NSBA's Gentzel: Legislators must see firsthand why public schools matter
It's no secret that in recent years, public schools have faced significant funding cuts, as well as competition for funding and students from voucher programs, for-profit-operated schools, and more.
According to the National School Boards Association, however, 90% of children are enrolled in public schools, and PDK/Gallup polls show that 61% of respondents would like to see more public school funding, 56% support school boards having more control over content, and 63% are against vouchers. The organization advocates for local school board members nationwide, and last April, it launched the Stand Up 4 Public Schools campaign to raise awareness of the issues facing schools. Adding to the initiatives visibility is its support from the likes of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Montel Williams, and Khan Academy founder Sal Khan, and a series of ads features quotes about how public schools made them who they are today.
"[School board members] really are the ones that lead the public school system at the local level," NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel told Education Dive, "and given all the challenges that we’re facing and some of the attacks that are being levied against public education, we thought it was important to just really promote the good things that are happening in public schools and to kind of challenge some of the myths that are out there."
During his trip to promote the campaign with Williams in New York last week, Gentzel caught up with us over the phone, breaking down the issues while sharing what he thinks must be done for public schools to succeed and how school administrators can help.
EDUCATION DIVE: With numbers showing that the majority of kids in public schools and a majority of the public saying that they want more public ed funding, it seems like lawmakers should be the first place people are looking to. What needs to be done on a state or federal administrative or policy level to improve public education?
THOMAS GENTZEL: It’s a great question because I think it’s got a several-part answer. First of all, we know that as a result of the recession in 2008 and so on, public school funding was cut pretty dramatically in many, many places around the country. In fact, most places. And most places have not recovered. We have public schools with growing enrollments and higher and higher expectations that are working with fewer resources, so funding is obviously a big issue for us.
But so is the need to give school districts as much flexibility as possible. A related mantra for us, really, is about mandate relief and just giving local school officials as much discretion to make some of these decisions as possible. It’s interesting because right now, as you know, Congress is beginning to get really serious about reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Both the House and the Senate are marking up bills and moving that forward. We’ve been waiting many, many years for that law to be reauthorized, and it looks like it’s actually got a very good chance of happening.
While that’s not, per se, a funding bill, it really sets the parameters for funding on things like Title I and other programs, so I think it’s going to frame the discussion at least at the federal level. And, of course, there are also discussions and pretty intense debates taking place at the state level with state budgets coming out in the next several months.
What should administrators at the school, district, or state level be doing to support this effort and really push the importance of public schools to lawmakers and other stakeholders?
GENTZEL: I think the most important thing, and we’ve seen this time and again, is to make these debates real and to present some actual examples. One of the things I’ve seen over the years is, when you talk to legislators and you’re talking about various programs — and, of course, they’re not just dealing with education, but a whole range of issues — we’re talking about millions, hundreds of millions, maybe even billions of dollars, and it becomes just a lot of money.
What has to happen is, to help them understand why the funding for this program matters in the districts that they represent, to get them into the schools and actually show them how it’s working and why it matters. Otherwise, it becomes kind of just a theoretical discussion. It could appear to be just another interest group asking for more money. In this case, we know that education is typically a constitutional mandate in most of the states. It’s one of the highest priorities, we think, for funding. And to get legislators to really accept that and understand it, I think it’s also important for them to see firsthand why it matters. I know a lot of school administrators and board members do that, and I couldn’t encourage that enough.
Where do you think the problem of this money being diverted to things like voucher programs and for-profit interests and private charter schools started, and what are some of the biggest issues resulting from it? With the vouchers especially, there's often the argument, with some of those being used for religious schools, regarding the separation of church and state due to the potential use of public funds for religious schools.
GENTZEL: I think there are several things that have happened. First of all, I just would say for the record the National School Boards Association is not opposed to parents having the right to choose, but there is a very big question when we’re talking about taking public funds that get diverted to other programs — particularly private schools, religiously-affiliated schools. You obviously have, as you’ve pointed out, a lot of the constitutional questions.
But there’s also, I think, a really big philosophical question, which is, “Should we be using tax dollars to fund, essentially, a second system of public education — and one that’s not equally accountable?” We know a lot of these other schools are not required to conduct the same tests or report the same information in the same way as public schools, so it’s a separate set of standards.
Our view in this is we’re strongly opposed to vouchers because they do take money away from public schools and send it to other places. Frankly, the public’s been pretty strongly opposed to vouchers, too. When that issue’s been put on the ballot, it’s generally not been supported around the country. I think we need to recognize that. But this issue comes up. Even now with the ESEA reauthorization, there’s discussion about portability and taking dollars and “following” the student to some other place. If that discussion’s going to be held, then we need to have a conversation about accountability. If it’s about parental choice, parents ought to have the right to compare, apples to apples, what the different schools are doing and how they spend their money and their results in terms of student achievement. There should be comparability in all of that. And of course, usually there isn’t. They try to carve out exceptions. I think it’s going to be a very, very rigorous debate.
I will tell you this: We know that public school funding, and you alluded to this earlier, is a very big issue. It was a huge issue in a number of the campaigns that were run last fall, and I think we know that the public generally supports public schools. They want good schools in their communities, and they want them to be adequately funded. And I think that legislators need to understand that and to not only adequately fund public schools, but to not do any harm by allowing money that should be going to public schools to be redirected to other programs.
Last year, around the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I read a lot about how there’s also resegregation in some public schools. How much do you think the diversion of funds, and students, from public schools has contributed to this?
GENTZEL: We’re very concerned about that. I have to say that — acknowledging that there are some charter schools that do a really great job — if you look at, overall, some of the trend lines that we’ve seen, we’re seeing charters and vouchers having the effect of causing some resegregation in the schools. And that’s extremely troubling. The public school system — and the reason I think it’s been an underpinning of our democracy, really, is that it’s a place where we bring everybody together and they learn to live and work together and develop shared values, and all of those things. When we start separating groups of students by race or class or something in different schools or educational environments, we lose something very, very important in this country. So we’re really concerned.
I don’t know how often that’s an explicit goal of these programs — it may be in some cases — but we have to acknowledge that that’s the impact that it’s having, and we have to have a policy discussion about where we’re going as a country.
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