Where is the 'Middle Ground' in the Education Debate?
By the time that July slips slowly off the calendar, events this month -- culminating with an upcoming teacher/parent-organized march on the nation's capital -- will have clarified all too well the lay of the land in the debate on the fate of our nation's public schools.
And no, education is not "the new abortion," as was recently declared in this article by Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District. Although it's easy for journalists to characterize the edu-debate as a classic struggle between "two sides" who "just glare and shout" at each other, this is a gross over-simplification.
Even a good education reporter like Dana Goldstein can make this mistake, as she did in a recent blog post when she declared that resolving the conflict over education policy was just a matter of finding the "middle ground" between "contentious binaries," such as testing vs. no testing or "choice" vs. "rights."
The "school reform" debate as a narrative of two opposing picket lines or a point-counterpoint searching for a middle ground is not particularly clarifying because what's happening to public schools, in fact, is more like The Old Man and the Sea, in that a treasured public asset, a "big catch," is being relentlessly targeted by hungry sharks.
At least one shark in the debate is owning up to its motives. A faction of the Tea Party that operates in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania has openly declared its intention to get rid of public schools. In a recent article in TruthOut, Teri Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party and a leading advocate of passage of school voucher bills, states flat-out, "We think public schools should go away,’’ and, “Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only."
This is not just a point of view held by only the most extreme conservatives. As Zaid Jilani at Think Progress has documented, the purpose of many of the new school voucher programs advocated by edu-philanthropists and passed by state legislatures in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere is to "privatize our schools and kill public education."
Even Republican governors are jumping on the "kill public schools" bandwagon, most notably New Jersey's Chris Christie who has decided that privatizing public schools is the best way to go. And state legislatures are getting on the pro-privatization train as well, in part fueled by a legislative agenda drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization funded by the Koch Brothers and other corporate moguls to write and then ramrod through state government "model bills" that favor oil companies, big banks, and free-market fundamentalists.
University of Wisconsin-Madison dean of education Julie Underwood explains, in the following video, that the unifying principle behind the broad array of ALEC model legislation is to privatize public schools:
Different from this "get rid of public schools" crowd in the education debate is the "edu-business" faction. In states such as Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania, business interests are aggressively seizing control of education policy. Their mode of operation is to, at first, back calls for more "accountability" and "efficiency" -- usually through budget cuts -- for schools, and then, dangle in front of beleaguered educators new services and large sums of cash with strings attached. The idea is to "insist that in return for their support, educators will use new resources and tools to transform -- not merely subsidize -- public education." And where do these "new resources and tools" come from?
Just the other day, computer software behemoth Microsoft showed us just how this new dynamic works, when it announced that it was donated $15 million to an effort to "help kids learn via electronic games." Yeah, no conflict of interest there.
Now that, according to this source, "85.3 million people, more than a quarter of our population, are enrolled in or employed by a school or college" and "enrollment in K-12 schools is projected to set new records every year through 2019," it's easy to see why businesses, especially during a recession, would want to tap this market.
Edu-business poster boy Tom Vander Ark illustrates perfectly what's so wrong with giving sway to these public school profiteers. Vander Ark, a partner in both an education public affairs firm and a private equity fund focused on "innovative learning tools and formats," is a ubiquitous proponent of "blended learning." His continuous stream of tweets and Huffington Post diaries resemble slick marketing promotions promising to, literally, "change the world."
But a recent article in the New York Times provides a more real-world assessment of what Vander Ark can accomplish on the ground. Reporter Anna M. Phillips describes how Vander Ark "set his sights on the New York area, with a plan to create a network of charter schools," no doubt aligned with his aspirations for online "blended learning."
Yet, after spending more than $1.5 million, disrupting neighborhoods with an aggressive take-over of a public school building, and wooing 150 eighth-graders away from their neighborhood schools, Vander Ark decided he was dealing with "a worst-case scenario" and, like any good business operator would do, simply "walked away from the project."
As the failures of these edu-business pile up, local officials in New York City responded by rolling out the carpet to the next online learning huckster. Even our president is infatuated with the edu-business crowd, as indicated by the guest list at his recent education roundtable that included no educators and lots and lots of CEOs.
Last in the line-up of sharks schooling around our education system is a complex array of edu-philanthropists determined to mold public schools to their ideological, and often political, agendas.
In a definitive piece at Dissent, Joanne Barkan describes how "a few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels."
Barkan explains that a triumvirate of just three foundations -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation -- work in sync to impose on public schools an agenda of "choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making." Similar to the edu-business crowd, they prey on public schools starved for cash and attach significant strings to the awards they bestow.
A blatant example of how edu-philanthropists, in this case the Gates Foundation, impose their ideologies is this award of $500,000 to Future Is Now Schools, a charter school network formerly known as Green Dot, to "provide national support for the use of a scaled-down collective bargaining contract and to amplify the voice of reform-minded teachers."
But a more visceral example of this arm-bending was provided recently from another Gates Foundation recipient, Stand for Children's Jonah Edleman. Posting at BlueOregon, education activist Ken Libby describes how Edelman used the deep coffers of his foundation to strong arm ideologically driven legislation through the Illinois state house. Caught red faced on this video taken at an Aspen Institute presentation, Edleman's "palpable anti-union sentiment reverberating through his remarks" belies any previous claim to be "nonpartisan" and dedicated purely to the interests of the "children."
The following video presents a condensed version of how these edu-philanthropists "pay" only when their benefactors "play" by their rules:
So faced with this array of antagonists toward public education, where does the "middle ground" lie? When people openly admit they want to get rid of you, where should the bargaining start? When people have shown you they are more apt to use you for their own profit, and then walk away when the "market changes," why should you trust them? And when people say they are willing to align with your cause but only when you say and do things how they want you to do them -- even when your ideals inform you to do otherwise -- why should you simply bend to their will?
Before our country can even attempt to work toward a middle ground in the education debate, we have to establish where that middle ground is. First, with over 85 percent of our nation's school-aged children attending public schools, public schools will not go away. And insisting on getting rid of them is pure nihilism. Second, public schools cannot be run like businesses, our children are not widgets, and profit cannot be the driving motive for institutions whose mission is to provide all children access to quality education. And third, creating and administering public schools is a democratic process, and no actor in this process can be allowed to control it, no matter how much money they have.
Once we establish this middle ground, then we can all talk about how we work toward it. Until then, anyone who cares about public education should have as their first order of business to save our public schools.
[Full disclosure: I am involved in organizing the Save Our Schools March on Washington]
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