Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Could Weaken the School Privatization Agenda

Yves here. Coronavirus is throwing a wrench into the public school politics, not necessarily to the advantage of charter school advocates.

By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute

“The COVID-19 crisis reveals the true intentions of people,” Kathleen Oropeza told me during a phone call. Oropeza is a public school mom in Orlando and founder of Fund Education Now, a non-partisan grassroots effort to advocate for public education in Florida.

Her remark was in the context of concerns about how state officials were governing schools as the coronavirus was spreading across the state and generating fears of how the disease would affect schools and families.

Days after the first victims tested positive in the state and the first deaths were reported, Florida lawmakers in the House seemed oblivious to the impending crisis and instead passed new legislation to expand the state’s voucher program, thus diverting an additional $200 million from the state’s public schools.

The bill passed despite evidence that many of the private schools that would receive the voucher money openly discriminate against LGBTQ children and families, are not required to hire certified teachers, and generally provide a subpar education.

When Florida schools extended their spring breaks to slow the mounting epidemic, Oropeza received a tip from an anonymous trusted source that state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had called local school superintendents to urge them to restart schools March 30, primarily so school leaders could prepare for state-required standardized tests scheduled to begin April 1. According to Oropeza’s source, Corcoran made it clear the state considers test scores necessary for policy-making even if the scores would be much lower due to school schedule disruptions.

Oropeza and her fellow activists also noticed a “blitz” of new marketing pitches from online education providers, most of whom operate for-profit. The fear she and others had is that tests would be used to assess learnings that in no way reflect what students were being exposed to in online courses, which she and her colleagues consider to be poor quality.

In Florida, “we’ve long seen testing used as a way to punish teachers and schools,” she said, “and now in a time of crisis, the top priority still seems to be on testing and accountability instead of the best interests of children.”

Oropeza and Fund Education Now organized a petition campaign to demand Commissioner Corcoran and Governor Ron DeSantis cancel standardized testing for the entire 2019-2020 academic year and waive the 180-school-days graduation requirement for students, especially for graduating seniors, so they would still be eligible to enroll in colleges and other degree programs requiring high school diplomas. (Governor DeSantis did decide later to cancel classes, push back school openings and waive the 180-day requirements for students.)

As Florida state officials enforced a “business as usual” approach, as the Tampa Bay Times reported, policy leaders in other states were listening to the concerns of parents and educators.

As Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reported, popular college admission exams such as the SAT and ACT were suddenly being canceled, and some states and school districts were considering cancelations of standardized testing or giving mixed messages about enforcing assessment policies.

The U.S. Department of Education also announced it would consider waiving the national requirement for states to conduct annual assessments.

A few days later, Strauss reported, state leaders in Texas and Washington canceled testing and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine indicated an inclination to eliminate exams. Those early cancelations seemed to have resulted in a domino effect as more states canceled or suspended tests or sought waivers from the federal government.

Some states are choosing to shutter school buildings for the rest of the academic year, while pledges some schools have made to take learning online seem unrealistic.

Among the states to outright cancel was Florida, where Governor DeSantis also pushed back school openings and waived the 180-day requirements for students.

Fund Education Now issued a thank-you to DeSantis for dropping the tests and seat-time requirement, but Oropeza still expressed concern to me that Florida lawmakers would “stick like glue to their school accountability agenda” even as the coronavirus epidemic and its impact on schools, families, and communities pushed that agenda to the margins of irrelevancy.

Not content with a rollback of testing in a few states, state officials and public school advocates, including the Network for Public Education, called on the federal government to drop legal requirements for states to conduct annual assessments.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told some states they could cancel tests only if their testing period overlapped days when schools were closed due to the pandemic, but many of these states are urging her to issue a nationwide waiver, and some states, including California and Colorado, are ignoring her guidance.

“It’s outrageous that the Trump administration is continuing with high-stakes standardized testing but can’t properly provide tests for coronavirus,” Seattle-based high school teacher Jesse Hagopian told me in an email. Hagopian is an organizer with Black Lives Matter at School, the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and a leading voice in the movement to end high-stakes standardized testing.

“His efforts gained national attention in 2013 when he and other teachers at [his high school] organized a successful boycott of … a set of standardized tests mandated by the Seattle Public Schools,” wrote Erin Middlewood for the Progressive magazine in 2015. “Under pressure, the district changed its policy and left it up to individual schools whether to administer the test.”

In his email to me, Hagopian wrote, “There are more important things right now—and really always—than ranking, sorting, and punishing students with high-stakes tests.”

The rash of canceled tests across the country caused some knowledgeable observers to speculate on Twitter that the testing industry would not be able to withstand the financial difficulties of a nationwide cancelation. But what is also in danger is the whole policy imperative of the market-based education agenda.

Much in the same way that widespread teacher walkouts and the Red for Ed movement over the past two years revealed the overwhelming need for government officials to increase funding and support for frontline teachers, the mounting fallout of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing politicians and policymakers to acknowledge the importance of schools as vital community institutions that need resources and support rather than fiscal austerity, privatization, and punitive accountability—the pillars of the market-based education movement.

Even amidst the avalanche of reported school closings, advocates of the market-based approach were lamenting the failure of their decades-long efforts.

“Neither standards and accountability nor charter schools have lived up to their promoters’ lofty aspirations. And there is much public unhappiness with school reform,” wrote Kevin Carey in an analysis for the Washington Post. Carey, a policy analyst for a Washington, D.C., think tank that favored the education reform agenda, worked for years in policy shops that pushed market-based agendas.

Carey noted a rising political opposition to market-based education advocates from the right and the left, including Tea Party Republicans who object to Common Core Standards and federal overreach in local decision-making and among progressive Democrats who are angered by the unfairness and inequities caused by market-based solutions.

But while he asserted that “School reform began with the civil rights movement,” he completely ignored the econometric principles that ended up driving privatization policies rather than the moral values of human rights and justice that powered the civil rights movement. Market-based education advocates have long obsessed over rigid standards, outcome measures, and competition from charter schools rather than providing schools and students with what they really needed, especially in communities that rely heavily on schools as anchor institutions.

For years, protests against the market-based school agenda have been scaling up from isolated actions to a nationwide movement widespread among teachers, students, and parents; grassroots-driven; and unified in opposition to an education agenda that values testing students and charter schools over attending to the needs for learners to have well-paid teachers, basic supplies, accessible curricula, and support from nurses, counselors, and librarians.

As Carey noted, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that revised federal education policy, it still required annual assessments but also gave states “wide latitude to develop accountability policies.”

However, few states have taken advantage of this latitude.

“Our state lawmakers could have lightened the burden of testing when ESSA was passed,” Oropeza said, “but they didn’t even consider it.”

Now that state and federal authorities are being forced to weigh the necessity of testing against other vastly more important concerns, perhaps more of them will choose to chuck the remaining vestiges of the privatizing and market-reform ideology altogether.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Maybe the States could call the federal government’s bluff. They could say “Yeah, we’ll give those standard tests. But first you have to test each and everyone of them for Coronavirus first before that happens with results delivered on that day before the exam. Gotta know who is infected first as they can’t be near any other kid.”

  2. Bill Smith

    I have heard from several people in my neighborhood (limited sample size) that the kids in private schools still doing schoolwork while stuck at home. I think the youngest kid in the neighborhood is in 4th grade.

    I bought that question on a telework conference call and it is the same with people who have kids in private school. The kids are getting schoolwork pushed to them and I thought this was kind of humorous – 1 on 1’s with their teachers via whatever remote learning system their school had.

    The kids in public grade school basically just got sent home and told to do some reading. The kids in public high school have some assignments.

    1. Kurtismayfield

      As a public high school teacher, this is what we are doing:

      #1. Communication with the students everyday (email, video, text)

      #2. Posting a lesson everyday (this could be an article and questions, video and writing prompt, virtual lab, etc.)

      #3. Be available for help during normal school hours.

      Plus the school is providing pick up lunches and Chromebooks for loan. As long as they can, because if we have a lockdown that is over.

      1. Ian Ollmann

        Our public schools are closed. Many tried to have online teaching, and were even looking into getting chrome books for everyone, when they all realized that they can’t meet federal requirements for special needs kids and gave up. The requirement for a teachers aid to come in every day in a quarantine situation doesn’t work. So no one gets school. Study at home curricula are haphazard. I’m sure most parents are having trouble making them stick, since there is not a good explanation about what we are learning and why. Kids want to play video games. Only one of us can get anything done. The kids incapacitate at least one adult at all times.

        My manager has kids in a private school. They are still doing daily lessons. I guess we will look into that in the fall if the public schools remain closed. I can only imagine this issue will be fixed over the summer. In the mean time, we are thinking that it would be good to teach our kids an eclectic area or two that we do know something about, like programming or surgical skills. Taxidermy!

  3. JBird4049

    “According to Oropeza’s source, Corcoran made it clear the state considers test scores necessary for policy-making even if the scores would be much lower due to school schedule disruptions.”

    I’ve commented before about how despite being very cynical, I keep finding that I am not cynical enough. In fact, my mind is just blown by this wonderful Bidenesque example of concern for the welfare of of the most vulnerable Americans, our children.

    I wonder not only about how narcissistic, or even psychopathic, our nomenklatura also seem increasingly foolish. Having something like this pandemic scythe through a targeted population because of you said might be more than inconvenient for your career.

  4. jackiebass

    The sad thing about Charters is it was a good idea that became misused for profit. The original Idea came from the leaders of the AFT Al Shanker. His proposal was that they would be few, small , and independent. Free of traditional regulations. They were to be created to be like a lab for new ideas. If something worked it could be adopted to be used in public schools. It morfed into something different. Today it has become a means for some to steal valuable funds from public schools. Business saw that schools were a place where there was a lot of money being spent. They become greedy and destroyed what charter schools were supposed to be and instead turned them into money making businesses. Profit was what drove them, not educating young people. They need to go and only be resurrected under the guideline they were originally intended to be.

  5. Trick Shroadé

    > a non-partisan grassroots effort to advocate for public education

    I’m not sure you can be non-partisan and advocate for public education. Let’s be honest, it’s really only one party that is working to defund public education.

    1. jackiebass

      If you are referring to republicans I’m sorry but you aren’t right. The Democratic Party is as guilty. Remember it was Ted Kennedy , a democrat, that stuck a deal with the Devil, George Bush, to pass No Child Left Behind. This is the start of the so called reform movement or more accurately the privatization of public education. I believe at the time Kennedy knew he was ill and wanted a legacy.

    2. richard

      that’s completely untrue
      Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton, Arne Duncan, Barrack Obama
      many, many others
      true support for public education, without genuflecting to “reform” which really turns out to be privatization, is the exception for dem politicians, not the rule

      1. Procopius

        I think you left out a verb. The individuals you name are all strong supporters of “choice,” or privatization of public schools. Did you mean to say they “oppose” true support for public education?

  6. eg

    Here in Ontario, all standardized testing (EQAO — Education Quality and Accountability Office) is cancelled for the 2019-2020 school year. The graduation requirement that the OSSLT (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test) be passed is also waived for this year.

    Schools are officially closed through April 5th, but I would be surprised if that closure does not end up being extended.

  7. Arizona Slim

    Standardized tests? Color me skeptical. Here’s why:

    It’s the early 1960s. Little Slim is taking a reading readiness test at the private kindergarten my parents sent me to.

    Why a private kindergarten? Because the local public school district didn’t offer kindergarten classes.

    Okay, back to the test. To my five-year-old mind, something seemed off. The questions just didn’t make sense. So, being the explanation-seeking kid that I was, I kept asking the teacher questions about the questions.

    She got angry and flunked me.

    Well, Mrs. Hannah, you picked on the wrong kid. Because my mother went ballistic.

    She marched into that kindergarten, demanded to see that test, and, to Mom’s great and everlasting credit, she read each question very carefully. Mom thought that many of the questions were poorly stated, and she concluded that it was a flawed test.

    Mom took me over to the public K-12 school — it was just one school in a BIG building — and she enrolled me in first grade.

    Now, if you remember your first grade experience, you’ll recall that learning to read was a major part of the year. Plenty of time and attention devoted to it.

    And guess who was the first kid to learn how to read in Mrs. Guthrie’s class. Me, that’s who.

    I’m still an avid reader.

  8. Jeff Bryant

    Update from the Author: This afternoon, Betsy DeVos announced the US Department of Education would allow states to bypass annual standardized testing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Oh, the humanity!

      Actually, Slim’s real response cannot be printed on this family blog.

  9. Anon- I cant say already have too many enemies in my area trying to shut me up

    There are so many great resources that can explain what the charter system was always about – the privatization of public education. Follow the money. Diane Ravitch’s blog is my personal favorite on this subject. For years she has shown the research – charters have never done a better job than public education already does (flawed or not). Rarely on occasion there is a decent charter but never overall have they ever offered a superior education to a public school education and this is shown even in urban areas with high poverty.

    Charters take the public dollars where their owners (for profit or not-for-profit doesn’t matter) pocket the money and do not pay the salary or provide the union benefits.

    But it gets worst there are all sorts of smoke and mirror things that happen with charter education. In the most corrupt areas (like the one I live in) charter owners look at what public school properties are most valuable (just like how McDonald’s is all about location) and they find ways to get the public school students out to then legally buy those properties from public school districts.

    Don’t think it doesn’t take some help from a corrupt school board to do this and that’s how you know it’s the big money players that are in this game. There are state laws which prohibit districts from selling properties outright but these greedy jerks have found their way around these laws. I could elaborate if anyone wants- and my area is so bad I have more than one scenario of this happening.

    Here’s the thing, big government knows it’s happening but this is the big money that put them into office in the first place so they turn a blind eye. I’ve tried more than once to stop this and haven’t gotten anywhere. No one likes a whistleblower with predators of any kind apparently.

    Sorry about the rant, I hope we can all come out on the other side of this coronavirus crisis with a better and more just and equitable society but for the moment this is one subject which I current believe shows proof the the Tytler Cycle of Democracy very well.

  10. Edr

    I’m a teacher at a public elementary school.

    The school system loaned out 50k laptops & distributed 200k breakfast & lunch meals last week.

    The teachers provided DAILY online learning activities, lessons, videos, and support, along with a variety of online resources, like access to various online libraries

    It’s a learning curve, for everybody.

  11. Kiers

    This is OFF-topic, but I don’t know where to put it, and i’d like to know: Since Coronavirus testing is inherently a genetic test (of the virome), are governments storing our DNA profiles ALSO, with each coronavirus test swab? Any information on this? Is Coronavirus testing covered by HIPAA or are they chaperoning new legislation to enable DNA profiles for this particular issue?

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