Friday, January 20, 2012

Governor Bentley and the sad state of Alabama education policy

Perhaps fourteen hour days are too taxing for Alabama Governor Robert Bentley yet his Thursday evening talk with the Greater Gardendale Chamber of Commerce has me motivated enough to actually take the time to write a proper post. Via "Bentley speaks about jobs,health, other topics to Gardendale chamber" from Lisa Osburn, we find:
As for education, Bentley said he was tired of the bureaucracy that has held the state back for too many years. He plans to propose a limited number of charter schools, perhaps even a single-sex charter school, to see if they work for Alabama. He said he also wants performance to be part of teacher evaluations.
Bureaucracy holds us back? A single-sex charter school? And what do teacher evaluations consist of, if not performance? Huh?

I guess it's conservative gospel that bashing bureaucrats is proper for a Governor's evening on the town.  I expect folks attending the Greater (Is there a Lesser?) Gardendale Chamber of Commerce banquet ate this up along with their rubber chicken.  That G-dale is the home of Alabama State Senator Scott Beason, actively seeking even higher office despite his fumbles and bumbles, might be worth recalling.  Seriously, doesn't this local chamber of commerce have members who are bureaucrats?

I'm especially troubled by Governor Bentley talking up a single sex approach to education.  Sharing "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling" and the work of "The American Council for CoEducational Schooling" out of Arizona State University is obligatory.  Seriously, what's Governor Bentley getting for our $70K he's paying to his new Education Director?  Doesn't Emily Schultz need to make sure her boss understands some actual policy? To be fair, it's likely she wasn't asked. After all, her job is to explicitly promote a certain "reform" isn't it?

Still, I'm most confused how our dermatologist in chief can be this loosey goosey with another profession.  Then again, politicians, the business community, and other arguably well-meaning citizens frequently do frequently impose their ideas into our schools.  And, since it's a taxpayer-funded and critical effort, that's appropriate up to a point.  Educators actually want citizens to understand the hard work they do and the circumstances under which they labor.  Many have long felt I'm sure that if the biz whiz politicians would walk a mile or two in our shoes then most of their "solutions" would improve.

However, let's not ignore the reality that many in the "education reform" community are acting out of unadulterated self interest. Ayn Rand would be proud. The chance for various management firms, real estate developers, and such to make a fortune is undeniable. "The Big Enchilda" is how Jonathan Kozol described the way the big money desperately wants into the education business.  Furthermore, I am somewhat uncomfortable with billionaires dictating and promoting public policy.  The thing is that our schools are often starved for resources and the problems of endemic poverty are such that every dollar helps.  I just don't know that funding a narrow agenda is always done simply for philanthropic reasons.

Movement conservatives are surely eager to wound any public sector effort and especially one where unions hold some influence.  We know the new Sheriff of Goat Hill and most of his team is chapped with AEA, with many who favored the Gubernatorial candidate who wasn't Robert Bentley being especially steamed.  Recently, we even have the Alabama Policy Institute taking the memory of Dr. King and turning it into a call to loosen the market magic upon Alabama schools.  This is the group who was nailed for manipulating statistics so I suppose they have not shame in twisting MLK's legacy into their bent agenda.

This policy shop will, just like Governor Bentley and many others in the conservative camp, tell us how we ought to reward "high performing" teachers but yet they'll avoid the inconvenient fact that no purely objective measure exists upon which this policy prescription is based.  More than likely there will never be such an instrument and, even then, how do we measure in neat, business type terms how a teacher inspires a student, teaches them to critically approach information, and otherwise become stellar citizens.  It's more of the top-down accountability movement that was flawed from the get go but now is even lamented by once strong supporters like Dr. Diane Ravitch.  We've a system where a #2 pencil on tests and material that make a few companies a mint drives a curriculum that's often an inch deep but a mile wide. We're data obsessed not data driven. And it's as wrong a nine-eyed rat.

Of course, the Alabama Policy Institute is just one of the many state level "think tanks" in the State Policy Network's realm.  I recently stumbled across the documentary "Flunked" providing a nice list of these Friedmanite, neo-liberal, market fundamentalists groups interested in education "reform."  I'll confess to never hearing of "Flunked" yet the length Washington State's Evergreen Freedom Foundation (yup, a State Policy Network baby) went to hide its role in the production is interesting.  For what it's worth, the more well known and very successful "Waiting for Superman" also didn't exactly publicize the Gates, Broad, hedge funds, and ... money upon which it was funded.  Truly, if we want to be ready to work against all this radicalism in education and other critical public policy areas impacting the commons, it's smart to be aware of how well funded and coordinated are many of these groups.

As the Goat Hill gang prepares for the new session, we still don't see the new charter school legislation do we?  I've surely looked on Alison to no avail.  Perhaps they'll recycle last year's version?  You'd think they'd make sure citizens had a chance to look at such a critical "reform" to education.  After all, there's a charter school piece almost every day or so in Alabama media.  Yesterday, I learned that Senator Dick Brewbacker (R-Elmore) is going to lead the charge.  That he's a third generation car dealer who went to and briefly taught in private schools seems about par for the course.  His work with the noted education reformer Fob James is also perfect preparation.

For what it's worth, and it's a bit of a rabbit hunt away from the topic, Governor Bentley lamented the woes to our General Fund now that "federal stimulus money is gone."  Mercy heavens, we surely do love Uncle Sam's cash even while any politician we elect in Alabama pretty much must master the art of fussing about the "fedril gubmint."  Governor Bentley is still asking us to borrow $2 billion to build and repair infrastructure.  Borrowing?  Billions?  Infrastructure?  If he's not careful, the Madison County Republican Committee is going to kick him off the ballot.  And he's pressing for a comprehensive effort aimed at obesity like he's some sort of Michelle Obama.

Lastly, and back on track, the research on charter schools seems to be rather clear.  And I still don't know much that charter schools can do than traditional schools can beyond hire uncertified staff with limited protections as profiteers take a cut from taxpayer money.  Seriously, why not just make it easier for school boards to roll out magnet schools and such?  That innovation occurs in classrooms across our nations and we're doing pretty good all things (like poverty, family chaos, or even over-stimulated and under-motivated students for instance) considered is something these ideologues conveniently ignore.

I'm beat as I truly had to avoid outright ranting from a pedantic posture as education "reform" gets my Scots up. I kept having to cull material as the "reform" movement is prolific in the propaganda they push.  How mooncat and some of the others at Left in Alabama pound out regular content impresses me even more.  I can't fathom how I once blogged regularly. I do welcome comments, both positive and otherwise but I'm going to head over to Twitter where short and sweet suffices.  Respectfully, john gunn

Update ~ 1348 on 20 Jan 12 ~ This post was put up on  Left in Alabama  first and there's even a silly poll in the tradition of narrow answers recently illustrated by State Senator Cam Ward should you got that route.  Darned if this old computer of mine isn't on its last leg plus I can't seem to get the hang of .html editing after all this time.  The best thing about old Blogger is that it's free but it's also surely user friendly for just one lone voice.

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