Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Supply Side Education

If you remember a few years back, Michelle Rhee was going to reinvent the Washington, DC, school system with a series of standardized tests to determine school performance.  This fit in with Bush's No Child Left Behind Program, which his administration instituted at a national level, after its purported "success" when governor of Texas.  If school didn't preform well, it face "erasure," making room for charter schools, which were all the rage.

Charter schools were the brain child of Milton Friedman many years before.  He felt a "free market" model should be used in education, a kind of "supply side" education with parents given the freedom to choose.  This voucher system became a favorite model for conservatives in the 90s, which Rhee also supported.  She broke with fellow Democrats, espousing the neo-conservative positions as the only way to rescue school systems across the country.

It didn't matter that Diane Ravitch debunked these brash new educational models, Cory Booker and Chris Christie saw them as the answer to Newark's chronic educational crisis, which was costing the state over a billion dollars.  The state had taken over the school district in 1995.  The charismatic Booker got Mark Zucherberg to sign onto his reform plan and offer $200 million on an episode of Oprah, which made the country believe Booker could pull off the Herculean task of saving Newark.

Booker and Zuckerberg
Booker is a Democratic darling, who gave a rousing speech at the 2012 Democratic convention.  He is also a pal of Christie dating back to his time on the Newark City Council.  To read Dale Russakoff's lengthy article in the New Yorker, he also has plenty of wealthy Republican friends from his time at Yale Law School, and knew how to play them to help match Zuckerberg very generous offer.

The energetic mayor of Newark launched his school reform plan in 2010, essentially adopting Michelle Rhee's model in DC, despite it not having yielded any great results.  Cory brought in a similar tough-minded woman, Cami Anderson, to oversee the program, who seemed to understand the complexity of the challenge at first, but like Rhee opted for autocratic measures to subvert the teachers' unions, which they both saw as the culprits keeping the children behind.

Zuckerberg offered a number of his slogans along with his money, including "Done Is Better Than Perfect," as in I want to see results.  After 3 years there haven't been very many positive results.  Rather, a whole lot of backlash just like in DC.

As can be expected, the unions fired back, led by disgruntled administrators like Ras Baraka (son of Amiri), who voiced the collective anger over this hostile takeover of the Newark school district.  He likened it to colonization, as local school officials had little or no say in the decisions being made at the top.  Cami Anderson's job became demonstrably more difficult, especially with Christie and Booker engaged in election campaigns.  The money had evaporated and it seems Newark is pretty much back where it was 3 years ago with Cami desperately trying to hold on, while Cory is now sitting in the US Senate, thanks to his buddy Chris, who seemed to hold a special election expressly for him.

Despite report after report after report noting the failures of charter schools and vouchers to alleviate the education crisis, the view persists that these are the answers, thanks to documentaries like Waiting for Superman, which extols charter schools at the expense of public schools.

You would think at some point, state and federal officials would work with local officials and teachers unions to seek agreeable solutions, but these "new reformers" have formed a pretty tight-knit circle and have gained many politicians' ears, notably Barack Obama, who made Arne Duncan Secretary of Education based on the perceived successes in Chicago.  Duncan is a big supporter of testing, charter schools and vouchers.

It seems all you have to do is create the aura of success to move up in the political world, judging by the meteoric rise of Booker and Duncan, both under 50.  Neither made any tangible improvements in the school districts they oversaw.  Meanwhile, the same administrators and teachers who have been serving these school districts for decades are left to pick up the pieces and explain to the parents why their children remain left behind.

Maybe Ras Baraka can clean up the mess left behind by Cory Booker now that he has been elected mayor of Newark.

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