Commentary: No Child Left Behind has turned schoolkids into commodities

The Miami HeraldDecember 26, 2011 

Compared to modern school kids, I was a downright worthless student.

I don’t mean worthless as a pejorative. (My father would have used a more colorful term to characterize my scholarly pursuits.) But worthless as a commodity. Us kids at Montrose Elementary School weren’t making anyone rich. Not like today’s pupils, particularly those in Florida, who’ve become valuable cogs in a burgeoning industry.

Such precious little dummies, these wayward students. Their benighted ways in the classroom have given rise to a recession-proof enterprise. To a no-lose sort of capitalism. Educational entrepreneurs (some backed by Wall Street hedge funds who know a sure thing when they see it) have figured out how to make millions without the usual risks of the marketplace, drilling for profits in the ever lucrative field of school reform.

No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s 2001 education reform package, since embraced by President Obama, may have forced needed attention onto failing schools, but the law also created an extraordinary new industry funded exclusively with public money.

The NCLB mandate for standardized tests requires the nation’s public schools to administer some 50 million tests annually, costing some $700 million a year, most of that money going to corporations that create and publish the tests, score the results and provide “interpretive, descriptive, and diagnostic reports.” Since I was a school boy, testing costs have risen by 3,000 percent. And so too has the opportunity to make a buck.

Requirements to provide free tutors for faltering students set off another frenzy among education entrepreneurs, wanting a chunk of the $900 million a year the federal government provides for extra help. This sort of business opportunity led to an interesting lead paragraph in a New York Times story: “Tutoring companies, rushing to tap into money available under the federal No Child Left Behind law, offered New York City principals thousands of dollars for school projects, doled out gift certificates to students and hired several workers with criminal backgrounds.”

The school system’s chief investigator, Richard Condon “described a climate of intense competition for the federal money as companies wooed both principals, who control access to space within their buildings for the after-school tutoring sessions, and prospective students, whose participation is directly linked to the companies’ gains.”

Perhaps, the tutoring companies were just caught up in an altruistic fervor for school reform.

The charter school movement set off another entrepreneurial frenzy, particularly in Florida, which now has 519 charters, 200 of them in Broward and Miami-Dade. Maybe charters and parental choice make for better overall education. I don’t know. There’s conflicting data. Certainly, many do a passable job with their students, though it’s tough to tell whether they offer a superior brand of education compared to traditional public schools.

Maybe charter operators are just savvy marketers, who know how to avoid difficult students who could bring down the overall test scores and damage the school brand. The Herald’s series on the charter movement last week revealed some discomfiting statistics indicating some of the more successful charters in Miami-Dade indulge in clever cherry picking.

But the long range effect of luring away high achievers from traditional schools would result in something quite the opposite from the original goals of the Bush school reforms. The kids left behind by No Child Left Behind would be the very children, most of them poor, that the reforms were supposed to rescue. “When you’ve siphoned away all the successful kids, only poor kids will go to public schools,” warned Diane Ravitch, a longtime voice for reform and a chronicler of failed reforms (which you might have guessed from the title of her most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education). She said public schools, if the charter system isn’t fixed, will evolve into repositories for the unwanted, where we train poor kids to take the big test. Not to learn.

The Miami Herald’s series, Cashing In On Kids, by Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen, charted how so much public money going into these nominally non-profit ventures finds its way into the accounts of for-profit management companies. And how the operators of the management companies often double as the charter school’s landlords. Sometimes you’re not sure whether to call these people educators or real estate profiteers.

Ravitch said that even in states that outlaw for-profit management companies, the supposedly non-profit charter school operators hire for-profit subcontractors. “People have figured out that this is a great entrepreneurial opportunity.” She confessed to a “visceral dislike” of for-profit corporations running public-funded schools. “I worry that their first obligation is to the shareholders, not to students.”

But if you’re bothered by the money grubbing ways of the education reform movement, too bad. They’ve got money (thanks to NCLB) to write campaign contributions. They’ve got money to hire lobbyists. They’ve got the political juice. And you don’t.

Online education offers the next big cache of public millions available to the education industry. (We’re already supposed to believe that Florida kids can undergo the rigors of a physical education class through an online course.) So what if online students don’t learn much without a teacher there to keep them from slipping over to Facebook? Stay-at-home kids are the hot, new commodity on the education market. No rent. No heating bills. No janitorial staff. No zoning controversies. No fights in the hallways. Lots of money for software and computer-ready courses and online charter schools with plenty left over to keep the stockholders happy.

The education reform industrial complex regards virtual students, sitting at home in their underwear, as a business opportunities. Call it dollars for dullards.

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