"A self-fulfilling conflict of interest": Charter schools, testing mania, and Arne Duncan

Rep. Raul Grijalva sounds off to Salon on starved public schools and White House's "market-based philosophy"

Published April 17, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Raul Grijalva, Arne Duncan       (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Jacquelyn Martin)
Raul Grijalva, Arne Duncan (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Jacquelyn Martin)

Obama’s education secretary is “a market-based person,” his education policy manifests a “market-based philosophy,” and “we continue to starve public schools,” the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus charged in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

The privatization of education “began as driven by ideology, but now [it’s] getting momentum because of the financial aspects,” Rep. Raul Grijalva argued to Salon. The Arizona Democrat called charter schools “a step towards” privatization, called the Chicago teachers’ strike a “necessary pushback” and warned of a “self-fulfilling conflict of interest.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

You were the first congressman to echo a call from the Network for Public Education for hearings on standardized testing, saying it’s critical to hold hearings on what you called “mandatory testing and privatization efforts” and “the dismantling of public education.”  What do you want those hearings to accomplish?

I want them to answer some very fundamental questions, Josh. You know, the education committee has talked about a lot of issues that have minimal consequence to public education …

One of the things driving, right now, education is … mandatory testing … the frequency, the quantity of the testing that’s going on …

I understand accountability. I don’t have a problem with testing as a teaching tool, to help to guide the improvement in children. But what’s happened is the standardized testing has become the end-all-be-all in terms of curriculum, in terms of how you prepare students for the future.

And I think that issues related to what these tests are, how we are impacting communities that have, let’s say, learning disabilities … students who use primarily languages other than English, how are we dealing with cultural differences …

A whole hearing on testing, the culture of testing, and what it is producing for public education.

What you see … is a real move toward the privatization of schools, based on what test results are. A school doesn’t do well, a school doesn’t do well again, then suddenly there is a movement to either let that school be run by private management [or] let the students then go somewhere else -- usually to a private charter school.

And so we see enrollment in our public education system dropping as a consequence of people leaving the schools, or the schools being converted into more private institutions as opposed to the public schools … Public schools are still held to the standards that they should be held to … whatever situation they come into school, that [children] always be treated and educated in the same manner. Yet other schools outside the public institution system can pick and choose who they want to educate … and leave to the public schools a less and less diverse grouping of students, a more difficult group of students, with shrinking resources. At the same time all of this is going on, the funding at a national level and at a state level continues to shrink for public education.

So you have this force going on from the outside -- whether it’s the Common Core movement, whether it is one-size-fits-all, whether it is the mandatory testing with consequences -- and all I want, all I’m asking for is let’s have a reasonable real discussion Talk about flexibility. Talk about communities needing to have more than one measurement -- one mandated measurement -- for how the school is doing, how the kids are progressing. Look at … how kids are improving over time, not just one snapshot they’re taking at that one moment …

In many states, the companies that have the contract to create the tests is also the same company that is also producing the curriculum and materials to prep for the test. So it’s a kind of a self-fulfilling conflict of interest… It’s a very lucrative business, now growing…

We’re not against testing. We just feel that there has to be some flexibility and multi-measurements - not just one that becomes the mandated test that from there flow all other consequences.

Who do you believe is trying to privatize education?

Well, I think it’s been a movement for a while. You know, the voucher movement, the “choice” movement, all aiming in that direction … Federal dollars, at least in this state, now can go to private institutions. The move for religious schools to receive federal dollars …

The movement has been there for a long time, but lately it is a more concentrated movement. And the testing has become kind of the instrument that’s used to rationalize failure in the public system -- and then you see the promotion of the alternatives right after that.

So I think it’s a combination of factors. Some [are] ideological [and] believe private education should be the way this country educates its people …

Then you have … the whole business aspect of it … For-profit private schools, for-profit universities … the whole testing industry, which is many times tied to curriculum development, et cetera …

[It] began as driven by ideology, but now [it’s] getting momentum because of the financial aspects of the whole thing.

What impact has Michele Rhee had?

With her organization, and then her limited time in D.C., to continue to go around -- to become the face and the advocate for both testing, and for expanding the use of federal dollars into the private sector … She’s provided a level of legitimacy – albeit unfortunate – that didn’t exist before.

Do you see charter schools as a form of privatization, or a step toward privatization, of education?

A step towards …

We have two sets of rules. One, that the private charter schools -- it’s proprietary how they use their money. It’s proprietary what they pay. It’s propriety how they deal with issues like Title IX -- you know, anti-discrimination issues, second language acquisition. It’s all proprietary, because it’s a business.

[Whereas] public charters have some accountability responsibilities as well. But they are a step toward that. Because they have lax oversight, in the sense that, you know, they have lax accountability.

You know, the boards that charter and accept and certify charter schools – that should be open and noted to the public. It isn’t. There should be oversight into the financial goings-on. There isn’t.

… Here in Arizona, you have an advisory group of seven that are responsible for almost 600 private and public charter schools, OK? And yet they have a minimal staff. And each one of them is responsible for the certification -- if necessary, the decertification -- and the financial oversight. And yet it doesn’t meet in public.

I spoke recently with Linda Darling-Hammond, who headed up the education team in the initial Obama transition team. She argued that Obama has offered “a continuation” of George W. Bush’s approach on “high-stakes testing without investing." Is that a fair assessment of the Obama administration?

It’s a fair assessment … I agree in a certain sense it’s a fair assessment insofar [as there’s] the high-risk testing that was going on; the [assessment] that’s coming around the corner in ’14 and ’15 [where] you’ll see failure rates all across this country; and the prescriptive solutions. And one of the most important ones -- that Democrats fought very hard on the Education Committee, and got it lessened, but it’s still one of the recommendations that Secretary Duncan promoted -- one of the prescriptive solutions was to turn it over to independent management, i.e., private management.

Have you been surprised by the Obama approach on education?

I don’t know if the word’s “surprised” … One knew going in that the [Education] Secretary [Arne Duncan] - who has great influence over the education policy right now in this country, and the administration -- is a market-based person …

They believe the market can be a determiner, that competitiveness can be a determiner between schools … To raise the bar and have better education as the consequence of a market-based system of accountability. And with it comes the testing as the measurement …

I figured that that would get – you know, it did get – moderated, because there’s different points of view. As a whole, you know, I think that market-based philosophy still exists.

Some critics have seized on an essay by Secretary Duncan’s then-chief of staff, Joanne Weiss, in which a few years ago she stated that “the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” They’ve cited that essay as a reason for skepticism about the Common Core and to what extent it’s motivated by improving education. Do you share that concern?

Yeah, that was my point at the beginning. The whole market-based issue: That that is going to be the solution, because innovation in the form of private entrepreneurs will enter the education field, and as a consequence raise the standards. And that the mandatory test will be the instrument that moves that.

That, to me, was pretty clear from the beginning. And when that was mentioned from the chief of staff, actually it was no surprise to me.

It was just … said out loud it was a surprise.

Last month, at your reelection kickoff, you said you’re “not tired of fighting for” an improvement in public education. Do you see any prospects for a shift in federal education policy in the rest of the Obama administration?

I think the fight is keeping some of the worst from happening, No. 1. No. 2, as long as we are resource-deprived in public schools, they’ll never be in that competitive mode that Duncan talks about, OK? As long as we shift public resources to accommodate private ventures in education, and as long as you continue to be myopic about “one mandated test tells us all,” “one Common Core will be the solution …”

There’s also, you know, a shrinking of our curriculum in order to satisfy prepping for tests, as opposed to getting people ready in a more holistic way to be better human beings, and educated better …

If you continue to starve the schools, public education, then they’re never going to be [in] a position to be competitive. And if you do independent analysis, the public education system, compared to private charter schools, is no worse and no better. You know, there’s not a significant difference – yet … we continue to starve public schools. That’s why you see enrollment drop ...

There’s a demographic shift going on in our schools …  So this is a time to invest in those schools, because this generation of kids of color -- with many of them having English learners coming into our public schools -- those are the new Americans … Those are the generations of the future …

The public schools have always been one of the most powerful integrative social institutions that we have in our country, that build community and build the kind of allegiance to the values of this nation as part of the education process. Now you have a new demographic group coming into our schools, you’re disinvesting from the schools, and you’re leaving the public schools to that demographic with less resources and less attention. This is a really, really wrong time to be pulling [away] from the commitment to public schools. And it’s probably one of the times in our history when we should be doing more investment. Because this is the generation that is going to have the greatest responsibility for our nation come 10, 20 years from now.

What was the lesson of the Chicago teachers strike?

That it was a draw …

The lesson was that, backed by the community, there was a pushback on … one-size-fits-all. There was a pushback about the role of educators in the instructional process. That it’s not all instrumentation, and it’s not all testing, but there are educators involved. And that strike raised the prominence of the role they’re going to play in our schools. So in that sense I thought it was a necessary pushback.

By Josh Eidelson

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