Treating education like an industry instead of a public good has left the Florida governor in a tough place
Florida's belligerent right-wing governor Ron DeSantis may finally have generated the kind of anger from voters that will force him to back down on a culture war issue.
Earlier this month, I wrote about DeSantis's racist and anti-LGBTQ attacks on education in his state, highlighting his unilateral ban on a new Advanced Placement (AP) course in African American studies, which will be offered to school districts nationwide this autumn - though of course Florida schools are barred from participating.
The row has so escalated that DeSantis is threatening to pull Florida public schools out of the AP programme altogether.
In a nutshell, the AP programme offers students the chance to take introductory university-level classes in particular subjects while they're still in high school. After completing the coursework, they are able to take AP exams in the subject, and American colleges and universities will generally grant course credit for high scores on the exams. That credit gives successful students a head start on completing their university degrees, which can save them a considerable amount of money they would otherwise have spent on tuition. The programme covers a wide variety of subjects and is overseen by the private, not-for-profit College Board, which also administers the widely used SAT and ACT university entrance exams.
The College Board announced revisions to the course under attack, but the brouhaha culminated with DeSantis saying he might just pull Florida out of the AP programme altogether. This looks like a mistake.
Parents are now considering moving out of Florida "to protect their children's chances at a good education", and high school students are concerned about how competitive their university applications will be if AP courses cease to be available, according to The Washington Post.
But while educational challenge and enrichment are clearly in play, the furore is almost certainly more fundamentally about dollars and cents.
Higher education in the US is outrageously expensive. After a four-year university degree, students end up with an average student loan debt of $30,000 - no paltry sum for young adults just beginning their professional lives. The course credit students can earn through AP exams can help to mitigate the expense, potentially allowing them to graduate faster and thus avoid some of that debt. It pains me to say so as both a progressive and a "nerd" who took AP classes in the 1990s, but that's the primary reason that these courses are so popular.
The College Board fights back
When I wrote about this two weeks ago, the College Board had already announced its planned revisions to its African American Studies course, currently in its pilot phase - revisions that I (and many other liberal and progressive commentators) saw as capitulation to right-wing bullies.
In response to that controversy, the College Board denied that criticism from Florida officials had anything to do with the changes. Florida's Department of Education (DOE), however, hit back, claiming that the College Board's decision was influenced by its objections and releasing information about the two parties' correspondence to bolster its claim.
That seems to have been the last straw for the College Board. It released a statement on 11 February, saying: "We deeply regret not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education's slander, magnified by the DeSantis administration's subsequent comments, that African American studies 'lacks educational value'. Our failure to raise our voice betrayed Black scholars everywhere and those who have long toiled to build this remarkable field."
The Florida DOE, it added, had not provided any feedback with which it could have made revisions. "After each written or verbal exchange with them, as a matter of professional protocol, we politely thanked them for their feedback and contributions, although they had given none." This "courtesy", it says, was "exploited" by Florida to make the College Board look like it had capitulated to the state's suggestions.
A few days later, DeSantis threatened that Florida would simply drop AP courses altogether (though it's not clear if the governor and state executive structures have the legal authority to make such a move without the participation of the state legislature). The way DeSantis framed his threat is quite telling - not only regarding what's wrong with Florida and Republicans, but also what's wrong with the US education system more broadly.
"Who elected them?" DeSantis quipped of the College Board, adding: "Are there other people that provide services? Turns out there are." He suggested that Florida could "utili[s]e some of these other providers who I think have a really, really strong track record".
In fact, the potential alternatives DeSantis brought up - the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Assessment programmes - do not offer anything like the repertoire or the reach that the AP programme has. But treating all of them as mere 'providers of services' flows from thinking of education as an industry rather than as a public good that should be insulated from markets so that it can serve all US citizens well.
The way the College Board works also feeds directly into this unfettered market mentality. As CNN recently reported, the College Board acts like a business: it "advertises itself as a nonprofit but in some years generates more than $1bn in revenue and pays top executives seven-figure salaries".
The only authority the College Board has is the authority of the market, and market forces undoubtedly also contribute to a lack of clear accountability for the College Board's leadership. Indeed, the organisation is far from perfect; its SAT and ACT university entrance exams have often been criticised for systemic bias that favours white and affluent students and have been dropped as a requirement for admission to public universities in the state of California.
Jon Boeckenstedt from Oregon State University told CNN that, because of the decentralisation of primary and secondary education in the US, it is "extraordinarily difficult for us as a nation to figure out whether students are learning the things we think they should be learning, and we have no real way to assess or even compare learning for school districts, across different schools and across different populations". A private, corporation-like organisation - the College Board - stepped into the gap and, said Boeckenstedt, is now "sort of entrenched in circular business processes that feed off each other".
America's capitalist education nightmare
Meanwhile, thanks to a lack of coordination, organisation and equity on anything remotely approaching a national scale, the overall state of our primary and secondary education is perhaps best encapsulated in a colourful neologism that rhymes with 'flusterduck'.
Underpaid public school teachers, to be clear, are not to blame. The factors that are to blame include: the funding of schools primarily with property taxes (leading to severe inequity among districts in the same state as well as among states); angry right-wingers taking over school boards and banning books; the defunding and dismantling of public schools via so-called 'school choice' programmes and other methods pushed by conservatives; and the fundamental lack of proper regulation, especially with respect to private schools and homeschooling, through which many young Americans are subjected to indoctrination and severe educational neglect.
This laissez-faire approach to education reflects the pernicious pull of free-market ideology in the US and the disproportionate power that conservatives (above all the Christian Right) have to shape policy - despite the fact that most Americans disagree with much of their policy agenda.
As someone with a PhD who spent a number of years working in higher education, I can state anecdotally that even many liberals and progressives who work in education casually refer to the field as an 'industry'. But persisting in that thinking undermines our ability to push back on petty tyrants such as Ron DeSantis, who has couched his criticism of the College Board (an imperfect institution but the best one we've got for what it does) in market terms.
Yet, ironically, it is the prohibitively high cost of college education and the savings that AP classes can bring that will probably cause DeSantis to change his mind about banning the AP programme.
That would be the right outcome in this case, but my hope is that somehow we Americans will eventually learn to think of education as a critically important public good, rather than just another commodity to be shaped by 'the invisible hand' of the free market. Unless and until we can do so, significant and much needed education reform is likely to elude us.
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