Dear Governor Branstad,
I think it would be good if Iowa had school vouchers. It doesn’t seem fair that if I want to go to a private high school, my parents shouldn’t get back their own tax money to help pay for it…
I learned as a kid about school vouchers and wrote a letter like the one above. School vouchers are when public money (in the form of a voucher) is given to families wanting to pay for private school. Iowa currently has no school voucher options. That meant that if my parents were right, and I did in fact want to go to the Catholic high school, they couldn’t get back tax money to help pay for tuition. They told me so and I wrote the letter. Since writing that letter, some things have been revealed to me: School vouchers and similar reforms actually undermine education, and it turns out I didn’t want to go to Catholic school anyway.
The first revelation, that school vouchers and similar education reforms actually undermine the potential of schools, took me more than a decade to understand. But with big-moneyed interests positioning themselves to push through such reforms in Iowa, we don’t have years to help one another see why these reforms threaten our schools and even our society. Even while editing this piece a bill was proposed, SF 2091, which calls for vouchers under the euphemistic label of “education savings grants.” These will “save” the profits of a few and “grant” the rest of us a chance to pay for them, all while helping to quietly dismantle public schools. Luckily, there have been many who have studied these reforms whose findings might make clear their threat to public schools.
“Reforms” threaten to reduce schools to bland creators of cogs. They want the public schools to become a site to produce obedient consumer-citizens able to maintain the machines that produce profits. While it’s true that public schools have their issues they might also be capable of enlivening democracy, educating the public, and improving society. This calls for revitalizing those aims of schools, not so-called reform. Iowa is succumbing to the latest waves of “reforms” which threaten to weaken rather than enliven the potential of public schools. The New York Times as early as last March offered that the “school choice fight in Iowa may preview the one facing Trump.” Like a worsening system of inclement weather, these waves of reform have honed the political creativity first in Wisconsin and then in Kansas, leaving destruction in their wake before descending on Iowa.
What are these school reforms that are coming to Iowa? How has Iowa avoided them so far?
Diane Ravitch, a historian of education who served in the Department of Education under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is one of the leading scholars on public schools in the United States. Her exhaustively researched work helped me understand what these school reforms are. For someone like me who grew up as an evangelical conservative, I appreciated that she had served under both a Bush and a Clinton. Originally, Ravitch had been an advocate of some of the standardization, proficiency, and accountability measures that later informed the now infamous No Child Left Behind Act. Her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement, lays bare some of the myths the privatization (school reform) movement is built upon. A widely believed lie necessary for these reforms to gain traction says that our public schools are failing. This view has been propagated so much it now passes as common sense. Interestingly, when confronted with the reality of their own neighborhood schools, the public recognizes more readily that those schools are worthwhile, but when asked about schools nationally, the decades of propaganda has us believing our schools are failing. Are they?
No, public schools are not failing. The propaganda against public schools might be seen as starting with the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, which used the language of the Cold War to demonize schools. While the report prevented Reagan from his stated goal of dismantling the Department of Education, it has since been used to justify a more “market based” approach towards education — an approach which calls itself “school reform.” The 1983 report claimed the US was failing when compared to schools internationally. It has since been criticized for not providing evidence, and for using vitriolic language, notably by education professor David Berliner. Even the report’s main author, Terrel Bell, regretted how the report has been used to promote so-called reform, saying, “We have foolishly concluded that any problems with the levels of academic achievement have been caused by faulty schools staffed by inept teachers.” Bell argued that to really improve schools, we must look at broader social factors that limit schools, working towards becoming a “learning society.” A study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Economic Policy Institute also critiques the propaganda around our “failing” schools as misleading. Propaganda that both major political parties have helped promote, with Obama’s Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan saying, “American students are poorly prepared to compete in today’s knowledge economy” and that “Americans need to wake up to this educational reality.” Rather, the Stanford study shows this propaganda to be “oversimplified, frequently exaggerated, and misleading.”
Certainly, schools in the US have much to improve upon. While they may help some people improve their lot, they cannot be relied upon to be “the great equalizer” in a society that treats different people and groups unequally. They must train students to engage in society democratically more than train them to correctly answer a multiple choice test. When the measure of schools is reduced to something like standardized tests, as recent federal policy and reforms have done, the broader outcomes of schools are pushed aside. As Wayne Au outlines in his book, Unequal by Design, which traces the standardized testing movement from its origins in earlier eugenics movements, standardized tests often reinforce subtle racist and classist ideologies, and are a better measure of a student’s zip code and socioeconomic status than a measure of any real learning. These tests don’t measure the more crucial “21st century skills” of cooperation, creativity, and engaged citizenship. Instead, they reduce students to scores, setting the path for them to become good consumers more than good citizens. These test scores are a key piece of the school reformer’s agenda.
Aside from high-stakes, standardized testing, these “school reforms” have some key identifying features: school-choice and voucher programs, an audit culture, treating leaders as managers, allowing corporations increased access to students and curriculum, anti-union legislation, and lessening democratic influence over schools. These practices are guided by a “free-market fundamentalism” that assumes a deregulated, market-based approach based on pursuing individual self-interest will solve all issues. Since these school reforms are based on this faith, they are often “undeterred by evidentiary critique,” according to Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor. It is for this reason that the Bill Gates foundation, a moneyed backer of such “reform” seems to be more concerned with ideology than with research. David Hursh, in his book The End of Public Schools, writes that “Bill Gates seems to admit that his reform initiatives … are based not on research but faith and consequently may or may not work. In a 2013 speech he admitted that ‘it would be great if our education stuff worked, but we won’t know for probably a decade.’”
Privatizing schools may work if the goal is to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, but these reforms do not work if the purpose of school is to empower young people to lead happy, fulfilling lives, or to make the world a better place.
So why are these reforms so popular? What is the motivation behind those who wish to dismantle our public schools and replace them entirely with private enterprise? For those of us concerned with empirical evidence of what works, do these reforms work? There are undoubtedly some true believers (my middle school self included). At the margins, there have been those private schools that have pushed on public schools to become more inclusive, more democratic, or more oriented towards people over profits. Julie Davis outlines, for example, some Minnesota schools that came out of the American Indian Movement responding to a public school system that failed native students. The greater push for our current reforms, though, is tied to money and power — specifically preserving it for those already wealthy and powerful. A quote by media mogul Rupert Murdoch might explain why the Bill Gates foundation and the Walton family are some of the biggest drivers of this reform: “When it comes to K-12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of good teaching.” Putting the potential profits first and the teachers last, he may well have said, “Schools are a $500 billion industry ripe for corporate investment and profit.” Already we see companies eager to cash in on this emerging market. Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher and activist, notes in his edited volume More Than a Score that the “textbook and testing industry generates between $20 billion and $30 billion” annually.
Our current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, continuing a bipartisan trend of education overseers before her, has a blind faith in market-based reforms to solve all issues. Her “career” before being appointed involved using her family fortune, built on a quasi-legal pyramid scheme, to promote this brand of “school reform.” Jane Mayer, writing years before DeVos’ appointment, outlines her family’s position:
For almost four decades, a tiny coterie of ultrarich activists who wished to influence American politics by spending more than the laws would allow had been chafing at the legal restraints. One family had been particularly tireless in the struggle, the DeVos clan of Michigan…. Members [of DeVos’ religious sect] crusaded against abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and modern science that conflicted with their teachings. Extreme free-market economic theories rejecting government intervention and venerating hard work and success in the Calvinist tradition were also embraced by many followers. Within this community of extreme views, no family was more extreme or more active than the DeVoses….
Though the main drivers of school reform seem unconcerned by evidence, someone more concerned with students and our society’s future might ask if these reforms actually work or do anything besides provide a new market. Is there evidence that privatizing schools works? Researcher Harold Wenglinsky did statistical analysis on 12 years of data comparing private schools to public schools in the US. Even by the reformer’s own crude tools of achievement tests, the evidence isn’t on their side. There were four significant findings when comparing these two types of schools:
1) Students in private schools do no better on achievement tests compared to their public school peers.
2) Students attending private school are no more likely to attend college than their public school counterparts.
3) Private school students are no more likely to end up with higher job satisfaction than their public school peers.
4) There is no increase in civic engagement for adults who previously attended private schools.
So do these reforms work? No. At least when we look at evidence. The 12-year longitudinal study is supported by a 2002 study conducted by the United Nations. This comprehensive study on education privatization looked at international data comparing public and private schools and showed no definite benefits of privatizing schools. What we do know about private schools is they are able to discriminate against students in ways that public schools can not. They can deny education to those with a disability, or based on religion, socioeconomic status, or other features. Privatizing schools may work if the goal is to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, but these reforms do not work if the purpose of school is to empower young people to lead happy, fulfilling lives, or to make the world a better place.
Because these “school reforms” often flatten the purpose of schools, focusing on good test scores more than good human development, education scholar William Pinar accurately calls them “deforms.” With schools being one of the few public institutions less bound to profit-making and yet still focused, at least in part, on the betterment of society and future generations, it is imperative that we preserve schools’ ability to serve the public interest rather than to serve private profits.
While Iowa has experienced some of these deforms — an increased weight placed on standardized testing, schools being increasingly run as businesses, and more recently legislation to inhibit teacher unions — Iowa has so far been immune to the increase in private schools that is more often seen in urban areas. The letter I wrote as a child naively asking for a school-voucher program hasn’t yet been a concern in Iowa, though the emergence of SF 2091 shows the threat to be imminent. This bill was introduced by the widely discredited state Sen. Mark Chelgren. Chelgren recently made a name for himself on the national stage when he pushed for a bill that would require political litmus tests for professors shortly before it was revealed he misled people into thinking he earned business degree from the Sizzler Steakhouse franchise.
Instead of serving private interests, schools can be incubators for young people to practice democracy and grow in their ability to practice creativity, cooperation, and civility.
Iowa has thus far been immune to the rise in private schools because the factors behind a rise in private schools are tied to power and money and race (and a whole host of other factors). Wealthy elites wanting to preserve their power are viewing schools as a means to that end, and are propagandizing the public into supporting policies which in turn support their dominant status. We see this in the historical and present rise of private schools.
In 2010, researcher Tal Levy found that power, wealth, and race all played a role in whether private schools (charter schools, specifically) came about in a place. Specifically, charter schools were more likely if there were weak teacher unions, and, interestingly, he notes, “It seems that the opening of charter schools is perceived as a solution to the problem of increased political pressure towards school integration [along racial lines].” In a state that has been predominantly white and with relatively strong teacher unions, private schools have had little reason to be implemented. Historically, using schools to maintain social hierarchies has looked different in rural areas like Iowa than it has in urban or suburban areas. School consolidation — the expanding of districts to serve larger areas 3 has happened in rural areas while privatization — schools adopting business-like reforms including private schools — has happened elsewhere. Both of these deform the more noble purposes of public schools. Iowa in the 20th century underwent school consolidation, which took place “primarily where capitalist social relations had already advanced furthest” and despite any goals of consolidation to fix “failing” schools or use them to empower people, consolidation served to “legitimize” the growing inequality between the rich and poor, according to David Reynolds in his exhaustively researched book on rural school consolidation. Today’s privatizing “reform” might similarly promise to fix schools viewed as failing, but in the end will only exacerbate social inequalities — the very inequalities that schools are often impossibly tasked with fixing.
As the outlining of Iowa’s politics by professor Colin Gordon illustrates, the state’s Legislature has been hijacked by corporate elites who now threaten to enact their school “deforms” in ways that have already failed in other states. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a main actor in service to these corporate elites. Our former Gov. Terry Branstad was one of the founding members of this organization, which is funded largely by the ultra rich who use the organization to push policies that help them maintain their wealth — policies that have made normal the “free market fundamentalism” so widely embraced. ALEC was behind Wisconsin’s dismantling of teacher unions, a move that has since resulted in lowered teacher pay, reduced pensions, reduced insurance benefits, and increased teacher turnover. This is concerning when one realizes that despite various education policies or “reforms,” a quality, well supported teacher is one of the greatest contributors to student achievement. Kansas, with similar ALEC influence, supported policies that severely lessened taxes on the wealthy. This wealth did not trickle down (it never does) but rather forced the Legislature to make drastic cuts to public investments like education. Even publications like Forbes that focus more on profits than people were forced to admit that ALEC’s experiment in Kansas “appears to have failed.” ALEC has already been successful in lessening the power of Iowa’s teacher unions. It was no coincidence that this unpopular legislation seemingly arrived out of nowhere, was passed quickly, and was signed into law by Branstad in a closed-door session with only ALEC representative Drew Klein in attendance. Now that ALEC has gutted Iowa’s teacher unions, and shifting demographics in the state scare those who are threatened by “somebody else’s babies” we might expect to soon see other school “deforms” infect our state.
What can be done? Since public schools are one of the few places not entirely beholden to the profit motive, and one of the few public investments we make that might guard against ignorance and hatred, we must work to expand their purpose, not lessen it. The reformers would have public schools become private and increasingly serve private interests. Schools, instead, can be incubators for young people to practice democracy and grow in their ability to practice creativity, cooperation, and civility. When reforms strangle schools’ ability to achieve these greater purposes, we the people might push back. The reformers want us to see schools as failing and so funding needs are left unmet. The School Administrators of Iowa noted that “Iowa’s per pupil funding is plummeting.” Instead, we might advocate for policies that invest in our children and schools, both financially and culturally. These investments don’t just help future young people find gainful employment, but they might help young people create a better world than we live in today. This is something that benefits everyone, not just the individual family’s student. Thomas Jefferson is referenced as noting how much our democracy depends on a well educated populace.
What can one person do in the face of billionaires like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers behind ALEC? The good news is common people have a lot of power if we don’t swallow the propaganda telling us money is the only meaningful form of power. Increasing democratic control of schools that are well supported by public money is one way. If you’re in Iowa, you might see what position your representative is taking on SF 2091 or school reform generally. Iowans for Public Education is an online group that keeps regular tabs on school reform and provides action items for engagement. Some parents are opting out of harmful over-testing. Listening to teachers and educators more than policy makers or their corporate overlords is another. In our own lives we might be critically literate about what we consume, asking ourselves, “Was this op-ed written by ALEC through their offshoot ‘Americans for Prosperity?’” or, “Is this local media owned by one of the handful of media conglomerates that push a corporate-backed, free-market fundamentalism on us?”
The late scholar Jean Anyon made the analogy that fixing schools alone without also focusing on the broader policies and society they are situated in is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. So, focusing on changing the policies that benefit the elites at the expense of the common person might be one meaningful way to make change, even if it doesn’t seem to directly impact schools or young people. ALEC, after their disastrous policies in Kansas, wrote a paper outlining “lessons learned.” Their main lesson was that tax cuts (which they would prefer to give to the elites) must also be accompanied by decreasing spending (to programs like schools which benefit common people): “the most important lesson that state lawmakers can learn from the Kansas experience — states cannot significantly reduce taxes without also reducing spending.”
When, as a child, I wrote that naive letter to ALEC co-founder and then-Gov. Branstad, I was thinking like a child. I looked for how to get the most for myself and my family. I didn’t realize that private schools wouldn’t necessarily benefit me more than public schools. I didn’t realize that investing in public education, specifically an education that inculcates future engaged citizens, is one of the most worthwhile investments any society can make.
Featured image: Phil Roeder/Flickr