Saturday, February 11, 2017

BETSY DEVOS: The Illusion of Choice by Jake Jacobs

Since the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, the nation has been contemplating her pet issue, school choice. School choice sounds great, like it’s giving the people back the power, for example to decide where and how your child will be learning. This idea, unfortunately, is a smokescreen for a major cash grab, introducing corporate middlemen between taxpayers and classrooms.
It’s called privatization and it devastated healthcare, leading to spiraling premiums and a crisis of millions uninsured. Look also at the military, as private contracts fabulously enriched cronies at Halliburton and Blackwater (whose CEO is Betsy DeVos’ brother — coincidence?). The privatization of the military has been expensive, opaque, and riddled with well-documented corruption costing taxpayers billions while worsening conditions on the ground.
ART OF THE BAD DEAL: Trump is also using the same trickery on unsuspecting investors — the GOP majority just rescinded the regulation that required brokerage firms must put the customers’ interest ahead of their own. The GOP justified the change by claiming investors want “better choices” of financial products.
The same goes for healthcare — they say the ACA should be repealed without any replacement, to let the marketplace offer “choice” such as unregulated low-cost insurance plans with loads of exclusions hidden in the fine print. We already tried this. Before the ACA, insurers denied care, refused to cover pre-existing conditions and imposed lifetime caps.
Republicans also tried unsuccessfully in 2001 to privatize Social Security, claiming account holders would have greater choice and control over their savings as Wall Street subsumed the nation’s piggybank. That one failed spectacularly.
So “choice” is the way corporate politicians deliver you to their sugar daddies. It’s code. It means government functions are to be farmed out to favored corporations to offer market-based “products” larded with private profit and deceptive marketing. The sell job involves demonizing “big government” but if the lawmakers getting the payola are bad, why in the world would the lobbyists and PACs who buy them off be any better?
Now they say we should “experiment” with education, allowing third party “providers” who are motivated by money to teach kids. DeVos says schools that cannot compete for enrollment should close.
NARRATIVE OF FAILURE: For years, Wall Street has been saying public education is “ripe for investment” as they have pumped hundreds of millions into the campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Andrew Cuomo and everyone in-between. They tell us public schools are failing but this is “fake news”.
US school quality in affluent areas is world class and needs NO tinkering, changes or outside intervention. When they tell us the US is 25th in the world in student performance, they omit that we are also 5th worst in child poverty, meaning we ostensibly have two separate school systems with incredible disparity, depending on zip code.
So to upend policy for ALL American schools is ludicrous, but it’s just what we have been doing for 15 years. Unlike #1 education nation Finland, which allocates more resources to struggling schools, we punish, sanction and defund our struggling schools to create space for unpiloted, unproven “free market” alternatives. This deliberately increases inequity and segregation, as proven by the achievement gap which widens every year corporate reforms continue.
Those that theorize schools are the cause of poor performance in impoverished communities have already been proven wrong. After 25 years of corporate reforms, the evidence shows that schools/teachers make only a modest difference in educational outcomes compared to income, geography and home-based factors which are far more significant.
Replacing schools with new ones is wasteful and duplicative, benefitting investors who finance charter construction to exploit major tax credits through generous loopholes. This is why they pump cash into political races and fund astroturf saying “kids are trapped in failing schools”. Where is the logic in abandoning “failing” schools to build new ones? That’s like treating a sick dog by buying a new puppy.
Most insidious is the way charters divide us. US schools are more segregated than they were in the 1960s. Charter schools worsen this by draining public schools of the most motivated students, taking with them funding, classroom space and jobs. They market to the more concerned, involved families, crucially requiring an application to their lotteries which ensures five-year olds with absentee, disconnected or unaware parents will never get in. This is how they cream the compliant, easy-to-teach students, leaving the more needy or disruptive types in public schools in higher concentrations.
APPLES AND ORANGES: The “no excuses” charters then compare themselves to public schools to boast about higher test scores. Charter schools bridge the achievement gap, we are told, but the stats are as cherry-picked as the students.
In the final accounting, charters do no better than public schools nationally, even with the metrics rigged in their favor. The industry is rife with embezzlement scandals, fraud, secrecy, “humiliation” incidents and alarming conflicts-of-interest. But even when they do raise test scores, it comes at great expense, burning through teachers at unsustainable rates and sacrificing children’s free expression in draconian “no talking” zones.
Charter school parents obviously seek the best education and any advantage for their child, but like a see-saw, the “brain drain” hurts the larger system, not unlike Walmart shoppers who concede that buying cheaper products made in China has devastated our economy, but they just can’t resist those low prices.
Are our leaders so bereft of ideas their plan is to give up on 90% of existing schools? Of course not, it’s a scam, just like healthcare and fake wars were — manufacture a crisis and sell the solution for a profit. We cannot divorce from the debate how billionaires and hedge fund managers manipulate any honest discussion, raining cash on legislators and rewarding education officials in a “revolving door” of lobbying and board posts, planting media propaganda to deceive the public and whitewash facts for over 15 years.
Some readers may recall the earliest announcements of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 were marred by an illegal payola scandal when it was discovered that the ‘news’ reporter Armstrong Williams was secretly paid by the Bush administration to report positively on NCLB. Since then, it’s only gotten worse, with education sites like The74.com pretending to be credible while they are funded by anonymous wealthy privatizers, essentially becoming the Breitbart of education.
Other media, such as the NYC tabloids, give ample space to corporate reformers but bury the voices of actual educators and concerned parents. You might hear talking points from an official or the same old union folks, but the chances of hearing a proven classroom educator or researcher? Not so much. This was how the stage was set for DeVos, approved by the thinnest Senate majority in history while the largest nominee protest ever seen jammed Congressional phones and faxes for weeks.
STANDARDIZING FAILURE: Democrats played an important part in creating this dystopia, supporting charters and unpopular standardized testing along with establishment Republicans. Their rich donors wanted them to expand charters at a breakneck pace, using the “New Orleans model”, but Democrats preferred a slower rollout, choosing first to “force” the Common Core standards onto the states.
BOTCHED: As nifty as it might sound to create a single set of standards for every child in America, to at last compare apples to apples, it turns out the world isn’t made up of apples alone. Comparing the “proficient” students in the wealthy Massachusetts suburbs to the underprivileged urchins of the inner cities was a guarantee of mass failure (over 70% of students in NY state scored “not proficient” in the first year of the implementation). It also caused cheating scandals, caused schools to “teach to the test” and caused flight from troubled schools, increasing segregation of quality students, teachers and administrators.
The fatal mistake of Common Core standards is that they are pegged to a students’ age instead of functioning ability, contradicting the long established science of child development. In the real world, children grow and acquire physical and cognitive abilities at varying paces and this is natural and normal, before we even consider factors like nutrition or the home environment. In the education reform world, all children from the 3rd grade forward were expected to meet a singular “high expectation” or be labeled failures, triggering scrutiny of their educators and school and invoking a ladder of punishments.
A low point for Democrats was when the Obama administration impelled states to adopt the ALEC-backed policy of tying teacher evaluations to students’ Common Core test scores. Andrew Cuomo was the most aggressive governor in the US pushing this policy, but the backlash was swift, leading to the explosion of the opt-out movement and 20% of students statewide refusing the tests. A state supreme court case would expose the policy as junk-science, with the defense refusing to reveal secret algorithms that comprise the formula for judging teacher quality by bubble test results.
This led to the federal government releasing states from any Common Core inducements, but leaving it to the states meant that pro-reform lobbyists would fan out to 50 different state legislatures. Enter Trump the Disruptor, promising during his “campaign to end Common Core and restore “local control”.
This vague rhetoric would later morph into fervent support for charter schools, massively leapfrogging the scale of the rollout under Democrats. With the nomination of DeVos, we would learn of Trump’s desire to also expand vouchers, virtual and religious schools, making education “open for business”.
NO CONFIDENCE: Now, Democrats are finding religion, claiming to support public schools as anti-DeVos protests have surged. But questions abound. Was it a “tell” that the GOP introduced a bill to abolish the US Dept. of Education just moments after DeVos was confirmed? Might the grassroots actually get behind this effort after over 15 years of continually botched federal education policies?
What will become of the cookie-cut standards and controversial tests that painted public schools as failures? And what of the all-powerful Democratic donors? Hedge fund billionaire Eli Broad broke the silence, opposing DeVos during the hearings, but other billionaires kept mum after urging mass privatization for years.
Finally, what will Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo do in the face of Trump’s radical push to transform US schools? Along with New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Cuomo was praised by Betsy DeVos for “bucking his party” in favor of school choice.
New York has been a flashpoint in the education wars for years and with Common Core test season approaching, it’s going to be another wild ride as stakeholders seek new avenues to express their discontent. If Cuomo has sided with privatizers throughout his tenure, is there really a “choice” between Republicans and Democrats in NY or it is just an illusion?
Between Trump and Hillary, it turns out both support charters and corporate education reform in varying degrees. Both also promised to fight corruption-as Trump chanted “drain the swamp”, Hillary vowed to “get money out of politics”. Neither was serious, it would seem, but Trump is in charge now and just installed a billionaire lobbyist to shape national education policy along with a raft of corporate reformer underlings.
What do parents, students and taxpayers do now? According to Trump and DeVos, you’ll have new options, but it will obviously not involve public input — instead Washington’s richest political donors will be providing your choices.

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