Five Education Stories To Keep Your Eye On In 2016

Jeff Bryant

In 2015 we witnessed historic changes in education. As education professor Sherman Dorn reviewed on his personal blog, there were at least 20 major news stories affecting the nation, including the passage of new federal legislation to replace No Child Left Behind, the scaling up of the movement to boycott standardized tests, anti-racist protests at colleges and universities, and Washington state’s supreme court ruling striking down the constitutionality of charter schools.

What can we expect in 2016?

There are a number of education news stories from 2015 that have the potential to gain greater prominence in 2016.

However, the story that most people will have their eye on – the influence of education issues on the 2016 presidential election – will fall well short of people’s expectations. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Anyone who recalls the cringe-worthy way education got attention in the last presidential election would not want to see a repeat. Given the major media tendency to treat education as a sort of easy go-to for addressing problems of race, crime, and poverty that leaders are unwilling to take on more directly, maybe it’s best that education stay under the radar.

Further, why would anyone who cares about public education want Republican Party candidates to address that topic? Every time one of them opens his or her mouth to utter something about public schools, an ugly toad jumps out. So, please, don’t encourage them.

It’s true that candidates on the Democratic Party side have crept tenderly into the debate about charter schools. Hillary Clinton’s remark that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them” set off a media flutter for sure. And more recently, Bernie Sanders said he opposes “privately run charter schools,” which he clearly sees as something that is not in the realm of “public education.” (Charter school advocates will deny that, but they’re wrong, at least in regard to how charters current are organized and operated.)

But given widespread concerns over terrorist attacks and an economy careening toward troubled ground, education will be relegated to a backbench at best.

Look for these five stories instead.

Vulnerable Governors

While education will make few if any appearances in the presidential race, that’s not the case in state elections for governor. Among the top 10 most competitive governor races in 2016 ranked by Politico, and republished here by the North Carolina Democratic Party, are two incumbents who have led very controversial education policies.

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has presided over an administration that has, according to Lindsay Wagner for NC Policy Watch, slashed funding for teacher assistants and textbooks, cut foreign language courses and other electives, ballooned class sizes, and prompted an exodus of experienced school teachers. In the 2013–15 biennial budget, the legislature passed and McCrory signed, “Allocation for public schools was more than $100 million below what the state budget office recommended as necessary to maintain the status quo and more than $500 million less (adjusted for inflation) than what was spent on public education in 2008,” Wagner reports. “The new budget for 2015–17 continues that trend with investments that remain well below 2008 pre-recession levels, spending roughly $500 less per student. In 2014, North Carolina ranked 47th in the nation in per-student spending.”

In Indiana, Governor Mike Pence is vulnerable on education and gay rights, according to a recent poll. “Of the 54 percent of respondents who said it’s time for a new governor,” according to the pollster, a Republican firm, “17 percent said it’s because they disagree with Pence on education issues while 15 percent cited gay rights issues … Voters also said Pence isn’t doing a good job, the state needs a change, and they’d prefer a Democrat – with each of those reasons earning nods from 11 percent of respondents who want a new governor.”

Another governor to watch, who is not up for reelection, is Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf who is taking a bold stand against conservative lawmakers to fund the state’s public schools. Wolf may inspire other state leaders around the country and provide a model for how politicians can lead on the issues that matter rather than continuing to resort to gimmicks like charter schools and “choice.”

Charter Schools

Speaking of charter schools, controversies surrounding these schools will increase as the industry expands.

In addition to its brief appearance in the presidential primary (cited above), the charter industry will generate more scandals in the year ahead because of the way charter schools are organized and operated. As a recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center explains, the very structure of the charter school business introduces new actors into public education who skim money from the system without returning any benefit to students and taxpayers. A recent attempt in Ohio to address the flawed structure of charters with new regulation has fallen far short of the goal of making these schools scandal-free, more transparent and accountable to the public.

Meanwhile, charter expansions will continue to be met with increased community resistance wherever they roll out. In Nashville, Tennessee, Jefferson County Colorado, and across South Florida, every new charter school expansion is now met with fierce opposition from the community. As the Los Angeles Times reported in September, a plan devised in secret by a billionaire and his foundation would pay for the capital costs and lobbying to force through a plan to convert as many as half of the city’s schools into charters. The community has responded with outrage. The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic entity funded by the founding family of Walmart, has pledged to spend $1 billion on charter schools over the next five years, despite the fact that calls for charter school moratoriums are becoming practically ubiquitous in state legislatures and local district school boards.

The Test Rebellion

Despite the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act that weakens the consequences of nationwide standardized testing, the resistance to these tests that so shook the education establishment in 2015 will likely expand.

Recent edicts by the U.S. Department of Education are fanning the flames of resentment. Leveraging a clause in ESSA that requires states to maintain participation rates on standardized tests above 95 percent or face sanctions that may include loss of some Title I funds, the department recently sent a letter to 12 states, threatening to withhold funds or take other punitive actions. As Education Week reports, this is an attempt to hold states accountable to the NCLB waivers they agreed to previously. But states that act on these threats will surely hear from standardized test opponents. As Amy Dean observes, writing for Al Jazeera, “The new law, while a welcome change, has not ended the fight against over-testing; it has merely moved the contest back to the states, which will now determine their own policies around testing.”

Dean continues, “Education has not yet emerged as a major policy issue in the elections, but there’s still a chance it will enter the political calculus. [ESSA] passed both houses of Congress by large margins, even though presidential hopefuls on both the left and right such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Bernie Sanders abstained from voting – a testament to how contentious the federal government’s role in public education can be … This movement presents a massive political opportunity for savvy candidates on either side of the aisle.”

Friedrichs

With Supreme Court oral arguments set to begin next week, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a challenge to union collection of dues from employee paychecks, is being closely watched by people who follow education.

“The outcome of the case will be the most consequential education news all year,” according to Politico’s paraphrasing of Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli. “If it goes the way that most people expect,” Petrilli states, “it will turn every state in the country into a ‘right to work’ state, at least as public employees are concerned,” which will cause teachers unions to lose members and money. “In some ways that will weaken them but it will also make them more ideologically pure,” Politico quotes him. “This will reverberate in our education politics for years to come.”

The defense rests on 40 years of legal precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, and collective bargaining agreements in 23 states, according to a report in Education Week. In an op-ed for Inside Sources, Michele Jawando of the left-leaning Center for American Progress writes, “This case is about making it even harder for working people to come together, speak up for each other, and negotiate the rules about benefits, hours, and wage.”

Chicago

In Chicago, a massive teacher strike in 2012 became a catalyst for a nationwide movement to protest current education policies that call for more school closures, charter schools, and a test-and-punish regime that’s damaging to school children. That may happen again in 2016.

In December, an overwhelming majority of the Chicago Teachers Union, 88 percent, voted to allow union leaders to call for a strike. According to the Associated Press, “A strike cannot take place until 105 days after the fact-finding phase begins,” which will start in mid-February. The strike would come when there are serious funding issues in the district, and the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, “is in big trouble,” according to Jack Mirkinson, writing for Salon. “In the wake of the scandal surrounding his police department’s execution of teenager Laquan McDonald, local columnists have declared that he has permanently lost his grip on the city. More than half of Chicago residents in a recent poll said he should resign.”

The grievances echo those of the previous strike: resource deprivation and inequity, particularly in the city’s schools populated by low-income African American and Latino students, while charter schools continue to open in neighborhoods where public schools were summarily closed. According to The Washington Post, only a third of the district’s schools now have full-time librarians, and among the 46 high schools with a majority African-American student population, the number of librarians has been whittled to two.

Think Progress, the online publication of the Center for American Progress, writes, “Anger over the city closing schools that primarily serve low-income black students has been brewing for some time” and “bubbled up again recently when a group of around 12 parents and community activists began a hunger strike to protest the closure of their neighborhood school, Dyett High School. Their hunger strike lasted for a month and gained national attention.”

Despite the funds being withheld from public schools, Chicago continues to open more charter schools.

Hold on to your seats.

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