In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how powerful, moneyed interests have quietly taken advantage of the relatively invisible politics of state government to undermine public education. Public school governance and funding is established in the state constitutions, and corporate interests, for decades, have been strategically manipulating state politics to starve the public schools our children attend and drive their own priorities: slashing government and growing privatization.
Why the states? “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… If most people can’t name their legislators, how many are likely to have a well informed opinion on whether prevailing wages should be required on public construction projects worth more than $25,000?… Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)
Lafer documents that state policy to starve public schools has been driven by groups like Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and a wide network of far-right state and regional think-tanks associated with ALEC. In an epigraph introducing his chapter on the destruction of public schooling, Lafer chooses a quote from Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a midwestern ALEC partner. Unlike Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who frames the far-right agenda for school privatization innocently as the mere expansion of choices for parents, Bast is more honest: “Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise… The way to privatize schooling is to give parents… vouchers, with which to pay tuition at the K-12 schools of their choice… Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will no longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization… This is a battle we should win… But in the short term, there will be many defeats caused by teacher union opposition.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 127)
Lafer defines the corporate education platform plank by plank. Here are the subheadings of the sections of his chapter on the destruction of public education: “Budget Cuts and Crowded Classrooms,” “Vouchers,” “High-Stakes Testing,” “Charter Schools,” “Education Reform: An Evidence-Free Zone of Public Policy,” “Education Technology and the Replacement of In-Person with Digital Instruction,” and “Deprofessionalization—The Deskilling of Teachers.” The most amazing thing about the reform agenda incorporating these mechanisms is that it has been enacted into law while we haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in the legislature and while we’ve been too ignorant to block ALEC’s model bills. In many places it has been enacted by legislators elected in the money-driven Red wave in 2010, an election that created legislative, far-right supermajorities across many statehouses.
Lafer explains: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often they have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also often broadly unpopular. For example, a majority of the country opposes using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools… What parents want most of all are smaller class sizes… In this sense, education policy also provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (The One Percent Solution, p 130)
The widespread walkouts by schoolteachers this spring—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona to Colorado, and last week in North Carolina—have finally begun to help the public connect the dots. We can now identify the same symptoms of the crisis in state after state: lower teachers’ salaries, larger classes, teacher shortages, more charters, more vouchers, school funding that has fallen over the decade. In a fine analysis of last week’s huge May 16th demonstration by teachers in North Carolina, the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein describes the very same set of problems striking teachers have been identifying all spring: “In North Carolina, inflation-adjusted salaries are down 9 percent since 2009. Teachers earned an average of $9,000 less than the national average of $59,000 during the 2016-17 school year…. North Carolina is also the top user of foreign teachers brought in via the J-1 temporary visa, a trend that has accelerated because of stagnant pay. After Republicans took control of state government in 2013, North Carolina ended the estate tax and lowered corporate taxes as well as some personal income taxes… Since 2009, the budgets for supplies, textbooks and school technology have been slashed by about half… And a greater share of teacher compensation has been dedicated toward pensions and health care costs.” While Governor Roy Cooper, a recently elected Democrat has proposed ending some already-planned future tax cuts “for businesses and high earners,” Republicans in the North Carolina legislature make up a veto-proof supermajority.
Looking back at the effect of this spring’s walkouts by teachers—events that have awakened awareness and concern about the widespread financial crisis for public schools—Goldstein warns, however, that it will be extremely challenging to sustain the walkouts and demonstrations. Why? Because while the same destructive policies are in place across many states, the particular ways schools are funded and teachers’ salaries are set are very different from state to state: “Despite the diversity and seemingly endless energy, the movement has limits. Most states have schools that are funded more or less equally from state and local coffers, with voters making many decisions close to home. But North Carolina shares something with other walkout states: Its state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts. This strong-state model can include a larger-than-typical role for state governments in funding schools, a state-mandated salary schedule for teachers or efforts to equalize funding between poor and rich school districts. Because of such policies, the states are, in a way, ripe for large-scale labor actions, despite having weak public sector unions. Unlike some Northeast states where teachers in one town can earn $20,000 more than those in a nearby city, low-income and middle-class districts in the states that have had walkouts have similar teacher salary and school funding challenges, building solidarity—and political leverage—across hundreds of miles.”
The challenge for all of us will be to pay attention to what’s happening in our statehouses. Then we must continue exposing—whatever the differences in the operation of education policy across the 50 states—the realities the corporate agenda has infused through ALEC model laws introduced across state legislatures. These are the laws that cut taxes, expand charters, redirect tax dollars to private schools through vouchers. And we’ll need to identify the far-right money and political power in our statehouses blocking the equitable distribution of dollars to the school districts most in need. We owe thanks to the desperate schoolteachers whose walkouts this spring have jump-started this work.
Gordon Lafer’s policy prescription for improving school achievement is quite plain and very different from the corporate agenda. It is evidence based, and it ought to be obvious to anyone who has seriously considered a map of the geographic distribution of our nation’s struggling schools: “The single most important step policy makers could take to improve the education of disadvantaged students would be to make it easier for their parents to earn a living wage—or to ensure a sufficiently strong safety net to enable jobless families to live decently. Instead, many of the same corporate organizations advancing education reform also support economic policies that make it more difficult for families to pull themselves out of poverty… The corporate lobbies’ proposals to replace public schools with privately run charters are presented as a needed response…. Yet by supporting reduced school funding and opposing economic policies that make it easier for families to work their way out of poverty, these organizations are helping create the conditions most likely to ensure failure.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 154-155)