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Doug Lasken

May 31, 2011

[Publisher's Note: As part of an ongoing effort to bring original, thoughtful commentary to you here at the FlashReport, I am pleased to present this column from Doug Lasken, a retired public school teacher - Flash]

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We are taught (by liberals) that liberals believe in Keynesian principles of economic growth through government investment, in helping common people and the disenfranchised through government action and expenditure, and in labor rights above corporate rights.  In practice, however, liberal principles seem to evaporate when liberals operate.  A case in point is the centerpiece of President Obama’s education policy, Race to the Top (RTTT) and the attending Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSSI).   Liberals characterize support for these programs as liberal, but there is no rhyme or reason for that characterization.

RTTT, authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, started last year with a payload of $4 billion, to be parceled out in competitive grants to states who qualified by virtue of “creating the conditions” that would lead to outcomes in schools pertaining to “innovation and reform” leading to “substantial gains in student achievement.”  This is vague language, but through a sort of government osmosis applying states understood some specifics.  Teachers unions needed to buy into the application, a tough call because they had to accept at least the concept of basing teacher evaluation on student test scores, and they had to show willingness to be flexible on teacher tenure and seniority.  Equally critical, states had to accept replacing their academic standards, required of all states by RTTT’s previous incarnation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with brand new national standards, dubbed the Common Core Standards, currently under development.  The national standards, in turn, require new national standardized tests, which states also must embrace. 

So far, with just this much information, would you say that RTTT and CCSSI are liberal in nature?  Liberals say they are, presumably because they involve large sums of money passing from the federal government to states, ostensibly for education.  It turns out, though, that the money goes to private concerns, not to schools.  Further, the grants pursue direct challenges to union power, a decidedly un-liberal goal.  What gives?

The political complexity deepens as you learn more.   All but nine states that submitted RTTT applications were rejected.  Among the rejected was California (presumably because its teachers unions refused to sign on).  Nevertheless, last summer the California State Board of Education, staffed with Governor Schwarzenegger‘s appointees, approved dumping the state’s current standards and assessments and adopting the national standards and assessments, at a cost estimated by the non-profit EdSource at $1.6 billion.   This was bewildering enough at the time, when California hoped to get a mere $700 million RTTT grant (which, as noted, we did not get).  It’s beyond bewildering now that RTTT promises no more than $50 million to the state.  We are in the hole for over $1 billion.

Where will this money come from?  Liberals don’t usually question expenditures when they are for liberal causes, such as to produce economic growth or to help union members, but liberal proponents of CCSSI claim no such benefits here.  They argue, rather, that many states reacted to NCLB with low standards that enabled them to show students as proficient when they were not, and that national standards will correct this.  But why should a state like California, which has world-class standards, spend a fortune on new ones?  The Fordham Institute, in a study of all state standards (for which I consulted) found that the California standards are better than CCSSI.  Why is there near unanimity in the California liberal community that we must put our nearly bankrupt state deeper in debt for something we don’t need?  Why, for that matter, are teachers unions, which have objected to the initiatives on teacher evaluation and seniority, not up in arms against the wasted standards and assessment money?

Let’s look again at the designated purposes of RTTT grants for those states that are receiving them.   At a time when American public schools are collapsing in insolvency, none of the RTTT money can be used to retain teachers and other staff, or maintain school infrastructure.   Where does the money go?  One accepted use is professional development.  Florida, which received a $700 million RTTT grant, is spending a chunk on the “Lesson Study” program of teacher collaboration.  Is that a liberal policy in a state that is looking at laying off up to 20,000 teachers?  Wouldn’t you think a liberal concerned with labor rights would have a problem with this?  Wouldn’t you think the unions would have a problem?  Think again.

As for the grants for national standards, they will go to publishers, testing companies, and a variety of consultants.  Teachers and schools need not apply.   Teachers unions, though overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, are inexplicably silent on this total exclusion of their own rank and file from the largesse.  

One explanation of union silence might be the $6.3 hush money given to the two big national teacher unions, the National Educators Association and the American Federation of Teachers, by the Gates Foundation.   It turns out that much of the start-up money for RTTT and CCSSI is coming from Gates, which leads to further cognitive dissonance in our quest to understand liberal policy.  Liberals are expected to object to unfettered corporate power.  Should not they be offended that Microsoft is directing the course of education in the United States? 

In light of this discussion, one might wonder how terms like “conservative” and “liberal” could apply to policies that jump all over the map, as RTTT and CCSSI do.   The primary reason that these terms are employed by the proponents of RTTT, the author believes, is to limit the influence of opponents by threatening to call them conservative.  If it’s conservative to oppose RTTT, then liberals should not do it.  This is a particularly effective strategy in a state currently swinging Democratic, like California where not one Republican fills a constitutional office.  Since RTTT and CCSSI come from the Obama administration, then they must be liberal.  God forbid we would oppose anything liberal! 

Maybe it’s time for liberals to shake free of their pre-defined political boundaries and see things as they really are.
Doug Lasken is a retired LA Unified teacher, debate coach and consultant.  Reach him through his blog

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