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Seismic Shifts in Education Politics

Before our students can benefit from education research, we must find a way to fight for them in a political world that looks more and more like an oligarchy.
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Being an Old School liberal, I should welcome Jeffrey Henig's prediction that we are seeing three major "fault lines" in school policy that are culminating in "the end of exceptionalism" in American education. Forty years ago, I would have welcomed his scenario where the federal government would gain prominence and American education would be handled like other major domestic policies. After all, the federal War on Poverty did not end in a complete victory, but it made progress in addressing problems that local governments had ducked. And, back then, we could look to nonprofits like the Ford Foundation or the Carnegie Endowment, who sponsored work of unquestioned excellence.

The problem is that this seismic shift in education is occurring within the context of corporate "reform" movement of the last generation. Firstly, as Henig explains, the federal government and others have empowered the states over localities. Secondly, we have seen an increased role for national nonprofit and for-profit organizations in providing educational services, and in acting as self-interested players in school politics.

Henig worries that the end of educational exceptionalism could result in key decisions being made by officials who have less knowledge about education, but he seems to stress the opportunities created by the decline of local power. Shifting policy to state and national institutions could encourage multi-issue coalitions. We might become more willing to tackle "nonschool factors--concentrated poverty, public health, social services, and the like--as levers for improving educational attainment and reducing achievement gaps."

Over the long haul, I hope that Henig will be proven correct. On the other hand, new e-mails released by In the Public Interest provide more documentation of how national corporate reformers seek "to move an education agenda that may or not be in our interests but are in theirs."

The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss summarizes e-mails "between the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and a group (Jeb) Bush set up called Chiefs for Change, whose members are current and former state education commissioners who support Bush's agenda of school reform, which includes school choice, online education, retention of third-graders who can't read and school accountability systems based on standardized tests."

The national foundation seems to anticipate the trends predicted by Henig. It helps state officials pass laws and regulations that make it easier to expand their agenda while increasing profits for their allies. The e-mails reveal that "foundation staff members worked to promote the interests of some of their funders in Florida, New Mexico, Maine, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Louisiana."

In the Public Interest also shows that FEE is bankrolled by many of the same hard-right foundations funded by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which pushes for privatization of public schools. It also reveals:

* In New Mexico, FEE acted as a broker to organize meetings between their corporate donors and individual Chiefs.

*Maine moved the FEE policy agenda through legislation and executive order that would remove barriers to online education and in some cases would require online classes - including eliminating class size caps and student-teacher ratios, allowing public dollars to flow to online schools and classes, eliminate ability of local school districts to limit access to virtual schools.

*In Florida, FEE helped write legislation that would increase the use of a proprietary test (FCAT) under contract to Pearson, an FEE donor.

* Foundation for Excellence in Education CEO Patricia Levesque urged state officials to introduce SendHub, a communications tool, into their state's schools. News reports indicate that Levesque's boss, Jeb Bush, is an investor in SendHub.

Readers should follow this link to more e-mails. I must return, however, to Henig's balanced analysis. During the heyday of the civil rights era and the War on Poverty, defenders of local control and state's rights loved to ridicule us as "pointy headed liberals." I can't say that today's top down politics are worse than in the old Dixiecrat system I grew up in. Back then, however, we often relied on the federal government and philanthropists as allies, not opponents, in the pursuit of justice and equality.

Now, we who have also maintained a faith in scholarship must look in the mirror. I love the social scientific methods that produce the dispassionate excellence exemplified by Jeffrey Henig's work. Before our students can benefit from education research, however, we must find a way to fight for them in a political world that looks more and more like an oligarchy. The muckraking of In the Public Interest is one example of what it will take to defend our public schools. Somehow, we must organize and expand new methods from the bottom up in order to combat these national threats.

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