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Jews and Public Education Reform

Seth Sandronsky
August 27, 2015

by Seth Sandronsky

EducationTHERE ARE QUITE A FEW American Jews who have skin in the game when it comes to resisting corporate-style public school reform, including charter schools and high-stakes testing. One is Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Knopf, 2013). Years ago, she backed the corporate reforms. Herself a product of public schools in the Lone Star State, she was an assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. Over time, however, her consent became dissent. Today she is a professor of education at New York University and an authoritative voice against high-stakes testing. [To read our 2010 interview with Diane Ravitch, click here.—Editor]

How does Jewishness fit into this frame? “I do not see my Judaism having a large influence on my education views,” Ravitch told Jewish Currents via email. “Yet it does.... Jews have long had a deep commitment to social welfare and social justice. I express that perspective when I oppose segregated charter schools and segregated public schools and when I advocate for equitable funding for the children with the greatest needs.” She also noted that “On the matter of unions, Jewish values promote a belief that workers should have rights and should have a voice in their working conditions. Jews were a strong part of the FDR coalition, along with the labor movement. I was asked recently by a friend who is at a high level in the business world why big business and corporate leaders hate teachers’ unions. My response was that the same people hated unions in the 1930s, and they are now seeking to wipe out the last strong unions left standing.”

Then there is Sheila Decter, the executive director of the Boston-based-Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), which emerged out of the American Jewish Congress. “JALSA came out of a feeling there was a need for more concentration on social justice and public policy issues,” she explained in a phone interview. “These issues were not getting the attention they deserved.” In Massachusetts, JALSA has advocated for caps on the number of public charter schools at seventy-two statewide. There are no such caps on public charter schools nationally, which has meant an increase in the percentage of public schools that are charters from 1.7 to 6.2 percent between 1999 and 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The driving force behind JALSA’s concern is that students with special needs and English-language learners are discouraged from enrolling in public charter schools, which are sometimes for-profit operations. “There are a number of business leaders who would like to remove the cap and have an unlimited number of public charter schools,” Decter said. “We have worked successfully against that year after year, and are closely monitoring the situation as new efforts continue to lift the cap.”

Public charters schools siphon state tax dollars away from traditional public schools located in urban communities, Decter said, with the amount of lost funding ranging from 9 percent to 18 percent.

JULIA SASS RUBIN is an associate professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots advocacy group. “Education is an issue that is very important in Judaism,” she said in a phone interview. “Corporate education reform defunds schools for low-income students of color. This impedes their access to high-quality education and violates a fundamental tenet of Judaism.”

On the West Coast, Dave Safier taught mainly high school English for thirty years in Portland, Oregon. Retired now, he blogs about education policy on the Tucson Weekly’s blog, The Range. “Though I’m a non-observant Jew, my sense of social consciousness is directly related to my Jewish upbringing,” Safier wrote in an email. “That’s why I advocate for the strongest possible education for all students, especially those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

“Education inequality is a major problem in this country,” he said. “The reason I fight against the growing movement toward privatization in education is that I fear it will increase those problems.”

Education equity is the special focus of Wendy Lecker, a senior attorney at the Education Law Center, where she oversees the center’s work on school funding issues in New Jersey and New York. In her spare time, she is an education columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group. “Part of my Jewish identity has always been connected with social justice,” Lecker said by phone, speaking for herself only. “I want a high-quality education for all kids.” To this end, Lecker has been involved in legal struggles to increase funding for low-income public school students in New York.

Leonie Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters, based in New York, an information clearinghouse which advocates for smaller numbers of students per teacher as a policy to improve the quality of pupils’ education. “I’m not sure if it’s my Jewish background,” Haimson said via email, “but I strongly believe in equity, democracy, and that all kids deserve a quality education. There are many Jews on the other side, including too many hedge funders to list, and many non-Jews who I work with who are progressive advocates for equity, so I’m really not sure it relates to one’s religious or cultural background.”

WHAT HAIMSON DESCRIBES reflects the contrast between the motives of solidarity and profitability when it comes to the fate of public K-12 schools. On “the other side” are people of wealth whose money-power and cultural influence seems to propel a top-down, vertical approach to education reform.

Jewish charter-school advocates include Eli Broad and Joel Klein, who are both prominent in the education privatization movement. The former is a billionaire philanthropist who in part funds the Broad Education Foundation, which has published a playbook for closing public schools. The latter is the former head of New York City’s Department of Education (although he had no teaching experience). Klein is now on the payroll of Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire rightwing media owner. On Klein’s watch, New York’s public schools fell prey to reforms that benefit private interests, as author, blogger and public high school English teacher Mercedes K. Schneider lays out in A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Education (Information Age Publishing, 2014).

“There’s also Dan Loeb and Joel Greenblatt,” Haimson notes, “both hedge-fund billionaires on the Success charter board and big proponents of privatization. Campbell Brown, who has replaced Michelle Rhee as the public face of corporate education reform, has converted to Judaism, and talks openly about this.”

BACK IN MASSACHUSETTS, JALSA has backed several state bills to eliminate the use of high-stakes testing through a three-year moratorium and assessment task force, Sheila Decker said. For instance, Representative Marjorie C. Decker (D-Cambridge) has sponsored H. 418, which would, among other aims, prohibit the use of high-stakes testing scores as part of teacher evaluation. “JALSA is currently working with teachers and parents in a broadly-based ‘less testing’ campaign,” Decker said. Participants write editorial letters, organize local groups and develop fact sheets.

High-stakes tests use student scores as the ultimate evaluation of education and are a feature of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 under President George W. Bush. Teachers’ livelihoods depend on these test scores. Under its carrot-and-stick framework, the NCLB used state education standards. The NCLB is also a license to print money for corporations embedded in the high-stakes testing industry, such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education, Inc. These corporations eye future growth opportunities through an expansion of assessing, standardizing and testing. Mercedes K. Schneider unpacks these recent developments in Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools? (Teachers College Press, 2015).

Some American Jews fighting back against corporate education reform use a horizontal approach to reform, which prioritizes empathy and solidarity with other people and not profitability or so-called “accountability.” As Ravitch said to Jewish Currents education writer Joel Shatzky in 2010:

Spending a large part of your day preparing for a test is not exactly the kind of activity that motivates kids to come to school and to stay in school. Somehow, education policy has been taken over by people who believe that everything can be converted to data, that everything that happens in school must be connected to incentives and sanctions. There is a sort of madman behaviorism ruling the roost, and it is making school a very unappealing place. We continue to go down this road, full speed ahead, punishing teachers, closing schools, paying no heed to the quality of curriculum and instruction, worrying not at all when districts cut their arts programs, measuring and counting, and crowing or bemoaning the data. This is no way to improve education.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. He can be reached via email.