On August 2, the California Board of Education approved Common Core Standards (CCS), aligning our standards with 33 other states. The vote barely beat a deadline to adopt CCS or lose federal “Race to the Top” (RTTT) funds worth $700 million. On the surface it seemed like a smart move: reform education and win much needed funds. In reality, the plan weakened education in California, as we already had some of the toughest standards in the nation. Furthermore, implementation of CCS is expected to cost taxpayers $1.6 billion for new textbooks, according to EdSource, an independent, non-partisan education research group.
So why would the Board of Education commit tax payers to $1.6 billion in order to dumb down our schools? The math makes no sense for kids or taxpayers, but it does make sense for the big education publishing houses that have been lobbying hard for the adoption of CCS across the country. While CCS currently only covers math and reading, these two subjects account for over 70% of the textbook market. According to The Education Business Blog, the Common Core will drive text book sales in coming years. “Common Core Standards (CCS) will have a profound impact on the instructional materials market. The big players like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are on-board as endorsing partners. . .” Pearson had a 46% jump in profits in 2009 ($648 million) due in part to the adoption of CCS by other states.
CCS is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of corporate educational plunder. In nearly ten years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has funneled approximately $250 billion to textbook and test publishers, says Jerry Herman, director of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. Inc., a St. Louis-based investment firm. In addition to publishers, many other private, for-profit businesses have used NCLB to take tax dollars earmarked for public education. For example, every school that fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for three years in a row must offer Supplemental Educational Services (SES), such as tutoring and after school support programs. Most schools lack the funding to provide these services directly and subcontract out to private SES providers, a taxpayer giveaway worth $2 billion a year to tutoring companies, according to Corey Murray, of eSchool News. In the mad scramble to take advantage of this federal handout, education researcher Gerald Bracey reported that Newton Learning, a Supplemental Services provider, recruited students by offering free VISA gift cards. Platform Learning, which handed out free Walkmans, saw their enrollment jump from 12,000, in 2003-2004, to 50,000, in 2004-2005.
After four years of failure under No Child Left Behind, schools must restructure by replacing teachers, implementing new curricula, appointing outside experts, or converting to a charter school. Many charter schools (including nonprofit charter schools) subcontract to for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs). In 2001-2002, when NCLB began, there were only 36 EMOs operating in the U.S., managing 368 schools. By 2008-2009, there were 95 EMOs, managing 733 schools. EMOs operate using public school funding, but they spend considerably less on instruction and student services than traditional public schools and keep the difference as profit. Imagine Schools, Inc. the nation’s largest for-profit EMO, spends only 40-45% of its revenues on classroom instruction, including teacher salaries, according to Policy Matters Ohio. They also earn money by flipping real estate and charging high rents to their schools. In general, charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools and tend to be far more segregated. They also tend operate with less local oversight than traditional public schools hire non-unionized teachers.
Advocates of NCLB believe that its strict regimen of testing and sanctions increases accountability and forces schools to improve, and see no harm if some businesses make a profit in the process. Some supporters argue that it is precisely the competition for profits by the education industry that creates the better quality education. The problem is that NCLB has not improved education. Instead, it has set schools up for failure. Failure is built into NCLB’s design. Under NCLB rules, all subgroups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, special education status, English Language status) must meet their group’s Adequate Yearly Progress goals. If one subgroup fails, the entire school is deemed a failure and faces sanctions, even if other subgroups improve. AYP is also a moving target. If scores go up at one school, but improve even more at another, the first school may be still be punished. As a result, NCLB has created a growing market of failing schools and districts, a virtual gravy train for textbook publishers, private tutoring services, and EMOs. According to the Public Policy Forum, nearly every school in California will be failing by 2014. Even Minnesota, one of the country’s top scoring states, is expecting 80% of its schools to fail by 2014.
Rather than abolishing or reforming NCLB, the Obama administration has embraced it and hastened the transfer of wealth from tax payers to business through Race to the Top, which requires states to adopt Common Core Standards, ease restrictions on charter schools and adopt merit pay for teachers in order to be eligible for limited federal grants. With most states struggling under staggering deficits, this is like tossing crumbs into a crowd of starving people. Governors and many teachers unions are tripping over each other to meet the demands of RTTT in hopes of winning one of the limited competitive grants, despite the devastating costs to kids, taxpayers and teachers. Indeed, all states that have won RTTT grants have had some support and collaboration by their unions. While the California Teachers Association has consistently opposed merit pay and RTTT, they did jump onboard the Common Core bandwagon.
Arne Duncan, Obama’s Education Secretary and architect of Race to the Top, has called himself a “portfolio manager” of schools. When he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools he claimed, "We're trying to blur the lines between the public and the private." Not surprisingly, the district failed to meet its AYP from 2004 to 2008, though he did manage to convert many underperforming schools into profitable charter schools through an initiative called Renaissance 2010, which was supported by the Commercial Club of Chicago, representing many of the city’s biggest businesses. Most of the new charter schools eliminated the teachers union. (Duncan has accused unions of hindering business-led reform.) Many were run as military academies and most of these were located in low income neighborhoods. Expulsion rates also skyrocketed with Duncan at the helm.
The California legislature has cut $17 billion from education over the past two years, while the state has failed to win any RTTT grants. Parents and community groups that want to help their struggling schools by having bake sales may be out of luck, as many school districts have signed contracts with food management companies giving them monopoly control over food concessions and banning any type of competitive food sales, including bake sales and all food-based fundraising by students. Twenty-five percent of all public schools nation-wide have out-sourced their cafeteria concessions to food management giants like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass. Sodexo, alone, earns profits of over one billion dollars per year, though some of this comes from their hospital, hotel and military catering services. Some districts even guarantee profits to these companies, promising to pay the difference if food sales do not meet expectations. There are about 29 million children nation-wide who participate in the National School Lunch Program, at a total cost to tax-payers of $6 billion per year. An audit by the USDA in 2007 found that the National School Lunch Program was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars more than it should because these companies kept “kickbacks” from the vendors, many of whom are commodity food giants themselves (e.g., Tyson, Kelloggs, Coke).
The federal government gives $6 billion a year to schools for the free lunch program and they provide 1 billion pounds of surplus food to schools through the federal commodity food program. This includes flour, raw meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and dairy products. Because school budgets are so low, many districts can no longer afford to hire cooks to prepare this food. The feds have provided schools with a way out of this bind known as Commodity Processing, which allows schools to divert their government cheese to processed food manufacturers who produce pizzas, hamburgers, chicken nuggets and fish sticks to resell back to the schools. According to the USDA, thirty percent of federal commodity food is diverted in this way.
Those who were counting on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to replace corporate junk food in schools with locally produced, sustainable, healthy foods will be disappointed to learn that she has partnered with many of the nation’s largest producers of processed foods. Let’s Move! recently got a letter of support from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents more than 300 commodity processed food manufacturers. The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (members include Kellogg, Pepsico, Mars, Nestle, Hershey, Sara Lee, Unilever and Coca-cola) has also signed on as a supporter. The First Lady has argued that it would be impossible to feed America’s children without the help of processed food giants. Her views may have been influenced by her term on the board of directors of Tree House Foods, which produces jams, jellies, pickles, salad dressings, pie fillings and other processed foods for the food service industry. In exchange for her two years of service, the First Lady earned over $140,000 in stock options and close to $100,000 in salary.
Most of the important developments in education policy over the past twelve years have had the effect of transferring tax dollars away from public schools and into the pockets of private, for-profit corporations, yet there is no evidence that schools have improved in the process. A class-based achievement gap persists. Growing numbers of schools are failing under No Child Left Behind. The quality and safety of school lunches has deteriorated. Indeed, two years ago a supplier for the federal lunch program was discovered selling meat from “downer” cows. Teachers are losing benefits and pay as more and more get pushed into nonunionized charter schools. Nurses, librarians and other essential support personnel are being eliminated to help make up for budget shortfalls, while increasing portions of our dwindling education budget get skimmed off the top to cover the profits of the private education industry.