Sunday, September 18, 2005

Just Say No

Earlier this year, California teachers spoke out when the governor broke his promise to repay the two billion dollars he borrowed from the education budget. California nurses took the governor to court when he tried to roll back the hospital staffing law that protects patients. California’s firefighters and police officers attacked the governor's plan to eliminate survivor benefits for family members when an officer or firefighter is killed in the line of duty.

Now the Alliance for a Better California, a coalition of teachers, firefighters and nurses, kicked off the campaign to defeat Proposition 75 by unveiling its first TV ad.

The 30-second spot began airing statewide on September 8 and explains to California voters that Prop. 75 has a hidden agenda to silence the voices of teachers, nurses, firefighters and police who spoke out against cuts to education, health care and public safety earlier this year.

"Like previous California initiatives, Prop. 75 has a hidden agenda. Its real agenda is to make it easier for the governor and his big business pals to cut school funding, health care and public safety," said CTA President Barbara Kerr.

The top seven donors to Prop. 75 are major contributors to the governor, and a coalition of business and anti-tax groups was formed to promote Prop. 75 by gathering petition signatures earlier this year. If Proposition 75 passes, who will protect the workers in education, health care and public safety? It's a sure bet it won't be the governor who favors big business.

Prop. 75 will place restrictions on only public employees and would not impact any other organization that makes political contributions, including corporations. Yet according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, corporations already outspend unions by a 24-1 margin nationally.

Voters are fair and do not appreciate being lied to. It is apparent that Prop. 75 wants to thwart the efforts of workers and their organizations to reach out to the public, and voters won't be fooled. If this measure is so good for the public, then it should impact corporations and big business as well. Otherwise, it comes across to the voters as mean-spirited. Just say NO to 75.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The S(H)MO Model--Part Two

So what about this "managed care" model of education? Something we learn to intuit--if vaguely--and even accept, deep down, as un fait accompli?

Early last spring, I went to Scottsdale, AZ for the Assocation of Test Publishers (ATP) "Innovations in Testing" conference. It was the sixth annual conference of the lobbying and networking group. ATP has existed since 1992, maintains non-profit status (under Section 2.01 of Illinois law), and keeps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

I had discovered ATP when its acronym appeared in a board member biography for a textbook company I was researching. I went to the website, where I was intrigued by the clear and unmitigating language of the organizational goals, especially the first: "To promote and preserve the general welfare of testing and its value to society, in all its forms and uses."

Because ATP isn't a 501(c)3 nonprofit public benefit corporation, it can legally restrict access to some materials for the general public. Some of these materials include legal updates, complete member directories, and a "school interoperability network."

Just browsing the site, however, it's not difficult to find names--a roster of members piling up financial resources, cachet, and prestige: The College Board, Educational Testing Service (ETS), SASSI, Microsoft, Linux, Lotus, Edison Electric Institute, Hewlett-Packard, Thomson, Pearson VUE, Harcourt...and on and on. Some of the most invested clients come from multi-national corporations based overseas, in countries such as China, U.K. and the Netherlands. ATP has four divisions, only one of which is directly "educational." The remaining three cover all areas of business and professional testing: certification/licensure, clinical, and industrial/ organizational.

K-12 education serves as an invaluable marketing platform for testing as a self-evident sorting mechanism. A part of the "real world" into which all students will venture.

It cost $650 (ouch!--at least deductible as writer's reseach) plus driving expenses (we live fairly close, in California) to get there. My husband's father happens to own a small apartment where we could stay. Unlike many conference participants whose expenses were covered by the test companies that sent them, I didn't have to sleep at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, where all meetings and panels were held. That--plus golf on the prestigious course--would have cost another $200+ per day. Many participants flew in from all over the country.

According to one estimate in a speech the first morning, there were approximately 700 attendees this year. A vast majority were white. The most prominent black male was the outgoing ATP executive director, William G. Harris, who went--I kid you not--by a big "G" on his nametag. Everyone called him "G," and I wondered if they figured this would buy them some clout in the 'hood, if anyone was checking for "racial sensitivity" among test professionals. As a white person, I was mortified.

The dearth of educators, whether from city or state boards, unions, K-12 teachers, or universities, was fairly startling. This absence was lamented out loud at least twice--once in the general session and once in the smaller education division meeting. But lamentation goes only so far.

Fact is, the conference takes place during a regular work week, when public school employees would be highly unlikely to attend. The expenses of the conference alone are enough to discourage attendance by any typical government employee. The formal Catch-22, offered as a reason there would be little remedy: Grants or incentives to make attendance affordable for public system employees would be illegal, as ATP's member organizations stand to benefit from contracts and contacts gained. It would be a conflict of interest.

It's strange that it would be a conflict of interest to have reps from public entities looking over the shoulder of private corporations who gather pots of public money from the public system.

Two key facts I gathered from attending panels and doing a lot of listening:

1. The test industry is not currently regulated by the federal government. This is ironic, considering the government's reliance on test instruments to evaluate teachers and schools. (One man from Thompson Prometric said he could "curl my toes" with stories about tests designed to fit client demands for particular results--low or high cut-offs, for example--rather than according to "best practices" encouraged by the industry.)

2. ATP has a love-hate relationship with No Child Left Behind legislation. On one hand, it stimulates demand for tests and test-support. On the other hand, it creates scrutiny by the Feds, who may eventually intrude with regulation. NCLB may also motivate government to get into the test game itself--as a fierce and unwanted competitor.

[To be continued]