|Credit: Creative Commons/AFGE|
"Ed reformers are just waiting for their turn to talk. They only want to talk about themselves. Anything you say, they just want to tell you, 'Charter schools are great.' A parent can tell them, 'I broke my foot.' And a reformer will say, 'You know what's good for that? Charter schools!'" -- Education Post's Chris StewartFor most of the past three decades, school reformers have been focused on dismantling traditional, mainly urban public school systems, replacing traditional public schools with a hodgepodge of market-oriented, tech-driven, resegregated and union-free "choice" options -- mainly, privately-run charter schools and school vouchers.
The unintended, or sometimes intended, consequence of these reforms is a steady rollback of the genuine reforms won by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s (the second Reconstruction period in our history). It was those reforms, limited and fleeting as they may have been, which, from 1968-88, generated the greatest educational gains for poor children this nation has ever seen.
But what we're seeing now is an increasingly racially re-segregated, two-tiered system made up of unregulated selective, heavily-resourced, high-performing schools for the few, and a collapsing infrastructure of resource-starved public schools for the many, especially in areas of concentrated urban and rural poverty.
Market-driven reform crosses traditional party lines and is based within a handful of conservative think tanks and policy groups like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Fordham Institute, and underwritten by high-powered philanthropists like billionaires Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, the Walton Family, the New Schools Venture Fund, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and others.
It's actually difficult for me to call them "reformers" since, for the past 16 years, they have captured (or been captured by) the U.S. Dept. of Education bureaucracy, which under a string of ed secretaries (Paige, Spellings, Duncan, and King),has become a bulwark of standardization, privatization and failed top-down initiatives. In other words, the status quo.
But the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of choice supporter Betsy DeVos as the next secretary of education, have ironically thrown the current corporate and choice reformers into a state of panic and confusion. Why? Because even though they and Trump/DeVos share a common view of choice, charters and vouchers (a sticking point for some), throwing in with Trump's confederacy of alt-right white nationalists and educational know-nothings would widen the chasm between themselves and their potential customer base. A no-no for anyone working in the corporate world.
The election of Trump has also thrown a monkey wrench into their efforts to organize, co-opt, or at least engage with that base as well as with union teachers, young progressive educators and policy people (ie. Teach for America alums) and school/community activists who are repulsed by Trump and the Republicans.
This hoped-for dialogue with progressives was a task assigned to former Duncan assistant Peter Cunningham and his on-line Eli Broad-funded journal Education Post.
So far, Cunningham's "let's find common ground" approach to the progressives has been little more than a veil. A trap set to draw them in without budging on any important issues. And the real problem is that it hasn't produced the hoped-for results. That's because the reformers are self-critical about style, but so far, not about content.
Sensing this failure, Cunningham has dropped all pretenses and sharpened his attacks on teacher unions, opt-out parents, and polemicising against school integration efforts. He's really sharpened his polemical knife for any and all who want caps on charter school expansion. Since the campaign began, national civil rights groups like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have actually hardened their stance against charters and vouchers.
So much for "common ground"...
More proof that forced integration didn't work. @mikeklonsky Lamenting segregation is just an excuse to avoid improving schools.— Peter Cunningham (@PCunningham57) August 16, 2016
@leoniehaimson Recruiting a small percentage of POC doesn't change the fact that opt out is largely driven by middle class whites.— Peter Cunningham (@PCunningham57) April 24, 2016
At a recent AEI conference, choice reformers appeared to taking a self-critical approach and re-evaluating their strategies. Among the hottest topics was, what they called, "race-based" reform.
AEI's Rick Hess, who hosted the conference, writes:
There was a willingness to talk frankly but in measured tones about disagreements. Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out that, for more than a decade, education reform has been approached as a race-based endeavor and questioned the wisdom and the desirability of this shift...
There was a recognition that groupthink is a problem for all of us. AEI's Andy Smarick observed, "We all tend to surround ourselves with people who agree with our views. Then we wind up with an echo chamber.It's nice to know that some reformers are reconsidering groupthink, at least for now, in the face of Trumpism. Maybe others will follow. As for civil discourse about race and reform...I'm not holding my breath.
But the Trump/DeVos assault on public education should push choice, charter and voucher proponents to reconsider, not only their style, but substance as well.