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March 02, 2016

The End of Public Schools?

books and a chalkboard that reads The End of Public Schools?

David Hursh
David Hursh

Philanthropic foundations, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations are transforming the face of public education, according to David Hursh’s new book, The End of Public Schools: The Corporate Reform Agenda to Privatize Education. Hursh, professor of teaching and curriculum at the Warner School of Education, examines the forces at work in school reform efforts that he says are leading to the decline of the public school system in the United States.

In your book, you outline reform efforts that you say are dramatically changing education in the United States, and leading to the ‘end of public schools.’ What do you mean by this?
I talk about the end of public schools in three ways: First, in many urban school districts publicly funded, privately run charter schools are opening, while public schools close. Second, much of what occurs in public schools is being privatized, including the development of curriculum and assessments, which are increasingly made by corporations, not teachers. Third, much of the discussion regarding our educational system is occurring not publicly but privately as philanthropic organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and hedge fund managers privately control the debate over educational policy.

Public schools and teachers are increasingly blamed for society’s ills. Instead of collaborating with teachers to improve schools, teachers are too often dismissed as irrelevant. 

Can you talk more about charter schools and their impact on the education system?
My concern is that charter schools are organized by private corporations, some of which may be more interested in earning profits than developing successful centers of learning. Technically, in New York, unlike some other states, charter schools can’t be “for profit,” but they can outsource the administration to for-profit companies. Further, they don’t have to follow the same financial regulations as public schools, nor
do they have the same oversight. Consequently, some charter school administrators earn exorbitant salaries—two or three times the salary of the superintendent of Rochester schools.

Another concern with charter schools is that they undermine the interest and ability  in talking about what schools should be about. What I’m interested in—and what we’ve been debating since the founding of public schools—is the question “What are schools for?” What do we want our children to know and be able to do? How should schools be organized? How should they connect to the community? Those are the kinds of things we should be talking about. When people are sending their students to charter schools, it really ends that debate because parents who send their kids to charter schools say “I’m taking care of my kids, and you worry about yours.” There’s less concern for the greater good.

You also examine corporations and nongovernmental organizations that have supported education reforms such as the controversial Common Core standards. Why is their involvement a concern?
Education policy is being made by philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, Eli Broad—there are numerous others. As I write in the book,  the effort to create the Common Core state standards was dying for a lack of interest by the states, when Bill Gates was approached by two individuals—Gene Wilhoit from the Council of Chief State School Offices and David Coleman, now president of the College Board—who asked Gates to get behind national standards and curriculum. Bill Gates responded enthusiastically, providing $2.3 billion to 1,800 organizations—from unions, to universities, to NGOs—to support the Common Core, which has been implemented in many states as required by Obama’s “Race to the Top.”

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, states have more options in terms of standardized tests. But Bill Gates is pouring more money into encouraging states to adopt the Common Core. The political push from people who want to privatize public education is quite strong and very well funded. Bill Gates has managed to use his funding to set education policy, and when it comes to education, he’s become the most powerful person in the United States. He’s even more powerful than the secretary of education. My concern is that Bill Gates, the Walton Family Foundation, and others who are unelected and unaccountable to the public are determining education policy, how it’s being framed, and what kinds of policies that are being created and passed—and  most people are unaware aware that it is occurring. I think education policy should be something that’s public.

Recent faculty publications

Art for the People: Carl W. Peters and the Rochester WPA Murals

Edited by Jessica Marten
Memorial Art Gallery, 2015

Jessica Marten, curator of American art at the Memorial Art Gallery, edits the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name at the MAG. The catalog includes new scholarship that examines and positions the Rochester murals within a national context. Contributors include Joan Saab, the Susan B. Anthony Professor of Art and Art History.

Letter from a Young Poet

By Hyam Plutzik
Books & Books Press, 2016

The late Hyam Plutzik, former John H. Deane Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry at Rochester and benefactor of the Plutzik Memory Poetry Series, offers a personal narrative of his formative years in the 1930s in a never-before-published work, offered as a limited special edition.

Can you talk about the effects of these reforms on the teaching profession?
Teaching is being deprofessionalized in a sense that teachers are following a set curriculum and are not permitted to build on what they know about their content area or about pedagogy. In most charter schools, the teachers are not protected by tenure, which protects teachers from arbitrary dismissal. Teachers in charter schools are generally not expected to make a career out of teaching. We’ve seen that, because of the Common Core tests and curriculum, many experienced teachers are leaving because they feel that what they brought to the profession of teaching is no longer valued. I often run into teachers who are in their 50s or 60s who say “it’s not at all what it used to be when I entered,” “it’s not a profession I want to be in anymore,” and many have quit. If they’re staying, they are counting the days until they retire. And we’re seeing enrollments in teacher-education programs across New York State decline by 30 to 70 percent because people are not choosing teaching as a career. Teachers are being blamed for the failure of the economic system. They’re being told not to think—to follow directions and do what they’re told. They’re losing job protections. The most recent changes in state law make tenure more difficult to achieve. People are much less likely to go into teaching  than before.

How do you address these issues with your students who are pursuing professions in public education?
There are glimmers of hope of positive changes. I think things will get better. I’m trying to encourage people to go into teaching but also to understand what the situation is like and work to improve public schools and rebuild teaching as a profession. First they need to understand what the problems are. Then they need to understand who the players are. In New York we have the New York State Alliance for Public Education, which is made up of teachers and families who are trying to influence education policy. There’s the opt-out movement. There were 250,000 students who did not take the Common Core exams in New York state last year, which is about 25 percent. If you can convince that many parents to send a letter to the school saying they don’t want their child participating in a standardized test, I think it’s quite remarkable. I also encourage student teachers to work with other teachers in their school to gain some control over what goes on in their classrooms and how students are assessed.

Understanding the ways in which education is being privatized, including the increasing role of money from private organizations in determining policy, requires that we researchers and educators share our research and figure out ways that we can use our research to affect policy and push back against those who have taken policy out of the public sphere. I’m actually hopeful that—as I’ve seen with the discussions around the opt-out movement—parents and teachers and community members are becoming much more critical and thoughtful in thinking about how some policies are damaging schools and how they might be improved.

The End of Public Schools is available on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and as an e-book.

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