President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden offer voters starkly different views on what is needed to give America’s children improved educational opportunities.
Trump and the Republican Party that will nominate him this week to run for a second term are doing everything they can to undermine traditional public schools and public school teachers, particularly teachers like me who belong to unions.
Republicans absurdly and obscenely stereotype public school teachers as lazy and incompetent, and teacher unions as greedy and selfish. Yet we dedicate our lives to educating students, and teacher unions are the ones fighting for the school funding our students need and deserve.
Former Vice President Biden and Democrats, on the other hand, pledge to strengthen public schools. Biden has advanced teacher unions’ proposals on how to accomplish this goal, as I discuss below.
Throughout our nation’s history, public schools have been the gateway to a better life, providing a free education to students from every background. More than any other institution, they have enabled children to improve their lives by preparing them for post-secondary education and careers.
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We can all agree that public schools face serious challenges — particularly in low-income communities — but Trump and Biden have very different solutions for how to surmount these challenges.
Trump has given up on traditional public schools and says the best way to help students is to get them out of what he pejoratively calls “government schools.” He and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are strong supporters of “school choice”— meaning charter schools and private school vouchers.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, with flexibility that exempts them from many of the state and local rules and regulations that traditional public schools must follow. They are also overwhelmingly non-union. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, nationwide only 11% of charters are unionized.
Private schools charge tuition, putting them out of reach of low-income and many middle-class families. Vouchers use tax dollars to pay the tuition of low-income children in private schools.
Trump, DeVos and other Republicans condemn teacher unions for opposing school choice.
Teacher unions and our supporters in the Democratic Party — including Biden — reject overhyped fads like charter schools and private school vouchers, and want instead to increase investment in the traditional public schools we already have.
Republicans celebrate charter schools and denigrate public education, public school teachers and teacher unions, but fail to understand the fatal flaws behind the narrative of alleged charter success.
To better understand charter schools, it is useful to compare them to magnet schools. There are about 4,340 magnet schools in the U.S., educating more than 3.5 million students. Magnet schools are public schools that typically focus on one area for educational enrichment — such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the fine and performing arts, international studies, or career and technical education.
Magnet schools educate a similar number of students nationwide as charters do. But unlike charter schools, magnet schools are publicly managed and largely unionized — the exact features conservatives blame for public schools’ shortcomings.
Yet magnets’ performance outpaces charters as well as traditional public schools. How is this possible? Magnets are open to all, but students and their parents must be interested and motivated enough to apply.
Direct comparisons between any types of schools can be problematic, but pursuit of a school of choice — whether magnet, charter, or private — is powerful evidence of a student’s and family’s commitment to education, and a strong indicator of future academic performance.
As a colleague says, “It’s not the type of school — it’s who gets the first-round draft picks.”
Former educator Robert Pondiscio studied an elementary school operated by the much-celebrated New York-based Success Academy charter network and found that students in these charters schools and their parents are not at all typical.
Republicans absurdly and obscenely stereotype public school teachers as lazy and incompetent, and teacher unions as greedy and selfish.
Pondiscio, a vocal supporter of charters, wrote that the network cherry-picks the parents most dedicated to educating their children, requiring parental commitment “on steroids.” This commitment includes contracts requiring parents to read six books aloud to their young children every week, no after-school care or buses, no attempt to accommodate parents’ work schedules, and more.
Pondiscio tells the story of a kindergartner who was picked to enter the school but whose mother didn't bring him to a scheduled event and didn’t provide an excuse. The school then gave away the boy’s slot in the school.
“Is it unfair?” he writes. “Of course it’s unfair. Children shouldn’t be penalized or disadvantaged for the actions or inactions of their parents.”
Pondiscio also provides insight into what’s behind Success Academy’s test scores, detailing its blistering test preparation practices — practices no traditional public school could do, and no school should do.
Charter advocates want us to believe their students start out at the same place as those in “failing” traditional public schools. Pondiscio acknowledges that while “this story is deeply satisfying to charter school advocates …. It is also misleading or even false.”
For example, the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City public school teachers, found that for the 2018-19 school year, charters enrolled fewer than half as many English language learners as a percentage of their student body as traditional New York City public schools did. Moreover, charters enrolled only a third as many students with the most challenging needs.
Not only do charters admit the students they want; they push out those they don’t.
University of Colorado education professor Kevin Welner identifies numerous ways charters discard students. For example, charters push parents of struggling students to remove their children from school by threatening to make the students repeat a grade.
Related to this are the harsh disciplinary policies that many charters employ. The UFT found that New York City charters suspend students at a rate over eight times higher than traditional public schools. Suspensions often push parents to withdraw their children from a charter school.
In other words, charters weed out average and below-average students and keep the higher-performing students — a practice a 2015 New York Times investigation found to be widespread in Success Academy schools.
In contrast to expanding charters, Biden’s “Plan for Educators, Students, and our Future” calls for massive investment in public education. The plan — a teacher union wish list — includes:
Doubling the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers in schools. This is a glaring need that has been an issue in recent teacher strikes.
Investing in vocational education. These programs often succeed in connecting with students who are otherwise disinterested and disengaged in school, particularly boys. But vocational programs have been devastated by waves of budget cuts. My former principal wistfully recounts programs we used to have, including an airline mechanics program with the local airport, where our students repaired actual aircraft and trained to become airline mechanics.
Increased funding for programs for children with disabilities. The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act promised to provide 40% of the extra cost of special education, but currently only funds 14%. This forces local school districts to pick up the tab by taking money from other programs.
Investing in teacher mentoring. The English teacher across the hall from my classroom is national board-certified and has a deep understanding of pedagogy. All teachers, young and veteran, including me, could learn much from him. But most years he’s so bogged down in teaching, grading essays, and lesson planning that his time to help other teachers is limited. If the money were there, he could teach three or four classes instead of five or six and could spend hours a day helping other teachers improve.
Tripling federal Title I funding, which goes to schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. This would eliminate the $23 billion annual funding gap between predominantly White and predominantly non-White school districts.
Helping educators pay off their student loans. A performing arts teacher I’ve worked with, for example, works day and night for our kids, yet fights a losing battle to stay afloat with his student loans.
Because Democrats traditionally have championed improved funding and other programs to help public schools better serve students, teacher unions have favored Democratic candidates over Republicans.
If Republicans were honest, they’d admit they oppose teacher unions because we usually support Democrats. If teacher unions backed Republicans, the GOP would describe teachers as working-class heroes fighting Herculean odds to educate America’s troubled youth.
It is our politics — not our job performance — that engenders Republican hostility.