Iowa is one of the states where Michelle Rhee, ALEC, and a Republican Governor have joined forces in support of an agenda of education “reform” that is all about funneling public dollars to corporate welfare. Governor Terry Branstad announced Round #2 of the fight over education reform in a January 14th press conference. Round #1 ended in a compromise bill in May 2012, which scaled back the Governor's initial proposals. With the beginning of the legislative session, the battle resumes.
More below the fold.
The Governor's education reform package includes five general proposals:
1. Implement a new teacher leadership and compensation system, which would raise starting salaries from $28,000 to $35,000, pay “top teachers” more for mentoring and working longer hours coaching other teachers, and give brand-new teachers a reduced teaching load in their first year.
2. The Teach Iowa Initiative expands an existing program of tuition reimbursement to top students who commit to teach in Iowa schools for five years, with a focus on hard-to-hire subjects such as math and science.
3. College- and Career-Ready Seals: “Use diploma seals to identify and recognize graduating high school students who demonstrate that they are college- and career-ready. A blue-ribbon commission of business and education leaders would set high standards for the seals to better define what it means to be college or career-ready. The seals are in addition to a high school diploma. The purpose is to help students better prepare for the future and to align education with workforce development in a thoughtful way.”
4. “Improving” teacher and administrator evaluations. “This will include deciding how student achievement growth should count. This work should help the state win a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.” Iowa Education Director Jason Glass stated that this policy only applies to public schools, and not, presumably, to charter schools.
5. Expand the Iowa Learning Online program.
Full implementation will cost $187 million annually, according to the Governor. The proposal was light on details, and may underestimate the costs. Despite the state's surplus, no new money will be directed to existing programs; only “transformational reform” will get new funding, according to the Governor.
Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register notes that all is not resolved between the Governor and the legislature, with Republicans complaining about the price tag and priorities, and Democrats demanding that “allowable growth” in school budgets be decided before taking up the Governor's proposals. The ISEA was not asked for its endorsement of these proposals and maintained Twitter silence on the press conference, although its position on the previous round is on its site.
These proposals each deserve a full vetting as the legislature begins its session. On-line education, for example, was strongly opposed in 2012 as poor education policy and corporate welfare for companies with conservative political connections, but the Governor is not deterred. (For a comprehensive look at the corporate gold rush going on behind the push for online learning, read this.)
Marginalizing teachers' unions with proposals for alternative paths for advancement is another proposal out of the ALEC-inspired conservative playbook. This similarity with the centerpiece of Branstad's plan, is not accidental. Branstad was a founding member of ALEC, and is now trying to implement its agenda in Iowa.
Since the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of many states, there has been an explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections and collective bargaining rights. Even some Democratic governors, seeing the strong rightward drift of our politics, have jumped on the right-wing bandwagon, seeking to remove any protection for academic freedom from public school teachers.
This outburst of anti-public school, anti-teacher legislation is no accident. It is the work of a shadowy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Founded in 1973, ALEC is an organization of nearly 2,000 conservative state legislators. Its hallmark is promotion of privatization and corporate interests in every sphere, not only education, but healthcare, the environment, the economy, voting laws, public safety, etc. It drafts model legislation that conservative legislators take back to their states and introduce as their own “reform” ideas. ALEC is the guiding force behind state-level efforts to privatize public education and to turn teachers into at-will employees who may be fired for any reason. The ALEC agenda is today the “reform” agenda for education.
The threshold question for any “reforms” should be: why? What problems are we trying to solve? The Gazette reports: “The governor said other states and nations have made dramatic, whole-system changes that have pushed their education systems past Iowa’s. Iowa, meanwhile, has slipped from being a top performer to middle of the pack on national tests.” The only choices, he says, are bold reform or the status quo.
What does bold reform look like? There have been dramatic changes in other states. The Governor is right about that much, although most were not changes for the better, as the results increasingly show. And how do we know that Iowa is in the “middle of the pack”?
One measure of Iowa educational progress came from the Michelle Rhee organization with the Orwellian moniker StudentsFirst, which issued a report card on the states and D.C., just in time for state legislatures to start making policy decisions based on their recommendations. Rhee is the former DC school chancellor whose resignation was followed by allegations of widespread cheating to achieve her “amazing results.” Rhee and ALEC have joined forces.
Michelle Rhee's new group, StudentsFirst, raised $100 million within a few months of Levesque's remarks. Rhee's donors include Rupert Murdoch, philanthropist Eli Broad and Home Depot founder Ken Langone. Rhee's group has pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists….An invitation had billed the exclusive gathering as a chance for “philanthropists and venture capitalists” to figure out how to “leverage each other's strengths” — a concise way to describe how for-profit virtual school companies are using philanthropy as a Trojan horse.
StudentsFirst was very active in Iowa during the last session, spreading money around and intimidating legislators who were not ready to jump on the bandwagon. One recounted that the lobbyist for StudentFirst “came storming in” during the last session. “She took a very no nonsense approach, her way or else…. It was made very clear that I better agree or else.” And she will be back, if she isn't already.
StudentsFirst evaluated states based on its own criteria, not a recognized national standardized test like those administered under the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which has measured students in fourth and eighth grade reading and math tests for years. Rhee's measurements are:
●Elevate the Teaching Profession
●Empower Parents with Data and Choice
●Spend Wisely and Govern Well
There are multiple subcategories for each of these criteria, but one that illustrates the spirit of all is the notion that a failing score attaches to states that have defined benefit pension plans, as opposed to 401(k) accounts. How is increased teacher retirement insecurity a measure of excellence? It has nothing to do with what is good for children, and everything to do with what Rhee's donors and ALEC advocate for their own financial benefit. Freedomworks, the Tea Party group, is gearing up for anti-union campaigns in states across the country, and cutting “extravagant” teacher pensions is on their list too.
Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post education blog, The Answer Sheet, writes:
[Rhee] went on to form StudentsFirst and pledged to raise $1 billion to upend the public education system according to her reform tastes. Those include merit pay for teachers (which has been tried over decades and never worked well); using standardized tests to evaluate educators (which assessments experts say is a bad idea); charter school expansion; voucher expansion; and weakening of teachers unions. Rhee says these reforms will improve education; critics say that they are harming it and that they are in reality serving to privatize the public education system.
Implementation of these reforms and other measures were the prism through which StudentsFirst graded states. Nearly ninety percent of them got less than a C. Eleven states got an F.
Using these criteria, Iowa flunked, and Florida and Louisiana got high marks. Seriously—Louisiana—
Louisiana is the state where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal instituted a statewide voucher program that gave public money to scores of Christian schools that teach Young Earth Creationism, the belief that the Earth and the universe were created by God no more than 10,000 years ago. Kids learn that dinosaurs co-existed with humans. That’s the state that got Rhee’s top grade.
Louisiana consistently ranks at or near the bottom of states for NAEP scores, and the achievement gap in Louisiana is huge: State tests show a 22.1 point gap for black and white students in English Language Arts in spring 2011 and a 26.7 point gap in math. But the state is implementing reforms that Rhee likes.
Louisiana ranks 49th in reading and 47th in math on the NAEP. But the state is shoveling money in the direction of unaccountable charter schools with curricula that would be hilarious if they were not being taught to children—the KKK was a civic-minded reform group, the Depression wasn't as bad as liberal propaganda portrays it, dinosaurs and humans coexisted, and so on.
And Florida? Florida's reforms were introduced by Jeb Bush, who has helped StudentFirst connect with its conservative Republican sugar daddies. “Follow the money” may be a cliche, but you really can't go wrong with it. Florida ranks 35th in reading and 42nd in math scores—excellence!
Rhee's measurements are entirely driven by her agenda of privatizing education. Not one is based on measuring the progress of students. In fact, there is a negative correlation between StudentsFirst scores and student learning: the higher the StudentsFirst score, the lower the NAEP scores. Iowa ranks 31st in reading and 24th in math, but ranks 45/51 with an F grade on Rhee's assessment scale.
North Dakota, which StudentsFirst ranks 51st, comes in at #14 in reading scores and #7 in math. Massachusetts, which ranks #1 in both reading and math scores (and which is also the most unionized state for teachers in the country), comes in at #14 on the Rhee scale.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch writes about Rhee's report card and the ALEC agenda of privatization of public education:
States that endorse charter schools, for-profit schools, the parent trigger, school closings, vouchers and online for-profit charters get high marks from Rhee.
States that bust unions, take away teacher tenure, and use standardized tests to evaluate teachers get high marks from Rhee.
States that support public education and resist efforts to privatize their public schools get low marks, especially if they support teacher professionalism.
Rhee's spending in the 2012 election underlines just how rightwing her agenda is: 90 out of 105 candidates StudentsFirst supported were Republicans, including Tea Partiers. Salon reports that her goals for Iowa include expanding charter schools. Governor Branstad is a fan.
Are there better ways to measure the success or failure of our education policies? Different measurement schemes will produce different results, which does not mean all are not useful so long as they are not driven by an agenda unrelated to education. Education Week conducts an annual survey called Quality Counts. In 2012, they reviewed this country's international standing in education, and lessons to be drawn from high-performing countries. On this survey, Iowa rates an overall C (76.1), but the criteria measured are far more student-centric and worth a deep dive into the details for anyone considering changes to education policy. Iowa's C rating is less interesting than the composition, which does not include examining whether teachers have pensions.
This year's updated categories include the Chance-for-Success Index, introduced in Quality Counts 2007 to offer a handle on the role that education plays in enhancing positive outcomes at various stages over the course of a person's life; the K-12 Achievement Index, which offers a yardstick on student performance by state on 18 crucial indicators; and school finance, graded on eight factors, including how education resources are spread within a state, as well as overall spending patterns. Also updated are categories tracking policies that involve the teaching profession, and those that focus on standards, assessments, and accountability.
The sixth category captured in the report's annual “State of the States” roundup involves policies relating to transitions and alignment among different sections of the educational continuum, from early childhood to postsecondary education and the world of work. It was updated in Quality Counts 2011.
Together, these six categories form the basis of the summative letter grades given to the nation overall and to the individual states. Maryland, for the fourth consecutive year, ranks at the top of the national list with a grade of B-plus. Tightly clustered behind it with a B are Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, all of which consistently performed strongly in past Quality Counts reports.
Ranked at the bottom was South Dakota, which receives a grade of D-plus, while 11 states rank in the lowest tier, with grades of C-minus. The nation overall receives a grade of C, the same as last year; overall, 41 states receive grades ranging from C-minus to C-plus.
The Department of Education ranks Iowa first in graduation rates, with a graduation rate of 88%. Louisiana and Florida graduate just 71% of their students, and rank 41 and 42 respectively. The Department calls this measurement a “key element of accountability in measuring the effectiveness of schools.”
Even by this measure, Iowa needs improvement, since 12% of its students did not graduate. How to achieve improvements in educational outcomes for students is a debate that we will continue to have as the corporate “reformers” advance their agenda by pouring massive sums into the campaign accounts of politicians who support them, and mounting propaganda campaigns in support of union-busting, charter schools, removing local school board control over schools, on-line instruction, and allowing poorly-credentialed inexperienced teachers to replace experienced (more expensive) teachers.
Members of our legislature first should ask themselves: who benefits? Who benefits from the Governor's proposals, and any additional ALEC/StudentsFirst proposals introduced by Republicans during the session? If there is not a clear benefit to students from any proposal, supported by valid data, then let Bobby Jindal experiment on his hapless state, but do not harm Iowa's public schools by replacing them with computer labs. Do not create a dual school system, one for winners who get diploma seals and lots of resources, and one for losers who are shunted to under-resourced public schools, or drop through the cracks entirely. Do not waste taxpayer dollars on excessive testing that encourages rote memorization rather than learning.
Second, they should ask: how does each proposal reflect a commitment to students and to education (not just test scores), to improving curriculum and instruction, and to graduating citizens who can think critically, and find employment to suit their capabilities and aspirations? In considering the Governor's “bold reforms,” listen to teachers, school administrators, parents and students, rather than the ubiquitous StudentsFirst lobbyist. Make the proponents show you the studies, not just the money. Do not experiment across the board, but keep any experiments small and let them prove themselves before going statewide.
Iowa is first in the nation in graduation rates, so something is working in the system we have, which the Governor derides as “20th century.” The Governor's refusal to provide additional funding for anything already in that system is not reasonable on its face. The legislature should not allow Iowa's schools to be harmed by a rightwing political agenda.