Speech by Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer
January 27, 2018
Good morning. My name is Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer and I am here as a (new) board member of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education’s state organization (ICPE). I am also the chairperson of the ICPE of Monroe County. I am also the mother of 4 children who now range in age from 13 to 23. And it is in this capacity, Mom, that I have joined with other parents, and grandparents, retired and current educators, and spent the last several years speaking out against the very intense efforts to privatize our Indiana public schools.
It’s an important voice, I think, to speak as a mother or parent supporting public schools. There are a lot of things being said about what we parents want. If you listen to Betsy DeVos, our U.S. secretary of education, she will tell you that it’s about a parent’s right to choose the school that is best for his or her child. She says parents know best about what schools are the best FIT for their child. But the thing about “school choice” is that it is NOT about parents choosing, it’s about schools choosing. And many times, if your child has behavior problems, is learning English as a new language, or has some serious special needs—your child may not be the right fit for their school. And this is the problem.
As a mother, I don’t really want lots of choices. I want well-resourced, excellent schools for my children. I think we all do. And, actually, it’s not just about my child—this is about all of our children.
We want schools with teachers who are experienced and educated in how children learn and best practices. We want schools with certified gym, music, and art teachers. We want teacher librarians with well-stocked libraries and media resources. We want electives, extracurricular activities, and clubs for our kids: marching band, sports, Science Olympiad, robotics, photography, AP classes, and world languages. And, most of all, we want our kids safe and cared for. These are the things that all parents would choose if they could. But it was really never about giving parents choice. Instead, it was about giving some parents a choice. It’s about taking funding in the form of vouchers and charter schools away from the whole to give to a select few and it’s about the destruction of our public education system.
I began my involvement about 8 years ago. Our school system, like many others across the state, was in a bit of crisis. Then-governor Mitch Daniels had cut $300 million from our public education budget. ($300 million, by the way, which they have never given back). That meant about 72 teachers and precious programs were cut in our local schools in Monroe County. Our community then came together, from all walks of life, and put a referendum on the ballot in the fall of 2010, and we passed it. This entire experience, however, was a wake-up call for many of us.
A lot of us were suddenly paying attention. I had, like you all, heard about “failing public schools.” I certainly had my own critique of our schools and public education. The elephant-in the-room fact is that we have never fully committed ourselves to equity. We have never fully funded our schools to account for the poverty of some of our communities and we have never completely addressed the institutionalized racism that exists in our educational system. We have never committed ourselves in full to the integration of our schools and to their democratic purpose. And that inequality made public education ripe for the picking for the uber-wealthy and the zealots of free markets.
So, in 2011, in the name of the poor inner-city child, our state legislature passed a slate of laws that dramatically changed my kids (and yours) educational environment. Ideally, legislation comes from the people through our elected officials—we find a problem we want to address and our representatives introduce it into the statehouse and create laws that make our lives and communities better. But these education policy laws were written by a kind-of front group for the wealthy and corporate interests called the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC.
We first heard about it when Trayvon Martin was shot and the newspapers exposed the fact that the Stand Your Ground law was written by ALEC (in the interests of the gun lobby, etc.). ALEC is made of corporations and uber-wealthy business people like the Koch brothers, the Walton family of Walmart, or even organizations associated with Betsy DeVos who stand to make a LOT of money off of the destruction and privatization of public education. The testing companies, the profitable charter schools management organizations, the online education groups, and the hedge fund managers are all raking in our public tax dollars.
ALEC pays for conferences to woo legislators into adopting their model legislation back home. ALEC is a bill-mill and here in Indiana. They have been very successful. There’s even a reform package of model legislation on the ALEC website named after us! Our former governor Mike Pence has written the introduction to the ALEC “Report Card on American Education.” Many members of our education committee are or were ALEC members. Our House Education Committee Chairman, Rep. Bob Behning, was at one time the state chairman himself. We win the “reformy” prize here in Indiana.
What laws were these? The A–F grading of schools, teachers’ loss of voice in advocating for kids through the loss of collective bargaining, the draconian 3rd grade reading law which started the IREAD-3, vouchers and charters creating a competition for funding, a rigid 90-minute block of literacy instruction, tying teachers’ jobs and salaries to kids’ test scores, REPA3 which deprofessionalizes teaching by allowing anyone with a 3.0 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in anything…who passes a test… to be a teacher. These are all ALEC laws. They were not backed by research of what are best practices in teaching. These policies were not created by educators. These policies are about what’s in the best interests of corporations and the 1%.
Seeing the writing on the statehouse wall, some retired educators got together in 2011 and created ICPE to fight vouchers and the defunding of our public schools. They understood the threat—where parents like me were just driving carpool unaware. But it has taken the last several years, the closing of our children’s schools, the growing class sizes, the stress of high-stakes testing, and the complete disrespect of our teachers, for parents like me to wake up and GET INVOLVED. And we are doing just that. Mama bears and papa bears are pretty fierce when it comes to our kids—and we won’t let Betsy DeVos… or anyone funded by her…harm our young.
There is a feminist saying: “The personal is political.” A lot of people for a long time have been saying, “I don’t do politics.” Or, “I don’t want to get political.” But politics is not about Republican or Democrat; politics is about your relationship to power. Our public schools, and the teachers and children within them, are caught in the middle of a massive power struggle. We MUST get political.
And this brings us to today. It’s been 7 years since Indiana started this grand experiment of letting the money “follow the child” away from our neighborhood schools and into other public schools or private, voucher, or privately-run charter schools. It’s been 7 years of children throwing up in stress over test scores that determine the future of their teacher’s jobs and the schools’ existence.
Since its inception in 2011, we’ve spent something like half a billion dollars on vouchers alone. Some of my ICPE friends have been looking at the data available on the Indiana Department of Education website about charter schools and, since 2011, it is well over a billion dollars in total that we have spent toward that experiment. But almost one in five charter schools have closed over the past several years and the total number of dollars going to those charters now defunct is something like $142 million!
Public-to-public transfers are also destabilizing our public schools. Even though a student leaves with the per pupil funding that would otherwise go to the neighborhood public school, you can’t stop paying for the lights, the building, the teacher—it adds up.
My friend Steve Hinnefeld writes an education blog called “School Matters.” He recently did a post on the money leaving Gary and Muncie. He notes “Muncie’s general fund, the part of the budget that pays educator salaries and most operating expenses, was reduced from $55.4 million to $42.5 million over the past six years, according to figures from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. That’s a 23 percent cut.” And it’s not just you’ve lost enrollment since 2011 to 2017 (about a quarter of the enrollment in that time!). Steve also points out, “The legislature has also adjusted school funding to direct less money to urban schools and more to growing suburban schools. Gary Community Schools get over 20 percent less, per pupil, now than they did in 2011.
Muncie also took a hit in per-pupil funding and only recently returned to its 2011 levels.”
The rewriting of the funding formula that saw more money going to suburban schools and away from urban schools was chaired by Rep. Tim Brown of the Ways & Means Committee. Rep. Brown said, during those proceedings, “Did Mary’s mother get arrested the night before? Did Johnny not come with shoes to school? Those to me are not core issues of education.” But they are…
Our kids have a constitutional right to a free public education. It says: “Knowledge and learning, … being essential to the preservation of a free government; it should be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage … and provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” It doesn’t say Indiana children have the “option to choose” or “a good education-- if you can get it.”
Charter schools—some of them are very good, some much worse, but as a whole, almost the same as public schools—require there to be someone in the child’s life looking for options, filling out forms for a waitlist, providing transportation. Do we want kids to have excellent public schools only if they win the lottery?
Why are we destabilizing public community schools who lose funding and often engaged families to give a few kids a separate education? Do we have the money to fund separate systems of education adequately?
Research is showing that this school choice movement is segregating us further as a society. The National NAACP has called for a moratorium on charter schools recognizing that when there is little to no transparency in the budgets of charter schools, we often don’t know where the money goes and they are often not held to the same accountability standards as public schools. With no publicly elected boards like public schools, parents have no political power and no voice in decision-making at charters schools.
In our county, there is an ideological bubble of a charter school whose authorization ICPE tried to stop. Our local community public schools are very well-resourced and performing very well. The founders of the charter school wanted to be away from the public schools and wanted their niche, classical school paid for.
They were turned down twice by the Indiana Charter School Board and then they did what only a few states allow charter schools to do: they went authorizer shopping. In the end, they were authorized by a private, religious college, 2 and a half hours away—Grace College and Seminary. We had no ability to stop it. We filled the meeting room with local parents and community members begging them to not take the funding away from the whole to give to a few. If you want more classics taught in school, push your school board and administration for it.
They got their ideological school. Last summer their charter school’s board of directors spent about 45 minutes trying to decide whether girls should be allowed to wear pants. “We are in the business of teaching girls to be ladies,” one of their members said. He wasn’t sure they could learn this without wearing a skirt!
This school took $300,000 from a tiny school district in our area—helping seal the nail in the coffin of a beloved community elementary school that had low attendance and was expensive to keep open. Crying community members who had attended that school for generations, begged for it to stay open. Their school board didn’t feel it was sustainable.
The harm of siphoning public funds to private or charter schools is like a death by a thousand cuts to the whole. The choice for a few is taking choices away from the whole.
And what about vouchers? A voucher goes to the family to attend a private, almost always religious school. It doesn’t always cover the cost and, unlike how they were sold to us in the beginning, most voucher recipients have never set foot in public school and likely never intended to do so. They are also increasingly wealthy since the program began. You can make $90.000 for a family of four and qualify for a partial voucher.
Voucher schools are also legally able to discriminate and choose who attend. In my town. there is a Christian school that says they will not accept LGBTQ students because their “lifestyle” is prohibited by the Bible. If a student’s “home life” violates biblical rules, the school can deny them admission or expel them.
Many voucher schools have great freedom over the curriculum. There are schools like this one that received $665,000 in vouchers that would otherwise go to public schools, that teach from the Bob Jones or Abekah textbooks. In these texts they call Malcom X a “black supremacist” and refer to “Radical environmentalists” who “don’t just appreciate nature, but they ‘worship” it. In a pursuit of preservation, “environmentalists advocate for laws that hinder the advance of technology.” OR there’s this: “Satan did not want people worshipping God, so in the late 1800s, Satan hatched ‘the ideas of evolution, socialism, Marxist-socialism (Communism), progressive education, and modern psychology’ to counter America’s increased religiosity.”
About 4,240 Indiana students received over $16 million in scholarships to attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones curriculum, according to 2016-2017 figures from the Indiana Department of Education.
If you take public money, should you be able to discriminate? Public schools’ mission is to educate all children.
The primary justification for corporate education reform is found in the narrative of “failing public schools”—schools where there are usually the lowest test scores. Whenever we hear about this, you can almost guarantee that they are the schools with the highest concentration of students in poverty.
What is the number number-one factor associated with standardized test scores? It’s the educational and economic background of the child’s family. That is not to say that kids in poverty cannot learn. It is to say that a child who spent the night in his family car last night does not care about long division in the morning. That children whose basic needs are not met, have a harder time concentrating on learning. And that learning does not happen in a vacuum.
As parents, we do want more than what is reflected on a test. We want our kids to follow their interests, be passionate and curious. We want our kids to be kind, to be creative, to think outside the box, to be able to resolve conflict, to persist. And, none of these are reflected on a bubble test.
Do we need to think about this ever-moving target of test scores and the scarlet letters they slap on our schools that correlate with free and reduced lunch percentages? It does not help me as a mother to know the magic that is going on inside those schools and what kids are learning and creating. But it does feed the idea of competition. And these policymakers/legislators are all about believing that free markets will be the answer to anything. The thing about competition is that there are winners and losers. And no 6-year-old should be on the losing end of equal educational opportunity.
When I ask legislators about this competition of helping kids out of “failing schools” and ask how it helps kids “left behind” in these supposedly “failing” schools, I hear, “Well, the public schools will just have to WORK HARDER.”
Think about that:
While the number of dollars in teachers’ paychecks are actually going down in some places and certainly not going up?
While the number of kids in each class goes up?
While the number of things that teachers have control over in the classroom goes down?
While child poverty and the opioid crisis goes up?
While the number of dollars due to money following the child right out of the community public schools goes down?
This competition is a farce. Comparing schools is like comparing apples to oranges. And it’s a diversion because our teachers cannot solve the ills of society alone. They cannot cure poverty.
Our legislature is shirking their responsibility to care for the most vulnerable of our society while blaming schools, teachers and kids for not trying hard enough to succeed.
Poverty is a societal problem and it will take all of us as a community to work together to solve. It’s an economic problem that involves economic development solutions. And, at the center of a solution to a community problem must be real power by including voices that have been marginalized and joining together all voices to effect change.
Democracy is messy and government can be disappointingly imperfect. But the answer is not to give up our power.
I am from Michigan where the state legislature took over their schools and their cities. It happened in Detroit, Flint, Muskegon Heights—places where the majority of the population is people of color. And what happens when you don’t have that public accountability through a vote? There are areas of Detroit where parents have little to no choice. There are no well-resourced neighborhood schools in their areas. Or they have no car to get their kids to where there is such a school. Choice? On top of that, when you have someone whose job it is to cut costs and there are no checks & balances with the community, you have the possibility of dire effects: look at children drinking poison in Flint.
We must get informed, organized, and vote.
Accountability in a democracy is found in the voting booth.
Schools are not businesses or factories; they are places where our children learn what they need to be citizens of this country. It’s where they come together with people who are different than they are and learn to respect and celebrate those differences. Now more than ever we need this in our country.
Public schools’ purpose is democracy. They are reflective of our democracy and they are the heart of our community. Our fellow citizens, community members, who are accountable to us, not those who appoint them—are what puts the “public” in public education. Public schools are part of the common good.
Please join ICPE and help us defend public education.
"Our schools are being starved into failure in order to justify mass privatization” Timothy Meegan, Chicago Sun-Times
In the end, it’s not about my child, my choice. It’s about all of our children, it’s about the future of the country and our democracy.
John Dewey said it best: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely, acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”