Sunday, February 22, 2015

In education battle, Dems need different approach

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 22 February 2015

 Indiana’s political juggernaut to lead the nation in charter schools is breathtaking. Who says government is broken? Some Republicans have worked for many years on this across two administrations and despite some serious setbacks such as Tony Bennett’s stunning defeat and the “cheating” scandal involving changed letter grades for some charters, they are revolutionizing K-12 education in Indiana.

Glenda Ritz, a political novice with a quintessential grassroots campaign, was elected overwhelmingly, garnering more votes than even Gov. Pence. I voted for Ritz and what I recall of her message was “slow down” and assess the changes already made. I’ve lived in Indiana for nearly 30 years and that message of “slow down the change” seems as much a winning political strategy as is appealing to “Hoosier values.”

For Democrats and “friends of education” it seems like it’s an outrage a day.  The most recent outrage regards a bill that just passed out of committee on a party-line vote regarding required accountability assessments that charter schools use. ISTEP, even a shortened one, is onerous and seemingly unforgiving. And so far, though time is still short for an appropriate assessment, charters aren’t demonstrating superior performance, perhaps not even as good, as the bureaucratic laden, unionized public schools.

So, this problem will be “fixed” by letting the charters off the hook by picking their own test. This is a bold if transparent fix to rig the competition by changing the rules. It’s a master stroke, too, because parents trying to decide between charters and their public counterparts or other charters will now be faced with comparing apples, to oranges, to bananas.

The Democrats and “friends of education” response to this puzzles me. They don’t seem to understand that for those conservatives (and their corporate backers) pushing these changes, the test they want to decide the “quality” of a school and its services is the market, the same “test” we use for restaurants, car dealers, hair stylists, home improvement companies, etc. The market’s elegance is unparallelled. Plus no one is compelled to shop at Wal-Mart or Dollar General or Target. If you can afford it, it’s yours and you can pay a dollar, four dollars, or 14 dollars for the (seemingly) same thing — it’s your choice. The metrics used to demonstrate the quality of the charter’s product is vulnerable to the market, too. Parents may prefer a certain test or at least common tests so they can compare apples to apples. Of course, professional marketing plays into consumer evaluation. I mean, it’s not like slick advertising has any impact on people’s choices or price.

Democrats and other “friends of education” protest by arguing about “fairness” and allude to the corporate interests that are pushing the privatization of Indiana public schools. While I sympathize with these protests, politically they are ineffective as are threats about 2016 or running Glenda Ritz for governor.

Perhaps a more effective political response would be a jujutsu move. Jujutsu is a Japanese martial art form that developed in response to the formidably armed and armored samurai for an unarmed and unarmored opponent. In short, the idea is to use the advantages of the more armored opponent against them, to use their energy against them. It seems to me that the supermajority juggernaut might be vulnerable to political jujutsu.

I think it’s a mistake to assume the supermajority is all like-minded. I’ve seen fissures and I think the idea of “slow down the change” might resonate with some and if the argument for charters is to unburden them from all the bureaucratic red tape, then why not focus on reducing the bureaucratic tape on public schools? Let public schools choose their assessment tests, too. An equally bold move to stripping Glenda Ritz of her chairship of the state board of education would be to offer up a market reform in public schools:  Public school choice not just limited to failing schools.

I think this might cause some pause among the supermajority. Plus, if it got any traction at all, it would expose those cynically trying to undermine public education in favor of corporate education, and make targeting specific officials more effective in the next election. Use the arguments for market solutions, choice, and accountability against those who push this for charters and challenge them to introduce it into public education
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