March 30, 2017
By Charles Wowkanech, New Jersey State AFL-CIO President
Washington, DC - Public education has been fundamental to our democracy since it was founded 240 years ago.
Founding father Thomas Jefferson declared it his longest-standing priority: "A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest."
Jefferson understood that the democracy we pride ourselves on needs to educate each citizen to thrive. We at the New Jersey State AFL-CIO share Jefferson's belief and have always supported public education. But with the growing influence of charter schools, public education is under attack.
We should abandon the idea of a formula and live up to the promise to provide every student in every community the resources needed for a public education our constitution promises. Charter schools present a measurable drain on public school funding. Charter school proponents claim the money simply follows the student and that subtracting funds lost by public schools from the funds gained by charter schools comes out to a neat zero. However, a public school cannot deduct one bus seat from its transportation budget or one 30th of every subject teacher, athletic coach, or student advisor from its staff budget. These are not hypothetical math problems. A review of a charter school funding report reveals that charter school reliance on guaranteed public school resources is a valid concern. This is an incredibly real concern for parents who, due to lottery systems many charter schools use, are likely to send their child to a public school that has to support two student populations.
Beyond logistical support, public schools provide a diversity of culture and thought that other schools cannot. A study from the Education and the Public Interest Center found that 75 percent of schools run by Education Management Organizations (EMOs) in 2007 were significantly resegregated and served either mostly white, mostly black or mostly Hispanic students. They also found that 66 percent of those schools were highly segregated by whether the student is an English Language Learner and that all of them had segregated students based on their need for special education and services. Allowing the resegregation of our schools is a major moral and ethical failing in our education system; it fails to help our children grow, sheltering them from learning about the way children of different backgrounds see the world. It only serves to create more of the homogenous "Facebook bubbles" that have been so fearfully discussed since November. The exposure to a variety of experiences that diverse public schools provide is critical to healing our divided society and restoring our ability to discuss issues on common grounds.
The Christie administration closed four charter schools but added more than 6,000 new seats through charter school expansions. Though charter schools select a narrow portion of students, there is no guarantee they will perform better. A Department of Education study in 2010 found that there was no difference in academic performance whether the student was accepted or rejected by a charter school. The study did show that urban students fared slightly better, while suburban students fared worse. This gamble on academic performance requires the student to miss out on a diverse range of activities, clubs, sports, and experiences that a public school offers. Public schools serve the whole needs of the student, not just their academic ones. However, if we don't fund public schools, they will not be able to continue offering those programs that enrich our children.
Public schools are the key to having a flourishing democracy. Denying children of color, children of low-income families, and children of differing needs and abilities an accessible, quality education is the first step in denying them the opportunity to cultivate their better selves. Without an equal opportunity to better ourselves, we cannot expect an opportunity to better our communities and our country. With accusations of fake news and hyper-partisanship ruling the headlines, it is important that students of differing skin tones, genders, abilities, beliefs, and incomes are able to learn, critique, and dialogue together in the classroom before they become the next generation of policy makers, business leaders, caretakers, and educators. It is only through funding public schools and giving each child the opportunity to go to a good public school that we can foster the educated citizenry our founding fathers believed in.