ESEA Reauthorization – Beware – What’s on the Table and What’s under the Table

I’ve been watching the heated debate about the ESEA reauthorization process and standardized testing.   The joint statement by the AFT and the Center for American Progress is clearly problematic for those who want to end the onslaught of testing in public schools and represents an about face of the AFT.  And the call for maintaining standardized testing as part of the reauthorized ESEA by civil rights groups has the potential to thwart efforts to minimize our country’s obsession with testing and data.  I’m not surprised by these actions.  The same things occur whenever federal education policies have been debated.  One thing is consistent, however.  Over the years, the monied lobby groups tend to prevail — not because what they seek is good for children, but because federal policies represent a whole lot of capital that can be exploited and used to increase the coffers of the private sector.  

It’s a good thing that Congress will hold hold hearings to discuss standardized testing.  At least there will be an official record of the concerns of citizens about the abuse of standardized testing and its impact on children, teachers, schools, and public education.  It’s a good start.  However, the AFT and the civil rights coalition have supplied corporate education reformers with a rationale for maintaining standardized tests as a key component of ESEA.  By framing the discussion about testing as an issue of equity, and by invoking the NCLB mantra of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” the path for maintaining standardized testing is made clear — whether or not that path is paved with good intentions.  And never forget that standardized testing has proven to be very lucrative for free market corporate education reformers.  

But the conversation about standardized testing is on the table, visible for all to see.  There are, however, other ESEA policy issues at stake, too.  One education policy issue that will survive is the promotion of charter schools and funds for starting charter schools.  And that’s a good thing for the corporate education privatization movement.  I would argue, that they embrace the rancorous discourse regarding standardized testing because it takes the focus off of their real motive — privatization.  As I explained in a recent post about the domino effect and charter schools:

“… hedge fund managers and entrepreneurs aren’t so much concerned about [ academic achievement] in spite of their catch phrases, advertising slogans, and cliches.  They just want more charter schools full of students that bring with them a hefty sum of tax dollars.  I have a feeling that once charter schools dominate in the education sector, standardized test scores will become less consequential.  The Republican legislature is already hinting at a move to lessen the emphasis on standardized testing.  That only makes sense when you think about it.  Standardized testing is not demonstrating the superiority of charter schools over public schools.  So, standardized tests are less appealing than they were in the years leading up to NCLB, when choice proponents were convinced that public schools would be shamed into closing when they had to compete with charter schools.”

I fear that there is another big issue that the public is not aware of that is at stake in the ESEA reauthorization debate.  According to David DeShryer of Whiteboard Advisors,  “Sen. Lamar Alexander’s discussion draft bill provides new supplement, not supplant language that may have significant implications for the education market.”  To be clear, Whiteboard Advisors is in the business of promoting entrepreneurship in the policy arena.  Its co-founder is Ben Wallerstein who once served as an aide to David Kearns — the former Xerox CEO who worked with Diane Ravitch at the Department of Education under George H.W. Bush during the era in which choice, school vouchers, and charters gained solid footing as a potent education reform mechanism.  Whiteboard Advisors is a go-to source for business as a way to monitor federal and state governmental policies that favor their profit interest.  DeShryer explains how Lamar Alexander’s proposal for ESEA reauthorization would benefit private interests.  Title I funds, intended to “serve at-risk students in schools with concentrations of poverty,” could be tapped without oversight or accountability.  Alexander’s proposal “says that no district would be required to identify individual costs or provide specific services through a particular instructional method or setting in order to demonstrate compliance.”

DeShryer further states:

“The importance of the change cannot be overstated. Today, unless a school is operating a “school-wide” model, the test to ensure compliance is rather fact specific and burdensome – a gift to auditors and attorneys. That changes under this bill. A district need only to show that the methodology of getting state and local funds to its schools is clear and transparent enough to ensure that Title I funds are not used to supplant state and local dollars. Under that test, it does not matter if an innovative digital learning program benefits Title I eligible students and all other students in the district. It does not matter that the service can both address core instruction and remediation. These factors are not relevant to the founding formula compliance test, and this opens up the market and makes innovative school leadership much easier to realize.”

This has huge implications for schools, teachers, and, most importantly, students.  Congress is throwing a party, in the form of congressional hearings, to discuss standardized testing in the spirit of democratic and transparent discourse — setting the table for the issue they are willing to put on the table for discussion.  However, what is most important is what is going on under the table.  While invoking the equity argument to maintain standardized testing, what the AFT and the civil rights groups are not discussing is the fact that Lamar Alexander’s proposal for ESEA reauthorization could, in fact, deprive the students, who need Title I funds the most, of the resources they need to be successful.  An unfettered free market of education would certainly benefit one group the most — the businesses who market their services and wares to public schools.  Cha Ching!!!

Remembering Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney

Today Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney will be posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In 1964, when these three young men traveled and worked in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, I was too young to know what Freedom Summer was about or to understand how important the events that unfolded in Mississippi that summer were to our nation.  When I moved to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the early 90s, I found myself immersed in life in a town that embodied the historical southern ethos of tradition, hospitality, and charm.  However, there was a troubling and dark history associated with the town as well.  This was the town made famous by the movie “Mississippi Burning” and, while the movie was in many ways fictionalized, it did portray the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney that dark summer in 1964.  I read two books during my first month in Mississippi.  The first was We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray.  The second was Witness in Philadelphia by long-time Philadelphia resident Florence Mars.

I raised three young children in Philadelphia and taught in the local elementary school for several years.  I remember being surprised that so many of its young residents knew very little about its legacy in civil rights history.  And how many Philadelphians would not speak of its dark past.  But I did meet a group of folks who wanted to confront the legacy and rectify a profound misdeed on the part of the state of Mississippi.  You see, when Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were brutally murdered in 1964, the state refused to bring murder charges against the KKK.  The federal government brought several of the criminals to trial for violating the Freedom Summer workers’ civil rights and there were some convictions.  However, Mississippi refused to do hold anyone accountable for their murders.  That is until a group of Philadelphians formed a coalition and worked diligently to bring about what some thought would never happen.  In 2005 Edgar Ray Killen went on trial in Philadelphia and was convicted of being the KKK ring leader who orchestrated the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney.  I felt honored to be there during this momentous and historic moment.  I was honored to become acquainted with Susan Glisson, Director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.  And I was honored to be able to work with the institute in 2005 to organize a summit for educators that coincided with the trial at Philadelphia High School, just blocks from the courthouse.

This period in my professional and personal life solidified my resolve to focus my energies on issues of social justice.  Now that I am a teacher educator, I want to ensure that my students understand what’s most important — the lives of the children they will teach.  I want them to understand that you can’t simply talk about education reform without talking about social reform and I want them to understand that the struggle still continues.  Andrew Goodman’s brother, David, wants to ensure that the work continues and that his brother’s legacy will never be forgotten.