Wednesday, January 08, 2014

National Right Wing Context Of Alaska State House Sustainable Education Task Force Report

This is Part 2 on the Task Force.  Part 1 gives an overview of the different contexts of this report and focuses on the task force membership.  All three House members are Republicans and the other members, if not all Republicans, heavily lean that way.  This is clearly a House Majority task force (as the url says) and not a House task force.

In this post I want to look at the national context of this report which includes advocating for school vouchers and charter schools as well as cutting the education budget. 

Nationally the attack on public schools comes from different aspects of the right. 
  • There’s the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
  • There’s ALEC’s free market educational philosophy and agenda.
  • There’s the religious right’s attempts to get vouchers to pay for private religious schools, and ongoing efforts to add prayer and 'intelligent design' to public schools. 

No Child Left Behind - had standards that were guaranteed to label more and more public schools as ‘failing.’  There's plenty out there on this point. You can look at this example in Vermont  or this one about Texas.

Diane Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush and advocated for NCLB testing and for charter schools.  Since then she's changed her assessment and written a book called:  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.  Here's a bit of what Diane Ravitch told NPR.
RAVITCH: When I believed that they would work, they hadn't been tried. Once they were tried, I was convinced that they didn't work and, in fact, not only were they failing, but they're ruining American education and they're actually leading the way today towards privatization of public education, which I think would be a disaster.  [In the context of the interview, 'they' refers to 'these ideas,' which seems to refer to standardized testing and charter schools.]

Many people, like Ravitch, believed this would help schools.  But I believe there were others who intended this to label public schools as failing so that it would be easier to get voters to approve voucher systems that would take public money and give it to private schools.  We’ve seen what a monumental failure that was with higher ed where private, for profit schools popped up, helped students apply for federal loans which went directly to the schools, and left the student to pay off the loan whether they succeeded in school or not. 

ALEC - is a Koch Brothers funded organization that focuses on state legislatures.  I first noticed and blogged about ALEC when I attended a lunch presentation they gave in Juneau in 2011.

ALEC has taken as its apparent structural model the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures, whose mission is to:
  • Improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures.
  • Promote policy innovation and communication among state legislatures.
  • Ensure state legislatures a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.
and Council of State Governments which
"fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships."
While no organization is free of some sort of ideology, the NCSL and CSG have had as their key 'ideology' good government in general without a right or left wing bias.  Both Republican and Democratic legislators are members and attend their conferences.

ALEC, on the other hand, uses the NCSL and CSG model and inserts a highly ideological right wing agenda.  ALEC has corporate members as well as legislative members.  Reading their September/October 2013 Educational Edition of Inside ALEC plus what I've learned about them over the last two years, I'm convinced their educational strategy is basically to
  • Declare Public schools as failures, and
  • Use the language of choice to transfer public education money to private schools

1.   Declaring Public schools failures

ALEC does this subtly in its September/October 2013 Inside ALEC Education Edition.

Traditional US public schools, it tells us:
“are local monopolies with all the attendant inefficiencies and perverse incentives common to such entities.”   The solution to local monopolies “shifted control over the schools further away from the parents and children to distant state and federal bureaucracies.” (p, 9)
Basically they are saying, since the local system didn't work, it got taken over by state and federal bureaucracy which also doesn't work.   Thus, there is no way for public schools to work. - locally run is bad and state and fed run are also bad.  Just like with NCLB, public schools are failures.  The solution is private schools. Of course, there is some truth to what they say because every solution comes with unintended side effects.  However, they fail to acknowledge any such negative side-effects with their solution - the market.  We've seen in the last decade some of the serious problems of letting the market solve our problems. 

2.  Using the language of choice,  their strategy is to destroy public schools by transferring public money to private schools.

Inside ALEC’s Education Edition has a couple of articles that highlight programs that transfer money from public schools to private schools.  For example:
“Educational Savings Accounts

Eligible parents can choose to withdraw their child from the assigned public school if they feel the school is not meeting their child’s learning needs. Arizona deposits 90 percent of the money the state would have spent on the child in the public school into the parents’ Empowerment Scholarship Account. Parents can then use those funds to pay for private school tuition and a host of other education-related services and expenses.
That flexibility is what makes an ESA unique: the accounts are distinct from school choice options like vouchers or tax credits because they allow a parent to divvy-up their funds and purchase educational products, services and schools in an à la carte fashion.” (pp 10,15)
It's that easy.  We take 90% of the money from the public school and let the parent spend it on private sector options.  The articles raise important issues, but ignore the problems with vouchers.  That's a whole other discussion.  Now I'm just putting the Alaska Task Force Report in context of these national forces. 

Religious Right

I know.  Such labels are tricky.  I'm referring to those members of (mainly Christian) denominations who believe their view of the world is the only correct one,  that everyone else is just wrong, and who fight legislation and court rulings that separate (Christian) religion from state sponsorship such as prayer in school, public displays of religious symbols, religiously based bans on abortion and homosexuality, etc.

These folks send, or want to send, their kids to private religious schools instead of public schools.  Or they run the private religious schools.  In either case, in addition to their religious beliefs, they have a financial interest in spending public funds on private religious schools.  I can understand a parent not wanting their kids to go to schools that teach them values different from what they believe.  But inserting Christianity into public schools does the very same thing to the kids of non-Christians.  As a democracy, public schools should be the place where people learn to respect people of other faiths and backgrounds.  But that's a discussion for another day. 

A number of Christian schools encourage their members to take advantage of existing voucher programs.  For example:
"Many families desire a Christian education for their children; but limited finances have prevented this from being an option – until now!
Indiana’s recently passed School Choice (voucher) program allows qualifying families to receive a credit (school voucher) toward their education at a private school. If you are such a family and you meet financial and admissions qualifying criteria, now is the perfect time to consider Blackhawk Christian School for your child’s education." 
(I find this Christian school's 'brand' interesting. Blackhawk was  Native American who fought with the British against the US.   Blackhawk is also the name of a military helicopter.  WWJS?)

More examples of the transfer of public money to religious schools through vouchers can be seen here.

One school in North Carolina made it a policy to refuse public vouchers.  Their reason:  to maintain the right to refuse students - like the children of gay couples. 

Even Orthodox Jews often support vouchers,  The separation of church and state seems to be less important than financing their religious schools  But Conservative and Reform Jews  whose kids are more likely to go to public schools, do not support vouchers.

But some of the supporters of vouchers in Tennessee and Louisiana had second thoughts when they found out that Islamic schools would also be eligible for public funding.   

These reactions against Islamic schools getting voucher funding demonstrates my points above.  These are folks who, despite the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion,  believe that this is a Christian nation, and those guarantees only apply to Christians.   Their proclamations about religious freedom really are about Christian freedom.

For many, it's less about education than it is about being anti-government and about moving public education money over to private, Christian, schools.


The national trends affect Alaskan Republicans.  Some attend ALEC conferences and use ALEC's model legislation to write their own.  These national ideas get into their Party Platform.   Here are some excerpts from the education section of the Alaska Republican Party platform:
"A. We support parental choice of public, private, charter, vocational and home-based educational alternatives for Alaska’s students.  .   .
B. We support accountability in public education, including measurement of student academic achievement and cognitive ability by standardized testing in reading, writing and mathematics. We support local control of public education provided it does not limit competition or parental choice. We oppose all federal control of or influence on education. We support the parental right to have access to all educational information reaching their child.
Accountability sounds good and some kinds of testing are necessary.  But the language that comes next echoes ALEC's proclamation about local government control being problematic along with federal control.  Notice, they don't oppose state control though.
C. We support daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words “under God,” proper display of the United States and Alaska Flags, and active promotion of patriotism in our schools. We also support teaching the accurate historical Judeo-Christian foundation of our country and the importance of our founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, federal and State constitutions, and other founding documents."
To their credit, they also support learning about Alaska Native people.
"D. We support the teaching of Alaska’s history and geography with appropriate acknowledgment and respect for Alaska Native people, cultures, and languages."
But, then they also support Creation Science:
"F. We support teaching various models and theories for the origins of life and our universe, including Creation Science or Intelligent Design. If evolution outside a species (macro-evolution) is taught, evidence disputing the theory should also be taught."

That national context seems to have had its influence on this Alaska task force.  I'd note that one of the co-chairs - Rep. Tammie Wilson - was one of only four legislators to attend (well, to stick around after getting a sandwich)  the 2011 ALEC presentation in the Capitol in Juneau (along with Reps. Gatto and Keller and Sen. Dyson.)

Any person who pays attention knows that American public schools have serious problems.   The left and the right agree on this.  I have lots of issues with the public school system and I suspect that a number of them overlap problems people on the right have.  It's the solutions we seem to disagree on.

The anti-government philosophy of many on the right would destroy public schools altogether.  The Starve The Beast philosophy that arose in the Reagan era is alive and well still today even though the facts would say it doesn't work.  These folks want to move public education money into the private sector. 

In the final installment on this Task Force Report, I'll look at the full two page report and what it says. 

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