I’m indebted to Norfolk public schools for having provided me with 12 years of a quality education along with the scores of caring and committed teachers. I didn’t always appreciate what my community did for me in my youth but many people worked in partnership with my parents to raise me and help nurture me into a somewhat knowledgeable and contributing participant in civil society. That this immeasurable service was provided to my family for free is quite remarkable.
This year will mark my 50th anniversary since graduating from Norview High School in Norfolk. Much has changed since the late 1950s and ‘60s when Virginia public schools were forced to integrate the separate schools attended by African Americans and the white community. My classmates were all white during my Larrymore Elementary days until the time I reached Azalea Junior High School and the first few brave black students arrived to a rather tepid reception. The student body was fully integrated by the time we got to Norview. Our parents worst fears were not realized and the grand social experiment gradually brought greater understanding and more equitable opportunities for some in our community.
But white flight to Virginia Beach and Chesapeake had started and many families bailed out at the thought of having to bus their kids to attend school with blacks. Private schools like Norfolk Collegiate and Norfolk Academy provided an alternative education for many students – but it came at a price. Now our urban public schools are once again segregated with the majority being black and with a minority of white students. Our school systems are struggling to provide a quality education for an impoverished student body that’s vulnerable to all of society’s predatory practices.
Free-market boosters and libertarians believe that they have the answer for the problems facing society. Their enemy is big government and they want to shrink everything with the exception of the bloated military budget. We’ve watched as government services have been privatized and outsourced to big business. But something’s gone terribly wrong. The military-industrial complex and the medical-industrial complex have ballooned out of control and have cannibalized much of the economy for the benefit of the investor class – and to the detriment of the working class in this country.
You would think that we might have learned something by now about the dangers of global finance capitalism and all the corporate contributions that buy-off politicians and assure favorable legislation for special interests. And yet many state legislatures are handing over the education of our children to big business. And these companies are only too eager to take over this most important and complex responsibility. Wall Street sees public education as ripe for privatization; it’s the next big investment opportunity.
The last two decades have seen a push by conservatives to convince Americans that our schools are dysfunctional. Under the George W. Bush administration, it became normal to speak about ‘failed’ urban schools that no longer educate our youth. High drop-out rates, and under-prepared graduates were cited as evidence of this failure. But the true underlying causes were not adequately addressed: the lack of funding for urban education, the ever increasing number of students in the classroom, and low teacher’s salaries. Not to mention all the social problems that schools must deal with since the dismantling of the welfare state.
A right-wing media campaign has been waged to portray teachers as selfish, lazy, and incompetent. Teachers are underpaid in many states and schools are underfunded. Fewer than half the teachers in the U.S. are now covered by unions. We are seeing teachers being forced to strike in Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in order to persuade state legislatures to fund equitable teacher salaries and school budgets.
New programs have been introduced over the years that have downgraded community-based instruction in favor of national standardized testing as part of Bush’s ’No Student Left Behind’ and Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’. The results have been disastrous. Standardized test scores have been used to narrow school curriculums and to close underperforming schools. School administrators have talked more about ‘data’ than children, creating a school culture of competition and punishment instead of compassion and support.
The education privatization movement – advocates prefer the moniker ‘school choice’ – has seen private investment capital grow exponentially in the last ten years as a result of favorable laws passed by state legislatures. Politicians are persuaded by industry lobbyists promising big investments in their underfunded school systems. At first glance the privatization arguments seem compelling – to provide quality schools that are mandated to be tuition-free while providing a secular curriculum that’s free from religious instruction. So let’s look at the various kinds of education strategies that are using public dollars to buy private educational services and products.
Charter schools are considered public schools but are privately run. These are schools that are granted ‘charters’ exempting them from a range of regulations, with the promise of improved academic outcomes. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are governed by appointed boards not subject to citizen oversight or approval. Board members are not required to live in the community the school serves. Charter schools can limit the size of their enrollment and can omit special-needs students, effectively shaping their student bodies. And because these schools are a hybrid of public and private, they are able to limit public transparency as well as student and teacher rights.
Since 2008, the number of charter schools has grown by almost 50 percent. The country now has over 6,500 charter schools in 44 states. Enrollment has more than doubled since 2003 and now represents over 7% of all K-12 students. This is a growth industry. Some companies like Charter School USA, a for-profit education management organization, operates over seventy charter schools in seven states.
Charter enrollments are more heavily concentrated in urban and metropolitan areas with high percentages of minority and low-income students. But contrary to initial assurances, the research has shown that charter schools have increased re-segregation by race, class, special education status, and English language learner status.
In contrast, voucher schools are private schools that enroll students receiving publicly funded vouchers that pay partial or full tuition. The voucher movement can be traced to economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago. Back in 1955, he called for eliminating the funding of public schools and replacing it with universal vouchers. Voucher schools do not have the same legal responsibilities as public schools and operate with minimal oversight or transparency.
Most voucher schools are religious schools, including Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim institutions. Religious voucher schools can teach church doctrine that is at odds with public policy, for instance basing their science classes on creationism or teaching that homosexuality is a sin or that women should be obedient to men.
And finally we have private schools. Since these schools don’t receive public funding, individual student tuition and donations must fund the school’s budget. These schools are able to determine the nature of their student bodies and are not required to enroll students with special needs. And because they are private, they can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech or due process when students are expelled. They generally do not have to follow public requirements for open meetings and transparency.
The recent growth of the number of charter and public schools have left many urban school systems high and dry. Over the last decade, it is estimated that 4,000 traditional public schools have closed, most in poor communities of color. This has facilitated a huge transfer of resources and students away from public schools to privatized charter schools. In cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia, it has also led to the loss of teachers of color and has further destabilized poor neighborhoods.
Many conservatives think that public education has a socialist mission in bringing kids of differing classes and races together for a shared curriculum. Public schools are referred to in the pejorative sense as ‘government schools’ to reflect conservative sentiments against government in general. School choice advocates believe that each child should have a backpack full of cash, strapped on their back, and that all schools should compete for each child and for their cash.
And now Republicans have a champion in Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education who is spearheading the privatization movement. Since the 1990s, Ms. DeVos has worked to create programs and pass laws in Michigan that enable public funds to be used to support charter schools and pay for private school tuition. Although the evidence in her home state disproves it, she believes that charter schools force public institutions to improve by competing in the free market. DeVos is pledging a multi-billion dollar federal initiative to promote private school vouchers and charter schools. Fortunately her policies are running into opposition in Congress. The House Appropriations Committee has greatly reduced her initial requests for charter school funding.
While many states like Michigan have been busy funding thousands of charter schools, Virginia has so far designated only eight charter schools. Of those there’s just one local charter school, Green Run Collegiate in Va. Beach. How is it that a state not known for progressive action has kept the privatization forces at bay? In this case, the slow methodical avoidance of change by the legislature has actually benefited citizens by slowing down the process of establishing charter schools. And Virginia regulations are much more strict than many other states in terms of accountability, testing, and financing.
Much of this privatization is happening beneath the public’s awareness. This stealth attack is intentional since most Americans do not want taxpayer dollars funding private education. A majority of citizens continue to oppose using public funds to send students to private schools. And the better they understand how voucher programs work, the greater the public’s opposition.
The new documentary that sheds light on all of these issues is ‘Backpack Full of Cash’. The film will show on Wed, May 16 in the Naro ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series. During the course of the film, the filmmakers visit struggling public school systems in Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia – as well as new charter schools that have lured selected students away from public education . They interview the activists, parents, teachers, students, and administrators to get a full picture of education in America now – and where it is going. After the film we’ll hear from William Owings who is Professor of Education Leadership at ODU and who has researched privatization and its implications for public education.
Although the details of school funding is complicated, the reasons for the shortcomings of urban schools is not. Our urban schools don’t receive enough funding and the money they do get is not distributed fairly. Schools with more poor students, more students of color, and more students with special education needs are the very schools that often get less funding than their counterparts in more affluent suburbs. Instituting policies that use public dollars to buy private education will only exacerbate the funding shortages suffered by our public schools.
Sustaining a system of high-quality education is one of government’s most important purposes. Public schools enable students from differing backgrounds and economic classes to come together and learn the essential skills for civic participation in a large, complex society. Many conservatives in DC and state capitals are enacting a version of education reform that does not advance these goals. They need to be stopped before it’s too late.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
EVOLUTION OF ORGANIC It all started with a motley crew of back-to-the-earth hippies who rejected the poisons of industrial farming. The organic movement went on to spawn a renewed connection with our food, our land, and ourselves. Shows Wed, April 18 with speakers and discussion.
HEAVY METAL This early eighties animated cult film interweaves six visionary stories of science fiction and fantasy. The soundtrack includes such rock superstars as Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, Donald Fagen, Grand Funk Railroad, and Stevie Nicks. Shows Friday, April 20. A benefit for Hampton Roads Chapter of NORML.
I Am Woman Hear Me Roar This live performance on the Naro stage is a nostalgic burlesque tribute to iconic women in history. With special guest drag performer, Kiara Queen. Hosted by Rob Floyd. Adults 18 and up. Presented by Burlyville Thrill and Fantasmo After Dark. Sat, April 21.
FOXTROT Michael and Dafna experience gut-wrenching grief when Israeli army officials show up at their home to announce the death of their son Jonathan. While his sedated wife rests, Michael spirals into a whirlwind of anger only to experience one of life’s unfathomable twists – a twist that can only be rivaled by the surreal military experiences of his son. From filmmaker Samuel Maoz (Lebanon). In Hebrew with subtitles. Shows Wed, May 9.
BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Before the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow couldn’t have known that the national education debate would dramatically shift to the very issues at the heart of their film: charter schools, vouchers, and privatization. Their new documentary takes viewers into the world of market-based education ‘reform’ to explore the growing conservative movement to privatize public schools and dismantle teacher unions. Narrated by Matt Damon. Shows Wed, May 16 with speakers and discussion.
LOVELESS Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film. In this Russian drama, a married couple is going through a vicious divorce. Already embarking on new lives, each with a new partner, they are impatient to start again, to turn the page – even if it means threatening to abandon their 12-year-old son Alyosha. Until, after witnessing one of their fights, Alyosha disappears. In Russian with subtitles. Date in April to be determined.
LEANING INTO THE WIND Sixteen years after the release of Rivers and Tides, the first documentary about renowned landscape artist and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer has returned to collaborate once again with the artist. From urban Edinburgh and London to the South of France and New England, each environment Goldsworthy encounters becomes a canvas for his natural art. Presented with Chrysler Museum. Date in May to be announced.
THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH In his latest, William Friedkin returns not only to his documentary roots but to the subject of one of his most towering works, 1973’s The Exorcist. Friedkin leads a tour that moves from the infamous Exorcist steps in Georgetown to Italy, where he meets with Father Gabriele Amorth, official exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. We accompany Amorth to experience a truly frightening exorcism. Date in April to be determined.