on education, it plays a big role in setting policy. We spent considerable time discussing the consequences – whether intended or unintended – of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Race to the Top program. A special education teacher was in tears as she described the impact of relentless testing on her students, and a parent from Shippensburg detailed the toll of “teaching to the test” on teachers, students, and their families. Others noted that Race to the Top and similar grant programs tend to reward wealthier districts and charter schools that have full-time, professional grant writers. Mr. Rodriguez agreed that the federal government needs to take into account the full impact of its policies and work to “level the playing field.”

Susan Gobreski of Education Voters reminded the administration that we must re-frame the discussion of education, focusing on equity rather than accountability. And I reminded Mr. Rodriguez that the White House has a bully pulpit and that we want them to use it. “Here’s what I want you to say,” I told him. “Public schools are a public good.”

I told the White House to stop talking about failing schools as if they were the rule rather than the exception, which only serves to paint all public education with the same toxic brush. That’s not to say we shouldn’t fix problems where they occur, or focus on significant issues such as graduation rates for some populations. I believe we have to address trenchant disparities along lines of race, class, and gender. But we’ve got to shift the larger debate and start talking about the good that public education serves. Because public education is one of America’s great success stories. Because public education is the key to our children’s future. Because it’s for our common good.

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