public schools

Posted: September 17, 2015
By: Clay Cerny

Diane Ravitch examines new tests results from Illinois, which have been released with dire warnings about “failure.” Ravitch puts this story in the context of current trends in education. She is very strong as an advocate for teachers in a time when many forces are attacking some of our country’s most talented and dedicated employees. Is the test (PARCC) a true measure of what students are learning and teachers are teaching? Or is it a tool to promote education “reform”?

Posted: September 29, 2014
By: Clay Cerny


Poor kids are falling behind in more ways than one. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich examines how educational outcomes have grown wider between the richest and poorest children. He notes that race is not the defining factor because that gap is closing. The widening gap is between rich and poor, regardless of race. Reich points out that local educational funding is based on property taxes. The richest districts fund their schools at twice the rate of the poorest.

Reich ends his article with these words:

“We’re requiring all schools meet high standards, requiring students to take more and more tests, and judging teachers by their students’ test scores.

But until we recognize we’re systematically hobbling schools serving disadvantaged kids, we’re unlikely to make much headway.’’

Another way to look at this issue is to use the words of writer Nelson Algren: “The game is fixed.”

How can America be a land where all have equal opportunity if the children of the most wealth are educated in schools that have twice the funding of the poorest school? This problem is just a matter of rich and poor. Social mobility is not what it was twenty or forty years ago. Education inequality seems to track income inequality. Land of the free and home of the brave?


Posted: November 9, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Laura Clawson of Daily Kos is one of my favorite writers because she finds the stories others miss.  Usually she focuses on labor.  Today she looks at a new type of charter school that caters to predominantly white students whose families are not in poverty.   While these schools are still technically public schools, they charge fees that shut out lower income students.  As Clawson notes, such school will cherry pick higher performing students and drive down performance at traditional public schools.

I would like to know if this type of charter school pays it teachers better or offers better benefits.  Non-union charters traditionally pay at a lower level than public schools, and teachers have no union protection.  I would guess that a school looking to have elite students would have to invest in good teachers.  My solution to this question is easy:  Shut down the charters and put resources back into traditional public schools.  Put education and children ahead of profits.

Posted: September 25, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Writing in Common Dreams, Jim Horn, a Professor of Education at Cambridge College, examines Diane Ravitch in the light of her new book, Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.  Horn notes that this book has been widely reviewed and focuses on the author instead, calling her a whistleblower and truth teller.  Ravitch, once a champion of education “reform,” has turned against corporate-based philosophies of education “reform.”  Horn calls Ravitch, “the  single individual who most influenced the eventual outcome if parents and teachers and students continue to heed the call for the restoration and renewal of public schools free of high stakes tests for all children who choose a high quality and free education.”

Horn’s critique underscores Ravitch’s importance not just to education, but to democracy and workers’ rights.  A free society needs school systems that will be responsive to citizens, not the corporate elite.  It also needs schools that promote more meritocracy, not selective schools or charter schools that cherry pick those students deemed to be “winners.”  If we are to live up to the promise of America, we need schools that will be of the people, by the people, and for the people.  Diane Ravitch has shown that, for all its flaws, the best vehicle to promote fair education is the public school.

Posted: June 2, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog looks at issues beyond careers and jobs in “Sabbath.”]

Fighting for Justice and Public Schools

The primary role of public schools has been to give every child a chance to improve his or her life.  Americans claim to value meritocracy and opportunity.  However, when we look at the state of public schools in big cities, it seems like they really want a fixed game where a few students are trained for Ivy League schools and the rest are prepared to work at low wage jobs.

Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities called out this problem more than 20 years ago.  More recently, Diane Ravitch challenged current education “reform” in The Death and Life of the Great American  School System. I value both of these books for opening my eyes to a system that helped me.  I graduated from Cleveland South High School in 1979.  Most of my teachers were excellent, and their lessons have stayed with me over many years.  Today, the common attitude is that big city schools are “failing.”  People with little to no background in education have proposed solutions that often do more harm than good.

Barbara Miner’s book Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City looks at her home town of Milwaukee and how it has grappled with urban education.  Miner is not a disinterested scholar.  She grew up in the city and sent her child to its public schools.  She has lived through battles over desegregation, charter schools, and vouchers.

Miner writes in a casual manner, yet she guides the reader in understanding complex problems that are too often simplified in today’s debates over public education.  From the 1950s into the 1970s debates over public education focused on fair access related to racial segregation.  Since the 1980s, the language has changed.  The key word has become choice.  Miner outlines economic and political factors that drove this change.  Cities like Milwaukee lost their industrial base at the same time that white families left the city for the suburbs, where no one complains about paying for quality schools.

As city schools faced greater challenges, many of which were related to poverty, reformers offered answers like charter schools and vouchers, reforms that promised to let families choose better education options for their children.  These mechanisms have done little to improve the quality of urban education.  Instead, they transferred public wealth to private hands.  The story of the voucher program is especially instructive of this “reform” model.  Starting as a way to give poor families the option of sending their children to private schools, the voucher program has been expanded to provide public funds that let families of greater means send their children to religious schools that offer no accountability for performance.

While Miner writes about a city she knows well, she frequently puts Milwaukee’s story in a national context.  She examines key Supreme Court decisions, including Milliken v. Bradley that have gutted Brown v. Board.  She also looks at the roles of American billionaires and their foundations in reshaping the debate over education so it focuses on the stereotype of bad teachers, rather than factors like poverty and racism.

I strongly recommend Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City to anyone who cares about American public education.  Miner provides great local examples that supplement claims of reform critics like Diane Ravitch.  What both of these writers demonstrate is that some of the loudest voices claiming to want to make public education better are actually planting the seeds of its destruction.  If we believe in a country where every child has a chance, if want America to be a true meritocracy, we need to listen to people like Diane Ravitch and Barbara Miner who value public education.

Posted: February 23, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

I frequently cite Laura Clawson of Daily Kos for her great reporting on workers’ issues.  Here is a link to her overview of the week’s labor news.  The first story is especially troubling.  A group of “education reformers” are trying to influence a school board election in Los Angeles.  Why?  They want to chip away at traditional public schools and teachers unions.  I recommend this story and everything else Laura Clawson writes.

Posted: May 24, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

Common Dreams reports on recent protests against in the U.S. and Canada.  In one instance, Philadelphia is proposing to cut 40% of its public schools.  In Canada, fees for university students have seen major increases (82%).  The government added insult to injury by passing a law to restrict demonstrations by students.  That didn’t stop a crowd estimated at 100,000 from protesting.  The Philadelphia protest was much smaller, but it was still a sign of working people and the poor fighting back.

Access to education is the only hope the poor and working class have to enter the middle class.  Everyone needs to think about how we enact “austerity” in a way that still gives people a chance at a better life.  Better still, let’s replace austerity with investment.

If we don’t do that, democracy is a joke and capitalism is a rigged game.

Posted: May 6, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling ponders intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]

Private Is Not Better Than Public

Over the past few decades in the U.S., conservatives have won a message war that is begin to tear apart our country’s social and democratic foundations.  The message is simple – and false:  Private is better than public.  We in Chicago have gotten a real smack in the face with the deal our former mayor Richard M. Daley made in leasing the city’s parking meters, which I will discuss below.  But it’s not just Chicago.  Across the nation, we’re seeing roads, schools, garbage collection, and even prisons privatized in the name of efficiency.  The problem is that, like the promises of trickle down economics, the promise of cost savings and greater efficiency from privatization is a lie.

Starting in 2009, parking meters in Chicago were taken over by a company called Chicago Parking, LLC (All information in this paragraph is taken from the Chicago Sun-Times, 5-4-2012).  It paid $1.15 billion for a 75 year lease.  In the last year the city operated the meters, it collected $23.8 million in fees.  Over the next three years, the private company has collected $45.6 million (2009), $71.2 million (2010), and $82.8 million (2011).  Currently, Chicago Parking is billing the city for lost revenue due to street closure and spaces used by handicapped drivers.  For 2009-2010, the city paid an extra 9 million to cover parking spaces taken out of service.  The city is disputing an additional $27 million in additional charges.

How have the people of Chicago benefited from this move from public to private?  First, residents of the city are paying significantly more for parking under the private regime.  What if we called this a tax?  People would be outraged.  Second, it’s not a good deal.  At $80 million a year, the cost of the lease will be covered in less than 20 years, which means more than 50 years of the lease will be sweet profit for the private company.  Who’s not profiting?  The city and its taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the Sun-Times also reports that former mayor and three of his top aides now work for the law firm that represented the city in the park meter negotiation.  A cynical person might think this was some kind of conflict of interest.  But after hearing again and again over the past 20 years how much Mayor Daley, son of The Mayor Daley, loved the city, I cannot believe that there is anything shady in this arrangement.  After all, Mayor Daley loved the city.  If this is true, the parking meter deal must be seen as an expression of his love. 

It’s not just parking meters.  Private prisons in Arizona are costing more than original projections and there have been problems with lax security and prisoners escaping, which cannot be called greater efficiency.  The state’s legislature has shut down a review of the program.  A study in Colorado found a similar problem with cost overruns in another allegedly more efficient private prison system.  Who ends up paying more?  Taxpayers.

These are just two examples of the way government and private industry have joined in a big scam.  At the beginning of this article, I attributed the private is better than public meme to conservatives, and I hold by that claim.  However, many Democrats have jumped on the train, especially when it comes to education.  I have frequently written about education and how funds have been routed from public to private and charter schools, how teachers and teachers unions are the bogey man for education “reformers.”  There is no clear evidence that these private schools do a better job of educating children.  Some charter schools are good.  However, three of the top four ranked high schools in the state of Illinois are in the Chicago Public School system.  Many suburban districts in Illinois that have a strong tax base and low poverty offer their citizens great public schools. 

I do not defend any kind of public waste, corruption, or failure.  Ineffective teachers and other public employees who cannot do their jobs should be fired.  So should bad CEOs, who now often get multi-million dollar gold parachutes when they are fired.  We need to move beyond a cliché like private is better than public to the wisdom that John Dewey gave us long ago:  What works?  What works for the nation and most of its people?  What works to build a foundation for a strong democracy?  We need to find what works and leave the slogans behind.

Postscript:  My friend Bill Savage sent me this happy news.  By the end of the parking meter lease, the city will probably pay "fines" that equal what it paid the city in the original lease.   Really, he loved the city.

Posted: June 26, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling ponders life and work in “Sabbath.”]

Not Having a Chance

In yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times, I came across an article that compared children in Hammond, Indiana with Carmel, a city three miles to the south.  Children in Hammond grow up in oppressive poverty.  The city’s median income is $10,581.  The children of Carmel are more fortunate growing up in a community where the median household income is $138,713.  But poverty isn’t simply about money.  As the article points out, children in Hammond are more likely to come to school with poorly developed social and motor skills.  They are more likely to face violent crime and murder.  The article ends with news that I found unbelievable:  over the next two years Hammond will lose $2.3 million in state funding for schools. Carmel will gain almost $1 million.  This makes no sense unless we consider the relation of poverty and education. 

Jonathan Kozol made a similar comparison in a book published in 1991, Savage Inequalities.  Some people say we can’t just “throw money at the problem.”  Kozol demonstrated that wealthy communities tend to have fewer problems (and many more opportunities).  Some wealthier districts spent more than two times as much per pupil as did inner city schools.  Kozol also argued that challenged urban schools were more likely to be populated by students from minority groups, which has led to a new form of segregation, education that is separate and unequal.

Education reforms ranging from magnet schools to charter schools to vouchers all promise results.  However, none speak to the problem’s root cause:  Poverty.  According to the University of Michigan, which uses Census data, 20.7% of American children lived in poverty in 2008.  Since that time, the economy has become more challenged.  It is safe to assume that the percentage is even higher today given increased unemployment and cuts in state assistance programs.  While more than a third of African American and Latino children grow up in poverty, only 11.9% of white children do.  However percentages can be deceiving.  A larger number of white children (4,850,000) lived in poverty than African American children (4,480,000).  Clearly, poverty affects children from all corners of the country. 

In an era when political debates focus on taxes, deficits, and job growth, we tend to forget about those who live with the least.  President Johnson’s War on Poverty –  like all the social wars that followed it – was a nice idea with few results.  Now some politicians have forgotten the poor and are attacking workers and retired workers for their “entitlements.” This shift means that the invisible poor, something Michael Harrington described 50 years ago in The Other America, have challenged physics by becoming even more invisible.

What is the solution?  I don’t know.  I do know that poor children did not choose the circumstances of their life.  Can America be an “exceptional” nation with over 20% of its children growing up in poverty?  What will the future be like for those children as they enter a work force with fewer opportunities for people who do not graduate from high school or only have a high school degree? 

Children in poverty challenge our country’s beliefs about equality and opportunity.  How can the children of Hammond compete with the children of Carmel?  They live in two  worlds, one that almost guarantees success and one were failure is almost certain.  We need to do more than change the schools these children go to.  We must find a way to offer them the American Dream – or we should stop talking about the American Dream if it only applies some children. 

Sunday Extra Helping

The activist Van Jones is heading a new movement called Rebuild the Dream.  It is calling for an economy that serves working and middle class people, not Wall Street.