August 7, 2011

The Texas Legislature’s assault on public school funding last spring came as a surprise to many people. Texas has a budget deficit? I thought our economy was doing well compared to other states?

The Texas Legislature’s assault on teachers came as a surprise, as well. Texas wants to use a temporary budget “crisis” to enact permanent changes to teachers’ rights? Note: Teachers in Texas already lack the rights that were being defended by teachers in Wisconsin in response to Governor Scott Walker’s “reforms.”

In the end, the Texas legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education, with the poorest districts taking the hardest financial hit. Overall, it could have been worse, but this past legislative session was a horrible indication of how vulnerable public education has become to conservative and corporate schemes to gradually dismantle the public education system.

I fear that the cuts to public education are part of a conservative and corporate assault on education as a public good. The under-funding of public education is part of a circular strategy to create the conditions where schools will fail in order to justify the introduction of market-based reform initiatives, advertised as “choice” and “competition,” with the ultimate aim of privatizing education. The strategy is to starve the public schools of funding until the schools deteriorate to the point where “reform” is necessary. This is a situation in which the same people who create an artificial crisis will then offer the solution. They will claim that public schools are a failure and then insist that tax dollars be used towards private schools and charter schools.

Sounds like a conspiracy theory, right?

The failure of No Child Left Behind and market-based solutions to improve public education has been well documented by Diane Ravitch, an historian of education at NYU and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, in her book The Life and Death of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (2010). Ravitch argues that the “reform” movement that began under George W. Bush and that has continued under Barack Obama is a failure. She insists that, “No Child Left Behind has no vision other than improving test scores in reading and math. It produces mountains of data, not educated citizens. It ignores the importance of knowledge. It promotes a mechanistic, anti-intellectual definition of education.” Increasingly, it promotes a business-model definition of education.

Yet, it is NCLB and its definition of “success” that recently deemed half of Texas schools as failing to meet federal standards. Sounds like public education is really deteriorating, right? Well, the Texas legislature just cut $5.4 billion from the same schools that are supposedly under-performing. Not only are the assessments used to judge schools misguided, but schools are also not being adequately funded to begin with. Ravitch’s book chronicles the evolution of the charter school movement and explains that what was originally an initiative to improve public schools, has become a corporate-sponsored movement hostile to public schools. Those who advocate school and teacher accountability based on test scores also promote the spread of charter schools and blame teachers unions for poor test scores. In other words, these “reformers” insist that if a public school is deemed a “failure” according NCLB, then the appropriate response is to transform it into a charter school. Such an approach embraces market-based solutions of “competition” and “choice.” Advocates insist that schools should compete for students in the same way that businesses compete for consumers. Thus, education becomes a private commodity rather than a public good.

Under NCLB as it currently exists, if public schools do not meet specific academic proficiency requirements by 2014, they will be deemed “failing” and could be turned into charters, closed, or privatized. Ravitch insists that, “an important distinction should be made between ‘positive accountability,’ where low scores trigger an effort to help the school, and ‘punitive accountability,’ where low scores provide a reason to fire the staff and close the school.” By refusing to adequately fund public education, the Texas legislature and Governor Perry are setting Texas public schools up for failure. What they intend to do to improve public education remains a mystery. The average citizen was unaware of the scheming taking place in Austin last spring, but now that people see what has transpired it is our responsibility to make our voices heard. Public education must be adequately funded and defended as a public good.

The reason we knew nothing about the budget deficit facing Texas was due to federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that was used to close the budget gap created in 2006 by tax cuts. Ironically, Governor Perry and other conservatives denigrated the stimulus bill as “out-of-control Washington spending,” but it was arguably the stimulus money that enabled Perry to get re-elected in 2010. After his re-election the state suddenly faced a $27 billion budget deficit, who knew? A few months ago, the rehiring of teachers in Humble ISD who had been laid off due to state budget cuts was only possible due to the Federal Education Jobs Fund. So, while the Tea Party chants, “cut, cap, and balance,” it is the federal government that has been shielding people from the realities of how Tea Party economics would actually impact their lives.

Speaking of the Tea Party and its love of constitutions, the Texas Constitution, in Article VII, states: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”  Furthermore, the Texas Supreme Court, in Edgewood I.S.D. v. Kirby, 1989, stated, “It must be recognized that the Constitution requires an ‘efficient,’ not an ‘economical,’ ‘inexpensive,’ or ‘cheap’ system.” The current legislature has not upheld its constitutional duty and those who voted to de-fund public education, like those in the Texas House of Representatives who voted for a budget that would cut $8 billion from public education, should be held accountable at the polls and in the press.

Many people do not understand how we got into this economic mess or why politicians consider public education an appropriate area to cut spending. The answer is the marriage between anti-tax groups and big business. The far-right faction of the Republican Party is as opposed to tax increases for government services and programs at the state level as it is at the national level. The Tea Party says “no” in Washington D.C. and the Tea Party says “no” in Austin. The Tea Party believes in supply-side economics as dogma. They are convinced that “big government” is the “enemy” and that they must “stand their ground” in defiance of those who will “compromise.” In a democracy, political, ethical, social, and economic ideas should be subject to debate and people should be willing to engage in rational dialogue. Unfortunately, many people who support the far-right faction of the Republican Party equate political positions with religious beliefs, anyone who challenges your “beliefs” must be an evil force.

Arguably, the Bush years proved that supply-side economics is a failure. It argues that lower taxes and deregulation will spur economic growth, but lowering taxes, especially on the rich, simply reduces the amount of government revenue necessary to fund important services and programs like public education or Medicare. Income inequality increases as the rich get richer and the middle class loses the purchasing power necessary to keep the economy going. The far-right faction of the Republican Party has embraced a circular argument in order to dismantle the welfare state, and possibly public education, as well. They insist on cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations, which results in budget deficits, and then argue that government spending must be reduced in order to balance the budget. Gradually, government shrinks and important programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and public education are targeted for privatization.

It is now valid to ask whether or not far-right Republicans view public education with the same limited-government disdain as they do Social Security and Medicare. Paul Ryan, a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, has proposed turning Medicare into a voucher system. George W. Bush wanted to privatize Social Security during his second term (imagine if he had succeeded given the financial collapse of 2008). It is no longer a conspiracy theory that public education may come under the same attack. In fact, it seems increasingly to be our new reality.

The Nation recently published multiple articles exposing the corporate influence on state legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The annual ALEC conference was recently held in New Orleans, Louisiana and it is through this conference that corporations directly influence the legislation that is written, proposed, and passed at the state level. “Model” bills are formulated and voted on by both corporate interests and state legislators. The “model” bills are then introduced at the state level. It is the ALEC conference that is the originator of many of the bills that caught citizens all over the country by surprise during this last legislative session. According to John Nichols of The Nation, “ALEC’s priorities for the 2011 session included bills to privatize education, break unions, deregulate major industries, and pass voter ID laws.” Sound familiar? is a new website that contains examples of model bills on a variety of issues. According to ALEC Exposed, three of the most influential state legislators during the last legislative session in Austin, Sen. Florence Shapiro (R), Rep. Diane Patrick (R), and Rep. Rob Eissler (R), are all members of the ALEC Educational Task Force. So, if you’ve ever wondered where politicians come up with education reform bills, the general answer is the private sector and the specific answer may be ALEC. Julie Underwood of The Nation explains that the strategy encouraged by ALEC is for state legislators to introduce a variety of bills on a specific topic (ex: public education) simultaneously. The result is that the education community will not be able to respond quick enough to defeat all of the bills. In other words, if you attack using a large legislative force with speed then at least some of the bills will get through. Again, sound familiar?

Is public education in danger of being privatized? Possibly. Public education is certainly under attack. Should those who support public education oppose the charter school movement? Not, exactly. The charter school movement is complex and could work with public education to improve our nation’s schools. Overall, public education must be defended as a public good, “competition” between schools should be recognized as a recipe for re-segregation and inequality, and decreasing funding is surely not going to improve anything.

Currently, schools are being assessed based on test scores and “competition” between schools is based on test scores, as well. Schools, and increasingly teachers, are being held accountable for their student’s test scores, but almost no consideration is being given to what students are supposed to be learning. We should consider the words of Diane Ravitch: “When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble. When that happens, we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies, and forming citizens for our democracy, not just teaching basic skills.”

Update: June 27, 2013

President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program has been an attempt to improve NCLB, but the program expands charter schools and embraces the failed teacher accountability model embraced by the business community. Basically, NCLB and “Race to the Top” are in agreement and the “reform” movement has reached a bi-partisan consensus. I find both NCLB and “Race to the Top” troubling. Diane Ravitch continues to speak out against the accountability model that she helped spread during the 1990s. She was the keynote speaker at the 2013 Save Texas Schools rally in Austin. As the 2014 NCLB 100% proficiency deadline approaches, many states have received waivers under “Race to the Top” and the Common Core Standards have become the subject of much debate. ALEC is still influencing legislation, but Voter ID laws were struck down before the 2012 election. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act, however, will enable many state legislatures to pass Voter ID laws that would have been deemed unconstitutional.

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