Diversity is the Most Important Reason to Save Public Schools

Public schools are under attack.


So what else is new?


It’s been so since the first moment the institution was suggested in this country  by revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson:

“Education is here placed among the articles of public care… a public institution can alone supply those sciences…”


And John Adams:


“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.


But as the founders saw public education as primarily a means of securing democracy by creating informed citizens able to intelligently vote, that is only one of its many benefits today.


Compared to its main alternatives – charter, voucher, and private schools – public schools are more fiscally responsible, democratically controlled and community oriented.


However, these are not the most important reasons to cherish our system of public schools.


For all the system’s benefits, there is one advantage that outshines all the others – one gleaming facet that makes public schools not just preferable but necessary.


That is diversity. 


Public schools ARE the American Dream


They are the melting pot made real. 

Where else can you go and see so many different races, cultures, ethnicities, religions, abilities and genders learning together side-by-side from adolescence to adulthood?


Nowhere. 


I don’t think you can understate how important that is.


When you grow up with someone, you can’t really remain strangers. Not entirely.


When you sit beside different kinds of people in every class, you learn that you and people like you aren’t the center of the universe. You learn that there are many other ways to be human.


And make no mistake. I’m not talking about mere tolerance. I mean seeing the beauty in difference.


I’m talking about seeing the grace and originality in black names and hairstyles, the fluidity of Arabic writing, the serenity of Asian philosophy…


When you make friends that are diverse, have different beliefs, styles, cultures, you open your mind to different ideas and concepts.


If children are our future, we become that future in school. If we’re educated together in a multifaceted society, we are more at home with our country’s true face, the diversity that truly is America. By contrast, if we become adults in secluded segregation, we find difference to be alien and frightening. We hide behind privilege and uphold our ways as the only ways worth considering.


In fact, privilege is born of segregation. It is nurtured and thrives there.


If we want to truly understand our fellow citizens and see them as neighbors and equals, it is best to come to terms with difference from an early age in school.


Integration breeds multiculturalism, understanding and love. 


I’m not saying this happens in every circumstance. All flowers don’t bloom in fertile soil and not all die in a desert. But the best chance we can give our kids is by providing them with the best possible environment to become egalitarian.


That’s public schools.


Of course, diversity was not there from the beginning. 


Through much of our history, we had schools for boys and schools for girls that taught very different things. We had schools for white children and schools (if at all) for black children – each with very different sets of resources.


But as time has gone on, the ideal embodied by the concept of public schooling has come closer to realization. Brown v. Board took away the legality of blatant segregation and brought us together as children in ways that few could have dreamed of previously.


Unfortunately, a lot as happened since then. That ruling has been chipped at and weakened in subsequent decades and today’s schools still suffer from de facto segregation. In many places our children are kept separate by laws that eschew that name but cherish its intent. Instead of outright racial or economic discrimination, our kids are kept apart by municipal borders, by who goes to which school buildings and even by which classes students are sorted into in the same building.


But it’s really just segregation all over again. The poor black kids are enrolled here and the rich white kids there.


The surprising fact is how much we’ve managed to preserve against this regression. Even with its faults, the degree of diversity in public schools far outshines what you’ll find at any other institution.


That’s no accident. It’s by design. 



Each type of education has a different goal, different priorities that guide the kind of experiences it provides for students.


Privatized schools are by definition discriminatory. They only want those students of a certain type – whatever that is – which they specialize in serving. This is true even if their selection criteria is merely who can pay the entrance fee.


After all, the root word of privatization is “private.” It means “only for some.” Exclusion is baked in from the start.


By contrast, public schools have to take whoever lives in their coverage area. Sure you can write laws to exclude one group or another based on redlining or other discriminatory housing schemes, but you can’t discriminate outright. Yes, you can use standardized testing to keep children of color out of the classes with the best resources, but you need a gatekeeper to be intolerant in your place. You can’t just be openly prejudiced.


That’s because you’re starting from a place of integration. The system of public education is essentially inclusive. It takes work to pervert it.


And I think that’s worth preserving.


It gives us a place from which to start, to strengthen and expand.


There are so many aspects of public schools to cherish. 


But for me it is increased diversity, understanding and integration that is the most important.


What kind of a future would we have as a country if all children were educated in such an environment!?



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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!