The NY Times has been covering the revolving door in Washington, D.C., by which those who are lobbying have recently been serving as members of Congress or more likely as the aides who write the laws the members themselves introduce.
These newspaper articles are worrisome, for as the NY Times notes in the headline for its Monday editorial, “The Capitol’s Spinning Door Accelerates.” “A new study by the Sunlight Foundation found that the number of active lobbyists with prior government experience has nearly quadrupled since 1998, rising to 1,846 in 2012. Those revolving-door lobbyists, mostly from Capitol Hill, accounted for nearly all of the huge growth in lobbying revenue during that period, which increased to $1.32 billion from $703 million in 1998.”
The in-depth article to which Monday’s editorial refers appeared in Sunday’s paper: Law Doesn’t End Revolving Door on Capitol Hill. Although none of the examples reported relates directly to lobbying in public education, I believe there are implications of the revolving-door culture for the laws that affect public schools.
And it isn’t merely that Sandy Kress, one of the primary authors of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), revolved right into being a lobbyist (for over ten years now) for Pearson, which has for years been creating the tests, and grading and aggregating data from the tests, that NCLB requires all states to administer to children in grades 3-8. Pearson is the huge corporation that is now preparing tests and curricula for the Common Core and now managing the GED program by which high school dropouts can earn an equivalency diploma by taking the GED exams.
There is also something far more subtle going on than the blatant influence-peddling. If one asks parents what concerns them most about their children’s schools, the answer will likely touch on school funding, as demonstrated in last fall’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, when the majority of people polled said the biggest problem for public schools is lack of financial support. Or the issue of class size will likely arise. In New York City there is a non-profit organization devoted to raising this particular issue: Class Size Matters.
These are not, however, the primary topics of debate inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C., where the assumptions and values underneath the No Child Left Behind Act still shape the conversation. It is difficult to get people on the Hill to question whether our public education system ought to be driven by standardized testing; instead the conversation centers on what kind of testing, how the tests should be graded, and whether Common Core tests ought to be administered on-line.
In Washington, it is also pretty hard to get a conversation going about how to better support teachers in our poorest communities. What are the assets in those public schools and how can the federal government build upon those assets? Is it really true that those are “failing” schools? The conversation now instead follows a predictable pattern about the range of sanctions to induce the staff in those schools to work harder.
In a place where young Congressional aides shape their understanding of public education on the Hill and then in jobs with the professional organizations that lobby the Hill, too many have little experience with the daily life in a public school, the real challenges and exhausting schedule in the life of a teacher or the hard budgetary choices of a superintendent or principal who has to cut music in order to have enough reading teachers or school social workers.
The fact that school spending is lower across the majority of states than it was in 2008 does not get connected to what Congress proposes to require of schools. And it is impossible to have serious conversation about the reality that when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of the cost for school districts. However Congress has never paid more than 19 percent, less in most years. It is as though the challenges of providing the required special education programs are invisible to the people responsible for appropriating the funding.
How can one reach the people who are influencing law-making? How can we ensure that the voices of teachers and parents are heard? Democracy works only when there is real space for conversation. Today much of the conversation is framed in rhetoric, and those inside and outside the Beltway don’t even realize they are imagining different visions for our public schools.