Wednesday, May 04, 2011

School choice birthed in authoritarian racial animus and market fundamentalism

Deformed: authoritarian undercurrents in education, Part III

School Choice, the bedrock of modern education reform, was born as an educational strategy in 1954, after the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal black and white public schools were unconstitutional. The order to desegregate public education motivated Southern racist authoritarians to search for new ways to maintain their dominance and racial apartheid. After first trying pupil-assignment schemes to maintain segregation they eventually implemented educational "freedom of choice" and public support for private whites-only schools as a way to get around the court's order, a notion immediately endorsed by free-market evangelist Milton Friedman.

"Southern states and school districts," wrote James E. Ryan in the Virginia Law Review in 2004, "relied on school choice as one tool in their strategy of massive resistance" to the school integration orders delivered by the US Supreme Court in its landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education.

"Freedom-of-choice plans, along with other resistance strategies, largely succeeded in thwarting desegregation" wrote Ryan. Following enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 that virtually outlawed school-assignment schemes Southern states rapidly created new private, white-only schools called "segregation academies" that received significant state financial and other support.  "From 1964 to 1969...enrollment in private schools in the South grew ten-fold," writes Ryan.

Directly after after Brown v. Board of Education Southern states attempted to maintain their system of educational racial apartheid  by the use of "pupil-assignment laws and other legal subterfuges," according to Helen Hershkoff and Adam S. Cohen, writing in the Yale Law & Policy Review in 1992. But when that system became untenable due to subsequent Supreme Court decisions and congressional action, "a network of all-white private schools was established in the large cities and small towns of the South that continues to this day[ 1992]":
"The segregation academy movement was a school choice plan in that the government made its resources available to help parents to choose schools other than their child's assigned school. This governmental assistance took many forms. During this era, seven states enacted tuition-grant laws that made government money available to pay tuition at the academies.
In addition many governmental entities throughout the South provided buildings, donated educational supplies and gave other such support."
Eventually the courts and congress outlawed deliberate racial discrimination, even in private schools, but that has not solved the problem of segregated schools,

as Protestants and minorities who had resisted segregation gradually came to support school choice for other reasons. Protestants joined the movement partially in response to court decisions that outlawed religious practices at public schools, along with the political ascendance of the religious right. Racial minorities joined seeking increased academic performance and to try and escape the disinvestment in education that followed legal and de-facto segregated schools.

The flight of elite whites from public schools in the South not only re-created segregated schools, but just as importantly significantly reduced support for public education in general.

One irony of the authoritarians' resistance to court-ordered school busing to achieve racial integration in the late 20th century is that they had practiced busing themselves prior to 1954 for the exact opposite reason: to racially segregate their schools. Today, as I will show below, thanks to the school choice inheritors of those Southern whites schools across the country are again being re-segregated.

More modern education reformers have instigated an equally cynical strategy that has actually capitalized on the white Protestant majority's history of racism and disinvestment in inner cities to entice Blacks to school choice schemes.

Corporate educational  reformers of the late 20th century first offered school choice to poor Black children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation. Milwaukee is also home to the premiere right wing philanthropy in the country, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has been fighting for public school privatization for decades. It was there that the nation's first school voucher experiment took shape, under the close tutelage and legal defense of the foundation in the mid-1990s. Bradley was able to co-opt local Black politicians, in large measure because the inner city Black schools had been so neglected that people were willing to try anything.

But the cooperation between Blacks and the Bradley Foundation represented in some sense a deal with the devil, given that the foundation was known for its covert racism. The Allen-Bradley company, whose sale provided the foundation with its endowment, was known to closely associate with the John Birch Society, which Harry Bradley helped found. The foundation funded and supported Charles Murray, author of the notorious book The Bell Curve, which purported to scientifically show that Blacks are genetically intellectually inferior to other races.

Despite its racist reputation the Bradley Foundation and its allies slowly brought on board Black politicians, as well as paid Black political activists and scholars, who would help make their case. Gradually even liberals joined the movement.

The results of these new political and educational alliances have not lived up to the promises made at their outset. Studies have consistently shown over the past decade that although charter schools were at first touted as a way to relieve racial segregation, the reality has been just the opposite, and that "the incidence of racial isolation in [charter] schools is strikingly higher than in traditional public schools," and that students in Milwaukee's voucher schools do no better academically than their peers in regular public schools.

Ideology of education deform movement rooted in market fundamentalism

Educational discourse in the U.S. has historically been focused on its purpose and methods. Should students be taught classics and high-minded culture, or should they be prepared for the working world? Is centralization of academic administration preferable to a de-centralized power structure? Today those discussions have been displaced by a focus on market-fundamentalist ideology: Education deformers argue schools should be made to function more like business, churning out products, measuring “value-added” processes, and instilling competition. They believe ideology, not a focus on pedagogy and process, will somehow automatically improve educational outcomes.

Traditionally American education did not function according to market rules. Primary and secondary education in the US has been under the control of local elected officials. Though the system has had its problems, it at least in theory allowed for popular control. If people in a school district didn't like how their schools were run, they could change that by electing new school boards. No longer. Now, with the proliferation of privately run charter schools that displace local neighborhood schools citizens no longer control the education of their children.

Just as pernicious has been the “strong mayor” form of school governance popular with the deformers, which resembles nothing so much as the structure of a modern corporation with a tough CEO and a rubber stamp board of directors. Mayors of both Chicago and New York were given this power from their respective state legislatures, essentially vesting in one elected official the power formerly held by elected school boards. Bill Gates told the New York Post in 2009 that “The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible.”

An article in Dissent magazine earlier this year reported on how two foundations – Gates and Eli Broad – have created a “pipeline” to place their own people into the political and management structure overseeing education:
“[Secretary of Education Arne] Duncan’s first chief of staff, Margot Rogers, came from Gates; her replacement as of June 2010, Joanne Weiss, came from a major Gates grantee, the New Schools Venture Fund; Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali has worked at Broad, LA Unified School District and the Gates-funded Education Trust; general counsel Charles P. Rose was a founding board member of another major Gates grantee, Advance Illinois; and Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement James Shelton has worked at both Gates and the New Schools Venture Fund. Duncan himself served on the board of directors of Broad’s education division until February 2009 (as did former treasury secretary Larry Summers).
The community is weakened by wrecking and undervaluing the long-lived neighborhood schools in exchange for new and sometimes temporary charter schools. Furthermore, the underlying notion of public education - preparing citizens to take part in their own democracy - has been replaced – especially in schools comprised of poor and minority students - with preparing children to take reading and math tests.

The notion of choice itself had never entered the public discourse for primary and secondary education until the deformers appeared, for good reason: The economics just don't make sense. Schools need to be a certain size to be able to offer a quality, varied education, complete with things like art classes, advanced placement, and extracurricular activities like band and athletics. There aren't enough students in most neighborhoods to justify schools that exist only to give parents a “choice.”

The fact that there was, and is no “market” for primary and secondary schools wasn't viewed as a barrier: The plutocrats would take care of that by supplying choice schools even if it meant paying for them by themselves. The Gates foundation, for example, spent more than $100 million in New York City creating new schools so parents would have a choice, an experiment that even the Gates Foundation now admits was a failure, and has since been abandoned.

Still in most of the country there can be no “choice”: Eighty five percent of students still attend regular public schools, while only two and a half percent attend charter schools. In Minnesota, the birthplace of charter schools, there are still only about 150 charter schools, compared to 2,500 regular public schools. The experience of Minnesota shows what happens when market ideology replaces logic and common sense in education policy. Despite media reports touting “high performing” charter schools in Minnesota, the reality has been quite the opposite, with dismal results, especially for children of poverty and color.

A 2010 report by the Minnesota Department of Education cited the 32 lowest performing schools in the state. Of those, 11 were charters. That means 11 of 154 charter schools were failing, a rate of seven percent. Twenty one of the failing 32 were regular public schools, giving a failure rate of less than one percent. So by the Minnesota DOE's own numbers, charter schools in Minnesota are failing at a rate seven times greater than regular public schools. Despite these outrageous results not one media organization in the state reported the amazing contrast in failure rates between regular public schools and charters.

Even when nearly forced to choose alternative schools for their children parents rarely choose anything but their neighborhood schools. For example, under the NCLB act, after a school fails to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for four years parents are given the option of removing their children from the neighborhood school and enrolling them in other, presumably more successful schools. Contrary to the ideology of choice, however, studies have shown that almost no parents moved their children from such schools. After the fifth year of not meeting AYP those supposedly failing schools are basically destroyed, which has angered parents nationwide, many of whom have had to put their kids in schools many miles from home, many without the advantages that were provided by their large neighborhood school.

In their zeal to apply the rules of business to education, corporate-style reformers have transformed the purpose of testing from a diagnostic tool to a basis for policy, resulting in the corruption of the entire process. Instead of being used to help students learn, testing is now used to judge the effectiveness of teachers and schools. This focus on measurable outcomes has escalated to the point that there is a growing call to judge and compensate teachers based on the reading and math test scores of their students, something called a “value added assessment,” another concept borrowed from business that has already been discredited in the educational context.

Even if the valued added measures could be trusted they would be meaningless for the current fad of Teach For America (TFA) teachers since there is no baseline for a particular teacher until he or she has taught for a few years, after which most TFA teachers leave the profession.

Other research has shown that 60 to 70 percent of student achievement can be linked back to the student and his family life. Only 30 to 40 percent of student achievement is even linked to the entire education establishment. Of that 30 to 40 percent, half is due to the school itself, and the other half – 15 to 20 percent of the actual total – can be linked to the classroom. How much of that remaining 15 to 20 percent can be linked to the actual teacher? Even if you assumed all of it was due to the teacher, that would still leave 80 percent of the student's performance dependent on factors outside the teacher's control.

Contrary to the deformers' concepts, children are not “products” to be produced, like so many widgets in a factory. They are unique human beings who bring all the successes and failures of the larger society to school with them. Yet because these methods are prevalent in American business, and the plutocrats who control that business are now controlling education discourse, these changes will intensify and spread.

In the conclusion of their Yale Law Review article Hershkoff and Cohen wonder if market- and competition-based educational strategies could ever work at providing a high quality education for every American student. They presciently cited realities such as "unequal access to preferred schools," "impoverishment of less-favored schools,"  "stigmatization and demoralization" of public schools and their students, and the exit of societal elites, which the authors called an "increasingly widespread phenomenon in American society" - and that was back in 1992. Rather than ameliorate racial and class differences in American society, Hershkoff and Cohen conclude "experience shows that the introduction of increased market choice often does little more than exacerbate 'a growing inequality in basic social community services.'" Given how modern educational reform was birthed in authoritarian racial animus and worship of market fundamentalism it isn't much of a surprise that it has failed to increase educational attainment.

Editorial cartoon by Avidor

Tomorrow: Education deformers' achieve political success through a strategy of repetition, marketing and compliance, not logic, reason and evidence

Part I:  Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education
Part II: The danger to education and democracy posed by authoritarianism

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