By Robert A. Vella
Besieged by an onslaught of privatization schemes, budget cutting, ill-conceived performance standards, an anti-union inspired marginalization of teachers, and an inequality triggered broadening of poverty, America’s once-revered education system has fallen into an atrocious state. Both the quality and status of K-12 education (i.e. elementary and high schools) have deteriorated steadily over the last two decades, and higher education (i.e. colleges and universities) is fast becoming an exclusive perk for the rich.
As recently as 1985, the U.S. education system ranked #1 in the world and it was consistently at or near that level during the four decades following World War II. But in the early-to-mid 1990s, the current dysfunctional dynamics began to take root. Minnesota was the first U.S. state to adopt laws publicly sanctioning charter schools and most other states did likewise thereafter. When Republicans gained power in Congress after the 1994 midterm elections (see: Contract with America), they embarked on a mission – which continues to this day – to severely reduce the size and scope of the federal government through spending cuts and tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations. The first major standards-based education reform measure was enacted in 2002 (see: No Child Left Behind Act). Conservatives’ assault on collective bargaining began during the Reagan Administration, but really began to hit labor unions hard after the Tea Party’s ascendancy in 2010 (see: The Attack on Unions: Which Side Are You On?). All these dynamics had a negative effect on education, but none more so than the widening of the wealth gap which is strangling the poor and middle class and which is now polarizing the nation in dangerous ways.
From The New York Times – Education Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Growing Wider:
The civil rights movement, school desegregation and the War on Poverty helped bring a measure of equity to the playing field. Today, despite some setbacks along the way, racial disparities in education have narrowed significantly. By 2012, the test-score deficit of black 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds in reading and math had been reduced as much as 50 percent compared with what it was 30 to 40 years before.
Achievements like these breathe hope into our belief in the Land of Opportunity. They build trust in education as a leveling force powering economic mobility. “We do have a track record of reducing these inequalities,” said Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work at Columbia University.
But the question remains: Why did we stop there?
For all the progress in improving educational outcomes among African-American children, the achievement gaps between more affluent and less privileged children is wider than ever, notes Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford. Racial disparities are still a stain on American society, but they are no longer the main divider. Today the biggest threat to the American dream is class.
Fifty years ago, the black-white proficiency gap was one and a half to two times as large as the gap between a child from a family at the top 90th percentile of the income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile, according to Professor Reardon at Stanford. Today, the proficiency gap between the poor and the rich is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children.
In other words, even as one achievement gap narrowed, another opened wide. That kind of progress could dash one’s hope in the leveling power of education.
This shifting of disparities in education from a race gap to a wealth gap didn’t happen by accident. It was planned from the outset by conservative Republicans after Civil Rights era desegregation, and subsequently aided by corporatist Democrats beginning with the Clinton Administration.
From Education Opportunity Network – Memo to Scott Walker From Milwaukee: “We’re Not Going To Let Our Public Schools Die”:
A Hostile Takeover
“The County Executive has all the power,” Kim Schroeder told me in a different phone conversation. Schroeder has been teaching in the district for 20 years and is president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association.
Schroder acknowledges Abele has pledged to not bring in charter school authorizers, but he doesn’t believe him. Like McManaman, he sees what’s being imposed on his school district as an existential threat.
He argues that funding what are essentially three separate school systems – the private voucher schools, the privately operated charters, and Milwaukee Public schools – is driving the district toward financial insolvency. “We’re reaching a tipping point. If more of our schools are chosen for privatization, MPS won’t exist in three to five years.” His concerns echo the MPS board president’s warning earlier this year that, according to an independent news outlet, the Walker devised plan “would bankrupt the district by hijacking money and facilities from the district and into private but taxpayer-supported schools.”
“Let’s call it what it is – a hostile takeover,” the board president told the reporter.
Resistance Is Better Organized
What McManaman and Schroeder describe happening in Milwaukee is almost an identical copy of what I reported happening in Nashville, Tennessee. The program for “reform” goes like this: First, underfund schools to the point it seriously harms their capacities to educate, especially in underserved communities where the schools are already challenged with students whose grinding poverty puts them behind even before they reach the schoolhouse door. When these underfunded schools score low on state assessments, as they almost always do, the state declares an “emergency” situation to hand the schools over to a charter management organization or siphon off their enrollments with vouchers. One-by-one, schools are picked off for takeover until the whole district is threatened with insolvency and becomes a candidate for the next New Orleans.
What’s different between Nashville and Milwaukee is that in Milwaukee the resistance to reform seems better organized.
But like all plans which seek to destroy rather than to build, this one is starting to fall apart quite spectacularly.
From The Center for Media and Democracy – CMD Publishes Full List of 2,500 Closed Charter Schools (with Interactive Map):
Today, the Center for Media and Democracy is releasing a complete state-by-state list of the failed charter schools since 2000. Among other things, this data reveals that millions and millions of federal tax dollars went to “ghost” schools that never even opened to students. The exact amount is unknown because the U.S. Department of Education is not required to report its failures, where money went to groups to help them start new charters that never even opened.
This data set also provides reporters and citizens of each state an opportunity to take a closer look at how much taxpayer money has been squandered on the failed charter school experiment in their states. The data set and the interactive map below are based on more than a decade’s worth of official but raw data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
This release comes as the U.S. Department of Education and industry insiders currently deciding which states to award half a billion dollar in grants designed to bolster the school privatization industry under the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP).
As CMD has calculated, nearly 2,500 charter schools have shuttered between 2001 and 2013, affecting 288,000 American children enrolled in primary and secondary schools, and the failure rate for charter schools is much higher than for traditional public schools.
The bottom line here is truly astounding. America’s world-leading education system – which greatly benefited the poor, the middle class, the nation, and other countries as well – was wholly sacrificed simply to pursue a free-market capitalist ideology and to maintain the status quo of white privilege.
Think about that. Was it worth the cost?
Related story: Virtual schools are booming. Who’s paying attention?