While the argument about the wall separating church and state has been with the U.S. as long as there has been a country, we have rarely debated or even confronted the need for a wall protecting one of our most important institutions—universal public education. The debates over public school quality and needed education reform—though not as old as the church and state debate—reach back more than a century in the U.S.
Yet, we have not considered fully the essential characteristic our public schools need in order for them to fulfill their potential as the lifeblood of a free people and humane democracy—a wall separating schools from government and corporate America.
At the core of universal public education is the need for education to be publicly funded and accessible by all children regardless of family circumstances or location. But throughout the history of the U.S. and its public school system, we have carelessly conflated publicly funded with government control. By and large, public schools are driven by political mandates at the local, state, and, increasingly, federal levels. The laws and regulations, including curriculum (state and the planned national standards) and assessment, have been under the purview of politicians—not academics, educators, or scholars in the fields of study.
As a result, schools have been and continue to be the tools of the ruling and corporate elite—not the institution that provides all children the opportunity to discover and develop their empowerment and agency as free individuals.
The current accountability era began under Ronald Reagan with the release of A Nation at Risk—a misleading political document presented as a scholarly report aimed at reforming schools.  The call for standards, testing, and accountability began as a movement among state political leaders, but signaled the purposes and directions for the accountability era. While politicians offered rhetoric aimed at the “achievement gap,” “drop-out rates,” and “plummeting test scores,” the policies, in fact, allowed the states to gain control of school curriculum and assessment—domains that rightfully should be in the hands of educators in order to honor the democratic purposes of schools.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, governors, notably Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, reaped huge political rewards by focusing on education—a political topic that was easy to manipulate. The turning point for this evolution in universal public education was when George W. Bush succeeded in leveraging bipartisan support for shape-shifting his Texas psuedo-miracle  into No Child Left Behind.
From about 1983 until 2001, the accountability era maintained it political focus on standards and testing, but political leaders and corporate America were not willing to rest on that success—although the refrain was time and again successful despite the evidence to the contrary (accountability has never produced the results advocates claim ). Under Obama, however, the tide has now turned against teachers—and this signals the last step for insuring that universal public education is destined to serve the ruling and corporate elite and not democracy.
Controlling curriculum and testing at the state levels has not been enough; now, education reformers are calling for national curriculum, national testing, reformed teacher certification and evaluation, and the end to teachers’ unions and tenure.
The push to move standards and testing from the state to the federal level is not surprising or as important as the new focus on teachers. The move to control how teachers are educated and certified, how teachers are evaluated, and if teachers can have tenure is where we should be focusing as we reject the broad reform platforms now facing the U.S.
Why? Because the professional autonomy of the teacher is the wall between education and government/corporate America that must be built and preserved if universal public education is to serve its mission for preserving (or creating) a democracy that pursues social justice and human agency.
Teachers must not be trained, they must be well educated—scholars and life-long learners free to hold and express beliefs and stances that drive who they are as people and teachers. Teachers must be insulated from political and corporate agendas; teachers must have academic freedom as students and as teachers.
Teachers must not be at-will workers, they must be tenured academics—the wall that separates students from indoctrination at the hands of the government or corporate America. Tenured teachers are not guaranteed a job for life (a strawman argument); they are guaranteed the pursuit of human knowledge, understanding, and dignity that feeds democracy and social justice.
The public in the U.S. must look behind the demonizing of teachers, unions, and tenure to see that empowered educators lead to empowered students—resulting in an empowered electorate and work force, the worst enemies of the privileged who seek above all else to secure their places of privilege at the expense of everyone else.
Teachers with professional autonomy are the wall between education and government/corporate America that must be central to education reform in the U.S. Everything else is mere distraction that insures the privileged their privilege.
 Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13; Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.
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