Imagine that you wanted to slowly kill public education

Pine box label

Imagine that you are a policymaker who is generally anti-government, anti-union, and pro-privatization. Public schools conflict with all of those, don’t they?

So you’ve got a challenge. Citizens and communities generally like and strongly support their schools. Somehow you have to create a narrative over time that erodes citizens’ support for public schools and counters their incredible historical legacies of college and career preparation, citizenship development, cultural socialization, economic opportunity creation, and facilitation of intergenerational income mobility. 

Here are some things that you and your like-minded colleagues might try to do:

  • underfund schools so that they can’t keep up with operational costs, will struggle to meet educational mandates, and will have to reduce personnel (bonus: fewer union members!)
  • maintain claims about ‘fiscal accountability’ and future revenue concerns, even when they require ignoring strong revenue generation and projections
  • reduce existing revenue streams in order to bolster claims of fiscal hardship (bonus: less government!)
  • employ bait-and-switch funding mechanisms that supplant rather than supplement and/or disappear at the last minute
  • ignore legal requirements to timely establish school funding levels that would allow districts to adequately plan and budget
  • implement new, supplemental ‘bread and circuses’ initiatives (say, STEM or financial literacy) that distract the general public from the year-to-year erosion of base school funding
  • give as little policy attention as possible to the known educational needs of students who live in poverty or don’t speak English as their primary language (and thus struggle academically), even as those student and family populations increase markedly within the state
  • deflect the blame for your underfunding of schools by alleging schools’ inefficiency and superintendents’ mismanagement
  • frequently change state standards and assessments and/or make them more difficult so that educators and students struggle to keep up and have less chance of hitting the moving targets
  • use selective data (say, NAEP scores) to manufacture educational crises that feed your rhetoric of public school failure
  • create school grading and ranking schemes that shame struggling schools, demoralize the educators within them, and alarm parents
  • implement teacher evaluation schemes that are guaranteed to be unfair, demoralize educators, and confuse the public
  • pitch tax credits and private/religious school vouchers or ’scholarships’ (‘money that will follow students in their backpacks’) to the general public as natural recourses to the failures of public schools
  • write legislation that expands public school alternatives such as charters or homeschooling, particularly ones that can siphon funds away from public schools
  • create double-standard school and educator ‘accountability’ provisions that apply to public schools but not non-public alternatives
  • accept policy proposals, money, and political influence from seemingly anyone other than actual educators
  • affiliate with anti-public-school organizations (say, ALEC) that will feed you ‘model’ legislation proposals, connect you with successful players and tactics from other states, and provide ongoing encouragement to stay the course
  • hold yearly education summits at which educators can only listen passively to carefully-vetted speakers who feed your desired agendas
  • publicly dismiss, disparage, intimidate, or try to silence educators, parents, researchers, and others who speak out against your policies

and so on, year-after-year, all under the guises of ’transparency’ and ‘accountability’ and ‘global competitiveness.’ Heck, you might even co-opt the journalists that used to ask tough questions about your educational policymaking (by, say, hiring them).

Here in Iowa? Checkmarks on all fronts, I believe (and we’re not as bad as many other states). There’s an evolving playbook out there, folks, and we’re seeing it being implemented in every state.

More of this to come in the years ahead… Do you care? If so, what will you do about it?

Image credit: Pine box, Todd Ehlers

17 Responses to “Imagine that you wanted to slowly kill public education”

  1. My tweet about “painless euthanasia” was tongue in cheek as I all for reforming schools but there has to be systemic reform and a paradigm shift, a la Ken Robinaon.
    S.O.S. just won’t cut it any longer with students and teachers who are eager for more innovation, creativity, hands-on, experiential learning. We’ve got to get out of the “classroom” mind set and stop doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Most people know that’s the definition of insanity. Thanks for your post, most needed!

  2. Scott,

    Unfortunately here in Kansas, Gov. Brownback and his hand selected bunch of cronies in the legislature have taken this game to a whole new level that would make even Koch Industries get out a notebook and pen. Here, our state supreme court has ruled more than once that our schools are underfunded…which happens to BREAK THE LAW as we have a constitutional mandate to fund schools fairly in Kansas.

    I often wonder how it is possible for those in the legislature and Gov. office to willfully and purposely break the law. Any other citizen would be hauled off to jail. They get re-election funds instead from those who stand to gain from these kinds of policies.

    The state has been sued more than once by school districts, and lost each time. Yet here we are, with funding levels by next year reaching the staggering level of 17% BELOW where it was before the recession started. Factor in inflation during that time, and schools are all but screwed.

    The problem in Kansas, like many other places, is that many of the people who are against these things continue to vote for the very people who champion the policies they hate. It makes no sense at all, but the GOP has made a mockery of the democratic process by convincing people to vote against their own interests. At the school where I work, I often hear people complaining about things, yet I know they voted for the folks who are responsible because they are “conservative”.

    People need to wake up and pay attention to what actually happens once people are in office. You can’t just vote “R” or “D” down the line.

    Of course, if these kinds of practices continue, it won’t be long before no one is smart enough to think for themselves when they leave our systems.

  3. Andy is right, as are you, Scott. And now Kansas is taking it one step further. Teachers are beginning to flee the jobs available – anything but teach in Kansas if possible. So now there is a good reason for schools to NEED to hire those without teaching credentials because, wow, we have to have someone in the classroom. Right. It’s a slilppery slope that is becoming clearer and clearer each year.

  4. Dr. Ron Turbyfill Reply August 5, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    You could be writing about North Carolina without changing a single word.

    If your local public school was on fire, would you care? Or would you say, “I didn’t like my kid’s 3rd grade teacher. Let it burn.”

    Or would you say, “My kids are grown and moved away. What do I care?”

    Or would you say, “We can’t afford to put it out and rebuild it. Our taxes are too high.”


    • Love this comment, Ron. Ava DuVernay, director of the movie Selma, said today at the Big Picture Learning conference that we don’t pay attention to something until it’s on fire. But I don’t know if most folks feel their schools are on fire yet. Surely the opt out parents in places like NY and WA do. But we do such a good job of mitigating (and failing to tell the story to parents and communities), we’re losing the battle for mind share.

  5. Everything you’re saying is eerily –in fact–frighteningly similar to what we have here in Pennsylvania. You might well have written this about the PA Governor (Democrat) and Legislature (Republican). I’ll offer one non-conforming viewpoint however. Most of what you were attributing to the anti-government, anti-union, pro-privatization (presumably GOP) policymaker would also be true of a pro-big government, pro-paternal state (presumably Democrat) policymaker. What better way to maintain your voting constituency as a monolithic straight democratic voting block than by ensuring that they will always be ‘behind’ in terms of education and thus economic opportunity? People perpetually dependent on the ‘welfare steak’ as it were. Perhaps what I’m trying to suggest is that both sides of the aisle derive some benefit from maintaining the status quo. Time for libertarianism perhaps? Great post!!! Thanks!!!

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. The fact that I could have been describing your state(s) shows you that it’s a playbook, that these efforts are coordinated, and that we’re getting our clocks cleaned.

    • Oh, it’s a play book alright, and education isn’t even the first round. This is the same playbook that privatized prisons, then made sure that they were full with mandatory minimum sentencing laws, 3 strikes you’re out, and show us your papers, then moved on to the military (KBR, Halliburton, Blackwater, etc.), and is also being used on the Post Office. look up ALEC if you want to read the texts.

  7. Not until I read the comments did I think you were only talking about Iowa. As everyone has pointed out, this is happening across the country. We just moved back to NJ after 4 years in FL and we have seen the same in both states, although things happened much faster in Florida. Over the past few years, I have described exactly what you have here to people but I’ve always lead with a disclaimer using the word “conspiracy theory.” I was afraid and guilty of talking about it because it does sound sort of crazy. Thank you for confirming for me that there is some larger trend here and I’m not just overreacting or making things up!

  8. It’s a coordinated playbook, and the desired end result is the closure of public schools, and their replacement with private, for-profit charter schools.

    Why anyone would want such a thing is unclear to me. But at its core, this is the profit-motive at work, carried to its logical if absurdist conclusions. It’s the confluence of the textbook industry, and the testing industry on the one hand, and the small-government/low-taxes shriekers on the other, collaborating to unmake education as a right.

  9. Ditto for Texas. Our older daughter was adamant that our T&G grandson would not be educated in Texas. She, her husband and son have recently relocated to Western Washington State due to the high quality of theschools there. Our State Board of Education has been taken over by the religious right which has rewritten social study textbooks. Blew me away when I found out that Moses was a Founding Father and that slavery was only incidental to the Civil War….It would be funny except the children are going to be taught this BS, and unless their parents tell them different, believe it.

  10. Your post reminds me of Peter Senge’s learning disabilities for systems, only as a deliberate scheme (particularly the boiling frog analogy). I think much of what you posit here is pretty accurate, though I wonder how much is deliberate and how much is simply action by inaction. Either way, a terrifying notion for our young people.

  11. I am very sympathetic to your argument and appreciative of the catalogue of ways in which education has been colonized by poorly conceived schemes from the private sector. I have great difficulty, however, with the characterization of public education as a “victim” of some subversive take-over conspiracy. The sector has lived in its own parochial little protected universe, digging its own little institutional trench deeper and deeper, largely oblivious to what is happening in the outside world. The failure lies as much within the sector as without. if there ever was a sector ripe for marginalization, it is the education sector. Welcome to the Post Office.

    • Dr. Elmore, thanks for leaving a comment here. I know how busy you are. Also, I’ve quoted you several times in the past on my blog to share your thoughts on how schools need to change. I’m in complete agreement that we need to take internal ownership of our growing irrelevance to the needs of the outside world. I don’t want schools to become the post office but I do still believe in the idea of common schools rather than education privatization. All my best.

  12. Same playbook is being followed in Tennessee.

  13. Are public schools on some kind of “life support system” or do many of them just continue to fail while those who are succeessful are generally left alone instead of being used as effective models for renewal?
    My most recent blog has a suggested model for comprehensive reform and there’s more to add to the dialogue.
    Thanks, again.

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