Sunday, June 24, 2012

UVA tumult highlights reform divide

The following editorial was published in the local paper The Winchester Star on Monday, June 24.  The downside to print: none of the hyperlinks can be included.


     While the paroxysms at UVA still have the public’s attention for the next five minutes, let’s use this as a window of opportunity to clarify the education debate argued over the past decade and already resulting in a fundamental shift in our here-to-fore national treasure: a free and public education for every child. 
      Rector Dragas has accused President Sullivan of not moving fast enough or enacting bold moves mirroring those of a top CEO like herself. Though the charges against Sullivan have been vague, the allusion to operating a public institution as a business hints at the larger argument.
      Whether the public is aware or not, a concerted effort is in process to impose Milton Friedman style, free-market forces on the education of the nation’s youth.  Though the general public seems to buy the argument that competition will foster excellence, competition in education will result in nothing less than the destruction of public schools and a further division in our populace we can ill afford.   Those with money and power will, of course, be able to afford and locate the best.  And those without?  Picture Dicken’s London.
      The push toward privatization has already affected instruction in the state of Virginia and diverted taxpayer monies from the classroom to private industry.  Pearson, the testing giant that continues to tally record profits even in an economic downturn, holds a $110 million contract with the state for administering the SOLs. These are tests teachers may neither see nor question on terms of validity but which determine many high stakes decisions. While public employees are held to “high standards,” online, private contractors are held to none. 
      The largest for-profit online provider in Virginia, K-12 Online, reported third quarter earnings of $178 million (all taxpayer dollars), all without any supporting research on the effectiveness of online instruction.  Meanwhile teachers have lost positions, had salaries frozen and seen increases in class sizes.  Governor McDonnell recently signed into law a new graduation requirement that all students must have one online course, yet another unfunded mandate thrust on localities—again without research. (It is notable that moving toward online instruction has been cited in Sullivan’s dismissal.)
       No sports enthusiast would agree to the unleveled playing field in this contest.
       Currently, the College Board – another testing entity—has used its resources to set up a visual: 857 empty desks on the National Mall representing the number of dropouts every hour.  Though this is unquestionably a national shame, the real irony is that the drop out rate has soared in the face of the current testing mania which has drained resources, narrowed curriculum, and turned classrooms into test-prep, data-collection boredom.  In contrast, high achieving nations test minimally and use results to drive improvements in instruction and teacher training.  We use tests to erode real teaching and vilify public employees—and then recommend more testing.
       What is at stake is this: a shift of public monies into the hands of private entrepreneurs who are currently rewriting rules in their favor.  Across the nation this has taken a variety of forms, (charters, vouchers) most untested but always at the expense of children.
       As the faculty of UVA seems to be currently arguing, education is not a business.  At its fundamental level, education is an act of sharing. The collective knowledge of one generation is passed on to the next.  When competition enters the arena, knowledge becomes the property of the elite, to be bought and sold at the discretion of a limited few.  Losing a free, public education cannot be tolerated.  Starving the public system while bludgeoning it with rules appears to be the plan.
     Thomas Jefferson, founder and spirit of UVA, said it best: "The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations."

     Our cherished--and most frequently exported--model of public-education-for-all is halfway there.