Governors Walker and Kasich Starve School Budgets, Redefine Education as Workforce Prep

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, Gordon Lafer describes the red-state wave that occurred in the November 2010 election: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed Red Map campaign.  Critically, this new territory included a string of states running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds.  In addition, this was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

Scott Walker became the Governor of Wisconsin in January of 2011, just as John Kasich became Governor of Ohio, and both states became Republican trifecta states, with both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office controlled by Republicans.  Walker and Kasich continue as governors of their respective states, though Ohio’s term limits will sideline John Kasich after 2018.  Tax slashing— with disastrous implications for public colleges and universities, among the many services of state government—has characterized both governors’ terms.  Although we might imagine that the programmatic needs of each state’s essential public institutions drive state budgeting, years of austerity in Ohio and Wisconsin are now reshaping what have in the past been thought of as essential public institutions.

A report late last summer from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) describes “a lost decade in higher education funding,” in which “state cuts have driven up tuition and reduced quality.”  CBPP reports that Ohio’s funding for its public universities has fallen 15.2 percent since 2008—a drop of $1,073 per student when adjusted for inflation.  Wisconsin is omitted from CBPP’s charts and tables because, “Wisconsin state lawmakers changed the funding model for Wisconsin’s Technical College system, shifting support from the local property tax to state General Purpose Revenue.”  But, “Excluding this shift, per-student funding fell by $1,626 or 24.8 percent, over 2008-2017.”  In both states tuition has risen. “Public colleges and universities also have cut staff and eliminated programs.”

Here is how Gordon Lafer describes severe cuts to Wisconsin’s state university system: “As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013, with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per (K-12) student than it had in 2008…. It’s spending on higher education had been cut by 22 percent over the same period, and in early 2015 Walker announced plans for a 13 percent reduction in funding for the University of Wisconsin system—the largest in the state’s history….” (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

Ohio’s public universities have also been experiencing a revenue shortage. A year ago, Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio presented legislative testimony on the proposed 2018-19 Ohio biennial budget. Schiller worried about the danger of more tax cuts on top of all the other tax cuts imposed by John Kasich and the legislature since 2011: “For more than a decade, Ohio lawmakers have focused on income tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest at the expense of adequate investment in communities and people.”  Schiller examined the effects of a decade of tax cutting on specific state services including higher education: “College in Ohio remains unaffordable. Nationally, Ohio is ranked 45th highest in college costs with community colleges and public universities costing 11.5 percent and 14.5 percent more than the national average, respectively. We remain $150 million a year below the target for need-based college financial aid…”

Ohio’s Governors Kasich and Wisconsin’s Governor Walker have attacked not only their states’ higher education budgets but also the very ideal of public colleges and universities. In Ohio, Governor Kasich has attempted structural changes intended to turn education into mere workforce preparation.  In September of 2017, Kasich created a 27 member Executive Workforce Board that included no teachers or principals from the state’s local school districts, no leader of a public four-year university, and only two current or former leaders of community colleges. The Akron Beacon Journal‘s Doug Livingston describes a “group… packed with legislators, a couple of county commissioners, a hospital administrator and mostly company executives.”  One idea that Governor Kasich inserted into the 2018-19 state budget (It was later removed after an enormous public outcry.) was a requirement for public school teachers to undertake workplace externships as part of maintaining state teacher certification.  The purpose of the externships was defined: to help teachers “see what it’s like to work outside the classroom so they can better match their students to the needs of local employers.” Kasch’s Office of Workforce Transformation also recommended, though the idea was later deemed unworkable, that each school district’s superintendent appoint three members of the business community to become non-voting members of the district’s school board.

Now in March 2018, Kasich has gone further. In the recently proposed House Bill 512, Governor Kasich and legislative allies seek to subsume into the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board both the responsibilities of the State Board of K-12 Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction along with the Board of Regents of the state universities. Kasich has already virtually demolished the Higher Education Board of Regents by failing to fulfill his responsibility to appoint its members when resignations occur. Here is how the editorial board of the Akron Beacon Journal describes the merger at the heart of HB 512 along with some questions and concerns: “The bill would merge the departments of higher education and education, plus the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation…  The governor did not consult widely or effectively. For one, Paolo DeMaria, the state school superintendent and a logical source for input, was not asked for his thoughts by those putting together the proposal…  The governor already controls two of the three offices that would be merged. The potential exists for having considerable clout with the third, the Department of Education, along with (the) state school board… Yet though the department plays a big and obvious role in the work mission, the governor did not put the state superintendent on the workforce transformation board.  Neither has the governor filled seats on the state Board of Regents overseeing higher education. The nine-member board currently has just two members.”

We’ll see what happens with Ohio’s HB 512.  While there appears to be massive opposition to the governor’s plan, both houses of the legislature are are made up of supermajorities of Kasich allies.  One reason the Governor’s plan to subsume all of education governance into workforce preparation is widely unpopular is that it turns over democratic authority for public education education from a State Board of Education (with eleven of the nineteen members publicly elected) to a Cabinet agency appointed by the governor.  Governor Kasich’s plan is also unpopular because many understand education as more than job training, both at the elementary and high school levels and also in the state’s universities.

While Ohio’s Governor Kasich has tried to shift the state’s approach to education through governance changes without explicitly denying the relevance off the humanities and the social sciences, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has been far more blunt in his attack on a well rounded college education.  Back in 2015,  Walker’s 2016-17 budget proposal included not only a 13 percent cut in funding for the University of Wisconsin system, but—right in the budget bill—Walker inserted language to change the University’ historic mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea, a formal definition of the purpose of education that has been part of state law for over a century.

In the Washington Post last Thursday, Valerie Strauss published the Wisconsin Idea that Walker tried unsuccessfully to re-write: “The mission of the system is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition.  Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

Strauss reminds readers about exactly how Walker tried to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea in the state budget bill—“dropping ‘search for truth’ and ‘improve the human condition’ and replacing them with ‘meet the state’s workforce needs.'”

While Wisconsin’s governor was not able to get his new “workforce” definition of education substituted for the Wisconsin Idea, today, due partly to budget cuts passed by Walker and the state legislature, one of the University of Wisconsin’s campuses faces a radical redefinition of its mission and re-shaping of its course offerings.  On March 5, 2018, leaders of one of the University’s branches, the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, announced they faced a $4.5 million deficit. Strauss explains: “In 2015, Gov. Scott Walker… successfully sought from the legislature a $250 million cut from the tuition-reliant university system—an 11 percent reduction. That was on top of funding cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars during the previous decade. Legislators also removed the principles of tenure and shared school governance from state law, thus giving administrators more power to lay off tenured faculty and unilaterally make decisions in which faculty and students once participated.”

Strauss reports that now in 2018, a new plan at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point eliminates 13 majors in the liberal arts—the humanities and social sciences.  Majors being terminated are American studies, art, English, French, geography, geoscience, German, history, music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology, and Spanish.  The University will continue to offer some classes in these disciplines along with a teacher certification program that incorporates courses in some of these areas.

As the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point eliminates majors in the liberal arts, it is adding  all kinds of career-driven new majors. The hope is to attract tuition-paying students to majors that appear to lead directly to employment: chemical engineering, computer information systems, conservation law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management and marketing, aquaculture, captive wildlife ecosystem design and remediation, environmental engineering, geographic information science, master of business administration, master of natural resources and doctor of physical therapy.

Without a major in philosophy, it is less likely that anyone at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point will be aware of the warning from John Dewey, perhaps America’s most famous philosopher of education, and someone who cared very much about the role of education for shaping democratic citizens.  In a Pedagogic Creed written in 1897 Dewey defines what ought to be the included in our schools and universities and the danger of the kind of job-specific training Scott Walker and John Kasich are pushing: “The only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers. With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now.  Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions.  To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

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An Urgently Needed New Year’s Resolution for Those Who Care About Public Education

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to honor educators—the people who feel called to help others realize their promise. We live in an era of attacks on the public schools and school teachers, and even on higher education in America’s world-renowned colleges and universities.

A resolution to honor educators would mean we consult educators about the public policies that shape our schools, but in recent years we have listened instead to politicians, philanthropists,  business leaders, and tech titans—Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eva Moskowitz—or Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos.

As it happens, John Dewey—a professor of education, perhaps America’s most famous education philosopher, and an education psychologist as well—published a short, readable education creed in 1897. As an exercise for the new year, indulge yourself by comparing Dewey’s pedagogic creed to the ideas and principles that underpin today’s public education policy driven by business, philanthropy, the tech-savvy, and politicians. Imagine how different our schools might be if school teachers who have studied the philosophy and psychology of education were trusted by the education committees in Congress and across the statehouses.

Here are just four of the concepts explored in Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed.” Dewey’s thinking directly confronts what is happening in our schools driven by high stakes test and punish—charter schools dominated by no-excuses compliance—schools with unworkable ratios of students per teacher—schools oriented to college-and-career prep.

First, Dewey, the psychologist, explains that because all learning comes from within the learner, school must be child- or student-centered.  “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities.  Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached. I believe that they prophesy the state upon which he is about to enter. I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.”  Therefore, “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Second, Dewey challenges the idea of school as career prep or college prep. “I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed.  The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation.  As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” “But on the other hand, the only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers.  With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

Third, what about the role of the teacher and the student’s peers?  “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms… For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language.” “I believe that moral education centres about this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of worth and thought… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.  I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis.  The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

And fourth, all education must be social; it cannot happen merely in front of a computer screen. “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness…” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.” “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty… I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to perform his task… I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”

Parents’ Consensus on Public School Policy Challenges the Status Quo

Education writer Mike Rose and historian Michael Katz conclude the wonderful collection of essays they recently edited by regretting that, “there does not seem to be an elaborated philosophy of education or theory of learning underlying the current (education) reform movement.  There is an implied philosophy, and it is a basic economic/human capital one; education is necessary for individual economic advantage and for national economic stability.”

According to a new national poll of American parents of school children, a poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers by Hart Research Associates, parents share a belief in a far more expansive philosophy of education.  The short report of the survey’s conclusions is fascinating, and I urge you to read all of the results, but for me the survey’s most important news is that parents agree that schools should accomplish several core goals.   Seventy-eight percent of parents believe school should ensure that, “all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed.”  For their own children, parents want schools to do four things:   “1) improve their knowledge and critical thinking abilities;  2) provide them with a safe learning environment;  3) educate them about their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy; and  4) address their social, emotional, and health needs.”

This is, of course, not a fully elaborated philosophy of education, but it comes closer than the economic rationale being promulgated by policy makers.  Parents want equity (though we know they will frequently make housing choices, for example, that promote their own children’s interests over those of other children), and they enthusiastically endorse education that forms the child intellectually, linguistically, emotionally, and ethically.  A whole child philosophy of education.

This new opinion poll points to the need for political leadership to build on parents’ named willingness to use public schools to serve children who are currently being left behind.  Instead, as Rose and Katz describe the conversation among education policy makers, “Poverty is mentioned, but in a variety of ways it is downplayed.  So all the damage poverty does to communities and to households, to schools and to other local institutions is rarely addressed.  And it’s hard to find discussion of the economic, political, and social history of poverty, leading to an oddly antiseptic and ahistorical treatment of community, schools, and achievement.”

Among policymakers, what we have, according to Rose and Katz, is, “a rough consensus which crosses political lines, blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores. In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains, the primary stumbling blocks to assuring every child an adequate education.”

It is fascinating that in this week’s public opinion poll of parents, teachers are not the villains.  Parents take a constructive view of improving teaching; parents advocate for better support and training including mentoring.  Eighty-eight percent want smaller classes, and 81 percent would like to see more community, neighborhood-hub schools that include health services and community services right at school.  Eighty percent  would like to see high-quality preschool for all three and four year olds.

Parents demonstrate wide consensus about what needs to happen to improve opportunities for their own and other people’s children.  But that consensus has not been transformed into the political will to challenge growing residential segregation by economics and race. Neither has political leadership surfaced to challenge the anti-tax, austerity budgeting across the states and in Congress that is denying to public schools precisely the services parents say they want.  How to make that happen is the question for our times.