The inconvenient truth of education ‘reform’

Several important things happened in the education world in the last week. Here’s an analysis of why what happened matters, by Jeff Bryant, a marketing and communications consultant for nonprofits. He is a marketing and creative strategist with nearly 30 years of experience – the past 20 on his own – as a freelance writer, consultant, and search engine marketing provider. He’s written extensively about public education policy. This appeared on the Campaign for America’s Future website.

By Jeff Bryant

Events this week revealed how market-driven education policies, deceivingly labeled as “reform,” are revealing their truly destructive effects on the streets and in the corridors of government.

From the streets, we heard from civil rights and social justice activists from urban communities that school turnaround policies mandated by the Obama administration’s education agenda are having disastrous results in the communities they were originally intended to serve.

From the corridors of government, we were presented with irrefutable evidence that leaders driving the reform agenda are influencing public officials to write education laws in a way that benefits corporate interests rather than the interests of students, parents, and schools.

These events, in tandem, reveal an inconvenient truth of education reform that should make anyone who promotes these policies question, “Whose interests are being served here?”

The Message From The Street

This week, over 200 activists, community organizers, parents, and students from 18 cities across the US gathered in Washington, DC, to confront Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over widespread public school closures prompted by the Obama administration’s policies.

As reported by Huffington Post’s education reporter Joy Resmovits, “Members of the group, a patchwork of community organizations called the Journey for Justice Movement, have filed several Title VI civil rights complaints with the Education Department Office of Civil Rights, claiming that school districts that shut schools are hurting minority students.”

Although these school closures are often justified as necessary for budget reasons and declining enrollment, Journey for Justice activists unanimously placed blame for school closures on market-based “reform” polices.

Resmovits quoted Helen Moore, an organizer from Detroit, who called the current reform movement “tantamount to racism.” She said, “All the things that are happening are by design, by design, by design. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we’ll fight to the death.”

The “design” Moore likely referred to is the Obama administration’s “turnaround models” proposed for schools that don’t make sufficient growth in student test score results. These models, criticized from the get-go as lacking a research base and being too inflexible, became requirements for states and districts to receive federal grant money in the administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs.

The results of these punitive measures have been felt disproportionally in communities of underserved children – and especially among children of color.

In fact, the The New York Times article on the Journey for Justice confrontation referenced data from Action United, a Philadelphia-based group, showing that 80 percent of the students affected by the planned school closings in Philadelphia are black although the district’s enrollment is 55 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic.

That schools now being designated as “needs improvement” and targeted for closing on the basis of test data tend to be those schools struggling to teach high poverty children should not come as a surprise to anyone. The strong correlation of low test scores to low income is universally true in every country in the world. But that fact alone doesn’t explain why reform leaders chose closure – the harshest of the four turnaround models – as the remedy of choice.

What may be propelling that decision is another emphasis of the White House’s reform policies – the rapid scaling up of a competitive parallel system of charter schools.

Another representative from Philadelphia, Helen Gym, explained the role charter schools are having in school closures occurring in her city. On the website Common Dreams she is quoted, “Whatever your opinion may be of [charter schools], there’s no question that the District has failed to explain its inconsistent approach of allowing charter expansion without regard to expense or academic quality while insisting on draconian and widespread sacrifice among [traditional public] schools.”

In Chicago as well, parents and teachers have pointed out that districts are justifying school closures on the basis of budget and attendance as they lavish millions of dollars on brand new, unproven charter schools.

The damages of these reform policies are especially harmful to the individual lives of students. In a write-up of the Journey for Justice rally at The Washington Post, a student representative in the crowd, twelve-year-old Gavin Alston, whose Chicago school was closed last year, explained that he is having to be homeschooled because there is no longer a middle or elementary schools in his neighborhood, and he won’t cross gang turf lines to get to his reassigned school 22 blocks away. “I have been denied the right to a quality education,” Gavin said.

The same day of the Journey for Justice demonstration, the National School Boards Association released a statement decrying Duncan’s school policies. At her blog on The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss posted NSBA’s release which called federal reform policies “unnecessary and counter-productive federal intrusion.” The organization is proposing legislation that would “protect local school district governance” from federal demands that are not “educationally, operationally, and financially supportable at the local level.”

Revelations Of Corruption

At the same time that open dissent to education reform erupted from the street, a remarkable leak of emails by the nonprofit organization In the Public Interest revealed how leaders of the education reform movement have written and edited laws, regulations and executive orders in ways that improved profit opportunities for their corporate benefactors.

Public Interest’s release of the emails shows, quoting Valerie Strauss again, “how a foundation begun by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and national education reform leader, is working with public officials in states to write education laws that could benefit some of its corporate funders.”

Strauss explained:

The e-mails are between the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and a group Bush set up called Chiefs for Change, whose members are current and former state education commissioners who support Bush’s agenda of school reform, which includes school choice, online education, retention of third-graders who can’t read and school accountability systems based on standardized tests. That includes evaluating teachers based on student test scores and grading schools A-F based on test scores. John White of Louisiana is a current member, as is Tony Bennett, the new commissioner of Florida who got the job after Indiana voters rejected his Bush-style reforms last November and tossed him out of office.

 

Donald Cohen, chair of the nonprofit In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization and responsible for contracting in the public sector, said the e-mails show how education companies that have been known to contribute to the foundation are using the organization “to move an education agenda that may or not be  in our interests but are in theirs.”

Writing at the blogsite of The Nation magazine, investigative journalist Lee Fang delves into some details of the leaks:

What’s new in this release, however, is the revelation that Bush could be using his education reform crusade for personal gain.

In one e-mail from last year, Bush’s top aide at his foundation, Patricia Levesque, communicated with school officials to urge them to use a company called SendHub, a start-up that uses cloud computing and text messages. Bush, according to TechCrunch, has a modest “five-figure” investment in SendHub. Garrett Johnson, the founder of SendHub, previously worked for Bush and still serves on the board of Foundation for Florida’s Future, another Bush-run education nonprofit.

More details:

  • In New Mexico, FEE [the foundation set up by Bush] acted as a broker to organize meetings between their corporate donors and individual Chiefs [for Change].
  • Maine moved the FEE policy agenda through legislation and executive order that would remove barriers to online education and in some cases would require online classes – including eliminating class size caps and student-teacher ratios, allowing public dollars to flow to online schools and classes, eliminate ability of local school districts to limit access to virtual schools.
  • In Florida, FEE helped write legislation that would increase the use of a proprietary test (FCAT) under contract to Pearson, an FEE donor.

What’s worse than this blatant profiteering off taxpayer money is the fact that many of the education providers being pushed by the reform movement have an abysmal track record of service to students. Fang explains:

While the education tech industry has enjoyed a recent surge thanks to the policies enacted by Jeb Bush and his allies, there’s growing evidence that these privatized, proprietary charter schools are under-performing. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the virtual charter school policies peddled by FEE, the publicly-traded online charter school management company K12 Inc., has been cited in several studies for its abysmal performance. A report last year found that K12 Inc.’s students score between 14 and 36 percent lower than their non-cyber school peers. Only 27.7 percent reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress standards in the 2011 school year, which the National Education Policy Center notes,  compares poorly to the 52 percent average scored by brick-and-mortar schools.

The Inconvenient Truth Revealed

In the recent Presidential Election, both candidates proclaimed education reform to be “the civil rights issue of our time” – the very same words uttered by former president George Bush over a decade ago when he signed the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Over 10 years later we see how education reform mandates have played out – powerful corporate interests are mining new profit centers while poor children of color, who were the intended beneficiaries of reform, are getting stuck with the shaft.

Those whose only value is to “let the free market work” are doubtlessly content with this sistuation. But the inconvenient truth is that despite any stated intention to use education reform as a means to advance civil rights, the reality is that reform measures in their current frame are resulting in deep and pervasive civil wrongs.  And people still considering themselves to be allied with the noble cause of “education reform” need to either drop the pretension of being “for students” and “civil rights” or pause to reconsider “whose side are you  on.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 2, 2013