Rhetorical Education Wars From the Right and Left

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. George Orwell

Words matter.  What we call something affects public support for it. Is a medical meeting, “end of life counseling” or a “death panel”, the descriptions matter   So it’s not a coincidence, that we see Republican rhetoric around “soviet-era” “government schools” as a way to undermine support for traditional public schools.

What may be more surprising is that some on the Left are doing the same thing when they deride “private” charter schools.   Charter schools are public schools by law and serve high needs students at roughly equal rates as traditional district schools, and misleadingly calling them “private” is a sleight of hand to reduce public support.

Children in public schools in both sectors need every dollar they can get, this hurts.

Republicans rail against “soviet era” “government schools”

Both on the state level and at the national republic convention the rhetoric was loud and its purposes were clear.

Let’s start at the state level, where something is the matter with Kansas, and Republicans have started to describe traditional public schools as “government schools.”   This was described in the NY Times,

Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and his political allies threatened to defy the court on education spending and slashed income taxes in their effort to make the state a model of conservatism. Somewhere along the way, the term “government schools” entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system. ..The intent was obvious to her, Ms. Massman said. “They are trying to rebrand public education,” she said. The use of the term has set off alarms even among some Republicans, who fear that it signals still less support, financially and otherwise, for the public schools

Similar sentiments came from the Republican convention, as covered by Ed Week,

Trump Jr. blasted schools for failing American students and serving other interests.”Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they’re stalled on the ground floor,” he said of schools. “They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”

Trump Jr.’s rhetoric rings pretty hollow to me.  For Black folks there really was no elevator for most of our history here, and despite the huge disparities that exist, things are better statistically now than they have ever been, in terms of educational outcomes.  I don’t see some America in the rear view mirror that was so great.

But it’s not just the Right on the rhetorical warpath.

The left’s war against “private” charter schools

The Left has its own war of words with a parroting of rhetoric opposing “private” charter schools.  This is a national campaign issue picked up by Bernie Sanders, that also roosts in Oakland.

Every Oakland Unified  board meeting that discuses charters will bring out the privatization zombie.

“’Private’ charter school’, ‘private’ charter school”, the zombie repeats again and again.

Not mentioned is that charters serve a higher percentage of low income students and English learners than traditional district schools, while also serving fewer identified special education students and receiving less State money.  So roughly the same kids, less money.

As someone who has worked with districts and charters for 20 some years and a lawyer, I have to tell you, there is no such thing, as a “private” charter school, at least not in CA or NY.  Charter schools are public schools by law, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. You may personally disagree but you would be factually wrong.

Charters must admit students by random lottery and can’t charge any tuition—so they can’t pick and choose kids. They are required to meet most of the same transparency requirements as other school districts, and have to follow relevant state and federal law, including civil rights laws.

So this isn’t some Humpty Dumpty moment when a word “means just what I choose it to mean.”   Charters are public schools.   Sometimes there are rogue schools, who should be reeled in or closed—just like with some districts or district schools.  But charters serve basically the same kids and deserve the same public support.

Words can hurt

Each of these rhetorical barbs is meant to delegitimize public schools, and they hurt.  Our kids in public schools, particularly in California need all the support they can get.  School funding is woefully inadequate and depends on the kindness of the legislature.  Rhetorically trashing public schools undermines public support.

I have long argued that funding in California is insufficient to meet the needs of students, and that we need to restructure school finance.  At some point we also need to bury the hatchet in the education wars, and stop seeing these political arguments as one public school sector’s loss is another sector’s gain, robbing from Pedro to pay Paul.  Instead we need to unite Pedro and Paul and fight together to give both of them the resources they need.

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