Last week's chaotic standardized school testing wasn't just a two-day cluster for students, teachers and test monitors. It was potentially a worst-case scenario for Oklahoma's school districts, their administrators and the rank-and-file citizens serving on their boards.
Why? Because you can bet somebody's getting sued if students aren't allowed to graduate or promote to the next grade because of blunders outside their control.
It's terribly unfair, if you think about it: The school districts, their administrators and duly-elected citizen board members -- and yes, ultimately the taxpayers -- could be on the hook because of boneheaded political decisions made in Oklahoma City.
Those decisions are the result of an anti-public education cabal in control at N.E. 23rd and Lincoln Blvd. that pursues a simple, greedy notion: There are big bucks to be made by privatizing education.
You thought educating the next generation was a noble pursuit? So naïve.
In simplest terms, powerful forces in the Republican caucus are working overtime to set up public schools for failure. Their motivations are varied -- some want to break the teachers' unions, others flat-out want religious education.
But their goal is the same: blow up the system and replace it with church schools, home schools, virtual schools, anything that reduces teachers to serfs and ensures fundamentalist religious instruction.
Yes, it's somewhat counterintuitive: If you view the GOP as the party of the Chamber of Commerce set, for example, it's baffling that their elected proxies would do anything but make education the highest priority.
Without a highly educated and skilled workforce, businesses will suffer, and America's economic future will be jeopardized.
If you view the GOP as the G-O-D's Constitution-adhering, flag-waving, Founding Fathers-mirroring people's party, it's even more confounding because all know -- or should know -- that a fair, equal shot at the American dream depends on a fair, equal shot at a high-quality education.
It's difficult to imagine that any in either group -- whether corporatist or ideologue -- isn't concerned about the education their children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and neighbors' kids are receiving.
Yet, as our august legislature continues to starve public education -- crumbs proposed for next year's budget after cutting per-pupil expenditures 20 percent the last five years -- it mandates that schools do more, especially when it comes to testing.
And it steers more education dollars to private, for-profit concerns involved in such things as "virtual" schools and standardized testing.
CTB/McGraw-Hill's technical meltdown redirected the spotlight to this transfer of power -- and taxpayers' wealth -- from public to for-profit education.
The state is paying nearly $9 million this year for the company's role in the testing process. If the state decides to extend the relationship, it could end up steering $28 million to CTB/McGraw-Hill over five years.
This is from Oklahoma alone. Hardly chump change. CTB/McGraw-Hill does similar work in other states.
It wasn't just that servers crashed during last week's testing, disrupting around 3,000 tests that used to determine eligibility for high school graduation, promotion to the next grade and that help produce the new A-F scoring system for schools.
The Friday before the tests were to begin on Monday, educators told me the CTB/McGraw-Hill still hadn't delivered testing materials to their schools.
Subsequently, the company also uploaded a last-minute fix to its software, forcing districts to delay testing, some even to reload their computers.
There's enough anxiety -- for students, fearful they might not graduate or be promoted to the next grade if they have a bad day filling in the bubbles, or school districts, afraid they'll be unfairly tarnished as low-performing -- without the technological hiccups.
Predictably, some legislators who've been part of the privatization movement suddenly were issuing press releases not only railing against the system they helped create, but also demanding the test scores be tossed out.
State Reps. Gus Blackwell (R-Laverne) and John Trebilcock (R-Broken Arrow), for example, say they'll pursue an amendment to House Bill 1434 that will throw out this year's results.
"If we place such a high degree of importance on these tests, it only stands to reason we must keep these tests at a high standard of validity," said Blackwell. "To pretend that these tests are valid teaches a very wrong lesson to the students we're trying to educate."
Trebilcock, a former high school history teacher, called it "a parade of errors."
"Kids shouldn't be held liable for adult mistakes," he said. "These students study hard for these state-mandated exams. Because students need to pass these exams to move up a grade or graduate, a large degree of anxiety sets in amongst these kids. Making them repeat a test because of something out of their control is wrong and we shouldn't put them through that."
If there were ever a teachable moment for the ideologues that dominate the GOP Legislature, this should be it.
Despite their fealty to the free market, there are some things for which government should be responsible, but none of those things include for-profit enterprises.
It's terrible public policy to put schoolchildren at the mercy of for-profit corporations. Sure, government agencies and workers screw up. They're not always the most efficient.
But often times -- brace yourself, corporatists -- government can do a better job, not least because it can take profit pressures out of the equation.
My guess is the state Department of Education, even with its troubles under Superintendent Janet Barresi, could help administer standardized tests more efficiently -- perhaps even at a lower cost -- than via a private vendor.
Plus, there's another potential benefit: most of taxpayers' money spent on such projects would remain in Oklahoma, benefiting our economy, not flowing beyond the borders to non-Oklahoma companies.
And we haven't even begun a discussion about whether the tests themselves are at all reflective of what's been learned. Maybe we could discuss whether the best-educated students are those who can regurgitate information or those who learn actual concepts and critical thinking skills?
The least state policymakers can do is toss out this year's results, even though it in effect flushes $8.9 million down the toilet.
But they must not stop there. They must put their knee-jerk ideology aside and engage in a reasoned, adult conversation over how to strengthen public education, not how to help their cronies make a buck at the students' and taxpayers' expense.
If they stick their heads in the sand, ignore the cries of students, parents, teachers and administrators, and cling to the notion that the private sector is always -- always -- the best choice, they will be dooming school districts, their boards and, ultimately, the taxpayers to an unwanted date at the courthouse.
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