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OpineRegress: Matthew Yglesias' reactionary education policy pandering

by Robert D. Skeels Monday, Jun. 06, 2011 at 4:40 AM 90026

I've been following the exchange regarding education policy between Rachel Levy and Matthew Ygelsias online. Ygelsias is a well known supporter of reactionary corporate education reform, despite his reputation of progressive politics. In this essay we examine those contradictions and offer some possible reasons for Ygelsias' intransigence.

"In the long run, charter schools are being strategically used to pave the way for vouchers. The voucher advocates, who are very powerful and funded by right-wing foundations and families, recognize that the word voucher has been successfully discredited by enlightened Americans who believe in the public sector. So they've resorted to two strategies. First, they no longer use the word "vouchers." They've adopted the seemingly benign phrase "school choice," but they are still voucher advocates." — Jonathan Kozol

I've been following the exchange between Rachel Levy and Matthew Ygelsias online. Levy's latest post, which sums up their previous exchanges in the first paragraph, is well reasoned and written from the standpoint of someone who understands basic pedagogy. You can also tell that she is growing weary of arguing with someone whose actual knowledge of education is limited to the talking points put forth by the plutocrat funded Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Ygelsias' posts reek both of white privilege and, what Paulo Freire calls, "the false generosity of paternalism." Moreover, Yglesias is a huge proponent of neoliberalism as we will see below.

Yglesias is a marginally left of center political pundit whose supposed "progressive" leanings have allowed him to provide cover for some of the most reactionary education policies we've ever seen. His stalwart defense of erstwhile fringe ideas like "choice and competition," ideas that originate from right wing think tanks like the Hoover Institution and Manhattan Institute, are fair indicators of his thinking as much as Rachel Levy's attributing it to his "superficial knowledge of how education works."

Yglesias unabashedly supports school privatization by way of charters, pseudoscientific measures of teachers' abilities like VAM/AGT, standardized testing and other false methods of "accountability," so-called "merit" pay, school closures and reconstitution, removal of the modicum of teacher protections like seniority and tenure, and a host of other things that have made up the reactionary wish list of organizations like Cato, AEI, Hudson, and others for decades. Frankly Yglesias' stated ideas are no different than those of the most right wing education privatization pundits like Andy Smarick, Robert Holland, Ben Boychuk, and Rick Hess. Where he does differ from them, it's only a matter of minor nuance.

Even Yglesias' notions of what constitute a good school reveal both his privilege and ignorance. Here's a quote of his:

"KIPP schools are "good schools" in that KIPP students perform better than one would predict from the demographics, and we've got the sophisticated studies to back it up."

That so-called sophisticated study was conducted by none other than the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored Mathematica Policy Research, a pay to play think tank whose studies start from a conclusion and then scramble for possible evidence to support those conclusions. Preliminary reports, like the one Mathematica published on KIPP aren't subject to peer review, but that doesn't stop Yglesias from citing it as authoritative. "Preliminary studies" are a favorite of the corporate education reform junta, and Yglesias is no exception.

Fortunately, Professors Gary Miron and Kevin Welner's recent paper on KIPP's attrition fiasco should put to bed any arguments that KIPP's methods get anything right. Scholars like Western Michigan University's Jessica L. Urschel and Nicholas Saxton, and Georgia State University's Brian Lack have also contributed to our understanding of KIPP's many wrongheaded methods and their drastically overstated results. Dr. Jim Horn's frequent writings on KIPP are also a joy, his phrase "cultural sterilization" for how KIPP treats inner city students has become part of my canon of phrases apropos to privatization.

Journalist Caroline Grannan once responded to my sharp criticisms of Yglesias by saying he suffers from a well known condition of being from "The Village." That is beltway bloggers whose politics are right of center, but claiming progressive credentials. She discusses this in a piece entitled In The Village, no one can hear you scream. This quote from her essay describes Yglesias perfectly:

"[T]he term 'Villagers' denotes a kind of small-minded refusal to think outside an 'acceptable' center-right consensus ... [T]he 'Villagers' include, in part, Democratic elected officials and consultants who insist that their party can't succeed unless they ally their party with that center-right consensus..."

A plausible explanation, as is the reality that Yglesias' positions are a natural consequence of decades of neoliberalism. DFER was spawned from the same tradition.

Yglesias' ability to provide cover for neoliberalism, reactionary policies, and right wing ideas is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this whole discussion. At least when we see something from troglodytes like Andy Smarick, we know it will smack of Ayn Rand market fantasies and other sociopath ideologies. Yglesias, on the other hand, has a following of well meaning liberals and even moderately progressive people who are being abjectly misled into supporting education policies that are anathema to the principles of social justice. Yglesias' cover is just as harmful as the recent charter school propaganda feature film by that smug mendacious hipster Davis Guggenheim — whose production was financed by the arch-reactionary Philip Anschutz, and distribution was financed by ideologue Bill Gates.

Here's a local anecdote to show how Yglesias' unqualified views on education are utterly insidious. In Los Angeles there is a well financed group called Parent Revolution, a charter-voucher school advocacy 501C3 funded by the Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate. They and their right leaning leader, the pariah Ben Austin, are infamous for the law that allows corporate charters to seize public schools, it's often referred to as the "parent trigger." Parent Revolution is so far to the right, that they frequently host events with extreme right wing groups like The Heartland Institute (I like to say The Heartland Institute is essentially the John Birch Society with a budget). In addition to quoting Andy Smarick and Ann Coulter, Parent Revolution's Ben Austin and Gabe Rose often evoke Yglesias' posts to cloak their nefarious activities. They claim Yglesias while carrying out The Heartland Institute agenda. Like their funder Eli Broad says "We have our cake, and are eating it too."

Real progressives, public education advocates, and social justice activists need call out those trying to provide a progressive veneer to reactionary right wing education policies.

I want to end with a quote by my favorite thinkers on this subject.

"We need to say no to the neoliberal fatalism that we are witnessing at the end of this century, informed by the ethics of the market, an ethics in which a minority makes most profits against the lives of the majority. In other words, those who cannot compete, die. This is a perverse ethics that, in fact, lacks ethics. I insist on saying that I continue to be human...I would then remain the last educator in the world to say no: I do not accept...history as determinism. I embrace history as possibility [where] we can demystify the evil in the perverse fatalism that characterizes the neoliberal discourse in the end of this century." — Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo, "Ideology Matters"

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