Republicans on the ropes? Not everywhere …

If you’ve been listening and/or reading at all about politics, you’ve surely heard folks (like Republican Joe Scarborough on “Morning Joe“) talk about how the Republican Party is in big trouble. On the ropes, even, put there by a tough-talking and tough-acting President Obama on issue after issue.

Except not in school reform. In fact, if there is one area where the Republicans and Democrats have worked somewhat in harmony over the past several years, it is in implementing standardized test-based accountability in public schools (which has exacerbated problems rather than helped). And even in areas where the parties don’t agree, the Republicans are having a great deal of success running over Democrats to get what they want in state legislatures, such as voucher programs in states such as Ohio and Indiana. Also expanding are K-12 tax credit programs, alternatives to vouchers that allow corporations and wealthy individuals to get tax credits for donating to organizations that supply the vouchers for families to pay for private school tuition.

Here, for example, is the start of an Associated Press story about how the Alabama legislature just passed a tax credit program:

Republican legislators on Thursday expanded a routine education bill to include tax credits for parents who move their children from failing public schools to private schools, prompting the state school superintendent to withdraw his support and a teachers’ group to assail it as “totally anti-public education.”

 

The revised version cleared the House and Senate, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats opposing it in unusually heated debate. Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said he would sign it into law, but state Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice dropped his support.

 

Georgia Republican legislators, meanwhile, are looking to expand the tax credit program the state legislature passed, despite the fact that the program has enormous flaws, and in fact won the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2012 “Black Hole Award”:

A 2008 Georgia law introducing the Qualified Education Income Tax Credit enabled taxpayers to divert over $125 million so far from the state treasury. The law allows for tax credits to support scholarships at private schools without tracking which schools or students get funding or disclosing publicly anything about how the state money is spent by private organizations. Now, after the amendments in 2011*, the law makes it a criminal offense to disclose virtually any meaningful information about the program to the public. Georgia’s law fails to hold anyone accountable for how they divert or spend tax funds. It does not track who is receiving scholarships under the program.

The Obama administration opposes vouchers — which use public money for private school tuition, including to religious schools that teach creationist notions that the universe was created no more than 10,000 years ago. But Republicans have been working for more than a decade to revive them, and now 12 states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs. In fact, the Republican leadership of the House got the White House to stand down on its effort to defund the voucher program in the District of Columbia.

It was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who passed No Child Left Behind in 2001 (with Democratic support) and ushered in the era of high-stakes standardized  testing. By the time Obama was elected, the notion that standardized testing should be a main focus of evaluation was so ingrained that his administration just expanded that thinking, linking teacher and principal evaluation to test scores.

Meanwhile, Bush’s brother, Jeb, the former governor of Florida, has emerged as a national education reform leader, pushing a number of states to adopt his corporate-based school reform ideas. They include test-based accountability for teachers, expansion of charter schools, cyber charters, vouchers, and a scheme to give A-F grades to every public school every year based on standardized test scores. Virginia just passed that A-F grading program (ignoring the problems it has caused in Florida and the fact that an independent study of the one in Oklahoma concluded that it was worthless).

Obama stood on a stage in 2011 in Florida with Jeb Bush at his side — at the same time that Wisconsin teachers were protesting to keep their collective bargaining rights that were being taken away by a Republican governor and legislature, and called him a “champion” of public education. Many critics of school reform were appalled to see Obama embracing Bush.

If you are going to tell me that Michelle Rhee, probably the best-known national education leader, is a Democrat, well, I’ll tell you that her lobbying organization, StudentsFirst, donated a great deal of money to elect candidates in states around the country last November, and the vast majority were Republican.

There’s more, but you get the idea. The Republicans haven’t won everything they want — they oppose, for example, the federal No Child Left Behind waivers that the Obama administration has given out — but still, they are anything but dead when it comes to school reform.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · March 1, 2013

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