Campaign for America’s Future: We’re Onto the Phony Education Reformers

2015 will forever be remembered as the year the political establishment was shaken by the populist-driven presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But it should also be remembered as the year another established order was forever altered by change, dissent, and revelations of its corruption.

For years, an out-of-touch establishment has dominated education policy too. A well-funded elite has labeled public education as generally a failed enterprise and insisted that only a regime of standardized testing and charter schools can make schools and educators more “accountable.” Politicians and pundits across the political spectrum have adopted this narrative of “reform” and now easily slip into the rhetoric that supports it without hesitation.

But in 2013 a grassroots rebellion growing out of inner city neighborhoods from Newark to Chicago and suburban boroughs from Long Island to Denver began to counter the education aristocracy and tell an alternative tale about schools.

The education counter narrative is that public schools are not as much the perpetrators of failure as they are victims of resource deprivation, inequity in the system, and undermining forces driven by corruption and greed. In other words, it wasn’t schools that need to be made more accountable; it was the failed leadership of those in the business and government establishment that needed more accountability.

The uprising has been steadily growing into an Education Spring unifying diverse factions across the nation in efforts to reverse education policy mandates and bolster public schools instead of punishing them and closing them down.

2015 became the year the uprising reached a level where it forever transformed the hegemonic control the reformers have had on education policy.

Most prominently, No Child Left Behind, the federal law that’s been driving education policy since 2001, was replaced with a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that reverses many of the edicts of NCLB or leaves them up in the air for states and courts to decide.

Also, comments made by establishment presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will reverberate through the election in 2016. Specifically, at a town hall held in South Carolina, broadcast by C-Span, Clinton responded to a question about charter schools by saying, “Most charter schools, I don’t want to say every one, but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest to teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them.” A week or so later, Clinton transgressed the status quo again by remarking, in a conversation with members of the American Federation of Teachers, “I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes. There’s no evidence. There’s no evidence.”

Organizations and individuals connected to wealthy donors to the Democratic Party were appalled, but the truth is out, and skepticism about education policy prescriptions touted as necessary “reforms” to the system has now left the fringe and become mainstream.

The bigger, more important story emerging from 2015 is that the American public is increasingly at odds with a reform movement that seeks to remake schools into an image promoted by wealthy private foundations, influential think tanks, and well-financed political operations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The evidence against the education establishment’s case piled up as the year rolled out, and the narrative of public education policy will never be the same.

Blows To The Testocracy

Take the issue of standardized testing. The idea that school improvement should be about enforcing uniform measures of test score outcomes across the nation had a particularly bad year in 2015.

As Seattle classroom teacher and public school activist Jesse Hagopian explains in an article for the National Education Association, standardized tests became the focal point of widespread scorn and dissent.

Over 620,000 public school students around the U.S. refused to take standardized exams. Also, numerous states ended high school graduation tests, and dozens of universities and colleges reduced or eliminated test requirements for their admissions process.

The backlash to standardized testing prompted changes in federal policy as well, including the revision of NCLB. As Hagopian writes, “ESSA deposes one of the cruelest aspects of the test-and-punish policy under NCLB: the so-called ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ annual test score improvement requirement that labeled nearly every American school failing.”

Also, as Hagopian notes, President Obama, acknowledging the growing resistance to testing, “announced in October that ‘unnecessary testing’ is ‘consuming too much instructional time.’ This announcement came as a surprise given Obama’s support for policies like Race to the Top that contributed to the proliferation of high-stakes testing. The reversal of rhetoric was a result of the mass opt-out movement and will surely embolden authentic-assessment activists in the coming year.”

“Pressure from parents, students, teachers, school officials, and community leaders began turning the tide against standardized exam overuse and misuse during the 2014-2015 school year,” declares a report from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest.org).

FairTest’s report highlights “assessment reform victories” in numerous states where officials suspended or significantly revised testing policies and created “alternative systems of assessment and accountability” that “deemphasize standardized tests.”

Think Progress, the action center of the left-leaning Beltway think tank, the Center for American Progress, reports on the overturn of the testocracy too in its review of “these education protests got results in 2015.”

Noting the growing opt-out movement in Colorado, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Wisconsin, the Think Progress writer highlights New York in particular, “where 20 percent of students opted out of tests in 2015. The number of New York students opting out quadrupled from [2014].”

Reform Is Losing The Left

New York in particular provides an example of how education reform may fare in the near future, at least in left-leaning states where leaders have been persuaded by big money donors to crack down on public schools and educators.

Led by state governor Andrew Cuomo and his former state education chief, now currently acting US Secretary of Education, John King, the Empire State had been a model for reform ideology, being among the first to implement the Common Core and its associated tests and pursing a harsh new model for evaluating teachers on the basis, 50 percent, of test scores.

But recently Cuomo made “a complete about face” on education, observes a recent op-ed in a New York press outlet. The writer – Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a progressive New York state organization – notes that Cuomo had made his test-based teacher evaluation system the “top legislative priority in 2015″and had claimed it was ”one of the greatest legacies for me and the state.”

But the evaluation system had angered teachers and parents and helped spur the test boycotts noted above. Seeing his public approval numbers plummeting, Cuomo engineered, according to Easton, a redo on the evaluation system that prompted the state education authority to place a moratorium on test-based teacher evaluations.

Easton believes Cuomo’s actions in New York are likely too little, too late – arguing, he has been “the author of his own demise on education issues.” That may be, but far more likely, other Democratic Party governors are bound to notice how reform policies like those carried out in New York have now lost the left and are rapidly growing out of favor with the public at large.

Of course, in states and districts where test-based teacher evaluations are already established in the policy landscape, teachers will likely feel the effects of these systems for some time. So the fight over teacher evaluations will go state by state in the years ahead.

But as new reports continue to call these flawed and unfair evaluations into question, there will be more examples of these systems being overturned.

Reform Fads Don’t Work

Using test scores to evaluate teachers – one of the pillars of the reform movement – is not the only policy idea going out of favor. Using the scores to evaluate the viability of local schools is running into more opposition as well

In Tennessee, also an early adopter of reform fads, leaders had put into place a system that used student scores on standardized tests to pronounce schools as “failing” and provide the rationale for the state to take over management of the schools by an appointed board. What follows these takeovers, invariably, is that the agency, whose officials are handpicked by conservative lawmakers, transfers the schools to privately operated charter management organizations.

In Tennessee, the state takeover agency is called the Achievement School District, but the model is being adopted under other guises by many other states.

Now Tennessee’s much-lauded takeover program has run into “political trouble” according to a recent article in Education Week.

Several Democratic state lawmakers,” according to the article, “will propose bills this upcoming legislative session to either shut down the turnaround district, which mostly is based in Memphis, or severely limit its authority to take over schools.”

The legislature’s Black Caucus, the representatives of the communities most often targeted by the takeovers, are helping to lead the pushback.

In Memphis, where the ASD has charterized over two-dozen schools, parents are leading the fight as well. As Chalkbeat Tennessee reports, members of the district’s neighborhood advisory councils have called the takeover process a “scam” and claimed the method for taking over their neighborhood schools “was rigged in favor of pairing struggling schools with charter operators.”

But the trouble with the ASD isn’t purely “political.” The takeover effort is also in trouble because it doesn’t work. The EdWeek article points to a recent Vanderbilt University study that showed district-led turnaround efforts had performed better than the the ASD. The study concluded, “Until the state-run district can begin to show academic progress, it shouldn’t be allowed to take over more schools.”

These events and others prove 2015 marks the year that standardized testing – and all its associated uses for unfairly judging teachers and schools – has now become a policy pariah. So what will reformers rally around now?

A Year Of Charter School Scandals

For sure, charter schools provided reform fans with some cause to celebrate in 2015, as more than 500 new public charter schools opened during the school year, enrolling nearly 3 million students nationwide, according to charter industry reports.

As a recent report from a consulting group that works with the charter industry found, 2015 was a year in which charter schools reached impressive new benchmarks. These schools are now the most rapidly growing form of schools in America, with enrollments expanding by an average of 12-13 percent annually over the past 10 years. Charters now educate one in 16 children nationally and, in a number of big cities, now rival traditional school districts as the major provider of public education. Three of the nation’s five largest cities enroll more than 20 percent of their students in charter schools.

What’s growing particularly rapidly are large charter school chains that have expanded at roughly twice the pace of the charter industry overall, increasing their student enrollments by 25 percent annually.

But charter school expansions come with a significant negative to the reform movement. As the numbers and influence of these schools grow so do the scandals associated with them and so do the divisive fights in communities where these schools are proliferating.

The scandals and malfeasance associated with charter schools rose to levels in 2015 beyond what emerged in 2014.

Early in the year, a report from the Center for Popular Democracy looked at charter school finances in Illinois and found “$13.1 million in fraud by charter school officials … Because of the lack of transparency and necessary oversight, total fraud is estimated at $27.7 million in 2014 alone.”

One example the CPD report cited was of a charter operator in Chicago who used charter school funds amounting to more than $250,000 to purchase personal items from luxury department stores, including $2,000 on hair care and cosmetic products and $5,800 for jewelry.

In April, another report from the Center for Popular Democracy, along with the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), uncovered over $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.

Authors of the report called $200-plus million the “tip of the iceberg,” because much of the fraud “will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud.”

Then in October, the Center for Media and Democracy published a new report revealing the federal government has spent over $3.7 billion in taxpayer money on charter schools with virtually no accountability for the funds.

According to the report, the federal government, state governments, and charter authorizers have generally not provided the public with ready information about how federal funds for charters has been spent. Attempts to trace federal grant money to recipients are apt to encounter “substantial obstruction” from states reluctant to reveal how charter money is spent and how state government handles charter oversight.

The report contends, “Unlike truly public schools, which have to account for prospective and past spending in public budgets provided to democratically elected school boards, charter spending is largely a black hole.”

In Michigan, for instance, where four out of five charters are run by for-profit management companies, CMD found “ghost schools“ which had received millions in federal funding but either never opened or were quickly closed with no account for the money. Some charter operators in the state have been accused, and convicted, of crimes, including felony fraud and tax evasion. But most often, no perpetrators of the malfeasance are brought to justice.

Interspersed among these massive reports are news stories from local press outlets, too numerous to count, about charter school frauds, financial and academic, that boggle the mind in their outrageousness.

In May, an Ohio paper began its news story about Ohio charter schools, “No sector – not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals – misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.” Reporter Doug Livingston wrote, “State auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation.”

Charter school malfeasance in the Buckeye State has gotten so bad it’s even drawn the attention of FBI investigators.

More recently, Florida press outlets reported the state has given about $70 million to charter schools that later closed and returned virtually none of the money to taxpayers. While the state is able to recover computers and other equipment these schools purchased with taxpayer money, the far more substantial costs for purchasing and improving property and making lease payments, stays in private pockets after the schools close.

Why Charter Schools Won’t Save Reform

Scandals will continue to dog charter schools because of the way they are organized and operated. As a recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center explains, the very structure of the charter school business introduces new actors into public education who skim money from the system without returning any benefit to students and taxpayers.

In one of the more bizarre schemes the authors examine, charter operators will use third-party corporations to purchase buildings and land from the public school district itself, so taxpayer dollars are used to purchase property from the public. Thus, the public ends up paying twice for the school, and the property becomes an asset of a private corporation.

In other examples, charter operators will set up leasing agreements and lucrative management fees between multiple entities that end up extracting resources, which might otherwise be dedicated to direct services for children.

These arrangements, and many others documented in the brief, constitute a rapidly expanding parallel school system in America, populated with enterprises and individuals who work in secret to suck money out of public education.

Meanwhile, charter expansions continue to be met with increased community resistance wherever they roll out.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Jefferson County Colorado, and across South Florida, every new charter school expansion is now met with fierce opposition from the community.

As the Los Angles Times reported in September, a plan devised in secret by a billionaire and his foundation would pay for the capital costs and lobbying to force through a plan to convert as many as half of the city’s schools into charters. The community has responded with outrage.

In what is likely to be an important legal precedent, the supreme court of the state of Washington found that charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren’t truly public schools.

Now calls for charter school moratoriums are becoming practically ubiquitous in state legislatures and local district school boards.

The mounting controversy surrounding charter schools is a strong indicator that if education reform proponents collect all their policy eggs in the basket of “school choice,” they are missing the main reasons for why their movement is spurring increased resistance.

What Reform Fans Don’t Get

Indeed, resistance to the education reform agenda is not as much a rejection of its various policy features as it is a rejection of the philosophy that drives it.

This philosophy puts little stock in democratic governance of schools, believing instead that really smart people, armed with the right data and algorithms are what it takes to determine education policy from New York to Nevada.

This core philosophy makes infinite sense to folks with backgrounds in law, business management, finance, or economics but tends to rub educators and parents the wrong way because of its failure to acknowledge teaching and learning are primarily relationship-driven endeavors and not technical pursuits.

To teachers, it makes about as much sense to base their actions exclusively on a data set or a marketing principle as it would be for husbands and wives to conduct their marriages on that basis or for parents to raise their children that way. Sure, knowing some objective “things” about how students are doing is important, but there’s way more important stuff to attend to.

And parents will grow ever more skeptical of the false promise of “school choice” because it doesn’t deliver what they really want: the guarantee of good neighborhood schools that are free and equitable to all children.

But too few reformers get this. Instead, what we can expect in 2016 is the current education establishment to use the considerable financial resources at its disposal to mount yet more marketing and public relations efforts, while the pushback from grassroots public education advocates will grow even stronger, and political leaders will be increasingly pressured to decide where they stand.

 

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He has written...