Coming Transformations

Credit: Computer Vision Laboratory, Columbia University

I want start off with one of the most egregious aspects of a horribly underfunded public school system and what acts of desperations that can ensue, followed by some “respectable” examples of education reform percolating around the country and ending with the next big “shining object” that will command our full attention here in Wisconsin shortly, whether we like it or not.

We begin with Charlotte Hill’s recent reporting at the site that highlighted a distressing development; four inner-city schools in Detroit are “partnering” with Walmart

to offer a course in job-readiness. Student participants earn school credit while learning how to hold down one of the superstore’s infamously low-paying positions. When the bell rings at 3:30, off the students go to their new entry-level jobs, where they work for minimal pay.

Their public school system, like the majority in the country, are struggling. They need money. Enter Walmart, licking their chops to come in and fill the breach. And in their world, students will be conditioned to accept a work environment that is “notorious for its low wages, discriminatory [in its] treatment of female employees, mass lay-offs and refusal to acknowledge, much less support, employee unions,” says Hill. 29 schools were closed this past fall, with 40 more due to be shuttered in the coming year – “financial need — not educational integrity — is driving the decision.”

At the end of the day, Walmart is the true winner in this partnership. Hill reported that

According to the Department of Labor, “Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer.” From my calculations, 11 weeks of training amounts to just under 90 days of employment. Looks like whichever Walmart executive made the decision to partner with Detroit schools was just living by the corporation’s own slogan: “Save money. Live better.”

As Alex DiBranco pointed out:

The real message goes more like: Your educational system has failed you. Because of mass class inequities, you will not be offered opportunities to succeed in life. In fact, we’ve so given up on you, that even though you still come to school, we’re going to turn school into training on how to hold down the worst job possible and suffer all sorts of labor abuses. Just in case you’ve made it to your teenage years without realizing this, know the world doesn’t care about you, and you might as well give up on your dreams now.

Proposals for enormous changes in the school system have always been a feature during times of economic crisis, but you have to stop and catch your breath at times when some of the more “throw the baby out with the bathwater” schemes get a serious airing from our self-appointed “out of the box” thinkers on education “reform,” or, as one of our local school board candidates would prefer, “transformation.” Take for example Utah state senator, Chris Buttars. He has introduced a bill that would eliminate 12th grade in all public schools in his state, saving, according to Buttars, $60 million dollars from a state shortfall of $700 million. You might say to yourself that such a large hatchet would appear to have a fairly minimal impact on such a large deficit, and would therefore be dismissed out of hand, but you would be wrong. Eight other states are contemplating similar moves. It also wouldn’t probably surprise you to learn that the Gates Foundation is providing the initial planning grant to get this initiative off the ground. And while the impetus for having a so-called board exam system in which students must achieve some core competencies, instead of seat time in a classroom, has some laudatory elements to it, the larger gorilla in the room is that it will take an enormous amount of one-time stimulus money just to get this initiative off the ground in these handful of states.

A question I continue to ask is: why, in all these reports on new initiatives for “reform” (or if you like “transformation”), is it rarely mentioned or raised as a concern, the issue of how these initiatives will be paid for in a long term, sustained way?

Getting back to the actual students who are at the center of this maelstrom of education innovation, as Jessica Shiller has noted:

Seems like the students that would benefit most from having public school for longer would get left out in the cold. Graduating in 11th grade and having to look for a job in a dismal market is not much of an option. Going to community college or a vocational program could offer more, but with graduation rates pretty low, around 25% — to the point that the Gates Foundation is getting involved to help community colleges do better by their students — this also doesn’t seem like a suitable substitute for a full high school education.

Students who don’t do well early in high school might be left with dead-end options. At least if those students have a couple more years, they can try and improve their grades for college, but under these grade elimination plans, there is no room for that. Young people will be sorted into vocational and college-bound tracks at age 15. No more messing around kids: decisions about your futures will be made very early on in life. So much for the late bloomer.

It is rumored that shortly the beautiful minds behind the Wisconsin Way initiative, will finally roll out their plan, one that will have been already largely crafted in the minds of its corporate interests from the get go when they first held their state-wide forums a couple of years ago. It is likely that the fait accompli plan will contain much that is good, some that seems “sensible,” inducing the pundits to skim past the troubling parts in their embrace of “transformations.” For an excellent primer on the Wisconsin Way, please reread the warning signs that Thomas Mertz was writing about already 2 1/2 years ago.  Also, look for his excellent coverage of this roll out/fall out to come.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t take great creative thinking to know that the oxygen will be largely sucked out of all the hard work of analyses and stakeholder development that WAES has been engaged in for over a decade and its more recent Pennies for Kids initiative. Perhaps, when the chips are comfortably resting on the ground for a while, some parts or aspects of actual education finance/tax reform will get a hearing. But as we’ve seen in the past, nothing gets done in an election year. Sadly, the struggle for real finance reform, will continue for a long time to come.

Robert Godfrey


Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, education, Elections, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, We Are Not Alone

2 responses to “Coming Transformations

  1. They, the Waltons, Eli Broad and Bill Gates along with all of the franchise charter companies, testing companies and the rest of them, will go as far as we let them.

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