The Forces Driving America’s Education Spring

Jeff Bryant

Anyone who thinks education is the “civil rights issue of our time”  needs to look at what’s going on in Chicago.

In three days of protests over the weekend and lapping into Monday, people who look like they would be involved in a civil rights cause – mostly African-American and Latino/a teachers, parents, and students, many living in low-income communities – were protesting against the city’s decision to close their neighborhood schools.

City officials have claimed that the closures are for the sake of “reforming” the city’s schools, but people who the schools actually serve aren’t buying it.

Similar protests are happening in Philadelphia where communities of black and brown citizens are openly defying civic leaders’ decisions to cut education spending and close neighborhood schools, again, in the name of “reforming” them.

Also from the heartland last week, in Indiana, a parent-led rebellion against policies mandating that schools adopt new curriculum standards known as the Common Core resulted in government officials delaying implementation of the standards that have been cast as necessary “reforms” to the system.

Similar rebellions are occurring in Alabama, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

Moving west to Seattle, teachers boycotting standardized tests that state leaders mandated in a “reform” effort got what they wanted last week when the school administration gave into the teachers’ demands that the tests not be made mandatory for high schools.

A similar resistance has been happening across the state of Texas where a coalition of educators, parents, and state policy leaders are calling for a “counterattack” against standardized testing. This time, instead of teachers leading the rebellion, the salient force are parents who have, according to a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, “overwhelmed the powerful business and political forces that made Texas the capital of high-stakes testing.”

These events, and others, reveal an emerging American movement unifying diverse factions across the nation in efforts to reverse education policy mandates and bolster public schools instead of punishing them and closing them down.

There is little doubt now that a counterargument to the education policies championed by the likes of Michelle Rhee and Education Secretary Arne Duncan is now slipping into the mainstream of American opinion.

Even the editorial board of The New York Times is calling for a change in how that city has been administering its public schools. In an editorial this week, the newspaper, which had been a cheerleader for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education mandates, now states, “The school system has indeed gone overboard in relying on standardized testing. Tests need to be a means to the end of better instruction, not the pedagogical obsession they have become.”

What’s generally not understood is that these flashpoints of resistance around the country are driven by common core grievances – a grassroots “common core” if you will – that is shaping the rapidly evolving education debate.

Behind nearly every protest to the status quo policies meted out to the nation’s public education system are common grievances about resource deprivation, inequity, public disempowerment and the widespread perception that governing policies are driven by corruption.

The situation in Chicago is a microcosm of how these four grievances are converging.

Resource Deprivation

What’s not widely acknowledged is that there is a systemic and deliberate agenda across America to starve public schools of funding. This is especially true in Chicago and especially true for the schools that are scheduled for closing.

A recent report from the Chicago Teachers Union looked at schools that were closed and revealed the district’s intentional policy to starve the targeted schools of necessary funds. As local blogger and activist Kenzo Shibata recently observed at The Huffington Post, “The school closings wave is at the crescendo of years of slow and steady sabotage by the Chicago Board of Education.”

Shibata quoted a Chicago Public Schools Official who readily admitted that “If we think there’s a chance that a building is going to be closed in the next five to 10 years, if we think it’s unlikely it’s going to continue to be a school, we’re not going to invest in that building.”

Shibata correctly observed, “The very schools that needed the most support – libraries, small class sizes, and wraparound services – were starved.”

Inequity

Not only is there a nationwide effort to disinvest from public schools, there is a systemic policy in America to ensure schools that need funding the most are targeted for deeper cuts or lower funding.

This is especially true in Chicago where the schools being closed are predominantly in parts of the city that are populated with lower-income African American and Latino families.

Writing at the website Alternet, Samantha Winslow reported, ” Almost all of the 54 schools targeted for closing serve primarily black and Latino students. All are in poor neighborhoods.”

Reporter James Patrick at Substance News observed,

“Since 2001, 98 of the 100 schools being closed or phased out in Chicago have been located in predominantly African-American and Latino communities. School closures directly correspond to the locations of troubled mortgages, foreclosures, and population loss.”

Public Disempowerment

Behind nearly every protest against the nation’s education metric-driven agenda is the complaint from teachers, parents, and school children that they are being disempowered.

Whether the voices of dissent are coming from teachers objecting to unfair evaluations, parents objecting to having no voice in creating and implementing new standards, or students complaining of unjust discipline measures, the prevailing narrative is that Americans of all persuasions increasingly believe they have diminishing control over their education destinies.

Policy decisions affecting education are increasingly promulgated from governing bodies that are not elected and serve at the whim of powerful mayors and governors who take power away from locally-elected bodies and hand it over to hand-picked “managers” and committees filled with their close associates and campaign funders.

Education policies are increasingly the product of Washington-based technocrats who have little or no contact with the schools and communities whose schools are being affected by their plans.

Even charter schools – often promoted as a authentic “choice” for parents who want to escape “government monopoly schools” – are increasingly operated by distant executives and appointed boards with little accountability to local constituents.

This sense of disempowerment is an especially prevalent force behind the Chicago protests. Bloggers and activists have recorded countless stories of parents who have done everything they can to provide their children access to good schools only to see their efforts undone by the city’s action.

One account, appearing in the local independent newspaper Catalyst, told how parents have seen these Chicago neighborhoods completely transformed by forces out of their ability to address. In one neighborhood, “Over the past decade, three of the schools that served the area’s children have been closed and reopened – one as a charter school, one as a selective enrollment school and the third as a lease by a private Catholic school that costs about $8,000 a year.”

In other words, the option to choose a school that accepts all children is no longer available.

This is not an isolated example, noted reporter Sarah Karp. “The end result of the school [administration's] actions is that traditional, district-run neighborhood schools will become scarcer. Schools to which students have to apply and those run by private organizations will continue to take over, casting an ever-bigger shadow over the district.”

Widespread Perceptions Of Corruption

Prominent news stories about charter school profiteering, massive cheating on standardized tests, and the heavy involvement of Wall Street investment firms and the publishing industry behind the scenes are creating widespread perceptions that education policy is driven by corruption.

People to the right of the political spectrum accuse efforts to align all state curricula to Common Core standards of being driven by a federal government intent on spreading “propaganda” and invading our privacy.

Those who tend to lean left see corporations as the primary benefactors of education policies like the Common Core and charter school proliferation.

Either way, the core grievance is that education policies are being sold to the American people with very deceptive language and with occasionally ulterior motives.

These perceptions are not confined to the extremes of the spectrum. Recently at The New Republic, Nicholas Lehmann wrote that education reform poster-person Michelle Rhee has “misled” education advocates who favor current policies.

“Rhee simply isn’t interested in reasoning forward from evidence to conclusions: conclusions are where she starts,” Lehmann observed. “She gives us little or no discussion of pedagogical technique, a hot research topic these days, or of curriculum, another hot topic owing to the advent of the Common Core standards, or of funding levels, or class size, or teacher training, or surrounding schools with social services.”

Lehmann concluded that Rhee’s leadership in “the education-reform movement” has had the damaging effect of making the whole enterprise take on “a narrow and melodramatic frame” that remains so influential mostly because “it depends so heavily on the largesse of people who are used to getting their way.”

Certainly the people of Chicago know what it’s like to be misled by influential and local officials threatening their schools. A local radio station, WBEZ, took the time to fact check what school district officials have been reporting and found lots of gaps in the truth.

For instance, Chicago Public Schools says “30,000 children will be impacted by school closings. But the district’s plan actually will touch more than 46,000 children.”

Although school and city officials have “claimed a loss of 145,000 students, between 2000 and 2013, actual enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has not decreased dramatically.” And, “since 2000, the proportion of Chicago kids attending public schools has actually increased.”

Also, “Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said the key reason to close schools is about getting children ‘trapped’ in low performing schools to a better place.” But the reporters found that in previous closings, “most students whose schools were closed by the district re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak.”

School and city officials have stated the school closures are scheduled to save $43 million and help close $1 billion shortfall in the district’s operating budget. But again, the facts show “all cost savings, plus tens of millions of additional dollars (for a total of $233 million), will be put into receiving schools.” And “the district is borrowing $329 million to pay for improvements to receiving schools,” which “will cost $25 million in debt service every year for 30 years.”

The New Bipartisanship On Education?

The common core grievances driving the backlash to education mandates are not going to go away any time soon. Despite how the particulars of the debate pivot to issues about content standards, to assessment results, to school choice, etc. widespread feelings of resource deprivation, inequity, public disempowerment, and overwhelming corruption are not only going to remain – they are likely to grow. Any lurch from crisis to crisis – no matter how well orchestrated – will likely further intensify a popular sense of a system out of control.

The only remaining question is, now that it’s becoming more acceptable to say that education mandates have “gone too far,” how much longer will it take for those same opinion outlets to admit the mandates were mistaken to begin with?

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