Professor George Theoharis: No More Market-Based Reforms—Let’s Invest in Our Public Schools

We are seeing a moment in which K-12 public education is being challenged in myriad ways. Across the United States, we are witnessing a push for more school vouchers; the banning of books, even by Nobel Prize winning authors; an increase of curriculum censorship, away from factual, scientific, and expert developed lessons toward disinformation and propaganda; local and national conversations about changing or deprecating state and federal education departments; and soaring teacher and school staffing shortages.

George Theoharis headshotIn part, these trends are the result of decades of intentional undermining of public education. Efforts began in earnest after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision that desegregate schools. Back then, angry parents trying to avoid public school integration sought systems that would preserve segregation and a racial hierarchy. These solutions included segregation academies (especially in the Southern states), white flight from cities to suburbs, white rage around desegregation busing, and so on.

The undermining of public education saw a boost from the administration of President Ronald Reagan and its 1983 report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” “A Nation at Risk” provided incentive to push the nation away from public education by inaccurately casting public schools as failing. Today, we have experienced four decades of policy and discourse that has labeled K-12 schools as “failing,” blaming the people who work in them. This labeling has led to an unchecked, multi-decades decline in young people going into teaching. Who wants to go into a field discussed as the cause of our society ills?

Once public schools were labeled as “failing”—and once teachers and staff were seen as the problem—the solution from Reagan and subsequent neoliberal Republican and Democratic administrations has been to push a series of market-based education reforms that were not grounded in research: high stakes testing; tying teacher pay to student test results; “school vouchers,” or the use of public money for private education; “alternative paths” to teaching; using test results to label and punish schools; and the increasing in the number of charter schools, publicly funded but privately run. Together, these strategies and tactics are disingenuously called “school choice.”

“School choice” initiatives from the 1980s onward shifted focus away from the civil rights of students and from issues of access and opportunity, and they have done little to improve schools or outcomes. The “school choice” movement has, however, created a massive private industry that treats struggling children as a capital asset; diverts taxpayer funds away from public schools; undermines public education in other ways, not least with political rhetoric; and drives people away from the teaching profession.

While not all proponents of the testing and labeling regime are intent on destabilizing public school, we need to see the decline in support for public schools and interest in the teaching profession and as a real—read, disastrous—consequence of the era of school accountability.

The most current data show that these stressors are driving people from the classroom and making K-12 schools unwelcoming spaces for new professionals. Again, why would a profession so maligned be an attractive place to enter or stay?

The most recent stresses on K-12 schools stem from the coronavirus pandemic and “parental rights”—or more accurately “school censorship”—organizing. The pandemic put unparalleled stress on many aspects of our society, including on teachers and school staff, who faced enormous challenges that significantly expanded the demands on them.

Post-pandemic, public schools across the country have to deal with activists yelling at school board meetings, telling teachers how to do their job, and in some places enacting policies that promote an anti-democratic and inaccurate curriculum. The most current data show that these stressors are driving people from the classroom and making K-12 schools unwelcoming spaces for new professionals. Again, why would a profession so maligned be an attractive place to enter or stay?

The importance of public education is paramount to our success as a democratic nation and, specifically, to our claim to be—as President Reagan was fond of saying—a “shining city on the hill,” where we believe in “liberty and justice for all,” a phrase millions of schoolchildren recite every day.

Public education has many issues, but it is the only way to take seriously the great experiment of educating our diverse and pluralistic population, more diverse than any other nation. Funding does not solve every issue, but we know that money can make a big difference in schools, helping to lower class size (particularly in the early years), provide more advanced academic classes, offer more robust mental health supports, and give students greater access to arts, music, drama, and athletic opportunities.

Moreover, our K-12 system leads many toward post-secondary education. While we know that college might not be right for every young person, we also know that having a four-year degree leads to better quality of life and a higher income. But similar to public school disinvestment, states have stopped or decreased investment in their public universities, and that has in turn led to the massive student debt crisis we are now facing.

Instead of maligning public schools and diverting public funds to private businesses, first and foremost we need a massive public investment to grow our teaching force and bring in a new generation of teachers to stabilize the profession. While we are at it, we need to stop telling educators how to do their jobs or that they need to throw out fact-based teaching materials and teach misinformation instead.

We cannot forget the time when we focused on making public schools better and fairer. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, we focused on desegregation, racial civil rights in schools, and increasing access for girls, students with disabilities, and students who were learning English. Thanks to that investment—political and otherwise—we saw the achievement levels for all students rise and the gaps between groups narrow.

We need to move away from decades of failed market-based school reform, false accountability, faux parental rights, and focus once again on public investment, access, and opportunity.