Do failed policy proposals from public education officials enjoy an afterlife when their creators depart Washington for the private sector? This is no academic question. In fact, the career arcs of two former federal policymakers may well have foreshadowed the life-or-death clash over the accreditation of San Francisco City College (CCSF), one of California’s 112 community colleges. The state is home to about 10 percent of America’s 1,100 two-year colleges.
As San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow’s ruling on the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College’s bid to decertify CCSF draws near, the story of Margaret Spellings becomes instructive. Spellings, who was George W. Bush’s second-term Secretary of Education, commissioned a controversial 2006 report called “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.”
The report’s language was very much in tune with the pro-business Bush zeitgeist. The commission’s chairman was Charles Miller, a private investor who was joined by Nicholas Donofrio, the executive vice president of IBM Corp., and by James J. Duderstadt, the corporate vice president for Microsoft Corp. Their report predicted disaster unless colleges began protecting their “market share” by preparing students for the “global marketplace.”
The word “accreditation” also appeared throughout the report and seemed to signal a proposed crackdown on schools that did not share the Spelling Commission’s private-sector worldview. Consider this conclusion: “Federal and state policymakers and accrediting organizations should work to eliminate regulatory and accreditation barriers to new models in higher education that will increase supply and drive costs down.”
The report claimed to speak for the public interest. “The growing public demand for increased accountability, quality and transparency,” it continued, “coupled with the changing structure and globalization of higher education requires a transformation of accreditation.”
The commission’s report was heavily criticized by the American Association of University Professors and others.
“The problem with the Spellings market-based approach is that it does not address the proliferation of for-profit programs,” Alan Singer, a professor at Hofstra University ‘s Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership, wrote Capital & Main in an email. “They are designed to take advantage of federal loan programs for poor students but saddle them with a heavy debt burden and provide these students with few marketable skills.”
The Spellings Commission called for, but failed to deliver a federal policy of reforming postsecondary education. That priority, however, remains on tap in the Obama administration.
Spellings left the U.S. DoED to work as a consultant for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which calls itself “the world’s largest business federation representing the interests of more than three million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions.” There is no comparable advocacy group for labor and the public interest – neither of which sector comes close to spending the amount of money to affect policy as the Chamber does.
Echoes of Spellings’ 2006 report, with its anti-regulatory doom and gloom forecasts, turned up in a 2011Chamber report prepared by Spellings and what were called “edupreneurs.”
“The United States is losing ground internationally in degree, credential and skill attainment; tuition is increasing faster than the cost of living; and traditional institutions are experiencing a productivity crisis,” she said at a Chamber-sponsored forum.
Spellings left the Chamber in June, 2013 and currently helms the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Which brings us to Vickie Schray, who worked under Spellings at the U.S. DoED. Since January, 2011, Schray has worked as the senior vice president of regulatory affairs and public policy for Bridgeport Education, which enrolls 60,000 students and provides for-profit online college instruction. She contributed to the Spellings report and also authored another DoED 2006 paper, “Assuring Quality in Higher Education: Recommendations for Improving Accreditation.” In it, Schray noted the presence of commercial entities in postsecondary education as a positive trend for the public sector.
“The rise of private, for-profit entities,” Schray wrote, “has also prompted discussions about how best to assure and promote quality in higher education based on leading public and private practices.”
It’s a position fiercely disputed by school-privatization critics, including Diane Ravitch, the historian and former assistant education secretary in the George H.W. Bush White House.
“The same data-based techniques used to close down hundreds—perhaps thousands—of K-12 public schools is now being applied to postsecondary education,” she wrote in an email to Capital & Main, when asked to comment on the kind of closure-as-punishment policies faced by CCSF.
In the meantime, the Obama White House has proposed a framework that rates postsecondary education. According to a DoED press release, “The ratings system can help inform policy, accreditation and funding decisions by states’ education authorities, policies and practices of accreditors and others.”
The public can submit feedback on the draft framework for a new college ratings system, effective in the 2015-16 school year, through February 17, 2015.
“The U.S. Department of Education [under Secretary Arne Duncan] proposes to grade institutions of higher education,” Ravitch said, “using criteria that will inevitably promote standardization and whatever the DoED values.”