Those who wrote education law will benefit most

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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is being hailed as a bipartisan reform of education, which gives states the power to determine their own academic standards and develop their own tests and testing schedules. In fact, everyone from big business, to politicians, to conservative school reform advocates, to teachers’ unions are claiming small victories.

Last week, Boulder Weekly looked into how specifically the school reform movement, headed by the Koch brothers and their ilk, stands to gain from the passage of ESSA [“End run,” 2/4/2016]. This week, we look at who wrote and influenced ESSA, how some stand to gain financially from it, and why the only people protesting it are civil rights groups and teachers in low-income area schools.

Over the years, strange connections have been made in the name of education reform. Those connections are an important background for understanding how ESSA was written.

In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It was created to ensure adequate and equal funding for every student in the U.S., and that measures were in place to make sure students were getting quality educations. It was a civil rights bill, in effect.

The law received a facelift in 2001 with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB required 100 percent of students in any given state to meet proficiency standards by 2014, or else the state would lose funding. However, states were allowed to determine what constituted proficiency, and so in order to meet the 100 percent threshold, states simplified their tests. An independent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute soon found that anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of students were “proficient” on their state exams but failed national exams. They called the program a “race to the bottom.”

In short, NCLB needed a change. So instead of tying funding to NCLB’s 100 percent success mandate, the Obama administration offered funding to states that accepted the Common Core curriculum — a set of basic national standards in math and language developed by a group of governors and state education officials. Here’s where the allegiances that led to ESSA’s creation begin.

Though adopted by the Obama administration, Common Core was the education method of choice for mainline Republicans and major companies. American businesses wanted to hire skilled American workers, and the Common Core was better than NCLB at crafting that workforce. Some of the biggest proponents of Common Core were Jeb Bush, Bill Gates and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

Democrats, teachers and parents also liked Common Core because it simply and immediately resulted in better education standards. In short, the bill had widespread, bipartisan support and 45 states adopted the Common Core in just a few years.

But then critics emerged, taking the form of school reformers led by the support of the Koch brothers. A groundswell of right-wing individuals slowly unionized, lamenting that Common Core math wasn’t intuitive and made students laboriously show how they had arrived at test answers. Moreover, conservatives and Tea Partiers claimed federal overreach, and that Common Core mandated teaching that didn’t necessarily agree with everyone’s beliefs.

For instance, a lawmaker in Florida, Rep. Charles Van Zant, even said Common Core would “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.” It created widespread panic from the right, you could say.

Common Core eventually took critique from the other side too, as teachers expressed concern about over-testing students and rigid curriculums.

Businesses and politicians started to switch sides. General Electric, which had funded the promotion of Common Core, vowed not to fund it anymore. Future 2016 Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Carly Fiorina all once supported Common Core only before reproaching the standards as federal overreach. States began to strip away Common Core from their agendas, though many just renamed the standards to avoid political headaches.

Riding the anti-Common Core wave, Tea Party advocates swept into local school boards like those in Thompson, Jefferson and Douglas counties, buoyed by money from wealthy policy-shapers like the Kochs, billionaire oilman Alex Cranberg and more.

In light of the turmoil, the Obama administration asked for an education bill the president could sign. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), the new education committee chair and the former education secretary under George H.W. Bush, began to craft a bill. Alexander had just beaten a Tea Party-funded candidate in Tennessee for his senate seat, and was noted (and knocked by reformers) for his propensity to compromise. Input on the bill came from both sides of the aisle — Colorado’s Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner were active — and then some, it seemed.

Jeb Bush, in an interview with Fox News before the bill was signed last year, said he “helped work on” writing the new legislation. Bush, as BW reported last week, runs a nonprofit funded by Microsoft, Dell and other tech publishing groups, that implements virtual charter schools throughout the country, which ESSA’s relaxed federal standards would figure to benefit.

But Bush isn’t the only one that figures to benefit from the new legislation. A look at the lobbyists on ESSA reveals much. The top lobbyer on the bill was Exxon Mobil, which spent millions. Again, Exxon head Rex Tillerson had been an outspoken proponent of Common Core, even going so far once as to threaten doing business in states that didn’t accept the standards. Tillerson is an influential member of the third-highest lobbyer of ESSA, Business Roundtable, a group of 202 major company CEOs that mostly supported Common Core, too.

Business Roundtable outlined their goals for lobbying ESSA, namely calling for states to measure their progress by testing students at least once a year with tests that are “aligned to the state’s academic standards.” Federal standards, the group wrote, should be used as a gauge. That is, a lot like NCLB.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), it’s worth noting, was considered instrumental in drumming up support for ESSA among Democrats. In his last election cycle, two of Scott’s biggest donors were NelNet, a group that provides student loans, and the Penn Hill Group, the lobbying firm for the Business Roundtable.

The second-highest lobbyer on the bill was the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The group is directed by charter school heads, politicians, and also Jeb Bush, Jr. It receives funding from both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who have pushed for charter schools as well as Common Core standards, and the Walton Family Foundation, of Walmart, who recently announced their intention to drop $1 billion over the next five years on charter and virtual schools.

Virtual schools, by the way, pushed by the Bushes, Microsoft, Walmart and others, were recently found by a Stanford University study to leave students up to a year behind in math and half a year behind in reading. But they do rake in a lot of cash. K12 Inc., a virtual school company, for instance, paid its top officials upwards of $3.5 million last year, almost all taxpayer money, despite their programs largely failing in schools.

Another notable player on the lobby list for ESSA includes College Board, the company that provides the SAT and AP courses to schools nationwide. Colorado recently announced it would begin administering the SAT this year instead of the ACT. College Board is funded by grants, including millions from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It also makes millions in fees from test- and course-taking students, and executives make hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual salary.

Microsoft, Texas Instruments and Intel also lobbied heavily, as did dozens of smaller groups from teachers’ unions to universities to private businesses.

That ESSA has garnered such widespread support is remarkable. And curious. Everyone — from teachers’ unions who give fewer tests, to billionaires who can now profit further from education — got theirs, except for a significant portion of kids, particularly underprivileged kids.

The League of Latin American United Citizens wrote that “[we] cannot support a bill that concedes so much federal oversight and power to the states — especially given that many states are failing to meet the needs of Latino students.” The group cited that 26 percent of public school students are Latino, and that ESSA does not guarantee them equal access to resources or teachers.
Still, the group expressed what many on either side of the issue have said: “These concerns aside, we acknowledge that the legislation could have been much worse.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said the bill leaves English language learners in the dust, claiming that ESSA allows states to wait up to four years to address failing schools and subgroups, including ethnic groups.

And while the American Civil Liberties Union attributed some successes to ESSA, they claimed that the law doesn’t do enough to ensure education success for students of color, nor does it help students in poor areas that have to attend poor schools.

Baffled by their state and local teachers’ unions’ support of ESSA, some teachers in underfunded districts and schools are now protesting on their own. Organized without the unions’ support, teachers in Detroit and Chicago recently held protests and walked out of classes to draw attention to the dwindling financial resources available to them. ESSA, they said, will only further the gap between low-income schools like theirs and an increasingly privatized education system.

That privatization of the system includes how tests, and which tests, are administered to gauge student achievement. Early data indicates the number of students opting out of standardized tests will increase, and states, given the control to determine their own testing standards under ESSA, are reacting in various ways.

Indiana, which led the anti-Common Core movement, voted to scrap their current standardized test in order to rethink how they can best judge the quality of their students’ education. New Colorado Board of Education Commissioner Rich Crandall, as BW reported, is a reform advocate and has already told some board members that he plans to institute a standardized test specific to Colorado, and that in his experience, there has been no difference in the accuracy of state or federal tests. As mentioned previously, there is no indication what company will win the bid to develop these tests.

With so much politicking, and money, swirling around the issue, it’s hard to know anymore what works for students and what doesn’t.

ESSA, like No Child Left Behind, gives states the right to determine academic performance standards. The difference is NCLB came before the school reform movement boomed in 2013, and before virtual schools and educational technology became a viable money-making venture. Combined with increased responsibility, the malleability of state education departments now creates a situation in which the $69 billion annual education fund (and that’s just public funds, not the billions spent on private and extracurricular endeavors) can be siphoned by any number of power players — unions, politicians, tech companies, charter schools — a development that threatens the conventional notion that education is a right for all in this country.