“One Newark” Exemplifies the Shock Doctrine: Public Institutions Seized from the Powerless

This blog will take a week off after today.  Look for the next post on Tuesday, May 5.

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the takeover of the New Orleans schools in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina as a grand experiment perpetrated by policy makers on a city so vulnerable nobody could protect the public assets that should have been rescued.  Klein concludes, “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, “disaster capitalism.” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)

When we think about the Shock Doctrine applied to education, New Orleans—where the schools were charterized and all the teachers fired—is the example that comes to mind, but our test-and-punish system under the No Child Left Behind Act has branded the schools in our poorest cities as “failures” and created a crisis atmosphere that has also made way for the application of the Shock Doctrine.  Back in 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seized such an “opportunity” and set up Newark for an experiment in disaster capitalism; he staged his Shock Doctrine live on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg handed Booker $100 million to fix Newark’s schools. In a recent article Washington Post education writer Lyndsey Layton summarizes what happened as the “One Newark” plan was put in place by Christie and his appointed overseer Newark school superintendent, Cami Anderson. Public schools were closed and charter operators brought in.  Union agreements were abrogated. It has been easy to move quickly in Newark, where the schools have been under state control for twenty years and residents have been unable to establish sufficient checks and balances despite the presence of an elected school board that lacks virtually any power. Cami Anderson has not bothered to attend any meetings of Newark’s school board for well over a year now.

Layton describes One Newark: “The plan is the signature initiative crafted by Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2011 to run Newark Public Schools.  The state seized control of Newark Public Schools in 1995 amid academic and financial failure, but two decades of state control has resulted in little progress.  One Newark, which fully took effect in the current academic year (2014-2015), essentially blew up the old school system.  It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices.  It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools…. With Christie’s blessing—and freed from the need for approval from a local school board—Anderson pushed through a raft of changes, many of which were untested…  As a result, many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, and where many residents don’t own cars.  The end of neighborhood schools meant that newcomers no longer had a right to attend the school down the street.  The new citywide lottery, relying on a computer algorithm, forced many students to change schools while dividing siblings in some cases between different schools in different parts of the city.  Meanwhile, state test scores have stayed flat or even declined….”

Local elected officials have tried unsuccessfully to protect the right of parents and citizens of Newark to control their public schools.  Senator Ronald Rice, chair of the New Jersey Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, was able only after repeated attempts to require Cami Anderson to appear before his committee to defend her plan, but she refused to discuss matters of substance with his committee.  A civil rights complaint was filed earlier this year with the U.S. Department of Education.   A group of high school students  occupied the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson for several days in February.  U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., Newark’s representative to Congress, recently petitioned Cami Anderson in a formal letter to respond to the concerns of his constituents: “Your failure to respond and to engage in a meaningful dialogue on behalf of all Newark students is very disappointing to my constituents and me. There is a crisis situation going on in Newark.” And just this week, in an attempt to gain leverage, Newark’s new mayor, Ras Baraka, a high school principal elected on a pro-public school platform in the spring of 2014, was able to get his own “Children’s First Team” of three elected to the local elected board of education. All five of the elected board members support Baraka and oppose Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan.   You can read earlier posts about Newark on this blog here.

Despite the protests, Cami Anderson, has been rewarded not only with Christie’s support but also with a bonus.  She has also announced plans to expand One Newark.  Bob Braun, former education writer for the Newark Star Ledger, recently blogged: “Three related events are merging into a crisis for the public schools and their supporters.  The first is Anderson’s decision to designate nine more schools—including Weequahic and East Side high schools—as ‘turnaround’ schools that will force employees either to give up their jobs or their contract-guaranteed working conditions.  The second is Anderson’s insistence that the state grant her permission to ignore employee seniority rights so she can lay off veteran teachers to meet a budget deficit of up to $100 million that she caused.  The third is the arguably felonious refusal of the state to insist that Anderson abide by the terms of the waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements.”

The Newark Teachers Union just announced a formal protest; teachers will no longer work extra hours before or after school but will picket to bring attention to the problems with One Newark. Naomi Nix  of the Star Ledger interviewed a union leader who reports:  “(T)he teachers will participate in ‘informational picket lines’ during non-school day hours to explain their concerns to the public.”  Braun reports that Mayor Ras Baraka supports the teachers’ action.  Dr. Lauren Wells, Baraka’s chief school officer met with teachers and told them: “Enough is enough.  This is not how you change the schools.  We support you.” Braun adds: “Five members of the Newark school board also showed up to show their support—leading to the possibility that Newark might be the scene of the first teachers’ strike supported by its local school board.  The state has stripped the board of most of its powers, but the members do act as a barometer of anti-state feeling.”

Braun would agree, I think, that Newark’s schools exemplify a Shock Doctrine—the imposition of school choice, public school closures, expansion of charters, and attacks on unionized teachers—on a community whose citizens lack power.  He writes: “The last year has been its own moment of truth about the respect shown to leaders of color—even prominent, elected leaders like Rice and Baraka and members of the school board.  In a state run by Christie and allies like Steve Sweeney and Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross, the concerns of black and brown political, religious, and civic leaders simply do not matter.”  Shock Doctrine educational experiments are characterized by their imposition by the powerful on other people’s children.

Chris Christie has been very clear about Newark: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”

Distracting Us All from the Issue of Adequate Public Expenditure for Education

It’s all very confusing.  Parents are opting out of testing all over the state of New York.  They don’t like the new Common Core tests where the reading level is set a year-and-a-half to two years above the age expectations for the kids and where the cut score for measuring proficiency is set way too high, which all means that a lot of kids are scoring really low.  And parents don’t like that Governor Andrew Cuomo is tying the children’s scores on these new, hard, and hard-to-pass tests to 50 percent of the ratings for their kids’ teachers. Opting out is a way to protest all this, and many are—in some districts enough to invalidate any generalizations that can be made about the scores.

Then across the states there are the massive attacks on taxes.  To grow the economy and create jobs, we are told, we have to cut taxes and give everybody more money to spend.  Never mind that cutting taxes to the bone means we can’t afford the things we need— repair of roads and bridges—replacement of water mains so they don’t explode into geysers on the coldest day of the year—public schools with enough teachers and school counselors.  Nobody on TV or in the newspaper seems to connect the dots between the meager budgets and growing potholes and exploding class sizes.  The broadcast network news has copied the local news—weather,  fires and shootings—and our local newspaper here in Cleveland (that is delivered only four days a week now) filled its front page this past week with stories about LeBron James and Ringo’s induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

But underneath all this confusion and distraction are the questions about money.  When it comes to public education, the two questions to ask are surprisingly simple—though it may be hard to find anybody who will answer them.  (1) How much money is enough?  (2) Have we ensured that the money we plan to spend is distributed fairly so that children’s opportunity isn’t determined by who their parents are or where they live?  And then there is an important rule to remember:  Spending cuts at the federal level put a greater burden on the states to make up the difference, and cuts by the states increase the financial burden on local school districts (which can’t themselves meet a standard of equity because local jurisdictions have vastly different capacities to raise money due to the value of the property that can be taxed and the wealth or poverty of the people who pay the local taxes).

So…  What is going on underneath all the conversation about the opting out?  Even though your local paper may not be covering it, there is a lot of wrangling in Washington, D.C. and across the state capitols during this spring’s federal and state budget season about arithmetic and how to arrange the numbers to prove the schemes of various politicians.  How can we cut taxes and still have enough?  How can we pretend we have enough and blame the problems of abject poverty in public schools on something else? Can we use test scores or opting out or teacher evaluation schemes as a distraction? Can we pretend that privatizing schools will save enough money that the budget appears to be balanced?

At the federal level, a huge fight is brewing, one that some people predict could again threaten a federal government shutdown in the fall.  The House of Representatives is committed to perpetuating the federal budget cuts and freezes we collectively call “sequestration.”  According to an article on Wednesday in The Hill “Appropriators are proposing to cut funding next year in the following funding bills: Financial Services and General Government; Labor Department, Health and Human Services, and Education; and Interior and the Environment.  The figures point to a brewing conflict between the GOP-led Congress and the White House that could lead to another government shutdown fight in October… Compared to 2015 spending levels, Republicans are proposing to cut about $2 billion from Financial Services and General Government, $246 million from Interior and the Environment and $4 billion from the Labor-HHS-Education Bill.”   The president, by contrast, in the federal budget he proposed in February, sought an increase of $3.6 billion, a 5.4 percent increase over 2015 levels, for the U.S. Department of Education.  It’s certainly not a lot of money when it would be spread across 90,000 public schools in America, but at least a good part of those increases were proposed for the big formula programs that school districts need to support their services for the most vulnerable groups of children.  The president proposed to add $1 billion to the Title I formula, along with small but symbolically important increases for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and for services for English language learners.  Any increase would help, as these programs have been frozen for several years.

The issues of adequacy and equity are at the heart of debates across the states, probably most visibly in New York, where Governor Cuomo set off a firestorm by tying any increase in school funding to the new scheme by which students’ test scores count for  50 percent of each teachers’ evaluation.  What has been less frequently discussed is that the budget deal Cuomo hammered out with the legislature appropriates far less money than is needed and does a poor job of distributing extra to the poorest school districts.  In a recent report, New York’s Fiscal Policy Institute describes urgent needs in 178 “priority” or “failing” schools the state identified in February: “The school districts that are home to these priority schools teach students who…. live in communities that are among the poorest in the state with the least resources to improve local schools… Over three-fourths of the students in priority schools are eligible for the federal free or reduced price lunch program. Many of these students are not proficient in English or are from minority families with disproportionately high levels of unemployment and poverty.”  The Fiscal Policy Institute recommends that New York remedy its school funding problems as it promised to do back in 2006, after its high court ruled its school funding unconstitutional: “Foundation Aid is the largest source of direct state assistance to schools and was intended to address inequities. In 2006… the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state was failing to provide students with the classroom resources necessary to receive the ‘sound basic education’ that the state constitution guarantees. The state legislature adopted the current Foundation Aid formula to settle that lawsuit… However, years of austerity budgets have undermined the promise of the CFE settlement legislation—funding for school districts is just about where it was in fiscal year 2006-2007…. The state should use the Foundation Aid formula to distribute increased school aid in order to direct more assistance to the districts with the highest needs.”

Then, of course, there is Pennsylvania, which Emma Brown recently described in the Washington Post as the most inequitable in school funding: “Nowhere is that gap wider than in Pennsylvania, according to federal data. School districts with the highest poverty rates here receive one-third fewer state and local tax dollars, per pupil, than the most affluent districts.  This spring the new governor (Tom Wolf), has outlined an ambitious plan to address the inequities, but it faces opposition in the state house.”  “‘There was a wide recognition that the system was broken,’ Wolf said in a recent interview, adding that cuts to public school funding were both an economic and moral mistake… Advocates and teachers have cheered his proposal to increase education funding by $1 billion.  But Pennsylvania faces a $2 billion budget deficit even without that new spending on schools, and so Wolf’s plan depends on changes in state taxes, including a new tax on gas production and increases in both personal income and sales taxes.  Those ideas are not popular with Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the state legislature….”  Brown describes King High School in Philadelphia: “In 2011, after posting low test scores for years, King became a ‘promise academy,’ an approach to turning around schools that includes a longer school day and a rich set of extracurricular offerings—such as rowing, archery or a poetry club—meant to entice reluctant students.  But after one year, budget cuts put an end to the extra learning time and the enrichment activities…. King also absorbed hundreds of students from a rival school that was closed to save money…. Some class sizes have risen into the 40s.  All students are from low-income families; one-third read proficiently, and half graduate on time.”  Ironically, earlier this week a local Commonwealth Court dismissed a school funding equity case brought last year by several school districts, parents and community groups.  In The Notebook, Dale Mezzacappa reports that the case will be appealed, but in the meantime it is alarming to read that attorneys for the state defended the current system because, they said, “the legislature’s only responsibility is to make sure that all districts have enough funds to stay open.”  The attorney for the plaintiffs labeled that “a 19th-century standard.”

And then there is Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback slashed taxes so low several years ago that the state is going broke.  In February, when tax receipts came in nearly $50 million short of what had been predicted, Governor Brownback cut funding for K-12 public schools and higher education by $44.5 million below what struggling schools had expected this year. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal this week, six school districts so far have announced they will close early in May because they have run out of money.  “Shawnee Heights made its decision as early as February, after Gov. Sam Brownback announced he would trim K-12 funding midyear.  Brownback’s allotment plan was then replaced by the Legislature’s K-12 block grant bill, which cut about $50 million in operating and maintenance aid from the budgets of most school districts.  The cuts took effect for the current fiscal year.” The state’s funding lawsuit is being appealed in the state courts.

In his new book about the 50-year impact of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Jack Jennings, long time Washington expert on the federal role in education, describes our society’s history of unequal opportunity: “(P)er-pupil expenditures in the United States are not equal for all students; instead, the pattern is the opposite of what it should be.  Students from families of higher  socioeconomic status often have more resources spent on their education than do children from low-income families… Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, which monitors trends in the world’s economically advanced countries, summarized the funding situation in this way: ‘The bottom line is that the vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.'” (Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools, p. 179)

Standardized Tests Distort Schooling: Experts Reflect on Authentic Learning

Federal school policy these days is limiting what children study at school.  The tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, the federal testing law, measure students’ progress in language arts and math.  Students are also tested in science once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. And states had to promise to adopt college- and career-ready standards to qualify for Arne Duncan’s federal waivers from the most awful consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act.  College- and career-ready standards translate into the Common Core, one of two sets of curricula standards and the tests that accompany them. What all this means in practice is that much of what happens at school is driven by what is on the tests.

Our national obsession with standardized testing has motivated many people including parents and teachers to push back.  What about the skills that we all know determine people’s capacity to work together, to persist at their work, to question and talk about their work and about the issues citizens need to understand?  Test preparation doesn’t cover these things.  School needs to be more than test prep.

In late February Susan Engel, a professor of psychology at Williams College and founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching, published a critique of standardized tests because, she said, neither do they show us much about what children know nor do they predict children’s success at school and in life:  “I have reviewed more than 300 studies of K-12 academic tests.  What I have discovered is startling.  Most tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and school districts predict almost nothing except the likelihood of achieving similar scores on subsequent tests.  I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes.”

Engel then presents a list of seven abilities or dispositions she believes all children need to master at school. She suggests our testing ought to measure whether our schools are teaching these skills: “One key feature of the system I am suggesting is that it depends, like good research, on representative samples rather than on testing every child every year.  We’d use less data, to better effect, and free up the hours, days, and weeks now spent on standardized test prep and the tests themselves, time that could be spent on real teaching and learning.”  What are the seven abilities and dispositions Engel believes every child should develop at school?

  • Reading — Every child should be able to read well by the end of elementary school and should read regularly.
  • Inquiry — Schools should develop children’s natural desire to discover by helping them investigate deliberately, thoroughly and precisely.
  • Flexible thinking using evidence — Children need to be able to approach a topic in different ways, reason about it and write about it.
  • Conversation — Students need to practice listening and explaining, taking turns, marshalling evidence, exploring different points of view, telling stories.
  • Collaboration — Children must learn to navigate their social settings and be reflective about the way people treat each other.
  • Engagement — Children need to have opportunities to become absorbed and learn to concentrate.
  • Well-Being — Children need to expect to feel safe at school.

I encourage you to read Engel’s essay to learn how she suggests testing can be designed to evaluate how well schools nurture these abilities.

In a profound new reflection, Mike Rose, the UCLA professor who has spent a long career observing teaching and learning, also critiques how standardized testing has narrowed what children are taught.  Rose agrees that we ought to push back against the narrowed emphasis on reading, math and a little science.  Valuing similar priorities to Engel’s, Rose wants us to think about what are often called “the soft skills”—“punctuality and responsibility, self-monitoring and time management, the ability to communicate and work with others,” but unlike Engel, Rose is not rethinking testing.

Rose worries about the way we have come to parse instruction and to imagine we can teach separate skills or dispositions each one on its own, for nobody really learns that way.  “An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity.  If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do.” (Emphasis added.)

Rose describes watching adults learning in a community college setting: “I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding.  While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively  acquired competence, soft skills developed apace.  Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others.”

Rose is thinking about teaching and learning as an organic process of human development.  The things one learns and practices at school come together to form the person who is becoming more educated.

Notice that neither Engel nor Rose describes the kind of standardized testing that dominates our schools today as an essential part of education.

School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture

Cass Sunstein, in an opinion piece in Monday’s NY Times, explores the role of choice in people’s lives.  Does choice work better if we are allowed to assume full responsibility by choosing to opt into something or is it better if the choice is made by others and if we don’t agree, we can merely opt out?  For me the important question emerges about two-thirds of the way through Sunstein’s reflection: Are there times when it’s better not to have a choice?  “In ordinary life, most of us delegate a certain amount of choice-making authority to spouses, doctors, lawyers, engineers and financial advisers.  We do so when and because we do not want to take the time and trouble to make decisions ourselves, and when and because we know that we lack important information… A fundamental reason is that it frees us to focus on our deepest concerns.”  As a mother, for example, I was glad to be able to take my children to the public school to which our school district assigned them. I didn’t have to worry about being an education consumer; I could focus on being a parent and, as a citizen, ensuring support for our community’s strong and diverse public schools.

Sunstein’s article is about the broad issue of choice in human life.  As I read it, I found myself disturbed, as a citizen who cares about attacks on public schools by advocates of market choice, that Sunstein—like too many commentators who could potentially weave the consequences for public schools into consideration of a broader topic—just omits to think about the relevance of his topic—choice—to our education system where choice has recently become a primary issue of concern.  I found myself wondering if education has slipped off the radar because all the far right Republicans seeking the nomination for President are, by their very numbers, setting the terms of our public conversation.  Or maybe the problem is that, while those on the far-right are relentlessly re-defining the civil right to education as a parents’ right to choose, we supporters of schools as public institutions have forgotten about the big picture as we have focused on what are, admittedly, important details—the Common Core—too much testing—the evaluation of teachers.  We need to continue to proclaim the broader vision: the importance of public schools for expanding the rights of children in the institutions we have some power to control because they are public. Why? Because education organized around school choice presents insurmountable problems for our society and for the children and families schools are intended to serve.

Consider charter schools.  Expansion of school choice through charters sucks money out of public school budgets across the states (and in states like Pennsylvania directly out of local school budgets).  While public schools across the United States enroll roughly 50 million children and adolescents, charter schools enrolled 2.1 million students by the end of 2012.  Cyberschools, the largest on-line, for-profit charters, alone suck billions of tax dollars out of the state education budgets responsible for paying for the mass of children in public schools.  According to David Berliner and Gene Glass: “Cyberschooling at the K-12 level is a big business.  K12Inc., one of the largest companies in cyberschooling and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reported revenues of approximately three-quarters of a billion dollars in fiscal year 2012.  The industry is projected to have revenues of approximately $25 billion by 2015.”  (50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 34)

Besides taking money from the public schools that serve the majority of children, school choice is driving racial segregation, as this blog described yesterday.  And there is evidence in study after study that charter schools engage in obvious and subtle forms of cream skimming—attracting children of parents who are engaged enough to complete sometimes complex applications—lacking specialized services for autistic or blind or deaf children—serving fewer extremely poor children and homeless children—lacking the services to help immigrant children learn English—finding ways to push out students with behavior problems—neglecting to replace students who drop out and hence building a smaller and smaller cohort of high scorers as children move through the grades. Across America’s big cities where the experiment in charter school choice is primarily located, all of these factors concentrate the children with the greatest needs in what are becoming public school systems of last resort for the children who are least attractive to the charters, which are themselves highly engaged in “choice” through subtle and frequently invisible selection screens.

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

Enormous and widespread problems are arising from poor regulation of charter schools.  Part of this is by design; charter schools were originally conceptualized as places where educators would be free to experiment, without the rules that are part of large school systems. Lack of regulation is also part of the way the charter movement spread across the states. While the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan required states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools as a condition for qualifying for Race to the Top grants and while the Department of Education has been making federal grants to expand charters, the federal government has never dealt with the need for academic or financial oversight of charter schools.  Charter schools are regulated in state law, with enormous variation in the quality and quantity of oversight.   Robin Lake, a pro-charter promoter of “portfolio school reform”at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, acknowledged the urgent need for more oversight after she visited Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Schools in the public sector are far from perfect. Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, acknowledges the need for public school improvement, but she points out that only in a system accountable to the public is such reform possible: “There is an urgent need to transform public institutions, starting with a thoroughgoing critique of the racism, inequity, bureaucratic intransigence, reproduction of social inequality, reactionary ideologies, disrespect, and toxic culture that pervades many public schools and school districts…. This critique was long made by progressive critics of public education.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 45) “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state.” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p.11)

But what claims for any kind of control can be made on a marketplace that is the mere aggregate of private choices?  And who ultimately does drive the choices made available in the market?  Here we must turn to the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.”  (Consumed, p, 139)  A serious problem is that the school choice marketplace emerged as a sort of experiment patched together from place to place.  It is a marketplace where charter operators are making huge private profits which they are investing in political contributions to prevent public regulation of the marketplace after the fact.  The biggest and frequently the most unscrupulous charter operators are the people with the power to set the menu.

A traditional system of public schools owned by the public and accountable to the public is more likely to meet the needs of our nation’s 50 million children and to protect their rights.  Barber explains: “Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

New Reports Confirm Charter Schools Promote Racial Segregation in CT and NC

For more than half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society has believed we value policies that support racially integrated public schools.  In the past two decades, however, the rapid growth of the publicly funded but privately managed charter school sector has promoted racial segregation.  Reports released this month from Connecticut and North Carolina document that when parents choose schools in the charter marketplace, they tend to segregate their children in schools dominated by large majorities of children of their own race.

Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, describe Connecticut School Integration that has been accomplished in the public schools and intentionally diverse magnet schools that were the result of remedies in Sheff v. O’Neill, the 1989 school funding and desegregation lawsuit in Hartford.  “The Sheff case was a long struggle by a group of outstanding civil rights lawyers, plaintiffs and local residents who supported the change and those who worked with them… The efforts have not eliminated segregation or ended racial achievement gaps but it is the only state in the Northeast that is going in a positive direction and it has created voluntary processes that have clearly reduced severe segregation in a time devoid of national leadership.”

While the extraordinary inter-district magnet schools with specialty curricula and the inter-district enrollment program that Sheff created have increased the mixing of students from city and suburb and demonstrated that black, white and Hispanic students can happily and successfully learn together, Connecticut’s charter sector, by contrast, has become highly segregated.  Orfield and Ee explain: “A 2014 report by Connecticut Voices for Children concluded that ‘a majority of the magnet schools and technical schools were ‘integrated’… but only 18% of charter schools.’  In fact ‘the majority of charter schools were instead ‘hypersegregated’ with a student body composed of more than 90% minority students.'”  Orfield and Ee recommend that in Connecticut, where public and magnet schools have become more integrated, “Charters should come under the state’s diversity policies and requirements and should have goals, recruitment strategies, public information and transportation policies to foster diversity including diversity of language background.”

In a second paper, published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars from Duke University document that segregation of charters has been an accelerating trend in North Carolina.  The paper, “The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina,” by Helen F. Ladd, Charles T. Clotfelter, and John B. Holbein, is behind a paywall, but an early draft, can be downloaded here from among the papers presented at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy.  The Duke researchers describe a study conducted between 1999 and 2012 and conclude: “The state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time.”  The authors also conclude that rising test scores in North Carolina’s charters are not the result of improved school quality—as has been suggested by promoters of charter schools—but are instead the result of a shift in population as many charters have come to enroll students with higher average family income: “Our analysis of the changing mix of students who enroll in charter schools over time… leads us to believe that a major factor contributing to the apparent improved performance of charter schools over the period (of the study) may have as much or more to do with the trends in the types of students they are attracting than improvements in the quality of the programs they offer…  Taken together, our findings imply that the charters schools in North Carolina have become segmented over time, with one segment increasingly serving the interests of middle class white families.”

Reporting on the Duke study for the Washington Post, Jeff Guo explains that North Carolina laws governing charter schools may be contributing to the diminishing number of minority students in North Carolina’s charter schools: “One problem is that disadvantaged students have less of a chance to attend a charter school.  First, they or their parents have to be plugged in enough to know which are the good charter schools and motivated enough to apply.  Then, they need to have the resources to actually attend the charter, because unlike regular public schools, charter schools in North Carolina do not have to offer transportation or lunch to students.  For poor students who rely on school buses and free meal programs, the costs associated with attending a charter school may discourage them from the opportunity.”

As school districts across the South have remedied de jure segregation and been released from their court orders and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2007 that race cannot be the sole basis of voluntary desegregation plans to remedy segregation by race, neither the federal government nor the states have been proactively supporting school integration.  It is another thing altogether, however, when market-based charter schools, which are said by their promoters to be public schools, are freed from the existing civil rights policies that govern public schools and that our society still claims to value.

Byrd-Bennett On Leave in Chicago: Federal Investigation of No-Bid Contract Moves Forward

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), seems to be on the way out, pending the outcome of a federal investigation of a 2013 no-bid contract by which she and the mayoral-appointed Chicago school board hired a consultant, the SUPES Academy, to train principals and other school administrators in Chicago.  Beginning today, Byrd-Bennett will be taking a paid leave-of-absence.  Jesse Ruiz, the appointed school board’s vice president and an attorney, is taking over as interim-CEO.  The Chicago Tribune reports: “In 2013, according to CPS records, the district approved a ‘leadership development services’ agreement with SUPES for up to $20.5 million that extended through 2016. District records also show SUPES was hired on a ‘non-competitive basis’ to train school network chiefs and principals.”  The school board president says SUPES “had a unique ‘mentor-coach’ component… that was lacking in programs offered by other firms.”  Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant for SUPES before she was appointed CEO of the school district.

A conflict of interest.  A no-bid contract.  Not anything too unusual for Chicago, right?  There are, however several broader issues that ought to be considered.

The first is political.  How come all this was kept under wraps until after the mayoral run-off election only two weeks ago?  Catalyst Chicago reports that Carlos Azcoitia, a member of the Chicago school board, “says he didn’t know about Byrd-Bennett’s leave until a few minutes before it became public” last week.  And Mayor Rahm Emmanuel “has said that he did not know of the investigation into Byrd-Bennett until she told him about it Wednesday during a luncheon….” But it isn’t as though the allegations were new. Catalyst reported last week that a grand jury has been investigating the no-bid contract, and a federal investigation is already well under way, with subpoenas issued to two of Byrd-Bennett’s assistants, requesting them to appear on April 21.

Sarah Karp brought the no-bid contract to light on July 30, 2013 in an in-depth report for Catalyst Chicago.  “Without fanfare, CPS board members recently approved a three-year, no-bid $20 million contract to provide extensive professional development for principals and network chiefs in what is being dubbed the Chicago Leadership Academy.  The size and the circumstances surrounding the contract have raised eyebrows among some outside observers.  The contract with Wilmette-based Supes Academy is by far the largest no-bid contract awarded in at least the past three years… In addition, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked for the company as a coach up until the time she came on board at CPS as a consultant… In a city that is home to major universities and non-profit organizations that train and support principals, the for-profit Supes Academy got the contract without competition.”

Karp followed up in December of 2013, once the training sessions provided by SUPES for Chicago’s principals had begun: “But almost from the start, principals grumbled that the training was too elementary and a waste of their time.  Heeding the criticism, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett now says principals can opt out if they don’t want to attend, has formed a committee to offer suggestions on how to make the training better and hired one of her former colleagues from Cleveland to oversee the training.” In her December 2013 report, Karp investigated the individual mentoring in which SUPES Academy was supposed to specialize.  “In addition to the workshops, each principal is supposed to receive one-on-one coaching.  The coaches receive several thousand dollars for each principal they coach, yet according to coaching logs obtained by Catalyst, two-thirds of the contacts were only by email.  One principal told Catalyst that some email conversations are only brief check-ins.  Another principal reported that her coach heads a charter school in a small town and his experiences are foreign to her, since she leads an elementary school in a poor, rough neighborhood.”

A much larger question is about the explosive growth in the number of private consulting firms that have sprung up across the states to assist with the prescribed turnarounds under the No Child Left Behind Act and to provide grant writing for and implementation of Arne Duncan’s competitive grant programs under Title I.  In a 2012 report, the National Education Policy Center explained, “As evidence mounted against the effectiveness of NCLB corrective actions intended to stimulate improvement, ‘turnaround specialists’ cropped up across the country to meet the demands on schools, districts, and states to swiftly demonstrate test-based effectiveness.  ‘Turnaround specialists,’ a term borrowed from the business world, are external assistance providers, private management companies, and principals who claim to specialize in improvement strategies that spur intense test gains.  Yet the evidence behind those claims is weak, and their uneven results are beginning to be documented by the media.”

And while not all of the schools whose principals SUPES assisted were using federal School Improvement Grant funds to pay the consultant, a culture of consultants is known to have grown up around the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants (SIG), and Innovation Grant competitions into which the U.S. Department of Education has been diverting funds out of the Title I Formula.  A serious problem with the money granted to school districts through the competitions has been that it is one-time money that must be used for a finite project or school turnaround.  Such finite grants—without an ongoing funding stream—cannot be used for normal school operating improvements such as hiring more teachers or extra school social workers or more counselors.  And such dollars won’t really work to launch something like an imaginative elementary and middle school instrumental music program that could, over several years create the skill level to launch or improve a high school band or orchestra.  Deep and long lasting academic investments must be sustained over the years with an ongoing funding stream.  The federal grants have been money almost designed to be spent on consultants.  But no adequate accountability has been created to ensure that tax dollars spent on consultants have been invested wisely.

Back in 2012, before Chicago got itself involved in a no-bid contract with SUPES Academy, the Hechinger Report, in collaboration with Education Week and the Education Writers Association launched an investigation called Turnaround Watch.  Here is what Education Week reporter Alyson Klein wrote, specifically in the context of the School Improvement Grant program: “Faced with the technical and logistical challenges of putting $3 billion in SIG money to use on a tight deadline, states have enlisted an array of consultants, including for-profit companies, nonprofit turnaround specialists and postsecondary institutions.  But tracking that cash—and determining whether schools have gotten their money’s worth—remains daunting.  The federal government does not tally how private educational consultants have benefited from the turnaround windfall, nor do most states….  In Colorado—one of the few states willing to do such a tally—consultants took home $9.4 million, or 35 percent of the state’s $26.6 million in SIG money in the past two years.  That’s paid for instructional coaches for teachers, leadership coaches for principals, analysts to pore over student data, and pricey professional-development seminars on changing school culture.  Even some contractors who offer services to SIG school have raised alarm bells about the lack of accountability for outside groups.”

Stacey Patton’s “Dear White People” Article Sums Up This Week’s Reality

Well, it has not been a quiet week in school “reform.”  Here is just some of what has happened:

  • The Smarter Balanced Consortium’s Common Core test had to be stopped in Nevada, Montana, and North Dakota because, according to the Las Vegas Sun, “a spike in students taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment… exceeded the data capacity of Measured Progress, a third party vendor contracted by the states to provide the test.”  And according to Education Week, “Following technical problems with its administration of the Smarter Balanced tests, the Montana education department has announced that Smarter Balanced testing will be optional for districts this spring.”
  • Colorado’s standardized tests had to be partially shut down for the same reason.  The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that “‘Technical difficulties’ caused computerized testing in Colorado to ‘not operate optimally’ for several hours Tuesday… The malfunction… was believed to be a server issue on the part of Pearson State Assessment Services, the for-profit test administrator for Colorado.”
  • In New York, partly motivated by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new policy that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will depend on the Common Core tests, thousands of parents protested by opting their children and adolescents out of testing—a number big enough in some schools and school districts to invalidate the tests. Juan Gonzalez reported for the New York Daily News: “The entire structure of high-stakes testing in New York crumbled Tuesday, as tens of thousands of fed-up public school parents rebelled against Albany’s fixation with standardized tests and refused to allow their children to take the annual English Language Arts state exam… ‘We’re very concerned about the impact a new testing proposal will have on our teachers,’ Smith-Thompson (a parent) said.  She was referring to Gov. Cuomo getting the Legislature to approve a new evaluation system that will base 50% of a teacher’s performance on student test scores.”
  • And in Atlanta, eight public school educators were sentenced to jail sentences and stiff fines for participating in a test-cheating scheme in which they had been threatened with termination if they had refused to help establish a “quick turnaround” reputation for their schools and the school district—at a time when federal policy demands impossible quick fixes by educators for problems most researchers have concluded are instead the result of concentrated poverty, segregation, and inequality.  This blog has covered the Atlanta convictions and sentences here, here, here, and here.
  • Meanwhile in Washington, D.C. this week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has been considering a bipartisan proposal to reauthorize the federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, a proposal that somewhat softens the punitive arm of the federal government by reducing some sanctions but still leaves the edifice of federal testing requirements in place. The bill was passed out of the Senate HELP Committee yesterday, although it is unclear when it might be considered on the Senate floor.

How to weave together the threads to expose the pattern that runs through all this?  For there is a pattern running through it all.  I was struggling to figure out how to do it when I happened upon an extraordinary analysis by Stacey Patton,  a reporter for the Chronicle for Higher Education. Patton’s  piece on school reform appears at Dame Magazine, a feminist publication.  It is a very angry piece with language not typically included in my blog, but it is one of the most insightful analyses I’ve seen about what’s been happening to our public schools and our children.  Please read Dear White People, Your Kids Are Getting Screwed, Too!, and please force yourself to consider what I believe is the justified anger Patton explores.

Patton begins: “From Black teachers being imprisoned for forging answers on tests and Black parents being jailed for ‘stealing’ a better education for their kids, to White middle class parents organizing a nationwide revolt against standardized testing, we are seeing a repudiation of our failed educational policies.  Many might see these as totally separate issues, reflecting the power of race and class, but each represent varied responses to an immoral national strategy that had its major impact on inner-city communities more than a decade ago and has now targeted suburban schools.”

Patton turns her critique in all directions and condemns civil rights organizations for supporting testing: “So desperate to have some policies to promote equity when the country was turning conservative, civil rights leaders forgot their historic opposition to high stakes testing, with tragic results…  At the end of the day, the rhetoric of civil rights set the stage for the educational holocaust in communities of color and for the Atlanta scandal.”

“The testing industrial complex,” Patton writes, “is not improving outcomes for Black children, teachers, schools, neighborhoods, communities or our nation.  It is NOT making the U.S. more globally competitive.  And it definitely will NOT prepare tomorrow’s workforce to thrive, unless of course the point is to train students to become compliant low-wage workers.”  “As with so many policies, the rise of America’s testing regime has been felt, albeit differently, across different racial and classed communities.  To maintain the illusion of post-raciality and equity, the reach of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the grips of assessment and standards have crept into every community, from New Orleans to Manhattan, from Beverly Hills to the West Side of Chicago.”

For Patton, the Atlanta convictions and long jail sentences demonstrate one side of the testing madness: “The system has set up these teachers and students to fail, and then blames them when the results are not met.  From NCLB to Teach for America, from a racist testing culture to funding disparities, the history of American education has been one where Black and Latino kids have been cheated over and over again… These teachers in Atlanta are scapegoats for a punitive approach to education in poor neighborhoods and communities of color.  It all has to do with the stakes attached to testing.  What were they supposed to do?  The tests embody racial inequities and biases, yet don’t account for the disparities within the nation.  You can’t raise test scores with kids who are homeless and hungry, sleeping with three in a bed, the lights cut off, who fear going to and from school in unsafe neighborhoods.  Teachers and administrators are being told to raise these kids’ scores or else.”

Patton has not much sympathy with privileged parents in the suburbs who have done little to lift up the needs of the schools in the cities but now are angrily trying to opt their children out of testing: “Enraged White parents, who moved to the suburbs to avoid anything from the inner city, are now forced to confront these very policies… Part of me—most of me—has no sympathy.  Stop your crying.  Welcome to our world!… How does it feel to have your children stressed by testing, enslaved to damning statistics, and told that they’re not the natural-born geniuses the world has always assured them that they deserve to be?  How does it feel to see your kids being turned into commodities, monetized, and sacrificed to the corporate gods?”

Despite her anger, Patton is hopeful that, “the White Revolt against testing might actually change the entire landscape.  White outrage might contribute to de-emphasis of testing across the board, an abandonment of a culture of assessment, benchmarks, and standardization.”

It is unusual and, to me, refreshing to read an honest, racially framed analysis of a set of education policies that have rolled across America with racialized implications we don’t talk about because we are trying to be “nice.”  Let’s consider how all this feels from many points of view.  An honest conversation can help us understand one another.