Many of us remember Ronald Reagan’s effective use of the line, “there you go again.” In light of the purposeful Republican destruction of national education policy, it’s fitting that we use the plural form of that riposte and call out the Great Communicator’s successors in the GOP for their serial vandalism of public education.
Yep, there they go again. As Cole Porter would put it, in looking at Republican education policy today, anything goes.
With the spectre of St. Ronald Reagan haunting us, what is it about old nightmares that return, yet again, more than 35 years later? Answer: like old wine in new bottles, these nightmares that arrive to savage public education come with several code words: deregulation, freedom, vouchers, and, of course, choice.
If you are an educator and can remember back to the Reagan Era, a nightmare of the 1980s has returned in the form of legislation designed to destroy how we administer and spend federal tax dollars to support education.
And as we examine H.R. 610, the so-called Choices in Education Act of 2017, what is really at stake is the very idea of public education itself. But in order to see the revealing DNA of this vandalism and the nightmare H.R. 610 might bring, we must first look back a few decades at the origins of the present anti-public education wrecking crew that appeared with the emergence of the B-Movie favorite.
As a young school administrator during the Reagan years, I was employed as Director of Federal Programs for a school district and responsible for the proper administration of federal funds designed to serve students with a variety of needs.
These funds were received as categorical programs, meaning that they could only be legally expended consistent with detailed guidelines that defined the proper public purpose of the programs and how the funds could be applied.
When my colleagues in other school districts learned that the Reagan administration wanted to convert the categorical programs into block grants that had fewer restrictions and where the states could direct spending the funds in ways of their choosing, we fought back, contacting our congressional representatives and other politicians to inform them that the result would be nothing more than waste, fraud, and abuse of public funds.
The chief worry we had at that time was that Title I, the keystone of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, would be dismembered in the rush to create block grants out of the categorical programs.
At a federal programs conference in Washington, I talked to several federal program directors who told me of other nightmares that had happened in the early days when federal grant programs aimed at assisting disadvantaged students were misused because clear regulations and program audits were not yet in place.
Those conversations were revelatory.
At the conference, I was informed that at least one school district used funds for classroom instruction to build a new board of education building while another district used federal funds to purchase athletic equipment and supplies.
Jockstraps to be exact.
When I returned from the Washington conference in possession of stories about what can happen with federal funds when there are few if any regulations in place to monitor such spending, I became a strong, lifelong opponent of deregulation, block grants, and any legislation that would remove funds from classrooms to instead be redirected to satisfy local pet projects. Only in classrooms can skilled, dedicated teachers can make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged students and children with disabilities.
We were right with our concerns in the 1980s, and we won the argument by ensuring that Title I remained largely intact. But now, the nightmare of block grants and loose or no regulations is back, with the potential to destroy our society’s greatest community asset, public education.
The new nightmare, H.R. 610, is euphemistically called the Choices in Education Act of 2017. Here is the opening summary from the congress.gov webpage for all to know the battle facing us. The emphases in the text are mine.
Choices in Education Act of 2017
This bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and limits the authority of the Department of Education (ED) such that ED is authorized only to award block grants to qualified states.
The bill establishes an education voucher program, through which each state shall distribute block grant funds among local educational agencies (LEAs) based on the number of eligible children within each LEA’s geographical area. From these amounts, each LEA shall: (1) distribute a portion of funds to parents who elect to enroll their child in a private school or to home-school their child, and (2) do so in a manner that ensures that such payments will be used for appropriate educational expenses.
To be eligible to receive a block grant, a state must: (1) comply with education voucher program requirements, and (2) make it lawful for parents of an eligible child to elect to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the state or to home-school their child.
The very first sentence says it all. The new purpose of the federal government in education policy in the Age of Trump and DeVos is to pass out the money, viz., “only to award block grants.” After that, it seems, in that Cole Porter line, Now God knows/Anything goes.
Never mind that the original 1965 legislation required grantees to describe in detail the size, scope and quality of the program to be offered, how instruction would be delivered to address identified student needs and learning deficits, and how student progress would be measured.
Add to that how instruments would measure student gains, how students to be served would be based on need, and that such funds would supplement, not supplant other programs of the district.
Said another way, adding such strict and detailed requirements contingent with the receipt of federal funds ensures that when school districts are awarded such funds, it’s understood that local citizens are left with the responsibility for erecting and repairing buildings and that parents and students need to pay for personal items – like jockstraps.
But with H.R. 610, such guarantees are thrown out the window. Instead, the very basis for federal involvement in education is the antithesis of classic educational research which has demonstrated for more than a half-century that students from low-income families come to school with greater learning, nutritional, and social needs, and that a targeted, focused intervention will help narrow any achievement gap that might be present among disadvantaged students.
But in the present political climate in this country, you can forget about research. It seems that with too many people, research is so-called science, is clearly alternative fact-based, and is fake because it has a scientific basis of observation, measurement and prediction.
No, the only thing that is in play today is ideology and how money can be spread around to satisfy a political base. You do that by handing out money, virtually no questions asked, to establish a parallel system of education through vouchers to support private and religious schools.
No, indeed, don’t confuse us with the research and known facts about student achievement that indicate “vouchers distract from other policies that could yield higher returns.”
When did the words choice and vouchers become more important than the need to serve disadvantaged learners?
More important than program assurances to guarantee that scarce and limited public funds are spent consistent with program requirements and need? More important than evaluation to ensure that there are measurable effects to justify the spending?
More important than ensuring that public money is not spent in subsidizing religious schools, some with foreign ties and some that promote an ideology inconsistent with prevailing community norms?
More important than enriching the bottom line of privately operated charter schools with unaccountable governing boards soaking up public funds? More important than conflicted, well-connected political types scamming the taxpayers and receiving educational voucher revenue from several revenue streams?
More important than appeasing your base by promoting home education with public dollars, and absent the assurances that were in place with traditional federally funded categorical programs?
We are dealing with code words, where choice and vouchers simply mean privatization. As our gentle readers look through the several links with this article, it is hoped that interest will grow in stopping the train wreck that is found in the repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 with H.R. 610.
There seems little question at this point that strident right-wing, anti-government and anti-public employee union ideology forms the core of legislation that will end up destroying this nation’s community-centered public schools and replace them with an unrecognizable patchwork of warehouses containing students needing an education to cope in this 21st century world.
No other high achieving-nation in the world uses public funds to encourage and support parallel systems of education in the form of direct aid, vouchers, or tax credits.
With the proposed new legislation, we will have a diffusion of responsibility for public education through multiple and parallel schools that are, variously, publicly operated and governed, privately operated but publicly funded like charters, purely privately operated, religiously-based, and of course, home based.
With this diverse delivery of education, perhaps all publicly supported through the possible passage of H.R. 610, our one nation under God has now become fractured, resulting in the creation of many fiefdoms representing corporate charters and religious schools answering to many gods. If that is choice, such a national policy makes no sense in a highly competitive and global society.
Just as thousands of people have recently taken to the streets and town halls to protest the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, the same phenomenon of concerted action needs to happen so that citizens will resist a devolving federal education policy that is designed to subvert public education.
A first step in this form of citizen engagement and pushback would be for the public to become familiar with the Ohio Department of Education’s webpage and its plans to update existing federal education policy through the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Those who have been closely following the development of ODE’s test and punish policies under ESSA no doubt are aware of a petition on change.org, urging the state agency to slow down the development of its plan and submit it by September 18, the final deadline directed by the United States Department of Education.
After you have a chance to review the links and information referenced above, you are invited to attend the Joint Education Oversight Committee’s hearing on the state’s ESSA plan. That hearing, with opposing testimony, will be held on Thursday, March 9 at 1:30pm in the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
It’s time to say to the ALEC folks on these committees that citizens of the Buckeye State have lost their tolerance for those who demonize public education merely for the sake of privatization.
It’s nearly spring. There once was a Prague Spring, then an Arab Spring. This time, spring should belong to us, the people who own and govern our community’s schools. You are invited to lend your voice and your hand in creating an Education Spring, where we say that with ESSA, the Kasich-controlled Ohio Department of Education, and H.R. 610, enough is too much.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform