A ‘Fair Shot’ Agenda For Education

Jeff Bryant

“Democrats Scramble to Stave Off Midterm Disaster” was the headline in The New York Times article this week reporting on “the problem” the party has with turning out its base in the upcoming midterm election.

As the reporter explained, “Young voters have abandoned the midterm electorate at more than twice the rate of seniors. Hispanics, who favored Mr. Obama by a margin of 44 percentage points, have voted at just two-thirds the rate of whites. Unmarried women, the source of the Democratic advantage with women, vote less often than their married counterparts.”

Said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster quoted in the article, “This could be a disaster.”

President Obama has warned Democrats they’d better worry about upcoming elections, saying, according to a report in The Hill, “poor turnout could lead the party’s candidates to get ‘walloped.’”

Rushing to the rescue recently was a national plan from Senate Democrats called “A Fair Shot for Everyone,” that “focuses on ensuring that every American who works hard has a fair shot to succeed.”

In rolling out their agenda, Democratic Senate leaders loaded their messaging with pledges of support for “the middle class” and “one set of rules that will help create middle-class security, fairness, and opportunity.”

Republicans were quick to pan the Fair Shot platform, which as my colleague Robert Borosage pointed out this week, is a pretty good indication the Democrats are onto something.

“Poll after poll,” Borosage wrote, “show that majorities hold clear populist postures.” Borosage pointed readers to a web site, The Populist Majority, with polling data that show “majorities hold clear populist postures” based on widespread belief that “rules in this country unfairly favor the rich.”

Echoing Borosage, fellow CAF analyst Dave Johnson wrote, “This is a ‘populist’ agenda and polls show that these are items that the public broadly supports.”

For sure, policy proposals that accompany the Democrats’ call for economic fairness – a minimum wage hike, equal pay for women, defending Medicare, job creation – are high-profile and could turn out an electorate eager to vote for candidates that hold positions in stark contrast to Republicans intent on cozying up to the rich.

But there’s an issue rife with populist discontent that Democrats have left out of the Fair Shot agenda: K-12 education.

You Want Populist? Here’s Yer Populist!

It stands to reason that if you want to see what would turn people out to vote, you might want to look at what turns people out for street protests.

This week, in the streets of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, “nearly 25,000 teachers, parents and students from all corners of the state converged at the state Capitol on Monday to urge legislators to invest in Oklahoma’s public education system,” according to local news stories.

What brought crowds out, according to the reporter, was anger that “funding for Oklahoma yearly public education funding levels are 22.8 percent below 2008 prerecession levels even as schools educate nearly 40,000 more students.”

Similarly, last month in another state capital, Albany, New York, hundreds of protestors descended on the state legislature to voice their discontent with state lawmakers and Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Among the big issues,” according to local reports, “school aid, pre-K funding, and how to pay for a property tax freeze the governor badly wants.”

According to one of the organizers of the event, The Alliance for Quality Education, an $840 million figure for education spending in the new state budget was “well short of the $1.3 billion that the New York State Board of Regents advised would stop schools from having to make cuts.”

According to AQE, “For the last five years, school districts across the state have been making efficiencies and cutting back on resources, including the elimination of 35,000 teachers and other educators statewide. Despite a steady increase in costs, many school districts are operating on less aid than in 2009 due to years of insufficient state funding.”

A day before the New York rally, hundreds of protestors shut down the central business district of Newark, New Jersey to voice their opposition to an austerity plan being imposed on their community by a state appointed school chief. According to local blogger and journalist Bob Braun, the edicts would “close neighborhood public schools, expand charter school enrollment, and lay off experienced city teachers despite seniority.”

High school students in Newark have formed a Student Union and are organizing a school walk out for April 3.

These demonstrations reverberated with the same messages that propelled recent successful teacher actions in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota, where teachers threatened to strike over issues of class size and deteriorating student learning conditions brought about by budget cuts and excessive standardized testing.

When teachers based their grievances on issues of deprivation and unfairness, they drew widespread approval from students and parents and got most of what they wanted.

Testing The People’s Patience

The issue of excessive testing is an especially live wire right now as millions of students enter test-taking season across the country. The hours of instructional time taken up by the tests and the anxiety the tests have imposed on students have generated a popular and widespread opt out movement that is growing in Texas, New York, and beyond.

When standardized tests rolled out this week in New York, 70 percent of parents a three Brooklyn schools opted out of the tests, and across Long Island 6,000 students did the same.

So far, numerous state leaders – most recently New York’s state legislators and Governor Cuomo – have responded to the protests by delaying the consequences that test scores have on teacher evaluations and school ratings. But it’s hard to believe these stopgap actions will resolve the anger.

What Democrats Must Understand

Certainly the current education policies in vogue – austerity school budgets, coupled with high stakes testing, punitive standards, and competitive charter schools – are what’s favored by the rich.

Wealthy foundations, big corporations, and private organizations headed by boards stocked with hedge-fund millionaires have poured billions of dollars into the roll out of these mandates. But when PR campaigns for these policies claim popular support for their ideas, there’s really no there, there.

The latest example of this was from Florida, where advocates for a statewide school voucher program to redirect tax money meant for public schools into private ones contended that a “huge waiting list” of families who wanted to participate was proof for the need of the new program. It turns out, as The Washington Post reported, “there is no waiting list.”

If Democratic leaders want to see “one set of rules” govern economic policy, certainly they can see that the wealthy, who send their children to private schools, don’t play by the same “set of rules” that mandate testing, standards, and competition for public schools.

So if Democrats want to “put forth and fight for a compelling agenda” (Borosage’s words) for education they need to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans who espouse the current doctrine of testing, failing, closing, and privatizing.

A Fair Shot For Education

If Democrats can envision what a “fair shot” at economic success looks like for every American worker, what’s keeping them from seeing what a fair shot would look like for education?

Progressives behind a populist agenda for education have called for a much more fair and equitable agenda for public schools based on ensuring more students at all levels have opportunities to learn as much as they can.

Those opportunities are buttressed by the following policy demands:

  • Guaranteed access to high quality early education for all, including full-day kindergarten and universal access to pre-K services.
  • Fair and sufficient school funding freed from over-reliance on locally targeted property taxes, so those who face the toughest hurdles receive the greatest resources.
  • Personalized plans and services that provide students with the academic, social, and health supports they need.
  • Recruitment, training, and retention of well-prepared, well-resourced, and highly qualified teachers and school leaders.
  • High-quality diagnostic assessments that go beyond test-driven mandates and help teachers strengthen the classroom experience for each student.
  • Replacing ineffective and discriminatory discipline practices, including inappropriate out-of-school suspensions, with policies and supports that keep all students in quality educational settings.
  • Parent and community engagement, including democratically elected school boards, in determining the policies of schools and the delivery of education services to students.

This Won’t Be Easy

No doubt, taking sides with populist discontent over education policies has its political costs.

In the face-off over charter schools between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the mayor chose to side with neighborhood activists and public school parents to prohibit some charters from grabbing precious classroom space from deserving public school children who were occupying that space.

This incurred the wrath of wealthy charter-school benefactors who summarily rolled out a $5 million ad campaign to attack de Blasio and falsely claim their students are more deserving that students already located at the schools they want to occupy – rent-free, by the way.

As Ravitch summarized in her recent article in The New York Review of Books, de Blasio ultimately “capitulated” to the onslaught of the charter school money that “could drive down his poll numbers,” despite the fact that “charter schools are more racially segregated than public schools and have performed no better than the public schools on the most recent state tests.”

Democrats must be prepared with the understanding that the media’s approach to reporting about public schools is to ignore this facet. As Ravitch explains in the de Blasio example, “None of the talking heads checked the facts” to discover that the charter chain being co-located in the “under-performing” city public school has numerous shortcomings of its own.

What Ravitch points to in her conclusion, though, is the likelihood of a public awakening to the reality that education policies pressed on communities are essentially a “stealth effort to transfer public funds to support a small number of privately managed schools, amply endowed by billionaires and foundations… devoted to competing with, not helping, the general school population.”

Get Ready For A Public Awakening

This public awakening is in fact already apparent to Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania, where according to state news outlets, the four candidates vying in the gubernatorial primary to take on Republican incumbent and pro-charter school governor Tom Corbett have “promised to take a hard line against charter and cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, from pulling the plug on ones that struggle to educate to refusing public dollars for ones operated by private companies.”

The public awakening is also apparent to members of the U.S. House who recently introduced a bill to cut the number of standardized tests the federal government can impose on states.

The public awakening is apparent to Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and leader in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who recently endorsed an effort led by The Network for Public Education (NPE) to call for members of Congress to hold public hearings on the overuse and abuse of standardized testing.

For years, education populism has been tamped down with rhetorical bromides about how we should do “just what works” and “what’s best for kids.” We’ve been persuaded that education is a realm of intricate technocratic complexity that only spreadsheet analysis and looking at “the data” will resolve. Public education policy has been framed as an engineering problem rather than a human struggle with flesh-and-blood consequences and realities.

But as an alphabet soup of policy “solutions” – NCLB, RttT, CCSS, PARCC – continues to get thrown at the problem, people are understanding more and more that there is little to no progress in sight, and in fact, the situation is getting worse.

“Voters are in a sensibly surly mood,” Borosage concluded, “The Democrats’ only hope is when they go to throw the bums out, they choose different bums to toss.”

As it becomes clearer to the American electorate who the “education bums” are, Democrats should have something better than “hope” to ensure they’re not the ones who deserve to get tossed.

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