Two years ago, Margaret Spellings, George
W. Bush’s secretary of education, and Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of education, wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post lamenting the decline of public support
for the bipartisan consensus about education policy that began under Ronald
Reagan. Elected officials strongly supported a regime of testing,
accountability, and school choice, they wrote, but public enthusiasm was waning
due to a lack of “courage” and “political will.”They
were right. Elected officials, educators, and parents were rapidly losing faith
in the bipartisan consensus. For a decade, it had failed to produce any
improvement on national tests. Parents were opting their children out of the
annual testing mandated by federal law; in New York, 20 percent of eligible
students refused to take them. Teachers went to court to fight the test-based
evaluation methods imposed by Duncan’s Race to the Top. Communities from Los
Angeles to Philadelphia were complaining about the growth of charter schools,
which diverted funds away from public schools. A year after Spellings and
Duncan’s essay appeared, teachers across the nation, from West Virginia to
California, went on strike to protest low wages, low funding, and large class
sizes, issues that were ignored during the era of bipartisan consensus.What
went wrong? Why did the bipartisan consensus that Spellings and Duncan praised
fall apart? In their new book, historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer
Berkshire provide a valuable guide to the history and the politics of the rise
and fall of the bipartisan consensus. Theirs is indeed a cautionary tale,
because they show how Republicans and Democrats joined to support failed
policies whose ultimate goal was to eliminate public education and replace it
with a free-market approach to schooling. Betsy DeVos was publicly reviled for
her contemptuous attitudes toward public schools, but she was not an exception
to the bipartisan consensus: She was its ultimate embodiment. She was the
personification of the wolf at the schoolhouse door. Schneider
and Berkshire write that they began the book to answer “a puzzling question:
Why had conservative policy ideas, hatched decades ago and once languishing due
to a lack of public and political support, suddenly roared back to life in the
last five or so years?” Their prime example was private school vouchers, an
idea first promoted by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and rejected at that
time by Congress. Private school vouchers were not the only policy prescription
that was recycled from the ashcan of failed ideas. There was also “market-based
school choice, for-profit schools, virtual schools,” and deregulation. These
ideas were repackaged as innovative while their history and their conservative
ideological origins were obscured. True believers, intent on eliminating public
schools, built donor networks, cultivated political alliances, and churned out
ready-made legislation. A key element in this network-building was the
enlistment of billionaires who were enamored of free-market solutions and who
opened their wallets to persuade national and state elected officials to inject
competition and private-sector solutions into the public education system. Why had conservative policy ideas, hatched decades ago and once languishing due
to a lack of public and political support, suddenly roared back to life in the
last five or so years?The
assault on public education began with the Reagan administration’s 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which asserted that
the nation’s public schools were threatened by “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Inspired
by the report, many governors concluded that education was too important to be
left to educators, and they increasingly inserted their uninformed pro-business
ideas into the education policy agenda. Governors wanted more testing, higher
standards, and accountability for poor results. In 1989, President George H.W.
Bush convened the nation’s governors in a national summit to decide what to do
about the schools. Led by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, they adopted national
goals, such as “American students will be first in the world in mathematics and
science by the year 2000.” Nothing was said in the lofty statements about the
close correlation between student achievement and family income, nor was there
attention to funding the goals. None of the goals was met by the year 2000. What
remained, however, was the conviction that public schools were failing, a
perception that fed continual attacks on the schools and nurtured the growth of
a well-funded movement for school choice. Behind these spurious attacks on the
schools, write Schneider and Berkshire, was a “radically conservative vision of
schooling,” disguised by “banally familiar language.” Critics said that the
public school was modeled on the nineteenth-century factory and was hopelessly outmoded.
But “none of this is really true, of course. Schools were not modeled on
factories; student experiences in schools are not uniform; and most of today’s
jobs will, according to predictions, still exist a generation from now.”
Critics played to the anxieties of parents about their children’s prospects in
a rapidly changing economy. But parents were fooled by the ideologues into
believing that any innovation would be better than the public schools. This
wasn’t true, either. What the ideologues wanted was nothing less than “unmaking
public education as an institution.”Schneider
and Berkshire describe the four main principles of the privatization movement:
First, “education is a personal good, not a collective one.” Second, “schools
belong to the domain of the free market, not the government.” Third, “to the
extent they are able, ‘consumers’ of education should pay for it themselves.”
And fourth, “unions and other forms of collective power are economically
inefficient and politically problematic.”From
this template, they describe how the bipartisan consensus was created and how
it fed into the conservative agenda to privatize public schools. Bill Clinton
believed in privately managed charter schools, expecting that they would be
innovative and that competition would spur public schools to improve. In 1994, Clinton
started a $6 million federal program to help new charters get started; that
small program has grown into a $440 million annual subsidy to the charter
industry, whose major recipients now are corporate charter chains. Over the
years, the federal Charter Schools Program has been marked by frequent closure
of charter schools it funded, wasting more than $1 billion. George W. Bush’s No
Child Left Behind law, passed in January 2002, imposed annual testing from
grades three to eight on the nation’s public schools and threatened the closure of schools
with low test scores. So-called failing schools typically had large numbers of
low-income students, non-English-speaking students, and students with
disabilities. Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Duncan built their
Race to the Top program on the foundation of Bush’s NCLB law. In the depths of
the 2008–09 recession, Race to the Top offered states the chance to compete for
$4.35 billion if they opened more charter schools, adopted common national
standards (the Common Core), evaluated teachers by the test scores of their
students, and enacted plans to close or privatize low-performing schools.In
2015, Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind and renamed it the Every
Student Succeeds Act. NCLB was unsuccessful in “leaving no child behind,” and
ESSA was equally unsuccessful in making “every student succeed.” Republicans
knowingly enacted harsh and punitive programs whose ultimate goal was the
dismantling of public schools and their replacement by charter schools,
religious schools, homeschooling, for-profit schools, and virtual charter
schools. Betsy DeVos expressed these goals with clarity. Democrats never
endorsed vouchers, but they facilitated Republican goals by supporting charter
schools, which encourage consumerism and which are at least 90 percent
nonunion; Democrats also advanced the conservative agenda by endorsing high-stakes
testing on the mistaken belief that testing somehow advances equity and reduces
achievement gaps among racial groups. Twenty years of high-stakes testing has
demonstrated the falsity of that belief. Poor kids need to be lifted out of
poverty; they need medical care and nutrition, which would do more to improve
their school performance than a regime of annual testing.Free-market
ideologues, Schneider and Berkshire show, have kept up a steady stream of
“reforms” whose intent is to advance their assault on the schools. They have
demanded cost-cutting and pointed out that the biggest expense in education is
teachers’ salaries. Through right-wing think tanks and organizations like the
American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by right-wing billionaires
like Betsy DeVos and Charles Koch, they have attacked teachers’ unions,
professional colleges of education, and the teaching profession. They favor
groups like Teach for America that recruit recent college graduates who promise
to stay in the classroom for two years. ALEC is the favorite tool of the
free-marketeers. It counts some 2,000 state legislators among its members and
invites them to posh destinations, where they get copies of model legislation
to introduce in their states on behalf of vouchers, charter schools, and lower
standards for teachers.The
attack on the legitimacy of public schools seems to be coming from many
directions, but the reality is that the same small group of far-right
billionaires is in the wings, calling the shots. Schneider
and Berkshire review the A–F school rating system that was created in 1999 by
Jeb Bush when he was governor of Florida and has been adopted in more than 20
states. While it makes sense for consumers or the government to rate
restaurants, based on the food they ate and the service they experienced, it
makes no sense for government to give schools a single letter grade based on
test scores, which captures only a small part of what schools do and are
expected to do. The rating systems are intended to turn parents into consumers and
to justify a free market in schools. In addition to government ratings, many
businesses have sprung up to create a Zagat-style grade for schools, built on
the comments of students and families. These ratings are biased by the fact
that those most likely to comment are those who are most dissatisfied. The
attack on the legitimacy of public schools seems to be coming from many
directions, but the reality is that the same small group of far-right
billionaires is in the wings, calling the shots. Public schools, as the authors
write, are “a cornerstone of democratic life” and “a driver of social
progress.” They belong to the public. Schneider and Berkshire wrote the book as a warning to the
public about what was happening and a call for concerted action to drive the
wolf away from the schoolhouse door.
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