Striking Schoolteachers Have Changed the National Conversation about Our Public Schools

The editor of Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson offers a profound critique of President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s signature education policy, Race to the Top.  Race to the Top epitomized neoliberalism—“meritocratic, technocratic, and capitalistic, meaning that it (1) sees competition as good and winning competitions as proof of desert, (2) defers to policy experts over the actual people affected by policies, (3) views productivity and success within the marketplace as a measure of the good.”

Robinson reminds us that Race to the Top, “gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition.  Applications ‘were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school turnaround strategies.’… The Obama administration also wanted states to adopt policies favorable to charter schools. Education secretary Arne Duncan said explicitly that, ‘States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund.'”

Robinson condemns the Obama-Duncan strategy: “There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race to the Top.  First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support.  Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.3 billion, because it didn’t win the ‘race.’  This ‘fight to the death’ approach… was novel, since ‘historically, most federal funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.’ Here, though, one can see how Obama’s neoliberal politics differed in its approach from the New Deal liberalism of old: Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they needed to give students a quality education.  Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government… There is a mistrust of teachers: The premise here is that unless teachers have the right incentives, they will perform badly. There is an underlying acceptance here of the free market principle that government services do not perform well because they lack the kind of economic rewards and punishments that exist in the private sector.  So we should introduce competitive marketplaces in schools (i.e. charterize the system) and do constant assessment of teacher job performance to weed out the Bad Teachers.  Race to the Top literature talks about ‘turning around failing schools,’ not ‘fixing inequality in schools’….”

Although lots of people have been complaining about Race to the Top and Duncan’s strategy for years, Robinson’s jeremiad strikes a different chord this year after months of walkouts and strikes by desperate school teachers. Last week, the NY Times education reporter Dana Goldstein described what she believes is a major turning in the way people are thinking about public education.  She has been writing about schools for 13 years, beginning in the era—the precursor to Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top—of No Child Left Behind, the law signed in 2002 that brought us high stakes test-and-punish. But she observes today: “So much has changed in education, as the focus shifts from calling out and overhauling bad teachers and schools to listening more carefully to what educators say about their working conditions and how students are affected by them… The emphasis now is on what education experts call ‘inputs’—classroom funding, teacher pay, and students’ access to social workers and guidance counselors—and less on ‘outputs,’ like test scores or graduation rates.”

In their strikes this year schoolteachers have forced policymakers to stop obsessing about punishing  low-scoring, “loser” schools and begin reckoning with society’s responsibility to pay for the kind of schools our children need.

One striking example of the shift in emphasis that Goldstein describes is the story of Debora Gist.  For Politico and the Hechinger Report, Amadou Diallo profiles the transformation of Deborah Gist, formerly the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education who made her name by firing the entire staff of the high school in Central Falls, one of Rhode Island’s poorest communities. Gist also won the state a $75 million Race to the Top award by promising to comply with Arne Duncan’s neoliberal priorities. Unpopular in Rhode Island and especially unpopular with unionized school teachers, Gist returned to her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma as the superintendent of schools. Gist’s priorities began to change when she faced an acute shortage of teachers in a state where salaries are fourth from the bottom among all the states. Dialo reports that 300 of the district’s 2,000 teachers are working under emergency certificates because salaries are too low to attract qualified staff.  Last spring, when schoolteachers walked out, Gist herself joined unionized teachers to walk 110 miles from Tulsa to Oklahoma City to demand better funding for the state’s schools.  She is also dipping into the school district’s emergency reserves to pay basic expenses.  While Gist refuses to acknowledge that she has entirely left her Rhode Island priorities behind, she describes the lessons that have taught her to become an ally instead of an enemy of her district’s teachers: “I knew coming into Tulsa that Oklahoma spent less than half per student of what Rhode Island did… What I didn’t anticipate was the continued cuts we’d be receiving.  I didn’t fully realize what that would mean in terms of the lack of adults in our schools… and the pressure that creates.”

The most extraordinary evidence that the teachers’ strikes are forcing a rethinking of education policy, however, came last week in Los Angeles.  The settlement of the recent strike by 30,000 Los Angeles teachers brought concessions including a modest raise, smaller classes and the guarantee of more support staff like counselors, librarians and school nurses. But the teachers demanded something more: They insisted on a vote by Los Angeles’s charter school-friendly board of education on a resolution requesting that the state legislature place an 8-10 month moratorium on new charter schools while a study is conducted on the impact of charter schools on the public school district.

The Los Angeles school board did take such a vote last week, and the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the outcome: “The school board voted Tuesday to ratify the strike-ending deal between the Los Angels Unified School District and United Teachers of Los Angeles.  The new contract provides teachers with 6 percent pay increases, more resources for schools and small reductions in class size. The strike ended with other agreements too, including what many saw as a surprising promise by the school district to support a state moratorium of up to 10 months on charter schools while the state studies their effects.  The Los Angeles Board of Education has six members, at least half of whom were elected with the help of financial support from the charter lobby. The district superintendent, Austin Beutner, is a former investment banker who is a charter backer.”

For Salon Jeff Bryant explains the details of this development: “(T)he concessions teachers won that will likely have the most impact outside of L.A. are related to charter schools.  The teachers forced the district leader to present to the school board a resolution calling on the state to cap the number of charter schools, and the teachers made the district give their union increased oversight of charter co-locations—a practice that allows charter operations to take possession of a portion of an existing public school campus.  Los Angeles Unified has 277 charter schools, the largest number of charter schools of any school district in the nation. The schools serve nearly 119,000 students, nearly one in five students.  The vast majority of charters are staffed by non-union teachers.  So the quick take from some is the teachers’ union made curbs on charter schools part of their demands because these schools are a threat to the union’s power. But when you talk to teachers, that’s not what they say. They tell you they want to curb charter school growth, not because it threatens their union, but because charters threaten the very survival of public schools…. (T)eachers I spoke with described competition from surrounding charter schools as an existential threat to their schools and an undermining influence on the public system.”

Bryant describes the growing realization across Los Angeles, and backed up by recent academic research that, “While public school districts can’t build new schools unless increases in enrollment or an influx of school-aged children demand them, charter schools can make the case based on subjective arguments having nothing to do with numbers, and when local school boards deny charter applicants, charter operators can appeal to the county or state board that, more often than not, overrules the local board…  Bryant quotes researcher—and former charter school supporter—Julian Vasquez Heilig: “Charters contribute to the funding problems because we’re paying for two school systems… There’s an incredible amount of waste and inefficiency.”