3 primary threats to public education

We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis. Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it. —Kristina L. Taylor

A robust system of public education is essential for a thriving democracy and a growing economy.

Historically, Americans have invested in public institutions.

Nikole Hannah-Jones describes that history in a piece titled, “Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools?”:

“Early on, it was this investment in public institutions that set America apart from other countries. Public hospitals ensured that even the indigent received good medical care — health problems for some could turn into epidemics for us all. Public parks gave access to the great outdoors not just to the wealthy who could retreat to their country estates but to the masses in the nation’s cities. Every state invested in public universities. Public schools became widespread in the 1800s, not to provide an advantage for particular individuals but with the understanding that shuffling the wealthy and working class together (though not black Americans and other racial minorities) would create a common sense of citizenship and national identity, that it would tie together the fates of the haves and the have-nots and that doing so benefited the nation. A sense of the public good was a unifying force because it meant that the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek, shared the spoils — as well as the burdens — of this messy democracy….”

Public schools today are being profoundly affected by strong social and political forces that those invested in the future of this country cannot ignore.

Those forces are part of a larger anti-public institution agenda that has been gaining momentum for several decades.

Public education as we know it has, in my view, three primary threats:

1. Radical capitalists who believe that maximum profit should be extracted from every revenue source, including those provided by taxpayers to support the public good.  A primary strategy to divert funds intended for public education is to denigrate and create distrust regarding teachers, teacher unions, and, most of all, public education in general.

2. Poverty and low-quality healthcare that has a particularly profound affect in impoverished neighborhoods and communities on the ability of young people to learn and on their overall well-being. (You can read more about the effects of poverty on children here and here.)

3. The possibility that unrelenting attacks on teachers and the consequences of high-stakes testing and other “reforms” will demoralize teachers and create a sense of resignation about the chances for meaningful improvement. That, in turn, would provide a further opportunity for radical capitalists to exert their will over public education.

Nonetheless, Hannah-Jones continues to place her faith in public schools:

“If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public — and on ourselves.”   

Although public education has been an important force for the common good over many generations of students, there is no guarantee that it will continue to play its historic role in American life.

It remains to be seen if the public good provided by public education is sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats as they are intensified over the next several years.

What would you add to or subtract from my list?

11 Responses to “3 primary threats to public education”


  1. 1 rickrepicky March 22, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Sorry for the length, but I want to address how well US public schools are dealing with the poverty issues.These results are from the 2012 or 2013 PISA; I hope current results show the same or better. I posted this on fb in Jan:

    Referring to the inaugural address, do public schools leave, “our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge”? Not so says Rick DuFour in his 2015 book “In Praise of American Educators.” When comparing the US to Finland (considered a top performer on the international PISA test), US public schools hold their own. Finland’s glowing results come from a population with just a 3% poverty rate. Compare this rate to the US with a 20% child poverty rate that translates to 51% of its public school students qualifying for free & reduced lunch (p. 20). When considering PISA scores for US schools limited to a 25% poverty rate (vs. Finland’s 3%), the US OUTPERFORMS EVERY INDUSTRIALIZED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD (p. 26). Public schools must continue to improve, but this is a direct rebuttal of the inaugural address. American public school educators should be proud.

  2. 3 Linda McFall March 22, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    I believe the changes/ breakdown in family life add to the issue. With the ever growing need for one on one teaching /learning relationships for children with learning problems and less opportunity for regular support at home, children lose out on reaching their potential. Unhappy parents who can afford to , enrol their children in private schools where class size is small and individual needs can be met. The public system is seen as incapable of producing top results yet it is underfunded in terms of class size. Teachers burn out with a growing population of students who no longer share a homogenous learning or language/cultural background, and guardians who cannot or will not share their load of the students’ educational experience.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks March 23, 2017 at 9:30 am

      For variety of reasons teaching is definitely far more complex and demanding that it was even a decade or two ago. I appreciate you sharing your perspective with all of us, Linda.

  3. 5 Kent Peterson March 23, 2017 at 10:52 am

    This is a powerful and meaningful discussion of the attacks on public education. There are so many ways to weaken and sabotage this institution–less funding, less support, less belief in its importance. My belief in those who continue to support the common good point to a difficult period, but success in the end.

    • 6 Dennis Sparks March 26, 2017 at 5:22 pm

      I agree that this is a difficult time for public institutions, Kent, and I hope that you are correct that these institutions are sufficiently resilient to both survive and thrive. I appreciate your comment.

  4. 7 Kelly March 26, 2017 at 2:48 am

    I would add a mental health component somewhere inyour list. Public schools are providing more mental health services to kids who struggle socially, and students with emotional disorders. As a principal of an elementary school we are becoming the “be all” for many families, and there isn’t enough funding to cover all the mandates put on schools for mental health, healthy foods, and physical health of students e.g. Diabetes monitoring by clinic aides. The educational system will implode because we are having to fix al of the students issues so that they can perform well in school.

    • 8 Dennis Sparks March 26, 2017 at 5:26 pm

      I appreciate you explicitly adding mental health to the list, Kelly. While I suppose mental health problems are to some extent another effect of poverty and poor health care on so many children, mental health is worthy of special mention.

      • 9 Kelly March 28, 2017 at 2:05 am

        Yes, it could go there, however, there is a large faction of students who can not cope with the day to day of school or life. They struggle with resilience, and then feel so bad make threats to their lives, and require more social workers in schools to support the mental health component.

      • 10 Dennis Sparks March 28, 2017 at 9:19 am

        In a New Yorker article I’ve been reading I came across the following observation: “Mental well-being … depends on one’s belief that life is orderly, comprehensible, structured, and predictable.” Those qualities are certainly found wanting in the lives of far too many young people.

      • 11 Kelly March 28, 2017 at 12:41 pm

        Thank you for responding to my posts. I agree with you on every thing you have said. Now the trick is to get our public to start seeing how these 3-4 things are tearing down education. I will do what I can to support public education, it’s been my career for nearly 35 years.


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