Goodbye Good Riddance To Education Bipartisanship

Jeff Bryant

Earlier this week, when a representative of the Beltway-based Democrats for Education Reform lamented the outcomes in Wisconsin’s recently concluded “budget, battle royale,” what do you think she thought was “the worst part?” Not the rollout of Milwaukee’s deeply flawed voucher program to the rest of the state. Not the expansion of questionable charter schools. And not the drastic budget cuts that will hurt Wisconsin school children. No, the “worst part” was the “fall of bipartisanship on education.”

For years, the agreement among Republicans and Democrats that America’s schools are in “crisis” and only a punitive program of standards, testing, and accountability can remedy the situation has been described as a “consensus.” But it would be more accurate to call it a “collusion,” as both parties are complicit in undermining the nation’s schools for the purpose of opening them up to profiteers.

Nowhere, perhaps, is there a better example of this conspiracy against public education than in New Jersey. Last week, a new budget passed by Democrats and the state’s conservative Republican governor Chris Christie was hailed by NBC’s Matt Lauer as a shining example of “bipartisanship,” and Christie now is being cast as a “right-center” politician who can work with Democrats.

But underneath the media gloss of a “functioning” government “working together” for the people’s interests is instead a campaign to turn over one of America’s best school systems to power brokers and Wall Street investors. And much in the same way that policy documents crafted by ALEC are being used as templates to propose destructive new state legislation, the campaign against public education in New Jersey serves as a useful illustration of how the assault on schools and teachers is being rolled out across the country.

Never mind that New Jersey has long been home to some of the best public schools in the country, and was America’s top scorer in the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. For some time, there has been a gentlemen’s agreement among business elites that the state’s schools needed to be opened up to corporate control.

But governor Christies’ rise to leadership has taken the takeover campaign to new heights, and Democrats are much too willing to go along with the ride. To execute the campaign, Christie first successfully sold the media on the narrative that he is a “straight talker,” when actually much of what he says to the media about a number of things misrepresents the facts.

Christie’s distortions and outright untruths about education are particularly flagrant, as detailed in this post by Jersey Blue blogger ellington:

- Christie: Teacher pay increased 5.9% in two years, which is obviously outrageous!
- Here’s the Truth: Recent teacher pay raises are well in line with pay raises throughout the workforce. Teacher pay has lagged behind the average wage in New Jersey for years. And recently settled contracts are in line with the decreasing pay found in the rest of the workforce.
- Christie: Teacher salaries in New Jersey are the 4th highest in the nation.
- Here’s the Truth: It’s completely deceptive to compare teacher salaries without taking into account the cost of living in different regions of the county. When adjusted, teacher salaries in New Jersey are actually comparatively LOW.
- Christie: New Jersey spends more per pupil than any other state.
- Here’s the Truth: Again, you need to take regional differences in costs into account when making these comparisons – when adjusted, NJ is NOT #1 in the nation. Further, New Jersey is one of the best states in the nation at equitably distributing school funding between wealthier and poorer districts.
- Christie: New Jersey students show poor achievement, as evidenced by the gap between wealthier students and poorer students, or between white students and black or Hispanic students.
- Here’s the Truth: Actually, black, Hispanic, and poorer students do relatively well in New Jersey compared to the rest of the nation. The reason for the “achievement gap” is that white, wealthier (not “wealthy”) students do exceedingly well compared to the rest of the nation. Time and again, using many different measure and standards, New Jersey public schools are consistently among the very best in the nation.

Another essential step in the Jersey-style campaign against public education was to then work extra hard to divide parents from public workers by vilifying classroom teachers and their unions and using tax policy to pry concessions from public workers. Governor Christie frequently expresses his contempt for teachers’ unions and once accused them of using students as “drug mules” to advance their own financial gain. Then he held property tax rates hostage until he could get public workers to concede on wages.

With the populace generally misled that their education system is in general decay, and that teaches and their unions are to blame for the situation, then the next step is to introduce the supposed solution: private ownership enabled by vouchers, “choice” programs, and charters.

Never mind that none of these voucher and charter experiments have yielded any particularly strong track record of success in New Jersey, or elsewhere. As Bob Braun explains at NJ.com:

Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to use it to rescue 100,000 “trapped” students in “failing schools.’’
Then he issued a report he said proved charter schools were the answer — but all it did prove was that the charter schools best able to exclude the neediest students got both the highest test scores and, as a consequence, the highest praise from a grateful governor.

In fact, charter schools have been such a disappointment in New Jersey that one-third of them have had to surrender their charters or had them revoked due to mostly mismanagement. As Bruce Baker details at his blog SchoolFinance101, New Jersey charters only seem to do better when they serve smaller shares of children qualifying for free lunch and fewer children with disabilities than schools in their host district and schools in their immediate surroundings. And even the highest performing charters are simply not comparable to traditional public schools in their districts because they serve such different student populations (far fewer low income children and few or no special education students).

Nevertheless, damn the facts! Full speed ahead on charters!

What’s important to note also is that all the while Christie works the media to push the narrative that his state’s schools are broken, teachers are at fault, and only private operations can save the day, there are behind the scenes financial interests waiting for their ROI.

First, it’s no coincidence that Christie himself once worked for Edison Learning, “the nation’s largest of these for-profit education companies,” according to this report by Thomas Santone from Atlantic City, NJ. So he knows who stands to win big.

And now there’s been a new non-profit created by hedge-fund founders to ensure that the Christie agenda goes forward.

So there you have the bipartisan solution for education in New Jersey, and elsewhere: declare a crisis, blame the teachers, bring in the privatizers, and muster financial backing from Wall St. to push it through. All the while, right-wing extremism gets recast as “bold” — even when it pushes something as radical as teaching creationism. And Democrats sheepishly follow along. The sooner we reject this kind of bipartisanship, the better.

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