John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher. He follows politics in Oklahoma closely. This article appeared first in the OkObserver.

The arc of the history of corporate school reform has been tragic; the survival of public education in a meaningful and equitable manner is in doubt in Oklahoma and much of the rest of the nation. To understand how and why this catastrophe happened, Tennessee provides perhaps the best case study.

This multi-generational assault on schools took off during the Reagan administration with its spin on A Nation at Risk, which misrepresented the report’s research. Back then, these attacks were largely propelled by two theologies: evangelical Christianity and a worship of the “Free Market.” Two decades later, corporate school reform was driven by Neoliberal ideology, and President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was pushed by both Republicans and Democrats and resisted by bipartisan grassroots movements of educators, parents, and students. I will always love President Obama, but during his administration the Race to the Top (RttT) undermined teachers unions, increased segregation, and drove holistic instruction and teachers (who resisted “drill and kill” teach-to-the-test malpractice) out of so many schools.

The damage was made much worse when the Trump administration further ramped up the campaign to use charter schools and vouchers to undermine public education. Now, Tennessee is again at the front of the rightwing’s “nationwide war on public schools.”

The Progressive Magazine’s Andy Spears explains that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s “point person on education policy is Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, a private, Christian evangelical school located in Michigan.” Arnn “compared public school systems to ‘enslavement’ and ‘the plague,’” and “accused teachers of ‘messing with people’s children,’ saying they are ‘trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,’”

Spears reported, “Lee announced in his State of the State address that he’d reached an agreement with Arnn for Hillsdale to operate up to 100 charter schools in Tennessee.” Gov. Lee defended Arnn’s rhetoric, saying, “I’m not going to rebut someone who was speaking about left-wing problems in public education in this country.”

Clearly, Tennessee schools, like those in Oklahoma and many other states, are facing a new set of dangerous threats, and they do so after being weakened by the RttT, just as the RttT’s failure was made more predictable due to the damage done by the doomed-to-fail NCLB, which was a legacy of coordinated attacks on public education initiated by the Reagan administration.

In order to resist the latest ideology-driven falsehoods, lessons must be learned from Tennessee’s rushed corporate school reforms. Race to the Bottom, by former Nashville Board member Will Pinkston is a great example of what we need to learn about the last two decades of assaults that have left public education so vulnerable. Pinkston begins with an apology:

I helped sell the public on the Obama administration’s multi-billion-dollar Race to the Top competition. In my home state of Tennessee, Race to the Top delivered $501 million to benefit public schools — and along the way spawned some of the most-damaging education policies in modern American history.

Pinkston explained that the RttT was driven by the same “irrational exuberance” that the true believers in the “Free Market” expressed. Briefly and predictably, the half billion dollar gamble produced quick, temporary gains in the reliable NAEP test scores. Soon afterwards, scores stagnated and/or declined; after ten years they dropped to the pre-RttT levels.

Worse, Tennessee’s early education program did something that would previously have been thought to be virtually impossible. High-quality early education has a record of producing significant, often incomparable benefits, for the dollars invested. However, graduates from Tennessee’s pre-k programs were found to have “lower academic scores, more behavioral problems and more special education referrals than their peers who did not attend.” The author of the report on the longterm outcomes, Dale Farran, worried that the state’s “pre-K overall has become too academic, especially when it is enveloped by the school system, and children don’t get enough time to play, share their thoughts and observations, and engage in meaningful, responsive interactions with caregivers.”

From the beginning, the Tennessee teachers union (as would also prove true in Oklahoma) knew that data-driven, corporate reformers were ignoring the overwhelming body of social science as to why their quick fixes would backfire. But, states received “up to $250,000 each to hire consultants (McKinsey & Co. and The Bridgespan Group) to help them fill out their applications,” and establish “reward and punish” systems. I must add that in conversation after conversation with these smart Big Data experts, who “didn’t know what they didn’t know” about schools, they refused to listen to educators like me and social scientists explaining why their hurried, punitive corporate approach would backfire.

And as it became obvious that their mandates were failing, the blame game was ramped up and outsiders like the “American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative think tank with ties to the Koch brothers,” successfully pushed for “stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights.”

Perhaps the biggest fiasco was teacher evaluations where 35 percent of the evaluation would be based on invalid, unreliable student-growth data and algorithms that were biased against teachers in high-poverty schools. The most absurd model for firing teachers used data from students who they had not taught!

Secondly, the rush to expand charter schools led to a dramatic over-expansion of schools run by Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) (as opposed to locally-led charters that might have been good partners.) CMOs were notorious for increasing economic segregation by not welcoming and/or “exiting” high-challenge students. Fortunately, Tennessee did a better job than Oklahoma of using the courts to push back on the worst of teacher evaluations and charters that would not retain higher-challenge students.

(On the other hand, pushback led by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister saved Oklahoma schools from a disaster which would have occurred if almost every student and teacher was held accountable for inappropriate Common Core test scores, as she pushed for more charter school accountability, and promoted high-quality early education.)

Based on his personal experience and scholarly research, Pinkston concluded, “intentionally or not, Race to the Top laid the groundwork for the attempted destruction of America’s most important democratic institution — public education.” And now, a huge increase in charter schools will advance a conservative curriculum which “relies on approaches developed by Arnn and other members of the 1776 Commission appointed by Trump to develop a ‘patriotic education’ for the nation’s schools.”

In response to the latest rightwing push described by The Progressive, Pinkston tweeted:

Fellow veterans of TN’s charter wars, just a friendly reminder: Long before Hillsdale, there was Great Hearts — which actually was pushed by Hillsdale. In the words of Nashville’s former top charter zealot Karl Dean: “It’s all connected.”

And that is why Oklahomans who are upset by Gov. Stitt’s attempts to expand charters and vouchers, ban Critical Race Theory, bully transgender students, and coerce educators into complying with these mandates should remember Tennessee’s history. Alone, those attacks would have been harmful. But today’s politics of destruction are on steroids. These assaults are more frightening because they are just the latest of destructive mandates, such as NCLB and the RttT, that have dramatically weakened public schools and undermined holistic and meaningful instruction.

During the last two decades, too many Neoliberal corporate reformers were able to “kneecap” public schools. Now we’re facing extremists who now want to go for the throat, and wipe out public education while it’s down.