The Flipping of Education Policy: When Big Government Became a Good Thing and Local Control Became Bad

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.

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