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Thompson: Karl Rove's Descendents

Karl_Rove_140x190We have just begun the 2014 countdown to NCLB's universal proficiency target for all students.  I wonder if we'll get there by June.

Seriously, after 12 years, it is time to address some issues in addition to the law's failed, top-down approach to schooling. Was it a good idea to forsake "incrementalism" and demand rapid "transformative" change across the entire nation? It is also time to reflect upon the political strategy of blowing up the educational "status quo" to pave the way for "disruptive innovation."  

We should inventory the ways that NCLB-type reform weakened progressive coalitions, undermining state efforts to promote justice, or at least slow the increase of economic inequities.

It also has been a decade since New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, in The Controller,  persuaded Karl Rove to reveal that NCLB was a component of his three-part plan for destroying the Democratic Party.  Now that the U.S. Supreme Court declared corporations to be people, the "Billionaires Boys Club" is the new Rove. 

Not all of the new elites seek complete domination of the party that once represented working people, but corporate reformers are rarely reluctant to bulldoze institutions that used to provide some balance of power. 

In 2003, Lemann described  the Arabesque of Rove which "openly makes a political move, but its meaning is presumed to be something else." For instance, “leave no child behind” seemed to voice concern over the education of children in the ghetto but it was more concerned with appealing to suburban women.  Rove's say-one-thing-while-meaning-another approach to edu-politics was just a detail in his larger scheme of divide and conquer.  NCLB was, in part, a tactic to get Democratic constituencies such as labor, teachers, and the civil rights community to fight each other.

Most importantly, Rove said he would undermine the Democrats' funding base of trial lawyers, Jews, and labor unions. In a strategy that anticipated the anti-teacher, anti-union tactics of Governor Scott Walker, Rove attacked the three services which the Democrats promised the voters, Social Security, Medicare, and public education. Even Rove, however, could not have fully anticipated the damage that could be done on the state level by defeating a last great stronghold of progressivism, teachers and unions, and their ability to provide financial resources and boots on the ground.

Rove did not destroy the national Democratic Party.  But, liberal, neo-liberal and conservative reformers, and their corporate funders have shredded many state coalitions that once defended the poor, workers, and civil rights protections.  Their attacks on unions and teachers have undermined progressive coalitions and weakened state-level checks and balances. 

Moreover, edu-philanthropy adopted much of Rove's playbook. As Philanthropy magazine's Christopher Levenick explains in They Shall Overcome, corporate reformer John Walton saw "vicious combat" in Vietnam and compares it with his fights with teachers and unions. While claiming to be "the civil rights movement of the 21st century," deep-pocket donors often see education reform as just one piece of a crusade to create an entire social policy that they favor. Levenick cites John Arnold, the hedge fund operator who helped give us Enron, as an example. Arnold's goal is permanent and systemic transformations ranging from schools, prisons, retirees' pensions, and "restoring research integrity (including the social sciences.)" 

I'm not saying, for instance, that all of Arnold's agenda is bad.  I know little about his prison reform ideas and, who knows, perhaps he has a better idea for research than the peer review of evidence. Non-educators may have fouled up education reform but, who knows, perhaps non-scholars can do a better job of replacing the scientific method with something that is more to their liking. But, I know that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The rise of the increasingly unchecked power of corporate heavyweights is inherently dangerous.

Corporate governance might or might not be a good tactic for maximizing profit. The entrepeneur's tactic of wiping the political and/or economic slate clean might make sense for promoting venture capital. It is time to ask whether their unified, take-no-prisoners approach ever made sense for improving the lot of poor children of color.

Whether liberals and moderates are trying to restore social services gutted by the Great Recession, raise  the minimum wage, resist the privatization of prisons, or protect the last of the social safety net, we have a new disadvantage. Due in no small part to school reform, we fight ourselves when we should be united in opposing a united conservative front.-JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via.


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