Last Friday, Anthony Cody, the fine Education Week/Teacher Magazine blogger about justice for children and respect for teachers, wished aloud what public school supporters everywhere have been quietly hoping: Tony Bennett’s Day of Reckoning Has Come: Is Corporate Reform Far Behind? Cody hopes we are reaching a tipping point when political opinion will shift against high-stakes accountability. Embedded in his blog post is an important film clip of Chris Hayes and PBS reporter John Merrow discussing on MSNBC the meaning of the Bennett scandal. And today Diane Ravitch circulated a National Review critique of Bennett by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin; Ravitch hopes that even the far-right is beginning to see the error in accountability-based ideology.
If you are tracking the education blogs or if you are following scandals arising from cheating to make school rankings and ratings look good, you probably know about the school reform scandal that caused Tony Bennett, the state school superintendent in Florida to resign last week. Bennett who came to Florida earlier this year when Indiana voters replaced him as their elected state superintendent, was exposed last week by an Associated Press reporter who searched Bennett’s e-mail to discover that, during his tenure in Indiana, Bennett lobbied for a change in Indiana’s A-F school rating system to raise the grade from a C to an A for a charter school owned by a powerful political contributor who had heavily supported not only legislators but also Bennett’s own campaign. Bennett had brought the A-F rating system for schools to Indiana and added consequences including school funding, school closures, and state takeovers for the schools with low grades. Valerie Strauss’s column from last Friday is the best I exploration I’ve read of the implications of Bennett’s resignation in Florida.
I’d like to hope we have reached a tipping point, but I think we have a long, long way to go. Tony Bennett’s resignation in Florida has dominated the blogosphere, but I suspect it was neither gossiped about at coffee hour in many churches this morning nor discussed much over after-dinner coffee last night.
I know something about changing a public conversation. My understanding is local, not national, but still relevant, I think. Twenty years ago, after our inner-ring suburban school levy failed in May by a margin of over two thousand votes, I agreed to co-chair a levy set to appear on the November ballot. We found chairs who recruited over 700 volunteers to go door-to-door to talk with neighbors and got those people trained along with a whole speakers’ bureau. We established a letter writing campaign in which members of churches and synagogues and members of the faculty at universities and doctors and nurses at Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals and musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra personally wrote to explain the importance of the levy to all of their colleagues residing in our school district. We secured and published hundreds of endorsements. Volunteers held signs on busy corners and held a parade. Local artists designed the logo and the campaign literature. Hundreds of brochures were printed and delivered personally by the street captain on each block, and if we couldn’t get a street captain, sports teams from the high school and Scout troops delivered levy literature after we secured their parents’ permission. Telephone answering machines were relatively new at the time, and we got everybody in the campaign to change the message to say, “I’m sorry I can’t answer the phone right now because I’m too busy working for the school levy.” Nobody could forget the very simple message: “The future of our community depends on our schools.” That campaign produced 9,742 votes for the levy; 7,686 votes against, a positive margin of two thousand votes.
I learned that summer and fall that changing public opinion is possible but I also I learned the amount of work and disciplined focus required. Something I worry about in the night these days is what will be required to change the national conversation about public education. Are the reductive and often inaccurate A-F grading systems that are being promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and its companion group, Chiefs for Change, the vehicle for shifting the conversation? Can we accept Anthony Cody’s logic that the Bennett scandal added to the Rhee scandal added to the Atlanta cheating scandal added to the Rod Paige Texas miracle that turned out to be a lie will convince the public of the folly of corporatized reform?
How the school accountability agenda is being moved forward federally and across the states is pretty complicated even for someone like me who has spent a lot of time learning about today’s school reform. Tonight I searched the internet to try to find out which states have adopted the A-F school “grades” as Chiefs for Change have encouraged states to do. I found the following list in Lyndsey Layton’s August 3 Washington Post article: Florida, Indiana, Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and, in 2015, Virginia and Ohio. My search also unearthed articles that appeared in local newspapers in each of those states, but nothing until the Bennett scandal that connected the A-F school grades across the states or to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education or Chiefs for Change.
In my own clipping file I discovered an article from page 21 of the May 12, 2012 Education Week reporting that several states were incorporating A-F school rating systems into applications for waivers from the penalties of No Child Left Behind. I cannot discern from this article whether the U.S. Department of Education was awarding points for inclusion of A-F rating systems. I do know that in many cases the A-F rating systems were included in proposals written and submitted by state education departments without democratic, legislative oversight. These applications were submitted for a waiver program that has never had Congressional oversight. Waivers are, after all, the U.S. Department of Education’s end-run around a Congress that has been unable to agree on the reauthorization of a deeply flawed No Child Left Behind.
In many states, however, corporatized reform has been enthusiastically embraced by legislatures and governors. Defeating A-F school rating systems, a rush to charters, and the wave of new voucher programs washing across the states will require a mass of disciplined political organizing.
As someone who has recently taken up blogging, I am certainly not in position to criticize such work, but blogging alone cannot turn around the national school reform conversation. Before the political will can shift, it will be necessary to agree on goals and strategy and to organize lots of real people to insist that state legislators and Congress begin once again to focus on investing in and improving the public schools in our poorest communities. Building political will with that kind of disciplined organizing will be really hard work.