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Karen Francisco: Why I Fight to Save Public Schools

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Karen Francisco is the editorial page editor of the The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette in Indiana. She is one of the few journalists who are outspoken supporters of public education. I met her when I visited Fort Wayne in 2010 after the publication of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. She offered the following post to help me get through the period when I am in the hospital and unable to write. She is brave, thoughtful, and relentless in standing up to the powerful elites in Indiana who are dismantling a once much-admired public school system.

Why I fight to save public schools

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor, The Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette

There’s an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which an airplane passenger looks out the window to see a monster dismantling the aircraft engine. His terror escalates when he realizes he’s the only one who can see it happening.

There have been many occasions over the past two decades where I have felt like William Shatner’s character in that classic episode: Why don’t people realize public education is being dismantled in front of their own eyes?  

That’s my motivation for fighting for public schools.  People must understand what’s at risk.

It was as a parent that I had my first glimpse of the destruction underway. On a back-to-school night in September of 2000, I listened as a middle school math teacher complained that he would not be introducing any new material until the state’s standardized tests were administered.  He had been instructed by the administration to spend the first six weeks of the school year reviewing fifth-grade math lessons to bolster performance on the tests.  I instantly knew why my then-sixth-grader was, for the first time ever, complaining he was bored in school.

As an opinion journalist, I have opportunities other parents don’t have to question elected officials. When our editorial board met the next week with the Indiana superintendent of public instruction, I recounted how my children were spending so much time reviewing past lessons, and I asked Dr. Suellen Reed why so much emphasis was being placed on standardized testing.  

She launched into the accountability talking points I could eventually recite by heart. It was my first clue that not everyone saw the damage I sensed was beginning to occur. A costly scheme to label public schools with failing grades would help convince taxpayers and parents that children from low-income households needed vouchers to escape those schools. 

To her credit, Reed would be among the first of Indiana’s elected officials to acknowledge where high-stakes testing was headed, but her resistance cost her the position she held for four terms.  The governor wanted a superintendent supportive of his privatization agenda, so he tapped Tony Bennett, an affable high school basketball coach with a newly earned superintendent’s license. Together, they pushed through massive charter school expansion and a voucher school program. When he signed the bill, Gov. Mitch Daniels literally gave it a kiss.

I am fortunate to work for a publisher who is a strong supporter of public education, so our editorial pages became a persistent voice challenging Indiana’s unbridled rush to privatization, and I was eager to write editorials and bylined columns about what was happening all around us. The governor’s press secretary called my editor to complain after I served on a panel at a public education advocacy event. On a visit to our newsroom, Bennett told me he thought of me as one of those angry parents screaming at the coach from the stands. 

Unfortunately, our editorial voice was about as effective as one of those basketball parents. The vast majority of our readers and area lawmakers were either supportive of the far-ranging privatization effort or silent.  It would have been easy to give in to the complaints from some readers that our editorial board was wrong to oppose school vouchers, if not for the voices of educators and academics.  

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” by the esteemed proprietor of this blog, was a revelation. I had the opportunity to interview Diane about the book and later to meet with her when she delivered a lecture at our regional university campus. Her address energized a growing community of ed reform critics. including Phyllis Bush, a retired Fort Wayne teacher who galvanized a group of educators under the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education. In West Lafayette, Indiana, Superintendent Rocky Killion teamed with Steve Klink, a staunch public education supporter, to produce  “Rise Above the Mark,” a 2014 documentary that was an early warning cry about the growing obsession with testing and its detrimental effects on education. The Indiana Coalition for Public Education joined the fight. Its board now includes three of the four former Indiana state superintendents, with Bennett being the exception.

I wish I could say Indiana has seen some success in fighting off the privatization monster, but that’s far from the truth. More than $1 billion has now flowed to private and parochial schools through the voucher program, with no accountability.  A scandal involving a virtual charter school cost taxpayers at least $85 million, with seemingly no concern from lawmakers or taxpayers. In the current legislative session, the Republican supermajority is throwing everything at school choice: income limits that make vouchers available to wealthy families, ESAs, full funding for online-only schools and more.

There was a time when newspaper editorial boards could move mountains. As my industry has withered, that is no longer the case. But I’m taking heart this year in a growing number of voices questioning the support of private and parochial schools at the expense of Indiana public schools. It seems like there are now many of us aware of the destruction and determined to stop the monster before it sends public education crashing to the ground. 

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