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March 20, 2006

The Rightwing's War on the Public Schools

From a special edition of PLAN's Stateside Dispatch .

It's no secret that one of the top priorities for the rightwing movement has been privatization of public education through vouchers and tax credits.   But the raw fact is that the public has consistently rejected their initiatives when they've come to a vote-- every time the voters have faced ballot initiatives on the issue, they have overwhelmingly rejected them by a cumulative 68% to 32% margin in the 12 ballot initiatives from 1970 to 2000. 

While the privatizers have not given up on voucher efforts in specific states, nationally they have increasingly turned to subtler approaches to set the stage for later campaigns to dismantle the public schools.    They attack the need for additional funding for schools, while concentrating on distracting tactics like the so-called "65% Solution" and incremental privatization such as "virtual schools" springing up across the country.

Fake "Report Cards" Downplay Funding Needs

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently issued its 2006 version of its "Report Card on American Education", the organization's annual propaganda that public schools are failing and that more resources for poorer schools won't make a difference. 

It's hard to believe that anyone takes these ALEC "Report Cards" seriously, since they are a statistically silly but headline-grabbing gimmick written by Andrew T. LeFevre, a writer with little educational training whose previous work was as a flack for the Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations (APCTO), the private prison industry's lobbying arm.  The "Report Cards" compare student success averaged across each state as a whole – with no breakdown for wealthier versus poorer communities or any account of special education needs that might vary between the states.   LeFevre's career is as a political hit man for corporate privatization of public institutions, not in educational statistics, and it shows in the simplistic statistical analysis used in the ALEC "report cards."

While there are obviously individual schools in need of more help, serious studies have shown real improvement overall in the public schools over the last few decades. For example, the Nation's Report Card, issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a branch of the federal government, shows performance gains for most age groups from 1971 to 2004, with the gap between white and minority students closing over the last three decades.    

Conservative flacks like LeFevre downplay these gains as insufficient for the money spent, quoting a statistic that "per pupil expenditures have increased by 78.0 percent" in the last few decades.   But this number exaggerates spending increases by ignoring inflation in service sector costs and the fact that a substantial portion of increased spending has been for special education and dropout prevention.  The increased special education spending was crucial for expanding the percentage of the school-age population attending public schools – and saving taxpayers money due to lowered institutionalization costs for the physically and mentally disabled.  But it's just a dishonest statistical trick by rightwingers to count such special ed money as an increase in spending for the general school population.

And here's the core statistical lie of the public school privatization crowd—they overstate the funding going to schools, especially to those in poorer communities, then argue that no more funding is needed for the schools that do need help.  Yet the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has highlighted a range of studies showing that increased investments in public education produce substantial benefits in student achievement, particularly among low-income students:

Because low-income students lag in academic achievement, and many poor school districts continue to receive funding levels below those of wealthier districts, high-poverty school districts represent both the greatest need for education funding and the greatest opportunity to improve student outcomes.

Nowhere in the ALEC report are educational spending differences within states discussed, a glaring omission given that there are lawsuits and political campaigns challenging unequal funding of schools in nearly every state in the country.

But distracting the political debate from such problems is exactly the point of statistical frauds like ALEC's report cards.

The 65% Distraction

And distraction is what the newest rightwing educational campaign – the so-called "65% Solution" -- is all about.

The proposal requires each district to spend at least 65% of all revenue "in the classroom."  It's poll-tested and sounds good--  Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana passed the law last year, and Georgia passed it just last month, with many other states proposing similar bills.  

The problem is that their definition of spending "inside the classroom" excludes teacher training, speech therapy for students, curriculum development, and school libraries, while athletics and field trips count as "in the classroom."  It's hard to explain how a rule that creates incentives for a school to cut libraries to fund uniforms for the football team is some magic solution to educational problems.   

And there is zero evidence from the experience of school districts that the 65% mandate will make a difference.  The credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's published a report last November which found "some of the highest-performing districts spend less than 65%, and some of the lowest-performing districts spend more than 65%" and concluded that "no minimum spending allocation is a ’silver bullet’ solution for raising student achievement."

But then, the point isn't to fix education; the proposal was hatched by rightwing consultant Tim Mooney and Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, a big funder of school voucher initiatives.  A leaked memo written by Mooney laid out the goals of the proposal:

  • Pit Teachers against Administrators: "Because most state education unions represent both administrators and teachers, the proposal will create tremendous tension within the organization."
  • Bankroll Ballot Initiatives with Soft Money:  "In the era of campaign finance limitations on candidates, PACs and parties, galvanizing an electorate via the initiative process is a tremendous opportunity."
  • Lay Groundwork for Vouchers:  "Targeted segments of voters may be more greatly predisposed to supporting voucher and charter school proposals, as Republicans address the voting public with greater credibility on public education issues."

Tellingly, money for private vouchers or other subsidies would count within the 65% mandate. 

Instead of getting more money to school districts that need it, the proposal, in the words of the National PTA, is just a "one size fits all" approach that creates a rigid formula ignoring the reality of different school districts:

District expenses differ based on climate, geography, and types of students.  School districts can serve very rural areas that will have high transportation costs, or serve only disabled students and incur high facilities and health care costs.  Schools in areas where heavy snowfall is common will have high operational costs, and schools that enroll a super-majority of Free and Reduced Lunch eligible students will have high food services costs.

On top of the mandates from the federal No Child Left Behind law, the 65% mandates will just add another inflexible rule to the strained budgets of local schools.  But that's of course the point for a proposal meant to distract voters from real reform for the schools and prep them for school vouchers.

Vouchers and Virtual Schools

While Ohio and a few other states have established statewide voucher systems, the voucher movement has generally been moving forward more incrementally through privately-managed charter schools and what are known as "virtual charter schools", online teaching programs combining aspects of home schooling with corporate privatization. 

More than one million students are now in public charter schools, with over 200,000 students in schools managed by private companies and an explosion of firms receiving contracts for after-school tutoring under No Child Left Behind mandates.  With an estimated $400 billion in public school spending at stake, the corporate privateers are step-by-step outsourcing spending to the corporate sector.

The newest privatization innovations are virtual schools, where private companies often manage the curriculum for children being schooled at home—with about half the states having created some version of virtual schools, and new or expanded programs being proposed in legislatures across the country.    K12 Inc., one of the more prominent companies in the field, highlights the entanglement of rightwing politics with the whole movement.  Founded by among others William Bennett, Secretary of Education under the senior President Bush, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation revealed that K12 Inc. had used its political influence to improperly receive a $2.3 million federal grant from the Department of Education.

Some of the political shine has been coming off of these privatized schools as new studies have cast doubt on their effectiveness. The Bush administration tried to bury the results, but a US Department of Education study found that students of similar economic and racial backgrounds usually performed no better and usually worse in charter schools compared to students in regular public schools. 

The Progressive Response

While these facts are unlikely to change the minds of rightwing legislators looking to hand out slices of the education spending pie to their corporate sponsors, progressive legislators can use them to stand up against the privatization agenda and push for the education reforms that really help children learn:

  • Better early education, including guaranteeing free pre-K for all
  • More equitable funding for poorer districts in states
  • Smaller class sizes for all students
  • Professional development and better retention of teachers, especially in poorer districts
  • Accountability that is more than a mandate to "teach to the test"

In a sense, the gimmicks of ALEC's fake report cards, the 65% Solution and virtual schools reflect the rightwing's failure in selling the American public directly on privatizing public schools.   But it also highlights the need for defenders of public schools to respond to their gambits and their distracting tactics and to fight for the increased funding and reforms that will actually help student performance in the long-term.

Posted by Nathan at March 20, 2006 03:35 AM