Survey: Majority backs public schools over alternatives

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WASHINGTON - The U.S. public still strongly supports public schools and wants to improve them - and is willing to pay to do so - a new survey for the American Federation of Teachers shows.

That same survey, released July 22 during AFT's Teach 2013 conference in Washington, D.C., also reported rejection of the leading alternatives: Charter schools, privatization, so-called "school choice" plans, and anti-teacher proposals.

Union President Randi Weingarten, speaking to the 3,000 attendees, used the survey results to launch a new AFT campaign among the public to both support public schools and to show the rest of the country that teachers put their students first.

Weingarten spoke as after the GOP-run House Education and the Workforce Committee jammed through, on a party-line vote, legislation extending and revising federal school aid programs, by rewriting the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

The foes of public schools and teachers "are using that failure" of NCLB's teach to the test rigidity "as an excuse to deep-six and abandon" public schools, she added.

The new GOP bill is so anti-student that it virtually gets the federal government out of any involvement with local schools, Weingarten said - except for telling the locals how to hire, fire, evaluate and trample the rights of teachers.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., "wanted a bill where the only place for the federal government is in the teacher evaluation system," not in helping educate kids, she told a later press conference. "They want to move it out, otherwise."

But the schools and teachers need more help than ever, Weingarten declared. Her 1.2-million-member union, which represents teachers, aides and paraprofessionals in many big-city school districts, found "nearly one of every two students in public schools lives in poverty," a statistic that brought a gasp from the crowd.

"And they (kids) come with a vocabulary that is one-quarter of that" of richer students, Weingarten added in her keynote address. "It can be overcome if we invest in high-quality pre-kindergarten education," a longtime AFT cause.

The survey shows the 1,003 public school parents interviewed agreed. By a four-to-one margin, they told Peter Hart Research Associates surveyors that "social/economic problems outside the classroom" are "the main obstacle for low-income kids."

The parents' solution is not spending more on charter schools and less on public schools (31 percent for charters, 53 percent against), or more standardized tests (37 percent right amount/not enough, 57 percent too much), or cutting everything but reading and math, as NCLB demands. Parents voted that down 68-24 percent. They also rejected, 74-15 percent, mass closings of public schools in major cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, which AFT fought against. And parents opposed increasing class sizes, 82-13 percent.

They also turned thumbs down on yanking taxpayer dollars from public schools and putting them in vouchers for parents of private school kids, a major GOP theme in NCLB and the proposed GOP education law. Vouchers lost 56-39 percent.

Instead, parents want more spending and effort put into creating high-quality neighborhood schools that teach kids a wide range of subjects, plus critical thinking. And they want schools to step in and help floundering teachers improve, not fire them.

That's not what foes of public schools want, Weingarten said in her speech.

Schools are "under assault by those who, for ideological reasons, want to call one of America's great accomplishments - public education for all - a failure. Those people aren't in education to make a difference. They're in it to make a buck," she said.

But the foes have taken control of the dialogue about public schools, Weingarten admitted in a press conference afterwards, thanks to unlimited corporate cash in races for state legislatures and the U.S. Congress that decide education funding.

"Parents trust teachers, principals and PTAs - not pols and CEOs" in deciding the future and funding for schools, she said. "But you see this unprecedented level of noise" from public school foes fueled by campaign cash and business lobbying.

So the AFT and its members must hit the streets, armed with the findings and their ideas and successes in public school improvements, to take the dialogue back, using a framework the union and administrators created to improve public schools.

"This should not be rushed. Our point is to 'do it right, not do it quick,'" she said.

The framework to improve the schools includes giving teachers all the tools they need to improve their classrooms, making sure teachers are qualified to teach the courses they're assigned and evaluating their teaching quality by a wide variety of methods, including test scores. Tests "have a role, but so do other ways of evaluation," Weingarten said. Returning to the poll of the parents, she added, "The fixation on testing is something no one likes anymore."

Photo: Chicago teachers rally. Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP

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