Suddenly Democrats who bought into corporate school reform seem to be worried that their ideas—underwritten in federal law for over fifteen years—are slipping out of the public consciousness and losing public support. This summer as we approach midterm elections, Democrats who have enthusiastically supported corporate school reform are scurrying to burnish their own reputations and extend the life of their favorite education strategies by repackaging their ideology ahead of the November election to help elect state candidates sympathetic to their cause.
Some history: How did so many Democrats join with Republicans around a school reform agenda based on business-school incentives, high-stakes accountability and marketplace competition in the form of privatized charter schools?
For over two decades In Washington, D.C., business-driven school reform has been a bipartisan cause. Political leaders in both major parties have relentlessly pursued school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy that was embedded in the language, philosophy, and operation of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind. In 1989, Republican President George H.W. Bush launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, a conference chaired by a Democrat, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The purpose was to agree on national education goals and standards. Then in 2001, when—in a bipartisan effort—Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated its own accountability reforms. After President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top. To qualify, states had to rewrite laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools; promise to punish so-called “failing” schools or turn them over to charter management organizations; and change laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores. Both political parties supported education policy based on two business strategies: high stakes, test-based accountability to “incentivize” educators to work harder and marketplace competition through the introduction of charters schools.
The standards movement became the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.
Surprisingly perhaps, Betsy DeVos has brought trouble for the corporate education agenda (much of which she agrees with) because she is such an extremist. She is an ideologically-driven, decades-long, educational libertarian proponent of privatized vouchers. She promotes extreme, and unpopular ideas—disregard for First Amendment separation of church and state, and support for private school tuition vouchers which have never been embraced by Democrats. She has also shown herself to be embarrassingly ignorant about the institution of American public education and the role of the federal department she was appointed to oversee. Ironically, DeVos (a promoter of school choice) has made some Democrats more cautious about charters; some now worry that charter schools are merely the gateway to vouchers. And DeVos’s deplorable leadership has distracted everyone—turning the conversation away from the movement for business driven, test based school accountability.
Today: Suddenly corporate reformers in the Democratic Party are worried about the loss of their project. Their concerns intensified last spring following the walkouts by classroom teachers across states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, walkouts that brought the nation’s attention back to the importance of public education and the fact that through all the years of accountability-driven school reform, we have neglected the urgent need to fund public education at a level that pays the teachers, keeps class size down, and makes it possible to replace outdated textbooks. Corporate education reformers also face another worry: Now that enough time has passed and academics have been studying the record, it has become clearer and clearer that the strategies of No Child Left Behind and the diversion of tax dollars to charters didn’t improve school achievement, didn’t improve teaching, and didn’t do what corporate reform promised. These policies didn’t help children who had been left far behind by educational inequity, and they didn’t close achievement gaps. Billions of dollars have been spent, but children’s overall educational outcomes haven’t changed.
Warning: Don’t be fooled as you watch these guys scurrying around trying to salvage corporate school reform and salvage their reputations. Corporate school reform is losing its luster in in Democratic circles, where attention has moved to what the corporate reformers forgot about—inadequate and inequitable funding of public education, paltry teacher salaries, and the danger of tax cuts to state budgets.
Don’t be fooled by DFER: One such effort to repackage and reframe has been undertaken by Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC founded in 2007, whose mission has always been to promote corporate school reform as a cause among Democrats. DFER began in New York as a project of hedge fund managers who took on charter school expansion as their cause. Later DFER formed affiliates across several states. In this election year summer of 2018, DFER hired the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a national marketing poll and frame a new communications strategy.
In a report by THE 74, the conservative education news website founded by Campbell Brown, reporter Taylor Swaak describes DFER’s new marketing campaign, designed by the Benenson Strategy Group based on its new poll: “For DFER… the findings demonstrate that most Americans are what they call ‘education progressives’—a result that would seem to contradict reports of a splintering within the Democratic party over issues like school choice and merit pay… The poll, on top of informing a new social media campaign, anchored the organization’s latest announcement that it will spend more than $4 million this year—an exponential hike from the reported $83,456 it spent in 2016—on ‘priority races.’ These include gubernatorial contests in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut, and the (state) superintendent’s race in California. Certain beliefs of ‘education progressives,’ such as charter school expansion, may put them at odds with other self-described progressives within the party.”
Marketing strategists help an organization frame its policy agenda to appeal to its target audience. In this case marketing means making the language vague. Swaak quotes DFER’s president, Shavar Jeffries describing the new DFER campaign to define an “education progressive”: “Being an education progressive means doing anything and everything we can to improve public schools for all—especially for poor students and students of color.” “Doing anything and everything” is a phrase that is so vague as to be impossible to explicate.
Benenson Strategy Group intends its public opinion poll to help DFER talk to what people want to hear, even if it omits particular public policies that might really affect schools. Here are some of the findings from its marketing poll: “Voters, especially Democratic primary voters and voters of color, believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to give every child a great education, and that means we need faster change in our schools to prepare students for the future.” “Key Democratic constituencies believe strongly that we can’t go back to the way things used to be in schools. We need to keep bringing in new ideas and finding new ways to improve schools.” “Voters strongly believe that we need more funding to improve public schools, but funding alone is not enough…. Voters also want to see new ideas and real changes to the way public schools operate.” From its marketing poll and from all of these “principles,” Benenson Strategy Group concludes that real “education progressives” strongly support a policy agenda built around funding equity; school choice including charter schools, magnet schools and career academies; teacher quality and preparation; accountability; and more financial aid to support higher education. (Emphasis in Benenson’s document.)
Democrats for Education Reform hasn’t changed. It is the same old DFER, with the very same priorities. POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma reports: “The organization… advocates for a host of school reform policies nationwide like strong test-based accountability and high-quality… charter schools.” But DFER will now be marketing this agenda to appeal to those who define themselves as “education progressives.” And I presume DFER will generously lavish praise on folks who accept this agenda as exemplifying what it means to be progressive.
Don’t Be Fooled by Arne Duncan’s new book, How Schools Work: Arne Duncan has been a towering figure in the history of corporate school reform. He didn’t enter the picture in a visible way until 2004, when he became the manager of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s big new Portfolio School Reform project: Renaissance 2010—a plan to increase school choice in Chicago by phasing out “failing” or under-enrolled schools and launching 100 new charter schools by 2010. In the spring of 2009, Duncan became President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary and brought corporate school reform into federal policy as Race to the Top became central to the federal stimulus after the 2008 economic collapse. Race to the Top emulated business competition: States competed for grants and qualified for federal funds by adopting concrete pieces of the corporate school agenda like closing “failing” schools, charterizing so called “failing schools, and agreeing to change state laws to make teachers accountable in their formal evaluations for their students’ standardized test scores.
These days Arne Duncan is on a book promotion tour, and a first stop was CBS’s Face the Nation, where he followed the same sort of playbook as the Benenson Strategy Group is framing for DFER. Duncan explains to Margaret Brennan: “I think investing in our lowest performing schools is some of the hardest and most important work we can do. Margaret, I don’t want to leave any kid behind or say they can’t make it. As a nation we had more than 2,000 dropout factories a few years back. We now have less than eight hundred… Our high school graduation rates are at all time highs. Those (Race to the Top and School Improvement) grants were a small piece of that. There are many things that go into that. And again, this is, we’ve got a long-long way to go, but to see high school graduation rates at all-time highs and to see many fewer students going to dropout factories. Those are things we feel really good about.”
Duncan’s book has not received positive reviews—from the supporters of traditional public schools or from corporate school reformers. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss despairs: “Arne Duncan never learns…. His new book starts with this sentence: ‘Education runs on lies.’ Really? Education doesn’t run on lies (the sentence begs the services of a good editor), and Duncan makes clear several pages later that he means the ‘education system’ runs on lies, which isn’t accurate, either. There is not a monolithic ‘education system’ in the country that spews lies. There are, rather, more than 13,000 school districts in the United State, locally operated. Some of the people who run them may indeed tell likes about student achievement—though, to be fair to them, Duncan said a lot of things during his tenure that critics said were sheer fiction.”
Strauss continues, presenting a litany of Duncan’s own flawed policies that he continues to defend: “What he did focus on was pushing teacher evaluation systems that relied in large part on standardized test scores—a method of assessment that experts warned was unreliable. He also emphasized expanding charter schools and adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards, spending $360 billion to create Core-aligned standardized tests that he said would be ‘an absolute game-changer’ for public education. They weren’t… He spent $7 billion between 2010 and 2015—exceeding the $4 billion spent on Race to the Top—on School Improvement Grants, but a major (U.S. Education) department report found no positive effect on student achievement. Many teachers found his policies to be so abhorrent and detrimental to education and their profession that the National Education Association… called for him to step down in 2014.”
Then there is the equally scathing critique written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, and published in Education Next, a mouthpiece of the corporate school reform movement. Hess charges: “Especially for a guy who presents himself as a truth teller bent on exposing education’s ‘overripe and rotten lies,’ Duncan shows a disconcerting tendency to waffle… Even as he repeatedly declares his faith in tests and vaguely asserts that Race to the Top and the Common Core fueled significant gains, Duncan never once mentions that in fact NAEP gains stalled out under his watch, even falling between 2013 and 2017. And for a guy who repeatedly professes his talismanic faith in the power of data, Duncan is remarkably willing to set data aside when it is convenient.”
Research in very recent years has called Arne Duncan’s policies—and all of corporate school reform—into question. Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is not a critique of policies originated by Betsy DeVos—the one issue voucher promoter who has (mercifully) never been able to enact any real K-12 education policy initiatives of her own. Koretz’s book is a scathing critique of Arne Duncan’s policies—and Koretz’s critique applies, by the way, to the supposed rising graduation rates that Duncan bragged about on Face the Nation. Studies by Bruce Baker at Rutgers, researchers at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research have now exposed the ways that the rapid expansion of charter schools undermines the financial viability of the host school district and undermines public schools as community institutions that anchor vulnerable neighborhoods.
It is becoming clearer as the years pass that corporate school reform—including high states test-and-punish and the rapid expansion of marketplace school choice through charter schools—failed to address the needs of the 50 million students in America’s public schools. Neither did corporate school reform close achievement gaps. In fact the diversion of federal and state dollars to such programs has redirected needed funds out of states’ school budgets and undermined the institution we all count on—public education.
It is important to understand that these efforts by Democrats—who allowed themselves to capitulate to a far-right, business- and competition-driven school reform agenda—are merely a sign of desperation as they watch their agenda lose popular support.