Republicans Reformers Open New Fronts In The War On Childhood

Jeff Bryant

Normally, it would be apparent to all that Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich forgot the first rule of holes when he recently doubled-down on his proposal to solve the problem of poor urban schools by recruiting impoverished children into the janitorial trade.

But these are less than normal times.

Not only did Gingrich refuse to back away from his contention that laws protecting young children from being exploited in the labor market are “stupid,” he raised the ante by asserting that children born into poverty don’t do well in school because they aren’t accustomed to working unless it involves something “illegal.”

Keeping in mind that Gingrich is in the midst of a hotly contested Republican presidential primary, which many polls show he currently leads, you would expect at least one other candidate in the race to see these outlandish statements as an opening to pummel the frontrunner. You would be mistaken.

Not a one of Gingrich’s fellow contestants has come forward to denounce his stance — indeed no prominent Republican anywhere has expressed reservation with these comments (as of this writing). In fact, one prominent Republican, former presidential candidate Donald Trump, eagerly jumped on the poor-kid-bashing bandwagon, proclaiming that Gingrich’s comments are “the truth.” Trump declared that he’d like to turn Gingrich’s job-recruitment plan for inner city children into “apprenticeships,” implying that it would make great reality TV.

Of course, it’s not like the notion of conscripting poor kids into the ranks of day labor has never been tried. Anyone who wants to see how the labor market really works for poor kids needs only look at our country’s agricultural industry, or the mining industry in Mali, or the tobacco industry in Kazakhstan. The clear lesson to be learned from these examples — and throughout history — is that drumming young children into the work force is a sure and swift way to impede their education attainment, not advance it.

But unfortunately, Republicans aren’t alone in believing that the key to advancing the interests of children is to extinguish their childhoods. This attitude is stock in trade for another influential faction in America — education reformers.

‘Reformers’ Join Republicans Against Kids

Quick to side with the Republican assault on childhood was the Fordham Institute, an influential thinktank that promotes education reform.

Writing on Fordham’s blog site, fellow Peter Meyer contends that Gingrich is “mostly right” in his views about how to treat poor kids. He accuses Gingrich’s critics of being “bleeding heart liberals” who’ve taken the candidate’s remarks “out of context,” the “context” being that the problems that poor kids face in America can be chiefly overcome by teaching children the “habits of working.” Meyer declared that enforcing a better work ethic on poor inner city kids is “a growing part of the school reform movement.”

Of course, it is “the context” itself that is what’s wrong here. The belief that improving the well being of children can happen mostly by forcing on them, at ever-earlier ages, the responsibilities of adulthood is deeply troubling, but it has become foundational to the thinking of Republicans and the education reform community. And like so many other developments in American society, this thinking represents an expansion of a war on childhood that is already pervasive in so many sectors of our society.

What’s At Stake Is Not Just Children, But Childhood

First, to get “the context” right, it must be understood that what’s increasingly at stake in America is not just the interests of children but childhood itself. Why is it important to distinguish this?

While “children” refers to an age group, childhood is a human rite of passage that extends from birth to an ambiguous point when individuals consider themselves to be adults. For human society to advance, childhood — like motherhood — must be seen as a universal human right. And while the experience of childhood varies a lot across countries and cultures, there are universal non-negotiables guaranteeing what constitutes a viable and positive childhood, namely: healthcare, nutrition, protection, and education.

It is on those four fronts — healthcare, nutrition, protection, and education — where our country is increasingly failing an entire generation. And much of what is going on in leadership circles in the US is enabling that failure.

Making Kids Less Healthy

A critical front in the war on childhood is the country’s increasing neglect of — daresay, antipathy toward — children’s health. Politicians and pundits on all sides of the political spectrum urge us to expect children and youth to aspire to “excellence” in school while they increasingly overlook children’s most basic healthcare needs.

Take eyesight, for instance. Twenty-five percent of children aged 5-17 have a vision problem, but 79 percent have not visited an eye care provider in the past year, 35 percent have never seen an eye care professional, and 40 percent who fail initial vision screening do not receive the appropriate follow up care.

Although most eyesight problems can be corrected if detected early, only three states — Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri — require eyesight exams. The majority of states do little more than provide various forms of screenings, which vary enormously in quality. And 16 states, mostly in the Republican stronghold southern and western parts of the country, have no requirements for vision at all. Yet we continue to expect American students to be “world class” on reading exams by the third grade?

Most would agree that another key to children’s health is physical activity. But our country’s track record here is also increasingly terrible. Schools that are being coerced to spend more time drilling students in test taking skills in math and reading are cutting back on the time students get to be physically active in schools. According to a recent report, less than 20 percent of 3rd graders get the 150 minutes of physical education each week that is recommended by experts.

Students who want to engage in more structured physical activities are increasingly subjected to “pay-to-play” fees that often charge families many hundreds of dollars to let their kids participate in sports programs that used to be free.

Pay-to-play fees have become especially popular in states where Republicans recently swept into state houses and governorships — such as North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida — and enacted huge cuts in education budgets. A recent report issued jointly from Campaign for America’s Future and the National Education Association offered numerous examples of these fees, including a school district in Medina, Ohio that “increased fees to $660 to play a high school sport.”

Children with disabilities that impede learning are also significantly overlooked in our country. A report just issued by Easter Seals found that nationwide, fewer than 3 percent of children are enrolled in the federal government’s program for infants and toddlers with developmental problems, even though “the federal government estimates that as many as 13 percent of all should be served.”

Leading the pack in the ignoble distinction of under-serving students with disabilities are, again, Republican strongholds like Alabama and Georgia and education reform bastions like Tennessee — a state that, interestingly, has money for a multi-million dollar teacher evaluation scheme while it scrimps on funding for special education.

Damaging Children’s Nutrition

Nutrition is also an area where America is increasingly serving up children an evil stew. As the demand for free school lunch grows due to the continued recession and high unemployment, the nation’s food industry has turned this into an opportunity to make “students — a captive market — fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.”

A recent article in The New York Times explains how this abhorrent system “works”:

The Agriculture Department pays about $1 billion a year for commodities like fresh apples and sweet potatoes, chickens and turkeys. Schools get the food free; some cook it on site, but more and more pay processors to turn these healthy ingredients into fried chicken nuggets, fruit pastries, pizza and the like. Some $445 million worth of commodities are sent for processing each year, a nearly 50 percent increase since 2006.
The money is ill spent. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has warned that sending food to be processed often means lower nutritional value and noted that “many schools continue to exceed the standards for fat, saturated fat and sodium.” A 2008 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that by the time many healthier commodities reach students, “they have about the same nutritional value as junk foods.”

In this exchange of good for bad, private food companies — which account for about a quarter of the market for school lunches — make out great. But as investigative reporter Lucy Komisar correctly concludes, “children pay the price.”

Privately managed school cafeterias offered meals that were higher in sugar and fats and made unhealthy snack items — soda, cookies, potato chips — more readily available. The companies were also less likely to use reduced-sugar recipes.

When food providers aren’t serving up unhealthy food to the nation’s school children they’re potentially making them sick. As this report from MSNBC found, “A Washington state fruit processor that supplies the nation’s schools and a baby food maker is under scrutiny by federal health regulators for repackaging applesauce contaminated with several kinds of potentially dangerous, multi-colored molds.”

And if that weren’t bad enough, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Republican stalwart if there ever was one, recently challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules limiting the sale of rat poisons that all too frequently end up in children’s stomachs. In this report, an ALEC representative stated that “kids eating rat poison is an ‘acceptable risk’ that does not justify government intervention in the market.”

So as free-marketers get to maximize their profits, our nation’s children get increasingly exposed to food that is unhealthy, unfit, and potentially lethal. Has anyone calculated the “acceptable risk” of that?

Getting Protection From Who?

Normally when we think about protecting children and young people, we focus on keeping them safe from “the bad guys.” But increasingly, children and young people need protection from the ones who are supposed to be keeping them safe.

As reported recently by Kathy Muladyin at Nation of Change an increasing problem in America’s law and order culture is that “zero tolerance policies enforced in our nation’s schools” are making adolescents “casualties of punitive suspension and expulsion policies” that rob them of their education. Often the infractions area as minor as “being tardy, talking too loud, wearing flip flop sandals, or bringing a bottle of Advil to school.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that there is an increasing presence of a “School-To-Prison Pipeline” that forces young people into the criminal justice system to the detriment of their development. The Pipeline begins with “inadequate resources in public schools” including “overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for ‘extras’ such as counselors, special education services, and even textbooks.”

In many American schools now, cops out-number counselors. A recent ACLU report from the New York City Chapter found that “there were 5,055 school safety agents (SSAs) and 191 armed police officers in New York City’s public schools. These numbers would make the NYPD’s School Safety Division the fifth largest police force in the country — larger than the police forces of Washington D.C., Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas. That same year, there were 3,152 guidance counselors in New York City schools.”

This ” over-policing of public schools only intensifies the School to Prison Pipeline” the report concludes.

Accountability mandates from reformers have also done much to feed the School-To-Prison Pipeline. As this report from a collaborative effort involving research, education, civil rights and juvenile justice organizations concluded, academic “get tough” policies such as the current emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests that originated with No Child Left Behind “have led to more students being left even further behind.”

“By focusing accountability almost exclusively on test scores and attaching high stakes to them,” explains George Wood of the Forum for Education and Democracy, “NCLB has given schools a perverse incentive to allow or even encourage students to leave.’

Charter schools, a favorite among “school choice” advocates, are frequently accused of “pushing out” students with emotional and behavior problems into the criminal justice system. When the Chicago Teachers Union followed-up complaints of charter push-outs, they found that “charters are more likely to expel students than traditional public schools” because “charter students can be expelled for offenses that would not warrant expulsion in traditional public schools.”

Constricting Education Opportunity

Education, often called a gateway for advancement for young people, is rapidly diminishing as a nurturing and supportive institution for our nation’s youth.

In America today, students from impoverished communities in particular increasingly have the odds against them. To begin with, poor students are more disadvantaged in the US than in other countries. Their schools get less money than schools for more well-off kids. And the teachers who work in these schools get paid less than teachers who work at schools in higher income neighborhoods.

Affecting all students, regardless of income, is the tyranny of standardized high-stakes testing that continues to constrict opportunities to learn. After ten years of the “accountability movement,” ballyhooed by Republicans and reformists alike, schools have chiseled their curriculums down to the bare necessities to get over the hurdles of “acceptable yearly progress.”

More and more schools resemble the “exemplary” institution in Dallas, Texas that achieved its prestigious status by getting great test scores in math and reading while eliminating the teaching of science and social studies.

This Texas school is not an isolated example. As the above mentioned CAF-NEA joint report found, schools that are in many of the most Republican-ruled, reform-minded states — such as Florida, Arizona, and Ohio — are eliminating the teaching of the arts, social studies, and other subjects in order to focus more school time on drilling students to pass standardized tests in math and reading. While reform advocates say this is not the intention of their proposals, it is nevertheless the consequence. So it’s long passed time for them to own that consequence.

Furthering the narrowing of education opportunity for America’s young people is the transformation of their education attainment into a commodity defined by test scores. As noted in this recent editorial in the education trade publication Education Week, because of education reform measures, “we are rewarding teachers for turning out kids with good test scores, even if they are not necessarily well educated.”

And when we link that test score data to “pay for performance” measures, what ensues is a system that monetizes student performance and turns their academic pursuits into a “basic commodity” subject to speculation.

As the op-ed author Jonathan Keiler explains, “when student scores become like orange juice, pork bellies, or yen,” there is an “incentive to cheat” either by turning “courses into nothing but test-prep machines” or taking “other steps we can’t imagine “while stronger teachers who are honest and don’t play the sharp game end up looking bad.”

“This is not just a possible bad outcome,” Keiler warns, “it is inevitable. It is inevitable because markets generate such behavior and dislocations, and the more volatile the market, the greater the undesirable behavior and dislocations will be.”

So what we increasingly have in America is a system of education that is not geared to the benefit of students and their childhoods but the welfare of adults, in particular, adults who seek a profit-making purpose. And education reformers who claim they are “putting students first” are actually, through their market-base approaches, furthering this condition.

The Worst Generation

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Richard Reeves recently wrote that the people running this country should be labeled “The Worst Generation.” He cites as evidence:

1.) We have stood by — and our representatives in Washington have betrayed us — while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, bringing the country’s wealth distribution to where it was in the 1920s.
2.) We have started at least three wars we could not win, with a volunteer military dying for us — to say nothing of tens of thousands of foreigners killed on their own land — and shielding the American people from the reality and the shame of what we have done, beginning with torture of suspected adversaries.
3.) We are shortchanging the nation on its two most important resources — education and basic research.

Well, add to The Worst Generation’s record a growing assault on the childhood of the next generation.

Of course, Very Serious People ensconced in thinktanks and politbureaus contend that making arguments based on the effects of policies on the reality in children’s lives is “self-righteousness and vapid sentiment.” Can’t let what happens to children get in the way of the Very Important Work of “innovation,” ya’ know.

In the meantime, Republicans and reformists open up yet more fronts in the war on childhood. Republican politicians like Newt Gingrich proclaim draconian plans for the nation’s youth while they line the pockets of their crony funders. Reformist technocrats dither over the proper algorithms for teacher evaluations and “measured progress,” while privatizers laugh all the way to the bank. And the rest of us down here on the ground witness the next generation’s childhoods being stolen — more of their health and nutrition compromised and more of their well beings usurped by an overly punitive criminal justice system and an education regime that grows increasingly constricting and impersonal.

What’s needed, of course, is a return to basic progressive values — empathy, equality, justice — that would be much better guides for making policy. But until that new day arrives, what’s in order is a persistent, public shaming of the current ruling class.

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