By Marc Jampole
When it comes to education, it seems as if the right is more interested in ideological posturing than in actually helping to give children the knowledge and skills they need to live in the modern world, have rewarding careers and achieve their version of ‘’life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it.
These past days have brought two more examples of the blind ideological furor which drives purveyors of the politics of selfishness when it comes to education. In both cases, government bodies are taking actions that all credible research shows do not work in improving student performance in the classroom or on standardized tests.
Let’s start with Phoenix, Arizona. The state of Arizona is the poster child for the failure of charter schools. The research shows that charter schools in the state significantly underperform public schools. While proponents of charter schools can cite one or two charter schools nationally which outperform their public school districts, none are in Arizona, where the performance of charter schools is truly dismal.
So what is the Phoenix school district doing to help students living in poor neighborhoods? Giving them charter schools, which until now have mostly been in the middle class sections of Phoenix—primarily, I assume, so that middle class whites could avoid having their children associate with minorities.
Why would Phoenix want to expand a concept that has proven not to work? My answer: those in control of the Phoenix school board and Phoenix government care more about breaking the teachers’ union than educating kids. Charter schools generally are exempt from having to hire teachers in the union and so are used in most areas as a wedge to break the union. The advantage to the charter school operator is the ability to pay teachers less and reallocate the money to higher salaries for the administration and, in the case of for-profit charters, to profit for the owners.
Let’s move on to Kansas, where the state legislature and Governor Sam Brownback have cut the money for public schools per student so low that a judge has ruled the allocation unconstitutional because the Kansas constitution explicitly requires the legislature to finance the educational interests of the state. Like all opponents of public school spending, the Wall Street Journal editorial board is wringing its hands over the court decision, claiming that “If there's one certain conclusion from the last 30 years of education reform, it is that more money doesn't yield better student results.” This statement is a half lie: What the studies show is that spending more money per student doesn’t help to improve performance unless the money is spent in the classroom—that is, for more teachers to lower teacher/pupil ratios and for new and better books and other learning materials. Spending in the classroom does improve performance. The Kansas legislators and their supporters may or may not care about Kansas children who can’t afford private schools, but they certainly care a lot about enforcing the right-wing ideological principal that the government must continually cut taxes and never raise them.
Money enters into the Arizona situation as well, as the state spends 17 percent less on public education than the national average and had the country’s largest drop in funding from 2002 to 2012 despite a 12 percent increase in enrollment. If Arizona increased support of public schools and used the additional money to hire more teachers, it would have a better chance of raising school performance than would establishing more charter schools, a failed experiment. But Republicans, who dominate the legislatures in both Arizona and Kansas, would rather keep taxes at historic lows than care for the children in their charge.
We see ideology trump facts every day, whether it is some pseudo-expert proposing that environmental regulations hurt the economy (false) or that cutting taxes on the wealthy leads to job creation (even more false). The news media suborns this reign of ignorance by telling both sides of the story, even when the one side is full of poppycock—for example by giving equal say to ignorant opponents of childhood vaccination as they do to infectious disease experts or by publishing tirades against the concept of climate change.
But let’s not get too hung up on this right-wing obsession with hewing to disproven notions for ideological reasons, lest we forget that in this case the victims are our children. Of course, if the Arizona and Kansas powers-who-be thought the children involved were theirs, they would act differently. But they think and have convinced the voting public that the children belong to some undeserving other—poor and minority—who are not part of their real America. We should therefore not contemplate the state of right-wing educational reform with intellectual arrogance, but with a burning shame that so many children of all races and backgrounds in America are being denied the opportunity to fulfill the dream that slaveholder Jefferson had for white males.
And why? So we can keep taxes low for “them that got,” to quote Billie Holiday’s song. Few in power in Kansas and Arizona are blessing the child.