Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization. Previously he worked in the U.S. Department of Education.
Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization. Previously he worked in the U.S. Department of Education.

Does the public have confidence in public education? That’s the foremost question on my mind as Catalyst marks its 25th year reporting on the third-largest school district in the country and the larger national trends shaping public education.

The biggest threat to public education is not low expectations, increasing poverty, teacher unions or education reform. The real threat is if Americans stop believing in the power of public education to lift the masses into the middle class and strengthen society. Today there are several indications that public confidence in public education is waning.

First off, most opinion surveys show that voters, especially parents, think our education system is on the wrong track, even as they profess high levels of satisfaction with their own schools.

Second, the parents of nearly 10 million children — 17 percent of all kids — have left traditional public schools for private schools, charter schools or homeschooling. Is there a tipping point — 25 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent — where enough parents and taxpayers bypass the system that they are less willing to pay for it? With voucher programs now in 13 states, and more expected each year, the trends are ominous.

It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that state funding for public education is also way down. As of last fall, 35 states were spending less on education than before the 2008 recession.

Poor children of color a majority

Meanwhile, for the first time in history, a majority of public school students are both low-income and members of minority groups. Are the elected representatives of the broad middle class signaling that they will not fairly or adequately fund a school system serving mostly low-income children of color? The fact remains that America spends, on average, more per-pupil than most other countries, but averages mask inequity. We spend much less on poor kids than on wealthier ones.

Americans also don’t want to pay teachers on par with professions like law and medicine. When pollsters inform taxpayers of actual teacher salaries — the national median is $55,000 — support for pay increases goes down. Not surprisingly, in some states, fewer students are entering the field, and teacher shortages are increasingly common, especially in high-need specialties like bilingual, math, science and special education.

Why is public confidence in public education declining? After all, test scores, high school graduation rates and college enrollment are at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, reforms have taken hold all across America. Currently, 43 states allow public charter schools, and 46 states have raised learning standards. All but a handful of states are implementing new ways of evaluating teachers to identify the best, help others improve and counsel out the truly ineffective ones.

Arguing with increasing acrimony

We should be celebrating this progress, but instead we’re arguing with increasing acrimony. Reformers continue to insist that the status quo is not working and demand higher standards, more accountability and choice. Opponents of reform insist poverty is the real problem, that accountability scapegoats teachers, that choice creams the better students, and that inappropriately high standards doom kids to fail.

Meanwhile, a small but growing number of parents frustrated with over-testing are opting their children out of state tests, undermining our ability to track progress. In some states, teacher unions actively encourage parents to opt out, weakening the case for reform.

The reality is that change is hard and slow. Today, a quarter century after the first charter opened in Minnesota, a third of the nation’s 6,700 charter schools outperform traditional schools. Twenty-five years after Teach For America began recruiting top college students to go into teaching, most teachers still come from second-rate schools of education.

Education reform has successfully created many islands of promise in an ocean of mediocrity, but few if any places have taken reform to scale. In a decentralized system like our country’s, with 14,000 school districts of varying shape, size and need, systemic change is near impossible. But we can still hope.

We can hope that increased transparency around student outcomes will empower a new generation of parents to impose organic accountability on schools and demand better education for their children. We can hope that reformers reflect on the unintended consequences of their policies, like over-testing, and work to minimize them.

We can hope that teachers unions recognize that resisting accountability is not in their self-interest because it may be driving people out of the system and helps make the case for defunding. We can hope that business interests that fund state politicians will convince them that education is a needed investment to keep America competitive in a global economy.

The only way to rebuild public confidence in public education is by confronting our problems, not denying them. If we reach a point where America’s will to improve our schools more closely matches the need to improve our schools, our children just might get the education they deserve.

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