ESEA Reauthorization: A Game of Thrones

Recently I have received numerous emails from friends across the country with links to corruption and co optation in education reform (and resistance), asking me if I’d be willing to dig a little deeper into some of these issues, or share my thoughts. Honestly, I have been mentally fried lately and found it difficult to process much of anything serious. So instead I put on an episode of Game of Thrones: Season One. Anyone who has followed this series knows how unbelievably complicated the intersecting plot lines are. The show is filled with back rooms deals, bribes, threats, and brutal violence…all in the quest for the “Iron Throne” –the ruler who will rule all of the seven kingdoms. And it occurred to me how much the ongoing reauthorization of ESEA reminds me of Game of Thrones. Unless you’ve followed it from the beginning it’s nearly impossible to tell who allies with whom, who is betraying whom, and who is going to get killed off.

The inside deals and violence being imposed on public education via ESEA is similar to the plots of Game of Thrones … so for those who feel confused by what is really happening with ESEA (for a quick snapshot) see:

And I thought I’d try this as an analogy.

Game of Thrones is far too complex to analyze in detail here, but for a simple comparison let’s say for a moment that the corporate reformers are the Lannisters, a household that rules Kings Landing, and is the wealthiest, most powerful family in the realm. They are known for bribery and back-room treachery. They are full of lies and deceit. In Season One the Iron Throne king has died and his wife (a treacherous Lannister) has conspired to place her young son Geoffry (born of willing incest) to become the new king. The Lannisters are the Broads, The Gates, the Waltons and the other billionaires buying and conniving their way to seats of power in public education (aka the Iron Throne).

This post from Ohio BATS illustrates this complexity nicely:

“As I wrote this, I realized it is nearly impossible to determine who are our friends and who are our enemies. The (mostly) polite listening is done to appease us. Meanwhile, we’re weeks away from a new school year, with no meaningful change in ESEA/NCLB. We will face the same broken mandates that continue to test, label, and punish our children, their educators, and their schools. This is not a game. We are not playing. Our children and our public schools are not given the full and complete attention they deserve. Until it is clear that what is done is right for children and their education, I will be gathering pitchforks!”

Oh…. but it IS a game (of thrones) to the corporate masters!

The resistance to corporate reform might be compared to the Stark family (rulers of the North) led in Season One by Ned Stark who was the loyal right hand of and close friend to the king who died (by treachery of course) . We find the Starks likeable empathetic characters, and yet they keep screwing up with bad choices. Ned is honest, with integrity and a sense of loyalty. But the Starks cannot compete against the Lannisters. For example, in the episode I just watched, Ned Stark agrees to a compromise of silence (of what he knows to be true) in order to save his daughters from the Lannister’s clutches. Of course following his compromise Geoffrey Lannister beheads him anyway, having gotten he wanted from Ned’s compromise.

Currently in ESEA some of the items considered positive by some include a return of standardized testing into the hands of the state, and a repeal of AYP at the hands of the feds.  Some members of the resistance might feel as Ned did; that real resistance is futile and compromise is necessary. A seek to compromise on anything in ESEA hoping that by doing so we might save our schools will lead us to the same end as Ned. What those in power want they will get, and they will promise us anything that sounds good to yield a compromise. And then they will cut our heads off anyway.

Sansa Stark, Ned’s daughter, is in love with Geoffry (now king) and works very hard to gain his affections. Sansa represents the union leaders and organizational leaders who pay lip service to a defense of equity, justice and democracy but cozy right up to Broad, Walton and Gates for their financial affections. How else can we explain numerous talking points by such groups/persons agreeing that testing is “obsolete” or “toxic” or “harmful” … and yet stop just short of calling for actions to wholly end it? For example Randi Weingarten has political and financial associations with Hillary Clinton, Eli Broad and the Gates Foundation. What does this mean?

One blog points out: “Randi Weingarten responded that schools need more hands on engagement such as happens at some Career/Tech Education schools. She said there should be multiple assessments for students to demonstrate learning. However, embedded in her flowery talk about the need for multiple assessments, later in the interview, she supports the Senate version of the revised Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that calls for annual testing. The reason she gives that annual testing is needed is that “civil rights leaders” say we need the tests so kids from low-income families “are not invisible”.’

This gives new meaning to the phrase “silence is golden.” Why remain silent on calling for action against standardized testing when you know it is harmful AND the cornerstone of reforms that are destroying your very own kingdom and people? The money of the Lannister’s and promise of power is as persuasive way of buying allegiance of leaders as is Geoffry’s promise to make Sansa his queen.  And if you watch the show, you know how that turned out for her.

A group of civil rights organizations came out with a letter in support of standardized testing as well. Like Ned Stark, do they naively hope that by publicly proclaiming that which is not true is a compromise which will spare them? Not coincidentally these groups have also received money from “the Lannister’s” in hopes that their fealty will ensure their own survival perhaps. See for details.

So many organizations demanding many of the right things for children, teachers and schools and  taking many vital actions carefully avoid calling for mass actions that would lead to total testing boycott’s or refusals. Why? Why stop just short of REALLY changing the rules of the game? As Wayne Au states, “Anytime I see ‘grassroots’ groups promoting the agenda of the corporate education reformers, like what happened here in Washington State with charter school reform in 2012, I’m always compelled to follow the money.”

As another example of union leadership co-optation, Andy Stern, formerly SEIU president, sits on the board of the Broad Foundation.  There are a number of troubling things about SEIU, Broad, and Charters in the Los Angeles School District, including astro-turf parent organizations. It was linked to a “small schools” initiative in the mid 2000’s. Looking now at Phillie (the site of the United Opt Out 2016 event) I wonder about the direction of the Community Schools model being put out in that community. Will “community schools” (which themselves sound hopeful on the surface) really be a back room way to outsource school services to the private sector? See:

Again, while these members of the family Stark claim allegiance to their own kingdom, behind closed doors they pledge their true allegiance to the Lannisters.  For example, “SEIU President Mary Kay Henry can get arrested at Occupy events, and her union can put out press releases and give speeches about targeting millionaires, but when the rubber hit the road in California, SEIU sided with the political and corporate elite against the grassroots groups mobilizing for the 99%. Labor had a great opportunity to make common cause with grassroots activists in California, and instead chose the more politically safe course.

Speaking of UOO action in Philly 2016, as Pennsylvania gears up to create new exit exams to begin in 2017 (which we may rightly assume large percentages will fail and thus not graduate because that’s what they’re designed to do)  we hope that PA student groups will build mass refusals to these tests. It’s becoming evident that have little to lose by taking mass action and organizing test boycotts or walkouts. We wonder, who will support them? And who will try to deter them from taking such action?

The Lannister’s meanwhile are conspiring for many self-serving claims to power and profit as ESEA reauthorization makes many promises to them. One of the things included in the current bill relates to school vouchers.

With ESEA in their back pocket they can charge ahead with their true agenda:

“Wisconsin is well on its way towards limitless voucher schools, and last month, Nevada signed into law a universal ‘education savings account’ allowing parents to send their kids to private or religious schools, or even to homeschool them—all on the taxpayers’ dime. On the federal level, a proposed amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have created a multi-billion-dollar-a-year voucher program was only narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate.”

The Iron Throne (public education) will be handed to them in a short order with ALEC leading the charge to privatization…while the Starks compromise, cozy up, or remain silent. In the words (in a personal email correspondence) of Don Bunger A WA BAT with a notable ear to the ground:

“Here may be a workable thesis that can focus the reader on a possible end result of the 2016 Presidential Election Cycle that may the first national effort to alter public education delivery systems permanently. Jeb Bush has laid the groundwork for a subtle shift of tax dollars to be spread to public and private sector schools through the vector of vouchers. Yes Charters are in the mix but the secret sauce will be Vouchers.”

The new ESEA will also be a boon for charter schools. According to Peter Green:

States can go to the head of the line for Title V funding if

  • they let an entity other than a local school district authorize charters
  • they give charters equitable financing, compared to public schools (so we’re done pretending that charters save taxpayers money)
  • they help provide facilities through either funding or co-location
  • they let charters handle budget and operations as they wish, including personnel decision (so, hire, fire and pay at will)
  • they use best practices from charters to improve public schools (a toughie, since so far this has happened exactly nowhere)

Yes, the “progressives” like Hillary might pretend to be a member of the family Stark but it’s the Lannisters that they really serve. According to Ken Derstein, “Bill Clinton’s all night White House meeting with Eli Broad, occurred as Clinton, under the guise of a progressive agenda, was advancing a neoliberal agenda during and after his presidency.”

The promises of reduced testing or state driven testing as positive things are promises given by Goeffry Lannister, and we will likely wind up beheaded as reward for our compromise not to engage in full scale refusal. The Lannisters still remain the rulers and writers of ESEA. Anything in there is designed for their purpose.

This brings me to one more major character I need to discuss here: Daenerys Targayren, the mother of dragons. Daenerys is the true heir to the Iron Throne. She represents the parents, teachers and children in all of our communities, the rightful heirs to public education. In summary: “she becomes determined to bring justice as a conqueror as she leads a military campaign to bring an end to slavery in Slaver’s Bay, liberating the occupied cities … with an army of Unsullied. Despite her strong moral compass, she is capable of dealing ruthlessly with her enemies, particularly the slave masters.” While the royal kingdoms of the Starks and the Lannisters fight with and for one another in self- serving fashion Daenerys fights for those who matter most.

In other words, she…does…not …compromise. She is not motivated by gold nor by power. And she’s got those cool dragons. This is her true power. Her dragons represent our collective power of REFUSAL. Like Daenerys we are being told to “chain our dragons” because they are too dangerous. But they are also the source of our power. Of course the “royalty” want them chained. With it we can lay waste to the corrupt kingdoms of the Lannisters and chase away those that compromise, sell-out, and co opt our voices and our schools. Let’s use our power and claim the Iron Throne…we are the rightful heirs.

Bring on the dragons.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

One thought on “ESEA Reauthorization: A Game of Thrones

  1. Game of Thrones, yes, thanks for this reading. NYTimes today Fri Jul 31 has several articles updating maneuvers of the oligarch Clintons and Kochs.

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