Is the Impact of Education Reformers on the Wane?

Lee H. Adler, J.D. 
School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University

It’s been a curious few months on the policy and politics side of Public Education and its “reformers”. The variegated critics, ranging from thoughtful policy intelligentsia to opportunistic politicians and venture philanthropists like the Walton and Gates foundations, seem to be having a tougher time. It is unclear whether events of this recent period and the past year signal a shift in the power equation of the public education battleground from the private back to the public interests. Regardless, this brief note will look at some national and local occurrences and attempt to make some sense of them.

The backdrop is well known by readers of this Blog- the loss of our country’s wealth has been skillfully used by all sorts of actors to point to fire fighters, police officers, school teachers, and our communities’ public education efforts as taking and having more than our fair share. Carefully targeted political attacks by Rightist forces have succeeded in having police and fire pensions curtailed in San Jose and San Diego, California.  New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo even managed to pile on this year by attacking and then restricting police and firefighters’ ability to resolve contract disputes everywhere but in his political stronghold in New York City.

Meanwhile, our school teachers, administrators, and local school boards have been reeling from severe cuts in funding, although this past year saw a modest increase. When one adds Governor Cuomo’s misnamed 2% property tax cap, which again excludes his New York City base, Upstate administrators and their unions have an extraordinary burden keeping our schools running.

These economic difficulties matter little to the education reformers who have offered vast economic incentives and “philanthropic gifts” to those states or school districts who commit to untested “teacher accountability” and introduction of privatized initiatives into their class rooms.

Instead of spending their billions to remediate aspects of our poverty and convince law makers to more fairly tax the well-to-do and their astounding levels of accumulated wealth, the Gates, Bloomberg, Waltons’, and others have used their money and influence to install mayoral control of public schools in New York, Chicago, and to a lesser degree in Los Angeles.  These billionaires’ and their corporate allies’ educational reform efforts have accomplished very little, but they have created havoc for administrators, uncertainty and fear in teachers, and frightening confusion for parents of school age children.[i]

All of what I describe is both then and now. In the past year, there have been noticeable pushback and stirrings. The first of these was the Chicago Teachers Strike wherein the union’s remarkable community organizing strategy thwarted some of the corporate school power wielded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

We next saw Bill DeBlasio, in winning the election for NYC’s next mayor, directly confront and attack the Bloomberg- Klein corporate/charter school strategy, arguing that parents and their kids’ teachers know better what needs to be done. Despite the nation-wide ballyhooing of Bloomberg’s remarkable success in “turning around” NYC’s schools, a public relations ploy that only the corporate-minded amongst the education reformers believed, the voters in New York knew much better. A similarly constructed progressive coalition to DiBlasio’s seized the educational reins in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the same day, heralding dramatic changes in public education in Bridgeport and other Connecticut cities who are pushing back against the so-called reformers.

And presently we have the Common Core debacle in New York, where the fear and misery suffered by parents and their children by the state’s hurried up implementation has caused near political disaster for Commissioner John King. Parents across New York are up in arms by the State’s botched and thoughtless approach, and they join the impoverished parents in Chicago and the hard hit New York City and anti-testing Long Island families who are letting their angry voices known- “Enough is enough”!

Just as telling is the hope that our teacher unions have found their voice in this educational debate. In early November, Education Commissioner King accepted NYSUT’s demand to halt all testing of our youngest children, and a few weeks ago Mr. King concurred with NYSUT that maybe the state and local school districts are “testing too much”.

If the state will listen to parents and their teacher union allies, we may well be looking at a turn in these education wars where common sense, regular folks, unions and local administrators, and parents will drive the necessary changes needed in our schools. It’s well-nigh time to wrest control of public education back from those who see our valuable treasure, our public schools, as a free economic market to use for profit.

Lee H. Adler, J.D. 
Teacher of public sector labor law and a course on the clash between public education unions and educational reformers. 
School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University

[i] A recent study does conclude that in Washington DC certain reforms instituted by former Superintendent Michelle Rhee had created a positive increase in students’ test scores.

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