The idea of education reform has become so much of a universal social imperative that even hard-nosed liberals mindlessly dance to its alluring tune without considering the consequences of their gallivanting. For proof of this phenomenon, one simply needs to read the Boston Globe's op-ed rants against teachers unions, or to examine the Obama administration's cheerleading for charter schools.
Yet the big picture should be daunting to progressives. As inconvenient as it is to consider, there is a mounting body of evidence that suggests much of the so-called school-reform movement is a stalking horse for the for-profit education industry. Simply put, the same free-market-cowboy values that fueled the economic meltdown of 2008 are now occupying box seats at the school-board roundtable.
Massachusetts, the home of American public education, is serving as a key battleground in these changing times. Two days after Wisconsin's recall vote, in which corporations spent unprecedented sums of money to save union-busting Republican governor Scott Walker, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was also defeated by a campaign fueled by big business. The starring actor in the Bay State drama was Stand for Children (SFC), an Oregon-based education-reform nonprofit and political action committee that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars annually lobbying lawmakers nationwide to limit teacher input in everything from curriculum to job assignments. SFC is funded by the foundation arms connected to Walmart and Bain Capital, among others, the latter of which has been similarly criticized for its investments in for-profit methadone clinics.
To the disgust of many Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) members, earlier this month the union's negotiators conceded significant seniority rights in future hiring after a series of meetings with SFC. The deal also garnered much ire from the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which primarily represents urban educators who are shuffled around more frequently, and who as a result will become more vulnerable without seniority protections.
Their backs against the wall, the MTA had little choice but to cave; if the union did not agree on a package to be taken up by lawmakers before July 3, SFC had enough signatures to force harsher measures through a ballot initiative. Polls conducted by the union showed that voters would have overwhelmingly favored SFC's seven-page proposal, neatly packaged and peddled under the tagline "Great Teachers, Great Schools." Furthermore, the settlement will spare both sides the burden of spending millions on a ground war over a ballot campaign.
Still, these developments raise important issues. Just last month, MTA president Paul Toner told the Phoenix that his members were "very upset" about the SFC push, and that "experience should matter" in placing teachers. So how did Stand for Children get powerful enough to scare the state's biggest educators union into submission? Who's behind the charge, and what are they really trying to accomplish?
Everyone knows that Bay State schools, like their counterparts everywhere, need change (if not a miracle), while unions can also stand to budge a few inches. But is the answer to our pedagogical dilemmas to let big money influence education in ways never seen here before?