For a democracy to function in society's interests as intended, the people must be sufficiently informed - i.e., educated - in order to protect and assert those interests at the voting place. Since that simple truth makes education the only guarantor of democracy, it's incumbent upon democratic society to provide the necessary enlightenment through free public education. And indeed, the democracies of the developed world, including the U.S., do just that.
However, we Americans are somewhat alone in experiencing alarming failures in our public education system. Universally applied tests place U.S. students below those of other nations - including China - in key academic areas. Anti-government advocates blame those failures on everything from the teachers and their protective organizations to "inefficiency" in the public sector - none of which is true.
The U.S. differs from other advanced nations in two key areas, both of which impact on education: first, the unmatched extent of our economic inequality, which results in dramatic class divisions; and second, the uniquely American way of funding public education through property taxes, which reinforces the class disparities.
As proof of the class component in the education problem, we find that in the global academic tests, America's wealthier children stand toe-to-toe with their peers worldwide, while our poorer classes pull the averages down because of their low achievement. Since ample research shows no differences - racial, ethnic or otherwise - in basic intellectual capacity, there must be other reasons for the poor performance.
And there are many. Because real estate values are lower in poor sections, the property-tax method of funding education leaves schools in these sections short-changed. The better teachers avoid these areas because salaries are lower. Through lack of funds, teachers are excessed, programs are cut, and student-teacher ratios become impracticably high. Generations of uneducated poor leave the young with inadequate role models. Unattended children of poor parents holding multiple low-paying jobs often take to the street with its myriad pitfalls. Many of these parents have no time to participate in their children's' education, as wealthier parents do. Bad nutrition impairs attention and learning ability. The poor are denied the costly preschooling and SAT and other tutoring afforded their wealthier counterparts. The result is that dramatically lower percentages of the poor graduate from high school. Of those who do, a much lower percent attend college and even fewer graduate. Finally, through decisions that don't address the problems, many schools in poor districts "fail" and are closed - something that never happens in the wealthier sections. The million-dollar plus homes in these sections guarantee the tax revenues needed for superior public education and are the Meccas for the wealthy for that very reason.
The closing of "failed" schools opens other doors for the privatizers. They rush through the doors waving the seductive banner of "choice" in order to skim off the better students for their private and charter schools, leaving the lesser performers behind to wallow in their failure - as if the failure was actually theirs and not society's.
And yet, for all the touting and handpicking of students, the alternatives to public education that are turning public money into private profit aren't cutting it. "One of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were 'significantly worse' " (The New York Times, 5/02/10). And The Nation (6/14/10) notes "evidence from a UCLA study indicating that charters exacerbate segregation; and that charters serve significantly fewer special education students and English-language learners."
Through inappropriate standardized testing, the poor are further victimized by the cultural bias inherent in the "one size fits all" approach. Bad results can have dire consequences for teachers, schools and their administrators. The tests are so determining that teachers and officials in a poor Atlanta, Ga., school district are under indictment for falsifying test scores of their "underachieving" pupils (NYT 3/30/13). Says the Times article, "Cheating has grown at school districts around the country as standardized testing has become a primary means of evaluating teachers, principals and schools." To save themselves and their jobs, teachers and administrators in poor school districts are forced to be dishonest. While the heel of the law comes down hard on them, the enforcers never ask why the poor kids can't perform "up to par."
America's education problems will be solved only when its economic problems are solved. Since the prospects for that happening in the foreseeable future are dim, the assault on public education, the poor, and democracy itself will continue until an informed majority comes to the fore. We, as public citizens, own the public school system. A sure way to undermine democracy is to concede that ownership to the private sector which already owns everything we need to survive - and over which we have no say. Beware the privatizers. Only the uneducated can fall prey to those who are either equally uninformed or devious in their motives.
Andrew Torre lives in Landgrove.