New Rutgers Research Says Christie Administration Favors Charters at the Expense of Public Schools

A new report from researchers at Rutgers University documents once again a serious problem with charter schools: they are cream-skimming more promising students and leaving in traditional public schools the students with the greatest needs and those who are also the most expensive to educate.  The new report shows that public schools in New Jersey, by contrast to the state’s charter schools, are educating a group of students who are poorer and who need more services for special education and learning English.

Save Our Schools New Jersey  summarizes the report’s conclusions:  “Charter schools across New Jersey educate a very different population of students by income, language proficiency, special needs, race and even gender than their sending district public schools…. The report documents that New Jersey charter schools educate significantly smaller percentages of economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners, and special education students than do the public school districts from which the charter schools draw their students.  The special education students who enroll in charter schools also tend to have less costly disabilities.”

The report explains: “the state’s charter students are overwhelmingly concentrated in seven urban communities—Camden, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield, and Trenton.”  In all of these big cities, “The lower rates of economically disadvantaged, Limited English Proficient, and special education classified students in charter schools result in those students being concentrated at higher rates within the host district schools.  This increases segregation and impacts the quality of education that districts can provide and the financial resources available to pay for that education.”

The disparity in enrollment of students with disabilities (particularly severe disabilities such as autism, multiple disabilities, and visual impairment and blindness) between public schools and charters is particularly striking. “The smaller number of special education students in charter schools and those students’ lower rates of higher-cost classifications lead to the concentration of more special education students with highest-cost disabilities within the district schools.  Yet districts must fund charter schools at a per pupil rate that does not account for these differences in students’ special education needs.”

The disparities are stark, as, for example, as the data for three of the “big seven” districts demonstrates:

  • In Newark, 80 percent of public school students qualify for free lunch, while only 70 percent of students in charters qualify for free lunch.  In the public schools 9 percent of students are English language learners; in Newark’s charters only 1 percent of students are learning English.  The special education classification rate in Newark’s public schools is 18 percent, while the special education rate in Newark’s charters is 9 percent.
  • In Paterson, 86 percent of public school students qualify for free lunch, while only 39 percent of students in charters qualify for free lunch.  In the public schools 19 percent of students are English language learners; in Paterson’s charters only 2 percent of students are learning English.  The special education classification rate in Paterson’s public schools is 14 percent while the special education rate in Paterson’s charters is 9 percent.
  • In Camden, 92 percent of public school students qualify for free lunch, while 79 percent of students in charters qualify for free lunch.  In the public schools 9 percent of students are English language learners; in Camden’s charters 3 percent of students are learning English.  The special education classification rate in Camden’s public schools is 19 percent, while the special education rate in Camden’s charters is 9 percent.

The Rutgers researchers point to the state’s failure—through its policies and oversight of charter schools—to protect the rights of New Jersey’s students:  “The New Jersey Supreme Court has consistently found that the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, who authorizes charter schools, must consider the demographic and financial impact of any authorizing decision on the host district and must use the full powers of that office to avoid segregation.  The results of the analysis presented in this report suggest that the Commissioner is not sufficiently meeting this legal obligation.”  The state’s education commissioner is an appointee of the governor.  The new study is an indictment of the management of charter schools by the administration of Governor Chris Christie. Public schools and the children they serve are being short-changed.

Plutocracy and Next Week’s Election for California Schools Superintendent

Would you believe it?  The race for California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction is one of the most contentious races in California and is sucking up millions and millions of dollars’ worth of last minute donations to buy TV advertising.  Teachers unions in California and their supporters are funding the campaign of Tom Torlakson, the incumbent and a former school teacher running on a platform of improving the public schools.  Marshall Tuck—a promoter of school choice, former CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and former president of Green Dot charter schools—is being funded by big moneyed interests from across the United States—people who generally support corporate school reform and charterization.

The Vergara lawsuit is certainly one of the issues.  Vergara was launched by Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur David Welch, who seeks to eliminate all tenure for public school teachers.  The case was decided in a local court in favor of Welch’s plaintiffs last summer and appealed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, along with appeals from California’s teachers unions.  Tuck says he will immediately cancel the state’s appeal if he is elected.

And, under Torlakson, California was one of the few states that chose not to apply for a No Child Left Behind waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.  According to Stephanie Simon, who recently covered the policy differences between the two candidates for Politico, “Torlakson said the reforms the federal government demanded were unacceptable.  They would have cost the state $2 billion to carry out, he said.  And they would have required him to impose policies that he believes are wrong for California, such as requiring teachers to be evaluated in part by their students’ test scores.”

What ought to interest all of us in this election is the mountain of money being spent.   According to the newsletter Edsource Today, “the race for California state superintendent of public instruction has been fueled by a combined $24 million in total campaign spending…. Outside groups not affiliated with either candidate represent the bulk of that spending—close to $19.4 million on ads and mailers on behalf of the candidates.”

EdSource Today explains: “By law, donors are limited in how much they can directly contribute to candidates.  Individuals are allowed to contribute up to $6,800 for a primary election and another $6,800 for a general election… There are no limits on donors to outside groups, identified on campaign disclosure reports as ‘independent expenditure committees.’ These committees have intensified their efforts in the past few weeks.  A new committee supporting Tuck, ‘Parents and Teachers for Tuck for State Superintendent 2014,’ formed in early October and has spent about $7.5 million on ads.  It is the outside group that has spent the most of any of the committees supporting Tuck.”

Thanks to Diane Ravitch’s blog, we have a link to a state website that has been tracking political contributions in this race.  It is possible to see the amounts that have been donated just this month and the names of the donors.  In her post, Ravitch names some of the donors and amounts: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $250,000; Eli Broad, $1,000,000; Alice Walton, $450,000; Carrie Penner of the Walton family $500,000; Doris Fisher (The Gap), $950,000; Arthur Rock (member of Teach for America’s board), $250,000; and  Laurene Powell Jobs, $500,000.  EdSource Today points out that William Bloomfield, Jr, who has donated $2 million since the first of October is a California real estate developer.  The state website also reports a donation of $300,000 from John Arnold—the former Enron trader whose foundation has launched a campaign against public employee pensions.

All this money for TV advertising and none of it trickling down.  It almost makes you long for the old-fashioned kind of corrupt politics.  When guys were sent out with street money to buy votes, at least the people who got the money probably could use a few dollars.  Last week economist Paul Krugman in a column, Plutocrats Against Democracy, concluded, “The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy.  And it’s by no means clear which side will win.”

Major Civil Rights Organizations Come Together to Demand Closing of Public School Opportunity Gaps

Eleven of our nation’s most prominent national civil rights organizations released a strong statement on Tuesday to support new investments in the public schools, the institution these groups call “the backbone of our democracy.”  The statement is a rejection of the test-and-punish strategies that have dominated federal and state policies around public schools for over a decade.

The statement’s authors are Advancement Project, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and  Educational Fund (MALDEF), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the National Council on Educating Black Children, the National Indian Education Association, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  It is noteworthy that these organizations—which have not always been able to agree on public education strategies—have now come together to insist on the urgent need for improving the public schools that serve the majority of children represented among their constituents.

The statement, sent to the President, the Secretary of Education and leaders in Congress emphasizes: “The current educational accountability system has become overly focused on narrow measures of success and, in some cases, has discouraged schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students….  This particularly impacts under-resourced schools that disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color.  In our highly inequitable system of education, accountability is not currently designed to ensure students will experience diverse and integrated classrooms with the necessary resources for learning and support for excellent teaching in all schools.  It is time to end the advancement of policies and ideas that largely omit the critical supports and services necessary for children and families to access equal educational opportunity…”

Criticizing the overly punitive policies of the No Child Left Behind Act, these civil rights organizations urge policy makers to “strengthen, rather than weaken, schools in our communities, so that they can better serve students and accelerate student success.”  Accountability must be expanded to monitor resource inputs as well as outcomes and “should evaluate the extent to which productive learning conditions are in effect for all students in each school…”  Federal, state, and local accountability should be expanded to cover (1) equity of resource opportunities including funding and access to instructional materials, technology and facilities and considering students’ needs based on poverty, and culture/language learning needs; (2) access to high-quality curricula and enrichment; (3) individualized services that build upon children’s specific cultural and linguistic assets; (4) qualified, certified, competent, and racially and culturally diverse teachers, principals and other education professionals and including ongoing professional development; and (5) adequate and equitably distributed social, emotional, nutritional and health services.

In the midst of the punitive accountability strategies of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s competitive programs that prescribe radical turnaround programs that fire staff, close schools, and encourage privatization, the civil rights organizations endorsing the new declaration advocate improving traditional  public schools in the communities that serve our nation’s most vulnerable children.  “Students of color represent more than 50 percent of youth and are more than twice as likely to attend segregated schools.  Second language learners whose first language is not English now represent 10 percent of all public school students nationwide, and students living in poverty represent virtually half of all U.S. public school students.”  “On behalf of millions of students and families, and civil rights organizations, communities of color, and organizations that reflect the new, diverse majority in public education, we write urging implementation of a set of strong recommendations for advancing opportunity and supporting school integration, equity, and improved accountability within our nation’s systems of public education.”

Who Is Campbell Brown and Why Is She Trying to Discredit Teachers (and Their Unions)?

Time Magazine‘s November 3, 2014 cover that scapegoats teachers by implying that the profession protects a whole lot of “bad apples” has brought the California Vergara court decision back into the news and once again brought us Campbell Brown, whose face is familiar as a former CNN news anchor.  Her new mission is represented by her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, that has begun bringing Vergara-like lawsuits across the states to oppose due process for teachers.  Yesterday in a post, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, this blog explored how wrong it is that Time (on its magazine cover) is attacking a whole profession of people in this country—about 5 million school teachers.  Today we’ll review what has become a far-right attack on public school teachers, and why outlawing due process for teachers is probably not a very good idea—not only from the point of view of the teachers but also from the perspective of the students in their classes.

The review must begin with Michelle Rhee, however, because she launched the attack on teachers long before Campbell Brown left her position at CNN.  Michelle Rhee made her mark as the Washington, D.C. schools chancellor who, according to Rhee herself, set out to put the interests of “students first” over the interests of the adults who worked for the D.C. schools.  Rhee portrayed teachers—through their union—as protecting their own “adult”  interests above the needs of the children.  The adult interests Rhee was talking about were things like their salaries, their health insurance, and their job protection.  Rhee surely didn’t believe in job protection; she became famous for firing lots of teachers and school administrators.  She fired one principal publicly during a video being filmed by John Merrow for the PBS News Hour.  It was later shown that any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were the result of gentrification, that the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years, and that she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated. She went on to found StudentsFirst, a national PAC that has attacked teachers unions, supported corporate school reformers for positions on local school boards and state legislatures, and supported vouchers.  Just months ago, however, StudentsFirst closed state affiliates in Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.  Michelle Rhee has resigned as its executive director, while she has remained on its board.  She has also joined the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro.

As Rhee’s star has been falling as the leader of the attack on school teachers, Campbell Brown has stepped in to lead a series of lawsuits to destroy due process protection for teachers. According to the NY Times, Campbell Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was a foreign affairs advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Senor has also served on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. In June we learned from Stephanie Simon at Politico that Brown and her campaign, the Partnership for Educational Justice, had joined with a politically connected  Washington, D.C. public relations firm, the Incite Agency, where Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former press secretary, and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt have been hired to create a national public relations drive to promote Campbell Brown’s lawsuits.  You will note that Brown has been working to make her organization bi-partisan.  She has made David Boies a member of her board.  He is the high profile attorney who represented Al Gore back in 2000 at the U.S. Supreme Court when the presidential election was in question, and he represented gay couples seeking to protect their right to marry when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California Proposition 8.

The other primary character in the attack on tenure is David Welch, who launched the original Vergara case in California.  He is a Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur whose not-for-profit organization, Students Matter and its chosen student plaintiffs alleged that tenure protects bad teachers, and that tenure, therefore, violates the civil rights of students living in poor school districts. Welch and Students Matter hired as plaintiff attorneys former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a corporate attorney who represents Walmart and who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000, when the Florida recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, has noted that in Vergara,  “Welch is seconded by groups such as Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, with funding help from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, all of which have battled teachers unions and supported charter schools and ‘transformational’ change in public education.”  In June,  Judge Rolf True found for the plaintiffs. The case is being appealed, and many have questioned whether a firm case can be made that tenure is a civil rights matter.

Last Thursday, in a fine article published by the New York Daily News, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean and Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law analyzed the contentions made by attorneys for the plaintiffs in Vergara.  Chemerinsky writes: “American public education desperately needs to be improved, especially for the most disadvantaged children.  But eliminating teachers’ job security and due-process rights is not going to attract better educators—or do much to improve school quality…  The reality is that job security and protection against arbitrary treatment are terms and conditions of employment that, like higher wages, attract good people into teaching and keep them in the classroom…  It should be noted that teachers in the United States work more hours and are paid less than their counterparts in almost every other developed country—and their salaries have fallen dramatically relative to pay for comparable jobs in our economy since 1940.”

Chemerinsky continues, “The causal relationship alleged by the plaintiffs in these lawsuits—that teachers’ rights cause minority students to receive substandard educations—is belied by readily available empirical evidence.  If the plaintiffs were correct, similarly situated students in states with weak protection of teachers—such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi—would have higher levels of achievement and the racial achievement gap would be smaller in those states. But…. every year, the states with the highest student performance are those with robust protections for teachers—places like Maryland and Massachusetts.”

He concludes: “The plaintiffs who are bringing these lawsuits have misappropriated the soaring rhetoric and fundamental principles of the civil rights movement… Cloaking the attack on teachers’ rights in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement is misleading.  Lessening the legal protections for teachers will not advance civil rights or improve education.” “The problem of inner-city schools is not that the dedicated teachers who work in them have too many rights, but that the students who go to them are disadvantaged in many ways, the schools have inadequate resources and the schools are surrounded by communities that are dangerous, lack essential services and are largely segregated by both race and class.  Taking the modest job security accorded by tenure away from teachers will address none of these problems.”

It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers

“It’s not OK to hate teachers.”  Those are the words of the Rev. John Thomas back in 2010, four years ago, right after he retired as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, joined the staff at Chicago Theological Seminary and started a blog.

“What’s going on here?” asked Thomas. “Certainly union busting is part of what’s going on.  Public officials see a rare opportunity to diminish the power of teachers’ unions in this climate and are doing what they can to discredit organizations that have done much to ensure that teachers are rewarded and protected at a level commensurate with other professions… And let’s be honest, for most people passionate interest in public schools begins when the first child enters kindergarten and ends when the last child graduates from high school.  How many of us know much of anything about what’s going on in our public schools when we don’t have our own children or grandchildren attending them?”

Well… on the cover of its November 3, 2014 issue, Time Magazine is trying to develop some passionate interest.  Or maybe that is not what’s happening.  What is Time really trying to accomplish on the cover of its new issue?  Here is what the text says: “Rotten Apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires have found a way to change that.”  The picture that accompanies this text is of a judge’s gavel poised above an apple.  That’s a hint.  This must have something to do with former CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s new cause: to file Vergara-type lawsuits across the states to outlaw due process job protection for school teachers.  This blog has covered the California Vergara lawsuit here.  It has covered Campbell Brown’s new endeavor to organize a legal attack on teachers unions here and  here.

This is actually the second time that Time Magazine has attacked teachers with a picture on its cover.  Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, reminds us that back in December of 2008, Time pictured Michelle Rhee—then chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C.—poised to sweep out bad teachers with the broom she was holding.  “Rhee was,” according to Strauss, “the vanguard of a wave of ‘corporate school reform’ that has used standardized test scores as the chief metric for school ‘accountability,’ promoted charter schools and vouchers, and sought to minimize or eliminate the power of teachers unions and change the way teachers are trained.  Rhee was chancellor from 2007-2010, during which she fired hundreds of teachers and principals and started a program that used test scores to evaluate every adult in the building—including, for several years, the custodians.  She also collected enormous sums of donations from private philanthropists to start a merit pay system for teachers (even though merit pay systems in education have a long history of failure).”  Any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were later shown to be related to gentrification; the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years; and she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated.

Many have pointed out that Time‘s new article  (which is unfortunately behind a paywall), by Haley Sweetland Edwards, is fairer and far more nuanced than Time‘s cover.  Sweetland analyzes, for example, not only the likely impact of the California Vergara case, but the series of lawsuits anticipated by Campbell Brown and her funders including California’s David Welch (who bankrolled the Vergara litigation): “(Judge) True’s decision (in Vergara) holds no precedent-setting power and won’t affect any California law unless an appeals court upholds the ruling sometime next year.  Both the state and the teachers’ unions have appealed and are waiting a trial date.  But on another level, the Vergara case is a powerful proxy for a broader war over the future of education in this country.  The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires.  It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses.  And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions—judicial and otherwise—made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes.”

Toward the end of her piece, Sweetland calls into question the very kind of Value Added Measure (VAM) testing on which the Vergara lawsuit was based.  Sweetland lists several  significant pieces of research that challenge the very notion that Value Added formulas based on students’ test scores have validity for evaluating teachers—from the American Statistical Association last April, from the American Educational Research Association last May, and even, in July, from the U.S. Department of Education, whose study, according to Sweetland, “found that VAM scores varied wildly depending on what time of day tests were administered or whether the kids were distracted.”

If you are one of Time Magazine‘s 3,289,377 subscribers, consider carefully the cover of Time‘s November 3 issue.  Why would a major news magazine make an editorial decision to promote the scapegoating of an entire profession?  Why is Time Magazine urging you to fixate on what it calls “the bad apples”?  The American Federation of Teachers urges us all to sign its petition demanding an apology from Time Magazine“Time’s cover doesn’t even reflect its own reporting. The Time article itself looks at the wealthy sponsors of these efforts. And while it looks critically at tenure, it also questions the testing industry’s connections to Silicon Valley and the motives of these players.  The cover is particularly disappointing because the articles inside the magazine present a much more balanced view of the issue. But for millions of Americans, all they’ll see is the cover and a misleading attack on teachers.”

Four years after his column, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, Rev. John Thomas just last week published a new column lamenting the corporate attack on public school teachers, on their unions, and on public schools as democratic institutions: “Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governors’ offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well-connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in. Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases able to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault. Is this what democracy looks like?”

The Rev. John Thomas Decries Attack on Democracy in America’s Big City School Districts

The Rev. John Thomas, the retired President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes a blog on that institution’s website about issues of the day.  His prophetic post this week considers Democracy Under Attack in urban public education: “In 1785, John Adams wrote, ‘The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’  In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance set aside one section of each township for a school.  Most of us grew up never calling into question these foundational principles of our American republic.  Today, these notions seem to be turned on their heads.  The whole people is barred from meaningful engagement in the education of the whole people, and the responsibility to bear the expense is increasingly scorned by those who view public dollars as a piggy bank for their private ventures.”

Thomas’ blog post couldn’t be more timely.  Just two days ago New York’s Alliance for Quality Education and several partner organizations released a report, Good for Kids or Good for Carl?, that begs for public scrutiny of the likely conflict of interest involving Carl Paladino, the Buffalo, New York real estate developer who ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 2010, and who subsequently has joined Buffalo’s board of education.  According to the Alliance for Quality Education, Paladino is making lots of money from the charter schools that benefit from his votes on the board of education. When questioned about this matter by the Buffalo News, Paladino defended his right to make a profit: “If I didn’t, I’d be a frigging idiot.”

The Alliance for Quality Education explains: “Carl Paladino is the chairman of Ellicott Development, one of the largest property developers focused on the Buffalo area.  Paladino’s companies are the leading charter school developers in Buffalo.  Ellicott Development has worked with the private operators of at least five Buffalo charter schools, either flipping property to the private operators of those schools or financing school construction through pricey ‘leaseback deals’…  As the preferred real estate developer for Buffalo’s charter schools, Paladino is well-positioned to secure more business for himself as a result of using his position on the school board to bring more privately run charter schools to Buffalo.”

The report accuses Paladino not only of profiting from his dual role as school board member and real estate developer but also of failing to honor his own promise to recuse himself from school board votes about the charter schools connected to his business.  “He has a conflict of interest.  Instead of recusing himself, Paladino actually is the most vocal proponent of charter schools on behalf of the majority of the school board.  He recently led the way when the majority members of the school board passed a resolution in support of immediate conversion of four public schools into privately-run charter schools and even offered an amendment that would set the stage to potentially convert all of Buffalo public schools into privately run charter schools.”

In his new blog post, the Rev. Thomas writes: “In city after city the story is the same. Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governor’s offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in.”

Profits siphoned from tax dollars are a big part of this problem.  The story of Carl Paladino’s real estate ventures in Buffalo is only the latest in a long series of tales of business tycoons making money from the tax dollars flowing into poorly regulated charter schools.  Earlier this week this blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools in North Carolina and the national charter management organization, Imagine Schools, that operates in 11 states and conducts a real estate profit scheme through SchoolHouse Finance, its own real estate subsidiary.  Then there is the enormous charter mess in Detroit that was exposed in a week-long investigation last summer by the Detroit Free Press.  And in Ohio, David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—who has made over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services for ECOT—have been very openly purchasing public policy.

But graft, corruption, and influence peddling are only part of what the Rev. Thomas is describing.  His greater concern is the threat to urban public education as a democratic institution.  Rev. Thomas describes Philadelphia, where an appointed School Reform Commission recently abrogated the legal contract the School District of Philadelphia had established with its teachers union. “Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases available to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault.”  He writes about New York City where Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter School diva, has been able to turn “her wealthy friends loose on the governor and legislature” to ensure that New York City redirects public funds to pay for rent in the private market for her schools if there is no empty space that can be found to co-locate her schools into public school buildings themselves.  And he describes Chicago, where he has been watching as political maneuvering blocked “a non-binding referendum that would have provided the citizens of the city an opportunity to offer an opinion on whether Chicago should return to an elected school board.”  There are other examples.  There is Newark, New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them,”  and where his appointed superintendent has imposed a massive choice plan on the school district while quashing public protests including the outcry of the mayor. There is New Orleans where the schools were seized by the state and charterized after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and there is Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder has imposed state-appointed emergency managers with the power to abrogate union contracts, turn over school districts to charter management organizations, and even shut down whole school districts experiencing financial problems.

“We have always imagined our schools to be the formative institutions of our democracy,” writes the Rev. Thomas. “What happens to all of us when that is no longer the case?”  I urge you to read Rev.Thomas’ fine column.

What’s the Story in Los Angeles Unified School District?

John Deasy—the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second largest—resigned last week.  He had worn out his welcome through the notorious iPad scandal and a new fiasco involving a district-wide data system launched this autumn that left high school students sitting in study halls without the classes they would need to graduate and left the school district unable to create the high school transcripts students would need as part of their college applications.

News stories reported the superintendent’s resignation here and here, but the best analysis of Deasy’s story is by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post. She titles her piece, Leadership Mess in L.A. Schools Could Be a Movie—But You wouldn’t Believe the Plot.

All the reports claim that while test scores grew during Deasy’s tenure (though they were growing before he took over 3 1/2 years ago), he was abrasive and authoritarian.  A Broad Academy-trained school administrator, he testified for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that targeted due process for teachers in his own school district and he was an early pioneer in introducing evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores.

The problems that brought down his tenure as superintendent, however, involved a succession of botched—and very expensive—purchases by the district of technology from private companies. First came the iPad scandal.  Many worried when Deasy made the decision to use capital improvement funds for the $1.3 billion iPad purchase, and there came to be many questions about his ties to Apple (that produced the hardware) and Pearson (that created the software on the iPads).  The purchase has been put on hold for re-bidding.

Then as school opened this fall, LAUSD launched an enormous information system supposedly designed to track student data from Kindergarten through 12th grade. “Instead,” reported Abby Sewell of the LA Times on October 11, almost two months into the school year, “the Los Angeles Unified School District’s student information system, which has cost more than $130 million, has become a technological disaster.  The system made its debut this semester and promptly overloaded the district’s database servers, requiring an emergency re-engineering.  In the days and weeks that followed, many teachers were unable to enter grades or attendance or even figure out which students were enrolled in class. Because of scheduling blunders partly stemming from the new system, students at Jefferson High School sat in the auditorium for weeks waiting to be assigned classes… But a quick fix to the problems plaguing the system is unlikely.  More than 600 fixes or enhancements are needed in the software, and there are ‘data quality and integrity issues’ that include grades, assignments and even students disappearing from the system, Supt. John Deasy acknowledged last week in a letter.  It could take a year to work out kinks in the system just to enter grades, he said.”

To be fair, the idea for such a system cannot be attributed to John Deasy.  A court mandated the creation of a student information system two decades ago, according to Sewell to keep careful records for students with IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  However, Deasy presided over the most recent chapters in a story of design changes and  shifts in private contractors.  The LAUSD even sued one of its former vendors over delays and design flaws. Deasy was criticized by a judge just weeks ago, after complaints at Jefferson High School were the subject of a legal complaint. According to LA Times writer Howard Blume, “The judge also chided Deasy, saying ‘he does not admit to knowing’ about Jefferson’s scheduling problems or ‘describe any actual or anticipated efforts by LAUSD to remedy them.'”   Members of the school board expressed amazement that school district staff, including the superintendent, had not immediately addressed the scheduling problems at several high schools and instead waited for the court to require that they do what ought to have been their jobs.

Deasy is now gone, and according to Sewell, “While district Internet technology staffers work to fix the problems, school officials have resorted to work-arounds, including tracking grades and attendance the old-fashioned way: with paper and pens.”  Deasy made his name by being tough on teachers, but his administration became preoccupied with gadgetry and technology, not the kind of programmatic support teachers desperately need.