Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Public Schools Lose Luster

Public schools that have long held significant support as a fundamental American institution are losing public confidence.

The latest Gallup poll records near record lows in public confidence in schools.  In an annual poll, Gallup reports confidence in institutions and counts “a great deal” and “quite a lot” as a metric for the level of confidence in an institution.

Historically, uniform and universal public education was seen as essential for spreading literacy and for the functioning of the economy and democracy.

But the crisis of public education reported since the mid-1980s has undermined those perceptions for many Americans.

·         Big city school districts have received a steady stream of criticism for decades, but due to statewide testing programs, now even more respected suburban school districts appear poorly performing with low scores and high dropout rates.

·         The teachers union’s visible effort to thwart reform and choice in public education has turned off many urban liberal and moderate members of the attentive public.  Their aggressive efforts to protect work rules, salary increases and pensions in the recession have separated them from the non-unionized and private sector citizens that historically viewed teachers sympathetically and as a class of respected professionals.

·         The public school system in general, as one of the most revenue consuming government sectors, has become a target for reduction and reform in the recession.  Many elements of the public school establishment continue to believe that since education is essential for America’s economy, so are public schools.  That connection has declined and that decline will likely continue.  Public schools must increasingly compete with choice alternatives, both public and private, that are gaining credibility with public education’s historic constituents, especially urban liberals and the African-American community.

·         When examining the levels of confidence among major subgroups of Americans, public education is now doing poorly with its main customers, namely people aged 30 to 49 who more likely have children in the system than older citizens, college graduates who most likely came out of public schools and value education, and independent voters necessary to maintain voter majorities needed to win local school board and bond elections and fights in legislatures.

Finally, confidence is lowest in the West, which is dominated by residents of California, the bastion of Democratic and liberal power in the country.

The political crisis of public education is now visible around the country and in Colorado.  The federal government, along with many big city mayors, is a strong advocate of choice and reducing the unions’ monopoly control.  In Colorado, recent battles over public school legislation opposed by the teachers union saw the Democratic Party divided and the anti-union position victorious.

Also, the 2010 U.S. Senate Democratic primary pitted pro- and anti-union forces with a former reform superintendent being the winner.  The recent Denver mayor’s race saw the pro-reform, non-union endorsed Democrat win over a Democrat more closely aligned with the teachers union.

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