By Randi Weingarten
President, American Federation of Teacher
A Van Wert teacher recently told me that there’s a “misconception that public schools are broken, and it comes from people who don’t know what is happening in public schools.”
He’s right. And, these days, this misconception often starts at the top, which is why our local union leader, Jeff Hood, and I invited Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to join me in Van Wert this week to meet with teachers, administrators, parents and the community and to experience the great things happening in your public schools.
Public education is the foundation of our democracy and the center of most communities. Public schools provide a pathway to opportunity for kids; for many, it’s the only pathway they have access to. It’s our obligation—all of us, regardless of party or ideology—to ensure our public schools are places where students find joy and success.
As the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a former social studies teacher, I’ve been in hundreds of schools and even more classrooms. The hallmarks of successful public schools (and systems) include four essential strategies: promoting children’s well-being, engaging in powerful learning, building teacher and principal capacity, and fostering cultures of collaboration. Van Wert puts these four pillars into practice.
Kids get a strong start through Van Wert’s early childhood and pre-K programs, and intervention specialists and social workers help meet the social, emotional and health needs of kids head-on. The social workers and other educators at Van Wert’s LifeLinks Community School reach kids who are most at risk of dropping out, moving them toward graduation. And the special education services your public schools provide are so strong that even the local Catholic school utilizes them.
Van Wert’s move to project-based learning is a great example of powerful learning that engages students, inspires them to think critically and tackle complex concepts, and teaches them to work in teams and present their work—skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century economy. I’m looking forward to seeing students’ presentations of their robotics and engineering projects this week.
When the district transitioned to this model, teachers weren’t simply handed a training guide and told “just do it”; there was an intensive training process. And across the district, teachers have time to collaborate as part of their schedules. Providing teachers with the time, tools and trust to do their jobs and hone their craft is essential to recruiting and retaining the best teaching staff for our kids.
All of this is possible through a culture of collaboration that is baked into every level of teaching and learning. Big decisions aren’t made unilaterally from the top; teachers work side by side with administrators and parents to improve learning and school conditions. Teachers feel empowered to innovate, propose solutions and lead. And this culture extends beyond the classroom, with partnerships with local businesses that provide kids with internships and other opportunities and enable teachers to adapt their lessons to incorporate the skills and knowledge businesses say their employees need.
The result? Van Wert public schools have a 96 percent graduation and attendance rate, and 75 percent of graduates go on to a two- or four-year college. The public schools here have a dedicated teaching force. And people are moving to Van Wert because of the schools. It’s truly something to be proud of.
In contrast, Ohio’s charter schools have been plagued by fraud, mid-year school closings, lying about student attendance to receive additional funding, mismanagement, and an overall lack of accountability that has led even charter proponents to call Ohio the “Wild, Wild West” of charter schools. One study by state auditors found more than $27 million in improperly spent funds at Ohio charters. The Akron Beacon Journal found that "charter schools misspend public money nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency."
The blueprint here is obvious, and it transcends party: What happens in Van Wert shouldn’t just stay in Van Wert. It should be expanded throughout the nation. But that takes resources and moves education in a totally different direction than the one envisioned by the federal education secretary and the proposed federal budget.
Parents and teachers sounded the alarm when DeVos was nominated, because of her efforts over the past two decades to undermine public schools. As a lobbyist in Michigan, she used her wealth to push legislators to defund public education in favor of for-profit charter schools that had no accountability to parents or the public. She has called public education a “dead end,” and as secretary she continues to push the same failed privatization strategies she pushed in Michigan.
The budget proposed by DeVos and President Trump takes a meat cleaver to public education. The cuts total $9 billion, the largest-ever cut to education, while their budget invests $1.3 billion in privatization. And more funding for privatization will result in fewer resources for what actually works in schools.
When the federal budget gets cut and the state can’t make up the difference, the burden lands on the local district. But here in Van Wert, teachers and school officials have already stretched the budget as far as possible. Anything cut now would destroy the programs and strategies that make Van Wert’s schools great.
The result of this budget could ultimately mean less money for social workers, robotics and engineering classes, pre-K, band trips, art and music, reduced class sizes and increased teacher capacity. Why would the education secretary want to rip apart what is working here in Van Wert and elsewhere?
Parents and teachers sounded the alarm when DeVos was nominated because of her track record in Michigan. As a lobbyist in Michigan, she used her wealth to push legislators to defund public education in favor of for-profit charter schools with no accountability to parents or the public. She has called public education a “dead end” The proposed budget-cutting programs that work and advancing privatization strategies that don't suggests she continues to do what she did in Michigan which led the public schools to drop precipitously in math and English achievement
Van Wert proves support for public education transcends politics. Federal, state and local education policy should be guided by what works best for kids and schools—not by ideology.
When asked what he would want to say to DeVos, a Van Wert teacher said, “The people best equipped to teach kids are in public schools right now, and we just need the resources to do our jobs.”
That’s the real lesson we hope DeVos takes back to Washington.