Bush Plan Abandons Public Schools

The Education President’s “Hidden Curriculum”

By Stan Karp

The “hidden curriculum” is a term used to describe the powerful but indirect messages schools send to students not only by what they teach, but by how they do it and even by what they leave out.

For instance, if a teacher drones on while 30 kids sink slowly into their seats, an unspoken lesson is that authority is the source of knowledge and learning is a passive activity. If a young girl is patted on the head for getting a B on a math test, and a boy with the same grade is challenged to find his mistakes and get an A next time, the expectations of the hidden curriculum can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If one school has metal detectors and chains at every door, peeling paint, and converted closets for classrooms, while another school has a landscaped campus, an air-conditioned lounge, and nicely upholstered furniture, we learn a lot about the schools and their attitudes towards the people in them before the bells ever ring.

George Bush, the self-proclaimed education president, has a hidden curriculum too. It became more visible last spring when he and his new Education Secretary Lamar Alexander gave a campaign-style launch to “America 2000,” the Administration’s plan for the nation’s schools.

Now winding its way through congressional committees, the plan indicates the direction of federal education policy. It also shows how buzzwords like “testing,” “choice,” and “model schools” fit into the overall conservative push for supply-side schooling that would redefine and, in some cases, reverse decades of federal education policy while promoting a privatized market system. If Bush succeeds, he will be remembered as the “education president” who pushed public schools in the worst possible directions at the very time they were struggling for survival and renewal.

The Wrong Stuff

America 2000 is partly public relations pap designed to give Bush a domestic “vision thing” for next year’s campaign. It’s not easy passing yourself off as the education president when policies you’ve been associated with have been disastrous for schools and kids. Since Bush took office as Reagan’s vice president in 1980, the federal education budget has dropped by over 30%, according to the National Education Association. Half a million school kids lost federal compensatory education assistance. The Justice Department virtually abandoned the legal struggle for integration, going so far as to seek an end to court jurisdiction over historically segregated school systems. Conferences of governors and commission reports were substituted for hot lunches and new textbooks.

Burying this record under a flood of campaign hype is a major aim of the America 2000 package. But the plan also contains some real substance, almost all of it bad. On nearly every school issue, Bush is using the bully pulpit of the presidency to promote the wrong stuff. For example:

  • Testing: The 200 million standardized, multiple-choice tests U.S. schools give each year are deforming the curriculum, turning teachers into full-time test coaches, and discriminating against female and minority students. But Bush is calling for yet another system of national tests. While a broad coalition of education advocates has formed around a call for less testing and more use of “alternative assessment,” Bush wants to sink millions into sorting and tracking mechanisms that promote educational stratification and justify inequality on the basis of “merit.”
  • Curriculum: Bush is proposing “new world standards” in five basic areas — English, math, science, history and geography. This would promote standardization of a narrow national curriculum and encourage still more teaching to the test, which would be given in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.

    Though nominally the tests would be voluntary, Bush hopes employers and colleges will use them to make hiring and admission decisions. His proposal stands in sharp contrast to more innovative efforts emphasizing multicultural education and creative curriculum reform.
  • Choice: Under the banner of “freedom of choice” Bush seeks to channel public funds to private and religious schools and justify federal disinvestment in public education. “Choice” is also invoked in defense of a plan that would cripple the largest remaining federal education initiative, the $6 billion Chapter 1 programs targeted to the poor and minorities. Currently those funds flow directly to schools serving large numbers of poor children. Bush wants Chapter 1 funds to “follow the child” to public and private schools as part of a vaguely defined market system, as a lever to create competition between schools.
  • Money: The most crucial battle in education today is probably the struggle between rich and poor school districts over inequitable funding systems, which are currently being challenged in more than 20 state courts. Fiscal inequity and growing social polarization have helped create a dual school system nearly as separate and unequal as the one declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1954. But Bush proposes investing less new money in his “educational renaissance” than he spent in half a day of the Gulf war. “Dollar bills don’t educate students,” he intoned lamely at an April press conference.

    Bush calls his America 2000 plan “a national strategy not a federal program,” or in the more forceful phrase of Secretary Alexander, “It isn’t really a program, it’s a crusade.” As well-known New York City principal Deborah Meier responded in an interview in Dissent this summer, “I don’t think there’s any field other than education in which the president could announce a bold new plan for solving an age-old problem — and put no money behind it. ‘We’re going to do away with heart disease by the year 2000 and this is our plan: we’re going to ask doctors to work harder and more imaginatively!’”
  • Model Schools: The fate of the current reform wave will be largely determined by the success or failure of efforts to revive existing public schools. But Bush is proposing a new agency, the New American Schools Development Corporation, to create an elite network of model schools shaped by corporate planners. Along with existing private institutions, the new models could create a base for further privatization schemes. The model schools initiative will claim the bulk of America 2000’s funds. The initiative is structured to provide $1 million in start-up grants (and potential campaign bargaining chips) for models in each congressional district. Executives from IBM, AT&T, Boeing and other corporate giants will head the agency, design and award contracts, and put business figures firmly in control over educational research and development. “We do not intend to be involved in that except to watch it,” Education Secretary Alexander said.

Corporate Curriculum

America 2000 frames education issues in terms that reflect the need corporate planners see for better elite technical training and for a moderate overall increase in the number of high school graduates prepared for middle and entry level jobs.

Typically the most pressing education problems these analysts identify are that student scores on math tests compare unfavorably with those in South Korea or Japan (where more authoritarian school systems use testing programs to rigidly track students). Business interests want an education policy that would correct such “competitive deficits,” unhampered by commitments to equal opportunity, racial justice, or democratic local control of public institutions. They seek to channel wide-spread concern over school failure and administrative bureaucracy into support for a more efficient, modernized, more privatized system that can more effectively meet the limited manpower needs of a highly stratified economy.

But an education policy driven by the logic of economic efficiency does not necessarily lead to universally effective schooling for all. Efforts to create an equitable distribution of education resources, to ensure open admission to college, to reverse the shrinking number of minority teachers, or to empower teachers and parents in local school governance councils, and to make other needed reforms, must begin with a commitment to social justice. National education policy could be used as a lever for democratic renewal, for increasing the power of ordinary citizens, for expanding locally-based community institutions, and uniting a diverse population in a more participatory civic life. But such plans are not on the education president’s agenda. Instead America 2000 echoes the basic trends of the Reagan/Bush era: increasing inequality and class polarization, making government policy serve corporate aims, and retreating from long-standing federal efforts to mitigate, however inadequately, racial and social injustice in favor of privatizing social services.

In some ways Bush is more effective than Reagan was in furthering these ends. Reagan tried to backtrack in education by cutting funds and invoking “local control.” His first Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, complained, “I couldn’t get the Reagan Administration to support any kind of initiative. They said, ‘It’s not our role.’” Reagan also proposed extreme measures, like abolishing the Department of Education, that only served to isolate his supporters.

By contrast, Bush — in what union leader Albert Shanker called “a turning point in American education” — is pointedly asserting a federal role while trying to redefine it. Instead of promoting equity, helping the poor, and aiding the handicapped, Bush wants to use the federal government to promote privatization and stump for conservative reform. He’s moving to put his Administration at the forefront of a diverse school reform movement that is still moving in many different directions.

Bush’s new “education team” clearly reflects an aggressive public relations intent, along with a strong corporate bias. Millionaire Alexander (whose sends his own kids to private schools in Washington D.C.) had his confirmation as Education Secretary delayed partly by questions over his ties to Chris Whittle, the pioneer of Channel One and other privatizing school experiments. Alexander was formerly the “education governor” of Tennessee. There he made a reputation by courting business involvement and imposing top-down reforms with little input from teachers and parents. Alexander’s assistant secretary is David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox.

Kearns made education reform a hobby of sorts a few years ago by co-writing a best seller called Winning the Brain Race. In it, Kearns complained that “business and education have largely failed in their efforts to improve the schools, because education set the agenda. To be successful, the new agenda for school reform must be driven by competition and market discipline, unfamiliar ground for educators. Business will have to set the new agenda….”

Choosing Bureaucracy

One of the President’s major goals is to use national policy to shape programs at the state level. Over the past decade, the role of the states in education issues has grown steadily, partly in response to the federal disinvestment in education during the Reagan/Bush years. The state share of local education budgets rose from less than 40% to more than half.

A little noticed consequence has been a sizable increase in intrusive state education bureaucracies. In the last 10 years, over 1,000 state level school reform measures have been introduced mandating testing programs, curriculum standardization, increased monitoring and more paperwork for local districts. While Bush still uses the rhetoric of “local control” to explain why the federal government shouldn’t come up with money for schools, Washington’s abandonment of responsibility for education

has actually reduced local options and promoted state bureaucracy on an unprecedented scale.

The shift to the states also tends to underscore the gross inequities in school finance systems. School districts now rely on regressive state and local tax systems for over 90% of their funds.

Overall, education spending did rise 15% during the 1980s due to increased local and state expenditures, fueled partly by the speculative real estate boom. But inequalities between school districts also grew. Typically, differences of thousands of dollars in per pupil spending exist between rich and poor districts.

Poor districts with less property wealth to draw on have much less to spend on their schools than rich districts, even though tax rates in poor districts are often much higher. This translates into daily injustices for school kids in the form of fewer course offerings, worse facilities, less experienced and more poorly paid teachers, and fewer support services.

Public advocates have sued in state courts to force more equitable funding, with some success. But these legal victories have not necessarily translated into equality in the schools. State legislatures have found many ways to evade or limit the impact of court orders. As noted by New Jersey’s Education Law Center, the legal advocacy group that fought and won both of that state’s key educational funding cases,“Law books are filled with wonderful paper victories which have never been implemented.”

Increasing Inequality

As part of the hype about drawing the nation into his “educational renaissance,” Bush said he was going to learn to use a computer. If he really wants to learn how the dual school system works he should check out schools in Princeton, New Jersey where there’s a computer for every eight kids. Then he should travel a few miles to Camden where the ratio is one computer for every 58 students. Or he could go to the poor Texas district where students study computer science by pretending to type on an artificial paper replica of a computer keyboard. Federal policy could work to reduce or eliminate such inequality.

America 2000, with its competitive mania and privatization schemes, will increase it. For the growing number of students who are getting a second-or third-rate education because of class and racial inequality, the education president offers only bootstrap sermons. He proceeds as if the growing gap between poor urban systems and more privileged, predominantly white, suburban ones, stems from the failure of students of color to do their homework.

Pressed by recession, more than half the states are in the process of reducing spending and education programs are a major casualty. A survey of 45 states cited in Education Week (9/4/91) showed that school spending in fiscal 1991 was not keeping pace with the rate of inflation.

In Massachusetts, where public schools in America first appeared, the state’s education commissioner recently resigned, citing the “continuing disinvestment in public education.” Pointing to a seemingly endless cycle of reductions and cuts eliminating both reform experiments and basic programs, Commissioner Harold Reynolds

declared, “The institution of the school as the centerpiece of the community is under attack. Some of the bitterness is so bad that teachers are being insulted as they go to school. Seeing the anger and bitterness in communities that are divided, it’s as if we had done everything possible to develop a system to destroy them.”

Equity advocates are also up against the pro-business, anti-tax climate shaping state and local budget priorities. While the corporate sector has steadily gained influence over education policy and churned out glossy brochures hailing business commitment to local schools, it has also sharply reduced its tax support for education. Between 1957 and 1987, the corporate share of local property taxes, historically the largest single source of school funds, dropped from 45% to 16%, according to Harvard economist Robert Reich. Tax concessions to business by local governments — which unlike many school budgets do not need voter approval — have skyrocketed. During the last school year, according to the New York Times, Florida granted businesses half a billion dollars in tax abatements and concessions, far exceeding the $32 million Florida firms “donated” to public education with much fanfare. Facing a $34 million budget deficit, Cleveland schools recently filed a lawsuit attacking a deal that waives all property taxes on a new $400 million Society Center development. Similar examples can be found in virtually every state and city.

Bush, who helped create the fiscal crisis with his policies, now hopes to use it to carve up the “bankrupt public education monopoly,” and “choice” schemes are one of the main scalpels. Back in 1985 the authors of Choosing Equality foresaw that “the federal divestiture of resources in public education and the retreat from equity standards set up a dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy. If these trends intensify, public schooling will undereducate growing numbers of children and will increasingly lose public confidence. In this case…salvaging special schools for the ‘best and the brightest,’ segregating disadvantaged segments of the student population, subsidizing private school alternatives, establishing market mechanisms of service delivery — will appear more justified and feasible, especially when clothed in the rhetoric of personal opportunity.”

Bush’s education team has intentionally tried to dress up choice as a boon to the poor, implying that those with the worst educational services could fare better in a market system that included private schools. Last year the Education Department crossed a line it had previously skirted when it endorsed an experimental Milwaukee plan that allowed a small number of inner city students to use public funds to attend private schools. The fact that the plan originated with one of Milwaukee’s black legislators made it especially useful to an Administration with little credibility on civil rights.

Court challenges are still pending against the Milwaukee plan, but since it’s already being cited as a national model, the way it operated in its first year is worth noting.

The voucher program created 1,000 slots for a system with 46,000 potentially eligible students. More than 1,000 applied for the program and fewer than 400 were accepted at private schools. But during the year, several private schools sent “difficult” students back to the public system and another private school folded, leaving students stranded. Enrollment dropped well below 300. “The reality,” says Boston-based education consultant Michael Alves who studied the plan, “is that the urban public school system will always educate children nobody else wants. That is the real message coming out of the Milwaukee program.”

Moreover, small-scale experimental programs which provide additional options to a few do not begin to bring into focus the inequalities that would be produced by a combination of private school selectivity, continued public disinvestment in urban education, and the use of market mechanisms on a broad scale. The inequalities created by the markets in housing and health care are much more indicative of what to expect.

Used within the public system, “choice” certainly has potential to increase the input of students, teachers, and parents and to help democratize bureaucratic systems. But for Bush, “choice” is a spur to market competition and privatization, not educational democracy. In fact, heavy reliance on private institutions, elite experimental models, and market mechanisms will work to strengthen the hand of a new strata of professional education managers and further remove schools from local public control.

In assessing school “choice” plans, it’s instructive to remember that efforts to use public funds to pay for private schools first appeared in the years following the 1954 Brown decision as part of racist resistance to court-ordered school desegregation. In Virginia, Mississippi, and elsewhere, white politicians withdrew support for public education and tried to develop formulas that would channel tax revenues to private, segregated academies. Some even repealed compulsory education laws or attempted to shut down public systems entirely until blocked by the courts.

The federal role in deciding which schools kids should attend also became controversial in the early 1970s when conservatives used the rhetoric of “neighborhood schools” to oppose busing to promote racial integration. As with today’s “choice” debate, the demagogic manipulation of emotional rhetoric had racist undertones.

The education president is well on his way to becoming one of the worst teachers American classrooms have ever had. His plans would leave schools less fair and less effective for the majority of students in the year 2000 than they are now.

Thousands of activist educators are working to make schools better and more democratic. The Bush Administration has an entirely different set of objectives.

Who’ll win out? As the education president himself said in introducing his latest plans, “No one will conduct our educational revolution f r us. We’ve got to do it ourselves.”

Stan Karp teaches English and Journalism at J.F.K. High School in Patterson, New Jersey.