Several years ago my husband, Thomas Fiala, and I presented a paper at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) conference regarding education policy. President Obama had recently been elected and No Child Left Behind was choking the life out of public education. The steady drumbeat of free market privatization was clearly echoing across the nation. Race to the Top was starting to boil across the country and its scalding corrosive steam was beginning to be felt. Our paper explored the convergence of education policy discussions across the decades and we presented it at a political science conference because it was as much about the intrusion of economic policy and conservative ideology in the education arena as it was education policy. The MPSA conference was an excellent venue for vetting our ideas. Instead of preaching to the choir, we were talking with scholars from other disciplines who could challenge us and help us in our quest to understand how we ended up in this place and time with the federal government driving education policy — something that has been traditionally considered a local issue or, at best, in the hands of state governments to decide.
One of our discussants at MPSA posed an interesting question, asking, “How do you explain the fact that conservatives have always been opposed to centralized federal government and yet it was a Republican president who brought us the most far-reaching federal education policies in U.S. history? How do you explain that?” “Aaaah,” We responded. “That is the question that drives our research.” Far from being definitive, our paper had opened up a number of questions that were not easy to answer. And so we continued to delve into our research.
By 2014, the Common Core State Standards had become a lightning rod in the U.S. and was driving an angry groundswell of dissenters on both the political right and left. While many conservatives were angry about the federal overreach in promoting a set of national education standards that were suspect by their very nature, many liberals were crying foul over the continued assault on public education and teachers, and an onslaught of standardized tests. And both sides were questioning the profit motive that was driving corporate influence in education policy.
The time was right to write The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy. In this book I try to answer the question posed at the Midwest Political Science Association conference several years earlier. While the key to understanding current education policy is acknowledging the powerful influence of conservative voices that have never missed an opportunity to criticize the very notion of public education since at least 1931 when Albert Jay Nock wrote The Theory of Education in the United States, to understand how these ideas became the wellspring of current education policy requires an examination of public policy in general. Conservative thinkers such as Nock and those who followed him, most notably free market economist Milton Friedman, were provided a national stage when President Reagan was elected. And while Reagan’s first order of business in the education policy arena was intended to be the abolition of the federal Department of Education, the publication of the erroneous, misleading, and factually wrong report A Nation at Risk created a heady atmosphere among Reagan supporters that their conservative ideas could finally form the basis of national education policy in the years to come. While ANAR did not immediately yield the fruit of their most cherished idea — vouchers and school choice — it did provide a platform for promoting the privatization of public education. And the inflammatory report did provide the impetus for dismantling our nation’s public school system by creating a crisis mentality and promoting the zeitgeist that all our public schools are failing. This zeitgeist has gone largely unchallenged, and when it was challenged in the early 90s with the Sandia Report, the administration of George H.W. Bush had the report buried so that it would never be publicly reported to the American citizens.
When a Democrat was elected as president, our nation had an opportunity to reclaim our nation’s public school system and celebrate the achievement of a nation that had for so long envisioned public schools as an arena for hope and equity. Acknowledging that schools serve and reflect communities and that there was still so much work to be done to overcome structural problems like poverty, income disparity, racism, and unequal funding for public schools that interfere with a child’s educational attainment, we could have embarked on an era of genuine reform — both socially and educationally. Instead, we placed our faith in Bill Clinton and understanding his public and education policies is essential if one is to understand the origins of the Common Core. He opened the gate, through his allegiance to the free market and his adoption of third way politics, to corporate leaders who took a place at the head of the table in education policies. And corporate leaders seized the opportunity with gusto. As a result, Bill Clinton became the architect of what would become No Child Left Behind, which would be skillfully named by George W. Bush to reflect the trademarked motto (“Leave no Child Behind”) of Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund.
Corporate leaders have been setting the agenda in education for several decades now. They do not act in a conspiratorial way. They were invited to the policy table and they have not left. No one blinked an eye when they openly declared that they envisioned the education arena as a way to make huge profits. They organized summits and conferences to plot their strategy. Corporate leaders and think tank executives move freely between governmental appointments and private enterprise to expand their influence. They act boldly and brush off any criticism about their actions because they can afford to do so.
A growing number of scholars have begun to acknowledge that governmental decision making in the U.S. has been corrupted by this third way of governance. Mike Lofgren calls it the Deep State, explaining the phenomenon on the Bill Moyers show. In deciphering the policies that have culminated in RTTT and CCSS, I think I now understand how we got here. The question now remains — how do we get out of here? How do we reclaim our public schools? A first step, I believe, is reclaiming local control over public schools. This we cannot surrender. A growing number of education critics are arguing that local school governance is the problem. We are seeing a growing trend in which entire school districts are being turned over to private management firms and the power of local school boards is being assaulted. It is only at the local level, with democratically elected school boards, that we can complete the work of reclaiming public schools and address problems inherent with faulty standards, curricula, high stakes testing, teacher evaluation, data mining, and the other toxic policies emanating from centralized authorities who long ago relinquished their responsibilities to corporations intent on using education policies as a way to make a buck on the backs of our children. School boards have the power to drive the money lenders from the temple. Of course, they must seize their power by collectively demanding that our elected officials restructure school funding so that school districts do not have to bow to the altar of state and federal officials to ensure that their children receive equitable funding for their public schools.
From P. L. Thomas:
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been a stalwart advocate for free market systemic education reform since the 1990s. Under the leadership of Chester Finn, the institute has built a strong coalition of organizations, think tanks, and allies from the private and public sector. Michael Petrilli assumed leadership of the institute when Finn stepped aside as president of the organization earlier this year. His work is supported by a host of partner organizations like ALEC, AEI and the Hoover Institute and a board of trustees that include luminaries such as former secretary of the Department of Education, Rod Paige.
I wasn’t surprised, therefore, that Petrilli wrote the following:
“Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.
This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.
It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.”
I am very glad Petrilli made these ideas public on the pages of the New York Times. While free market “choice” proponents have longed proclaimed that the key to their supposed success is the purported superiority of their educational approach, free market “choice” critics (see Emma Brown for detailed analysis of charter school practices in Washington D.C.) have likewise pointed out that any purported success of charter schools has more to do with the fact that they can “choose” their students and remove low-achievers and students they deem to be disruptive. Traditional public schools cannot simply remove disruptive students. They are required to “serve all comers” as Petrilli points out and are not able (or willing) to simply abandon children who bring to the education experience a range of problems. That charter schools are able to remove disruptive students is “a feature, not a bug” of the choice system.
This is certainly not a new proposition. It has been at the core of the free market choice movement. Consider, for example, a video of Chester Finn in 1996 at Georgia Public Policy Foundation. I post this video as a reminder to those engaged in resistance to corporate education reform that the issues we are grappling with are not new and did not begin with the Bush/Paige administration or the Obama/Duncan administration. In this brief video, Finn provides a great deal of insight into the agenda of the free market driven “choice”/charter school movement that would later become the RTTT policies that the public, whether on the political right or left, is currently living with — and resisting:
- On the issue that Petrilli addressed in his New York Times commentary, Finn explains in 1996 that the power of the charter school rests with the strength of their discipline policies, which are made clear to students and parents prior to enrollment.
- Finn positions local school board governance as a problem, praising cities like Chicago and Boston that had, by 1996, already turned governance over their schools to their mayors who had the ability to appoint members of the private sector to oversee public schools.
- In response to concerns about standardized testing and the practice of “teaching to the test,” Finn explains that there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test. All you need is a good test to teach to.
- Finally, and probably most importantly, in 1996 Finn explains that the free market of public education policy provides an excellent opportunity for the private sector to possibly “make a dime.”
While there is justifiable outrage over Petrilli’s missive about disruptive students and the power of charter schools to remove them from their rosters, this is certainly not a new idea. He is simply reiterating the Fordham Institute’s credo of privatization through free market principles in the education arena. One thing is certain about the corporate reform movement. They have remained true to their message and they have the power and money to continue their quest. Fordham Institute is well situated to remain at the table of policy discussions, with board members who have entered and exited the federal policy arena through the Department of Education. The policies they have long promoted are now the law of the land and, in fact, much more than a dime has been made by entrepreneurs seeking to expand their wealth through the privatization of the education sector.
Excellent post from Parenting the Core:
Just curious… does anyone else find this New York Times “Room For Debate” pieceby Michael Petrilli, president of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which ran under the headline “Charters Can Do What’s Best For Students Who Care,” as breathtakingly offensive as I do? What boggles my mind is that this man is a leading voice among the so-called education reformers. His honesty is, at least, honest, I suppose. Unlike the DFERs, at least he’s not out there shouting that access to charter schools is the new civil rights movement of our time. He’s not out there suggesting that charter schools don’t cherry-pick and weed out students. So there’s that. I guess.
Instead, Petrilli’s saying that the fact that tax-dollar-funded charter schools kick out large numbers of students is “a feature, not a bug.” And that when it comes to discipline, “[t]raditional public schools that serve all…
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As I ponder what the next phase of resistance to corporate education reform will or should be, I again turn to the insights of P. L. Thomas. I am reminded that one of the hallmarks of the corporate reform agenda is the destruction of local governance over school districts. In 2008, Gates’ forerunner as corporate reformer, Lou Gerstner, issued a clarion call for the elimination of local school boards and Matt Miller published an article for The Atlantic entitled “First, Kill All the School Boards: A modest proposal to fix the schools.” Indeed, the success of corporate reformers has been predicated on the notion that centralized governance over public schools is essential. In spite of a national campaign to portray all public schools as failures — a campaign that began in earnest during the Reagan years — Americans tend to be happy and supportive of the local public schools their children attend. Prior to the Reagan administration, federal education policies were situated within the understanding that local school governance was essential because local communities knew best how to meet the needs of the children their schools served. Federal policies were seen as a way to enforce civil rights laws and oversee funding to provide equity for underserved and marginalized populations in communities with inadequate local tax bases to support education. In the decades since the Reagan era, however, as free market ideology swept the land, the education sector was overtaken with corporate reformers who embarked on a feeding frenzy to capture any and all funds available to be harvested through systemic education reform initiatives. And funds ensuing from federal and state policies are easier to harvest than funds ensuing from local policies.
Thus, the thoughts of P. L. Thomas resonated with me as he discussed the Gandhian notion of non-cooperation. Thomas writes:
The goal of non-cooperation must include seeking ways in which to shift the priorities of the locus of power:
- First, the central locus of power in education is the student, situated in her/his home and community.
- Next in importance is the locus of power afforded the teacher in her/his unique classrooms.
- These must then merge for a locus of power generated within the community of the school.
- Finally, the locus of power in this school-based community must radiate outward.
Currently, the locus of power in education policy is at the federal level as the Duncan/Obama administration wields the levers of power over state departments of education. This is the crux of the dissention among those who are resisting corporate education reform. Defeating federal intrusion into issues of curriculum (strictly forbidden by federal law) is no easy task, however, given the acquiescence of federal policy makers to corporate think tanks and well-financed corporate lobby groups. This didn’t begin with the Obama administration. The current administration has merely brought us the fruition of a decades-long campaign to privatize our nation’s public school system.
How can we defeat the corporate machine? I would suggest that the next phase of resistance requires an emphasis on reestablishing the locus of control in our local public school districts that serve the needs of children and parents within communities. We are, according to Thomas, currently in phase 2 of resistance to corporate education reform. We are loudly proclaiming the failures of free market corporate-driven centralized education policies and we are being heard by some and, particularly, ourselves. But, while the Phi Delta Kappan poll found that most Americans are happy with their local schools, only a little more than one-third of Americans had ever heard of the Common Core. What does this mean for the corporate reform resistance movement? Clearly, we should be heartened that, in spite of the cacophony of declarations that they entire public school system is a failure, the majority of the American public is not buying the public relations campaign by corporate reformers. They believe their schools are fine.
Indeed, even some of the authors of A Nation at Risk, the document that is largely responsible for lighting the match that started our nation on its current path to the destruction of public schools, understood that the problems they cited with public schools were generally associated with inner city schools serving large numbers of students living in impoverished communities. What should have resulted from the National Commission on Excellence in Education was not an incendiary document declaring the entire education system as a failure, but a document that highlighted the excellent education the majority of students in America were receiving (the Blue Ribbon award program was ironically begun by the same administration to recognize these excellent schools). And the document should have served as the the impetus for fully funding War on Poverty initiatives to further infuse troubled inner city communities and schools with the resources they so desperately needed. Instead, the commission chose to ignore the realities of the lives of many students and the teachers who worked with them every day. They chose to ignore the systemic problems, like poverty and racism, our country had valiantly fought to overcome in the decades leading up to the Reagan administration. Rather, they were pleased with the celebrity they enjoyed as a result of the hyperbolic and misleading report they wrote and presented to the president and nation in 1983. As a result, our public schools have been immersed in a perpetual cycle of systemic and federally driven education reform initiatives, informed and driven in large part by corporate profit-motivated free market devotees.
The key, therefore, to resisting corporate education reform is reclaiming the rightful duty of local school districts to govern their community’s public schools. And the strength of our public schools is the communities they serve. Therefore, if we really understand the connection between socio-economic status and educational achievement then we will truly understand the next phase in the resistance movement. Education reform begins with social reform and social reform begins with communities. Public schools serve an important function for a community. They feel the pain when factories are closed and the economy suffers. They thrive when jobs that pay a living wage become available to citizens and the economy surges. In spite of everything else, schools are a source of pride for many, many communities across the U.S. Families flock to watch football under the “Friday Night Lights,” gather together for concerts and plays, collect “box tops” to purchase supplies, proudly attend high school graduations (and sometimes preschool and kindergarten graduations) and some parents attend school board meetings to make their voices heard. Parents and students anxiously await report cards and parent-teacher conferences and look forward to field trips and class parties. Public schools are so much more than generators of capital — financial or in the form of standardized test scores.
So, while we’re engaged in phase 2 of the resistance and making dissenting voices heard, actions that must continue, we must embrace our local public schools and fight for their right to survive under the governance of local school boards. Each person in the corporate education reform resistance movement lives, teaches, and/or learns in a community and, as Thomas rightfully points out, this is where change begins — first by empowering the student, then by empowering the teacher in the classroom and the community of the school. Finally, as locus of power is embraced within the school community, power can be generated outward. I would argue, too, that the power of the community will likewise embrace the power of the school as a place of hope and change in the lives of children.
Thank you, Daun Kauffman, for Danny’s story.