by Félix Pérez
Lost amid the torrent of news stories about whether Melania Trump did or did not plagiarize, protests and counter-protests, and Donald Trump’s controversy-filled Republican National Convention was the party’s platform, the document that will guide the GOP’s policy positions for the next four years.
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The 66-page platform stayed true to form when it comes to education. Using the euphemistic catch-all phrase “school choice,” the document goes all in on schemes that divert scarce funding from public schools. It states:
We support options for learning, including home-schooling, career and technical education, private or parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools. We especially support the innovative financing mechanisms that make options available to all children: education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tuition tax credits.
Missing is any mention of accountability, transparency, local control, and financial safeguards against fraud, abuse and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars. Also unaddressed is whether the non-public schools would be required to accept and provide services to students with disabilities, English language learners and other students with special needs. The platform is likewise silent on what standards would be used to measure student performance or, in the case of online schools, attendance.
The GOP platform proposes that the “bulk of federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for children with special needs should follow the child to whatever school the family thinks will work best for them.” This portability, another euphemism, is unsupported by evidence and undercuts the original intent of Title I, which is to combat the compounded impact of poverty on student learning. Making Title I funds portable and leaving schools dilutes the ability of these limited federal funds to combat concentrations of poverty.
Republicans continue to push merit pay for teachers, a favored tool of corporate ed reformers. But paying teachers based on on how students perform on a test has serious pitfalls: it only measures a narrow piece of the teacher’s work; such plans can pit employee against employee, especially when there’s a quota for merit increases; and it does not account for teachers who do not teach tested subjects.
Teacher “tenure,” another favorite target of corporate ed reformers and extremist legislators, rears its head in the GOP platform. “Rigid tenure systems should be replaced with a merit-based approach in order to attract the best talent to the classroom,” states the platform The problem is that tenure does not mean what opponents of public education and many in the media say it does.
Rather than a guaranteed job for life, tenure refers to the process that must be followed before tenured teachers can be dismissed. The reasons: to protect teachers against personal vendettas, personality conflicts or a political disagreement with an administrator — or because a local person of influence wants to give someone a job. It is common for teachers to serve as nontenured, probationary employees for three or four years. While on probationary status, a teacher can be dismissed for any reason whatsoever. And in some states, teachers are hired on a year-to-year contract.
Another issue promoted in the policy document, a favorite of the Koch brothers and the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council, is right to work. So-called right to work, which weakens labor unions by allowing non-union workers to benefit from union-negotiated contracts without paying dues, has been found to result in reduced wages, no improvement in a state’s employment rate and lowered health and safety standards. A growing body of research studies shows that right-to-work laws are harmful to workers and local economies.
States with right to work laws trail in important aspects that matter to children and schools. Those states generally have lower wages, less investment in public education and healthcare, reduced access to employer-provided healthcare and higher poverty. Educational success for students often lags behind in right to work states.