Red for Ed: The Long-Simmering Crisis of Public Education in Indiana
“Red for Ed” is the slogan that animated 15,000 teachers, students, and trade unionists to attend a huge rally at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, November 19. 147 school districts were shut down around the state because teachers felt obliged to attend this statehouse rally, one of the biggest ever in Indiana history. Core demands involved compensation (incoming teachers earn just $35,000 in a state where 37 percent of households have earnings below a livable standard); an end to 15 hour professional training for all teachers to keep their accreditation; and an end to evaluating teachers on the basis of questionable test scores of students (which obliges teachers to teach for the test rather than wholistic learning).
Teachers marched around the Statehouse and waited in long lines to enter the Capital building, waiting as much as an hour during drizzling weather. Once inside 6,000 teachers sitting on the floor or standing against railings on the second or third floor listened to teachers from around the state talk about the lack of compensation (many teachers have had to take second and third jobs), inadequate supplies (teachers have to bring pencils, crayons, and paper for their students), and unmanageable class sizes.
Indiana is a leader among the 50 states in shifting resources from public education to vouchers and charter schools embracing what is called a “Mindtrust” model of education, using a profit/loss market model to evaluate the educational process. Because public education has been underfunded (“starving the beast”) performance often has stagnated. Then privatizers have advocated for charter schools. However, charters have often had deleterious effects on teachers, students, and communities. These school policies involving defunding public schools, investing in charter schools, privatizing, defunding, and attacking teachers and communities have spread all across the country. But now Indiana teachers have become the latest to say “No.” They have been inspired by teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, California, Arizona, Illinois and elsewhere. And this round of mobilizations is broadly supported by families and communities that see educational institutions as the anchor of society. In addition, teachers increasingly see themselves as workers and trade unionists see teachers as allies. As in the case of Indiana, the trade union movement supported the November 19 mobilization.
The Threat to Public Schools
Since the dawn of the twentieth century the anchor of most communities in the United States, has been its public schools. Schools help raise, nourish, mentor, and educate the youth of America. Parents, as best they can, participate in supporting school systems and provide input on school policy. Teachers and school administrators sacrifice time and energy to stimulate the talents of young people. And teachers through educational associations and trade unions organize to protect their rights in the workplace, always mindful of the number one priority; serving the children and the community.
Beginning in the 1970s, various special interest groups, many well-funded, began to advocate for the privatization of education. Looking at aggregate data showing some failing school performance, they argued that private corporations, charter schools, could educate children better. They blamed the lack of marketplace competition for waste of taxpayer dollars for poor performance. Most often under-performing schools were underfunded schools: underfunded because of racism and patterns of segregation.
The neoliberal answer was to shift public funds, formerly from public schools, to private corporate charter schools. Along with the creation of charter schools, voucher systems were established by state legislatures and school districts allowing parents to place their children in any school they could find; often difficult to access and sometimes far from the child’s neighborhood. The introduction of charter schools and vouchers began the process of shifting resources from public education to private schools, thus destroying adequately performing public schools and weakening nearby communities.
The data on the shift from public schools to charters is shocking. For example in Detroit between 2005 and 2013 public school enrollment declined by 63% and charter school enrollments rose by 53%; in Gary the decline in public schools was 47% and the rise in charter school enrollment rose by 197%; and in Indianapolis the decline in public school enrollments totaled 27% and the rise in charter schools was 287%.
This historic transfer of public funds for education to privatization would often be sped up by local crises. The biggest crisis in an American community in decades occurred in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck that city in August, 2005. In its aftermath 100,000 citizens were forced to leave the city because their homes were demolished. Over 100 public schools were destroyed in the disaster. Subsequently virtually all those schools were replaced with charter schools, run by private corporations for a profit, devoid of teachers’ organizations and parental participation in the revitalization of educational institutions. Commenting on the New Orleans experience Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the Obama administration suggested that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to the educational system of New Orleans.
The human tragedy of Katrina was also a metaphor for what was to follow all across the nation: powerful forces swept away vibrant publicly controlled and accountable educational institutions, replacing them with new profit-driven, non-transparent, non-union, corporate schools that did not serve the needs and desires of the remaining members of the community. Public education is being uprooted, transformed, and destroyed all across the United States.
To facilitate the privatization of schools cities everywhere have begun to close public schools. Detroit, New York, and Chicago closed over 100 schools per city in recent years. In Philadelphia, municipal funds for a prison came from the closure of 50 schools. The impacts of school closings is reflected in the essay “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” produced by the Journey for Justice Alliance: “Closing a school is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a community; it strikes at the very core of community culture, history, and identity and…produces far-reaching repercussions that negatively affect every aspect of community life.”
First, the shift of scarce state budget funds from public to charter schools has meant a significant decline in resources to maintain and improve public schools. If funds for new charter schools and increased money for vouchers are transferred from adequately performing public schools to under-performing charter or religious schools the changes in educational policy lead to a decline in the quality of education provided to all students. For example, in the 2014-2015 Indiana budget, $115 million was diverted by the state legislature from public education to the growing voucher program.
Therefore, as money is withdrawn from K-12 public education the traditional schools have reduced resources with which to do their job. This leads to declining performance. Then privatization advocates call for further reduction as well as school closings, rather than increasing resource allocation to public schools.
Second, a high percentage of school closings occur in poor and Black communities. These closings create what the Journey for Justice Alliance calls “education deserts.” Parents have to find adequate, affordable schools elsewhere in the cities in which they live. Oftentimes charter schools refuse to admit particular students because of biased estimates of their probability of success, disabilities they may have, insufficient English language proficiency or other reasons. “Charter schools use a variety of selective admissions techniques, such as targeted marketing strategies, burdensome application processes, imposing academic prerequisites, and the active discouragement of less-desirable candidates.” (Journey for Justice Alliance, Death By a Thousand Cuts, May, 2014, pp.11-12). In some cases, parents cannot find adequate schools for their children anywhere near their community.
The closing of schools, the struggle for admission to new schools, the increased class sizes of new schools, the adjustment to a new school culture, along with the inexperience of new teachers, all impact in negative ways on the educational experience of children. Education writer, Scott Elliott reported that of the 18 charter schools operating in Indianapolis in 2015, half of them had test scores in 2014 that registered a “fail” in state examination of their children. The failing charter schools served children from poorer backgrounds and/or were children with special needs such as language training. Several of these failing charter schools had been operating for several years and some had been part of national charter networks.
The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability summed up studies of the impacts of voucher programs on educational performance: ‘None of the independent studies performed of the most lauded and long standing voucher programs extant in the U.S.--Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.--found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.” https://www.ctbaonline.org/press-room/ctba-releases-analysis-indiana-school-choice-scholarship-program
Third, as parent and student protests in Chicago, in various cities and towns in Indiana, and elsewhere suggest, there is an inverse relationship between the spread of charter schools and voucher systems and citizen input into educational policy-making. Historically, while many parents chose not to participate in school board decision- making, the prerogative existed for parents, and even students, to provide input into educational policy. It was assumed that members of communities had the right and the responsibility to communicate their concerns to school administrators, elected school boards, and teachers. Most school districts have active parent organizations.
The documentary Education Inc. demonstrated cases in which the frequency of public school board hearings was reduced and meetings were summarily adjourned to avoid debate on controversial issues. And legislatures, such as in Indiana, have prohibited state executive or legislative bodies from regulating the “curriculum content” of private schools that accept vouchers.
Fourth, the neoliberal design referred to above is based upon the proposition that institutional and policy success is best measured by the profit accrued to the corporate bodies involved. In the field of education, neoliberal policies seek to shift accountability from the public to the private sector; from professional skills to market skills; and from participation by the professional and union organizations of teachers, parent groups, and engaged students to corporate executives of private corporations. The neoliberal design regards educational professionalism and training and teachers advocacy associations as impediments.
Therefore the full force of state educational policy includes transferring status, respect, adequate remuneration from long time public school teachers to marginalized, under-trained new workers in charter schools. Also, the charter school movement is avowedly an anti-teachers union movement.
Documentaries on education such as Rise Above the Mark and Education Inc. illustrate that career teachers find demoralizing the repeated and dysfunctional testing of children, declining resources for their schools, and repeated public statements devaluing and demeaning teachers. Educational spokespersons in these films speak in the most glowing terms about the passion to teach, commitment to children, and talent of staffs under their leadership. School superintendents in these documentaries also speak about the contributions which teachers unions make to the enhancement of school performance.
The sum total of the thirty year effort to transform the educational system under the guise of “reform” are the following: the tradition of public education is being destroyed; access to quality education is becoming more difficult and more unequal; transparency and parent input into policy making is becoming more difficult; and the attack on professionalism and teachers unions is making it more difficult to teach.
How to respond?
Other issues need to be discussed including testing, evaluations based on dubious metrics, charging parents for text books, inequitable access to school supplies by district and by public versus private schools, inadequate funding, the development of curricula appropriate for a twenty-first century educational agenda, and the need to combat the “school to prison pipeline” that seems to undergird much of urban education. Responses to protect and enhance the quality of educational life for children require the following:
Creating an educational movement in the state of Indiana that says “enough is enough” to those advocates of so-called education “reform.” That means developing inside strategies that include running and electing legislators and executives who believe in public education. It means lobbying at the State House during the legislative season. It means launching litigation when politicians and educational privateers violate the Indiana constitution’s guarantee that all children have a right to a quality education.
The educational movement must also embrace an outside strategy, building a social movement. It should include education, agitation, and organization. Pamphlets, speakers, videos, and other public fora need to be organized all around the state. Educators and their supporters need to rally and protest so that the issue of quality education is discussed in communities and the media.
And organizationally, an educational movement should draw upon the militancy, passion, and expertise of educational organizations around the state that are already engaged in this work. Strengthening the movement for quality education is more about bringing existing groups together than creating new ones. That is the vision of Indiana Moral Mondays and the idea of “fusion politics.” Assemble those who share common values and a vision and build a mass movement such that as the old slogan says: “The People United Shall Never Be Defeated.”
The huge rally of November 19 suggests that such a movement has been born. Or as this new movement in Indiana proclaims: “Red for Ed.”
What Specific Policies and Programs to Support?
1.Increasing, not decreasing, federal, state, and local funding of public education.
2.Prioritizing the funding of traditionally under-funded schools in economically disadvantaged communities. Resources should include salaries to encourage experienced teachers to remain in disadvantaged communities. Funds should provide equal technologies, including libraries, computers, and other tools, for schools in lower income communities equal to those provided for wealthier communities. Resources should provide for language training, math education, and programs in the arts.
3.Policy-making bodies in all branches of government should be open and transparent so that parents, teachers, and students can observe and participate in decision-making.
4.In school districts where teachers choose to form unions or other professional associations these organizations should be recognized partners in the policy-making process.
5.Assessments of school performance should be determined by teachers, school administrators, and parents, not politicians or educational corporations. Teachers should not be forced to “teach to the tests.”
6.The goal of the educational process should be the full development of the potential of each and every student irrespective of race, gender, class or other forms of discrimination.
Harry Targ's blogs can be accessed at https://heartlandradical.blogspot.com/