Must We Accept Trumpism And A Second Rate Education For Poor Kids?

07/10/2017 09:50 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2017

She didn’t mean anything combative by it, but when 2016 Oregon Superintendent of the Year Heidi Sipe wrapped up a discussion, the “Role of After-School Programs” at the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, her words were jolting. Sipe correctly said that after-school programs are “a magical, magical time.” But then she said, “It is the one time of a kid’s day where he or she can be guaranteed to be in a safe environment, receive some sort of food to fuel the fire, and learn without barriers.”

Of course, Sipe is right and it should be “nonnegotiable” that educators and patrons must fight the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to after-school programs. But, how did we get to the point where we celebrate kids only being guaranteed to get to “dream new dreams” after the school day? Why can’t our goal include schools where kids can be creative and learn in meaningful ways before the end-of-the-day bell?

Again, I’m not criticizing Sipe, but the Schwarzenegger Institute panel included true believers in the competition-driven school reform movement which treats so many poor children of color as test scores. With the failure of data-driven, charter-driven corporate school reform, we can expect more true believers in school choice to downplay their anti-teacher, anti-union rhetoric and their efforts to micromanage instruction, as they say nice things about after-school and early education programs.

We’re not likely to hear apologies from reformers for years of dismissing such humane, team efforts as “excuses” by teachers and unions for our supposed failure to do “whatever it takes” to single-handedly overcome the legacies of poverty, trauma, and segregation.

Certainly, we won’t hear an explanation of why their bubble-in goals were primitive and “measurable,” not “magical” learning “without barriers” for all kids during the school day. No regrets will be expressed for imposing the stress of competition on young children in order to overcome the stress of poverty. Neither will they explain the charter school strategy of increasing segregation in order to defeat the legacies of segregation. No rationale will be offered for dumping a culture of test, sort, reward, and punish on children during their school days.

Corporate school reform has been a dramatic failure in terms of improving education, but for nearly a generation its political strategy was a remarkably successful three-pronged assault. Reformers buried their internal differences and pushed for test-driven accountability, competition, and the demonization of educators who disagreed with them.

Now reformers are splitting over testing and over the best ways to respond to the Trump presidency, as well as civil rights issues. Longtime reformer Matt Barnum explains that some old-fashioned conservative reformers, like Jeanne Allen and Max Eden, make the case that the charter school movement is “over-regulated, hyper-focused on tests, and dismissive of families.” They call themselves “parent-centered reformers.”

Barnum writes that they want a system “where educational entrepreneurs are freer to open new schools and parents decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.” These conservatives also seek common ground with Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Barnum explains that Allen and Eden identify their reform opponents as “‘system-centered reformers,’ who, in the authors’ telling, trust tests to measure school performance and trust themselves to oversee those schools.”

On the other hand, conservative reformer Chester Finn describes the criticism of high stakes testing as “idiocy.” Other conservatives, like Mike Petrilli who is Finn’s colleague at the conservative Fordham Institute, seem to worry more about the political dangers of reformers identifying themselves with DeVos and Trump.

It’s great that conservative reformers are forming a circular firing squad, but the lose-lose situation facing neoliberal corporate reformers is even more intriguing. They are torn between the need to defend the federal micromanaging of the last 16 years which incentivized test and punish, curriculum narrowing, and segregation by choice, as well as a desire to distance themselves from their own scorched earth attacks on teachers and unions that contributed to the Trump victory.

What is worse - collaboration with DeVos or the continued defense of cruel testing regimes? I’d welcome an apology from reformers who are finally embracing early education and after-school programs, but I won’t hold my breath.

In the near future, only one or two things seem certain about the school reform movement. First, it will focus on its one remaining political weapon and policy tool – expanding school choice. Secondly, they are likely to adopt a more likable public relations strategy, using kinder and gentler words while calling for “magic” and “dreams” for kids. A vision where all poor children of color “learn without barriers” during the school day remains unlikely.

But, what if we did both - defeat Trumpism and set a goal higher than giving poor children of color a second rate education that guarantees a focus on test scores? What if we pushed for great early education; public schools that restored hands-on and project based learning where kids could get real STEAM education, not just “worksheet science;” and community schools that teamed with Career Tech and higher education? Would such a vision be dismissed as magical thinking, or would it become the 21st century version of the “American Dream?”

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