THE BLOG

What's at Stake in Public Education

07/18/2014 08:16 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2014
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Martin Barraud via Getty Images

Jeff Bryant notes that many in the national media were stunned when the NEA called for Secretary Arne Duncan's resignation. For years, they believed the secretary's press releases instead of investigating the festering discontent against his ill-informed policies. Many journalists are oblivious to the protests by teachers -- like the one at Garfield High school in Seattle -- against the use of student test scores to judge their quality. Many journalists never noticed growing protests by students against obsessive testing in cities like Providence. Many never heard about parents groups objecting to profiteering by test publishers or dismissed them as publicity stunts. Many have been oblivious to the devastating effects of budget cuts by state legislatures that at the same time that they open unsupervised charter schools that impoverish community public schools. With some notable exceptions, like the Detroit Free Press and the Akron Beacon Journal, the mainstream media has simply ignored a widespread assault on the principle of free public education, democratically controlled, open to all. Instead, they print press releases written by corporations about "miracle schools," where every child graduates and goes to college, without bothering to check facts.

Reporters quote spokespeople from right-wing think tanks that support privatization or from groups like Democrats for Education Reform, which represents hedge fund managers even though they are neither teachers nor parents nor have any other claim to authority (DFER recently referred to NEA as "the lunatic fringe" in the New York Times for denouncing Duncan, even though NEA speaks for three million teachers and DFER speaks for a handful of fabulously wealthy equity speculators).

What is most astonishing is to see the almost total indifference or ignorance of the mainstream media to an unprecedented and well-coordinated effort to privatize public education. Reporters don't care that certain individuals and corporations are accumulating millions of dollars in taxpayer funding while schools are cutting their budgets and closing their libraries and increasing class sizes. Reporters don't care that state authorities are allowing schools to open whose founders are not educators and may even be high school dropouts. Nor do they care when charter corporations claim to be "public schools," yet refuse to permit the state to audit their expenditures, and in some states, refuse to share financial information with their own board. Has anyone tried to explain how a school can be "public" if its financials are not? Reporters know, but don't care, that major charter chains contribute millions of dollars to state legislatures to make sure that no one investigates their use of public funds. A few reporters in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida have dared to pry into the cozy relationship between the charters and the legislature, but their exposes are followed by silence and inaction.

If present trends continue, the U.S. will have a dual system of education in another decade. Some cities will have few public schools, only charters that choose their students and exclude those with disabilities and those who can't speak English. The few remaining public schools in urban districts will enroll the charter school rejects. The great irony is that privately managed schools don't get better results than public schools on average for poor students yet they are a gold mine for their founders. What is at stake is the great tradition of public schools, open to all, supported by all, controlled by the public, not corporations. This is a principle worth fighting for, yet the public cannot fight if they are uninformed. It is up to a free press to sound the alarm when private interests seek to undermine, exploit, monetize, and control our democratic institutions. To date, with rare exceptions, the press has not sounded the alarm.