Would a Republican Government Be Good for School Kids? I'm Skeptical.

Nov 15, 2016 12:00:00 AM


Now that Republicans are running Congress, the White House and two-thirds of the states, we will find out whether conservative government will be good for school kids. If their record on issues like standards, choice and accountability are any indication, however, I’m skeptical.


For decades, Republicans and Democrats called for higher standards and governors on both sides of the aisle rose to the challenge, creating the Common Core State Standards. The Obama administration offered financial incentives for states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, and all but a few states adopted Common Core with little to no debate. Then the pushback started. Red state politicians perpetuated the myth that the state standards were an attempt by President Obama to nationalize curriculum and began repealing, renaming or rewriting them. Indiana Governor and now Vice-President elect Mike Pence was the first to bolt, followed quickly by GOP governors in Oklahoma, Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and New Jersey. Most of these efforts fizzled and [pullquote position="right"] the standards remain in place in most states.[/pullquote] Nevertheless, it is clear that many Republicans will not defend standards they helped create because of politics. Moreover, the President-elect Trump has called the standards a “disaster.” He will soon find out that he has no authority to remove them. Republicans have long favored the use of competition to drive government reform. The Obama administration seized on this idea with the extraordinary opportunity presented by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, which made $100 billion available to the U.S. Department of Education. While most of that money was handed out with no strings attached simply to protect teaching jobs and boost funding for low-income schools and students with disabilities, $5 billion was set aside for reform. Through competitive grants, the Obama administration spurred states to adopt a set of reforms that Republicans mostly support, and helped scale up good ideas that came from the local level. But, Republicans in Congress eliminated the largest of these programs, Race to the Top, and cut back the other one.


Another issue is choice. For some traditional Democrats, any choice other than the neighborhood school is bad. For progressive Democrats, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and many others, some choice is good, especially high-quality public charter schools that are finding new and better ways to improve educational outcomes for low-income kids. Republicans generally prefer to let 1,000 flowers bloom and allow the market to drive charter quality. Unfortunately, it isn’t working out that way in many places and is leading to the death of 1,000 cuts as low performance and mismanagement plague the charter sector in places like Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere. In fairness, some Republicans have embraced more charter school oversight, but most pay it lip service at best. Meanwhile, the [pullquote position="right"]teacher unions have launched a war on charter schools [/pullquote], blocking expansion in states like Massachusetts, Washington and Illinois. Unions have helped elect anti-charter school boards in places like Nashville and Minneapolis. Voters also denied the state of Georgia the right to shut down low-performing schools and convert them to charters. For many Republicans, and a few Democrats, choice is also about vouchers and education tax credits or savings accounts that allow public dollars to be spent in private schools. Despite very uneven results for students in voucher programs, over 30 states now have some kind of school voucher or tax credit initiative. These programs mostly target low-income children, but one state, Nevada, has approved vouchers for middle-class kids. If other states follow suit, we may see more middle-class families leaving the system with ominous political implications for public education. Given the pushback on charters, will Republicans go soft on them and just double down on vouchers? During the campaign, President-elect Trump vowed to increase federal funding for charters by nearly a hundred-fold. At some point soon, his new friends in Washington may sit him down and explain why vouchers are a better bet, given that so many states are now under Republican control and education battles are best fought at the state level.


The last and final issue is accountability. In the face of an obstructionist Congress unwilling to work with the Obama administration to reform the national education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the administration provided incentives to embrace reforms Republicans had long dreamed of. Specifically, in exchange for flexibility from NCLB, states adopted new systems of evaluating teachers and holding them accountable based in part on student achievement. Because Obama did it, however, Republicans opposed it and this time, the pushback came from both sides. Local control conservatives on the right joined with teacher unions on the left to undermine federally-driven teacher evaluation. [pullquote position="left"]Despite the drama, teacher evaluation policies remain in effect in about 40 states[/pullquote], though they are likely to fade since conservatives and teacher unions joined forces to pass a new education law, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which explicitly prohibit these kinds of incentives. Teacher unions and conservatives are also conspiring to block efforts by the Obama administration to ensure that federal dollars meant for poor children are actually spent on poor children. The unions don’t like it because it would require districts to address inequities in funding and teacher quality. Republicans don’t like it because it would prevent them from diverting dollars away from schools serving poor people to schools serving their middle class constituents. The Trump administration most certainly will not fight this battle. The same left-right bedfellows also conspired to weaken federal oversight of accountability under the new law. It pushes back to states' responsibility for protecting low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities and other groups of at-risk kids, from homeless to migrants to those learning English. There is little evidence to suggest that states, left to themselves, will protect these children. There is no organized political constituency for accountability based, even in part, on standardized testing. Teacher unions, school administrators and school boards resist it. Many middle-class parents who think their schools are fine resist it. Local control zealots oppose anything that smacks of centralized oversight. Some parents of at-risk kids will fight for accountability but they won’t get much help from the U.S. Department of Education. The dedicated civil servants in the department will soon be reporting to Trump appointees who openly fantasize about eliminating the department altogether. [pullquote]This kind of talk plays well for Republican politicians, but won’t be good for kids.[/pullquote] The record of the last eight years is clear. More children have access to high quality pre-K. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high of 82 percent and have risen for all sub-groups of students. Drop-out rates are down dramatically and the number of “dropout factories” has shrunk from about 2000 to about 800. An additional 1.1 million students of color are in college. President Obama’s goals include more access to pre-K, getting high school grad rates to 90 percent, insuring all high school graduates are truly college- and career-ready when they get their high school diplomas, and leading the world in college completion. Will the Trump administration build on these goals or abandon them? We’ll see.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and Foolproofme.com, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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