Education shell games

Education shell games

- in Weekly Briefing

The Senate’s illusory education “reform”

There was one small, if mostly symbolic, victory for truth and justice this week associated with the horrific budget making its way through the state Senate: Republicans finally abandoned their longstanding (and certifiably nutty) argument that better funding does not help when it comes to improving schools.

After years of insulting the intelligence of anyone within earshot by constantly repeating the ridiculous assertions of the market fundamentalist think tanks that class size is irrelevant and that we can coerce improvement in education by putting all of our energy into privatization and competition, Senate Republicans made some strong and positive statements about one key strategy for lifting up public education – namely, reducing class size.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (well his staff, anyway) even “tweeted” about it:

Our budget adds 1,150 teachers to classrooms in grades 1-3 this year, and more later. Smaller classes=better academic results. #ncga #ncpolless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

There’s funding in our budget for 1 to 17 teacher-student ratio in grades 1-3 in first year, will be 1 to 15 in coming years #ncga #reformless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Berger’s foray into newfangled social media was meant to tout the Senate’s hurriedly hatched plan to earmark around $62 million for – at least theoretically anyway – reducing class size slightly in grades one through three. After getting pilloried in the media and the polls for their initial promise to cut K-12 even more than the House (which irresponsibly slashed funding by $759 million), Senate Republicans apparently decided to cut their political losses by ratcheting back on the anti-education messaging. All told, the Senate would reduce K-12 funding by “only” $696 million.

And now the bad news….

Unfortunately, despite Berger’s welcome philosophical concession and slight funding retreat, the Senate plan is in many ways even more maddening than the House proposal.  For while the House plan is relatively unvarnished about what it really is, i.e. a direct, ideologically-driven crusade to remake education in order to match an image concocted by denizens of the Pope Empire and a handful of elected true believers, the Senate plan is less straightforward.

Here’s why: When it comes to substance, the Senate plan is not much different from the House’s version.  The “class size reductions” are so tiny that they will be largely illusory – especially after local districts juggle their allotments to compensate for the hundreds of millions in cuts elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Senate cuts more teacher assistants. Under the House plan, TA’s will be kept only for kindergarten and first grade. The Senate cuts first grade too. This means that, in the real world, the Senate is telling first grade teachers that they should give up having a second adult in the classroom – a vital person who helps every six and seven year-old to get to the bathroom, the cafeteria and the bus stop – so that they might have one less child in the classroom!  Which option would you choose if you were a first grade teacher?

Add to this the overarching fact that hundreds of millions in “discretionary” cuts will force all kinds of class size increases in lots of other grades (and the demise of the More-at-Four pre-K program) and it’s clear that Senate Republicans are either being intentionally deceptive or remarkably incompetent. Either they really don’t believe what they’re saying about reducing class size to improve education or they do believe it and are just too inept to see the real and negative impacts of their cuts.

Comprehensive reform?

The same kind of contradiction is evident in the Senate’s attempt to capture the “reform” mantle.

At a press conference on Tuesday of this week (you can watch the WRAL video by clicking here) , Senate leaders told reporters that they hoped Governor Perdue would like their changes to the House version of the budget, which they described as an effort to move toward “compromise.” When pushed by reporters, however, to explain what it was about their version that the Governor would like, they could come up with little other than one rather remarkable claim.

Here’s Appropriations Committee Co-Chair, Richard Stevens (see the answer at around the 21:35 mark of the video):

“We certainly hope that she will like the, uh, comprehensive reform of our education system, particularly the K-12 level, uh, reducing class size, uh, setting up for the first time throughout state government, a merit-based compensation system – and that’s fully-funded in the second year of the biennium.”

Really, Senator? “Comprehensive reform” of our K-12 education system? We’ve already seen the emptiness of the class size reduction plan. As for the “merit-based compensation system,” all the budget does is set up a year-long study commission to examine how to implement a plan. The “full funding” refers to a plan for 2013 to give raises (and perhaps fire teachers) based upon the test score performance s of their students. The raise part has already been tried before in North Carolina with mixed results in the old “ABC bonuses” before they fell victim to budget shortfalls. Firing teachers because of kids’ test performances is an idea that’s already met with big problems when experimented with in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

What’s really going on?

So what do we make of the Senate’s effort – do they deserve any credit at all for ratcheting back on the cuts ever so slightly and throwing out two hastily concocted ideas that no one believes will make any difference for the good anytime soon?

Yes and no.

Yes, they deserve credit for acknowledging – at least implicitly and maybe unwittingly – that North Carolina cannot cut its way to a better education system. In the wacky, Alice-in-Wonderland world that Jones Street has become in 2011, this is at least something to build on. When the Senate President Pro Tem goes on record with the statement “Smaller classes=better academic results” one must take him at his word that he believes it to be true. Good for him.

On the other hand, of course, the deeds come nowhere close to matching the rhetoric. The Republican proposal amounts to “comprehensive education reform” in the same way that their moves to decimate environmental protection efforts by defunding them and/or placing them under the control of the Republican Agriculture Department amounts to “reform.”

It’s a P.R. shell game designed to distract the media and the public from the disastrous, tax-policy-driven funding cuts that will return state investments in core services back to the Nixon era.

It’s enough to remind a person of the infamous quote from that same period in American history – the unfortunate statement of an unnamed Vietnam War general that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Still, maddening as it all is, there may be some cause for hope. The Senate’s actions on class size have been enough to tick off the folks at the Locke Foundation. These days, thoughtful and caring people must take what they can get.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.