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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The hypocrisy of education reform

Jennie Smith, Dade County Education Policy Examiner

"SB 6 2.0" is not the only plan Florida public school educators have to worry about in the coming years.

Rick Scott came out recently at a rally in Sarasota with a plan for "vouchers for all." Under this plan, rather than the state putting money directly into public education, parents would be given "control" over their per-pupil funding, letting them direct it toward the school of their choice, whether public, private, charter, parochial or virtual. This would apply to all parents, regardless of income. Parents who have the means and desire to send their children to private school without vouchers would be allowed to put the money aside as a college fund.

Many conservative politicians, including House Speaker Dean Cannon's education advisor, state representative Erik Fresen, R-Miami, have already come out in support of the idea.

This plan, though probably quite difficult to actually push through the legislature, conservative as it may be, would, if put in effect according to Scott's wishes, intentionally undermine and devastate public schools, while opening the floodgates for hucksters and profiteers to bilk the state of tax dollars for education, operating with virtually no oversight and no accountability.

Coming from the man who was CEO of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain during a time when it ripped off the government for over $2 billion in Medicare and Medicaid fraud, it should come as little surprise to voters that he would want to clear the way for, and even protect, those who would seek to perform a similar operation on public school funding.

Bush's plan for a slow, gradual privatization of public education and Scott's plan for a quick, straightforward privatization are not really so different.

Both seek to cut the state's education budget, freeing up more dollars for corporate tax cuts and giveaway projects to favored corporate institutions, while simultaneously redirecting the tax dollars marked for education to corporate friends and campaign contributors. All this, in the guise of providing parents with more "choice."

Vouchers for low-income children and charter schools have been a first stepping stone to privatization of the system, though there is no evidence that they actually produce higher achievement. In fact, a 2009 Stanford report showed that, overall, charter schools in Florida (among other states) actually produced worse results, despite the ability to cherry-pick student populations and expel low-performing, badly behaved or poor-attendance students. As for vouchers, there can never be evidence of whether private schools do a better job than public schools at educating low-income students as long as private schools are not held to the same standards of accountability...namely, that private school students do not have to take the FCAT, that heralded measure that allows the state to compare every public school to every other and evaluate the effectiveness of their teachers.

This frenzy for "reform" that has not been tried or tested anywhere else, and where, applied in more moderate forms, its results have been at best inconclusive and at worst detrimental to student achievement (as measured by the flawed tests they hold up as the end-all-be-all of educational attainment, though private schools taking state money need not worry about them), has been further abetted by the recent release of the documentary film Waiting for Superman by Davis Guggenheim. The irony lies in the fact that the movie's comparisons of American schools to schools in other countries lead to completely skewed conclusions. The film villainizes teachers' unions and holds up a few examples of highly-performing charter schools as the solution to education's problems (ignoring the bulk of charter schools, which are no better than regular neighborhood public schools at best, and the many high-performing neighborhood public schools). Yet the film lauds Finland's education system, overlooking the fact that Finland's teaching force is completely unionized, that Finland has a public safety net that assures the health, well-being and academic readiness of its children (which America does not have by any rational measure), and that Finland's system is entirely public and does not have charter schools or provide vouchers for low-income families to send their children to private schools.

If these so-called "reformers" were actually concerned about improving education opportunities for all students, including and especially low-income and minority students, and closing the "achievement gap" (as defined by standardized tests), they would have been in favor of the 2002 Class Size Amendment. Research shows that class size does matter, especially with disadvantaged children.

Yet former governor Jeb Bush spoke out against the 2002 Class Size Amendment, saying he had "a couple of devious plans if that thing passes," and has used his influence with the existing legislature and his well-funded Foundation for Florida's Future to make sure that his "devious plans" have come to fruition. They purposely refused to fund the amendment, despite its constitutional mandate, to ensure that there would be enough chaos in public schools across the state--layoffs, cutting programs such as art, music and physical education, lack of resources for books, technology and maintenance, etc.--that disgruntled parents and educators would vote for Amendment 8, relaxing the class size amendment and releasing the legislature from its obligation to adequately fund public education.

He even went so far as to say at a Utah conference about improving education that reducing class size was unnecessary to boost student achievement. Yet one of the strongest selling points of many of the charter schools and private schools he supports is precisely their small class sizes. He even sent at least one of his children to Gulliver Preparatory School, where the average class size is 16 and the average student/teacher ratio is 8:1.

But apparently, what is good for his children is not what is good for other, less wealthy people's children...or, in other words, is too good for other people's children.

As Valerie Strauss points out on her Washington Post blog The Answer Sheet, most of those driving today's educational policy chose to send their own children to private schools with very small class sizes, including Bill Gates, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg...and ex-governor Jeb Bush as well.

Instead of modeling our education system on those held up as shining stars in Waiting for Superman and in the media at large, our "reformers" choose to push "solutions" that are untried, untested, and have failed to produce any conclusive improvement where they have been piloted, and in some cases have even proved detrimental. And that is just on a small scale. If introducing, then expanding, charter schools (many of them managed by for-profit corporations) has not improved student achievement (according to the above-cited 2009 Stanford Report, among others, it has not)...if introducing, and expanding, vouchers for low-income students has not produced any results (and cannot be quantified, given the schools are not subject to the same accountability measures as public schools)...then why would we be looking at privatizing education as a viable, equitable reform that will improve education for all our children? Two plus two does not equal five.

Cutting funding to education will not improve schools. Expanding vouchers and charter schools, which do not have to abide by the same rules as standard public schools, to "skim the cream" off neighborhood schools--only to turn around and then compare those schools as if they were two identical bags of apples--will not improve schools. These schemes are good for only one thing: saving someone some money, and giving someone else some money.

If we truly want to improve our public education system, we would do well to look to countries that do have an excellent education system, and see what they do that we do not.

You will find that, almost across the board, their teachers are unionized. So eliminating, or weakening to oblivion, teachers' unions is not going to solve whatever problems may exist. Studies show no difference in the performance of comparable students of teachers in unionized districts and in non-unionized districts.

Almost across the board, their teachers have tenure--much more than we currently have. (For the record, in Florida we do not have tenure, but merely professional contracts, meaning that we cannot be fired without due process...not meaning that we cannot be fired. It is a protection against overreaching administrators, not a guarantee of lifelong employment. And our contracts do not protect us in any way against layoffs.) Eliminating so-called "tenure" will not solve the problems.

And the overwhelming majority of children, rich, poor and every step in between, attend public schools. Not private schools via vouchers, not charter schools, not even magnet schools. They go to the public schools nearest their homes.

What is significantly different is how teachers are regarded and treated. In almost all of those countries with superior education systems, teachers are shown respect as the professionals they are. They are expected to have superior levels of education, and are compensated, through salary, benefits and job security, accordingly. They are given a voice in deciding education policy.

Their school systems offer strong vocational programs and vocational schools that help children who are not academically inclined work toward a productive career, so that they may enter the work force as skilled labor at the end of high school, rather than having to rack up thousands in student loans to attend a vocational college after high school as they do here.

The children in those countries usually have a stronger social safety net in place, meaning you have fewer transient students and fewer students lacking preventive health care and facing hunger. When children's basic needs are met, they perform better. And that is one area where America falls sorely behind.

But those solutions are not simple. They cost money and they require drastic social change. It is far easier (and cheaper, and politically expedient) to blame those lousy, lazy unionized teachers than to wonder why poor academic performance (as measured by standardized tests) is centralized in poor, minority neighborhoods. Do any of these so-called "reformers" ever stop to ask themselves by what unhappy accident all the incompetent teachers in the country just happened to land in these schools, and how, if there are also lousy, lazy unionized teachers in more affluent neighborhood schools, it happened that those pathetic teachers have not depressed their students' achievement?

The truth is, they already know. They do not want the answer. They do not want a solution. They do not want the truth. Because if they acknowledge any of the above, they will be obligated to pledge funding for it. What they want is to award your tax money marked for education to their friends and campaign contributors who stand to profit off it. They know that they, their family, friends and campaign contributors, will still be rich enough to send their own children to any school they wish, without having to worry about the quality of public education for the masses.

The rest of us need to watch out.

Floridians need to be aware of what privatization of their education system means.

It does not mean, as Jeb Bush, Rick Scott, and their corporate and legislative cronies croon, "more choice and accountability and competition to improve student achievement."

It means more profits for those who know how to profit off their plan, and no guarantee (or possibly even hope) of good, solid education for all of our youth.

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