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Jan Resseger: Senator Jon Tester is A Hero of Public Education

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Jan Resseger writes here about Montana Senator Jon Tester’s deep and well-grounded belief in public education. He says that Democrats would have greater success in red states if they talked about the importance of public schools and the elites who are trying to privatize them.

Think about it. The vast majority of students in the United States attend public schools even when school choice is offered to them. Only 6 percent choose to attend charter schools; about 2 percent use vouchers. By now we know that neither charter schools nor vouchers offer a better education than democratically controlled public schools. Yet the billionaires continue to fund failure.

I hereby add Senator Jon Tester to the blog’s honor roll of champions of public education.

Resseger writes:

In mid-December, the NY Times‘ Jonathan Martin interviewed Montana Senator Jon Tester about his new book, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America. Tester, a Democrat and U.S. Senator in his third term, represents a deep red state.

Tester tells Martin: “Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana…”

Many hope President Joe Biden’s administration will significantly reshape federal education policy. During last year’s campaign for President, Biden, the candidate, declared a public education agenda that contrasts sharply with what happened to federal policy in public education beginning in the 1990s and culminating in the 2002 No Child Left Behind and later in 2009 in Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire describe the past couple of decades: “Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools.  And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers….”

Now with Biden’s election, many are looking for a turn by prominent Democrats back to the urgent needs of the public schools as a new COVID-19 recession compounds funding problems lingering in state budgets from the Great Recession a dozen years ago and as school privatization through charter school expansion and vouchers continues to thrust public schools deeper into fiscal crisis. Senator Jon Tester believes Democrats can rebuild support in rural America by attending to the needs of rural public education.

Tester’s new book folds policy ideas into memoir, with the back story a tribute to small town public schooling.  An indifferent high school student, Tester was encouraged by a debate coach, “who taught me how to articulate political arguments” and “taught us how to structure speeches to build an arc of suspense. He taught us the importance of clarity and simple language.”  Tester was elected student body president at Big Sandy High School: “For Government Day, on behalf of Big Sandy’s students, I invited one of our area’s most familiar elected leaders to visit with us about his long career in public service… Senator James was a tall, soft-spoken old farmer who accepted my invitation graciously and visited with us Big Sandy students for the better part of a day. He made the art and war of state politics sound fun.”

A trumpet player and college music major, Tester taught elementary school music at F.E. Miley Elementary School but was forced to resign when the paltry salary, even on top of what he could earn from farming, made it impossible for his family to get by. Tester ran for the local board of education and served for nearly a decade, including stints as vice chair and chair: “To this day, I’m asked about my most difficult job in politics. Without a doubt, my answer is the nine years I spent on the Big Sandy school board; it seemed everyone had strong opinions about public school policies, disciplinary actions, money, pay, taxes, ethics, graduations, grades, teacher performance, coaches, bullies, scholarships—it was a nine-year roller-coaster ride, and I loved every twist and turn.”

There is more. Open the link and read the rest of her piece about this wonderful Senator from Montana.

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