Political science professor Brent Nelsen argues Conservatives should support public school reform. However, this commentary proves to be not credible commitments for needed education reform in South Carolina but a series of unsubstantiated conservative talking points.
After opening by defining conservatism and establishing that conservatives recognize the need for education reform, Nelsen misrepresents significantly a foundational issue facing SC: “The recent Supreme Court decision highlighting the failure of many public schools puts education at the top of the policy agenda.”
The Supreme Court in SC, in fact, finally ruled on a court case made infamous by the documentary Corridor of Shame , true, but the ruling addresses inadequate state support for high-poverty communities and their schools:
As Eva Moore reports:
In a narrow 3-2 decision, the court said South Carolina needs to fix the way it funds education….
“As the court pointed out, it’s a fragmented, inefficient, ineffective method of funding,” Epps says. “Historically the General Assembly has played shell games with the funding. It’s inconsistent and extremely inefficient.”…
The school districts themselves bear some blame, according to the court. They’re administration-heavy and should explore consolidation.
But the bulk of the blame lies with the state of South Carolina.
All parties must work together to create a fairer funding model “within a reasonable amount of time,” the court ruled. In the meantime, the court retains jurisdiction in the case.
A fair but complex representation of SC’s need for education reform, then, must address a historical failure by the conservative political leadership of the state to support adequately both high-poverty communities and the schools that serve those children.
Immediately following this glossing of a major issue facing the state, Nelsen makes a disturbing claim:
But conservatives have allowed liberals to monopolize the public education conversation, promoting private and home school options while leaving the debate over public schools to less conservative voices. Not only does this lead to bad policy, it is also bad politics.
SC’s political and cultural history is solidly conservative, leaning toward a Tea Party conservatism that clings to state’s rights. Even when the South was voting Democrat, SC was conservative, and in the recent years, SC politics is dominated by Republicans.
There are in fact no issues in the state of SC “monopolized” by liberals because progressive and liberal voices are nearly absent from politics, the media, or public debate.
However, Nelsen’s opening shot at “liberals” is solid evidence that this commentary is mostly conservative talking points designed to trigger a targeted political base—the tried-and-true straw men of political discourse in SC linked with the more recent straw men of conservative education reform: liberals and unions along with “bad” teachers, “status quo,” “trap[ped] students in failing schools,” and “throw[ing] tax dollars at problems.”
In SC and across the U.S., these are both common refrains and mostly without merit. For example, the union bashing in SC seems misplaced since we are a right-to-work state. Striking out at liberals and unions in SC is boxing with ghosts.
How about, then, the policy recommendations tagged as “conservative”?
- Nelsen calls for reforming teacher evaluation and pay, but fails to acknowledge that SC’s primary teacher quality problem is a shortage of experienced and certified teachers for the high-poverty school districts identified by the Supreme Court. The need to weed-out teachers and the repeatedly discredited call for shifting to “pay for performance” are more distractions from the real problem: How does SC recruit and retain high-quality teachers for the students and the communities in the state who need them most? Research addressing the framework recommended by Nelsen has concluded:
High-stakes uses of teacher VAM scores could easily have additional negative consequences for children’s education. These include increased pressure to teach to the test, more competition and less cooperation among the teachers within a school, and resentment or avoidance of students who do not score well. In the most successful schools, teachers work together effectively (Atteberry & Bryk, 2010). If teachers are placed in competition with one another for bonuses or even future employment, their collaborative arrangements for the benefit of individual students as well as the supportive peer and mentoring relationships that help beginning teachers learn to teach better may suffer. (p. 24)
- Nelsen also endorses increasing support for public charter schools and “expanding the ability of low-income students to attend private schools” (which appears to avoid the how, vouchers, because vouchers are unpopular and discredited). Charter schools are the new school-choice-light for conservatives and market-committed Democrats, but there is a problem with that advocacy, highlighted by SC. Of the 50+ charter schools each year in SC, about 95% of charter schools have student outcomes the same or worse than comparable public schools. As well, in SC and across the U.S., charter schools avoid mandates public schools cannot; charter schools underserve English language learners and special needs students; and charter schools tend to be highly segregated by race and social class. Charter school advocacy is the hollow politics of waving the “parental choice” flag without doing the hard work called for by SC’s Supreme Court—fully funding and supporting the existing public school system that SC has failed.
- Finally, Nelsen builds to the most troubling conservative option: closing, as Nelsen’s curious word choice identifies, “[p]oor schools” and adopting state take-over practices such as the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). Setting aside that Nelsen is associating state government take-over as conservative while opening with a nod toward “small government,” endorsing the ASD is deeply flawed. Nelsen claims inaccurately: “The results in Tennessee are impressive so far. Students have posted double-digit gains in math, science and literacy — outpacing improvements in other public schools”—when actually, like charter schools in general, the ASD has not performed much different than public schools, according to a 2014 analysis:
My analysis suggests that ASD schools aren’t doing significantly better in terms of student growth than they were before state takeover. In fact, in many cases the schools’ pre-takeover growth outperformed the ASD. These findings have significant implications for the future of the ASD, how we should move forward with continued takeovers, and for future turn-around efforts in general.
From Tennessee to New Orleans to Los Angeles, claims of successful take-over strategies have been discredited, but those take-overs have resulted mostly in disenfranchised children and communities while providing political capital for advocates.
SC education reform doesn’t need conservative talking points, then. Although as I have argued, fiscally conservative principles do support SC changing course in education reform, but that commitment requires acknowledging the accountability movement has not worked and then taking the Supreme Court’s ruling seriously.
SC has an entrenched poverty problem linked to lingering racial and economic inequity that destroys communities and overburdens the schools designed to serve those communities. Partisan conservative political leadership has created and maintained that status quo, and conservative doubling-down would be yet more remedies as part of the disease.
The Fatal Flaw Of Education Reform, Matthew Di Carlo
Value-Added, For The Record, Matthew Di Carlo
 In the original trial, a lawyer for the underfunded school districts used the “Allegory of the River” to confront the state’s failure to address root causes of failing schools; I recommend that allegory and believe the Op-Ed above calls for policies that continue those failures: