Chester Finn Steps Down!

On August 1st, 2014,  Chester Finn will resign as leader of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  He will be replaced by Michael Petrilli.  The Fordham Foundation has been a leader in the creation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, other conservative education initiatives, and the assault on public schools.  This will not change under the leadership of Petrilli.  As a matter of fact, I think it is fair to say that Petrilli will be a stalwart proponent of the Common Core as well as other free market conservative education reform initiatives such as school vouchers, choice, and charters.  I also think it is fair to say that we can expect the promotion of education policies that further erode the local control over public schools.   On the other hand, Finn, in his farewell address, seems to admit that the privatization of public education is problematic, leading to the feeding frenzy we have seen by those who envision the education of children as a boon to entrepreneurial capitalists.  Finn acquiesced:   “I hail the entry into the ed-reform camp of entrepreneurs with all their energy, imagination, and venture capital, but I’ve seen too many examples of them settling for making their venture profitable for investors or shareholders (or themselves) rather than educationally profitable for the kids it serves. That’s not so very different from traditional adult interests within the public and nonprofit sectors battling to ensure their own jobs, income, and comfort rather than giving their pupils top priority. …”   Thanks at least for that, Dr. Finn.  Professional educators and public school supporters will continue to try to clean up the mess you helped make.   Read Dr. Chester Finn’s farewell address at: See you on the flip side! Deborah Duncan Owens

Elmira Heights, Church Bells, and a Stop Common Core Sign

As I sat on my little deck in my backyard after work yesterday, I found myself looking forward to the 6:00 hour. My dog had just rested her head on my knee, looking for a good ear scratch, and my husband had just lit the Weber grill.  But at 6:00 every day something magical happens in my small town of Elmira Heights, New York.  Church bells emanate from the Methodist church a block from my house.  They are lovely and while it is true that they are prerecorded – not the old fashioned bells produced by bell ringers of yesteryear – they are lovely and always remind me of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” and why I love living in a small town.  I am new to Elmira Heights. I have become friends with several of my neighbors.  While we are very different in some respects, we share a common bond in that we enjoy living in our little community and going about our lives doing those things people do to make our lives enjoyable and meaningful, like cutting our grass, planting petunias and impatiens in the summer, grilling outdoors, and watching the neighborhood kids playing and walking up and down the streets of our neighborhood.  I can say with all honesty that when I bought my old house, a house in much need of love and repair, I didn’t just buy a house, I bought a neighborhood and a community.


Parents I speak to in Elmira Heights like their local schools.  They like the principals, the teachers, and the school buildings.  In the morning I often see dads and moms walking their young children to school and in the afternoon I see the promenade in reverse.  A few months ago, a sign appeared in one of my neighbor’s front yard.  It’s pencil yellow with bold black words simply stating, “Stop Common Core.”  I haven’t formally met these neighbors yet, but I do see them outside regularly, so I know they have young children.  It’s not without irony that as they engage in their own simple form of protest I have been huddled inside my house over the past few months, using every spare minute trying to decipher the decades long political wranglings that have culminated in the Common Core and all the other education policies that accompany the standards.


I often wonder about the individual parents who are resisting the Common Core.  Are they conservatives concerned about government intervention in education?  Are they liberals fighting against the transformation of teaching and learning into days filled with standardized testing and test prep?  Or perhaps they understand that the Common Core, as a set of national standards, represents an attempt to dismantle the public school system and wrestle control of their public schools from local school boards.  Perhaps the anti-Common Core movement reflects parents’ concerns about the influence of corporations over education reform and the use of their children as capital to fatten the wallets of CEOs and venture capitalists.


As I read the growing number of blogs devoted to efforts to resist Common Core I have come to believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle and that parents on both sides of the political spectrum are uniting over their concerns about current education policies.  They speak for their children, citizens who have no vote or ability to impact education policy.  And perhaps they understand that current education policies will inevitably result in their diminished capacity to have a voice in how their schools will be governed.  Current policies are squeezing the life out of community schools.  State budgets are stretched almost to the limit, leaving local school boards no option but to either raise local taxes or find alternative ways to finance their schools.  With much of the public money being funneled into expensive testing schemes and purchasing the technology required to administer these tests, local schools districts are scrambling to maintain some kind of autonomy over how they spend what remains of their budgets.


With my book finally written and in production, I plan to get to know more of my neighbors.  One of my students enrolled in the graduate literacy program at Elmira College where I teach is starting a preschool program at the Methodist Church in my neighborhood, the one with the lovely bells.  I plan to visit her new preschool and offer her assistance and support.  She tells me that the church has a little room that serves as a museum dedicated to the church’s history and that, yes, the original church bell is still there with a bell pull still in place.  I can’t wait to see it and learn more about that old church and my community.  I plan to introduce myself to the young family who has posted the Stop Common Core sign in their front yard.  And I plan to continue in my quest to help preserve what I believe is one of America’s best institutions — our public schools.

 Deborah Duncan Owens


Common Core Origins: A New Book on the Horizon

As a long time supporter of public schools, a former public school teacher, a teacher educator, and a believer in democracy and local school governance of public schools, I am pleased to announce that my book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy is on the horizon.  It is currently in production with Palgrave Macmillan, with a scheduled release date of January, 2015. While this is scholarly endeavor, it is also written from my heart.  I began researching the impact of free market policies on education fifteen years ago while working as an elementary teacher in Mississippi.  This research led me to Milton Friedman, who has been hailed as the “father of modern school reform” and is often credited with originating the idea of school vouchers and school choice — a concept that has morphed into the charter school movement.  Of course, within this book there is a great deal more  than a discussion about Friedman!

I will discuss further details about my book in future postings on this website as well as further research on this topic.  The goal of this book and website is to add to the efforts of those bloggers and authors who are valiantly defending America’s democratic institution of public schools, an institution that has historically served America well.  I hope my future contributions will help those millions of public school supporters in their quest to maintain the integrity of American public education.

I am providing a few short selections from the book’s forward, which I believe captures the spirit of The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy:

“What Owens has been able to accomplish is an explanation of how … the free market became public school policy.  As Owens points out, within this process, America’s public school system has once again become a scapegoat for all that ails American society, while heralding all the ramifications of free market systemic education reform as the means of saving the U.S. from its supposed enemy – the public school system writ large. …

For those individuals on the political and ideological right or left who are militantly wedded to their ideas, however, this book will not provide safe haven.  This is because, as the book makes clear, both political parties have found common ground in a unified allegiance to a free market approach to systemic education reform that has created an educational sea of profit at the expense of America’s most important resource – its children. …

For those who see the numerous reform initiatives such as high stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers, value added measurement, student data collecting, and the disempowerment of citizens in decision-making when it comes to their public schools as the wrong approach to meeting the education challenges confronting the U.S., this is an empowering book. …” (by Thomas J. Fiala)

Renewing the War on Poverty: A Call for Real Education Reform

Yes, education is an economic issue.  Poverty and all the factors associated with poverty, such as lack of resources, segregation, unsafe neighborhoods, and lack of nutritious food and health care, is the barrier that inhibits educational achievement for too many students in the United States. Free market solutions to education reform with test scores and competition as the ultimate arbiter of educational success do not have the ability to change the lives or educational outcomes for children living insecure lives as a result of poverty.  

Americans know the solution.  In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was created as a component of President Johnson’s War on Poverty policies.  Through the next eight presidential administrations, the purposes of ESEA have been skewed and its promises have been broken through lack of funding and the imposition of free market competition based accountability systems.  ESEA has become No Child Left Behind, a tool for the free market to continue in the move to privatize public schools.  

Amidst the cacophony of calls that public schools are failing, however, there are champions of public schools who acknowledge the social and economic challenges that must be overcome in order to achieve real education reform in the United States. Thanks to the leadership of Elaine Weiss, the National Coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, schools and communities that are engaged in real education reform through comprehensive systems have a platform to showcase effective solutions for public schools and the children they serve

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The Wellspring of Education Reform and the Common Core State Standards

Undoubtedly, the Common Core State Standards and Race to the Top initiatives have become the most highly contentious issues to impact public schools in the United States, arousing both concern for what is perceived to be the overreach of the federal government as well as the steady march toward the destruction of public schools through privatization and the free market.   For more than a decade, I have engaged in an inquiry to determine how and when the public schools became ensnared in the free market frenzy to capitalize on the education system as a source of profit.  Discerning the origins of current systemic education reform is not an easy task.  While much has been, and is being, written about the current phase of systemic education reform, I determined a number of years ago that what was needed was a road map that would establish not only the point of origination along the path to the Common Core, but also provide a scholarly analysis of the social, historical and political events that have culminated in the CCSS and RTTT policies.


My research began well before implementation of the CCSS.  In 2001, I began examining the origins of school vouchers and school choice.  In the years that followed, it has become clear that the latest iteration of these concepts would be manifested through the charter school movement.  In 2010, my husband, Thomas Fiala, and I presented a paper entitled “Education Policy and Friedmanomics: Free Market Ideology and its Impact on Education Reform” at the Midwest Political Science Association’s annual conference.  The paper was well received; however, one of the political scientists in our session posed a question that lingered and prompted me to continue my inquiry.  He asked: “If, as you assert, the wellspring of NCLB and other free market reform ideas such as school choice is the conservative movement, then how do you explain the fact that the biggest federal government intervention in public schools occurred during a Republican administration?”


Answering this question has been my goal, fueled further by the implementation of the CCSS and RTTT policies.  I will use this website to discuss what I have found through my research.  As a beginning point, I am providing a link to the paper that was presented at the 2010 Midwest Political Science conference, published on ERIC.  This paper represents the nascent stages of my inquiry.  However, it does provide an understanding of the conservative ideas that have undergirded federal public school reform since 1983 and the publication of A Nation at Risk during the Reagan administration.  Future postings on Public Schools Central will demonstrate the convergence of the political right and left with corporate America in the decades following the Reagan administration that have resulted in the current systemic education reforms with the Common Core taking center stage.

“Education Policy and Friedmanomics: Free Market Ideology and its Impact on Education Reform”

Deborah Duncan Owens