America’s Dirty Secret

On Sunday, criticizing Ohio Senator Rob Portman for failing to speak out against Congress’s most recent attempt to throw away health care coverage for vulnerable families, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer columnist and retired director of the editorial page, reminded readers that Portman’s wife serves on the board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. And yet, Larkin explains, Portman voted earlier this summer to throw away significant health care coverage for children. Larkin quotes a letter to Congress signed by the heads of children’s hospitals throughout the country, a letter that wonders: “Children represent the future of the United States. Where are kids in these discussions? Do Congress and the White House see safeguarding children’s health care as a national priority?”

The struggles of poor children have been omitted from our two-decades’ discussion about school reform as well. No Child Left Behind said we would hold schools accountable, instituted a plan to punish schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores on standardized tests, and failed to invest significantly in the schools in poor communities. The failure to address the needs of poor children and their schools has been bipartisan. President George W. Bush and a bipartisan coalition in Congress brought us No Child Left Behind. President Obama pushed education policy that purported to “turnaround” the lowest scoring and poorest schools by closing or charterizing them. And Obama’s administration brought us the demand that states’ evaluation plans for teachers incorporate their students’ standardized test scores—without any consideration of the neighborhood and family struggles that affect poor children’s test scores or of the immense contribution of family wealth to the scores of privileged children.  Neither Bush nor Obama significantly increased the federal investment to help our nation’s  poorest urban and rural schools. The topics of rampant child poverty and growing inequality—along with growing residential segregation by income—have been absent from of our political dialogue.

Child poverty is well documented. Just last week the Economic Policy Institute presented a simple bar graph showing that one third of Native American and African American children are (still) in poverty.  Although child poverty declined for most racial and ethnic groups in 2016, here are the stark numbers that describe our society’s reality: While only 10.8 percent of white children live in poverty and 11.1 percent of Asian American children live in poverty, 33.8 percent of Native American and 30.8 percent of African American children live in poverty, along with 26.6 percent of Hispanic American children. These are alarming disparities. Native American and Black children are three times more likely to be poor than their white peers.  The Economic Policy Institute argues for raising the minimum wage; expanding refundable tax credits and the food stamp program, now called SNAP; and expanding Medicaid and affordable health care.  When was the last time you heard a politician seriously advocating for such programs?

In August, Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times once again outlined the extent of child homelessness in New York City—a devastating problem for families and children and for their public schools: “There were 100,000 homeless students in New York City public schools during the 2015-16 school year, a number equal to the population of Albany… If current trends continue… one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.”

Harris quotes Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, the agency which released the data Harris describes: “In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids… And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in Kindergarten?  The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”

Harris continues: “The growing number of homeless children is part of the fallout of the city’s housing crisis, which has seen a growing number of families in city shelters as rents have risen, federal and state aid has dwindled, and a state rental assistance program ended… The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school…. Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation but it makes it easier for the child to get to class.”

What effect does all this have on students?  “Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English. Their proficiency rates on the state math and English exams for third through eighth graders were about 20 points lower than their classmates.”

John Merrow just published Addicted to Reform, a memoir about what he learned during his decades-long career as the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour. The most stunning section of the book describes the cost to our society of what Merrow derides as our society’s addiction to accountability-driven, test-and-punish school reform—the policies that were mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Merrow devotes the second chapter of the book, “Calculate the Cost of School Reform,” to examining the education policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. He concludes: “Children, teachers, schools, and society have paid a price for school reform, however well-meaning some reformers may have been. Our addiction to school reform has caused significant collateral damage: a narrowed curriculum, thousands of hours spent on testing and test prep, a demoralized teaching force, the resignations of effective teachers fed up with excessive testing, time and money spent recruiting those teachers’ replacements, huge cuts and occasional bankruptcy proceedings in school districts because of dollars diverted to online for-profit charter schools, and the cumulative negative effects on the public’s view of schools caused by the drumbeat of criticism.”(p.54)

But Merrow’s strongest words are for all those who have refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty on the lives of children and who are content to do nothing about poverty:  “To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world of education are the advocates of school reform who preach that ‘poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ for poor student performance but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is that it’s the teachers’ fault when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate… Even if these so-called thought leaders genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids?  At least thirty states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars… ‘The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts….’” (pp.25-26)


“Backpack Full of Cash”: Northeast Ohio Screening, Oct. 10, 7 PM, Cleveland Heights High School

In these times when Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, is devotedly promoting school privatization, if you can make it to Cleveland Heights on October 10, please join us to consider the strengths of public education and the disadvantages of privatizing public schools.

On Tuesday, October 10 at 7 PM, in the auditorium at Cleveland Heights High School (corner of Ceder and Lee Roads), we’ll screen the film, Backpack Full of Cash, from Stone Lantern Films and Turnstone Productions and narrated by Matt Damon. The screening will be followed by discussion.

Sponsoring this free screening is the Heights Coalition for Public Education, in conjunction with the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, Local 795 AFT; Reaching Heights; the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education; the Northeast Ohio Branch, American Association of University Women; and Progress Northeast Ohio.

Public Education is important compared to privatized alternatives merely by its size. In the discussion guide for the film (Touch the thumbnail for the discussion guide.) the education journal Rethinking Schools explains: “There are more than 13,500 public school districts (over 90,000 public schools) serving approximately 50 million students in the United States… There are about 6,800 charters in 44 states and the District of Columbia, serving almost three million students, or… 6 percent of the nation’s public school students….  Roughly 1.3 million students took part in a voucher or voucher-like program in 2017.”

The discussion guide traces the history of charter schools: “Charters first appeared, often with community and teacher union support, in urban districts in the late 1980s and early 1990s… Over the years, the charter school movement has changed dramatically. While there are high-quality individual charter schools, the charter movement has become a national and well-funded campaign organized by investors, foundations, and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized school system with less public accountability and less democratic oversight.”

What about the history of vouchers? “The voucher movement can be traced to economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago. In 1955, he called for eliminating the funding of public schools and replacing it with universal vouchers…. The first use of vouchers was by white families after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision. For five years, until federal courts intervened, officials closed the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than desegregate.  White parents took advantage of vouchers to send their children to a private, whites-only academy… The first contemporary voucher school program began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1990.”  It was soon followed by the state supported voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. Voucher programs today also include education savings accounts, and tuition tax credits.

Here are some of the questions our October 10 film screening will address:

  • We live in a capitalist country. Why not look to the free market for solutions to challenges in education?
  • Is it true, as some say, that charters and vouchers outperform public schools?
  • If a school is educating a child, whether it’s a private school or a charter school, doesn’t it deserve public dollars?
  • Why shouldn’t we be using public dollars to help some children escape from public schools?
  • We have choices in other areas of life. Why not in schools?
  • How should we define our civic responsibility to educate all children?

Our screening of Backpack Full of Cash and the ensuing discussion will address timely concerns not only in today’s national context as our U.S. Secretary of Education promotes school privatization, but also in Ohio, where children’s opportunities and our public school funding are threatened by an unregulated charter sector—including out-of-control online academies, in addition to several statewide school voucher programs.

Check out the official trailer for the film.

Supporters of Last Year’s Massachusetts Charter School Ballot Issue Caught Laundering Dark Money

For quite a while it has been clear that big money dominates our politics and too frequently overrides the will of citizens. In public education policy, the priorities of the One Percent have driven the laws and policy that shape the public schools serving 50 million children—the schools serving the 99 Percent.

Last year, however, in a heartening development, the voters of one state rejected a big-money effort to expand charter schools. In November 2016, in Massachusetts, voters rejected Question 2, a ballot issue that would have raised the cap on the number of charter schools that could be opened in the state. But new evidence now proves conclusively that hidden, big-moneyed interests certainly tried to sway Massachusetts voters.

We learned last week that Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, a group that raised 70 percent of the dollars contributed to the ballot committee behind Question 2, was not really a grassroots fundraising effort.  It was what is known these days as a Dark Money, Astroturf (fake-grassroots) organization.  The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance just fined Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy $426,500 for failing to disclose the donors of $15 million the group poured into political advocacy for Question 2 last November.

The nuances of campaign finance law and its enforcement from state to state are complicated, but in perfectly clear explanations from three different Massachusetts newspapers, it’s possible to parse out exactly what was illegal about the activities of Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy:

From an editorial in the Gloucester Times: “It’s no surprise that Alice Walton, daughter of late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, gave a lot of cash to push a ballot question in Massachusetts that aimed to expand charter schools. Education generally, and charter schools in particular, are key interests of the Walton Family Foundation… It’s not surprising, either that Seth Klarman, the billionaire head of a Boston hedge fund and well-known GOP donor kicked in $3.3 million for the pro-charter question… Unfortunately it isn’t surprising either, that the public had no way to know about these contributions at the time, veiled as they were behind a nonprofit group funneling money into the campaign for Question 2…  Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy gave $15 million to the unsuccessful question that would have allowed up to a dozen new charter schools in the state each year. The group was working with the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, which lobbies for charters nationwide.  State campaign regulators deemed the group essentially worked as an unregistered ballot committee, passing donations from individuals to the campaign.  That arrangement meant donors’ identities were not disclosed….”

The Bay State Banner adds: “In general, nonprofits are not required to reveal donors so long as the nonprofit does not engage in political activity.  However, OCPF officials assert that during the 2016 ballot season, FESA specifically fundraised in order to donate to the political campaign committee—which would then only have to state FESA as its donor and not the original source of the money.”

And from the Boston Globe: “Families for Excellent Schools has promoted charter schools across the country. In New York, it spent $9.4 million on lobbying in 2014 and ran ads blasting Mayor Bill DeBlasio for his opposition to charters, while praising Governor Andrew Cuomo for supporting them.  The group was chaired last year by Paul Appelbaum, principal of Rock Ventures LLC, a New York investment firm.  Its vice chairman was Bryan Lawrence of Yorktown Partners, another New York investment firm.”

The Boston Globe adds that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a strong promoter of the now-defeated ballot issue to raise the cap on charter schools, defended the donors themselves and blamed Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy: “But that’s on the group… Paul Sagan and Mark Nunnelly both complied with all state laws with respect to this.”

Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, will have none of that explanation: “Are they kidding?  The entire reason to give to FESA was to keep their identities secret… And why, you ask, is it important for the donors to keep their identities secret?  It’s because, as political science research shows, if voters know that the real folks behind this idea are not poor families eager to improve their children’s schooling but billionaire financiers, the voters apply a deep discount to the message.”

Here is the substance of the agreement reached on September 11 between the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance and Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy: “FESA filed a statement of organization as a ballot question committee with OCPF, and then e-filed a campaign finance report disclosing all contributions and expenditures from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2016… FESA also agreed to dissolve as a 501(C)(4) social welfare organization with the IRS.  Families for Excellent Schools (FES), a 501(C)(3) tax exempt organization, agreed not to fundraise or solicit in Massachusetts, or engage in any election-related activity in the state for four years.”  Additionally Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy paid the fine of $426,500.

The case may have longer term implications for organizations intending to skirt campaign finance laws to launder so-called dark money. Education writer, Rachel Cohen reported on Tuesday that, as part of the Massachusetts investigation into Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, evidence has emerged that $2.5 million of the $15 million Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy raised to support Question 2 came directly from the New York nonprofit, Families for Excellent Schools: “A New York-based education reform nonprofit funneled nearly $2.5 million to a related group in Massachusetts, according to new disclosures unearthed as part of a legal settlement… FESA is a 501(C)(4) offshoot of the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, a 501(C)(3). That connection raises the stakes for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has jurisdiction over Families for Excellent Schools in New York and has made clean campaigns a centerpiece of his agenda. In exchange for their tax-exempt status, federal law bars 501(C)(3) organizations from engaging in political activity, and some are calling on Schneiderman to investigate why Families for Excellent Schools made a multimillion-dollar contribution, now that the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance has acted.”  Schneiderman declined to comment on Cohen’s story.

Cohen quotes Adam Smith from the campaign finance advocacy group, Every Voice: “With so much shady money sloshing around politics these days, it’s critical that watchdogs have what they need to defend election and campaign finance laws and hold violators accountable.”

Maurice Cunningham believes last week’s ruling by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance will have a chilling effect on the solicitation of dark money political contributions at least in Massachusetts: “Now imagine the phone calls from donors to other Massachusetts dark money fronts like Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts. Can their donors be sure their names will remain hidden?”

State Voucher Plans Grow Despite DeVos’s Failure to Enact a Federal Program

Earlier this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, described her recent interview with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has spent decades advocating for private school vouchers and charter schools, came to Washington with one item at the top of her agenda: to push for a new federal school choice initiative. Her vision is running into trouble on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both chambers have failed to fund either of the school choice proposals in the president’s budget. And it’s looking less and less likely that the White House will push to include a federal tax credit scholarship program in a sweeping tax overhaul package that’s slated to be unveiled soon. So where does that leave the secretary? She’s not giving up, she said in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week….”

Klein reports that DeVos is merely “waiting for the right time” to launch her federal school choice initiative, but there is another reason DeVos can be complacent about a federal expansion of some sort of school vouchers: Voucher programs are quietly growing in many states—either as statehouses pass new legislation or as legislatures expand existing voucher provisions and budget more money for such programs at the expense of public school budgets. DeVos knows she can count on the friends with whom she has collaborated for decades—the libertarian lobbying groups, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the matchmaker between its state legislative members and its corporate and lobbyist members who continue to collaborate on school privatization bills—vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all represented among the model bills ALEC has on the shelf ready to be introduced into any state legislature.

Here is economist Gordon Lafer, from his excellent book, The One Percent Solution, looking at the bills whose introduction he has tracked across America’s state legislatures: “When we examine this full range of legislation, certain things come into focus that are impossible to see when analyzing any particular bill. For starters, there is the sheer similarity of the legislation—nearly identical bills introduced in cookie-cutter fashion in states across the country. This highlights the extent to which state politics has become nationalized, with different states’ legislation originating from a common source in national advocacy organizations.” (p. 3) “For three decades, beginning in the Reagan administration, authority over social and economic policy and programs has steadily moved from the federal to state governments. Unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, transportation, education, and health care spending rely largely on federal spending, but the states establish the level and conditions of support that federal funding provides… At the same time, many of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states.  First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests.” (p. 34)  These trends have been intensified by the corporate-driven rise of one-party dominated, all-red states—now 26, and the increase of tactics like making policy in the middle of the night or burying important programs in the fine print of omnibus legislation like state budgets, with neither adequate debate nor public hearings.

The most recent example of the expansion of vouchers in state policy is, of course, the “compromise” school funding plan passed at the end of August by the Illinois legislature and signed by Governor Bruce Rauner. This blog has extensively covered the Illinois budget crisis and the school funding crisis that surfaced this spring when the legislature developed a plan that would more equitably distribute state funding to local school districts. Rauner vetoed the plan because he said it was a bailout for the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools, despite that everyone except Rauner pretty much agreed it would be a fairer plan.  By the time Rauner called a special legislative session to develop a plan he would be willing to support, it became known that, at the suggestion of Cardinal Blase Cupich of  Chicago’s Archdiocese, Rauner had declared he would support more money for the public schools, as long as the legislature added a tuition tax credit school voucher program.

Here are Tina Sfondeles and Lauren FitzPatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times describing the Illinois school funding compromise which was intended originally to make the state’s distribution of education funding more equitable, but ended up extracting funding for private schools right out of the same education budget: “The legislation is intended to put new money for education into the state’s poorest and neediest districts—and to try to ease the state’s reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools. The system has enabled wealthier communities to pump more money into public education while poor districts fall further behind. But the compromise includes the controversial private school scholarship and tax-credit program…. The tax-credit program was backed by Rauner, Republicans and Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago. It would provide tax credits for anyone who donates to organizations that would create scholarship funds for low-and mid-income students attending private schools. At least for the next five years—when the measure will sunset—donors would get a credit for 75 cents on every dollar they give. Democrats estimated the program would provide scholarships for up to 6,000 students.”

But in other states, once established, such voucher programs never really have been phased out. Last December, Emma Brown of the Washington Post reported on the growth of Indiana’s voucher program: “Indiana’s legislature first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year. ‘Public schools will get first shot at every child,’ then Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said at the time. ‘If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.’”  Mike Pence was elected governor in 2012, and, “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.  By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system.”

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reports on the growth over time of the nation’s oldest school voucher program, launched in Milwaukee for poor children in 1990. In the 1990-91 school year, the Milwaukee Voucher Program cost $734,000.  By the 2014-2015 school year, the state of Wisconsin was spending $212,000,000 on school vouchers.

The nation’s second oldest voucher program, begun for poor students in Cleveland, Ohio has also been expanded.  Policy Matters Ohio released a scathing report in June demonstrating that even as the state has continued to underfund public schools, it has never stopped digging deeper into the state education budget to expand private school tuition vouchers: “Despite traditional public schools struggling to recover funding since the recession, voucher program spending increased by 352 percent since 2008. Program eligibility has increased by adding programs that allow more students to use vouchers… Although most Ohioans are educated in public schools, since the 1990s state policymakers have steadily funneled resources to private schools through vouchers, despite evidence that public school students perform better…  Ohio has five voucher programs: Cleveland Scholarship Program… Educational Choice Program… Educational Choice Expansion… Autism Scholarship Program and Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program.  In Ohio, school funding follows the students, which means that for most voucher programs, the money is deducted from state aid that would have gone to a public school.”

With public policy on education centered primarily in 50 state legislatures, it is overwhelming to try to keep track of the bills that have been introduced and their status. The Education Law Center has recently launched a new Voucher Watch  initiative to help advocates keep track of what is happening with laws to expand vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts across the states: “Education Law Center (ELC), in partnership with the Los Angeles-based Munger, Tolles & Olson (MTO) law firm, has established a Voucher Watch initiative to track new voucher proposals and provide information and analysis on existing voucher laws. Voucher Watch is intended to inform and assist parents, teachers and advocates for public education in their efforts to oppose the establishment or expansion of vouchers in their states.” Voucher Watch frequently updates its description of school privatization bills and reports on each bill’s legislative status.

After 22-Year-Long State Takeover, Newark Regains Control of Its Schools

State takeovers—always intrusive—often arrogant, experimental, and ideological—don’t work.  But state officials persist in believing they know better than residents and school leaders in poor, black and brown communities, and the idea that takeover can compensate for states’ own underfunding of their poorest school districts wins again and again. The Flint lead poisoning resulted from Michigan’s imposition of emergency state fiscal managers to shape up local municipal and school district finances without enough attention to government’s responsibility for quality services. Louisiana and Michigan imposed so-called “recovery school districts” in New Orleans and Detroit. Michigan unsuccessfully turned over Highland Park and Muskegon Heights school districts to for-profit charter managers. And in Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia has been run since 2001 by a state-appointed School Reform Commission.

In New Jersey, until last week, the state has been running the schools in Newark for 22 years, despite the presence of a toothless local school board, whose meetings were even boycotted by Cami Anderson, a recent state-appointed superintendent.

Here is Karen Yi for the Newark Star-Ledger last Wednesday:  “The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to end is takeover of the Newark school district and begin the transition to return control to the locally-elected school board after 22 years… The move comes after decades of fierce battles with the state and boiling frustrations among Newarkers who had little leverage over their schools. Key in the power shift: The local school board will now have the ability to hire and fire its own superintendent.”

Yi quotes Mayor Ras Baraka, a graduate of the Newark Schools and a local educator himself—formerly a Newark teacher and award-winning high school principal: “The people of Newark, we have some self-determination… We now have control over our own children’s lives.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes or there won’t be any errors or obstacles… we have the right to make mistakes, we have the right to correct them ourselves.”

Baraka has been criticized for leaving in place a number of the charter schools brought to Newark by the despised recent superintendent, Cami Anderson, but he has also managed to create enough trust to work with the newest state appointment, Christopher Cerf, to bring the catastrophic Cami Anderson One Newark plan, and the Mark Zuckerberg $100,000 million-funded privatization fiasco—a dream turned nightmare and put in place secretly by Governor Chris Christie and now Senator Corey Booker—under control.  This blog extensively covered Anderson’s tenure here.

Cerf’s contract ends at the end of this school year, and the wind-down of state control will happen over a series of months. Marques-Aquil Lewis, president of the locally elected (but until now toothless) School Advisory Board, commented on the importance of the  Board’s right to appoint the next superintendent: “It’s important the next superintendent understand the community that he or she is going to serve. It will help (to be from Newark). Not a requirement, but it will help.”

David Chen, for the NY Times, describes Lewis and the state takeover that has dominated his own school years: “In 1995, when Marques-Aquil Lewis was in elementary school, the State of New Jersey seized control of the public schools here after a judge warned that ‘nepotism, cronyism and the like’ had precipitated ‘abysmal’ student performances and ‘failure on a very large scale.’  For more than 20 years, local administrators have had little leverage over the finances or operations of the state’s largest school district. Choices about curriculum and programs were mostly made by a state-appointed superintendent, often an outsider.  The city could not override personnel decisions.  Now, Mr. Lewis’s 4-year-old son is in prekindergarten, and things are changing.”

State takeovers too often mean experimentation on the children in the nation’s poorest urban school districts. Adequate funding for the most basic and necessary improvements—small classes to insure that all children are known and supported—wraparound programs like health clinics and social services—is more than most states have been willing to invest in. State takeovers are an extension of the ideology of accountability—that if schools are run like a business, they can be made financially accountable. The idea that educators can be pressured through threats and financial incentives to raise test scores is the other side of this bargain, along with the idea that privatized charters will create competition.

John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education comments on the arrogance and paternalism of these assumptions: “First, it’s important to understand that these state takeovers are taking place in the context of decades of disinvestment in public schools. Due to tax cuts and austerity budgets at the state level, schools in poor communities have suffered increasing inequities in funding for vital education services. Recent studies document that states taking over the democratic rights of local citizens and elected education officials have themselves failed to meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with equitable resources needed to provide students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. In short, inequitable funding and disenfranchisement by school takeovers are actually a vicious cycle, a double threat to democracy in poor communities. It’s also impossible to dismiss the disparate racial impact of state takeovers. An overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers or mayoral control serve African American and Latino students and voters. The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago that are made up predominantly of people of color raises serious federal civil rights issues. The same communities that often face the greatest barriers to the ballot box are those susceptible to further disenfranchisement by removing local control of schools.”

Federal Judge Throws Out 2012 Ban of Tucson, Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Program

It is a no-brainer, really. Any teacher can tell you that children become more engaged when they can personally feel connected to the material they are learning at school.

This lesson was reinforced for education writer Gregory Michie, who describes teaching middle school in a Mexican American neighborhood of Chicago. He assigns Sandra Cisneros’ lovely little book, The House on Mango Street, the story of Esperanza Cordero, growing up in Chicago. Michie explains: “The more we read, the clearer it became to me that every story in the book was filled with… little details and nuances that only an insider… would know. Inside words, inside phrases, inside sights and sounds—peeks into a world Nancy and the others knew well but had never before seen within a book’s pages. Mango Street was unlike anything they had ever read, and the girls absolutely loved it.”(Holler If you Hear Me, p. 58)

It is also one of the reasons—in addition to the urgent need to preserve heritage languages—that schools in American Indian communities are teaching their own customs and languages, and why, in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Public Schools offers students the chance to attend the Anishinabe Academy, whose mission statement boasts, “We exist to engage urban Indigenous students by integrating and reclaiming Native American identities, cultures and languages through authentic academic experiences.”

An important court decision late last month protects Tucson, Arizona’s right to incorporate Mexican-American studies in its public school curriculum.  Judge A. Wallace Tashima declared Tucson’s 2012 ban on the La Raza program an example of  “racial animus ” by two different Arizona state superintendents of public instruction.

Maggie Astor reports for the NY Times: “In a 42-page ruling, Judge A. Wallace Tashima concluded that the elimination of the program in 2012, on the premise that it violated a state statute enacted two years earlier, infringed on students’ First and 14th Amendment rights.” In his decision, Tashima, a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, wrote: “The court is convinced that decisions regarding the MAS (Mexican-American studies) program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears.”

Astor describes how two Arizona superintendents of public instruction quashed Tucson’s ethic studies program: “The ruling focuses primarily on the actions of Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, two former Arizona schools superintendents who concluded that the Mexican-American studies program for middle and high schools, sometimes referred to as La Raza, violated a statute known as A.R.S. 15-112.  Passed in 2010, it bans public and charter schools in Arizona from offering courses that ‘promote the overthrow of the United States government,’ ‘promote resentment toward a race or class of people,’ ‘are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group’ or ‘advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.'”

Although an Arizona auditor determined that Tucson’s program did not violate A.R.S. 15-112, “Mr. Huppenthal directed the department to withhold 10 percent of the Tucson Unified School District’s state funding because of the violation of the statute, and the district decided to end the Mexican-American studies program as a result.”

The court considered personal blog comments posted by Huppenthal including: “No Spanish radio stations, no Spanish billboards, no Spanish TV stations, no Spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.”  He is also quoted by Astor complaining that the La Raza program “presented a misleadingly negative view of American history and taught a ‘toxic construct’ of ‘oppressed and oppressor.'”

In 2011, the National Education Association hired researcher Christine Sleeter to review academic studies of multicultural programming.  While her language is dry and academic, Streeter summarizes the research literature as overwhelmingly endorsing  such programs: “Research on the academic impact of ethnic studies curricula… while not voluminous, shows that such curricula, when designed to help students grapple with multiple perspectives, produces higher levels of thinking. In short, there is considerable research evidence that well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.”

James Banks, considered the father of multicultural education, challenges the attitudes of those who banned Tucson’s La Raza program: “Individuals can develop a clarified commitment… to their nation-state and the national culture only when they believe they are a meaningful part of the nation-state and that it acknowledges, reflects, and values their cultural group and them as individuals… A significant challenge facing educators…is how to respect and acknowledge community cultures… while at the same time helping to construct a democratic public community with an overarching set of values to which all students will have a commitment and with which all will identify.” (Diversity and Citizenship Education: Global Perspectives, pp. 9-12).

Astor reports that Arizona’s Department of Education has declared its officials will, “enact and abide by whatever ruling is handed down by the court.”  We must hope that Tucson will bring back a strong ethnic studies program.

School Segregation, An Ever-Present Problem Across America

In the public mind, misconceptions about residential and school segregation abound. Despite what many believe, the Civil Rights Movement did not end school segregation. And neither is segregation today primarily a problem of the South. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the case set in metropolitan Detroit, undid much of the impact of Brown v. Board of Education by banning busing across school district jurisdictional lines. Whites simply moved to the suburbs, which maintained racial segregation through all sorts of economic measures like zoning out public housing and mandating lot sizes so large that poor people could not afford to build there.

Here is historian Thomas Sugrue from his giant 2008 history, Sweet Land of Liberty: “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest. A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools. The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South. Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city….” (p. xix)  “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference. It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined, limits the access of many minorities to employment opportunities, and leads to racial polarization in politics. Residential segregation has led to a concentration of poverty in urban areas…. (p. 540)

But what about the South, where school districts are more likely to be county-wide and where the courts and the federal Department of Justice enforced the eradication of what was known as de jure segregation—segregation that was explicitly defined by Jim Crow laws?  Two fine articles published this week explore the ongoing resegregation of schools in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama, where a white enclave is seceding from the Jefferson County school district. Emmanuel Felton’s The Department of Justice is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools, published jointly by the Hechinger Report and The Nation, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ NY Times Magazine report, The Resegregation of Jefferson County: What One Alabama Town’s Attempt to Secede from Its School District Tells Us About the Fragile Progress of Racial Integration in America, examine an effort by white parents to remake Gardendale, Alabama’s public schools into a small, largely white school district.

Hannah Jones explains that Gardendale’s parents were very savvy in the way the proceeded. They formed an advocacy group for secession—Focus—Future of Our Community Utilizing Schools.  Then they waited until the Jefferson County Schools passed a bond issue and rebuilt Gardendale High School into a state of the art facility before they made their move to break away: “In Alabama, any town of more than 5,000 residents can vote to form its own school system, and over they years, members of Focus watched covetously as the neighboring white communities did just that. Gardendale, too, had considered secession for two decades but was deterred when feasibility studies showed that the town of nearly 14,000 could not support an independent school system, partly because the tax base could not generate enough revenue to replace its old and sagging high school. Gardendale lobbied Jefferson County to build a new multimillion-dollar high school, which opened in 2010, within the town’s limits.”

Felton describes the protests of white parents, who claimed in court that their proposed secession from Jefferson County Schools had nothing to do with race: “‘The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone think this is about race,’ said Chris Orazine, a white Gardendale dad. ‘The people who live in this community and love this community know that nothing is further from the truth.’… Speaker after speaker complained about how the city had been portrayed. This wasn’t about race, they insisted, but about doing what was best for ‘our’ children.”

Considering that Jefferson County is still under a federal court order to eliminate segregation, how can Gardendale be openly attempting to resegregate?  Hannah-Jones explains: “It was, to a large degree, the geographic organization of Southern states that made court-ordered school desegregation there successful. Unlike the North, where metropolitan areas often include several independent school systems, the South tended toward single, countywide school systems that served cities, suburbs and rural areas.  That meant that judges could order school desegregation across municipal borders and between black and white towns, and thus most white families seeking to avoid desegregation in the South could not simply pick up and move across an invisible line to a white community with a white public-school system… Or, in Alabama, they could leave.  In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school secession law, and in 1959, Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district.”  Other school districts stayed in the county system until 1969, when a lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced the rezoning of the county schools under court order.

“(W)hat makes the Jefferson County case unique,” writes Felton, “is the federal government’s power to stop it…. That’s because Jefferson County is one of just 176 school districts, out of the 13,500 across the nation, that are still under federal oversight to make sure they’re keeping their promise to fully eliminate all vestiges of Jim Crow.  Yet six decades after Brown, federal judges and officials rarely check to see if districts are obeying their orders to desegregate—and in many cases, schools in districts with a history of discrimination against black children have actually grown more segregated under federal supervision.  And when the judges do step in, they’ve often sided with the districts where school segregation is getting worse.”  Felton describes the Department of Justice as lax in enforcement—“While Obama’s Justice Department racked up wins in dozens of cases, including a high-profile case in Cleveland, Mississippi, officials in many districts with segregated schools report that they hadn’t heard from either the Justice Department or the courts during Obama’s tenure. Many of the 176 outstanding cases have been in a state of suspended animation for years, if not decades.”

In April, federal judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, an Obama appointee, allowed Gardendale to secede despite that her decision named race as among the reasons white parents had sought a separate district. Felton writes: “In April, she ruled that Gardendale could break away.”  But her decision was slightly nuanced: “Gardendale would start with two elementary schools and would have to work in ‘good faith’ to earn the middle and high schools.”

Hannah-Jones describes Haikala’s requirements for Gardendale to act in “good faith”: “Haikala had, despite her finding of intentional discrimination, decided to give Gardendale ownership over the county’s two elementary schools located in Gardendale for the coming school year. In order to do so, she required the appointment of a black school-board member and for Gardendale to work with the plaintiffs and the Justice Department to come up with a desegregation plan to govern the new district. Gardendale would also either have to relinquish the high school that Jefferson County residents had paid for and that served students from several other communities or repay the county $33 million for the school. After doing that and then operating the two schools ‘in good faith’ for three years, Haikala said she would reconsider their motion for a full separation.”

Hannah-Jones concludes: “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”  These articles—Felton’s  and Hannah-Jones’—are worth reading together. They are a sobering update on America’s long struggle with racism and the unresolved and very current issue of school segregation which is always accompanied by educational inequity. Quality education is supposed to be a right for all of our children, but we are a long way from having achieved justice.