How The Right Wing Schools Education Reformists

Jeff Bryant

Now that No Child Left Behind has become the butt of popular ridicule, and the prospect of forging a new consensus on education policy in DC seems doubtful, you would think that everyone currently clamoring for education “reform” would step back, take a deep breath, and question where our national education policy is heading.

But that’s not what’s happening in DC these days, where the bottoming-out of NCLB should leave leaders contrite and open to other ideas. Instead, Beltway politicos continue to play the same game.

Last week, right-wing Republicans in the Senate took the opportunity to introduce a new bill to give states more leeway in how they spend federal funds allocated for education. The main impetus of the bill, called “The A-Plus Plan” (continuing in the same branding scheme of “No Child Left Behind”), is to somehow “make states more accountable” for the achievement of disadvantaged students by freeing them of any accountability for how they spend money allocated for disadvantaged students.

On the other side of the aisle, Senator Kay Hagan (NC, D) went on the road with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to champion her new bill, called “The School Turnaround and Rewards Act” (Republicans are so much better at branding), that would double-down on federally enforced mandates by targeting the “bottom 5 percent of schools in each state” with punitive measures that generally entail firing staff and eventually can lead to turning the schools over to private management.

Neither of these new bills makes any sense.

What the Republicans are pushing for is completely in denial of the fact that spending requirements specified by the federal government, in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, were created because so many states, particularly in the south, have a history of denying disadvantaged students access to the same quality of education that their better-off peers enjoy. The bill’s seemingly tough-sounding requirement for participating states “to meet their performance objectives” is utterly undone by its loophole for “alternative accountability systems.”

The plan from Democrats is equally illogical.

Why the “bottom 5 percent?” Why not 2 percent or 10 percent? Why in each state? Why should the bottom 5 in Massachusetts, where schools tend to be better performing, be submitted to the same requirements as the bottom 5 in Mississippi, where schools are more apt to struggle? How would the schools be put into the bottom 5? By the same test-score requirements of NCLB? What else is there? And what is the basis for the “turn-around models” being proposed as remedies for low achievement? Where is there any precedent that these have actually worked?

But logic is not the point here. As Education Week’s Alyson Klein slyly notes, the Republican measure is nothing but a retread of previous proposals to “get the feds out of the business of K-12 education,” a long-standing goal of conservatives. Similar to “vouchers,” this is nothing but a reprise of old ideas that the public has generally held in contempt.

The school reform crowd was correct to quickly condemn the Republican proposal. But notice how reformists continue to push, in the form of “accountability measures” specified in the Democrat proposal, ideas that would have been held equally in contempt years ago. Back when NCLB was created, conservatives were pushing the very same plans for “getting the federal government out of education” and using vouchers to put money earmarked for public schools into private hands. But who would have dared to propose what school reformers are proposing today: that struggling schools should be punished with measures that could eventually lead to take-over by private management.

Does this mean that the right wing has stalled and reform-minded Democrats are advancing an agenda of progress. Hardly. What’s actually happening in the education debate is that while reform enthusiasts continue to babble a weird and technocratic message about rescuing poor kids, right-wing Republicans continue to press their game and score points.

Just consider that back when NCLB was created, conservatives got reform-minded Democrats to accept the notion that public school teachers were “accountable” for how poor kids perform on standardized tests. Now everyone widely accepts the notion that public school teachers are to “blame” for how poor kids score on tests.

There’s no better illustration of how the right wing continues to school education reformers than what’s become acceptable to think and speak about charter schools. An incredibly revealing post this week by charter enthusiast Andy Smarick exemplifies exactly how the right wing presses for charter schools has worked.

In tracking the arc of how “the charter school movement has gone from a glimmer in the eyes of a few Minnesota reformers to a maturing sector of America’s public education system,” Smarick lays out the narrative of how the right-wing bullies school reformers into submission.

First, you press the notion that a “crisis” in education necessitates that we question “the basic assumptions” about public schools. And you advance the idea that we need “an education system operating alongside traditional districts” so that we “can provide more options and improved opportunities, particularly to disadvantaged students.” Then you ratchet up the game by pressing charters as a tool to “help the traditional sector improve” through “competitive nudging” and “information sharing.”

All along, of course, neither of these plans for advancing charter schools actually achieves any progress for disadvantaged kids. As Smarick not only admits, but convincingly argues, neither charters as “a parallel system” or charters as “competitive tools” have been an effective means to “significantly alter . . . stubbornly disappointing district results.”

Instead, the ultimate goal that Smarik and his proud reform ilk now blatantly contend is for charters to “replace” traditional public schools. Which of course is exactly what conservatives wanted all along.

If you want to see what right-wing Republicans really want to accomplish with charter schools, look at Florida where “segregation is making a comeback” as “the new wave of charter schools springing up across the state” concentrates black and brown school children into separate schools from their white peers. See how a notion once held in complete contempt by everyone but arch conservatives – that school children should be sorted by race and schooled separately – now becomes commonplace again?

Even school reformists like Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli have now become quite comfortable with the idea that “affluent and disadvantaged kids need a different kind of education.” Would it be really that hard to nudge the reformists further to accept the idea that different “education” can mean different “schools?”

At the edu-blog Schools Matter , the ever-useful Jim Horn explains:

Charters harken back to the private Protestant academies of the 1970s, when the preservation of white-only schools required white flight. Today that flight often ends behind iron gates in leafy suburbs with names like Plantation Estates. The added benefit today is, of course, that public dollars pay for these private academies of white privilege.
And yet Team Oligarch Obama continues to support the unregulated and racist expansion of charter schools that routinely violate federal Civil Rights laws. Civil rights laws, in fact, are viewed as a violation of the autonomy of corporate welfare charter school operators.

Anyone at all familiar with what’s known as the Overton Window saw this coming from a mile away. Getting DC politicians like Kay Hagan, neo-liberal technocrats like Arne Duncan, and think tank operatives like Andy Smarick to gradually accept what once was considered “extreme or outside the mainstream” is what the right wing is extraordinarily good at. And while the education reformists continue to spin their ever-more intricate arguments – “college and career ready,” “market forces,” “winning the future,” – corporate-backed conservatives methodically plod toward victory, and America’s prized public school system slides further toward the brink.

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