The Elephant at the White House

So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.

This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even Kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation and Sherry Hazuda, President, Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the White House, 8-30-12

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White House policy advisors and USDE senior staff participants:

Kyle Lierman, White House Office of Public Engagement
Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy
David Bergeron, Acting Assistant Secretary, USDE
Miriam Calderon, Senior Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Lexi Barret, Senior Policy Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach, USDE
Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, USDE
Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Office of the Secretary, Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, USDE
Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, USDE
Steven Hicks, Special Assistant for Early Learning, USDE
Betsy Shelton, Director of Public Engagement, USDE

The Commonwealth

We are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Stop and think about that phrase, the official title of our state. We are a commonwealth, that’s common + wealth. It’s an old English term from the 15th century meaning a body politic (or a political community) organized for the “public welfare” and the “general good.” [Online Etymology Dictionary]

We are one of only four states in the U.S. that calls itself a commonwealth (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia are the other three.) Not only is the word in the title of our state, it’s in our constitution. In fact, the notion is at the core of Pennsylvania’s original constitution, which was written in a convention in Philadelphia from July through September of 1776 presided over by Benjamin Franklin himself.

The very first section of that original constitution is a “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania” and closely resembles the Bill of Rights. Number five on the list: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community.” [PA Constitution, 9-28-1776]

Government is for the common benefit. We hold wealth in common, to serve the public good. These are powerful old ideas that derive from colonial common law and helped shape the new nation. Look at how Massachusetts puts it in their constitution: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” [Preamble, MA Constitution]

Our legislators need to think about the meaning behind the very name of our state, as they race to ink a final budget in the next three days. Republicans revealed the details of the budget yesterday with mixed news for education. [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12] On the positive side, it is all but certain now that Governor Corbett will not get his way with his proposal to eliminate $100 million from the block grant program that many schools use to fund Kindergarten and early childhood education. That is a $100 million victory for our grassroots movement and you can be sure we would not have achieved it without the enormous statewide effort of ordinary folks like us who stood up for public education.

Our countless letters to the editor, op ed pieces, phone calls, rallies, vigils, advocacy events for children, meetings with legislators, bus trips to Harrisburg, research, writing, and consistent dialogue in social media kept this issue front and center when the administration wanted desperately to make it go away. We pierced Govenor Corbett’s claims about his education budget, we skewered his metaphors, and revealed the big money interests behind his attempts to privatize our schools. And we caught national attention: people from coast to coast were horrified to learn about the operatic tragedy of arts education unfolding in Pennsylvania; our articles were published in the Huffington Post among others; we were invited to the White House.

Yet we know that this new budget provides only level funding for public K-12 education. Last year’s massive cuts are carried forward and will continue to deeply impact our schools. And we know that Governor Corbett will continue to play games with rhetoric, claiming that he has increased funding for schools when he has merely moved line items around. For example, the Post-Gazette is reporting today, “The basic state subsidy for public schools would be set at $5.4 billion, an increase of $49 million over the current year.” [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12]

There is no actual increase for public education overall. In fact, we are almost sure to see the expansion of corporate tax credit programs this week, which will effectively divert hundreds of millions of public revenue dollars to private and parochial schools that could be used for our public schools. (See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?” for the latest details.) You will hear Rep. Christiana and others claim that their massive corporate giveaway doesn’t take money away from public education.

But if we remember that we are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we can see the absurdity of that statement. Our public revenue, our wealth, is for the common good; it is to be held in common, for the benefit of us all. Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues inked those powerful words 236 years ago and they are every bit as meaningful today.

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Yinzercation is going on vacation. Your faithful blogger will return, but for now, I leave you with these words: Public education is a public good.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community, And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal. [PA Constitution, 1776]