Hucksterism In Education Exposed

I was serving on a panel at an evening event last week about the growth of privatization of education here in Ohio, when someone asked, “Why do parents grab at the chance to send their children to these schools?  Most of them don’t do nearly as well academically as public schools.”

People speculated about the lure of the freedom to choose and the conversation wandered a bit.  But finally came a comment that stopped many of us:  “Public schools can’t advertise, but all the voucher and charter schools advertise all the time, especially the cyber charters—Ohio Virtual Academy (K12) and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.”

Hucksterism in education is the subject of a new piece by Ruth Conniff: The Sharks are Circling Our Public Schools.  Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive, a journal that champions the public good including a current project known as Public School ShakedownThe Progressive has recently merged with the Center for Media and Democracy which has persistently exposed the far right attack on the public good, including ALEC Exposed.

Conniff describes robocalls promoting Wisconsin vouchers.  A woman’s voice describes, “free tuition to send your child to a private or religious school.”  “We at School Choice Wisconsin are proud to pay for this call, because we want the very best for you and your child.” The calls, writes Conniff, are coming in the midst of the application process for Wisconsin’s new  statewide voucher program.

Conniff reports that School Choice Wisconsin is an arm of the American Education Reform Council (funded by John Walton) and the far right Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee.  This spring Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ PAC, has also been sponsoring pro-voucher events across Wisconsin.

Cyber charters are advertising across Wisconsin right now, too.  Conniff describes postcards (with gorgeous photos of adolescents at scho0l) being mailed during Wisconsin’s e-school open enrollment season.  She notes that cyber schools do not, as pictured, educate students with their peers in a brick and mortar building, and, “According to the state’s school report cards for the 2012-2013 academic year, half of the children in virtual schools were attending one that was not meeting performance expectations.”

Conniff concludes: “So as parents are sorting the mail and checking messages and hearing about all these great choices you can make—free tuition! flexible! individualized learning! laptop provided!—keep in mind that you are paying for these businesses with the money that used to sustain our public schools.  They are still performing better than all of these new, alternative options.”

Check out Public School Shakedown and ALEC Exposed and the other great investigative journalism at The Progressive. What is happening in public education in Wisconsin is very likely also relevant in your state.  Vouchers.  Charters.  The impact of the American Legislative Exchange Council on your legislature.  Public School Shakedown even has a new project: Teach for America Truth Squad.

Economic and Racial Inequality Obliterate Opportunity in America: Do We Care?

The 50th anniversary this month of the passage of the Civil Rights Act has produced some soul-searching journalism.  How is it our society has made so little progress?

In an early April interview at, Stanford University professor and education writer Linda Darling-Hammond describes the injustices in public education in the United States: “First of all, we have a dramatically unequal allocation of wealth in the society, which is getting worse…. Then we need schools that are equitably funded, with more money going to the students who have the greatest needs…And then beyond that, I think we have to be sure that the state builds a high-quality teaching force, well-prepared for all candidates… It’s a fundamental problem of the red-lining… around those schools that allowed them to become such poor places for teaching and learning.  That is the real problem that has to be addressed.”

During the same week, Valerie Strauss printed in the Washington Post a column by Economic Policy Institute advocate Elaine Weiss and New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey in which they declared: “Stuck in place. That seems the most accurate description for the circumstances in which many African-American children and their families find themselves today… When it comes to neighborhood and school inequality, the federal government has always had a short attention span.  Small-scale, short-term initiatives to address urban disadvantage have come and gone, but our nation has never made a commitment to durable policies with the capacity to transform communities, schools, and the lives of families within them.  As a result, neighborhood inequality has been passed down to the current generation.  About two out of three African Americans who were raised in poor neighborhoods grow up and raise their own children in similarly poor neighborhoods compared to just two out of five whites… These disturbing statistics indicate that racial inequality is multi-generational.  The challenges facing black children today are a continuation of the disadvantages experienced by generations of their family members. And the cumulative experience of life in the nation’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods is most severe.”

Then  last Saturday’s NY Times published a disturbing and moving reflection on racial segregation by columnist Charles M. Blow:  “The landmark act brought an end to legal racial segregation in public places.  But now we are facing another, worsening kind of segregation, one not codified but cultural: We are self-sorting, not only along racial lines but also along educational and income ones, particularly in our big cities.  Our cities are increasingly becoming vast outposts of homogeneity and advantage, arcing ever upward, interspersed by deserts of despair, all of which produces in them some of the highest levels of income inequality ever seen in this country.”  Blow quotes the research from sociologists Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff that the proportion of American families living in extremely affluent communities has grown from 7 to 15 percent between 1970 and 2009, while in the same period the percentage of families segregated in extremely poor neighborhoods has grown from 8 to 18 percent.  And Blow reports on new research from the Civil Rights Project that, “New York has the most segregated schools in the country.”  He reports that, according to Reuters, “About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

We are left to contemplate the reality that none of these writers confronts head-on: those making our education policy from the U.S. Department of Education (working closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other mega-philanthropies), to the Congress, to the legislators in our statehouses (increasingly working hand-in-glove with the American Legislative Exchange Council) are not honestly talking about any of this.  The education press is filled with discussions of Value Added (econometric) Measures for teacher evaluation and the pros and cons of the Common Core Standards and portfolio school reform theory that emphasizes school closures and privatization.  But we hardly ever read about steps that might be taken to ameliorate poverty.  We almost never talk about creating disincentives for the kind of self-sorting Blow describes—the growing economic segregation overlaid on racial segregation in urban America.  And talk about increasing investment in public education and targeting public investment to schools in our nation’s most desperate communities seems more and more limited to the school finance experts.

All this is the sobering reality this month as America marks the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.




Inviting the Fox Right Into the Henhouse

Ohio sends $1 billion every year out of its public education budget to charter schools and vouchers.  According to Doug Livingston at the Akron Beacon-Journal, Ohio’s charter schools and their sponsors are so poorly regulated by the state legislature that the private companies hired by nonprofits to manage their charter schools have been known to recruit (and fire) members of the boards whose responsibility it is to oversee and regulate the management companies.  “In Ohio, charter schools are required to satisfy strict federal guidelines as nonprofit organizations under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue code, including board autonomy.  If the board is not independent of the company, the IRS is supposed to throw up a red flag.  But state law allows private companies to throw out non-profit boards that challenge them.”  White Hat Management is known for such practices.

Leaders in the state legislature that brought Ohio this lucrative arrangement for wealthy White Hat charter czar David Brennan and cyber-charter parasite William Lager, the owner of two privately-held companies that siphon $100 million annually from Ohio’s school budget for the services provided to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, now want to remove the constitutional checks and balances that protect the allocation and distribution of the state’s public school budget.

The legislature has created a Constitutional Modernization Commission that seeks to remove the state’s public education clause from the 160-year-old Ohio Constitution.  Writing for the Akron Beacon-Journal, Carol Biliczky reports that the Commission’s education committee chair, Chad Readler, a Columbus attorney who has prominently represented the interests of charter schools in recent years, “suggested removing the ‘thorough and efficient’ clause because it is hard to define and interpret and has produced a series of closely decided court decisions.”

The clause to which Readler refers is the very constitutional language that protects adequate and equitably distributed funding across the over 600 school districts in Ohio.  Biliczky quotes Nick Pittner, the attorney who argued the DeRolph school funding litigation for 500 plaintiff school districts who brought the case to demand that Ohio school funding be increased and distributed fairly.  According to Pittner, Readler’s proposal now before the Constitutional Modernization Commission would “remove the courts from any role in determining the appropriateness of public education provided by the Ohio General Assembly.  It’s not in the interest of Ohio in general or school children to remove the courts from oversight.”

The proposal now before the Commission would render school funding in Ohio not subject to judicial review by removing the language that establishes judicial oversight.  Columbus Dispatch reporter Darrel Roland reminds us that in the past those who sought to reduce the state’s investment in public education have made the case that school funding be left solely up to the legislature and be rendered non-justiciable:

“In a March 1997 ruling that later became known as DeRolph I after its lead plaintiff, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Francis Sweeney determined that ‘the facts documented in the record lead to one inescapable conclusion—Ohio’s elementary and secondary public schools are neither thorough nor efficient.’ ‘In reaching this conclusion, we dismiss as unfounded any suggestion that the problems presented by this case should be left for the General Assembly to resolve.’”  Sweeney’s words were prophetic. In 2002, after the elected Ohio Supreme Court changed parties and subsequently released jurisdiction in the DeRolph case, the legislature of Ohio has never felt obliged to design a remedy that would address voluntarily “the problems presented by this case.”

There is no reason to imagine that the Constitutional Modernization Commission’s proposal to remove the court’s protection of school funding equity and adequacy—by removing the court’s check and balance on the legislature—would serve Ohio’s children as well as leaving the state constitution alone.  The Education Law Center points out that in a recent school funding decision in Kansas, the supreme court of Kansas described the importance of the language that is in our state constitutions.  “Matters intended for permanence are placed in constitutions for a reason—to protect them from the vagaries of politics….”

Public Schools Enrich Communities by Helping to Save Indigenous Language and Culture

In graduate school over forty years ago I was fascinated when a Ph.D. candidate described his dissertation in the field of anthropological linguistics. His project was to live at the Northern Paiute Indian Reservation in Nevada, immerse himself in conversation with the last living native speakers of the language, write an alphabet, and create a systematic grammar.  The project’s purpose was to record important stories, create a written record, and ensure that the nation’s elders did not take the language with them to their graves.

Anthropological linguistics, which was historically driven primarily by the colonial zeal of Christian missionaries trained at the  Summer Institute of Linguistics to document the world’s languages for the purpose of biblical translation, has ironically in the past half century been transformed by its practitioners to document, record, and preserve indigenous languages.

Sunday’s NY Times records a fascinating, follow-up chapter in the story of the preservation of Native American languages: In California, Saving a Language That Predates Spanish and English.  Norimitsu Onishi reports that public schools in Eureka, California are teaching the Yurok language that nearly became extinct.  “Eureka began offering Yurok two years ago, bringing to four the number of public high schools in Northern California where the language is taught.  Two public elementary schools also offer it, including one as part of a new immersion program.  The Yurok Tribe’s extensive campaign to revive the language serves as a model to the many other tribes… that are undertaking similar efforts….”

Onishi describes the linguistic transformation occurring in the American Indian nations able to afford such research and educational efforts.  “The experience of the Yuroks and other tribes is also redefining what it means to have a living language… All of the current Yurok teachers came to the language as adults, by painstakingly acquiring it from the last living elders and sometimes comparing notes with outside linguists.” James Gensaw, now teaching Yurok at Eureka High School, remembers learning some vocabulary words from his grandfather, becoming fascinated by the language, and asking an elder to help him compose a song in Yurok.  Later he worked with a linguist from the University of California: “I learned grammar from him and was also working with six fluent speakers.”  Today he is teaching young people the language of their culture.  By contrast, students sent to boarding schools into the 1950s were taught only English and often punished for speaking their native language.

While we hear a great deal today about the advantages of a uniform curriculum across America’s public schools, Mike Rose, UCLA professor and education writer, asks us not to forget the ways public schools also reflect and nurture the many cultures that are all part of our very diverse society:  “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices.”  (Why School? [2014 edition], p. 212)

Onishi’s story from California describes public school educators who have been developing exciting curricula to serve the needs of children in local areas.  “Now nine people are certified to teach the Yurok language in public schools… A (California) law was passed in 2009 granting certification to teachers recommended by tribes themselves.  The change made it easier for public schools to offer Yurok and other Native American languages.”


Philly Parent Activist: How Portfolio School Reform Is Destroying the School District

Last week this blog reviewed the concept of “portfolio school reform” as it is being practiced in Chicago, New York City, and Newark.  It is a theory promoted actively by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which posts a map of the school districts identified formally as its network of portfolio school districts.

Last week’s post on this blog did not cover one school district prominent on the Center’s map, a district where controversy over portfolio school reform is roiling—Philadelphia.  The controversy spilled over this month into a panel discussion at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which was holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia.  Local activists involved in the portfolio school reform debate had been invited to be part of AERA’s panel.

Last Friday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss featured a guest column by Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent activist who was part of that panel at AERA.  Gym describes portfolio school reform as it was defined on the panel by Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), Philadelphia’s primary cheerleader and fund raiser for portfolio school reform.

Gleason’s definition is blunt, honest, and very clear: “So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally…. you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.”

Dumping the losers!   Here is Gym’s description of the response at the AERA conference: “The audience of researchers, according to attendees I spoke with, expressed visible dissent  A group confronted Gleason afterword about everything from the ‘losers’ framework to his dismissal of funding as a major source of the district’s struggles.  The crude phrasing even made Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite recoil, and Hite quickly distanced himself from Gleason’s remarks.  But no matter how uncomfortable Hite and others felt about Gleason’s words, they aptly characterize the portfolio model mentality.”

Gym continues by describing what she, a parent of children in the School District of Philadelphia, sees as the reality today in Philadelphia: “Since the 2001 state takeover, the portfolio model approach has had us pursuing all manner of negligent schemes from for-profit EMOs (education management organizations) to unfettered charter expansion and online cyber schools.  In the last few years—fueled in part by ‘philanthropic’ venture capitalists like PSP—this reckless experimentation has increased dramatically, with enormous consequences for district-managed public schools.  Since 2011, the district has closed down 30 public schools and seen its charter population increase by 50 percent.  Today, Philadelphia’s charter population (86 schools and 67,00-plus students) makes up 35 percent of the total student body at a cost of $700 million annually—and there’s no end in sight.”

Philadelphia’s imposition of portfolio school reform has been compounded by a financial crisis, covered in this blog, due to drastic funding cuts from the state of Pennsylvania.  While Gym does not detail the state funding cuts that have, along with the move to charterize, catastrophically undermined Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, she does accurately describe the consequences: huge classes, 100 split-grade classes in elementary school, closing school libraries, making nurses responsible for serving several schools, and slashing 4,220 district staff, many of them teachers and counselors.

Questioning Gleason’s definition of portfolio school reform, “dumping the losers,” Gym wonders, “Are our school being set up to look like ‘losers’?”  I urge you to read Gym’s column because it does such a good job of connecting the dots.

NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina Brings Expertise and Good Sense to 1.1 Million Student District

Carmen Farina, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently appointed chancellor for the New York City Public Schools, has been on the job only since January.  She is, however, a lifetime educator, teacher, principal, and former district administrator who came out of retirement to serve.

This week we have begun to observe pivots from the school policies in place under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who regularly appointed non-educators to run the school district—most notoriously Cathleen Black, the publisher of Cosmopolitan Magazine.  Farina’s recent moves bode well for education and for children.

According to a press release from the New York City Schools (also covered by the NY Times), in a new policy announced this week, New York City will no longer use one standardized test score to determine whether a child is promoted to the next grade.  “We have listened and worked closely with families, teachers and principals to establish a new promotion policy that complies with State law and empowers educators, takes the temperature down around testing, and keeps rigorous standards in place.  This new way forward maintains accountability, but mitigates the unintended consequences of relying solely on a single test.  Through a comprehensive evaluation of student work using multiple measures, our new policy is a step forward for students, parents, and schools.”  The New York state legislature has recently passed legislation to support the use of multiple measures to determine promotion.

Students who lag will still be required to attend summer school, but they will not take another test (with enormously high stakes) in August to see whether they can move to the next grade.  Their summer school performance will be represented by work added to the “promotion portfolios” that will now be maintained for all children in danger of being held back.  School personnel who know a child will consider the test score as one piece of evidence as they decide on a plan to enable that student to thrive.  The NY Times quotes Genevieve Stanislaus, principle of Life Sciences Secondary School in Manhattan: “The decision should be based on if the child could really benefit from repeating the grade.  It shouldn’t be for any reason other than that.”

Earlier this week, Chancellor Farina also launched a new program to improve schools that struggle.  While the federal School Improvement Grant program has emphasized hiring often expensive outside consultants and threatening to close schools whose scores lag, Farina’s program pairs struggling schools with other NYC schools that model innovation and rigor.  This program is expected to be ongoing after its initial activities this spring.

Chalkbeat New York reports, “Officials said the new initiative—which Farina said was so important that she launched it faster than some confidantes advised—is meant to foster ‘collaboration, not competition’ among schools.” “Over the 12 weeks before the end of the school year, the host schools will send teams on ten school visits and host six visits of their own—in addition to carrying out their regular activities.”  Details and arrangements will be provided by the Department of Education.

“We have put this together in basically a month, and the degree of commitment and excitement is just palpable,” announced Farina.  Some of the host schools were once struggling schools that have since turned around.

“We don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.  We can replicate what works and just refine it.”  “We’re hoping that by June, we’ll bring them all together and say, how do you think your school got better?”

Notice that all this activity is built around encourage-and-improve.  What a refreshing departure from test-and-punish.


Portfolio School Reform: What Does It Mean in Chicago? Newark? New York City?

Controversy about charter schools has heated up this spring in New York City, over whether charter schools should be co-located into buildings shared by traditional public schools and whether charter schools ought to be charged rent; in Newark, over Governor Chris Christie and state appointed caretaker superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark Plan that would close traditional schools and fire teachers; and in Chicago, where traditional public schools continue to be closed because they are, supposedly, under-enrolled but at the same time new charters are permitted by the school district to open right down the block.

What’s happening in these and other cities raises questions about the theory of “portfolio school reform” that is driving school district policy in many cities these days. NYC and Chicago count themselves among the over 40 districts in what the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington calls its Portfolio School District Network; Newark is implementing the strategy as well.

Portfolio School Reform is the idea developed and promoted by the Center, which posts on its website a map of over 40 school districts that have formally adopted this strategy. When you cut through the rhetoric,”portfolio school reform” means that the district is managed like a business portfolio—sloughing off the schools whose scores are low and opening new, and it is to be hoped, more successful schools—all in a perpetual cycle.  Stability is not a virtue sought in “portfolio school reform” strategy.

If you dig a little deeper into the website, you will find that the Center’s current funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Walton Family Foundation.  These are all reliable supporters of privatization and school choice.

The Center proclaims, “The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child….  And it relies on district leadership to support and expand successful schools until every child in the district is in a great school.”  Notice that while this definition features the concepts of freedom and choice, it doesn’t really explain how this is to be accomplished—through closing public schools and opening privatized alternatives. Nor does the definition wrestle with the question about whether all children can be provided a great school through a system of school choice driven by standardized test scores. After all the portfolio strategy is a competitive strategy and all competitions have losers as well as winners.  Because test scores reflect family wealth more than any other variable, what this usually means in practice is that children in the big city neighborhoods with the most concentrated poverty will find themselves in the schools being closed.

Some of the most penetrating analysis of today’s “portfolio school reform” theory may be found in a book written by Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine and published by Teachers College Press in 2012: Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education.  Fabricant and Fine write: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas.  This intensifying disinvestment is accompanied by ever more symbolic forms of public education reform that substitute modest investments in a small number of communities…. The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention…  Ultimately charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (p. 87)

Two articles this week update concerns about portfolio school reform:

In Chicago: Dan Mihalopoulos who has been investigating the implications of “portfolio school reform” in Chicago for the Sun Times collaborates with Darnell Little, editor of the Medill Data Project at Northwestern University in a Sun Times front page report, A Push for Charter Schools, But Little Difference in Test Scores. Despite that “Chicago has ordered the closings of dozens of neighborhood public schools while approving a new wave of publicly financed, privately operated charter schools, in a much-touted effort to improve education,”  Mihalopoulos and Little report data to confirm that students in traditional public schools are scoring comparably to, or sometimes outscoring, their charter school counterparts on standardized tests. The Sun Times investigation quotes Terry Mazany, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Community Trust, formerly interim CEO of the Chicago schools, and longtime supporter of portfolio school reform, who expresses concern about the new  data: “The growth of charter schools is based on the hypothesis that choice drives improvement. What we’ve seen from your analysis is that choice is not sufficient…. It’s not a silver bullet.”

In Newark: Bob Braun, 50-year reporter for The Star-Ledger, posts a new investigation on his blog of the operation of Cami Anderson’s school administration and those working with her to implement the “portfolio,” One Newark Plan by which she has said she will close a mass of schools and fire one third of Newark’s teachers.  In the context of this upheaval and purported cost-cutting, Braun examines enormous raises recently granted to administrators who are charged with implementing One Newark. “A third of Newark’s public school teachers face layoffs.  The contracts of seven employee unions, including nurses, cafeteria workers, and laborers, have expired and the administration of state (appointed) superintendent Cami Anderson refuses to settle.  Counselors were laid off.  Public schools have been stripped of assets and allowed to crumble.  Cami drove the district into a $40 million budget hole but, despite all that, she has given hefty raises to the district’s top administrators…. The sizable ‘leadership’ team raises began in the summer of 2012 and continued until a few weeks ago… Of the 18 highest paid administrators in Newark, 12 have ties with Cami through the various organizations she served—New York City schools (under Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein), Teach for America, New Leaders, or charter schools.  The nine who make $175,000 or more draw as high a salary as the governor himself, sometimes higher  The Newark school administration is to Cami Anderson what the Port Authority was to Chris Christie before Bridgegate–a publicly funded home for cronies.”

In New York City:  A recent post summarizes this blog’s extensive coverage of the ongoing conflict—about portfolio reform and protection of charter schools—between Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Fabricant and Fine conclude their excellent book, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, with this observation: “Entering the contested terrain of public education is an essential act of citizenship precisely because it demonstrates our commitment to preserving a racially and economically just public sphere and larger democracy.  Either we are prepared to struggle for a future built on a rock-solid foundation of a well-funded education system available for all children, or we all suffer in the quicksand of shifting resources from a starved public education system to privatized alternatives.” (p. 130)