Education "Reform": Naming and Shaming

Kyle Curtis Facebook

Education "Reform": Naming and Shaming

Previously, I provided a Econ 101-ish perspective as to how funding for Oregon's public school districts--which are perennially in a budget "crisis mode"--were devastated by the 2008 economic crash. As a result, there has developed an expectation that schools need to "make do with less," an expectation that is failing the state's school kids. This situation is not unique to Oregon, as the collapse in revenues of the past few years has wreaked budgetary havoc for school districts around the country. And as a result, proponents of education "reform" have stepped into the policy debate, offering solutions based on the private sector which basically amount to nothing more than the privatization of public education--and the billions of dollars available for funding, in the state of Oregon alone.

Michelle Rhee is the highest profile individual associated with the education "reform" movement. One of the stars of the acclaimed documentary "Waiting for Superman" and reoccurring guest on the Oprah show, Rhee has rocketed from obscurity to celebrity in her education reform efforts--despite only having three years' experience as a teacher, and three years' experience in an administrative role as the Chancellor of D.C. public schools. In the process of implementing her agenda, Rhee and her proponents have often circumvented the democratic process, making decisions regarding teacher layoffs and school closures without any public input by the impacted community.

In a recent column for Salon, progressive commentator David Sirota detailed the “scorched-earth tactics” used by the education reform movement, which results in the message conveyed to students that basic democratic principles simply do not matter:

Like so many other industries currently waging a war on democratic institutions that get in the way of bottom-line concerns, this Wall Street-backed education industry sees democratic forces — elections, collective bargaining, local control, etc.— as obstacles to private profit. Thus, the industry, through financing the crusades of education “reform” advocates, is trying to maximize its bottom line by reducing democratic control of the most local of local institutions: the schoolhouse. In the process, the “reform” movement is forwarding an extremist message to kids and parents that runs counter to the most foundational ideals of American democracy and self-governance.

In his piece, Sirota targets Rhee and rightly criticizes her record and accomplishments as Chancellor of the D.C. school system, the same credentials that are burnished in the effort to appoint Rhee as an earnest "reformer" who is going to simply "save the country's public schools." The time Rhee spent as D.C. chancellor—an unelected position without any oversight—was accompanied by the mass layoffs of 266 teachers, the closing of 23 schools, and a massive cheating scandal. Rhee’s primary course of action to accomplish her reform efforts was through the targeting of teacher tenure, and it was only by having the teachers’ union agree to exchange pay raises for weakened job security was she able to accomplish her record of mass layoffs. And yet, despite these drastic, over-reaching, and un-democratic steps, the Washington D.C. school system still has—according to a PBS Frotinline report—one of the “worst performing school systems in the nation.”

Sirota also targets the corporate reformers and their push to replace publicly funded schools with privately run charter schools, who—despite accepting public funds yet are able to screen out and pick favorable applicants—still typically perform worse than public schools. As Sirota points out, by putting up these barriers to an education that is funded with public dollars, charter schools are communicating a message that equal opportunity for every child—regardless of race or economic background—should be ignored and not applied in public education. When you couple this message with the fact that Rhee was only able to implement her "reform" agenda after being appointed to an unelected position--with parents and families having no say in the hundreds of schools that were shut down--Sirota’s central thesis that the private sector-backed effort towards “education reform” is intrinsically anti-democratic in nature is difficult to argue. (Interestingly, when Rhee-backed education "reform" efforts are put to a vote on a public ballot, they are defeated--as the results of a local election held in Los Angeles last month indicate.)

What does all this mean for Oregon? Shortly after resigning as D.C. public schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee founded the well-funded political lobbying organization Students First, whose primary purpose is to pass legislation at the state level that weakens teacher tenure and makes it easier to fire teachers that receive a poor evaluation. This legislation has been signed into law by the conservative Governors of such states as Florida, Michigan, and, in fact, during the 2012 elections, of the 105 candidates supported by Students First, 90 were Republicans. While the website for Students First does include a subpage for “Oregon for Education Reform,” it is inactive and the state—despite receiving a D- rating on Students First’s national report card—is not included on the organization’s list of active states.

While Michelle Rhee and her legion of charter-school advocates are not currently pitching a heated battle to "reform" Oregon's public schools, which basically boils down to making it easier to fire teachers and close schools. In Portland, we are not going to any time soon see similar outcomes as in Washington, D.C., where 266 schools shut down, or in Chicago, in which this past September the teachers' union voted to go on their first strike in 25 years and saw a recent announcement that the city planned to close 11% of its public schools for the 2013-14 school year. While there has been nothing quite reaching this magnitude, Oregon's schools have suffered for the past decade, with its claim of having the shortest school year becoming the butt of a Doonesbury cartoon. In recent years, there has been a series of school closures undertaken by Portland Public Schools with resulting consequences that are largely ignored or unseen.

Next: How the politics of PERS reform is the politics of public school funding, with disastrous consequences.

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