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ALEC Education Bill Hides Privatization Behind a Reading Skills Disguise

United States of ALEC

Over the last few years, a piece of school reform legislation ostensibly designed to improve the educational experience of public school students, has been making the rounds of 14 state legislatures and the city of Washington DC. A South Carolina version has just been introduced and Mississippi is awaiting concurrence. Ohio Governor John Kasich signed HB 555 “The Ohio School Report Card Bill” late last year. A major component of virtually all the bills is something called the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee.” I couldn’t find a word in the Ohio bill about its application to private schools.

Many of the bills are chock-full of other education esoterica, most of which comes from model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) with the Jeb Bush Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) joined at the ALEC hip over right-wing efforts to establish impossible norms and imperatives for public schools thereby forcing these taxpayer-funded centers of learning to spend time and money unnecessarily. Money that red state legislatures have made sure is in precipitous decline.

The Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for FEE is Matthew Ladner. Every outside pre-FEE professional Ladner connection with assorted right-wing think tanks and foundations has been dedicated to school privatization and school choice. He’s been a Fellow at both the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a major school choice participant in ALEC task forces. Ladner’s additional anti-public school CV has included Director of State Projects for the Alliance for School Choice and a stint as a grand poobah of the fanatical free-market and school privatizing Goldwater Institute.

There’s your policy wonk for Jeb’s “Foundation for Excellence in Education.” More appropriate would be the “Foundation for Excellence in Stuffing the Wallets of Corporate Private School Moguls Who Will Return the Favor Come 2016.”

Let’s take a look at one of the highlighted sections of these school reform legislative gifts to the privatizing, voucher and school choice movements. Ohio, and other states, including my home turf of South Carolina, call it the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee.”

Here’s how Section 3313.608 of Ohio’s HB 555, applies to third graders; “for any student who attains a score in the range designated under the section in the Ohio Revised Code measuring English language arts (reading) expected at the end of the third grade, each school district shall do one of the following:”

The options include promotion to the fourth grade, promoting to the fourth grade to include intensive intervention services or holding the student back for a re-do of the third grade. The second option disappears for students entering the third grade in the 2013-2014 school year. You don’t read within a certain prescribed range by the end of the third grade, no matter your other grades, you keep sitting in the same classroom for another year, even if you’re a crackerjack in math and other subjects. It’s also interesting to note that Ohio 3rd grade texts are written at a 5th grade reading level. In fairness, the legislation does not apply to those children with Learning Disabilities (LD) or limited proficiency with the language. Still, some 10,000 students could be held back.

Is it worth it? PBS reported that some researchers found that retained students did, indeed, significantly improve their grade-level skills. Nonetheless less than half of retained students met promotion standards after repeating a grade or attending summer school. And the fact is there are already reading programs in place in most schools for those with reading challenges. Most teachers will recognize IRI, Intensive Remedial Instruction. What the bills call for is already done.

There’s also the matter of teacher credentialing for “assigned teacher” and intervention specialists.

If no specialist is available, the Ohio third grade teacher credentials for 2013 would require a reading endorsement (K-12) and a Masters with the word “reading” or “literacy” in the degree name or on the transcript as a major. From school years 2014-2015 and forevermore, teachers from grades K-3 must add a rating of “above value-added” for the last school years or alternatively, a credential from a program on the Ohio Department of Education approved list of scientifically research-based reading instruction, to be approved by the State Board of Education in the Fall of 2013. These requirements for teachers as reading specialists range up to 9-12 credit hours of college classroom instructions to meet the criteria in the bill. That could cost up to $17,000.

The law appears to weigh heaviest on minority students and those from low-income households giving rise to the prospect of subconsciously lowered expectations by teachers thereby impacting promotion standards. There is also the very real possibility of fellow students making life miserable for the kids who are held back.

South Carolina is just catching up with this latest ploy with SB 516, the “South Carolina Read to Succeed Act.” Again, there exists an initiative called the South Carolina Education Improvement Act. Six million bucks of EIA money is currently allocated for reading programs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to tweak and intensify the existing programs and create separate reading groups than further muddy up the education waters with an unproven, expensive and potentially useless new approach?

The answer is that special interests don’t want to see any tweaking. They want to see the state’s educational programs fail and privatized. A state Senator quotes a statement about dropping out of school from a special report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This is a right-wing outfit established in 1948 by Jim Casey, a co-founder of UPS, that purports to love poor and disadvantage kids. Their Board is made up of mostly UPS types, but one prominent member caught my eye. He’s arch-conservative former Michigan Republican Governor John Engler.

Where do I begin? Engler is President of the National Association of Manufacturers. NAM has an army of lobbyists trying to trash every tax, regulatory and environmental effort in Congress. Engler is also a big shot with The Business Roundtable, another right-wing fed hater. Engler doesn’t stop there. He’s a Federalist Society member; part of a bunch of radical jurists who work tirelessly to get right-wing judges appointed who will roll back women’s rights, civil rights and environmental safeguards. Going back a few years, Engler was a board member of the Committee for Justice, a G.W. Bush outfit dedicated to ginning up “grassroots” support for the kind of judges favored by the federalists.

So that’s the status of the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee.” Let me leave you with Two frightening words from section 3301.079 of the Ohio legislation.

Subsection (b): Not later than July 1, 2012 (odd date since bill was signed in December, 2012), the state board shall incorporate into the social studies standards for grades four to twelve academic content regarding the original texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the Constitution of the United States and its amendments, with emphasis on the Bill of Rights, and the Ohio Constitution, and their original context.

Original context! What a wonderful propaganda opening for right-wing teachers.

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