Education blogger Jeff Bryant asserted in his column yesterday that education policy could be a determining factor in several gubernatorial races in the coming weeks. But, as he notes, in some cases it will result in the election of a “lesser-of-two-evils” candidate as opposed to the election of a candidate who is willing to undo the budget cuts, evisceration of contracts, and emphasis on standardized testing. While polling data indicates that “The top testing turnout message overall emphasizes education, specifically Republicans’ efforts to cut programs for students while giving tax cuts to the wealthy”, the fact remains that several candidates getting hefty support from teachers unions are NOT advocates of increased funding but rather less strident in they opposition to education than their opponents.
As I’ve noted in several earlier posts, I hope that public education advocates will NOT be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in 2016. Those who seek increased public education funding should rally behind whichever Presidential aspirant pledges to end the standardized testing regimen that has been in place for a generation and the privatization movement that NCLB and RTTT has aided and abetted. If the testing is not stopped the drumbeat of “failing public schools” will continue and the public will be increasingly disinclined to fund a failing enterprise.
I scoured Mokoto Rich’s latest NYTimes article, “Nation’s Wealthy Places Pour Private Money Into Public Schools, Study Finds” in hopes of finding a quote explaining the underlying rationale for the trend described in the headline, which is to move schools toward a fee-for-service model as opposed to a public utility model.
Several years ago when I was Superintendent in MD in the mid 1990s, some leaders of the local business community introduced the idea of creating a foundation to fund some elements of the budget that they felt were discretionary. Their thinking was prompted by the experiences of states where budget caps were forcing districts to cut things like field trips, elective courses and school clubs and school-based organizations were picking up the costs through private donations. In effect, the business community was seeking to shift the burden away from broad-based taxes toward the end users…. that is making public schooling a fee-for-service enterprise like, say, trash collection.
At the same time as this idea was being floated in the county, I was serving on a State “Blue Ribbon” panel created by the Governor that was examining the funding formula in the state. In retrospect, I can see the connection between these two initiatives more clearly. While the legislators serving the less affluent districts in MD were trying to raise the State’s base contributions to a higher level in hopes of providing their students with an equitable opportunity, the business community was trying to find ways to offset the effects of the loss of State funds they sought through capping taxes by developing “workarounds”.
Over the next 15 years I witnessed a continuation of this tug-of-war between those favoring an increased base in school funding and those advocating a de facto “fee-for-service” model, a tug-of-war that manifests itself in the following ways:
- The portrayal of “public schools” as “government run schools”: As the American public’s suspicion of anything associated with the government increased as a result of their belief that “government is the enemy” the so-called “school reformers” re-branded “public schools as “government run schools”. Raising taxes for a “program run but the government” would not meet favor with voters who believe that “the marketplace” can spend more wisely.
- The increased acceptance that fees are an acceptable means of providing non-mandated programs: My first experience with a fee-for-service model was in the early 1980s with the institution of a fee for Drivers Education based on the rationale that Drivers Ed was not a graduation requirement and taking the course provided a benefit only to those students whose parents could afford a car for the student to drive. In effect, it was an effort to shift the overall cost of an education program that benefits affluent students away from taxpayers who arguably needed relief. When I went to lead schools in Exeter NH I inherited a district policy that required high school students to pay for the bus if they lived within 3 miles of the school building based on the rationale that State law did not mandate transportation for students within that range. In Hanover NH, the district I led in the early 2000s, I inherited a plan whereby the district charged athletic fees each season that covered all of the non-personnel costs for sports that were in place when the fee was instituted. The rationale was that Little Leagues and soccer programs charged fees and parents were accustomed to paying for their children to participate in those town-sponsored activities. I found many of these fees troubling, but I knew that undoing a practice that creates a revenue stream is extremely difficult in a time when many other pressing priorities were in play. Moreover, whenever fees were debated in budget sessions members of the public and Board members would cite practices in CA and several midwestern states where book fees, activity fees, and athletic fees are commonplace. By the time I retired three years ago, the charging of fees for service, once rare, was increasingly commonplace.
- The increase in privatizing services within schools: As noted in prior posts, schools typically privatize transportation, food services, special education related services, and many non-instructional services related to business operations and technology. With every portion of the budget that is privatized it becomes increasingly easy to argue that another segment of the budget— say music lessons or even tutoring— can be outsourced to lower the budget without compromising the education program.
- The narrowing of the mission of public education: While much has been written about mission creep in public education, including an article I wrote for a local newspaper over five years ago, the reality is that legislators and the voting public increasingly see school funding being limited to those courses that are graduation requirements and whose focus is academic. The standardized testing regimen as only made this worse by effectively de-emphasizing art, music, and physical education in favor of “academics” at the elementary level and viewing secondary education as preparation for work or college. This narrowing of the content results in schools shedding “non-essential” programs in the arts and “non-essential” electives and extracurricular activities in high schools adding to the joylessness for students and driving parents to either enroll their children in after school elective programs or take their children out of school completely.
- The expansion of the fee-for-service model across all government services: The “government is the enemy” mentality has increased the level of privatization in other government agencies including the armed forces, parking, and, yes, the return of toll roads.
These trends do not bode well for those who advocate an increase in the base in school funding, especially given the acceptability of the workarounds for affluent parents. Given the choice between higher taxes to provide physical education and the arts for all children and paying a fee to enroll their children in arts programs and physical activities their children enjoy, it is not surprising that parents accept the less robust program in their schools. From the taxpayers perspective, it is an even easier decision: low taxes will always trump services for children in another town if not their own community. Without the full throated advocacy for equitable funding for all schools, funding that would require the same per pupil expenditures as the most affluent districts now pay, we will never have true equity of opportunity…. and the fees will keep increasing.
The NYTimes headline reads “Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip” and Peter Baker, the author of the piece, fails to connect the dots and come to the obvious conclusion: the steady loss of confidence is a victory for the oligarchs who started the “government is bad” meme and kept the drumbeat going with every chance it had… and the combination of inept political leadership and diminishing government resources is paying off! Anything with a “government” label attached is ipso facto incompetent and anything run by the private sector in a marketplace free from regulations is ipso facto superior. So those who own and operate deregulated corporations are benefitting and the rest of us are suffering…. especially the children raised in poverty who are left being in those “government schools” and whose parents get fewer and fewer benefits… unless they work for a company that pays them minimum wages in which case they “earn their food stamps” (sic).
And as we come to a national and local elections that are bought and paid for by the “dark money” of the oligarchs, voters are staying home in droves because the system is rigged so that the primary elections yield only mirror image candidates. Getting the government confidence back on track will require an investment by taxpayers… but getting that investment requires faith that the spending will be worth it. When you vote in a couple of weeks, select the candidate who is willing to break this vicious circle. It’s the only way “government schools” will rebound.
Valerie Strauss used her Washington Post column earlier this week to share FairTest’s proposal that we declare an indefinite moratorium on standardized testing so that districts could “…cut back their own test mandates (and) provide time and incentives for states and districts to revise their assessment and accountability programs.”
The most compelling argument for discontinuing the standardized testing regimen is offered in the concluding paragraph:
NAEP shows that overall gains in reading and math (since the advent of standardized testing) have just about halted. Progress toward closing achievement gaps has also slowed. Test-and-punish programs are wreaking havoc in many urban neighborhoods by contributing to school closures and resulting community destabilization.
A few days ago I shared a DRAFT of the ideal education platform in this blog that suggested a similar action. From my perspective the discontinuation of standardized testing with the exception of NAEP would give states the chance to use the Common Core as the basis for developing their own sets of standards and engage school leaders and parents in a dialogue about what measures are most important. This is echoed in FairTest’s proposal, which is summarized in the final sentence of the blog post:
The new (accountability0system would provide much stronger evidence of learning and progress, reveal far more about whether programs are working, and improve rather than undermine teaching and learning, for our most vulnerable children.
In closing, here is a reprint of the campaign position I would hope SOME Presidential candidate will take in the run up to 2016. Which ever candidate does so will get at least one volunteer in NH who will knock on doors and make phone calls.
- Discontinue the use of standardized tests as the primary metric for rating schools. By now parents, teachers and voters are fully aware of the misuse of standardized testing in our public schools. They realize how demoralizing this testing is for teachers, school communities, and—most dishearteningly— for students. The use of standardized achievement tests to rate schools is narrowing the curriculum by pushing out subjects that cannot be tested inexpensively. This emphasis on testing dehumanizes the school by making the preparation for tests the focal point of classroom instruction. Worst of all, the testing provides the public with misleading, meaningless, and seemingly precise data that fails to measure the true value of schooling. The test results do accomplish one thing: they help persuade the public that our public schools are failing. If elected I will suspend the testing mandated by Race To The Top and issue a waiver exempting school districts from all tests mandated by No Child Left Behind. In place of these tests, I will direct the Secretary of Education to work with practitioners, post secondary institution leaders, and business leaders to devise an accountability framework that each state will use to develop their own unique means of measuring school effectiveness. One size does not fit all in the classroom, and we’ve learned the hard way that one size does not fit all in public schools.