Education "reformers" resort to Fox News-style scaremongering

Like global warming deniers, "education reformers" have nothing to lose and everything to gain by sowing confusion

Published April 8, 2014 3:38PM (EDT)

The GOP's internal struggles since the 2010 midterms have been so intense, they've been described in terms of “civil war,” but the past few weeks have seen major conflicts erupt in Democratic territory, primarily in response to Obama's centrist tendencies, and their underlying continuity with Bush-era policies. This happened most profoundly in a high-profile education dispute where Obama and his administration were nowhere to be seen, though they had done everything to set the stage, with their own brand of corporate education "reform": Race to the Top.

On one side, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed a rally in support of his universal pre-K proposal for New York City, to be funded by a tax on those earning $500,000 a year or more.  It's a classic expression of the public universalism of the social democratic vision, epitomized by programs like Medicare, Social Security, the public option and universal public education in general. That vision stands in contrast to the market-based privatized particularism of neoliberalism, epitomized by welfare reform, voucher-based systems like Obamacare, charter schools and for-profit education.

“The facts are on our side. The people are on our side. Now, we have to get Albany on our side," de Blasio said. The unstated problem: Wall Street is firmly entrenched on the opposite side.

Witness the competing neoliberal rally, organized by high-paid NYC charter CEO Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Council member, which drew a rah-rah speech from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who opposed de Blasio's proposal to fund the program through a tax on high earners, and received almost $400,000 from Moskowitz's hedge fund backers alone (plus more from other Wall Street charter school backers). That rally attacked de Blasio for his modest cutbacks in expanding charter schools co-located in public school buildings, along with his proposal to charge them rent, which is actually required under existing New York state law.

“We will save charter schools,” Cuomo told the pro-charter rally. But that's just typical political hysteria. No one is threatening to destroy charter schools, despite their decidedly lackluster records.(It's the same with another neoliberal "reform" favorite, vouchers, as Milwaukee, the voucher pioneer, remains near the bottom of large urban school systems after 22 years of vouchers.) Indeed, more than 30 NYC charter schools had previously rejected Moskowitz's call to join her rally, in favor of supporting de Blasio's pre-K rally, saying, “Tuesday is not a day to be divided. Those rallying in Albany next week should stand together with the city and advocate — side by side — for our children, particularly the most underserved.”

What's more, de Blasio's successor as city public advocate, Letitia James, is actually suing him over the co-locations he did allow — 36 of 45 locations originally approved by his predecessor Michael Bloomberg. And even James isn't talking about doing away with charters. In short, Cuomo's engaged in Fox News-style scaremongering.

If all the above sounds confusing, it's supposed to. (Just to make it even more confusing, Moskowitz's hedge fund supporters spent $3.6 million on an ad campaign attacking de Blasio and complaining that Moskowitz's charter schools can't afford to pay rent!) In the end, Cuomo put forward a budget placing strict protections on charters, and funding part of de Blasio's pre-kindergarten program -- but without the high earner tax.

As with global warming deniers, so-called education reformers have nothing to lose and everything to gain by spreading confusion. Their sound bites are their strongest weapons — but for that to remain so, they need to ensure that sustained, reality-based discussions never take hold, because their words ring hollow to the well-informed. Another parallel between the two: What they're up to can't be reduced to narrow self-interest alone, but can't be understood without it. Self-interest, ideology, and status are all part of the mix.

Unlike the other conflicts mentioned above, the de Blasio-Cuomo conflict is rooted in deep ideological differences, as Obama's neoliberal "reform" agenda has much in common with that of Bush before him, and is fundamentally at odds with the Democratic Party's long-standing commitment to universal public education. It is rooted in decades of elite-generated, corporate-promoted misinformation, promoting a state of sustained panic over public education, even as graduation rates for all racial groups have steadily risen over the years.

The Panic-Reform Agenda's Five Fundamental Lies

Although hints of it first appeared in response to Sputnik in the 1950s (the book "Why Johnny Can't Read" is a classic example), the sustained panic-reform agenda for public education dates back more than 30 years now, and rests on two pairs of  fundamental lies, plus a truly demented kicker. The first pair of lies deflects attention away from the real problems of poverty and race-based deprivation. The first lie is that poverty and racial discrimination have nothing to do with bad educational outcomes for those on the bottom of American society; the second, related lie is that providing adequate resources for poor and minority students will not do anything to help them. (Bruce D. Baker, lead co-author of "Financing Education Systems," a graduate-level textbook, has refuted such lies repeatedly on his School Finance 101 blog, here and here, for example, with multiple references to studies by others here.) It's particularly ironic that the enemies of public education first deny the importance of adequate funding for poor and minority students, then turn around and express support for “the civil rights movement of our time,” on behalf of a small handful of those whose chances they've worked so hard to thwart. (Is it really any surprise that charter schools are more segregated than the public schools they're trying to replace?)

Once that first pair of lies is swallowed, the way is wide open for the second pair of lies: First, on the one hand, that American education as a whole is vastly inferior to that of other countries (breakdowns of test scores by poverty levels show that it's not — see here for rough comparisons and here for a detailed analysis). Second, on the other hand, that America can catch up with them by ignoring other countries' best practices and instead embracing untested models dreamed up by ideologues and hucksters. This second lie is particularly mind-boggling, as leading critic Diane Ravitch has pointed out: “No high-performing nation in the world has handed its schools over to private management; instead, they have a strong and equitable public school system, with a respected teaching profession and a well-prepared staff.”

If we really believe other countries' schools are so much better than ours, why don't we simply emulate them?  Last, but not least, the kicker is the over-the-top lie that the best people to lead us in this glorious quest for educational nirvana are business leaders of one sort or another who have virtually no experience or training in education, and would probably not last 10 minutes with a class of 6-year olds.

A Nation at Risk — Wrong Way Corrigan Reporting for Duty

These lies have been articles of faith among panic-reformers at least since the early 1980s, around the time of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” prepared by Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, which warned of  “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Within a month of its release, the Washington Post alone ran about two dozen stories about the report, almost one a day.

In early 2011, teacher/author/activist Susan Ohanian, whose 23 books include "Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?," explained to me how the corporate world picked up the ball and ran with it. “The California Business Roundtable got together and came up with a plan, how they were going to take control of the schools.  And the national Businesses Roundtable liked it so much that they adopted it as a national plan,” she told me. “IBM CEO Lou Gerstner played a prominent role in the Business Roundtable at the time, and he was crucial in getting both Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton on board, with similar plans known as America 2000 under Bush, and then, when Clinton was president, it was rolled over into Goals 2000,” Ohanian explained.  The longer it continued, the more different ways there were for monied interests to benefit — rather like the housing bubble and the subprime mortgage marketplace — and so the movement continued to grow more and more powerful. There was just one problem: It was all based on lies.

“A Nation At Risk” freaked out over the fact that SAT scores had gone into a slump after 1968.  What it failed to note was that large numbers of minorities and poor whites, who had never even taken the SATs before, were now taking the test for the first time, and lowering the average scores, even though they were actually better-educated than those like them in earlier years.  Thus, the fact that millions more students now aspired to go to college than ever before was magically transformed from good news into bad! This profound misreading of the SAT results should have been obvious to anyone, given how increasingly competitive the college admissions process was starting to become. But it wasn't until the early 1990s that a reexamination of SAT data conducted at Sandia National Labs unveiled the truth.

The Sandia Report showed that SAT scores had actually improved or held steady for virtually all student subgroups between 1975 and 1988. In broadest terms, white student scores improved modestly, while minority student gains were substantial.  What's more, from 1970 to 1988, the number of 22-year-old Americans with college degrees had increased every year; the U.S. led all developed nations in 1988. Talk about failure!  But the Sandia Report was first repressed, then delayed, and finally ignored, because it didn't serve the purposes of the Reagan/Bush agenda.  That's hardly surprising, given the Reagan/Bush antipathy for facts.  But why are Democrats now just as deeply in denial?

Why the Democrats Fell in Line

Tamim Ansary's concise, incisive historical account of "A Nation at Risk" and the Sandia Report provides some answers, in terms of the larger political dynamics, and how Republicans' political success impacted Democrats, regardless of anything going on in education itself. First, Ansary notes a constellation of political motivations going into the preparation of “A Nation at Risk,” not least Reagan's yawning gender gap, but also the growing economic competition led by Germany and Japan. Although Reagan profoundly misrepresented the report's recommendations when it was first released, he eagerly embraced it for his reelection campaign, thus effectively abandoning the purist conservative stance of trying to eliminate the Department of Education. “[I]n his second run for the presidency, he gave fifty-one speeches calling for tough school reform,”  Ansary  wrote. “The 'high political payoff,' [Reagan's Secretary of Education, Terrell] Bell wrote in his memoir, 'stole the education issue from Walter Mondale -- and it cost us nothing.'”  Thus, education was the centerpiece of Reagan's rather successful efforts to neutralize Democrats' advantage with women, as well as their overall edge on domestic issues.

Cutting to the heart of what lay behind this success, Ansary noted, “What made 'A Nation at Risk' so useful to Reagan? For one thing, its language echoed the get-tough rhetoric of the growing conservative movement. For another, its diagnosis lent color to the charge that, under liberals, American education had dissolved into a mush of self-esteem classes.”  To supplement Ansary's observation, it justified the adoption of harsh, punitive attitudes in line with conservative ideology — a shift broadly in line with social historian Michael Katz's argument in "The Price of Citizenship," which documents the Reagan era emergence of a "master narrative of policy reform,” which began by shifting focus away from the social problems policies were established to address and onto an alleged “crisis of numbers and costs,” which could be blamed on morally suspect individuals.

This combination of electoral success and narrative redefinition created the opportunity for center-right Democrats to join in — particularly as education professionals were being muscled out. Ansary notes that by the time Bush convened his 1989 education summit at the University of Virginia, “Astonishingly, no teachers, professional educators, cognitive scientists, or learning experts were invited.” Instead, “The group that met to shape the future of American education consisted entirely of state governors,” one of whom was Bill Clinton:

School reform, as formulated by the summit, moved so forcefully onto the nation's political agenda that, in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton had to promise to outtough Bush on education. As president, Clinton steered through Congress a bill called Goals 2000 that largely co-opted the policies that came out of the 1989 Bush summit.

This dovetails with what Ohanian told me about Clinton's role in 2011, but another education expert I interviewed then, David Berliner, co-author of "The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools," added an important point about how Clinton inadvertently altered the education narrative.

“What Clinton got us to do, and Bush [Jr.] capitalized on it, was focus on the achievement gap,” both between whites and minorities, and between affluent and poor, Berliner told me.  Superficially, that sounds like a good thing, but Berliner explained, “The achievement gap gets you away from thinking about equal educational opportunity, which was the [focus of] the Johnson years.”  Johnson was a former teacher, Berliner pointed out,  who “said that a lot of the problem with schools are that kids are poor, they don't have good food, they don't have security, there are drugs and crime, and broken families, and high mobility rates, and migration ... That was all input-oriented.” Meaning you look at the kind of resources being provided in order for children to learn.

With Clinton, the focus shifted. “Once you start looking at the gap, you stop looking at the causes of school problems as being outside the school.  You start looking for the causes of school problems as being inside the school,” Berliner told me. “I call it the 'great switcheroo.'  They stopped looking for societal problems, the 'Great Society' that Johnson wanted, and started looking for teacher problems, school problems, and Bush capitalized on that, first in Texas, and then nationally.”

Stepping back a bit, Berliner explained the shift in focus like this: “If you see the wreck -- you know, black kids score a year, two, three or four years lower than white kids -- the people closest to the wreck get blamed.  If you talk about equal educational opportunity, then we're all responsible.”

Bush and Obama Accelerate False Promising

Just as Bush Senior and Bill Clinton adopted similar frameworks, with modestly different emphasis, the same can be said about Bush Junior and Barack Obama. What set them apart from their predecessors was the arrival of disaster capitalism, with its supersizing of fraud and illusion. Both chose secretaries of education based on urban reform records that ultimately proved illusory.

Bush's signature education effort was called “No Child Left Behind.”  Aside from stealing the name from the Children's Defense Fund, which had been identified with the slogan for decades, Bush's policy itself was based on bogus evidence, much like Iraq's mythical WMD — a bogus “Texas miracle” in education that cut recorded dropout rates in many Houston schools to zero, an accomplishment of creative accounting that would have made Houston-based Enron proud. The broader “Texas miracle” claim had already been refuted by education researcher Walt Haney in a 2000 research paper, “The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education,” but his research was widely ignored by the brain-dead “he said/she said” media, just one of many ignominious examples from the 2000 election campaign.  And so Bush appointed Rod Paige, superintendent of Houston's schools, to be his secretary of education.

Three years later, in 2003, Robert Kimball blew the whistle.  He was an assistant principal at Sharpstown High School, where the freshman class of 1,000 shrank to less than 300  by senior year — but without a single dropout recorded!  Kimble was demoted for troubles, while Rod Paige was allowed to serve out the rest of Bush's first term — a typical example of Bush-era “accountability.”

Then, when Barack Obama was elected, it happened all over again, albeit in more muted form. After the election, his educational transition team was headed up by Linda Darling-Hammond, a highly respected Stanford-based education expert. But when it came time to name his secretary of education, Darling-Hammond was passed over for being too close to teachers (the car wreck, remember?), in favor of Obama's personal friend and basketball buddy Arne Duncan, in what education expert Gerald Bracey described at the time as “The Hatchet Job on Linda Darling-Hammond.”

“[T]wo sides formed in a debate over the desiderata for a secretary and might have duked it out, but only one side was permitted to throw punches in public,” Bracey wrote. “The winners in the fight-that-wasn't were the people who managed to get themselves anointed by the mainstream media -- or 'corporate media' as some call them — as reformers ... The losers were actual educators in schools and universities who were mostly not permitted in the ring.”

True to form for the “reformers,” Duncan had had no significant education background when he was hired to run Chicago's schools. But he enthusiastically pursued a corporate-approved “reform agenda,” which involved an aggressive policy of closing so-called failed schools, firing everyone involved, and reopening so-called turn-around or transformation schools. If there weren't mind-boggling “Texas miracle”-style statistics to blow you away, well, there was progress, Duncan's supporters assured everyone, and more was sure to come. Then, in September 2009, word came down that all previous signs of progress in Chicago had stalled — including Duncan's beloved “turn-around” schools.

Wall Street Steps In

Bracey wrote perceptively about the role of framing and insider politics, but even he missed a crucial dimension that only became obvious to more observers as the Great Recession played out: the role of Wall Street.

In September 2012, for example, economist Jeff Faux, principal founder of the Economic Policy Institute, wrote an article, “Education Profiteering; Wall Street's Next Big Thing?” which first noted, “It is well known, although rarely acknowledged in the press, that the [education] reform movement has been financed and led by the corporate class,” but then went on to note a crucial change:

In recent years, hedge fund operators, leverage-buy-out artists and investment bankers have joined the crusade. They finance schools, sit on the boards of their associations and the management companies that run them, and -- most important -- have made support of charter schools one of the criteria for campaign giving in the post-Citizens United era. Since most Republicans are already on board for privatization, the political pressure has been mostly directed at Democrats....

What's more, Faux noted, there was less money for Wall Street to play with from the sources they had burned, but the money-making opportunities in education were proliferating like never before:

You start to see entire ecosystems of investment opportunity lining up," Rob Lytle, a business consultant, earlier this year told a meeting of private equity investors interested in for-profit education companies....

This is the context in which Andrew Cuomo hooked up with Wall Street, as the New York Times reported in May 2010. Cuomo's ticket to Wall Street came courtesy of Joe Williams, executive director of  Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC that “advances what has become a favorite cause of many of the wealthy founders of New York hedge funds: charter schools.” Members who met with Cuomo included “the founders of funds like Anchorage Capital Partners, with $8 billion under management; Greenlight Capital, with $6.8 billion; and Pershing Square Capital Management, with $5.5 billion.”  But in retrospect, 2010 was nothing. As already noted, Cuomo has raised $800,000 from Wall Street charter school supporters — roughly half that total from Moskowitz supporters alone.

The Philanthropic Dimension

Money may be all the motivation Wall Street needs, but there's more. Philanthropy has always been a means for the wealthy to extend their influence over society beyond the marketplace, to serve a multitude of functions. Northern philanthropists spent an enormous amount of money bringing education to Southern blacks after the Civil War, for example. This brought them into prolonged and complex conflicts with both Southern elites, who resisted virtually all education efforts, and with blacks who resisted the Northern philanthropists' focus on industrial education (epitomized by the Tuskegee model), as well as their broader pattern of trying to appease Southern white racism. (See, for example,"The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.") Although highly conflicted and complicated, these efforts eventually synergized with blacks' own broader civil rights struggles to bring about the integration of public education in the South — at which time, Southerners' first response was the policy of massive resistance, including the creation of private academies, and the closing of public schools.

Amazingly, three decades later, the education panic reform movement began the process of recycling the racist Southern resistance strategies as general solutions for the purported failure of public education. Another three decades further on, those very same anti-civil rights strategies are now being touted as the key to civil rights. The reasons are at least partly psychological. After the financial crises decimated the economy, Wall Street elites and their 1 percenter allies were profoundly defensive, as seen most shockingly in remarks comparing their critics to Nazi Germany. But the “productive” manifestation of this same acute status anxiety was arguably much more destructive — that is, the intense desire to re-create themselves as moral leaders, not lepers, by recasting public education as a locus of evil, and portraying its destruction as “the civil rights struggle of our time” — which they, of course, would be only too happy to lead.

And so it was that Eva Moskowitz not only organized the anti-de Blasio rally at which Cuomo spoke, and not-so-subtly coerced all her staff and students to attend (paid for by her hedge fund friends), she also filed a civil rights lawsuit lawsuit against the mayor — which caused Hazel M. Dukes, president of the NAACP’s New York State Conference, to say, “This lawsuit is an outrageous and insulting attempt by Wall Street hedge fund managers to hijack the language of civil rights in their shameless political attack on Bill de Blasio. It is an affront to all public school parents in New York City.”

But that's not all. According to the New York Daily News, Moskowitz earned $475,244 in the 2011-2012 school year, making her the second highest paid of 16 charter school CEOs who drew bigger paychecks than NYC public school chancellor Dennis Walcott. Walcott earned $212,614 for overseeing a system with more than 1,600 schools that year.  Given the size of her network at the time, Moskowitz made more than 100 times what Walcott made per school overseen. One has to wonder, which civil rights leader, specifically, does Moskowitz think she is? Rush Limbaugh? Glenn Beck?

Ideological Repurposing in a Nutshell

This is the sort of deceptive plaything that charter schools have become in Obama's second term. But it wasn't always so. As Diane Ravitch explained, in 2012:

They [charters] were first proposed in 1988 by Raymond Budde, a Massachusetts education professor, and Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Budde dreamed of chartering programs or teams of teachers, not schools. Shanker thought of charters as small schools, staffed by union teachers, created to recruit the toughest-to-educate students and to develop fresh ideas to help their colleagues in the public schools. Their originators saw charters as collaborators, not competitors, with the public schools.

What happened with charters is a commonplace of behind-the scenes politics, that's rarely commented on. Put simply, they were ideologically repurposed.  The classic example of ideological repurposing was Otto von Bismarck's creation of the modern welfare state in 1880s Germany. As I explained in a 2010 Open Left blog post, education reformers are following in Bismarck's footsteps:

When Otto von Bismarck created the first conservative welfare state, it was designed to co-opt the Social Democrat's most popular idea [universal health care], while strengthening German industry internationally and strengthening the power of its elites internally by placing them in charge of caring for social needs. In America, the pattern is a little messier, as it represents a convergence of different conservative interests, all the while being disavowed as conservatives repeatedly claim to be against the "nanny state".  But here we can see at least five different conservative ends being served at once:  (1) The attack on public education itself is a prime example of the attack on social democratic ideas and institutions, paralleling Bismarck's co-opting of the Social Democratic Party's most popular idea. This serves to discredit public education, take money away from the public education system, and take money and jobs away from public employees and their unions. (2) The siphoning off of certain students into separate learning environments is part of the conservative agenda for inscribing hierarchical differences in society. (3) The creation of lucrative money-making opportunities funnels public money to more wealthy members of society. (4) The creation of private governance structures further strengthens the power of unaccountable conservative elites, weakening democratic control. (5) The private governance structures in turn empower crony networks that can also serve as organizing foundations for further consolidation of conservative power.

This is, if you will, the big-picture view of what the current “education reform” movement is all about, and how it fits into the grand scheme of things. But there's a much simpler, down-to-earth, parental way of viewing it, as well. As Ravitch wrote more recently:

Mario Cuomo, known for his eloquence, once explained that a parent gives more love and affection to the weakest child, not the strongest one.... It was very moving, spoken by a decent and kind human being, a loving father.

Did he teach this lesson to Andrew? I think not. Andrew is ready to toss the neediest children overboard. They don't have high test scores. They don't count. They drag down scores. They don't matter to Andrew Cuomo. In his eyes, they are dispensable. They are invisible. And the hedge fund managers, so necessary for his reelection, don't like losers. They like high scores. They like winners.

So this is the question that Democrats face, which education policy places squarely before us: We already have one party of Ayn Rand, one party that celebrates winners (however ruthless, however dirty they play to win), and treats everyone else with scorn.  Why, then, do we need a second one?

The way that Democrats respond to that question may well determine the future of the party — and of America as well.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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