Education was a frequent talking point during this entire electoral season, on both the federal and state levels. In general, the results of the election are a repudiation of some of the main ideas of education reform in the past 10 years, such as the efforts to create private charter schools and voucher programs funded by public money. These efforts have had such mixed results, including the massive failures of charter schools in Ohio and other states across the country, that voters rejected many of the candidates who campaigned on these ideas-including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a champion of such education privatization.
This ideological shift may be most obvious in Indiana, where State Superintendent of Schools Tony Bennett was hammered at the polls. Bennett had already introduced measures to base teacher salaries on student test scores, expanded the voucher program for private schools, and taken over six of the state’s “failing” schools. He was beaten by a two-time Teacher of the Year named Glenda Ritz who, according to IndyStar.com, “campaigned on the notion that Bennett’s reforms were not in the best interest of students and that Bennett moved too quickly and – perhaps most importantly – without the input, much less blessing, of the very people who emerged as a formidable force against him: teachers.” To some, Bennett’s commitment to implementing Common Core Standards was what sealed his fate.
New Hope for Public Schools
While state officials quickly responded that Indiana would not be “rolling back” the reforms already in place, there have already been signs that education reform will be taking a new direction in the next four years: greater support for public education. For example, within two days of re-election, Pres. Obama authorized the USDOE to give “nearly $150 million to 20 school districts and nonprofit organizations in the third round of Investing in Innovation (i3) grants.”
This third round of the grants, as explained by Michele McNeil in Education Week, were funded by the 2009 federal stimulus package and are “designed to find innovative ideas and bring them to scale. School districts, groups of schools and their nonprofit partners competed in the three categories, which varied based on how much evidence of past success an idea had.” This round’s winners include diverse organizations as well as public university systems, but also were awarded to public school systems such as the California League of Middle Schools, Central Falls School District, and the Clark County School District. In other words, the grant money will not be funneled to privatized charter schools or support voucher programs. Public money will go to public and nonprofit systems.
After years of criticism, including attacks on teachers’ unions as the cause of academic failure and the charge that American public schools constitute a threat to national security, these grants are a breath of fresh air-and a vote of confidence in – the abilities of our school systems to reform, revise, and reinvent their services to meet contemporary challenges.
Similarly, Amanda Litvinov and Colleen Flaherty on EdVotes.org, a publication of the National Education Association, catalogued a list of triumphs for public schools and their advocates:
- The passage of California’s Proposition 30, an increase in taxes to forestall a devastating $6 billion budget cut for the state’s public schools and colleges in the middle of the school year.
- The defeat of a measure in Florida that would have given public money to religious schools.
- Idaho’s rejection of a laptop funding initiative that would have reduced the number of teachers.
Such measures were clearly seen by the majority of voters as too extreme, so they set limits to the amount and kind of change they wanted to see in their schools, reinforcing the belief that more deliberate research and the participation of teachers will actually benefit students more.
Do These Changes Help or Hurt?
From my perspective, anything we can do to help public schools is a step in the right direction, so this new direction for reform. The American public education system is an investment in our ideals, a path toward equality rooted in equal opportunity, because everyone has access. Charter schools do not always provide such opportunities: for example, charter schools in Chicago do not have to admit as many students with special needs as public schools do, but their students do not perform better than those in public schools. Similarly, the validity of standardized testing continues to be debated, because it seems to focus so much on the accumulation of data rather than the development of critical thinking.
This is a problem that even John Dewey, one of the original education reformers in American history, recognized. In Democracy and Education, he said, “Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.” Approximately 90% of all American students attend public schools in this country. [David Denby, The New Yorker, November 19, 2012] It’s time we made them a priority rather than and simply criticized or replaced this great democratic experiment.