How Democrats Are Abandoning the Most Vulnerable in Our Public Schools

One wonders what late Senator Ted Kennedy would make of the current school reform movement. The senate icon, who is widely seen as the father and champion of special education in the nation’s public schools, died in 2009 before folks like Michelle Rhee and the rich guys of Democrats for Education Reform took to the national stage. Kennedy’s co-sponsorship in 1975 of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) shifted the way that the nation’s disabled and disadvantaged children were treated in public schools across the nation. In no way, shape or form is IDEA flawless, but the spirit and cost of the new policies which emerged still are accepted by the American sense of compassion.

Sadly, today’s education reform movement is in many ways ignoring these most vulnerable children. High stakes testing, charter school expansion and tax credit voucher schemes advance as though these kids do not exist. Democrats have long assumed – and in many cases justifiably – to be the protectors of these children.  Lets examine why this is no longer the case.

No better place to start in any discussion of education policy involves the most polarizing figure in former DC school chancellor turned super-lobbyist, Michelle Rhee. And no more effective take on Rhee exists than in this recent observation by the nation’s most influential champion of public schools in Diane Ravitch.

I am trying to understand Michelle Rhee. She has allied herself with the most right-wing governors in the nation, yet she claims to be a Democrat. She has worked with Republican Rick Scott in Florida, Republican John Kasich in Ohio, Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey, Republican Rick Snyder in Michigan, among others. Any governor who wants to cut teachers’ rights and benefits can call on her to stand with him. Wherever there is a governor eager to dismantle and privatize public education, she is there at his side.

In Indiana, she stood with Republican governor Mitch Daniels as he successfully pushed through voucher legislation. In almost every state where charter legislation is under consideration, she is there to promote the glories of privatization. She is active in Georgia and Alabama * and many other states, where the charter movement is likely to do serious harm to rural, exurban, suburban, and fragile urban communities, where the public schools are central to the local community. She never gives a thought to the harm.

Meanwhile, two of Washington’s most powerful Democrat lobbyists represent Rhee in the White House and in state capitols across the country. Fresh off dissing Ann Romney’s female bonefides, Hilary Rosen and former Obama WH communication director Anita Dunn represent someone who couldn’t be more at-odds with nation’s teachers. Nevermind the special needs kids they serve. This from Lee Fang in The Nation:

SKDKnickerbocker represents consulting for Students First, a lobbying group aimed at destroying collective bargaining, and replacing public education with a mix of charters, private schools, and online learning companies. According to documents revealed the blog At The Chalk Face, Students First helped craft bills in Michigan to break teachers unions by severely limiting collective bargaining.

A recent report in PBS’s StateImpact Florida revealed that 86 percent of Florida charter schools do not serve children with severe disabilities.  But two advocacy groups self-described as Democrats push for charter schools enabling legislation throughout the country. Parent Revolution and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) went all-in on charter school friendly parent trigger efforts in California and Florida.   

Parent Revolution’s Shirley Ford and DFER California president Gloria Romero played the cynical card of identity politics last month in separate parent trigger fights in Florida and California. Neither Ford and Romero don’t want to be reminded that the charter schools they shamelessly flack often do not provide things like free and reduced meals, transportation and special needs services. Parent Revolution’s spokeswoman, Linda Sorento, announced this week that she’s leaving for the same position as President Obama’s California campaign.

Big money exists in DFER too. Among its supervisory boards are Parent Revolution’s founder and Green Dot charter school CEO, Steve Barr. There are two wealthy hedge funders, too, in Whitney Tilson and David Einhorn. Tilson provides virulent critique of Ravitch in his blog where he recently patted himself on the back for being a “patriotic millionaire” for supporting Obama’s Buffett Rule proposal. Many may remember that Einhorn came close to acquiring controlling interest in the New York Mets. Last summer, the New York Times reported that three US senators – Joe Lieberman, Tom Coburn and Charles Grassley raised concerns about high level contacts between Arne Duncan’s DOE and hedge funders like Tilson and Einhorn.

There are likely to not be very many certified special ed teachers in charter schools across the nation. Most rely on these services being provided by public school districts. Big charter school corporations neither want nor need them as they prefer to have kids who test well so they can sell the results to claim superiority. Nevermind the child who doesn’t have the kind of parental involvement necessary to appeal to charter schools or even succeed in the classroom. Yet for the Rhees and Tilsons of the world, the focus on these children by opponents is airily dismissed as “excuses,” an attempt to avoid “accountability,” or just accepting the “status quo.”

When you put your money behind policy, you’ve bought it when it’s passed. Just ask uber-conservative policy giant ALEC about Stand Your Ground legislation. We really don’t know yet whats happening to all the special needs kids that were once tirelessly served by inner city public schools now closed in favor of charter schools in New Orleans, Detroit, New York, and Rhee’s Washington DC. From the Obama White House to Arne Duncan’s DOE to state capitols, big Democrat bucks and political clout have signed onto policy which ignores the needs of the neediest who’ve been unselfishly served by the nation’s public school education professionals since Ted Kennedy IDEA passed in 1975. 

The Democrat lion is probably spinning in his grave.




About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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