Examining the Republican candidates on education

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Republican presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Gov. John Kasich.

There has been no substantive conversation about K-12 education in the Republican debates, town hall meetings, or candidate rallies. Attention has been on other issues, but education is crucial both for the individual future  of each of our children and for the future of our nation. We voters deserve to know what the candidates would do as President about K-12 education.

What follows are key topics about K-12 education and what the candidates have said about them so far.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND

No Child Left Behind was federal legislation that controlled K-12 education in the United Sates from 2001 to its replacement by the Every Child Succeeds Act in December 2015. With it, students’ scores on standardized tests were the only means of measuring student achievement and the worth of a school. It punished schools, based on test scores. All schools in the United States were required to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014 or receive sanctions from the federal government, which meant the withholding of federal funds. Given the wide range of student abilities, including students with special education needs and students whose primary language is not English, 100 percent proficiency was out of range for almost all schools.

None of the Republican candidates were in Congress when the Congress passed NCLB in 2001. All three Republican candidates oppose federal government mandates about education and favor local control. They have reservations about the replacement for NCLB called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law in December 2015.

Ted Cruz voted against the initial draft of ESSA in July. He was not present for the final vote, but opposed a cloture motion to advance the bill on the day before the vote. In a press conference, he commented, “The ESSA, unfortunately, continues to propagate the large and ever-growing role of the federal government in our education system.”

Cruz also said, “If I’m elected president, I will direct the U.S. Department of Education — which should be abolished — I will direct the Department of Education that Common Core ends today. Instead, I will restore power back to the states and to the local governments and ultimately back to the parents — those closest to our kids who have direct responsibility for raising our children, each and every one of us moms and dads.”

Donald Trump has said, “I’m a tremendous believer in education, but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education.” At another point, he said, “I may cut the Department of Education.”

John Kasich is criticized by other Republicans because he does not reject the federally supported Common Core Standards. He doesn’t reject the role of the federal government in education as much as Trump and Cruz do. As a member of Congress, he sponsored a bill to reinstate prayer in public schools and voted YES to giving federal aid only to schools which allowed voluntary prayer.

Questions to ask the candidates are:

  • How do you think the states or local school boards should go about creating their own standards, as ESSA permits, rather than use the Common Core Standards?
  • What are the specific changes you will make to the U.S. Department of Education?

PUBLICLY FUNDED AND PRIVATELY MANAGED CHARTER SCHOOLS

Publicly funded and privately managed charter schools are funded with taxpayer money but are privately managed without transparency or accountability for how the tax dollars are spent and without the same oversight as traditional public schools. All three of the Republican candidates are avid advocates of publicly funded and privately managed charter schools.

Trump claims that K-12 education would benefit from competition and enthusiastically embraces the competition with public schools that he thinks charter schools offer.

Cruz has said at a CNN-hosted debate at the University of Miami, “The most important reform we can do in education, after getting the federal government out of it, is to expand school choice.” He called for the expansion of charter schools, home schooling, vouchers, and scholarships. He often says school choice is the “civil rights issue of the 21st century”.

Kasich seems to have a mess on his hands in Ohio with charter schools and is now trying to strengthen oversight of charter schools in the state. He has a scandal-ridden charter school sector.

According to The Washington Post, Ohio state auditors discovered that, since 2001, $27.3 million has been improperly spent by Ohio charter schools. Also in February 2016, it was discovered that charter schools had falsified their records regarding student achievement. Ten times more Ohio charter schools were failing than had been previously reported.

In addition to those scandals, Kasich made budget cuts in traditional public schools while at the same time increasing taxpayer funding of charter schools and vouchers. Since Kasich took office in 2011, traditional public schools, which educate 90 percent of Ohio’s students, are receiving $515 million less in state funding while charter schools have an increase of 27 percent in taxpayer funding. Charters also receive more state money per pupil than traditional public schools.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  • With shrinking state budgets, do you favor taking taxpayer money from the traditional public schools, which educate most of the students, in order to support charter schools, which educate a select population?
  • What regulations would you put in place for charter schools in order to enforce transparency in terms of the use of taxpayer money and to insure the delivery of student services, such as special education?

COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS

The Common Core State Standards were written in secret by employees of testing companies, not by educators. They are not research-based, not internationally benchmarked, and not outcome-validated.

States were coerced into adopting them in exchange for being released from sanctions imposed on them for not meeting the NCLB mandate of 100 percent proficiency. The National Governors Association approved the standards, which were not yet written, in order to not lose federal money. Educators criticize the content and pedagogy. Five hundred prominent early childhood professionals, psychologists, and researchers issued a public statement that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children, and the National Council of Teachers of English did not endorse them. The more teachers work with the Common Core Standards, the more they oppose them. 

Kasich doesn’t seem to understand that the Common Core Standards are said to be a product of the states but really are not. On Fox News, he said, “The Common Core was written by state education superintendents and local principals.”

In reality, Bill Gates, a private citizen, funded the writing of the Common Core Standards and then the federal government appropriated them as part of the conditions given to the states to avoid reduction in state aid from the federal government. Gates’ money allowed the federal government to skirt the law which prohibits the federal government from funding and establishing a national curriculum or national standards but, at the same time, use those standards to give or withhold federal money from the states.

Cruz has said that on his first day in office, he will “repeal every single word of the Common Core in order to get the federal government out of the business of dictating educational standards.” At the Heritage Foundation Conservative Policy Summit in January 2015, he said that education is too important to be governed by unelected bureaucrats in Washington.

Trump repeatedly calls The Common Core a “disaster” but has not explained specifically how the content and the accompanying pedagogy of the Common Core are a disaster. He also has said that education should be “local and locally managed.”

The Republican candidates have not addressed in any way why the standards that they oppose (Cruz and Trump) or support (Kasich) are bad or good education. They have not discussed if the learning students receive with those standards is meritorious and developmentally appropriate or if it is not.

Some questions to ask the candidates are:

  • Do you think it is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten to be “the new first grade” in order for children to meet Common Core Standards?
  • Do you think it is good that we are the only nation that limits the amount of literature read and asks students to read excerpts of great literature instead of whole books?
  • Do you think it is good for students to read without connecting the ideas they are reading to their own life experiences or to the historical and cultural background of the text?

HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTS

Paul Thomas, a professor of education at Furman University recently wrote:  “In addressing education issues candidates are likely to remain trapped inside the failed accountability mindset for reforming schools — one that privileges ‘standards’ and ‘tests’ as the central means of closing the infamous achievement gap. But there are better ways to approach what plagues us.

Instead of focusing merely on ‘accountability,’ presidential candidates should be challenged first to confront and then address the tremendous social and educational inequities that plague our public schools.”

Cruz voted in favor of a Senate bill (S.AMDT 2162), which addressed the right of parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.

Although Kasich has been a strong supporter of Common Core, he withdrew Ohio from PARCC, the Common Core-aligned testing consortium, due to pressure from teachers and administrators who complained that the tests took up to much class time and the online exams had too many computer glitches. The state, instead, awarded a contract to the American Institutes of Research, which currently administers the state’s social studies and science exams.

Neither Trump, Cruz, nor Kasich addresses the question of whether standardized tests assess skills that students need for their future, whether the tests should be used to make judgments about students, teachers, and schools, or whether standardized tests are helpful in closing the achievement gap.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. Scores on all standardized tests correlate with family income, so how will standardized tests help students in impoverished areas?
  1. Do you think there are problems with teaching to standardized tests?
  1. How will standardized tests assess the skills needed in the 21st century, such as asking probing questions, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective written and oral communication?

RACIAL INEQUITIES

The Civil Rights Project reported in 2010: “While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. At the national level, seventy percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated back students in traditional public schools. Some charter schools enrolled populations where 99% of the students were from under-represented minority backgrounds. With the increase in charter schools since 2010, the percentage of students in segregated schools also increased.”

There is a large body of relevant research showing that charter schools, on average, don’t have an academic advantage over traditional public schools, but they do have a significant risk of leading to increased segregation. Sixty-two years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, here we are in 2016 with segregated schools in our large cities.

The Republican candidates for president, all of whom are strong advocates for charter schools, have not publicly addressed the racial and economic segregation of charter schools.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  • What steps would you take to increase diversity in public schools?
  • How will you address the pervasive racial and economic segregation in charter schools?

PRIVATE MONEY IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Private money is currently affecting public education in three ways. 1) Private citizens are funding policy and practice for all U.S. schools. Bill and Melinda Gates paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the Common Core Standards, including money to the media to promote the standards as rigorous and cutting edge and money to professional organizations to implement the standards. 2) Rupert Murdoch has pointed out: “Public education is a $500 billion dollar sector” so there are countless efforts to privatize public education in order to make financial profit for venture capitalists and marketers. 3) Wealthy philanthropists, such as the Walton family (Walmart) and Eli Broad, are using their money to establish charter schools that drain money from traditional public schools.

Cruz, Kasich, and Trump all favor the privatization of public education. They regard competition as healthy and public education as wasteful and inadequate.

In his book, The America We Deserve, Trump advocated for school choice, charter schools, and vouchers. He argues that together they create a competitive system that improves education and offers an alternative to a public education model which” would set off every antitrust alarm bell at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission if it were a traditional business.”

Kasich has greatly expanded Ohio’s investment in privately run education, despite Ohio’s existing problems with it. On Aug. 8, 2015, Innovation Ohio, an Ohio think tank, reported that “Ohio’s charter sector is a national joke, while spending on school vouchers has more than doubled. The ‘Youngstown Takeover’ is Kasich’s latest effort to ‘reform’ an urban school district, which typically means more school privatization.”

The future of education as either a public institution established for the common good or a private enterprise established with competition and profit at its roots is the underlying question to all of the current educational issues.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  • What steps will you take to further privatize public education?
  • What steps will you take to strengthen traditional public schools?

K-12 education is too important for silence on the campaign trail. Candidates must address vital topics about K-12 education in a public forum and answer pivotal questions. Voters are asking. And the children are waiting.

Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught middle and high school English, was a district-level administrator for English, taught university courses in English education, and was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school curricula she designed and implemented.

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