Sunday, May 26, 2013






Fiscal Conservatism, For Real

Right-wing Republican senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are blocking efforts by other Republicans and by Democrats to open negotiations on a budget, long demanded of the Obama administration by the GOP.  To Senator John McCain, two of them, Texas' Cruz and Kentucky's Paul, are "wacko birds on the right."   (Lee is sympathetic to McCain on comprehensive immigration reform, and Rubio is the leading candidate for the party's presidential nomination.   Even John McCain is careful whom he ridicules.)  To New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman, they are "budget hawks."

The four Repub senators and Representative Justin Amash of Michigan (he also a "wacko bird"), resisting increasing the debt limit to pay for what Congress already has voted to appropriate, are eager for the nation to default on its obligations.  But to New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman, that qualifies them as "budget hawks,"  which is slightly less offensive than the label usually applied to politicians who push to increase spending on their preferred programs (e.g., defense), cut income taxes, and explode the national debt.  Generally, they are generously labeled "fiscal conservatives."

This, however, is genuine fiscal conservatism:

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the higher education bill with $250 million in additional funding Friday but vetoed its $1.5 million appropriation for Teach for America.

In his veto letter (PDF), Dayton said he was axing the funding — $750,000 a year for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 — because he didn't like the way Teach for America was selected for the grant.

He called the national organization, which recruits college graduates and professionals to teach in urban and rural districts, "a well-established, national program" and noted that it has assets of $350 million.

"With those financial resources available, it is not clear why a $1.5 million grant from the State of Minnesota is required to continue or expand the organization's work here," he said in the veto letter.

Dayton's veto is no less bold because Teach for America is a dangerous and destructive program.  Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, last year wrote

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach For America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Several years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was: “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

In saying these things, let me make it clear that my quarrel is not with the many talented young people who join Teach For America, some of whom decide to remain in the communities they work in and become lifetime educators.  It is with the leaders of the organization, which enjoys favor from the Obama administration, captains of industry, members of Congress, the media, and the foundation world.  TFA alumni have used this access to move rapidly into positions as heads of local school systems, executives in charter school companies, and educational analysts in management consulting firms.

The organization’s facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult, but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes, not only for failing schools but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality.  No organization has been more complicit than TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers’ unions, and no organization has provided more “shock troops” for education reform strategies which emphasize privatization and high-stakes standardized testing.  Michelle Rhee, a TFA alum, is the poster child for such policies, but she is hardly alone.

Her counterparts can be found in New Orleans (where they led the movement toward a system dominated by charter schools), in New York (where they play an important role in the Bloomberg education bureaucracy) and in many other cities.

In his veto letter (here in PDF), Governor Dayton did not address the value- or lack thereof- of Teach for America, instead arguing
 
My principal concern, however, is the way in which TFA was selected as the recipient of this grant. To my knowledge, no competitive grant program was established; no other applications were solicited; and no objective review was made by an independent panel ofexperts. Instead, the funds were inserted into the Senate's Higher Education bill, directed to this organization, and retained in the Conference Committee's report.

If the Legislature deems it is in our state's best interest to encourage programs like TFA, a formal grant program should be established within the Minnesota Department of Education, and all qualifying organizations should be allowed to apply for funding. The legislation should establish the goals for such a program and the results by which its effectiveness will be evaluated. This type of competitive grants process would be a fairer way to distribute public funds.

It is uncertain whether Mark Dayton believes Teach for America is a worthy program.  Nonetheless, his veto reflects an unusual approach in an environment in which conservatives and neo-liberals join forces to destroy public education.  He has demonstrated, in a genuine application of fiscal conservatism, that the rich and powerful have no constitutional right to a government subsidy.



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