America’s Public Education System:
Original Best Intentions
The Right-Wing Agenda to Privatize It All For Profit
Most Americans don't realize it, but when their nation began, Thomas Jefferson advocated for complete public education including a college or university education. But today even public education through high school is threatened by two forces -- by Theocrats who ignore Jefferson's constitutional "wall of separation between church and state," and by corporate profiteers who favor a "privatized" for profit education system. And corporate forces are rapidly advancing an agenda to turn America's elementary, middle, and high schools into profit-making businesses.
That is why Americans need to learn that Jefferson, one of America’s greatest Founders, worked hard to try to establish a Democratic Republic of the people, by the people, and for the people — people who would be well educated and informed, who would be governed by natural and virtuous leadership arising from amongst them — people who rose to positions of leadership not because of their wealth, but because of their hard work, beneficial good works, education, wisdom, fair-mindedness, compassion, and astute analytical abilities.
However, Jefferson’s full vision, while loved by the average people, was frowned upon by special interest groups, including Theocrats and Aristocrats, and as it was then, so it is now. So Jefferson's vision has been unfulfilled with regard to leadership and education — because his idea of public education including a university education would have given equal opportunity for everyone to rise to their full potential, rather than continuing to have higher education be an exclusive privilege open only to those wealthy enough to afford it.
Consequently, today in America the majority of bright students desiring higher education are not wealthy enough to afford it, so the only way they can attain a higher education is to take out student loans and go deep into debt for decades after graduating. To make matters worse, the tuition even at community colleges and state universities continues to rise higher and higher each year. Therefore, Americans need to face the facts about this worsening situation, and do something about it.
A good education is key not only to creating and maintaining a real Democracy driven by a well educated, well informed citizenry. It is key to a good, successful, prosperous, cooperative, collaborative society in which all people may succeed and live up to their full potential.
The Unfulfilled Jeffersonian Vision of Education in America
Abraham Lincoln appreciated the goodness and wisdom in Thomas Jefferson’s principles, which is why Lincoln said: “The principles of Jefferson are the axioms of a free society.” And among those principles were those regarding education.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the most educated and well-read of America’s Founders, which is part of the reason he was a champion of real Democracy, a champion of the average people and the disadvantaged, and a champion of complete and comprehensive public education. He believed that every serious student, regardless of their wealth, should be able to live up to their full potential. And he believed that Democracy can exist and flourish only if all the people are well educated, and well informed.
For example, Jefferson wrote: "I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."
That statement is appropriate today in America and it should be heard, because constitutional power has been badly abused even by those who pretend to be knowledgeable constitutional scholars. Indeed, the Constitution has not only been misinterpreted and its meaning distorted by right-wing ideologues on the U.S. Supreme Court. Constitutional power has been abused by all three branches of the U.S. Government, due to a lack of understanding of its true meaning and intent.
Jefferson wanted to guard against that. And even the Federalist John Adams, a good friend of Jefferson’s (except for a period of time when they were political rivals for the presidency), agreed with Jefferson on important issues regarding equal opportunities and education.
“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men. Therefore the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require.” -- John Adams, 1776
"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." — John Adams, U.S. President, 1785
However, if Jefferson’s vision had been fulfilled, America would have been different because he advocated quality public education from first grade through university graduate school for all children, youth and young adults – paid for by the common wealth of the nation.
Jefferson deeply believed that America should be a country where all people have equal opportunities. He wanted to create a level playing field on which any person willing and able could be fully educated, succeed, flourish and prosper, regardless of the wealth or religion of their family, or the circumstances into which they were born.
Jefferson, like Adams and other like-minded Founders, was very clearly against an aristocracy of the wealthy, and instead believed in giving all people the opportunity to rise to their full potential.
Moreover, Jefferson believed that public school was not a place to be dominated by church leaders, but by learned academic educators who were not limited by theocratic church dogma.
In fact, Jefferson played a leading role in the campaign to separate church and state. Indeed, his efforts culminated in the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and ultimately to Article 6 and the religious freedom clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Jefferson wrote: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."
Jefferson believed that neither the dogma of religion nor the rights of conscience could be legislated, and that “We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”
Unfortunately, theocratic clergy vehemently disagreed with Jefferson and all those who agreed with him. And Theocrats antagonized many of the Founders who wanted real freedom of religion.
The Jeffersonian View Attacked by Theocrats and Plutocrats, and the Consequences
As they do even today, “Religious” Federalists and Republicans in the late 1790s often wrongly accused Jefferson of being an atheist because of his statements, and his religious views became a major public issue during bitter partisan political party conflicts. And that led Jefferson to write the following:
"They believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." – Thomas Jefferson
Furthermore he wrote: "The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man."
Unfortunately, with regard to public education, most of the leaders of America have lacked the wisdom and vision of Jefferson, and today leadership is even worse.
Consequently, higher education is not funded by the public common wealth. K-12 public education is funded in a grossly unfair, haphazard way so that children in poor communities are unable to get a quality education equivalent to that received by students in wealthy communities. And the only public high school graduates who can go on to college are either rich or willing to take out student loans and go deep into debt for decades.
The cruel irony, as academic research studies reveal, is that all public grade schools and high schools could be just as successful if they were properly funded, and if there were sufficient parent education programs and early education programs to produce students that are motivated and ready to learn.
Of course, plutocratic Republicans and Libertarians deny that. They claim that the problem is simply the laziness and failure of low income parents, and that they are to blame for the failure of poor children in school. In other words, as they do regarding so many other issues, they blame the victims and yet act and sound virtuous as they spout their propaganda.
However, contrary to what those right-wing critics claim, the problem is not laziness. Scientific research studies by The Children’s Defense Fund show that child poverty's ill effects cannot be explained away as mere side effects of single parenthood or teen parenthood, or race, or parents' low IQs, or lack of education.
Indeed, research shows that poor children's problems are not caused by deep-seated traits that right-wing critics claim are inherent in poor families, nor are most of the problems caused by poverty the by-product of poor motivation, poor values, limited parenting ability, or character flaws. Rather, he main problem is the shamefully insufficient income of the working poor, and the root problem is the unfair income inequality and disparity, and the immense and growing income gap between the meager incomes of the growing working poor population and the incredibly high and increasing incomes of the wealthiest few.
Consequently, the latest UNICEF report on child poverty showed that 23.1 percent of American children live in poverty, giving the United States the second highest rate of child poverty out of 35 developed countries. Only Romania ranked higher in child poverty. But in America, the stunning fact is that a good percentage (from 79 to 82 percent) of the children who live in poverty live in households where at least one adult is working full time, which proves the problem is not lack of ambition or “laziness.”
Granted, there are some bad parents and there is some child abuse and neglect, but those are in most cases symptoms of poverty, and poverty is the main problem. In fact, a newer study released in January 2015 showed that more than half (51 percent) of students enrolled in U.S. public schools live in poverty.
Therefore, the truth is not that America’s public schools system is a failure. The truth is that the way America’s schools are funded inequitably in a way that favors the wealthy. And what is needed is for all the people to have equal opportunities, sufficient living wages and incomes, good quality educations, and equal respect.
The Successes and Failures of Public Education
Right-wing forces have been claiming for decades that the public school system is a total failure, but that is not true.
Of course, as it is, public education is highly successful mostly just in wealthy communities. Students in wealthy and upper middle class communities that have well funded, high quality schools and teachers, are generally high achieving, as are many other schools in lower income neighborhoods in which principles and teachers have adopted innovative and successful programs to inspire students to learn.
However, in most low income communities, the story is quite different and in some of the worst schools both students and teachers have virtually given up and just go through the motions. That is confirmed by an Education Department study which found that “most high-poverty public schools receive much less than their fair share of state and local funding leaving students in poor schools with far fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.”
So a big part of the problem is the inequitable and unfair way schools are funded, and other parts of the problem are lack of parent education, insufficient incomes, lack of early childhood education, and lack of early intervention and prevention programs for at-risk children and youth.
The worst part about low income dysfunctional schools is the impact it has and the attitude it has caused in many of the children and youth in low income communities toward school and education. And, while that would be bad enough, that attitude has spread and become prevalent, especially among minority and poor white students in many schools across America who watch and listen to bad influences in defiantly negative videos and music called “gangsta rap” that spreads hate toward authority, glorifies violence, and degrades women.
It has gotten to the point where peer pressure causes many students to be influenced by bad influences, and to consider school as prison. It even causes many students to label good students as “sellouts” who “suck up” to the authorities. Moreover, that attitude causes many high school students to drop out, and even though in general dropout rates have been on the decline for several decades, the rates are still high among poor students and minority students in low income communities.
However, increasingly during the last few decades we have been confronted by a more dangerous and ominous problem.
That problem has been caused because Theocrats and certain very rich right-wing Americans are making things even worse for average Americans and the working poor by rigging the education system in favor of the wealthy and in favor of religious groups even more than it already is.
The Continuing Takeover of Public Schools by the “Religious Right”
Since the “religious right” rose to political power with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, they have been trying to take control of America’s education system. However, their efforts to do so have been incremental, and the first step was to take over local school boards.
In 1985 Robert Simonds, as head of the “Citizens for Excellence in Education” (CEE), wrote in a booklet titled How to Elect Christians to Public Office. He wrote: “We need strong board members who know right from wrong. The Bible, being the only true source on right and wrong, should be the guide of [school] board members. Only godly Christians can truly qualify for this critically important position."
That, of course, would violate Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution that forbids any religious test or requirement for holding public office, but such facts and important parts of the Supreme Law of the Land have never bothered the Theocrats on the “religious right.”
Simonds knew, however, that many Americans would object, so he recommended a "stealth" strategy for gaining power, advising Christian candidates to be cheerful and positive and not mention religion. However, in secret Simonds distributed audiotapes claiming that there is demonic activity going on in public schools where Christians are “persecuted.”
In 1995 the Dallas Morning News quoted Simonds as stating: "There are 15,700 local school boards in this country. It is our intent to take them over one by one. All we need is majority...and then we will determine what is taught, we will determine who is hired and who is fired...we will be the stealth candidates, and you must carry out our mission in such a way that the public won't know what we're about until we've won control. I'm a fundamentalist Christian, and as far as I'm concerned, that's the only kind of Christian there is."
For decades the “Christian” Dominionists on the “religious right” have been taking control of local school boards, changing school curriculum, and changing text books to reflect their beliefs and revise history to fit their views. Then they established the “school voucher” program so that their children could go to private schools at taxpayers’ expense. And things have just kept getting worse.
The Right-Wing Agenda of the Rich to Privatize Education
The so-called “education reformers” in the Republican education privatization movement use deceptive names for their organization, just like Simonds’ “religious” group. If you do an Internet search for “education reform,” the web sites that come up are mostly right-wing conservative political activists who want to privatize education so that it’s profit making and a good investment for the rich.
Most of them are not educators, but rich entrepreneurs. For example, among the Board of Directors for “The Center for Education Reform” are the Chairman and Director of Entrepreneurship at Towson University; the Vice Chairman and Co-Founder of Global Silicon Valley Partners; and the Treasurer and Managing Director of BMO Capital Markets; along with a number of people involved in the corporate driven part of the Charter School movement.
See, even though there are some good and even excellent charter schools in America, they are educator driven and good in spite of the Charter School movement which is part of a much larger scheme to have certain schools use public funding but operate independently, as they choose. And, while the good ones are not influenced or dominated by private monied interests or religious groups, many are. Moreover, unlike regular public schools, laws governing charter schools vary greatly from state to state, which has led to domination by right-wing interest group in certain states where corporations and religious groups are eager to teach children their beliefs.
By the way, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act favored Charter Schools and suggested that if a failing school cannot show adequate yearly progress (according to rigid standardized tests), it will be designated a charter school. But critics of Charter Schools feel that charter schools are essentially accountable to no one, and it is even more troubling when, as in Michigan, many charter schools are run for profit and students have performed at a much lower level than their traditional public school counterparts.
Clearly, many in the “education reform” movement are not merely “entrepreneurs.” They are rich profiteers, and they aim to divert public school funding to private schools, religious private schools, and to the grossly under-performing corporate funded charter schools. They also want the technology industry to invest. And, among the worst things they want to do is to destroy teacher unions and lower the pay of teachers.
Part of their tactics to accomplish that have included criticizing the American public school system and judging it as a failure, and public school teachers as failures. But that is not true, and the privatization movement is based on half-truths and outright falsehoods, concocted by people who want to make the entire education system a profit-making enterprise that will further enrich the wealthiest few.
Well Worn Tactics to Destroy Pubic Education
Many scholars have been exposing the deceptive “education reform” movement, and many studies have explained why it is deceptive and wrong. For example, George W. Bush’s so-called "No Child Left Behind" education "reform" initiative was modeled on a fraudulently touted Texas school program, and it was secretly designed to gradually undermine public education and make way for a privatized, profit-making education system.
As the Christian Right pushed for "school choice" and the voucher program, Bush cut $8 Billion from the promised funds for public education, and then imposed an education law and unfunded mandate that has created more bureaucracy and more paper work for public schools. It wastes their precious time and money, and it endangers many public schools and sets them up for failure. It threatens loss of funding if they do not meet standardized testing requirements that most educators find unrealistic, counterproductive and detract from real teaching and learning.
Bush and the Reaganite Republicans insisted that it created "greater accountability," but it actually forces attention on very narrowly defined academic achievement. Like "merit pay," it forces teachers to "teach to the test" and focus on test results, which is usually at the cost of wider and more comprehensive learning, and also at the cost of social and emotional character development. After all, we should be motivating and inspiring our students and instilling in them a desire for comprehensive liberal arts education, rather than coaching them to be able to regurgitate a narrow, given set of answers to predetermined questions.
Many knowledgeable educators have been trying to inform politicians about the real problems, and many research studies have supported their views. To his credit, President Obama listened to some of them, somewhat. In February 2012 referring to No Child Left Behind, he said: “Standards and accountability -- those are the right goals. Closing the achievement gap, that’s a good goal. ... We’ve got to stay focused on those goals. But we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test, or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures. That doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help our children in the classroom.”
That statement helped, somewhat, but we need to realize and face far more of the real problems. And the evidence revealed by research and investigation keeps mounting in additional studies and documentaries, providing further facts and truths that Americans should know about. And we should listen to researchers, teachers and educators and academic scholars, not to corporate spokes-people who want to privatize education.
The Institute of Education Statistics produced a study titled The Condition of Education 2013. It reveals that the problem is not poorly-qualified teachers or union representation, nor is tenure hampering student achievement – all of which are listed by Republicans and Corporate Democrats as reasons to condemn public schools. However, as this study further reveals, the main problem in underachieving schools in low income communities is poverty caused by America’s shameful problem of income inequality.
Furthermore, to make all these problems worse, there are even more efforts by the very wealthy to control and rule over our schools.
How Billionaires Rule Our Schools
The study on How Billionaires Rule Our Schools reveals that America’s wealthiest traditional public schools that are unionized with tenured teachers are among the world’s highest achieving schools. And all schools could be just as successful if they were properly funded, and if there were sufficient parent education programs and early education programs.
There is also a 2014 video titled The Koch Brothers Exposed. It’s relevant because they are a big part of the school privatization movement, and the video includes a segment on their activities in that regard, showing how they are trying to control public schools.
The latest efforts at education reform are funded by very rich people, and the latest movement is depicted as a “philanthropic” education reform movement. But like all Theocratic and Plutocratic political actions, they are deceptive and misleading. You should not believe it. It is an effort to shape young minds to fit the profiteering model, at the expense of a well-rounded, adequate public education for all.
Many good solutions have been suggested by knowledgeable educators, and many solutions are obvious. One, for instance, is adequate and equitable funding that provides all schools their fair share of funding, regardless of their location, so that schools in low income communities are not slighted and underfunded simply because of their location. However, adequate funding requires adequate revenue for county, state and federal governments, which means that the wealthiest few and their banks, corporations and financial institutions must be required to pay their fair share of taxes according to their ability to pay.
Adequate funding would provide adequate income for teachers, reduce class sizes (thereby improving the quality of education students receive), and provide necessary facilities, equipment and supplies. Other solutions in terms of school reform have already been found in certain successful schools, and their methods need to become best practices models for other schools to follow.
However, what is needed most is for politicians to listen to educators rather than to corporate shills and theocratic religious leaders who want to shape education to serve their interests.