School Choice, Vouchers, and Charter Schools are OFF THE CHAIN!!!

This coming week will see the “Nation’s Largest-Ever School Choice Celebration.” With the ESEA reauthorization process firmly underway and charter school funding largely undebated and undiscussed as a failed experiment by federal policy makers, clearly a celebration is in order for free market devotees and corporate/entrepreneur ed reformers.  Sure, Lamar Alexander is hailed as a hero for holding congressional hearings to discuss the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, but he and his cronies are are very pleased to divert attention away from the big grab for the privatization of public schools.

January 23-31 is now officially, albeit self-proclaimed by school choice/charter advocates, National School Choice Week:

“The largest celebration of school choice in US history will officially start on Friday, January 23, 2015 at a special event in Jacksonville, Florida.

National School Choice Week 2015 will kick off at the Florida Theatre at 12:30 pm on January 23. The event is the first event of an unprecedented 11,082 independently planned and independently funded special events taking place across all 50 states during the Week, which runs until January 31, 2015.

The goal of the Week is to shine a positive spotlight on effective education options for children, and to raise awareness of the importance of, and benefits of, school choice in a variety of forms.”

Headliners for the School Choice Week kickoff celebration include Senator John McCain and Vice President Joe Biden’s brother, Frank, along with other notables from well-funded charter school organizations and we can look forward to a dizzying 11,000 events across the country.

Milton Friedman would be so proud.  What an absolute testament to the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. This is the fruition of all they hoped for in education policy for the U.S.  We can thank Reagan for making Friedman’s voucher concept politically palatable in our country when he substituted the term “school vouchers” to the more benign term “school choice.”  H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama, would continue to promote school choice through charter schools — attaching all the accoutrements of equity, civil rights, and education excellence to the p.r. campaign to the American public — while stripping away the democratic intentions of local school governance.  The free market of education policy is the clear winner.  The private sector is celebrating and planning their next strategy for grabbing the tax dollars that students carry with them into the schoolhouse door and the federal grants that will help create more and more charter schools.  And now they’ve claimed a national week of celebration.  Presidents get a day to honor them; Martin Luther King gets a day; labor gets a day; there’s one 4th of July; but — school choice advocates have proclaimed an entire week.  The dog is off the chain!

 

Charter Schools and the Domino Effect

Two items caught my eye this week.  The first was a news item about proposed legislation in Wisconsin that would require traditional public schools with low test scores to be closed and converted into charter schools.  The second was a posting by Gene V. Glass entitled “Cream Rises to the Top in Charters?”

School choice and the charter school movement is a failed experiment on our nation’s school children.  Enough time has elapsed now and enough data has been gathered to demonstrate that this is a failed experiment in the quality of education in the U.S.  However, it has been a huge success for corporate free market education reformers.  So, while our nation’s children and local communities are the ultimate losers in this grand venture, hedge fund managers and entrepreneurs are the ultimate winners.

As Gene Glass explains, “Charter schools have long been known for their filtering out at the admissions stage of students who might require special services or who might lower their test score average.”  In short, “choice” and charter schools are not so much about children and families choosing schools, but about charter schools choosing the students who can bolster their bottom line, increasing their capital in the form of higher test scores that will add to their brand and keep them in business — with a steady stream of income from the tax dollars citizens pay for public education.

The impact of Wisconsin’s proposed legislation would be extremely beneficial for the free market of education.    In essence, this legislation will have a domino effect on public schools and hasten their demise and the unity of the local communities these public schools serve.  If passed, the legislation would require that “persistently low-performing public schools would be turned into charter schools.”  In other words, low performing public schools would disappear, never to be improved and never to return to the democratic public sector.  There is no indication that low performing charter schools would be converted back into traditional public schools.  Rather, they would most likely merely be turned over to another charter school operator.

The impact could be devastating for public education because inevitably and by design, once opened, each charter school would begin the process of weeding out low performing and special needs students.  And where would they go? To the remaining traditional public school.  Of course, then, the student population of the public schools would shift as they accommodate more and more of the poorer performing students and students who require more services in order to be successful.  Their test scores are likely to go down — not because they are not good schools and not because their teachers are ineffective, but because they are doing what all public schools should be doing — trying to meet the needs of all students.  But, eventually, these remaining public schools run the risk of being deemed failures as their test scores decline.  And then, of course, according to the proposed law, they will be turned into a charter school — which will again further weed out the low performing and special needs students.  This is the domino effect.  One by one, public schools will fall.  A fait accompli for the private sector.

And what about standardized testing in this brave new world of privatized education?  Will student achievement rise across the nation?  Will our students’ scores top the list on PISA tests?  Of course not.  But, hedge fund managers and entrepreneurs aren’t so much concerned about that 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.

The Fordham Institute Credo: Disrupt Public Education by Removing Disruptive Students from Charter School

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Next Phase in Corporate Education Reform Resistance, Part 2

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.

Jeb Bush: Another Friedmanomic Devotee Redefines Public Schools

“The situation is wholly different with a socialist enterprise like the public school system, or, for that matter, a private monopoly.”  Milton Friedman

Jeb Bush is officially thinking about running for president. And, in case anyone is wondering, he has provided a video outlining his education policy agenda. Andrew Cuomo and Jeb Bush have one essential idea in common. They both think public schools are a monopoly and both want to bust that monopoly. Milton Friedman began his assault on public schools in the 1950s with his assertion that public schools were a socialist enterprise and the only solution was to privatize education and use public tax dollars to send children to private enterprise schools.

Jeb Bush has lost his patience. He just hasn’t seen the change he thinks is necessary in our education system. Of course, corporate reformers have been saying that for years. In 1995, former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner spoke at the National Governors Association and excoriated the governors for their lack of progress in education reform since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. What was needed, according to Gerstner, was “a fundamental, bone-jarring, full-fledged, 100 percent revolution that discards the old and replaces it with a totally new performance-driven system” (in chapter 5, Origins of the Common Core). Lou Gerstner’s impatience brought us the Palisades summit of gubernatorial and corporate CEOs in 1996 — the birthplace of Achieve (who would bring us the CCSS).

Free market corporate reformers, like Andrew Cuomo, Lamar Alexander, and Jeb Bush know all too well that in order to completely free marketize our education system, we must be in a perpetual state of reform.  They also know that democracy impedes privatization efforts. Both Lamar Alexander and Jeb Bush asserted that local school boards represent a monopoly. Corporate education reformer Lou Gerstner would agree. In 2008, he proposed abolishing all local school districts, “save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities).”

It does seem incongruent that the education policy of a purported Democrat like Andrew Cuomo would be so aligned with long time conservative Republicans like Lamar Alexander and Jeb Bush. However, as I explain in my upcoming book, we have been, at least since the Clinton administration, making policy through a third way of governance — in which corporate leaders are invited to the policy table to facilitate policy making decisions.

In New York, Zephyr Teachout and Mohammad Khan explain in a white paper how corporate free market rich billionaires are subverting America’s democratic process in their efforts to dismantle America’s locally controlled public schools, stating, “The 2014 effort, a kind of lightning war on public education, is important for many reasons: it is hasty and secretive, depending on huge speed and big money, and driven by unaccountable private individuals. It represents a new form of political power, and therefore requires a new kind of political oversight.”  This document is must read because it clearly demonstrates how corporate and governmental mutualism on a national scale impacts an individual state.

On a national scale, the efforts of these free market corporate reformers, cloaked in the disingenuous façade of saviors to American democracy, however, have not been all that secretive.  Rather, these reformers up to now have often been simply operating below the radar of public – and most importantly – media scrutiny.

What these corporate reformers and their political operatives are doing is first and foremost an exercise in distorting the democratic nature and definition of locally controlled public schools.  They do this by perversely explaining that America’s locally controlled public schools are actually a monopoly.  However, this is a distortion of history to the extreme.  As Diane Ravitch points out, America’s institution of locally controlled public schools actually reflects the true essence of American democracy.

Radically changing the historic definition of public schools and ignoring the true democratic nature of these schools is the height of chicanery.  However, all citizens who support America’s institution of public schools need to realize that this political ploy when used by individuals such as Jeb Bush, Andrew Cuomo, and a raft of others such as Lamar Alexander, is essential in realizing the education agenda of corporate free market education reformers.

 

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!”

Follow Deborah Duncan Owens on Twitter.

Walton Family: Don’t Worry about Walmart Employees — Just Focus on Free-Marketizing our Public School System!

Chris Lubienski shared an article in Forbes Magazine via Twitter about one of Sam Walton’s grandchildren who has made charter schools and the free market privatization of public schools her mission in life.  And she certainly has the financial resources to have a strong impact.  Carrie Walton Penner is the daughter of Wal-Mart company chairman, Rob Walton, and is an heir to the largest family fortune in the entire world ($165 billion — and I’m sure growing).

Of course, the Walton family would like for the world to ignore all the problems and lawsuits associated with their chain of retail stores.  Workplacefairness.org documents Wal-Mart’s dubious employee practices.  But that’s okay.  The Waltons are going to save our public schools through free market strategies and competition between charter schools and traditional public schools.  Maybe Carrie Walton Penner can invite all the governors and and big CEOs to Arkansas to set an agenda for our next phase of systemic education reform — like IBM CEO Lou Gerstner did at his headquarters in Palisades in 1996!  That meeting brought us Achieve — future creators of the CCSS.


Follow Deborah Duncan Owens on Twitter.