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Est. April 5, 2002
September 17, 2015 - Issue 621

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Dismantling Public Education
From Reagan to Obama
Public School Privatization
Race to the Top (RTTT)
Common Core

By By Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH

"A perfect storm appears to be emerging that is
systematically downsizing public education
as we know it. RTTT and Common Core are the
main policies that many view as contributing to
an evolving crisis in K-12 education. They have
been fostered by the five most recent U.S.
presidents with the most significant contributor
being the Obama Administration."

Public education has been under constant attack for more than three decades as conservative corporate, intellectual, and political reformers have devised policies and practices to dismantle and privatize the profession. These well-funded efforts have increased dramatically as the racial makeup of public school students has become decidedly minority and low-income. At the beginning of the 2015 school year, more than fifty-one percent of all K-12 pupils are African American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. To fully appreciate the origins and development of these initiatives, it is necessary to review and understand the context from which they arose. The purpose of this analysis is to describe the links between U.S. presidential efforts to take American public education apart: from President Ronald Reagan’s tuition tax credit proposal in 1981 to President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) legislation in 2009; both plans were supposedly designed to improve public education. The implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to facilitate the privatization of public education is also examined.

President Reagan, at the urging of the Heritage Foundation, embraced legislation for tuition tax credits (forerunners of vouchers) and market-oriented education reform at the beginning of his first term. Heritage staff had placed a copy of its book, Mandate for Leadership, on his desk in the Oval Office on January 20, 1981, which emphasized these approaches. In the middle of the manuscript was a recommendation that inner city urban schools be targeted for these initiatives since their academic outcomes were so poor. Although Reagan subsequently submitted tuition tax credit legislation to Congress, it never garnered significant support as no powerful Democrats (who controlled both houses of Congress) ever signed on to support the law. Heritage followed up with Mandate for Leadership II in 1985, reiterating the same education reforms. In addition, the Reagan Administration commissioned A Nation at Risk, a report that severely criticized the state of public education.

Meanwhile, Heritage and numerous other think tanks, conservative scholars, and advocacy organizations, committed to privatizing the public sector, were funded by a network of conservative, right-wing corporations and foundations, who viewed public education as in need of radical change. They constitute an education reform Cartel (e.g., the Koch Bros. and other major corporations; the Bradley, Gates, Walton, Arnold, Broad, Fisher, and other Foundations; and Wall Street firms and hedge fund operators). These entities fund hundreds of think tanks and advocacy groups (the most prominent of which are the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which develops pro-private-sector legislation. They have targeted public education as their newest profit center under the guise of education reform.

President George H.W. Bush received Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership III in1989 and began to push more aggressively to privatize public education---aligning himself with Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who had signed the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) into law in 1990. This was the first voucher bill allowing public dollars to flow to private schools since the 1956 Southern Manifesto, put forth by the eleven southern states and Prince Edward County, Virginia’s closing of its public schools from 1959 to 1964 in response to the 1954 Brown Decision.

After holding a White House briefing with the leading Wisconsin African American voucher advocates in 1990, State Representative Annette Polly Williams and Michal Holt, editor of the Milwaukee Community Journal, the state’s largest African American newspaper, President H.W. Bush sent a federal voucher bill to Congress. It was derailed by Democrats as the reality of the voucher threat became apparent to teacher unions across the nation who went on high alert in opposition. However, President H.W. Bush did appropriate funding to distribute to local communities to push the school choice agenda, primarily through charter schools, before he became embroiled in a reelection campaign that he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.

After the election, President Clinton stayed away from vouchers and doubled-down on funding for charter school development. He had observed the pushback against vouchers during the Bush Administration. He won both his terms with less than fifty percent of the national vote, by relying on heavy support from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers who were fierce voucher opponents. As a compromise with the Cartel, he set up the infrastructure for the systematic expansion of charters nationwide. Meanwhile, the Cartel gave generous campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans, alike, at every level of government to implement its ideas for the private transformation of public education. In 2000, the Cartel was instrumental in funding and encouraging Democratic Presidential candidate, Al Gore, to select Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), a staunch Cartel ally and voucher supporter, as his Vice Presidential running mate. Lieberman had previously endorsed the takeover of the Hartford Public Schools by the now defunct Educational Alternatives, Inc., a for-profit Educational Management Organization (EMO) based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the 2000 Los Angeles National Democratic Convention, Lieberman had to weather intense disapproval from Congresswoman Maxine Waters and the Congressional Black Caucus for his positions on vouchers and the privatization of public schools.

The assault on public education was gaining traction. Upon the election of President George W. Bush in 2000, the privatization agenda went on steroids. Using legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), President W. Bush quickly pushed through the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001, with the full-throated support of the liberal Democratic icon, Sen. Ted Kennedy. The Cartel had broken the partisan divide on privatization. NCLB mandated that all children read at grade level by 2014. Additionally, it ushered in more testing, intense scrutiny of teachers, and made it easier to close failing schools as measured by annual test scores. Originally, NCLB was designed to allow students in failing public schools to receive publicly-funded vouchers that would let them attend private and sectarian schools. But that component of the bill was deleted in conference committee and replaced with the option to attend a higher-performing public school. The Bush administration also provided grants to community organizations to inform parents of this choice opportunity.

The success of NCLB was followed up by the first federal voucher program established in Washington, D.C. in 2004. The law was passed by one vote, that of Tennessee black Congressman, Harold Ford, Jr., in the House of Representatives, while other Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members, led by their Chair, Elijah Cummings (D-MD), a close friend of Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes, were in Baltimore. The CBC was co-sponsoring a 2004 Democratic presidential debate with the Fox News Network on the campus of historically black Morgan State University, the first time ever that African Americans had played such a role. A year later, President W. Bush created a federal voucher program in New Orleans in response to Hurricane Katrina. He also brought in private-sector firms, Halliburton and Blackwater, who earned tens of millions of dollars in disaster capitalism, while citizens were drowning in their homes and stranded on rooftops.

January 29, 2009 represents a watershed date in the enhanced assault on public education. Jon Schnur, a former member of the Clinton Administration and then representing the Cartel, met with newly inaugurated President Barack H. Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, in the Oval Office, a mere nine days after Obama’s inauguration. He handed them the Cartel-developed legislation for Race to the Top (RTTT), which he had already vetted with Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel said, “We’ve got to do this. It’s a great plan… This is our great opportunity. And I know we can get a lot of Democrats to support it.” After reviewing the document, President Obama stated, “Yes, let’s do it. I always say this is supposed to be about the kids not the adults. Just make sure… that we don’t poke unions in the eye with this. Just do what you have to do.” (See Steven Brill, Class Warfare, 2011, pp.6-7). Earlier, the Cartel had handpicked Arne Duncan, with whom it had collaborated to privatize 60 Chicago Public Schools while he served as Superintendent, to be U.S. Secretary of Education. Duncan’s primary qualifications were that he had played basketball with President Obama for more than a decade and that he was a member of the Chicago political machine. He possessed no meaningful educational credentials or educational experience other than his patronage appointment to be Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, by Mayor Richard M. Daley, from June 2001 through December 2008.

The Cartel had informed the Obama administration that under no circumstances would it accept the appointment of Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, an endowed professor, former dean of the Stanford University School of Education, and a nationally recognized expert on public education and the training of teachers. President Obama had made her chair of the Department of Education’s transition team with the expectation that she would be named the first African American female U.S. Education Secretary. This decision came as a shock to public school educators and academics in higher education who had voted for President Obama nearly unanimously. However, the Cartel had paid to play during the 2008 presidential campaign when it, and its allies, raised approximately $450 million of the $650 million Obama campaign war chest. Dr. Darling-Hammond remained silent and accepted this professional slight from the first black president. Like most African Americans, she was protective of President Obama and provided him the space to pander to his white benefactors. This pattern of his behavior has persisted prior to and throughout his presidency (see Frederick Harris, The Price of the Ticket, 2012). Thus, President Obama continued in the tradition of his four immediate predecessors—Presidents Ronald W. Reagan, George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush, but he escalated the dismantling of traditional public education by making privatization much easier with his signing of the odious RTTT.

Race to the Top and Common Core Standards (CCSS) have resulted in the lay-offs/terminations of thousands of teachers, administrators, and educational support personnel; urban, low-wealth districts have been especially hard hit. Teachers of color in Washington, D.C., Newark and Camden, NJ, New Orleans, LA, Cleveland, OH, Los Angeles, CA, Miami-Dade, FL, Chicago, IL, and a host of other school districts have been disproportionately fired. For example, in New Orleans, 71% of the teachers were black in 2004 as compared to 49% in 2015. In all of these cities, the minority middle class has been devastated as public school employees made up the core of this group.

These displaced minority educators have been largely replaced by Teach for America (TFA) teachers (who are overwhelmingly white), are recent college graduates with degrees in non-education disciplines, lack formal teacher training and teacher certification, and generally sign on for a two-year stint in exchange for loan forgiveness of their college loans. TFA receives most of its funding from the Cartel. In order for TFA teachers to get around having to earn certification credentials in a particular subject, as do traditional teachers, to be labeled highly qualified, Secretary Duncan persuaded Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and senior Democratic Senator Tom Harkins (D-IA) to co-sponsor an amendment that provided TFA teachers a two-year waiver. They attached this rider to the 2013 budget bill that reopened the government after the shutdown, and it received minimal attention from educators and the general public. Since the overwhelming majority of TFA teachers only teach for two years or less, they were/are, in effect, certified as highly qualified during their two-year tenure with slight preparation in education and the art of teaching. As noted by Mercedes Schneider in A Chronicle of Echoes (2014, p.119), RTTT “… was the whitewashed tomb of No Child Left Behind.”

RTTT also promoted Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teacher evaluation using student test scores, the removal of caps on charter schools, turning around of low-performing schools (by closing them), and emphasizing frequent testing of students. Common Core, a controversial element of RTTT, was presented to the Obama Administration by Bill Gates, a leader in the Cartel. Starting in 2008, Gates spent more than $200 million in 46 states to promote Common Core and to have them endorsed by Democratic and Republican Governors. Unknown to virtually everyone, Gates had partnered with NCS Pearson (the world’s largest education and testing publishing company) to load Pearson’s Common Core classroom curriculum and testing materials on his Microsoft Tablet, the Surface.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were introduced without any field testing to assess their effects. Strong opposition quickly emerged from parents, teachers, and elected officials. Teachers were given little time to develop lessons, receive professional development, get used to the new tests, and offer feedback. Parents and their children experienced difficulty in understanding the Common Core homework, completing the assignments, and in taking the Common Core tests. With persistent pushback against Common Core, Democratic and Republican elected officials nationwide began to withdraw their support. The Tea Party, agreeing with progressives on the left, likewise expressed extreme vocal hostility against CCSS, viewing them as excessive intrusion into local education by the federal government. The $4 billion dollars in competitive grants that RTTT appropriated for school districts across the nation were used to coerce states and school districts into the acceptance of RTTT and Common Core.

National and local teacher unions and other public education stakeholders have been slow to grasp and respond to the ongoing damage wrought by Race to the Top and Common Core. Moreover, the Cartel succeeded in having its political allies complete two additional tasks: the reduction of state-level funding for public education in a majority of the 50 states, while increasing funding for vouchers and charter schools, and the acceptance of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC’s) model legislation that required public school personnel to make larger contributions to their pension and health benefits, while severely limiting their salary increases. More than half of state Democratic and Republican legislatures passed these bills into law. Using the umbrella of RTTT and Common Core, the Cartel has fostered the closing of even more schools, handing them over to Charter Management Companies (CMOs) that mostly perform no better than the public schools they take over.

Elsewhere, The Cartel has been strategic in enlisting the support of the nation’s largest minority civil rights and educational organizations via robust contributions to their causes: African Americans (NAACP, National Action Network, United Negro College Fund, and National Urban League); Hispanics (National Council for La Raza and Latino Elected and Appointed Officials); Native Americans (National Indian Education Association); and Asian Americans (Asia Society) to support RTTT and CCSS. The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) received a $25 million dollar grant for student scholarships from the Koch Bros. in majors designated by them in 2014, and the Koch Bros. participate in the selection process for scholarship recipients. It is ironic that their father, the late Fred Koch, Sr., offered scholarships to black college students during the civil rights movement, but only if they did not participate in civil rights activities. The UNCF President, Michael Lomax, also sits on the Board of the Arnold Foundation, a Cartel member and a key funder of charter schools and charter organizations. In that role, Dr. Lomax has been far more effective in establishing charter schools than in raising money to sustain UNCF member institutions, his primary job responsibility. The United Negro College Fund has lost two of its members to financial insolvency in recent years.

What has been revealed in this analysis is that a perfect storm appears to be emerging that is systematically downsizing public education as we know it. RTTT and Common Core are the main policies that many view as contributing to an evolving crisis in K-12 education. They have been fostered by the five most recent U.S. presidents with the most significant contributor being the Obama Administration. The Cartel has largely funded, along with the five U.S. presidential administrations, these privatization efforts with the backing that it has ostensibly purchased via campaign contributions and grants to Democratic and Republican elected officials; teachers and teacher union officials; school superintendents; minority, majority, and religious organization leaders; grassroots activists; and hundreds of think tanks and advocacy organizations. The outcome of this assault on public education is far from certain, but it has brought with it some strange bedfellows. They are privatizing prisons, reducing union membership in both the public- and private sectors, promoting economic inequality, intentionally constructing a society where they will rule over every level of government, and an economy that promotes their interests and from which they derive disproportionate benefits. Guest Commentator Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has appeared on the Today Show with Matt Lauer and National Public Radio’s The Connection to discuss public school privatization, and he has lectured to parent, teacher, and union groups throughout the nation. He may be reached at [email protected]

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