The No Child Left Behind Act passed with bipartisan support in 2001. At the time, President George W. Bush and other advocates predicted it would eliminate America’s racial achievement gap. They attributed this persistent dilemma to teachers’ “soft bias of low expectations,” effectively convincing the American public that poor children of color underperform their more well-to-do white classmates simply because their teachers don’t believe in their academic potential. NCLB’s supporters promoted its stringent test-driven accountability measures as a straightforward solution to this alleged problem.
NCLB changed the course of American public education. Although it was replaced in 2015 by The Every Child Succeeds Act — a law prompted by concerns about NCLB’s overemphasis on testing — education’s almost exclusive focus on test score improvement has not abated.
The intentions of the lawmakers who passed these acts may have been sincere, and their legislation may have had some positive effects. However, these laws clearly have not erased the racial achievement gap, and they have had one particularly negative impact. The longer they have remained in effect, the more they have reinforced the political consensus that (1) standardized tests tell us everything we need to know about educational quality and (2) incentivizing educators is the only way to improve school performance, especially in struggling schools.
If we accept these false premises, then we also believe that gross funding inequalities between schools serving poor children of color and those serving more well-to-do white children simply don’t matter. Further, we can ignore the unique challenges faced by many poor children of color and the well-documented evidence of their effects on academic performance.
Let’s consider a question. If we (1) support policies based on the belief that effort is the sole determinant of academic success, while (2) knowing that poor children of color are our lowest scoring student demographic, what are we suggesting about these students and their teachers? In my view, these two premises can only lead to one conclusion: that poor children of color and their teachers just aren’t trying as hard as well-to-do white children and their teachers.
A popular refrain of conservative politicians has been the assertion that America has tried everything possible to improve its schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our leaders certainly have not done everything possible to help the schools facing the greatest challenges. Instead, they have repeatedly applied one ill-conceived policy prescription: testing children and shaming and punishing educators when the results aren’t deemed acceptable.
For almost two decades we have clung to this approach as if it is a matter of faith. As economic and racial inequalities in academic performance have persisted, our leaders have doubled down with increased determination. To them there is never any consideration of the possibility that so-called accountability measures might not be the solution to all educational concerns. If schools don’t succeed, it’s their fault. They are failures.
By purposefully characterizing schools in poor urban and rural areas as “failing schools,” elected officials have promoted the view that these schools are beyond redemption. Not surprisingly, these leaders now feel empowered to suggest that the only way forward is give up on struggling schools and enact voucher and charter programs.
Of course, they don’t say they’re no longer trying to help these schools. Instead they present themselves as saviors by claiming vouchers and charters will even benefit the children who don’t participate in these programs, and will especially benefit those who do. Gov. Bill Lee has repeatedly said his voucher program “will provide a new incentive for schools to improve.” Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that teachers in Memphis and Nashville (the two affected cities) will be so fearful of losing students to voucher-funded programs that they will now be inspired to herculean efforts to lift up their students.
Lee and his supporters have also proclaimed that vouchers and charter schools give an “option” to students “trapped in failing schools.” The Tennessee Republicans echoing this narrative don’t acknowledge the evidence indicating that students who choose these options generally don’t achieve as well as their peers in public schools.
It’s worth noting that students who are eligible for vouchers in Tennessee can come from families with incomes twice the federally established eligibility level for free lunch. Therefore, it’s possible that few of the children supposedly targeted by this program will actually participate in it. Indiana has one of the nation’s largest voucher programs, and most of its recipients are white and middle class and have used their vouchers to attend Christian schools.
Recently, Lee announced his nine appointees to the Public Charter School Commission, a new state panel that will hear appeals to charter applications that are rejected by local boards of education. This initiative clearly indicates Lee’s commitment to expanding charter schools to the detriment of regular public schools. Charter companies can now work around locally elected school boards and receive approval from a hand-picked group that will probably be receptive to essentially all charter applicants, no matter how questionable their motives or qualifications.
When I read about this panel, I immediately thought about the October 2018 report “Profit before Kids.” This study of virtual (online) charter schools found that they perform substantially worse than public schools on achievement measures and dropout rates. Although Tennessee law supposedly does not allow for-profit charter schools, Union County’s Tennessee Virtual Academy has been operated by K12, Inc., a for-profit entity, since 2011. In effect, our taxpayer dollars pass through Union County directly into the hands of K12.
K12’s corporate headquarters are in Virginia, and it has 39 offices nationwide. It has been publicly traded since 2007, and its revenues have totaled approximately $1 billion per year. Because it provides only online courses or self-directed materials for students to use at home, it hires very few teachers and has minimal overhead. Consequently, it is able to use the taxpayer dollars it receives to pay multimillion-dollar salaries to its CEOs, generate profits for investors, and spend millions on lobbying and campaign donations.
There’s a real stench to all of this. We were told that Tennessee doesn’t have for-profit charters, but in effect it does. Then Lee and Republican legislators created a panel to overrule the will of the people’s elected school boards, so we can probably expect to see substantially more for-profit charters in the state, along with the scam artists that are already licking their chops at the money made available by his voucher bill.
In the meantime, K12 CEOs from New York to Los Angeles are millions of dollars richer with the help of taxpayer dollars from Lee and like-minded politicians across the country. We can probably guess what purpose K12 lobbyists (and lobbyists for other educational vendors) are trying to achieve in statehouses nationwide—but in which states? Anyone reading this column could be helping to pay the salary or per diem for a lobbyist not only in Nashville, but also in Indianapolis or Santa Fe, for example.
I wonder whose political campaigns Tennessee taxpayer dollars will be supporting in 2020. And that brings us to a particularly interesting question. A lot of voters rightfully object to the oversized influence that campaign donations by wealthy individuals and corporations have on elected officials. How do you feel about lawmakers passing legislation that funnels our taxpayer dollars to corporations that later pass some of that money right back to those same lawmakers for their reelection campaigns? I’m not saying that has happened in Tennessee yet, but the potential is clearly there, and it didn’t happen by accident.
For elected officials to rationalize this kind of behavior while siphoning money away from schools that serve poor children of color and pretending they’re doing it solely for those children’s benefit is beyond contemptible. It is a part of a long history of lawmakers shortchanging the most vulnerable among us in order to serve their own desires.
Our children aren’t failing. We’re failing them.
Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator and a public school advocate.