How Did the Idea of Education Privatization Become Normalized?

After the Office of Government Ethics released Betsy DeVos’s financial disclosure information on Friday, Senator Lamar Alexander has again delayed—until January 31st—the Senate HELP Committee’s vote on whether to recommend Betsy DeVos’s nomination for a vote on the Senate floor.  The extra week gives those of us who worry about DeVos’s nomination more time to learn about Betsy DeVos and her ideas and also more time to try to keep up the pressure on our Senators to oppose her.  Please continue to call your Senators and encourage your friends to do so.

In the meantime, Valerie Strauss has written an absolutely essential article to ensure that everybody is better informed.  It is a history of the normalization of the idea of school privatization.  As you know, privatization of education is also Betsy DeVos’s one preferred idea. Many of us remember a time when most Americans simply accepted that the public schools, paid for by the public and responsible for educating each and every student, were the best institution for meeting the needs and protecting the rights of our children.

In Democrats Reject Her, but They Helped Pave the Road to Education Nominee DeVos, Strauss explains: “Democrats have in recent years sounded—and acted—a lot like Republicans in advancing corporate education reform, which seeks to operate public schools as if they were businesses, not civic institutions…  By embracing many of the tenets of corporate reform—including the notion of ‘school choice’ and targeting of teachers and their unions as being blind to the needs of children—they helped make DeVos’s education views, once seen as extreme, seem less so.”

Strauss quotes the ideas Richard Devos, Betsy’s husband, presented in a speech at the Heritage Foundation outlining “a state-by-state strategy to expand vouchers and school choice by rewarding and punishing legislators.  He told supporters to call public schools ‘government schools’ but urged that they be ‘cautious about talking too much about these activities’ so as not to call attention and garner opposition.”

Strauss also describes the work of Jeb Bush as governor of Florida.  Bush instituted standardized test-based accountability, released state report cards that evaluated schools with A through F grades based on test scores, and rapidly expanded charter schools—the combination of policies that have defined what’s known as “corporate school reform.”  And she shows how all this got folded in to No Child Left Behind, the federal education law signed by George W. Bush in 2002.

Finally she explains how corporate school reform was embedded even more deeply into federal policy under a Democrat, Barack Obama, and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “Under Duncan and Obama, the Education Department pushed the federal education agenda even further toward market based reforms than Bush had.  They used the promise of federal funds to push states to expand charter schools—paying more attention to growth than oversight—and to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, even though assessment experts said it was an unreliable method of evaluation… George W. Bush, the Republican, had expanded the federal role in education and Obama went much, much further.  Democratic support for market forces in public education reform softened the ground for programs, such as school vouchers.  Obama and many other Democrats don’t support using public money for private and religious school tuition—but Obama’s opposition (to vouchers) seemed like a policy asterisk compared to the Republican-sounding policy initiatives he did champion.”

Ironically last week the U.S. Department of Education published a scathing evaluation of some of these very corporate reform policies.  The Washington Post’s Emma Brown captures the moment: “One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results…. Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program—the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools—than in schools that did not.  The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.”

Brown adopts the language of the program—that the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program was designed to address the challenges of so-called “failing” schools.  Schools targeted for SIG grants were those posting test scores in the bottom 5 percent of the nation’s schools.  Academic research has continued to demonstrate that students’ test scores reflect their family’s and their neighborhood’s economic circumstances.  It would therefore be more accurate to call the schools that underwent SIG transformations “the schools in our nation’s poorest communities.” And it would be well to remind readers that the school turnaround plans offered under SIG did nothing to address poverty itself.

Brown reminds us how the SIG program worked: “The money went to states to distribute to their poorest-performing schools—those with exceedingly low graduation rates, or poor math and reading test scores, or both.  Individual schools could receive up to $2 million per year for three years, on the condition that they adopt one of the Obama administration’s four preferred measures: replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, converting into a charter school, closing altogether, or undergoing a ‘transformation,’ including hiring a new principal and adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations and a longer school day.  The Education Department did not track how the money was spent, other than to note which of the four strategies schools chose.”

Brown reminds us that Arne Duncan bragged about the SIG program: “The school turnaround effort, he told The Washington Post days before he left office in 2016, was arguably the administration’s ‘biggest bet.’  He and other administration officials sought to highlight individual schools that made dramatic improvements after receiving the money.  But the new study released this week shows that, as a large-scale effort, School Improvement Grants failed.”

What happened?  Here is the conclusion of the Department of Education’s own report published last Wednesday: “Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

Replacing the staff and radically reshaping the curriculum were SIG strategies used in many schools, but other schools were privatized—turned into charter schools and turned over to big Charter Management Organizations.  Some of the schools were abruptly closed.  It would be well for us all—and for Betsy DeVos herself—to recognize that privatization did not work any better than the other three SIG strategies.  The U.S. Department of Education just admitted the utter failure of the SIG program and all four strategies.

One thought on “How Did the Idea of Education Privatization Become Normalized?

  1. Jan,
    As always, thank you for the incredibly thorough work and the continued dedication to doing the right thing.

    In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes how as an elementary school student growing up in Baltimore, he was confronted by a group of boys who aimed a gun at his head. From that time on, his primary concern each day was not whether or not he had a #2 pencil for school but planning a safe route to and from school each day.

    We continue to spend huge sums of money on variations of programs which have been demonstrated not to work while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that the root cause is poverty. Perhaps it is time to recognize that poverty is a more dangerous enemy than ISIS and it is attacking us from within.

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