For years and years, I’ve been resisting the idea of getting a Twitter account. No matter how many times a coworker has told me I should be on Twitter to participate in professional “chats” or how many hilarious Bird Rights Activist quips I read, I never really wanted to venture into that particular brand of social media. The trolls are so much worse over there, and let’s be honest – it’s not like brevity has ever been one of my strengths.
But then I decided to do this bloggy thing, and the bloggy thing takes off a lot better if you have a Twitter account (or so I’ve been told), so I finally jumped in, and now Learning Liberation is also @LearnLiberation. Aaaaaaaand guess what? It took less than two weeks before I found myself in a black hole of useless and seemingly endless debate with some twerp who thinks he’s been “robbed by Big Bird” because some tax dollars are used to fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And I’m not even the one debating him! I just get notified of every gotdamn Tweet about it because I replied to someone who replied to him (you see why I didn’t want any part of this for the past 10 years?).
Despite how obnoxious the 16 hours of notifications was, it did shed some light on the mindset of Trumpists and Libertarians when it comes to education, and the relationship between a “Big Bird is robbing me of MY taxes” attitude and the movement to privatize education via charitable foundations and market-based reforms. So I have a message for these folks:
The educational system is not a personal investment.
Nothing about our public schools, owned by the government, subject to the laws and oversight of the local municipality, county, and/or school district, and open to all children living in this country between the ages of 5 and 18 (or 3 to 21 for individuals with certain cognitive disabilities), was ever intended to bring increased wealth or prosperity to individuals with no natural stake in the school. Our education system as we know it today was born out of the Mann reforms of the mid-1800’s. Horace Mann was an education secretary who went on a crusade to create public schools in which all teachers were professionally trained and all students had free access to a high quality, non-sectarian curriculum that had intrinsic value to all citizens. His ideas didn’t fully spread across the country until after the industrial revolution and the Civil War, but finally in 1918 all states required that children attend school, and local school districts started hiring teachers with expertise and credentials, and developing more standardized curricula that prepared students for the many kinds of work available.
For decades, school reform efforts were driven by educators, education philosophers, and parents, who centered the needs of students and the country as a whole. Reformers like John Dewey and Horace Mann were adamant that public schools and curricula should be Democratic (ethically, not politically) institutions, free from the influence of politicians, religion, or wealthy business owners.
And oh, how far we have fallen. In the past 25 years, we have seen a huge amount of private influence over public schools. Dewey’s aim was to preserve academic freedom for teachers, but I would make an even more basic argument that schools do not owe anything to state- and federal-level politicians, religious leaders, business owners, or even individuals outside of their own district, because none of those people have a natural stake in the outcomes of that school. The only people who have a natural stake (meaning, they are directly impacted by the material taught and methods in which it is taught) in a school are its students, parents, teachers, and support staff.
“But I’m a taxpayer! MY money taken from MY paycheck helps pay for YOUR school so I AM impacted and therefore I get to make demands,” some libertarian on Twitter wails.
Let’s tackle the first part of this complaint: “MY money from MY paycheck helps pay for YOUR school.”
First of all, if you make $50,000 per year pre-tax, you contribute approximately $225 to the department of education; $110 of that money goes to public K-12 schools. There are approximately 98,000 public schools in the U.S. So, Mr. Libertarian, exactly how would you like each school to repay you for the whopping one-tenth of one penny you contributed to their budget?
But more importantly, income tax money is not your money – not legally, and not morally. Legally, income tax monies belong to the government (that’s why you can go to jail for not paying them). Morally, well, that’s a bit more complicated. Here’s my pinko commie perspective: Essentially, the money we’re paid isn’t really about what we have earned or what we’re worth — it’s just a reflection of what the market values our labor at. Some jobs are paid a great deal too much (professional athletes, movie stars), some are paid a great deal too little (nursing home employees, fast food workers, teachers), and some are not paid at all (incarcerated workers, stay-at-home parents). Taxes are an attempt to correct these imbalances, by redistributing some of the funds that were not fairly paid out by the capitalist market. Taxes are not morally yours – they are morally the people’s, and therefore used for programs that benefit the people.
Which leads us to part 2: “I am impacted and therefore I get to make demands.”
Hah, dude — we don’t owe you shit. Not you, not Bill Gates, not Michael Bloomberg, and not any of the other “philanthropists” who will happily donate money to public schools, as long as they get to tell the schools what to do without acknowledging the expertise of actual teachers.
Education is not a business – in fact, schools that are businesses tend to have the worst outcomes of all. Treating schools like businesses leads to treating students as assets if they do well on tests or liabilities if they do poorly, not complex and full individuals (see Berliner, David , in Marzano [ed.] On Excellence in Teaching). No matter what a business does, its primary goal is to create profits for the owners, and this is incompatible with the aims of public education as it was conceived.
Schools are not a marketplace. You do not get to put money in and then make whimsical demands on what comes out. You want to call all the shots in exchange for your payment? Go to a frozen yogurt bar. At least that way you’re the only one who has to deal with your uninformed decisions. Why should everyone have to eat chocolate-caramel yogurt with Nerds and Gummy Bears just ‘cuz that’s YOUR favorite?
Teachers are required by law to make instructional decisions based on research. We look to the expertise of life-long educators like Robert Marzano, Diane Ravitch, David Berliner, Carol Ann Tomlinson, and others so that we can better understand how learning takes place, how activity and behavior connect to knowledge acquisition, and the best classroom strategies we can use to engage our learners. Educators at all levels synthesize the latest research with our own experiences and the patterns of need among our particular students to create rich learning opportunities for students. The majority of teachers in the United States have at least a Master’s Degree, and we are constantly researching and reflecting to improve our ability to teach. In other words:
We know more than you.
Your business degree does not qualify you to make educational decisions. Your income taxes do not qualify you to make educational decisions. The amount of money you have is arbitrary and does not qualify you to make educational decisions.
So no, the education system is not a personal investment. You can talk to your school board representative about your concerns. You can work with your child’s teacher to ensure your child gets what she needs in school. And you can support the work of your neighborhood school at their next fundraiser.
But your taxes and wealth entitle you to nothing.
In a future post, I’ll do some yelling at the politicians who are trying to take over public schools and strip them of democratic oversight, and maybe some day (when I’m not writing a thesis) I’ll get into how market-driven reforms are hurting students. But for now, let’s talk!