This is not a policy piece, nor is it a product of research. It’s rather an essay on the flow of realpolitik in education in recent times.
The title is meant to be metaphorical and descriptive of a political reality that I think is important. I don’t intend in any way to liken individuals, including many I admire, to these horror film figures.
I don’t believe it’s too nostalgic today to say there was a general consensus around standards based reform in the mid-late1990s. Though educators had doubts and sometimes resisted, they were involved. Business leaders, civil rights groups, and reformers were active. Politicians at all levels rushed to lead.
As Rick Hanushek wrote in pioneering research, these reforms increasingly became core policies in a majority of states by 2000. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) extended and expanded these reforms throughout the nation after 2001.
Leaving substance aside, I want, first, to focus on the political fragmentation that began in the early 2000s and then look at what has followed from it. (I will not advocate for any position. This means, for example, I will not argue, as I usually do, that NCLB was effective and that its problems could have been repaired with mutual effort. Nor will I consider the opposite view that it was awful.)
This piece is purely about political dynamics and their effects.
It’s fair to say that the story begins with the decision of the major teachers’ unions to oppose NCLB and similar policies with increasing resources and ferocity, beginning in the early 2000s. They spent staggering sums to expand opposition among many groups with great success. http://dropoutnation.net/2015/10/16/teachers-unions-are-big-political-spenders/
As this anti-reform movement grew, the standards based reform movement weakened. It’s true that reform organizations lived on, and some, including charter school groups, flourished. But, most, including supportive businesses and foundations, began to pursue other objectives and/or departed the scene altogether.
This trend continued during the Obama years. Standards based reform was further wounded at both the federal and state levels. And, though there was some exuberance over new reforms, they, too, generally were deflated and left in limbo at the end of the President’s terms.
One noteworthy recent development has been the temporary coalescence of the anti-reform movement, organized mostly on the left, with powerful interests on the right. Under the banner of “local control,” these strange bedfellows helped pass NCLB’s successor, the Every Child Succeeds Act, at the federal level, and further incapacitated standards based reform in the states.
In the framework of my title, I am dubbing the anti-reform movement of the left the Godzilla of this narrative.
The problem for Godzilla now is that the right has returned to its roots. This probably should have been anticipated once government’s role was reduced. It surely became inevitable when the left (including Godzilla) duked it out with the right in recent elections.
Post-election, the Republicans now hold more power in both Washington and the states than ever before. And their agenda contains many of their old-time favorite positions - largely anti-union, anti-government programs, anti-tax and spend, and pro-choice.
For our story, I’m calling this movement on the right, King Kong.
Well - let’s just say that the colossal education battle between Godzilla and King Kong began in earnest with the nomination of Betsy DeVos. This fight is just a preview of what’s to come - bitter blows delivered and suffered by both sides.
The skirmishes in Wisconsin a few years ago also give a hint of what we’ll see - fights over the power of unions, spending levels, programs, etc. There will certainly be another Friedrichs-style case in the Supreme Court - one the unions will now lose.
In the old movies, King Kong, though battered, appeared to win the battle in the end. I suspect that the same will be true in our story. The unions will be weaker. Programs will be eviscerated. And education spending will basically be frozen.
Perhaps there’s a ray of hope in this seemingly dismal scene. Could it be that several years hence educators and other supporters of public education will realize that the Godzilla strategy was a mistake? The old coalition that included educators as well as business leaders, civil rights groups, and reformers wasn’t so bad after all. Could we go back to the future, with appropriate funding that supports restored and repaired reforms? Indeed maybe the tent could be made big enough to include those, too, who followed King Kong, with the promise of greater efficiency and choice for parents.
Maybe I’m dreaming. At times like these, however, what’s wrong with dreaming?