Thursday, March 11, 2004

Quietly continuing the war on public education

cross posted on the american street
So, what does single-sex education, the Santorum amendment, and the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) have in common?

Go ahead; take a wild guess. Since it's my piece, you might wonder, could the answer possibly be No Child Left Behind (NCLB)?

Rehashing, we had that uproar centered around the Department of Education (DOE) recently with one hell of an inflammatory remark and some amazingly Republican states revolting against NCLB guidelines. In the middle of all this, Mr. Paige, our Secretary of Education, did promise a few changes in NCLB. Now we already see the DOE has instigated (superficial) changes in special ed and the non-English learners requirements in NCLB so that they can call themselves 'flexible', after all. And to show who's the boss, the problem child state of Utah has been sent to the corner for a timeout until after the general election.

Given the current bipartisan outcry against the Administration's educational policy, newest developments have been all about placating their Republican base, the very rightwing Christian crew, as well as a bit of damage control.

First off, the DOE proposed that they 'study' implementing single-sex education. Nevermind that implementing this significantly weakens Title IX protection. This speaks directly to the 'family' values coalition, that is conservative Christian families, who are wildly happy with this proposal. After the 45 day study period, be tuned to see what happens.

The second outreach tool, using a different angle, begins with the Santorum amendment which was originally part of NCLB. The Santorum amendment, very briefly, is about exposing students to 'alternative explanations to evolution', something that most scientists believe is a euphemism for a 'foot in the door' approach to religious instruction. Since it failed to be included in the national bill, it seems the Discovery Institute with the support of the DOE, has been its champion for getting it on the educational curriculum at the state level, most recently in Ohio. Notably David Neiwert and P.Z. Myers have been closely following the work of the Intelligent Design people. As pointed out by both, the National Center for Science Education is tracking anti-evolution legislation at the state level. See this nice map at P.Z. Myers' site, Pharyngula.

Finally, I think there is an all out but somewhat stealth assault to change the public perception that NCLB is an unfunded mandate.

Awhile back, our President himself said this in Pennsylvania about NCLB:
    When Bush wasn't discussing jobs, he was talking about education. Flanked by local education officials on a stage in the school's gymnasium, Bush said the onus for fulfilling his federal education mandates -- known collectively as "No Child Left Behind" -- ought to fall mostly on state and local funding sources.
    Districts shouldn't bank on checks from the federal government, he said, even though that's precisely what district Superintendent Barbara Hasson asked for. "We want to thank you for the push," Hasson said, "but we need a little more money."
Kind of an oops thing, I guess.

More recently, Mr. Paige clarifies in his Washington Post editorial the official line about what they want us to think about the public education funding:
    We also provide the money to implement the law. In the president's proposed 2005 budget, federal funding for education would be $57.3 billion, up 36 percent since 2001 and the largest federal education budget in history. We pay for testing, to provide more money to each state, and to target special efforts such as reading, rural education, special needs and language acquisition. Several studies have concluded we have provided enough funding to implement these reforms.
The funding levels he talks about goes directly against what many states have found in their own studies. In fact, the discrepancy between the two camps approach the size of the Grand Canyon. Susan Ohanion provides a good summary from the progressive view, looking at 10 states and 10 different ways of looking at how to fund NCLB mandates, all finding that the federal money is woefully inadequate.

Still, I've been curious. Just where are those studies that Mr. Paige refers to? It turns out that ALEC (warning: PDF file) is the organization that is helpfully providing the talking points to support their case.

For instance, in Ohio, it turns out that DOE officials have been holding public information sessions accompanied by ALEC representatives who provide the expert testimony:
    The Congressional Education and the Workforce Committee meeting, chaired by Congressman John Boehner of West Chester, will convene on Monday, March 8, 2004 at 10 a.m. at the State Library of Ohio, Main Library to discuss the truths about No Child Left Behind and its funding requirements. US Department of Education (news - web sites) officials will testify at the meeting, with business leaders and members of the community in attendance. The State Library is located 274 East First Street in Columbus.
    Michael Flynn, director of Legislation and Policy and Lori Drummer, director of Education for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), will be attending the meeting and are available for interviews and comments regarding the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), its effect on the citizens of Ohio, and how other states are implementing the provisions. To schedule interviews or for more information contact Joe Rinzel at 202-466-3800.
    "With the high standards for public elementary and secondary education that NCLB sets forth, comes a $6.4 billion or a 28.5 percent increase in federal education dollars," said Lori Drummer "True, NCLB does require new state mandates; however these mandates are fully funded, as states enjoy much flexibility while implementing these goals."
    The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is the nation's largest nonpartisan, individual membership organization of state legislators with over 2,400 legislator members from all fifty states.
The ALEC report cites this Education Next article and this Education League Council (sorry: PDF file) press release information as sources for their information.

Stopping for a moment, the interconnections here are enormous even if looked at superficially. Now ALEC, for starters, is considered to be one powerful but stealthy lobby. The watchdog organizations, including Public Trust Action and Media Transparency, conclude that one of ALEC's many goals is to dismantle public education.

Education Next is a periodical, the mouthpiece of four organizations heavily involved in school privatization, according to this must-read article. This piece called "The Framework for Understanding the Anti-Public School Movement" provides a larger picture of the interrelationships between neoconservative movement and the religious right. Foundations supporting this movement are listed, some of which support the Education League Council, as recently discussed by the Black Commentator. The common threads behind these organizations are also discussed more recently by David Neiwert recently.

Talk radio is on the bandwagon. I overheard that conservative talkradio focused yesterday on destroying the perception that the failure of public education was not due to lack of money. (Here, it was Larry Elder talking about LA Unified School District, blamed parents for not providing moral support).

My sense is that it is necessary to be armed with good information in order to plan strategically. The purpose of this piece is hopefully to increase awareness and to spur discussion and ideas. Regarding NCLB, if it continues as it is, it will hurt the kids who can least afford it because it will leave an even worse educational situation. The thing needs change, though it won't be likely in this election year. But we need to start a discussion of solutions and to counter arguments effectively, especially these attempts to change public opinion of NCLB.