Standing Up in Defense of Public Education

“We are not toys,” nine-year-old Asean Johnson implored in 2013 at a rally in opposition to the proposed closure of 50 Chicago schools, including his own, Marcus Garvey Elementary. “We are not going down without a fight,” Johnson said in the YouTube video that has earned close to 369,000 views.

After an uproar from parents, teachers and activists of all ages, Garvey and three other schools was spared from the closure list.

Garvey’s website now includes this quotation from Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman: “If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much.”

More recently, the nomination proceedings for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos offered cause for optimism — not because of their outcome, but because of the unprecedented level of objection they generated.

Elected officials in states from Connecticut to Nebraska, Maine and Alaska received an unexpectedly large influx of calls and emails from concerned constituents. According to Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, it made for “the busiest [three days] in Capitol switchboard history” by “almost double.”

Catalyzing, sustaining and expanding this kind of collective action in defense of public education is not only possible but necessary.

The recent release from the White House of the proposed budget, including its $9 billion or 13.5 percent cut to education, reminds us that public schools need more than episodic waves of support. They need a sustained, people-powered swell of support, particularly in this policy climate, which promises to starve public programs while privileging private interests.

With state representatives and senators returning soon to their districts and home states for town halls and April recess, the next few weeks offer a critical window for registering our demand. That can be in person if possible (and also via voicemail and inbox) for a budget that reflects investments in the public good.

In the coming months, we can expect to hear disingenuous platitudes, such as DeVos’s recent tweettweet: “#AmericasBudget makes clear that education is a top priority for this Administration. We will put kids first and give parents options!”

In reality, #AmericasBudget imperils the well-being of the country’s more than 55 million school-aged children. Its cuts promise to shutter before-school, after-school and summer programs that provide essential resources for working families and are linked to improved academic performance, grades, homework completion, behavior and nutrition, particularly among vulnerable K-12 youth.

The new budget threatens to make higher education less accessible for students from low- and middle-income families by reducing work study opportunities, outreach programs and grants for those in need. This is at a time when one-third of community college students go hungry and more than one in seven students is homeless.

The proposed plan ensures continued erosion of arts education in a country where only 3 and 4 percent of schools reported having dance and drama programs in 2010, down from 20 percent 10 years prior. In the last decade of fiscal shortfalls for public education in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles school systems, meanwhile, have seen disproportionate trimming of art teachers and art offerings.

The National Endowment for the Arts is on the chopping block, too. Last year in California, home to more than 6 million students, the NEA contributed over $9 million to roughly 350 programs statewide. That included programs in dance and theater, orchestra, creative writing and mural painting serving low-income youth in urban and rural schools.

The proposed budget renders especially vulnerable students with disabilities, whose school districts already struggle with far fewer federal dollars than needed to cover the cost of an “appropriate public education” as per federal law.

Those same students’ “unique needs” can be skirted by private schools, including those receiving federal voucher funds, if necessary services require more than “minor adjustments” to schools’ pre-existing educational programs.

The new budget endangers the teaching profession, too. This is a profession that, while at times battered in the public discourse, remains critical to the health of our democracy and valued by its most direct public.

Just as polls find the majority of Americans give their own schools “A” or “B” ratings (even as they grade other schools more harshly), three-quarters identify their own children’s teachers as good or excellent. More than half consider teachers in their local context underpaid.

Slashing resources for teacher preparation, recruitment and retention — as the proposed budget does — won’t help fortify or compensate great teachers. More likely, it will add stress to an already stressed workforce and exacerbate the conditions that conspire against the kind of passionate, effective and caring teaching that families most appreciate.

These conditions stand to drive talented educators out of classrooms and promising candidates into other careers at a moment when the profession faces impending retirements, projected shortages and an acute need to diversify.

With privatization of education failing the public in places like Detroit and voucher programs deemed more risky than rewarding, those initiatives are not ones where we should be directing resources, as the proposed budget does with its $1.4 billion infusion into school choice.

To be sure, “skinny” budgets like the one recently released never make it past Congress as is. They are amended and serve as starting points for negotiation.

It is time to make public our commitment to public education by standing up — as Asean and so many others have done — rather than standing by.