Lamar Alexander’s Old/New Ideas for Education Reform

Senator Lamar Alexander will soon assume leadership within the U.S. Senate on the committee that oversees public education.  It seems like a natural fit. After all, he served as the Secretary of the Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush.  He is also a former governor of Tennessee and former president of the University of Tennessee.  Kimberly Hefling explains his plans for updating No Child Left Behind.  With the Republicans now in a position to lead efforts in the education arena, Alexander has plans to address “excessive regulation of local schools by Washington. …”   He plans to address questions … “about whether all the federally mandated annual tests are appropriate and whether states should decide how to assess their students.”

Sounds good so far, right?  He seems to be offering a glimmer of hope to those who seek to ease the testing burden on America’s school children.  That’s a good thing.  But, beyond simply promoting the conservative cause of moving education policy decisions to the states and out of the firm grip of the federal government — and addressing questions about federal mandates and standardized testing — what can we really expect of Lamar Alexander?

To answer that question, all that is required is a look back at the education policies proposed by his former boss — President H.W. Bush.  And the answer is loud and clear:  choice, choice, choice — vouchers and charter schools.  In January, 2014, Alexander spoke at an American Enterprise Institute gathering and laid out his plan for education reform quite clearly.  If you want to know what his agenda for education actually is, watch the video.  You’ll think it’s 1992 all over again.  Here are some themes that emerge from his discussion at the conservative think tank gathering:

Lamar Alexander thinks:

  1. public schools are awful;
  2. local school boards operate a monopoly over education;
  3. the federal government should offer a GI Bill for K-12 school children (H.W. Bush’s failed legislative attempt to privatize education);
  4. K-12 schools should be a “marketplace” of choice;
  5. the legislature should provide an amount comparable to 41% of the federal money for K-12 education in the U.S. to pay for a voucher plan to send children to private or public schools of their choice.;
  6. it’s perfectly acceptable to invoke the plight of low-income children as a rationale to further efforts to privatize the public school system in the U.S.;
  7. it’s a good idea for schools, under choice and voucher plans, to simply kick kids out if parents question school policy.  Public schools can’t do that; they have to work with kids and parents to resolve problems (and Alexander apparently thinks that’s a bad thing);
  8. there is a price on the head of every child in America and, therefore,  he is surprised that there isn’t more competition to get the money children bring with them to the privatization arena in education.  Don’t they see the additional money children have, as Alexander explains, “attached to their blouse or their shirt?” – and –
  9. we should all believe that teachers in charter schools have more freedom to be innovative because the children they teach “choose” to be there.

So, let there be no mistake.  Lamar Alexander is not a champion of public schools in America.  He is a champion of free market policies.  He is a champion of corporate reformers who want to capitalize on federal dollars to use in their quest to make a lot of money in the education arena.  To be sure, Milton Friedman’s ideas are alive and well!  And, let me once again reiterate the last short paragraph in my book:

“For American citizens, if there is only one thing to remember about their public schools it is this: Public schools are not government schools nor are they corporate free market schools.  Public schools belong to the public.  Public schools are citizen schools, and it is now up to citizens to reclaim what is theirs!”

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