By Kevin K. Kumashiro, author of Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture and The Seduction of Common Sense

In 2010, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing that happened to the education system” of New Orleans. The flooding and destruction that forced the closure of schools provided an opportunity for a state takeover, ostensibly to improve a district that, according to Duncan, was a “disaster.” The blueprint for this takeover was part of a larger set of proposals by the Republican Study Committee, chaired by now-Vice President Mike Pence, for leveraging the natural disaster to advance “pro-free-market” reforms.

The education components centered on privatizing education and diverting public funds by expanding choice. Federal vouchers came right away through the 2005 Katrina Emergency Relief Act, followed by state vouchers in 2012, the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which today, sends an overwhelming majority of students to the lowest performing private schools. Nationwide, vouchers do not necessarily help low-income students and students of color to attend higher performing schools, and in some states, they are in the minority of those using vouchers.

As New Orleans schools were reopened, almost all were transformed into charters. The district became even more racially segregated than before Katrina. The charters serving poorer black students commonly fired veteran black teachers and hired Teach for America teachers, who constituted the majority of the instructional staff in some schools. Nationwide, charter schools show significantly higher rates of teacher turnover; they serve fewer students with disabilities and English-language learners; states (like Texas) pay more per pupil at charters than traditional public schools; and the federal government has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on grants to charters that are either defunct or were never opened.

Pro-free-market reforms continue to define the agenda of the billionaires, mega-philanthropies, and corporations that exert unrivalled influence over education, particularly for poorer communities of color. Whether the funders lean conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, their priorities converge into the “portfolio model” of reform, now spreading to urban districts across the U.S. This model decentralizes decision making, expands school choice, holds schools accountable through performance measures like student testing, and sanctions failing schools with restructuring or closure, incentivizing their replacements in the form of charter schools.

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, proponents of market-based reforms have wasted little time capitalizing on the same two conditions that propelled privatization post-Katrina, except at a scale and level without precedent: school closures and federal funding.

Some states (including Ohio and Tennessee) are pushing to expand or accelerate voucher programs, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed a new way to advance vouchers, namely, as “microgrants.” Federal stimulus funding provides hundreds of billions of dollars for small businesses, which some are arguing should be made available to charters.

Stimulus funding also includes over $13.5 billion for education, but provides to states and districts much leeway in how they spend that. As schools struggle with the sudden need to provide distance or remote instruction, much of those funds are likely to be spent on educational technology, which includes not only computers and internet access, but also online schools, resources, and related services.

Technology can enhance education, but the misuse of or overreliance on technology can exacerbate existing resource inequities between schools and even between homes, particularly for students in poverty, homeless students, and students with disabilities. Other concerns include data privacy, online bullying, sexual exploitation, and the negative impact of extensive screen time on literacy development, mental health, and physical health.

Across the country, some of the closed schools are not providing any instruction. In Los Angeles alone, tens of thousands of students are either not regularly checking in online, or not checking in at all. School achievement (test scores, grades) and attainment (graduation, post-secondary education) go down when students miss a significant amount of school, and if technology-related inequities and concerns are not addressed, the gaps will only widen.

Particularly hard hit are students with disabilities, as the federal government uses the COVID pandemic to propose flexibility when it comes to re-allocating unprecedented levels of funding to technology (which are not always usable by students with disabilities), but also flexibility (waivers) when it comes to complying with mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In the recently released statement, “This Must End Now,” over 500 educators and scholars of color from across the U.S. called for a retreat from the market-based “reforms” like the portfolio model and expansion of choice being foisted by billionaires upon poorer communities of color. Such initiatives “have not systematically improved student success, are faulty by design, and have already proven to widen racial and economic disparities.” There are better alternatives. Three ways to shift priorities are offered:

  • Our school systems need more public investment, not philanthropic experimentation; more democratic governance, not disenfranchisement; more guidance from the profession, the community, and researchers, not from those looking to privatize and profiteer; and more attention to legacies of systemic injustice, racism, and poverty, not neoliberal, market-based initiatives that function merely to incentivize, blame, and punish.
  • Our teachers and leaders need more, better, and ongoing preparation and support, more professional experience and community connections, and more involvement in shared governance and collective bargaining for the common good, not less.
  • Our vision should be that every student receives the very best that our country has to offer as a fundamental right and a public good; not be forced to compete in a marketplace where some have and some have not, and where some win and many others lose.

As the U.S. struggles to address our current pandemic, we must not be seduced by the pro-free-market ideologies that got us to this point in the first place.

Kevin Kumashiro is co-founder of the national network, Education Deans for Justice and Equity, and is the lead author of “This Must End Now.”

Featured image by Dobrislava on Wikimedia Commons