It was an idea so audacious that even the Bush Administration didn’t dare try it. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s radical Education Secretary, pushed for and received $4.35 billion in stimulus funds for K-12 education. But Duncan didn’t plan to just hand the money out to states desperately in need of federal funds just to keep the schools open and teachers in the classrooms. He linked the stimulus funds to a series of right-wing educational “reforms” designed to even further emphasize testing, link teacher pay and performance to those tests (regardless of the other qualifications and achievements of those teachers).
The most stunning piece of this program, which was called “Race To The Top,” was that states had to adopt these reforms without any guarantee they’d get a dime for their trouble. The Race to the Top grants were competitive in nature, so states were being asked to make fundamental changes in the way their schools operated merely for a chance at a sliver of federal funds.
Arnold Schwarzenegger enthusiastically embraced the reforms, and Sacramento Democrats went along, although they had deep reservations about doing so. And yet the Obama Administration rejected California’s grant application anyway.
The right response would be to repeal the reform bills passed in January in order to conform to the terms of the grant. California should set its own school policies based not on Arne Duncan’s effort to shove his unproven methods down our throats, but on our own assessments of what will help our schools.
It cannot be denied that the number one need of California schools is more money. As districts across the state prepare mass layoffs for the second year in a row, recent API scores indicate that the best predictor of how a district will score is the amount of money they spend on their students. If districts are cutting classes and firing teachers, they’re not going to be in any position to effectively implement any other reform. Students learn best in small classes, not in classrooms packed with 40 students because the district had to lay off teachers.
Other reforms are worth considering. I’m open to charter schools and giving parents more power, but too many people see these things as a sure salvation. More importantly, these types of reforms are often used to blunt arguments that more money is needed for schools, in order to prevent the fortunes of the wealthy and large corporations from being taxed to properly provide for our state’s educational needs.
That isn’t to say every education reformer is driven by anti-tax politics. Many are driven by a genuine desire to improve schools. But there needs to be an appreciation of the need to better fund education if any reforms are going to be successful.
Progressive education activists will also need to develop a new set of messages that can reframe this discussion. In the last week many of the discussions I’ve had on education, including here at Calitics and on various progressive talk radio stations (including KRXA 540 in Monterey) wind up drawing out people who want to change the discussion away from one of funding to either bash teachers unions, claim teachers are overpaid, complain about tenure rules, or make some other kind of attack on teachers and their defenders.
These right-wing frames have become deeply embedded in the public consciousness, and are there to both prevent the kind of progressive taxation we need to save our schools and to undermine one of the most successful, effective, and necessary examples of a strong public sector. If we are to repeal the changes made in order to chase the Race To The Top mirage, we’ll need to provide the kind of messaging that can show the value of progressive education and explain why market-based solutions won’t work for our schools.