OurFuture.org: Words That Hurt Our Public Schools, and Ones That Help

I want to start off today with a story about my mom. Trust me, I’ll eventually transition to talking about education. But my mom’s story illustrates how attitudes are affected by media and language.

My mom was born in 1923 on the plains of North Dakota. Her dad, my grandfather was a farmer-rancher. Her mom, my grandmother, ran the house and brought in laundry, sewing, and other work from neighbors.

But then commodity prices fell through the floor and the Great Depression hit. Then my grandfather’s farm blew away in the Dust Bowl. Talk about a perfect storm.

With hardly any income of their own, my grandparents turned to the public sector, the government, for financial assistance. Through what was called the Work Progress Administration, the WPA, created by the Franklin Roosevelt presidential administration, my grandfather got a position operating a grain elevator in eastern Montana.

With a steady source of income, my grandparents could provide for my mom and her three other siblings. Things weren’t always easy. When my mom knocked out a front tooth in a toboggan accident, she had to have a wooden peg fill the empty space until they had a chicken to pay the dentist and could travel to a town that had a dentist.

Nevertheless, my grandparents, neither who completed more than an elementary school level of education, had access to local public schools for their children, each of whom graduated high school. My mom was the first person, and the first woman, in her extended family to attend community college and then a public state university to earn her degree in nursing education. She was recruited by the US Military to serve in the Nurses Corp training nurses for the frontline troops in World War II.

That job was her ticket out of her small, rural community and led her to move to Dallas, Texas to accept a position in nurse education at a major metropolitan hospital in the late 1940s. It was there that she met the man who would eventually be my father.

Government Is The Problem

By the time I came along, a lot had changed in my parents lives. And by the time I reached my teenage years and began to develop more of an awareness of the larger world, I noticed my parents’ attitudes toward public institutions were changing. Government services and public workers had become subjects of scorn.

If the line of customers at the Post Office was long, it was because of lazy postal workers. When a vehicle needed an inspection sticker or a household project needed a permit, it was government meddling in our lives. Local news stories about any breakdown in municipal services were attributed to “typical” government ineptitude. City busses were irritants in the roadway. Taxes were a theft of family income.

By the time Ronald Reagan became president in the 1980s, it became popular for political leaders to say, as Reagan was fond of saying, “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” My parents were happy cheerleaders for that, especially my mom, despite her personal history of getting a hand-up in life from public services.

So what happened?

Now it’s true that governments at all levels have been less than perfect institutions. The local government where I grew up sure didn’t do a very good job of serving low-income black and brown school children.

But in a democratic society, “government” is ultimately up to us, and what it does is an expression of what we want to do for ourselves.

So what the critics of government are saying, really, is that they have a problem with democracy.

It’s important to know government wasn’t turned into a four-letter word by happenstance. It happened by design.

The War On Government

The liberalism of Roosevelt’s Great Society that dominated politics in the 1950s and 60s was the enemy of those who wanted society to be structured to better serve their interests rather than democratic interests. And by the late 60s and early 70s, these forces marshalled their considerable resources to overturn the public’s role to determine the public good.

I could go on all day about the history of this, about 20th century American conservatism, the Lewis Powell Memo, and the shifting of the Overton Window. There are whole books about it: Winner Take All Politics by Jacob Hacker, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas.

My parent’s antipathy toward government could have been the result of multiple factors. But there’s no doubt that during their conversion, forces were hard at work conditioning Americans to fear the words “social” and “public,” as if those words are evil or anti-American.

Whether or not you accept the existence of “the vast rightwing conspiracy,” which is what Hilary Clinton would come to call this movement, you can’t deny the impact of a decades-long assault on public institutions and public service workers.

In 2012, the Brookings Institute examined public-sector employment trends over the last three decades and found that government employment had dramatically contracted, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the population. Today, public sector jobs as a share of all employment are at a 30-year low, falling from 9.6 percent in the 1980s to 9 percent 30 years later.

A 2015 article in the New York Times looked at public sector employment and found that even as local and state economies were recovering from the 2008 recession, public sector jobs were continuing to decline, accounting for 1.8 million fewer jobs than in 2007.

The decline in public sector employment has hit black families particularly hard. Roughly one in five black adults works a government job. Black wage earners are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics.

Many, attribute the success of the anti-public movement to the vast wealth of individuals in big business and finance. That wealth helps for sure.

But I would argue that they have a weapon more valuable than money: It’s the English language.

Language As A Weapon

The war on the public sector uses the power of language on every front. For instance, slashing financial resources for the public good is called tax relief. Laws preventing industrial pollution from fouling our shared environment are called stifling regulation. Public financial assistance for the poor is called a government give-away program. Funds we collectively pool to ensure our financial security in old age are branded entitlements.

What makes these words powerful are the ideas behind them. As George Lakoff writes in his seminal book Don’t Think of an Elephant, words are representations of values, and the war of words is really a conflict over what values are going to guide our nation – whether, for instance, we’re going to have a government that works for the common good, or one that enforces the power of the wealthy few.

I would also argue that the war of words on the public sector has had some of its greatest success in the effort to dismantle public education. (See, I told you I would eventually get to education.) You can see its success in the fact that now politicians in both parties, to quote veteran education journalist Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, basically copy each other on education.

Let’s look at some of the words used to assault our schools and consider how we can fight back:

Public Education Is Broken

How often do you read that “America’s schools are failing” and “public education is in crisis”?

Is there any truth to this? Not really.

In the only longitudinal measure of student achievement – the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAPE – American students have improved substantially over the past 40 years. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American and Hispanic students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged.

The percentage of kids scoring “below basic” on the NAEP has plummeted in both reading and math in both fourth and eighth grade for every racial group except Native Americans. Average reading and math scores for each subgroup in the fourth and eighth grades have also climbed steadily.

On international assessments, American students’ performance in math and science has improved from the bottom to above international average. US students in schools with 10 percent or less poverty are number one in the world.

Students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers. And almost half of all American high school students now head off to college each year, an all-time high.

The story of American education is actually about steady progress – slow, that’s true – but progress nevertheless.

Does this mean that there are no struggling schools in America? Of course not. Does this mean public schools universally work for every student? No.

But the rhetorical frame that public education is a failure is used to convince people the whole system is bad and that it’s collapse has been inevitable.

The way we fight back against this misleading rhetoric is to ask why are there broken schools and who broke them?

Education Is About Getting The Best For Your Child

These days, politicians like to talk about education like it’s a “competition” to get students over the bar or up to speed.

Terms like “college or career ready” and getting young children “ready to learn” all perpetuate the idea that the only purpose of education is to get individuals to a next stage or an end goal.

This rhetorical frame is used to convince people that once their own children are provided for then that’s all that matters.

It ignores that education is really about developing our societal capacity. We want all citizens educated so our whole society prospers.

That’s why early state constitutions in the U.S., like those of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, stressed the importance of a system of public schools. That’s why the Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for public school financing in new territories. And the earliest advocates for public schools – Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Horace Mann – all agreed that democratic citizenship was a primary function of education.

Turning our collective investment in education into a competition to get to the top ensures there will be winners and losers. Designing a school system that maximizes self-interest means only those who already have advantages get what they want.

Instead of telling parents their children need to be well educated so they can compete, we should say children need to be well educated so they can take part in a democratic society.

Money Should Follow The Child

This is a favorite of advocates for charter schools and vouchers that let parents transfer their children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

The idea has a gloss of sensibility to it because education budgets often come with per-pupil expenditures.

But the idea that the money should follow the child when students leave a public school for other options is a bad financial decision.

First, schools have what are called “stranded costs”. When a public school loses a percentage of students to charter schools or a voucher program, the school can’t reduce costs by an equivalent percent. The school still must pay the same utility, maintenance, transportation, and food services costs. The school must still carry the salary and benefit costs of administrative staff, custodial services, and cafeteria workers. The school may not be able to reduce teaching staff because the attrition will occur randomly across various grade levels, leaving class sizes only marginally reduced.

In Philadelphia for instance, a recent study found when a student leaves the school district for a charter school, the public system is left with nearly $5,000 in continuing costs. A study in Boston found the stranded cost is $7,000.

A research study of school districts in Michigan found that choice policies significantly contribute to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts. When the percent of students attending charter schools approaches 20 percent, there are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances.

Because schools can’t reduce expenses incrementally, they cut support staff – such as a reading specialist or librarian. They cut courses – such as art and music. And the whole capacity of the school diminishes.

Further, students aren’t a “one-off” expense. The cost to educate each student varies a lot. Students with disabilities or who don’t speak English as their first language often cost significantly more to educate. So as a school loses students, it may often find itself left with a larger percentage of its highest-cost students.

Instead of saying money should follow the child, we should say children don’t come with a price tag, and that every school needs to have enough resources to meet the needs and interests of all its students.

Money Doesn’t Matter

How often do you hear the argument that we can’t fix the problems in schools by “throwing money at them.”

We constantly hear that schools are incredibly wasteful and they have to do better with the money they have.

Arne Duncan loved to call this “the new normal.”

It’s also just not true. Yes America does spend more money per student than most other industrialized countries. But remember, this is an average and there is incredibly wide variance in the system.

The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts. That’s a national funding gap of $1,500 per student, on average, a gap that has grown 44 percent since 2001.

When spending has increased, about half of the increases, according to economist Richard Rothstein, come from serving students with disabilities and immigrant students who don’t speak English.

But in total, most states spend less money on education today than they did in 2008 – some of them a lot less. And national per-pupil spending has dropped 3 years in a row. In the meantime student populations continue to increase.

But does money even matter? Numerous studies say yes.

According to one of those studies by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, on average, higher per-pupil spending produces better results. School resources that cost money — like class size reduction or higher teacher salaries — tend to be positively associated with better student outcomes.

This is especially true with low-income students. One study found that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending had virtually closed the high school graduation gap between poor students and their wealthier peers and it got far more of those students into college.

So instead of talking about the need to “tighten our belts” and adjust to the “new normal” we need to talk about giving schools the resources that are necessary to address all their students’ needs and interests.

Schools Should Be Run Like A Business

How often do you hear people say, “If we ran a business the way we operate schools, it wouldn’t be in business very long”?

We’re told that education is too inefficient and not productive enough, that schools need to focus on “quality improvement” and “zero defects.”

We’re told that teachers resist change, that schools are a bureaucratic monopoly, and that more competition needs to be introduced into the system.

So now superintendents call themselves CEOs and parents are called customers.

This rhetoric distorts the mission of education.

First when people say run schools like a business, they don’t say what kind of business? Coal mines aren’t run like restaurants.

Second, most businesses fail. Do we really want schools that are constantly failing? How is that good for kids?

Third, you’ve all heard the Papa John’s tagline “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza.” Well, as Jamie Vollmer has pointed out, schools can’t control their ingredients. They have to educate all children with the resources they are given by the community.

Lastly, businesses are not democratic institutions. Schools must be democratic if we want parents and taxpayers to have input into how schools are run. And schools must model democracy if we want children to be prepared to function in a democratic society.

So instead of comparing schools to businesses, we should talk about schools as essential infrastructure, like fire and police protection, roads and bridges, and our electoral process.

Any School Getting Public Money Is A Public School

Yes, you heard that right.

According to school choice advocates, the public school system should give parents the option to choose from an array of school options, some of which aren’t truly public.

When a school choice pressure group recently descended on the capital of my home state North Carolina, they advocated for the state’s Virtual Academy, an online school run by private for-profit operator K12 Inc. Other “public school options” the group advocates for are “tax-credit funded scholarship programs” that help families pay for private school tuition.

Similarly, the Florida school choice advocacy group RefinED contends that school vouchers, which allow parents to transfer students to private schools at taxpayer expense, are part of a public school system.

The intent here is to make you believe that private online schools and voucher funded schools are public schools just because they get public money.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the growth of the charter school industry could see this coming from a long way off.

For years, charter school advocates have insisted on calling their schools public schools.

But charter schools fail the test for what constitutes a truly public institution in many ways:

Charter school buildings are often privately owned by the school founders, or by an affiliated company or private trust, even if the building was originally purchased with taxpayer money.

Sometimes, the materials, furniture, and equipment in the schools are owned by a private charter management company, and if the school closes, the charter “owner” may keep those assets, even though they were purchased with taxpayer money.

While most public schools are governed by democratically elected public boards, most charter schools are run by appointed boards who are not directly accountable to the community.

Unlike public schools, charters can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available. They do not have to take students mid-year and do not have to “backfill” seats, that is, accept students to fill open spots when students leave.

Generally, charter schools don’t have to follow the same due process rules for students and employees that public schools follow. They can set their own academic, behavior, and cultural standards regardless of community norms.

And while public schools are obligated to share information about their operations, charter schools have very narrow requirements for what information they report and can restrict public access.

Despite these obvious differences, the charter industry lobby has been very successful in convincing politicians and policy makers that their schools are public. And now the same sort of logic is being used to claim other private education operators are in fact public schools too.

Cornerstones Of Effective Communication 

But none of these options – charter schools, voucher supported private schools, and online schools operated by private companies – are part of a truly public school system. They are instead, parallel school systems – each necessitating separate layers of bureaucracy and oversight and each siphoning money out of our public schools.

I can go through many more of these phrases that are used to dismantle the public education system. But what I want to leave you with today is some news about a new tool to help you wage this rhetorical war and also a bit of advice on how to plan your own messaging.

First, later this month, the Network for Public Education will debut a new online toolkit to help grassroots public school advocates deal effectively with the powerful advocacy groups who want to privatize our public schools. Part of what I shared with you today is included in this new tool because I helped write it. But the content goes into greater depth. I’m not able to share any samples with you today or give you a website to go to, but if you leave me your card, I’ll send you the website address when it becomes available.

And I’d truly be remiss if I didn’t close out with some advice on how to craft your own messages, at least based on what’s worked for me. It’s what I call a four-cornerstone approach:

  1. Don’t address the audience. Address the reader.In the marketing and advertising industry, which I’ve been part of for over 30 years, successful campaigns are not about moving whole audiences. They’re focused on persuading tiny segments. Typical promotions expect to get very small percentages of response, often 1 percent or less. So when communicating about education, target your message to an individual, such as a parent who’s considering enrolling her child in a charter, a taxpayer who no longer has children in schools but cares how his money is being spent, or a local official who doesn’t want to be exposed for putting children at risk. When you narrow the scope of your message you’re far more apt to increase its impact.
  1. Emotion is more persuasive than facts.Do I really need to explain this? Look who we elected president. In a standoff of emotions vs. facts, emotions win every time. Research studies have found that people generally make decisions mostly on emotions and use facts and reason to back their decisions up. The best way to generate emotion is to tell stories. Also, use metaphors, but be sure to pick ones based on good values. Arne Duncan wanted us to buy into a Race to the Top, which was a terrible metaphor.
  1. Start where people are, not where you want them to be. This is not the same thing as compromise. But what you can do is create an idea or course of action which will lead to what you want in the long run. Those who want to dismantle public education have been masterful at this. They persuaded school supporters to accept standardized testing of schools so that once a school can be deemed a failure it can be punished and closed. They made it acceptable for politicians of all stripes to support charter schools, which now makes it easier to argue that any education provider getting taxpayer funds is part of the public school system. We need to build these kind of slippery slopes for our side.
  1. Refine and repeat. You have to whittle down arguments into digestible chunks that you repeat over and over. People too often make the mistake that they have to be relevant to the latest headline or change the messaging because people might be getting bored with it. But staying on message has a snowball effect over time.
     

How My Mom’s Story Ends

Finally, speaking of stories, I need to tell you the end of mine.

After my dad died, my mom never remarried and gradually withdrew from many of the activities she had enjoyed. Far from the family she left behind in Montana, with two of her sons living on opposite ends of the continent, her third son whose business frequently took him out of town, and her aging friendships dwindling every year, she spent most days alone except for a home care nurse who came three days a week and sons who could visit on the weekends and holidays. Attempts to persuade her to move closer to her family up north or move closer to one of her sons were in vein.

After her fourth fall, we realized she had to be institutionalized in a nursing home.

When I would visit her in the home we would sit in her room and watch TV. Her favorite program was Fox News. During my visit, I would help her into her wheelchair and take her on a walk around the facility. Because residents were required to keep their doors open, as we wheeled through the corridors we could hear what others were watching. Nearly every TV was tuned to Fox News.

After two years in the home, my mom passed away quietly in her sleep one night.

As we were going through her things, we came across boxes of old photos. Some showed her with her classmates in their trim white nursing uniforms graduating from the University of Montana in Missoula.

There were photos from her years with the Nursing Corps too, showing her working with the trainees bound for the front. And we found phots of her in rank with the Corps, dressed in stately gray uniforms with epaulettes and caps, sometimes marching in holiday parades.

On the hunch these photographs had historical value, we sent them to a municipal museum in Missoula where they are now on public display for all to see.

Stay in the fight for our public schools by following our education project, the Education Opportunity Network.

This is a transcript of a presentation to grantees of the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He has written...