Report Critiques State Takeover School Districts in LA, TN, and MI; Michigan’s Will Be Dissolved

The Center for Popular Democracy released a fine new report earlier this week about three “‘takeover districts’ in which schools that are deemed ‘chronically failing’ are removed from the local school district and placed in a statewide district with a separate governance structure that is far less transparent and accountable to the public.”  The new report covers the Louisiana Recovery District, the Tennessee Achievement School District, and the Michigan Education Achievement Authority.

Such “recovery” or “achievement” school districts are a little different than direct state takeovers of school districts like those in Newark, New Jersey, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Highland Park, Michigan.  The states operating the “recovery” or “achievement” districts have created a separate statewide school district with the plan of removing particular low-scoring schools from their local district and inserting them into a new statewide governance body.

One of the first things you notice about these so-called statewide districts, however, is that they haven’t really succeeded well enough to operate statewide.  Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) existed before Hurricane Katrina, but the rules for state seizure of schools were expanded immediately after the hurricane to enable state seizure of almost all of New Orleans’ public schools.  The state has added to the RSD several other schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, Point Coupee Parish, and Caddo Parish, but the majority of schools administered by the Louisiana RSD remain in New Orleans.  In Tennessee, according to the new report, “The state has elected to focus on Memphis: 27 of 29 Achievement School District (ASD) schools are located in Memphis; the remaining two schools are in Nashville.”  And in Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), although the original intention was to seize struggling schools across the state, the EAA was never expanded beyond the original 15 Detroit schools.

Here is what the Center for Popular Democracy concludes about the three state “achievement” or “recovery” school districts covered in this report:

Children have seen negligible improvement—or even dramatic setbacks—in their educational performance.”  For example, in Tennessee’s ASD, “Only six out of the 17 takeover schools had moved out of the bottom performance decile by the end of the 2013-2014 school year… ASD’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, stepped down in the summer of 2015.  In his resignation letter, he acknowledged that ‘achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.'”  In New Orleans, “The results for students in Louisiana under the RSD program have been anything but clear-cut.”  (Linda Darling Hammond and colleagues at Stanford University clarified one reason for this in a research brief last fall.  As New Orleans’ schools were sucked into the RSD after Hurricane Katrina, all the rules were bent, and charter schools were permitted to be selective. They continue to have entrance exams and competitive entrance requirements.  Not surprisingly, the highest scoring schools are also the most selective schools.)  And in Michigan’s EAA, “Between 2012 and 2013, 36 percent of students in EAA schools saw declines in their performance on Michigan’s MEAP methematics tests, and another 43 percent saw no improvement.  Thirty-six percent of EAA students also saw declines in MEAP reading performance….”

State takeover districts have created a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement at the public’s expense.” In all three state takeover districts, “private interests stand ready to gain through both legal and illegal channels.  Real estate deals and fees paid to education consultants can siphon millions of dollars away from direct investment in the students enrolled… In New Orleans, much of the profiteering has been enabled by inadequate oversight and unscrupulous contractors.” “In Michigan, the EAA has used its students as guinea pigs to test for-profit educational software. The EAA established a ‘blended learning’ model, basing its curriculum on a for-profit educational software product called ‘Buzz,’ which… relegates teachers to ‘more of a facilitative role.’  The EAA paid a total of $350,000 to try out this previously untested software….  Teachers complained that the software did not work properly and was incomplete…. Finally, in 2015, the EAA made Buzz optional for instruction….”  And in Tennessee: “A joint audit by the State of Tennessee’s Comptroller of the Department of Education and the State Board of Education found mismanagement of federal funding as well as incorrect payment processing at the ASD between July 2012 and June 2014.”

Staff face high turnover and instability, creating a disrupted learning environment for children.” “Many times, the entire staff of all takeover schools has been fired at once, and is usually replaced by new teachers with far less experience.  The demographics of the teaching workforce can also change when teachers are brought in by external, private entities like Teach for America.”

Students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures and discriminatory practices that further entrench a two-tiered educational system.”  The new report summarizes the details of the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and families whose children’s rights to special education services were violated by Louisiana RSD charters that accepted students but failed to provide services appropriate to their needs.  “Only in early 2015, after a federal judge approved a settlement order resolving a four-year old lawsuit, did the state commit to new oversight measures.  The settlement order delineated new safeguards for children with special needs, including a new independent monitor, an auditing procedure, provisions to evaluate special education programs when charter schools apply for renewal, and a requirement that the state creates a plan to identify all students in need of special education services.”  All three state “recovery” or “achievement” districts are reported to have overused  suspensions and harsh discipline.

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The release of the Center for Popular Democracy’s report couldn’t be more timely.  Just a week ago, the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, one of the partners with the state of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools in the formation of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, voted to withdraw its involvement in the EAA.  The university has been criticized by the public and by its own College of Education, its professors, and its students because the university’s Board of Regents agreed to participate back in 2011 without buy-in from members of the faculty of the College of Education.  The Detroit Free Press reports: “The formation of the EAA… in June 2011… was met with concern from the faculty, especially those from Eastern’s education school, which said they had not been consulted.  Faculty continued to be upset over the years, saying their expertise was not being used to help improve the district.” Over the years some public school districts have protested Eastern Michigan University’s involvement in the EAA by refusing to place the university’s student teachers in their public schools.

The Free Press quotes Jim Stapleton, a member of Eastern Michigan’s Board of Regents, describing why he voted to endorse the university’s separation from EAA: “Today, the (EAA) district is not even being run by someone with an educational background.  When coupled with the damage this arrangement has done to the reputation of our university and, particularly the retaliation that has taken place against our students just trying to start their careers for a decision our board made… this has been personally problematic for me for a while.”

The fact that Eastern Michigan University is pulling out of the Education Achievement Authority means, according to the original agreement that specifies a time line for eventual closure if any of the partners withdraws, that by June 30, 2017, the EAA will cease to exist, unless the legislature shuts it down before that.

Ohio Charter School Regulation: The Flimflam Continues

The Ohio state government’s long history of deception in the evaluation of charter schools drags on.  We are a super-majority Republican state without normal checks and balances.  The legislature, Governor John Kasich, and the state board of education are all in the pocket of the charter lobbies.  There isn’t accountability.  There isn’t even any transparency about which numbers are being used to evaluate charter schools or the ways those numbers are applied and misapplied when some kind of report is demanded.

In response to a request from the U.S. Department of Education, at the end of January, the Ohio Department of Education sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to explain how Ohio regulates its charter schools.  You may remember that in the fall, the U.S. Department of Education delayed giving Ohio the huge $71 million grant that the U.S. Department of Education had already awarded to Ohio in the summer for the purpose of expanding charter schools and taking over and charterizing the school district of Youngstown.

The U.S. Department of Education was shamed into demanding more documentation from Ohio when all of the state’s major newspapers covered and editorialized again and again about David Hansen’s charter rating system that “accidentally” left out the notorious on-line charter sector that includes the politically powerful Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the Ohio Virtual Academy (a K12, Inc. operation), and some of David Brennan’s White Hat Management dropout recovery schools.  The press had exposed that David Hansen (husband of Beth Hansen—then Governor Kasich’s chief of staff and now chair of Kasich’s presidential campaign) was the person who had written the federal grant proposal that won the award of $71 million. He submitted the grant proposal only days before he was, under great pressure from the press, fired for his “flawed” charter rating system.  After all this, the U.S. Department of Education capitulated to pressure from the press in Ohio and demanded that, before Ohio could get the $71 million grant, it must update its federal application to show that Ohio is capable of accurately and fairly evaluating its charter schools and that Ohio has the capacity to administer the federal grant.

Yesterday the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a huge editorial that charged: “At this point, it’s nearly impossible to trust anything the Ohio Department of Education has to say about charter school performance, the subject of so much chicanery last year that in November the federal government froze a giant $71 million charter school expansion grant to Ohio.  And it just gets worse.”  The editorial board continues: “A Jan. 29 letter from ODE to federal regulators sent in an attempt to win back the grant reveals that Ohio has nearly 10 times as many failing charter schools as it first reported to the U.S. Department of Education in its 2015 charter school expansion grant application… The application is supposed to give the feds an honest evaluation of the state’s best-and worst-performing charter schools.  But that has become murky, thanks to ODE’s changing definitions.  The obfuscation—which is not how ODE sees it, by the way—raises even more doubts about the wisdom of the federal government giving Ohio those funds, and about the credibility of ODE, which seems more interested in the best interests of the charter school industry than in those of Ohio students.”

While the state had identified six low performing charter schools in its application last summer, the letter sent at the end of January identifies 57 charter schools in trouble.  And while last summer the state had claimed 93 charter schools as “high-performing,” the new letter puts only 59 of the state’s charter schools in that top category.

Dick Ross, who was Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time the Ohio Department of Education applied for the federal grant, resigned at the end of December. Lonny Rivera is now Ohio’s Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Perhaps Rivera is more honest.  The Associated Press highlights the magnitude of the disparity in reporting: “Superintendent Lonny Rivera’s figures in a Jan. 29 letter reflect that Ohio has 10 times as many failing charter schools and only about half as many high-performing ones as previously stated.”  And Catherine Candisky, reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, explains that the new letter doesn’t even include the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and Ohio Virtual Academy: “The performance statistics for the 2013-2014 school year are for 290 ‘site based’ schools and do not include online charters, which generally have been among the poorest performers.”

Candisky reports that Superintendent Rivera explains the discrepancy by claiming that last summer Ohio adopted the “federal definition” of a failed charter school, but now Ohio is adhering to its own “more rigorous” definition: “The 93 ‘high quality’ and six ‘poor performing’ charter schools identified in the state’s grant application were based on ‘the federal definition,’ Rivera wrote.  The revised numbers showing fewer high performing schools and more failing ones, he said, are based on new and tougher state definitions.”

Tom Gunlock, president of the state board of education, commented that it is a good thing if Ohio is now using a “tougher definition of charter-school performance.” The Dispatch‘s Candisky would certainly agree, because, as she explains, in October the Dispatch had reported, “that the (Ohio) Department of Education’s claims about the performance of Ohio’s $1 billion charter-school system were inflated.  In the state’s July 18 grant application, education officials claimed that in the 2012-2013 school year, Ohio had no ‘poor performing’ charters, even though about a third of the schools didn’t meet a single standard on their state report cards that year and 60 percent of them got D or F grades on the ‘performance index,’ a measure of how students perform on state tests.”

Apparently Ohio’s receipt of the $71 million charter school expansion grant remains in question. Candisky reports that the January 29 letter of explanation submitted by Interim Superintendent Rivera, “was the state’s third response to questions from federal regulators since the review was opened in November.”

The bigger question—for those of us who pay taxes in Ohio and who also watch a significant portion of our locally voted school district millage diverted to charter schools when students enter the school choice marketplace—is why nobody has taken any steps to close the charter schools that are failing to serve their students, and the charter schools that are mismanaged, and the charter schools where conflicts of interest and even fraud have been demonstrated.

Wraparound Community Schools Are Long Term Investment, Not Quick Turnaround

A little more than a year ago, New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a massive program of support for 94 public Renew Schools, identified as those where children’s test scores have been chronically low. All of the Renew Schools are neighborhood schools required to accept all the children who arrive at their doors. One of the strategies is to add extra time for children in school and provide additional training and support for parents. Another central part of the strategy is to turn these 94 schools into full-service Community Schools through formal contractual partnerships with a number of NYC social service, medical and child enrichment agencies. This week Elizabeth Harris in the NY Times offers an analysis one-year into this transformation. She notes that test scores haven’t yet significantly risen.

While I commend Harris for her attention to NYC’s effort to support its struggling schools, her story demonstrates what’s wrong with the way we judge schools—what’s wrong with the metric we use and what’s wrong with the time line.

To be fair, Harris examines more than the test scores at Urban Scholars, the Bronx public school she profiles: “Last year, a third of Urban Scholars students were chronically absent, showing up to school less than 90 percent of the time.  This school year, students who regularly miss school have been paired with an adult in the building who makes home visits and daily phone calls to encourage families to get their children to school, and to follow up when they do not.”

But Harris seems to assume that change will come, if not quickly at least in a steady and visible upward trajectory. She also seems to imagine it ought somehow to be visible in the students’ standardized test scores.

Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the Community School model.  Here is how New York’s Children’s Aid Society (one of the partners de Blasio has tapped as part of his transformation of NYC’s 94 Renew Schools) and its National Center for Community Schools defines a Community School: “A Community School is… both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, services, supports and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone…. Most Children’s Aid Society schools are open all day and well into the evening, six days per week, year-round.”

In her NY Times piece earlier this week, Harris focuses on the problem of chronic absence.  Over the past decade, The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, in two major reports here and here, has identified chronic absence as among the most serious barriers to learning in NYC.  In a recent column The Children’s Aid Society also examines this challenge: “Most transient students tend to be chronically absent, or chronically late, due to the challenges inherent in their condition: health issues such as asthma and allergies, often a result of stress or the poor sanitary conditions of the shelters; or because of the numerous, inflexible appointments required by the Department of Homeless Services in order for the families to keep their space at the shelter.”

Community School staff work in a parallel and collaborative way with the academic staff at a public school.  The role of the Community School Director who coordinates the school’s collaboration with community services parallels the principal’s role as the school’s academic leader.  In its recent column, the Children’s Aid Society describes Jeanette Then, the Director of the Community School partnership in a public school in East Harlem, where chronic absence has been a persistent problem.  Then explains additional reasons why homeless or “doubled up” children miss school: “At times children are absent because they don’t have the resources to get basic needs met, such as clean clothes or food.  Families often keep information from the school until they feel they can trust us.”

Jeanette Then’s job includes the expectation that she will coordinate formally with the Department of Education’s liaison at each of the East Harlem shelters in the neighborhood served by the school every time a family with children arrives at the shelter. “Based on these findings, my team and I (the Community School team at the school) devise a plan for how best to address and prioritize, as well as identify what available or additional resources can help the student get acclimated to the school.  Services may range from uniforms, school supplies, guidance, parent support, clothing, nutrition, health care….” It is also the responsibility of the Community School staff to identify and support students who are “doubled up”—homeless but living with relatives or friends instead of a shelter.

In her NY Times piece this week, Harris explains how the Community School she visited is working to break the cycle of chronic absence.  The Children’s Aid Society elaborates on this strategy: “To ensure attendance, the Community School partnership provides students with a success mentor, whose job is to promote attendance and discourage tardiness. Mentors develop a trusting relationship with the students and their families by doing daily in-person or phone check-ins and by greeting students as they arrive in school.  They also set goals with the students. Parents are part of the goal-setting process in order for adults to be aware and accountable for their children’s academic social, and emotional well being.  Each mentor is responsible for 15 children.”

Whether or not it will quickly raise test scores, the Community School model—when it is carefully and strategically implemented—is very likely to assist desperate families and coordinate medical and dental health services along with after-school enrichment for a wide range of children and families.  But such a strategy is a big gamble, because it isn’t guaranteed to raise test scores according to the quick “turnaround” time line our society has come to expect. And because it involves hiring staff to coordinate services and support families, it is very expensive.

Here is how the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs described the investment by the Children’s Aid Society in its original Community Schools back in 2014, before the mayor launched the rapid expansion of Community Schools in New York City: “Building a network of Community Schools requires significant money and manpower. The Children’s Aid Society spends between $1.2 and $2.7 million per year at each of its 16 schools in New York City. As much as 95 percent of these resources come from various pools of existing federal, state, and local funds, but raising the money and administering the programs comes at a cost. Children’s Aid employs more than a dozen people in its central office to do the grant writing, budgeting and contract management required to keep their Community Schools program afloat.”

Teachers Can’t Fix Poverty or Problems Like Housing Eviction

For twenty years, our society has embraced a theory of school reform whose driving idea is that if schools expect more and teachers work harder, test scores will rise among the students who struggle.  It is a theory that expects public schools themselves to compensate for growing economic inequality and structural racism.  The idea is that schools are primarily responsible for closing the gaps in children’s opportunities.

Social scientists, on the other hand, tell us that children’s standardized test scores seem to correlate not so much with their schools as with their families’ economic circumstances.  An income inequality achievement gap has grown rapidly during the past half century.  Here is the theoretical explanation of Andrew Grant-Thomas and John Powell: “A social system is structurally inequitable to the degree that it is configured to promote unequal outcomes.  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures… In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion.” (Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield, editors, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, p. 124)

Although we are a society that features structural inequality and structural racism, most of us are not personally familiar with the lives of families on the edge. Because our American ethos credits success to individual grit, we struggle to understand why hard working teachers can’t get the children in their classes to pull themselves up more quickly.  Michael Harrington tried to help 50 years ago by describing The Other America.  To that same end, from time to time this blog is exploring—in Grant-Thomas and John Powell’s words—“highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities” that conspire to make it hard for children quickly to raise their test scores and schools to close achievement gaps.

This week’s New Yorker features Forced Out, a stunning piece by Harvard ethnographer, Matthew Desmond, on what happens when families with very low income face a shortage of affordable housing—structural factors that mean some families get evicted again and again and again.  While the public school is the primary institution most middle income parents encounter on a regular basis, in the Milwaukee family Desmond profiles, very different institutions intrude: the shelter, the sheriff”s squad carrying out evictions and foreclosures, the public housing authority, the welfare case worker, and the eviction court. The mother of two boys—ages thirteen and five—cannot possibly forge a relationship with any one school, though it is apparent throughout the piece that her boys’ safety and well-being drive the decisions she makes.

Desmond’s article and his book—Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, that will be published next month—grew from his dissertation research at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.  Desmond is a 2015 MacArthur genius grant winner.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports: “To study eviction, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, he lived for four months in a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee and nine months in a rooming house in the city’s north side. ‘I came to the realization of how essential a role housing plays in the lives of the poor… Eviction embroils landlords and tenants, lawyers and social workers.’ He discovered there was hardly any data or studies on evictions.”

Evictions as a trend are not something most of us have noticed. Neither have we thought about the likely impact of such a trend on children and their schools: “These days, evictions are too commonplace to attract attention. There are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders.  Some moving companies specialize in evictions, their crews working all day long, five days a week.  Hundreds of data-mining companies sell landlords tenant-screening reports that list past evictions and court filings.  Meanwhile families have watched their incomes stagnate or fall as their housing costs have soared.  Today, the majority of poor renting families spend more than half their income on housing and millions of Americans are evicted every year.  In Milwaukee, a city of fewer than a hundred and five thousand renter households, landlords legally evict roughly sixteen thousand adults and children each year.”

When the mother profiled by Desmond tries to get on the list for a Section 8 voucher, here is what she finds: “The list of applicants for Milwaukee’s rent-assistance program was notoriously stagnant… ‘The list is frozen,’ she was told.  On it were more than thirty-five hundred families who had applied for assistance four years earlier and were still waiting for placement.  It could have been worse.  In larger cities, like Washington, D.C, the wait for public housing counted in decades.  Three in four American families who qualified for housing assistance received nothing…”

Desmond concludes: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”  “In a typical month, three in four people in Milwaukee’s eviction court were black, and three in four of those were women. One female renter in seventeen from the city’s poorest black neighborhoods was evicted through the court system each year, twice the number for men from the same neighborhoods, and nine times that for women from the poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up less than ten per cent of Milwaukee’s population but nearly a third of its evicted tenants.”

How does eviction affect children in school?  Desmond describes the life of the thirteen-year-old boy in the family he profiles: “He and his brother had grown used to churning through different apartments, neighborhoods, and schools.  In the seventh and eighth grades, Jori had attended five schools; when the family was homeless he often skipped class to help Arleen look for a new place.”

“For many poor Americans, eviction never ends,” writes Matthew Desmond.  I urge you to read Forced Out.

School Teachers and Union Unfairly Blamed for Financial Mess in Chicago Public Schools

Here are just some of the details of the financial morass in the Chicago Public Schools.

Back in 2003, David Vitale, a banker and then-CEO Arne Duncan’s recently appointed Chief Financial Officer, convinced the mayoral-appointed school board to begin using risky borrowing strategies.  The Chicago Tribune explains the results of a huge investigation it conducted in 2014: “Vitale, then the chief administrative officer at CPS, and other officials pushed forward with an extraordinary gamble.  From 2003 through 2007, the district issued $1 billion worth of auction-rate securities, nearly all of it paired with complex derivative contracts called interest-rate swaps, in a bid to lower borrowing costs.  No other school district in the country came close to CPS in relying so heavily on this exotic financial product. In fact, market data show the district issued more auction-rate bonds than most cities, more than the state of California… It involved issuing bonds at floating rates and entering into related interest rate swaps that could lessen the impact of cost fluctuations… By 2008 the district was carrying $1.8 billion in bonds that were subject to fluctuating rates, accounting for more than 40 percent of the district’s outstanding debt.”  Then, of course, came the 2008 financial collapse.  The Tribune updates the situation as of November 2014: “Over the life of the bonds, which won’t be fully paid off until 2034, the school district stands to spend $100 million making up the difference, according to the Tribune’s analysis. The extra costs add to the district’s crushing deb burden; last year, the school system’s debt payment was $338 million.”

Fast forward to 2016.  Facing crushing debt, the Chicago school district has unsuccessfully sought increased funding from Springfield, where Illinois’ new governor Bruce Rauner keeps threatening to take over Chicago Public Schools and force the district into bankruptcy, though Republican Rauner continues to be blocked by a super-majority Democratic legislature.

Last week, Chicago Public Schools borrowed again, selling $725 million in bonds to try to make it through this school year.  But with its bonds reduced by several rating agencies to junk status, the school district was forced to scale back its intended borrowing to $725 million from $875 million and forced to offer an 8.5 percent interest rate to buyers, rather than the 7.75 percent interest rate that would have been possible only weeks ago.  According to the Sun Times, Mayor Rahm Emanuel blames the diminished borrowing climate on Rauner’s threat to take over the system and force it into bankruptcy.

Chicago’s school district and its teachers’ union have been engaged in contract negotiations after the current contract expired last June.  Last week, the school district offered the teachers a contract, and the union rejected the offer.  The school district responded by blaming the teachers and announcing mid-year cuts of $100 million.  Later, Catalyst-Chicago explains, the district reduced the threatened cuts to $75 million.

Where will the cost reductions come from?  According to Catalyst, “CPS… announced that after 30 days have passed, the district would stop paying the so-called ‘pension pickup’ for teachers—a longstanding agreement in which CPS pays 7 percent of the 9 percent union members are required to pay into their pensions.  The district estimates this will save $65 million by the end of the school year.” According to Catalyst-Chicago, the district will also reduce immediately the funds awarded to schools on a per-student basis by 4.3 percent and also eliminate some programs funded through the federal Title I program. While the district has already begun cutting central office administrators and while the mayor and Forrest Claypool, the current CEO of Chicago Public Schools, claim they will protect cuts that will directly affect the classroom, it is clear that cuts will affect each school.

But the reason for the union’s rejection of the recent contract offer is more complicated.  Sarah Karp, long a highly regarded reporter at Catalyst-Chicago and now reporting for Chicago’s Better Government Association, explains: “(T)teachers were offered a pay raise, but there was a big catch: CPS educators would essentially be paying for the salary increase by sacrificing the most experienced members of their teaching force. An early-retirement buyout program was the linchpin of the Board of Education’s since-rejected offer—and it’s one of the main reasons why Chicago Teachers Union representatives voted down the deal, according to union officials. The board was offering $1,500 per year of service to teachers of retirement age and $750 to support staff to leave…. If at least 1,500 teachers and 700 other staffers took advantage of the buyout offer, the contract would stand…. But if not enough employees signed up for early retirement, then CPS could reopen the contract….” Karp interviews Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois, who defends the union’s rejection of the contract because “taking a deal that would allow the district to crack back open the contract would be a huge risk for the union.”

There is also the matter of which teachers would be affected by such a buyout and the implications of their distribution across particular neighborhoods and schools. Karp quotes CTU President Karen Lewis: “No. 1 it would have pushed out 2,200 of our seasoned, experienced educators, disproportionately impacting African American and Latino educators.” Karp elaborates:  “Fifty-four percent of teachers with more than 20 years experience are black or Latino, whereas only 22 percent of new teachers are…. New teachers make about $48,000 a year, while those with 20 years or more experience make an average of $88,000.”  Karp reports that, according to Jim Cavallero, a special education teacher at Chicago Academy High School, a majority of the teachers qualifying for the buy-out work in schools on Chicago’s south and west sides in schools that serve black and Latino students.  Cavallero explains: “It would be problematic if these schools—many with poor students—were left with mostly new and inexperienced teachers. ‘Schools need a balance of experienced teachers and new ones… We cannot allow these teachers to be pushed out when they are needed most.'”

Although Chicago Public Schools blames the union for its members’ refusal to accept the proffered contract and failure to accept shared sacrifice, teachers view the financial crisis very differently.  Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey is reported by Progress Illinois to have “said the issue boils down to the school district needing new revenue. ‘Unpaid debt on pensions and unpaid debt on bondholders and charter schools are the three drivers’ of the district’s financial issues…  You’re not gonna solve that by cutting frontline educators.'”  Last week the teachers union launched a formal protest of banks’ taking advantage of the school district during the years’ of toxic interest rate swaps by closing the Chicago Teachers Union’s account at Bank of America and moving $726,000 to Amalgamated Bank, which never peddled risky financing practices to the school district in the years leading up to the 2008 collapse.

The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to strike if necessary, though teachers explain that a strike is definitely not something they want.  There is a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools, and also a lot of politics and a lot of blame.  What is clear is that there is no easy solution and that as usual in such situations, the teachers and the children will continue to try to conduct school in conditions that are far from ideal.

What Gives Campbell Brown Standing to Spin the News about Public Education?

Campbell Brown is a former news anchor from CNN who has launched her own attack on teachers’ unions and established a web-based news service to report on public education.

Last July, Campbell Brown launched her education news site.  She calls it The Seventy Four, for the 74 million children in school across America.  The news website does not sell advertising and instead depends on philanthropy—donations from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma (makers of Oxycontin) and founder of the far-right ConnCan and 50 Can. According to Inside Philanthropy, The Seventy-Four has an annual budget of $4 million.

Inside Philanthropy comments: “Sackler serves on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund and has been active in other charter school organizations.  This is not Walton’s first foray into education journalism… Considering this array of funders, as well as Brown’s pro-reform stance, you can bet this new site will cover issues in K-12 education from the pro-reform perspective that has made Brown the target of criticism from teachers unions and their allies…”

According to the NY Times, Campbell Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was a foreign affairs adviser to presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Before that, Senor was President George W. Bush’s chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Senor has also served on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.

Brown’s other current venture is the national organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, she has established for the sole purpose of filing Vergara-type lawsuits across the states to undermine due process job protection for teachers.  According to Stephanie Simon at Politico, Brown and her campaign, the Partnership for Educational Justice,  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. This blog commented on Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice here.

Despite that Brown has hired professional journalists for The Seventy Four, Howard Blume, the education reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores some of the concerns about Campbell Brown and The Seventy Four expressed by supporters of traditional public education: “The Seventy Four, based in New York City, describes itself as a nonpartisan news site with the mission of exposing an education system ‘in crisis… to challenge the status quo, expose corruption and inequality, and champion the heroes who bring positive change to our schools.'”  Blume continues: “Critics call The Seventy Four an advocacy effort on behalf of a pro-charter school, anti-union agenda. The organization, critics say, uses opinion pieces and reported stories to promote charter schools and to find fault with traditional campuses and teachers unions.  Not so, said co-founder and Chief Executive Romy Drucker.  ‘We try to highlight what’s working,’ Drucker said..  ‘part of the mission also is highlighting what’s broken and needs to be fixed and highlighting the solutions.'”  Blume describes Drucker as “a top New York City schools official under former Chancellor Joel Klein. Klein is closely associated with advocates who believe that school systems should be run more like successful businesses.”

Why has Howard Blume in Los Angeles recently been reporting on The Seventy Four?  “The Seventy Four, an organization whose co-founder is a controversial education advocate, has taken over L.A. School Report, a website covering the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

Blume explains that the stakes are high in Los Angeles: “A confidential document, obtained last year by The Times, laid out a plan, spearheaded by the Broad Foundation, to more than double the number of local charters, pulling in half the district enrollment over the next eight years.  Potential funders included the Walton Family Foundation…. That plan, were it to go forward, could push the nation’s second-largest school system into insolvency, according to an independent panel of experts.”

So far, the elected school board in Los Angeles has resisted pressure and voted not to adopt Eli Broad’s plan for doubling the number of charter schools, but many people worry that supporters of charters are pursuing a long term strategy to undermine the board’s current resistance.

Blume reports on the concerns of Steve Zimmer, a member of the elected school board in Los Angeles: “Zimmer linked the acquisition (Campbell’s acquisition of L.A. School Report) to what he characterized as a pattern of wealthy partisans trying to control the media message, including at The Times, which has received funding from Broad and others to increase education coverage.  In an e-mail Zimmer described his concern: ‘Truth itself, as it relates to public education in Los Angeles, will be filtered through an orthodox reform lens at every turn.'”  Blume and others at the Los Angeles Times have persistently declared their independence as journalists, despite Broad’s investment in expanded education coverage at the newspaper.

The L.A. School Report had run out of money to operate.  Blume reports that the takeover by The Seventy Four, “involved no money; instead The Seventy Four, with its $4 million annual budget, absorbed the school report and its staff—an editor and two reporters.”

How does all this relate to those of us who don’t reside in Los Angeles?  Clearly there is an ideological battle going on in public education policy.  Reading the news these days requires thoughtful discernment.

Washington Post Report Highlights Problems with State Takeovers of Schools

Earlier this week the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton reported on the wave of attempts by Republican governors to seize local schools and school districts and turn them over to new state-run governance structures dubbed “recovery” or “opportunity,” or “achievement” school districts: “Governors in Michigan, Arkansas, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere—mostly Republican leaders who otherwise champion local control in their fights with the federal government—say they are intervening in cases of chronic academic or financial failure.  They say they have a moral obligation to act when it is clear that local efforts haven’t led to improvement… Eleven states have passed or debated legislation to create state-run school districts in the past year… State takeovers were once a rarity, but they have become increasingly popular as the number of states controlled by Republicans doubled between 2010 and 2014.”

Layton cites a report from the Education Commission of the States, an organization that has historically leaned toward support of accountability-based school reform.  The Education Commission of the States describes the state run “recovery” districts this way: “In recovery districts, SEAs (state education agencies) gain legal authority to take over their lowest-performing schools and assume the LEA (local education agency) functions for those schools.  Schools in these districts are united not by geographic proximity, but rather by their status as underperformers.  The belief is that by grouping schools in this way, states can more seamlessly implement comprehensive and aggressive reform strategies in schools facing similar challenges.  Recovery districts tend to have a governance system in which ‘high-quality’ operators function in a charter-prevalent model.  Schools that are not run by charter operators are run instead by the state board or recovery district authority.”  Notice the language in ECS’s report that affirms the frame of those who support state takeovers—“seamlessly implement comprehensive and aggressive reform strategies”—“governance system in which ‘high-quality’ operators function in a charter-prevalent model.”

Less sympathetic to the ideology of the school “reformers,” Layton describes the way these state takeovers operate: “Although the particulars vary, an appointed manager wields broad powers to redesign schools or close them entirely.  The state manager can hire and fire, set curriculum, reconfigure the school day, sell property and, in some cases break existing labor contracts.  Increasingly, state managers are turning over traditional public schools to charter school operators, which are funded by tax dollars but are privately managed.  The idea is that the state can bring aggressive change in a way that local politicians, with their community ties and loyalties, cannot.”

Kent McGuire of the Southern Education Foundation is quoted by Layton: “These ideas kind of travel like wildfire.  But you can’t really find evidence that there’s been positive, sustainable changes in learning in those places.”

She also quotes Clark County, Georgia’s Philip Lanoue, the 2015 national Superintendent of the Year: “These takeovers are entangled with money and power and control.”

Layton reminds readers of Ohio Governor John Kasich’s surreptitious takeover last summer of the schools in impoverished Youngstown, Ohio.  Ohio is a super-majority Republican state, making it easy for Kasich and his staff to engineer quick passage through a captive legislature. Layton explains: “The administration and its allies in the state legislature rushed the legislation, getting it approved by a committee and narrowly passed by both houses of the legislature less than 24 hours after it was made public.  ‘This was a blueprint to dismantle the city schools,’ said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat who represents Youngstown and is Senate minority leader.”  This blog has extensively covered the Youngstown takeover here, here, and here.

This blog has covered state takeovers of schools and school districts.  In Michigan, here, here, here, here and here. The proposed constitutional amendment to create a Georgia Achievement District, here.  In Newark, here and here.  In Milwaukee, here. In New Orleans, here. State takeovers in general, here and here.

What is the most telling information in Layton’s new Washington Post article?  “All state takeovers to date have occurred in school districts that are impoverished and majority African American and Latino.”