Janresseger: As School Reform Devolves to the States, Public Schools Face Unrelenting, Far Right Opposition
The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed in 2002, embodied school reform premised on the theory of test-based accountability—the requirement of high-stakes standardized tests for all students and the application of sanctions for schools unable to raise test scores. The idea was that if you threatened schools with closure or threatened to turn them into charter schools or threatened to punish teachers if their students’ overall scores were low, you could make the teachers work harder and somehow raise an entire school’s test scores. It was an experiment whose proponents believed all children could be made proficient by 2014.
By 2013, those of us who support our nation’s public schools knew the experiment had failed. Even the Congressional supporters of No Child Left Behind knew it had not worked; they created waivers for the growing number of school districts unable to guarantee all students would be proficient in 2014. In 2015, when Congress reauthorized the federal education law as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new law reduced federal punishments, while it still required the states to test students every year and create plans to turn around low scoring schools. Test-and-Punish school reform did not end, however. Its remnants remained in the state policies that had been mandated by NCLB and Race to the Top and had been enacted in state laws.
Today after two decades, it is clear that overall test scores have not risen; neither has the stated goal of corporate school accountability—closing achievement gaps—been accomplished. Diane Ravitch explains that test-and-punish school accountability, “overlooks the well-known fact that test scores are highly correlated with family income and are influenced more by home conditions than by teachers or schools. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of public schools were closed because of their inability to meet high test score goals. All of the closed schools were in impoverished communities. Thousands of teachers were penalized or fired because they taught the children with the biggest challenges, those who didn’t speak English, those with severe disabilities, those whose lives were in turmoil due to extreme poverty.”
State politics has now, however, made it even more difficult to push back against the forces attacking public schooling. The federal legislation was designed to drive a test-and-punish agenda into the state legislatures. No Child Left Behind began by mandating testing and sanctions. Then Race to the Top bribed states to enact their own sanctions for low-scoring schools and punish teachers by tying their evaluations to their students’ test scores. And ESSA continued requiring testing all students and required states to devise turnarounds for the lowest scoring schools. While under No Child Left Behind and the early days of Race to the Top advocates across the states could collaborate nationally to push back against the federal policy itself, the school reform battle in recent years has devolved to the state legislatures which enacted the federal requirements idiosyncratically into their own laws. Right now we are watching the state takeover of the public schools in Houston, Texas and Oklahoma’s threatened takeover of the Tulsa public schools, at the same time we are watching the consequences ten years later of the closure in 2013 of 50 public schools in Chicago’s poorest African American neighborhoods.
Test-based, punitive school reform has also dangerously discredited the nation’s public schools. The school accountability movement created the concept of “failing schools,” persistently condemned the schools in urban America, and accelerated the drive for school choice and privatization. Twenty years of school reform has culminated in the vast expansion of school privatization in the form of vouchers. This year, 12 states—by my count, and I may have missed some—have enacted or significantly expanded state-funded private school tuition vouchers at the expense of public school funding: Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin.
Today’s problem is highlighted by Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive and columnist at the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff describes the Wisconsin Public Education Network, an extremely well organized state-level public school advocacy organization. She credits the organization with bringing, “people together from urban and rural parts of the state. Together, rural and urban districts hammered out a shared set of priorities and pushed for them in the Capitol. Although they didn’t get what they wanted in the budget, they showed unity of purpose in pushing for a big raise in the state reimbursement for ballooning special education costs and a $1,510 per pupil increase to make up for 15 years of budgets that haven’t kept pace with inflation.”
Members of the Wisconsin PEN are disappointed, disillusioned and frustrated because Governor Tony Evers signed a budget that expanded vouchers and failed to help the state’s public schools. Conniff quotes Heather DuBois Bourenane, Wisconsin PEN’s executive director: ” ‘We’re not here to cheer for crumbs… This budget did not deliver and will not adequately meet the needs of kids.’ It’s a ‘weird moment’ for public school advocates, DuBois Bourenane added, noting the conspicuous absence of Evers, a longtime ally, from the annual gathering of public education organizers. Evers has signed a budget DuBois Bourenane described as ‘disgusting,’ leaving 40% of school districts with less funding this year than they had under last year’s zero increase budget.”
The reality, however, is that the absolute power of the privatizers in the Wisconsin legislature put Governor Evers in a tough spot. Had he vetoed the budget as DuBois Bourenane and her coalition demanded, the legislature had promised to drive the fiscally struggling Milwaukee Public Schools into bankruptcy. Evers, a Democrat, couldn’t win this year due to the power of his gerrymandered Republican legislature. Like the Governor, one of the best-organized state, pro-public school coalitions was defeated by the power of the privatizers.
Conservative Republican state senators in Ohio may have compromised the future of public schooling by creating the same kind of no-win choice. Along with well organized public education supporters across the state, the Ohio House (including Republicans) prioritized fully funding the second step of a three-part phase-in of a new, equitable and adequate, state school funding formula. Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, the most powerful leader of the legislature’s gerrymandered Republican majority, refused to support the public school funding formula phase-in unless the House bought into his massive universal expansion of EdChoice vouchers. Since the budget passed in June, full vouchers have become available to all families up to 450% of the federal poverty level (an income level of $135,000). Above that income level families qualify for either a 50%, or 25% voucher, or even a 10% voucher for the state’s wealthiest families. What was the trade-off? Fund the phase-in of the public school funding formula along with universal vouchers, or give up on adequate and equitable public school funding. Ohio’s legislature expanded the vouchers and funded the school funding formula, but at the end of the day—with the final phase-in of the formula due to be part of the FY 26-27 state budget, Senate President Huffman declared that he isn’t sure the new public school funding formula will be sustainable in the long run. He didn’t question the sustainability of the massive voucher expansion.
Test-and-punish school reform has, for two decades, persistently undermined confidence in the nation’s public schools, but to understand the intensity and speed of today’s acceleration of the move to privatize schools, it is necessary to review economist, Gordon Lafer’s analysis of the political climate across a number of states following the Great Recession and 2010 Tea Party wave: “(A) series of events came together in 2009-10 that led to a dramatic upsurge in corporate political activity and created an unprecedented rush of corporate-backed legislation… Alongside this corporate political resurgence, 2010 was also marked by dramatic developments in both the fiscal condition and partisan control of state governments. Dramatic budget shortfalls in almost every state in 2009 and 2010—a follow-on effect of the worst financial crisis since the great Depression—created a political climate in which ideas that in better times might have been deemed too radical (such as abolition of collective bargaining rights) became politically feasible. At the same time, just months after the Citizens United decision, GOP strategists turned to newly unrestricted corporate coffers in order to launch the Redistricting Majority Project—‘RedMap’ for short—aimed at winning control of legislatures that would be charged with redrawing congressional districts following the 2010 census. This effort—funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, and ALEC member corporations—helped turn eleven new states all red, with Republicans controlling the governor’s office and both legislative chambers… Citizens United has led to a proliferation of vehicles for untraceable political spending, making it frequently impossible to connect the dots between corporate actors and legislative outcomes.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 37-39)
While some of the states that fell victim to ‘RedMap’ politics have become more balanced in the ensuing decade, many remain trapped by far-right gerrymandering. And, according to Lafer, public education is one of the prime institutions under attack: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)
While Lafer’s focus—in a book published 2017—was the growth of school privatization via charter schools, today’s explosion of school privatization is most often through the expansion of tax-funded, private school tuition vouchers. And while the supporters of privatization used to at least try to mask their effort to privatize education by claiming their goal was to expand opportunity for poor students, today’s privatizers are shameless. In Ohio, while poor families have been able to qualify for private school vouchers for over two decades, this year’s expansion of EdChoice vouchers is designed to offer vouchers to families with incomes above 450% of the federal poverty line—incomes at or above $135,000 per year. The new vouchers are an explicit entitlement for the wealthy.
Lafer explores rampant tax cutting for the wealthy that has from state to state accompanied the school privatization agenda, tax cutting that further reduces state budgets for public education. He concludes: “This, then, is the legislative agenda of the one percent—a concerted, coordinated well-funded attack by some of the richest individuals and most powerful corporations in the country. Its aims are to concentrate an ever-larger share of income and wealth in the hands of the most privileged, eliminate institutions that give working people leverage in the labor market, defund public services, lower expectations of what workers should be able to demand from their employers and citizens from their government, and shrink the reach of our democracy in order to lock in place unpopular policies and forestall a populist backlash.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 184)
For those of us who strongly support our nation’s public schools, it is all extremely discouraging. It is important, however, to consider what we are up against.
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