When groups supported by corporations like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and ETS overhaul curriculum standards and call for test-driven policies, and government officials who worked for those groups write those ideas into law, who’s really in charge: the government officials, or the corporations?
Where are the boundaries protecting our children and our communities from those who want to profit at our expense? And how can we strengthen those boundaries?
Those are the questions Integrity in Education had in mind when we launched an investigative campaign examining the revolving door between corporate front groups and the US Department of Education this past January. As part of that campaign, we filed a large Freedom of Information Act request, and have faced an uphill battle ever since.
In an indirect response to our inquiries, Secretary Duncan made a video in which he said, “I think that’s a very important question of what role does philanthropy or the corporate side have, and anyone who thinks that those who are major donors to education, or those giving a lot, have a seat at the table in terms of policy-making, nothing could be further from the truth.”
Really now? Then what else explains how policy has shifted so dramatically, and so consistently in the direction of a few specific companies’ and philanthropists’ biggest policy priorities?
For instance, at no point in the past decade did teachers, students or families mount a campaign calling for national standards. Yet after the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (both supported by testing companies and curriculum publishers) teamed up with the Gates Foundation to write national standards, Department officials—some formerly employed by organizations funded by the same companies, others who previously worked directly for the Gates Foundation—required states to adopt those standards in order to be considered for Race to the Top funds. Are we to believe that was purely a coincidence?
Keep in mind, no matter where one stands on the standards themselves, it’s important to understand how this process unfolded, who drove it, and how. For starters, if the process originated with the US Department of Education, then they likely broke the law. If it was driven by corporate interest groups, that presents a host of other legal and practical issues. But we don’t yet know either way, resulting in more confusion than clarity (let alone accountability). Part of the reason so many varied theories—some compelling, others downright crazy—have flourished to explain how Common Core overtook locally-drafted standards, is because there is a giant hole in its creation story, that the public has been left to fill on our own.
Similarly, very few researchers, and almost no career educators, have ever said that it is a good idea to make high-stakes decisions about teachers based on opaque statistical interpretations of students’ test scores (VAM). Yet after VAM became a cause célèbre for organizations like the Gates Foundation and many of their grantees, Department officials required states to add VAM to their teacher evaluation systems in order to be eligible for Race to the Top funds or NCLB waivers. Now we’re stuck paying for lawsuits, and watching as great teachers are demoralized and even pushed out of classrooms, in some cases based on the test scores of students they never even taught. How does that keep happening, if these groups aren’t exercising undue influence over policymakers?
If there truly was even a shred of evidence that “nothing could be further from the truth,” shouldn’t the Department be rushing to share that evidence, so they could lay these questions to rest once and for all?
So far, they’ve done the exact opposite. Instead of cooperating with our routine request for top officials’ correspondence around key education initiatives, they’re trying to hide those documents behind exorbitant fees and red tape.
How? While it’s against the law for these public documents to be withheld, administrators at the Department of Education can certainly make it extremely difficult to see them. By refusing to acknowledge that a request is being made in the public interest, they can reclassify it and charge a lot of money—over $12,000 in our case—to release the documents. Apparently, the US Department of Education would like us to believe that the public has no interest in understanding who’s really driving the policies that affect our children and our future.
We won’t accept that. This coming Tax Day, we’re submitting a new request, with updated questions about how this administration’s signature education policies came to be. We believe it is unconscionable for the government officials, paid through our tax dollars, to create barriers between us and the information we need to make policies that work for our children and our communities. We will continue to fight to hold public officials accountable to all of us, not just a few powerful corporate interests.
If “nothing could be further from the truth,” as Sec. Duncan says, then it’s time for the Department to stop playing bureaucratic hide and seek and show us the documents that prove it.