The death of public schools

The New York Times has a powerful opinion video up this morning, about the mounting toll on teachers of the on-going demagoguing about public education in America. If you have ten minutes today, you should give it a watch. It is worth the time, and as a public school teacher, I can tell you, it is right on in its description of the state of our schools and the teaching profession today, not to mention to things kids are facing.

Being a teacher this election cycle has been particularly hard, harder than it is usually is (and it is almost never easy.) Across the country, a fear has risen that schools and teachers are indoctrinating or grooming children, with critical race theory or gender ideology or drag queens or…. pick your politicized bugaboo of choice. We’ve been accused of it all. Politicians, especially on the right, have made teachers and public schools Public Enemy #1 this election cycle. Look at the rhetoric from folks like Ron DeSantis, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, or any other mainstream Republican politician. Teachers are a political punching bag, one that largely cannot fight back. Here in Oklahoma, it is particularly bad. After the passage of a state law earlier this year restricting what things a teacher can or cannot say to students, Governor Kevin Stitt and his handpicked candidate for state superintendent, Ryan Walters, both won re-election running on platforms against public schools and teachers. Despite the heartening news from many elections in this country, Oklahoma was a dark spot for those who care about sanity and the future of public schools. Lies and false stories about pornography in libraries, about the grooming of children by teachers, of the need to censor books and teachers, and to fire or even prosecute teachers who are supposedly hurting children: it’s been infuriating and terrifying and disheartening, all at once.

This comes on top of the on-going after effects of the pandemic and Covid shutdowns, which were hugely damaging to student learning and social-emotional development. The gaps kids are facing in their knowledge, personal skills, and emotional bandwidth are borne by teachers, and we often are getting the blame as well when kids fail to succeed. Teaching, it hardly needs to be said, is a thankless profession almost like no other.

And it is starting to have an effect. As that NYT piece says, a recent survey of National Association of Education member teachers1 found that half of all teachers in America are looking for a way out of the profession. Take difficult, increasingly disrespectful kids; add in overbearing, unreasonable parents; layer on inane amounts of paperwork and documentation and monitoring, along with rapid cuts to school budgets and stagnating teacher wages and a shortage of materials and crumbling school infrastructure; and top it all off with the active animosity of half of our nations leaders and the voters who support them, and the question becomes not why are so many teachers quitting, but instead, what the hell is wrong with those of us who are still here? It is a fair question.

Lets be clear about something: the rapid decline of public schools and loss of teachers is not an accidental outcome of rational policy making. It is the deliberate strategy of an entire political movement in this nation over the last 30 years, to discredit, defund, and destroy public education, in favor of private religious instruction and for-profit education benefitting not the students, but the shareholders and elites behind those systems. Public education has been under attack for decades; the rise of charter schools and school vouchers has long been touted as a system of “parent choice” or “school accountability” or some kind of rightful reclaiming of tax dollars by those who feel entitled to not taking part in our shared commitment to educating children. What these things actually are, though, are ways for tax dollars to be siphoned out of public schools and into the pockets of those who still, despite their ever increasing wealth, feel like they don’t have enough wealth and control.

I am always reminded of this wonderful scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when I think about the greed and rapaciousness of wealth. In this watching, imagine as if George Bailey is defending the local school instead of the Building and Loan, and Mr. Potter as a greedy financial entity who sees a profit opportunity in the funds that should be used for educating our children, I think you’ll get my point:

The powers behind wealth and accumulation in this country see the meager public budgets of schools in every community, and they itch because they see dollars and cents that don’t belong to them. And so, they have found arguments and lies and scary stories that rile up community members, and discredit schools, and lay the groundwork for them to extract those dollars and cents. Its disgusting, and infuriating, and a microcosm of the American public sphere over the last 30 years.

The moral panics about schools and books and curriculums that have swept the nation over the last year are not some grassroots movement of concerned parents. Again, it is a deliberate strategy aimed at discrediting schools and laying the ground work to pull funding. And the ones who end up suffering the most? Teachers, and students. But it works because everyday people, regular parents and tax payers and community members, instead of getting positively involved in public schools and talking to teachers and becoming part of the PTA and other community groups, spend their time online listening to the lies and then spreading those lies and stoking fear and anger and doing the dirty work for those who are using their fear against them. That’s the most depressing part, for me: logging into social media, and seeing people who I know and love and who I thought cared about my family and children and schools, spreading rumors and lies and absolute bullshit about what us teachers are supposedly doing in our classrooms. Even though many of these people have never stepped a foot in a school or attended a PTA or Board meeting, or tried to take a positive role in really helping schools succeed.

Here’s the important thing to remember: teachers are not some scary “Other” existing out there somewhere. We are your neighbors, your friends, your family. When you share that scare-mongering video or meme about CRT in classrooms, or Drag Queen story hour, or groomers in classrooms, you are talking about people you know and who your purport to love and respect and care about. Teachers are normal, everyday human beings, doing our best every day to do a demanding, thankless job, and to do it well. When politicians and parents and community members work so hard to tear down schools for some abstract, ideological fear stoked in the fever swamps of the most extreme right, they all forget that what they are really tearing down is human beings, adults and children, who live our lives day in and day out in these school buildings together. Schools are more than just brick buildings down the street, or faceless bureaucracies and school boards: like any institution, schools are the sum of the human beings who live and work and cry and laugh and learn in those buildings. And when you try to tear a school down, what you end up doing is tearing down people.

1 Full transparency: I myself am a member of NEA, and its Oklahoma branch, the OEA, as well as the Tulsa Classroom Teacher Association.

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