Politics & Policy

The Wake-Me-Up-When-Class-is-Over Governor

Deval Patrick chooses teachers' union votes over effective schools.

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, politically in debt to the teachers’ unions, is attempting to eviscerate his state’s successful school reforms and its independent board of education. His drive to ensure that No Teacher-Union Hack Is Left Behind has serious implications for public-school choice nationally. Can Democrats who are committed to school reform summon the political will to sustain it in the face of union opposition?

Patrick’s chief target is charter schools, which the unions oppose because charters offer parents an alternative to underperforming district schools. When children switch to charters, public funds follow them — and the political clout of the unions diminishes, since charter-school teachers are not unionized. Of course, the unions express their objections differently: charters starve public schools of needed resources; skim the best students; and divert public support from a system that works.

Not many people believe the unions’ criticisms, so it’s been an uphill battle to block the spread of public-school choice. In state after state, charter schools are growing in popularity — often with the support of top Democrats, as Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, has pointed out. Governor Eliot Spitzer has doubled the number of New York charters to 200. Chicago mayor Richard Daley has thrown his weight behind a privately funded $4.2-million math-and-science charter school. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is trying to establish 25 new charter schools in Detroit. Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson campaigned on a promise to bring charter schools to the nation’s 12th-largest city and authorized 16 new charters in 2006. D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty hopes to increase the number of charters in the nation’s capital beyond the 57 that already exist. And New Orleans is building new intellectual levies in the form of charter schools.

While Democrats were relative latecomers to the charter-school movement — after all, teachers’ unions didn’t like them — they have come around, mainly because the schools are so popular with parents. So why is Governor Patrick headed in the opposite direction?

There is a passage in Moby Dick, where Ishmael, at the helm of the Pequod, becomes entranced by watching the nighttime fire beneath the kettles of whale blubber — and nearly capsizes the ship. He finds a lesson in the experience: “Look not too long in the face of fire, O Man. Never dream with thy hand at the helm.”

I don’t know what bubbling kettles Governor Patrick has been watching, but he certainly seems to be asleep at the wheel. Why would an initially popular governor run full-tilt against education reforms that have been both enormously successful and enormously popular? He just has. Moreover, some of his fellow Democrats, like Joe Williams, worry that Governor Patrick isn’t alone. Williams points out that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, another recipient of teacher-union support, has temporized on charter schools, and the Massachusetts legislature (more or less a Democratic satrapy) is “heavily influenced by the teachers’ unions and contains only a handful of vocal charter supporters.”

It wasn’t always so. In 1993, Massachusetts led the national drive for ambitious school-reform legislation — pushed through by Democrats like Tom Birmingham and Mark Roosevelt and signed into law by then-governor William Weld. That reform increased state funding for public schools by about $40 billion, but also imposed strict accountability. It charged the state board of education with creating content tests, called MCAS exams, which were the forerunner of the accountability tests that are central to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. The board was also asked to develop new curricular frameworks and a charter-school program. To keep everyone honest, the legislature created an independent Office of Educational Quality and Accountability that ran performance audits of school districts.

It worked. In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state to achieve top marks in all four categories of student achievement measured by the federal government. But Massachusetts school reform does have one lingering weakness. The achievement gap between white and minority students persists. The only tool that has consistently lessened the gap has been charter schools — and as their success became more apparent, the union opposition to them grew fiercer.

One of Governor Patrick’s first steps was to eliminate the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. The unions hated it because it did its work: it audited school districts and reported when they came up short. Moreover, it spotlighted the cases where districts’ shortcomings stemmed from ignoring the law, cooking the data, or misallocating funds.

Having ditched the auditors, Governor Patrick next moved to install a union-vetted candidate with a record of hostility towards charter schools as his new Department of Education commissioner. The Boston Globe and every other major paper in the state editorialized against the governor’s candidate and the job went instead to a well-qualified out-of-stater who supports district accountability and value-added assessments for teachers.

But Governor Patrick has not given up. The governor is now attempting his version of FDR’s threat to pack the Supreme Court: he wants to increase the number of seats on to the Massachusetts board of eEducation, remove the commissioners for early childhood education and higher education, truncate the terms of reform-oriented board members, and increase the authority for a new secretary of education.

This may sound like a bureaucratic shuffle, but it is really a power grab. It would clear away any independent body that could check the governor’s power to do what he wants. And what Governor Patrick wants is the elimination of the charter-school movement and “high-stakes” testing.

His unlikely nemesis is Jamie Gass, a young man who worked for the now-abolished Office of Educational Quality and Accountability and has since become the head of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform. Gass has adroitly reached out to supporters of school reform across the political spectrum. The governor was clearly caught by surprise when school-reform advocates closed ranks against his handpicked candidate for DoE commissioner.

The current debate over school reform is conventionally dated to the 1983 report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk. By most objective measures, we have made modest progress in the 25 years since — but hardly enough to cheer. In effect, American schools have moved from a D- average to a D. While students as a whole have made small academic gains on standardized tests, our educational system has slipped badly in other areas for which we have no standardized measures.

In those same 25 years, for example, the institutionalization of the “diversity” doctrine has subjected millions of children to a campaign to convince them that their “real” identities inhere in their racial and ethnic affiliations. The pedagogical inanities of progressive education have continued their march into the nation’s K-12 classrooms. “Whole reading,” “constructivist math,” and other approaches that plainly don’t work continue to be taught by a generation of teachers who learned in ed school that these “student-centered” ways of teaching are superior to traditional forms of instruction. A hoary device called “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” that treats “analysis” as intrinsically superior to factual knowledge, remains the essential underpinning of teacher training, which helps explain the ignorance of basic facts that American students demonstrate in survey after survey. We have raised the first generation of Americans who are better versed in the history of American oppression than in the history of American freedom.

The need to reform education goes way beyond the need to raise test scores. Let me grant one point to the teachers who dislike the shape of school reform in Massachusetts and who suspect that charter schools are a glib answer to a complex problem. Test scores aren’t everything.

That said, the record in Massachusetts and many other states shows that the creation of public alternatives to traditional public schools energizes everyone. Competition works. School choice is a good idea, and ideally would extend beyond the choices offered by charter schools. But since charter schools are a version of school choice that even most Democrats can support, it seems like a very good idea to continue this experiment.

While the current history of school reform is conventionally dated to the publication of A Nation at Risk, the American idea of public schooling has always been caught up in political and pedagogical controversy. Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms extends the horizon back to 1893, when “the nation’s first blue-ribbon commission to study the schools,” the Committee of Ten, appointed by the National Education Association, issued its report. As Ravitch summarizes, the Committee of Ten called for “educational excellence for students in a democratic society,” and it explicitly recognized that secondary schools “do no not exist for the purpose of preparing boys and girls for colleges.” Instead, the Committee called for a well-rounded education that would serve all students, regardless of where they would go next.

It is a thought worth revisiting. The vast majority of high-school graduates today go on to some form of postsecondary education — for many, high school serves only to get them into college. Paradoxically, this sets a low standard for the nation’s K-12 educational system. If our schools are simply stops on the way to the next instructional institution, we have little reason to expect them to deliver “educational excellence.” Their goal will more likely be “acceptable outcomes.” Worse, that standard of acceptability will be in perpetual decline, because there is no penalty for lowering it. The colleges remain hungry for students and, outside elite institutions, are willing to admit anyone who can pay.

This unhappy reality is of long standing and can’t be blamed on any particular political party or faction, including the teacher unions. The unions have generally made a bad situation worse by attempting to thwart important reforms, as they are currently doing in Massachusetts; but the historical picture suggests that our nation has a perennial problem in creating and sustaining high-quality public schools. The desire for excellence and the earnest democratic hope of carrying everyone forward trip over each other. The default position is a catch-as-catch-can mediocrity. Every generation back to Horace Mann, and perhaps earlier, has searched for a way to revitalize educational excellence. Mann, the first secretary of the Massachusetts board of education in 1837, thought the path forward was the professionalization and formal preparation of teachers. Could he see Massachusetts today, he might enjoy the irony that the professionalized and formally prepared teachers are those most adamantly opposed to educational excellence.

The tension between the pursuit of excellence and the claims of egalitarianism isn’t going to vanish, no matter what reforms we institute, or which political party dominates. Politically, egalitarianism sells better than excellence; but what sells best of all is egalitarianism dressed up as excellence. That’s what the Committee of Ten pushed in 1893; and it is what President Bush and Senator Kennedy agreed on in No Child Left Behind. Egalitarianism dressed up as excellence, however, has a limited shelf-life. Sooner or later, standards of excellence are compromised or revealed as hollow gestures. Or a Governor Deval Patrick comes along and dismisses them entirely.

Perhaps the Massachusetts legislature is also ready to hit the snooze button while Governor Patrick dismantles a successful $40-billion experiment in public-school excellence. What makes this worth watching for the rest of the nation is that Democratic support for education reform is on the block. Governor Patrick is an election-year test case. If Massachusetts Democrats give the teachers’ unions what they want without paying a political price with voters, public-school choice will be dealt a serious blow. Democrats across the U.S. feel the same union pressure, but parents and voters are pushing back for educational excellence. Governor Patrick could tip the balance.

The presidential candidates have been nearly inaudible on education reform. We should hear what each of them actually thinks about school choice, charter schools, standardized tests, and the constant struggle for academic excellence in a system that is always ready to revert to wake-me-up-when-class-is-over.

 – Peter Wood is author of A Bee in the Mouth.

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