Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A one-two punch to public education

Metro Nashville Public Schools has been flying to "education reform" money and influence at the federal and state levels like a duck on a June bug. Starting with custodians and extending to charters they have been privatizing to flip public obligations to millions in corporate dollars. They have enlisted organizations that have impeded and eroded public education in other states. It has been consistent with David Sirota's framing of education policy in terms of Shock Doctrine:

as the overall spending pie for public schools is shrinking, the piece of the pie for high-tech companies -- who make big campaign contributions to education policymakers -- is getting much bigger, while the piece of the pie for traditional education (teachers, school infrastructure, text books, etc.) is getting smaller.

... the spending shift isn't producing better achievement results on the very standardized tests the high-tech industry celebrates and makes money off of ....

Tech companies give the politicians who set education policy lots of campaign contributions, and in exchange, those politicians have returned the favor by citing tough economic times over the last decade as a rationale to wage an aggressive attack on traditional public education. That attack has included everything from demonizing teachers; to siphoning public money to privately administered schools; to funneling more of the money still left in public schools to private high-tech companies.

This trend ... is a deliberate strategy by corporate executives and their political puppets, a strategy that uses the disaster of recession-era budget cuts as a means of justifying radical policies, knowing that the disaster will have shellshocked observers asking far fewer questions about data and actual results ....

Or as [education consultant Tom] Watkins explains, social pain is an opportunity: "Let's hope the fiscal crisis doesn't get better too soon. It'll slow down reform."

.... according to the Obama administration, standardized tests are the perfect tool to judge and punish struggling schools and the teachers who work with low-income kids, but they can't be used to similarly judge technology products that are making Obama's high-tech donors lots of cash.

In this oxymoron, we see who the corporate "reformers" in government really believe they work for, and whom they shape public policy on behalf of. It's not the average parent or student or voter. It's the Disaster Capitalists, who now have their sights set on your local schoolhouse

And now comes word that President Obama is working on a jobs plan in which even more money will be pumped into education within the larger context of education reform:

State and local governments, facing budget shortfalls, have turned to school systems to make up the difference. Only three states increased funding for education in FY 2012 -- the rest cut it by millions. California, in a particularly alarming example, laid off an estimated 19,000 teachers as of this spring ....

The refurbishing of schools could have an even larger economic multiplier effect. Currently there is an estimated $270 billion to $500 billion backlog in school maintenance and repair projects nationwide ....

Sources familiar with White House deliberations have said that advisers to the administration are weighing the merits of the Fix America's Schools Today (FAST) program, which would fund the maintenance and repair of public schools. The distinction between school construction and repair is an important one. The former would involve enhanced federal assistance and longer-term investment. Repair would have lower capital costs and less of a federal imprint.

What drives progressives like me crazy is that Obama usually talks a good progressive game plan (and he no doubt will when he offers the job plan), but the execution of his actual policy is conducted by those in his inner circle invested exclusively in the world of high finance. They are pulling the strings in the "reform" that is shaking public education to its foundations. The jobs bill will provide just enough inertia to highlight the connection between education and jobs, but it will also open the door to more education reform.

So, my sense is that FAST money will likely go to school repair/construction projects that advance the interests of business first. Outside of a few short-term jobs that temporarily stimulate the economy, buildings used for non-traditional uses will get more attention than most of the public school infrastructure. The scope will not be wide or long-term and implementation will prey on the general desperation people feel for jobs in this climate.

Hypothetically, if money comes to Metro Nashville, my guess is that it would be earmarked not to fix buildings in traditional public schools but that it would go to projects like those that renovate existing school buildings for charter and non-traditional schools. Leaking roofs will continue to leak. Long put-upon students still won't have lunchrooms or gyms. The prevailing trade winds here blow directly away public education. Take a recent groveling Tennessean story by Julie Hubbard hawking education reform:

Charter management groups took over troubled schools in New Orleans, Los Angeles and other American cities, with those districts seeking a fresh approach to long-term problems.

They’ve been dubbed the kings of turnaround, and now those groups are coming to Tennessee.

Metro Nashville hosts the concept on a small scale — LEAD Academy, a charter school, runs one grade of Cameron Middle School this year and will take over a grade a year. But many more charter groups are submitting bids, due Sept. 15, to run some of Tennessee’s worst-performing public schools ....

With about half of America’s 3 million teachers on the verge of retirement by the end of the decade, this could be the time to make dramatic changes to teacher recruitment and compensation ....

The new structure should shift from an industrial-era, blue-collar model of pay to one that rewards effectiveness and could include paying high-quality teachers with increased class sizes more money.

Tennessee is taking a shot at this sort of performance-based pay plan this year, giving 13 districts the ability to award bonuses to teachers who move their students well ahead of average gains.

Aside from writing like she is bucking for a future job in public relations, Ms. Hubbard seems to resort to code when replying to teachers and their right to collectively bargain: "industrial-era, blue-collar" makes teachers unions sound regressive, even antique. As if business-influenced politicians are naturally going to pay teachers fairly without any pressure to do so. In reality, teachers unions are the primary obstacles to Disaster Capitalists completely overrunning and dumbing down public education to suit their profit motives.

But reading the Tennessean in an exploding context of education reform in Nashville, of the millions poured into charter schools here and of the pandering speeches of Mayor Karl Dean and MNPS Jesse Register to business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, I see one sexy option the Obama Administration might want to consider just a few blocks down:

While the Civic Design Center suggested a magnet school, a charter school might maximize returns. So, after a slight tune-up, this concept would present a robo-growth combination: a ballpark designed above all to make wealthy local developers wealthier book-ended by a privately-run public school with no "blue-collar" unions to hassle MNPS and lots of new contracts to sign with education corporations and consultants. Government money would stream ineluctably into both projects.

The multiplex Sulphur Dell concept is pure gold; unless you're on the business end of education reform's one-two punch, watching your dignity siphoned off by misplaced logic that your education sucks and watching your district's resources siphoned off to propped up, unaccountable charter schools.

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