Why Do Public School Supporters Struggle to Create and Sustain a Strong Unified Message?

Bob Braun, the retired education reporter for the Newark Star Ledger and an avid blogger in Newark, NJ, has articulated a big worry.  Commenting on a recent conference of public education supporters and advocates in New Jersey, he writes:

“A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education—Betsy DeVos—to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope… What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates—good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one—why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?”

Braun continues: “Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state…. (P)ublic education in New Jersey—and throughout the nation—is in serious trouble. It is underfunded. It is racially segregated. It is in danger of being swept away by charters. Its employees are demoralized. It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic. In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.”

Taking a more positive approach in a recent NY Times commentary, Nikole Hannah-Jones expresses the very same concern. “Even when they (public schools) fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit. The for-profit charters DeVos helped expand have not provided an appreciably better education for Detroit’s children, yet they’ve continued to expand because they are profitable—or as Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent, said, ‘In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.’ ”

Hannah-Jones continues: “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract, and we’ve seen what happens in cities where the social contract is broken: white residents vote against tax hikes to fund schools where they don’t send their children, parks go untended and libraries shutter because affluent people feel no obligation to help pay for things they don’t need… If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public—and on ourselves.”

Both writers hope supporters of public education will be able to sustain the surprising and fascinating outcry that emerged around the DeVos confirmation process in the Senate.  For the first time in years we heard Senators and their constituents alike speaking about the value of the public schools for their children and their communities.  What will it take to keep that message alive?

I believe there are several reasons public school supporters struggle to sustain a strong voice in support of public education. First there is all the money being spent to undermine public education. As long as the law permits unlimited political contributions from individuals, PACs, Super PACs, Dark Money Groups, and corporate-driven lobbying organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it will be difficult for the folks who use the public schools—the parents of 90 percent of our children and their allies—to be heard above the din. Public education policy for decades now has been driven by the One Percent, even though public schools serve the children of the 99 Percent. That is why Bob Braun begs public school advocates to discipline themselves to one well-framed narrative that can be relentlessly driven home.

Second there is the problem created by the privatizers’ clever messaging. The ideologues who have framed the privatizers’ message know how to touch the heart by evoking the beloved story of the  American Dream—the story that success is individual, accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience in a tough and competitive world. This narrative teaches that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place. Of course we may acknowledge that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others.  So… we adjust our thinking—celebrating the outliers who have surmounted the obstacles and succeeded anyway. We create a voucher or a charter school for the childhood strivers who seem to have earned it. Some of us are even willing to articulate this strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve  to escape.” But when Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration suggest we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape into the lifeboat of vouchers or  charter schools, they are presenting a plan that would further isolate the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them.

The problem here is ethical; it is not really a matter of public policy. Do we believe in individualism and competition above all, or are we committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

A third problem is in the realm of public policy, but it is an issue nobody is willing to name. Extreme poverty and inequality are undermining children’s opportunities. Public school supporters will sometimes acknowledge the issue of poverty, but the varied strategies by which they dance around this huge problem undermine their capacity to frame a strong central narrative of support for public education. Opponents of public schools, of course, determinedly prescribe privatization as the cure, without a shred of evidence that privatizing schools helps poor children.

Years’ of research confirm conclusively that, in the aggregate, test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more than they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty—in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income—has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty. Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.

On top of our failure to name and address family poverty, our school accountability system demands quick school turnarounds. The federal testing and accountability agenda—created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002 and still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act—makes it even harder for our society to acknowledge the role of poverty in school achievement.  The federal government judges our schools by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and federal law punishes (and insists that states punish) the schools and the school teachers and children in the very poorest schools where test scores don’t quickly rise. Instead of investing in and supporting the schools in our poorest communities, we close the the schools or replace their principals or their teachers. Or we privatize the schools when charter and voucher supporters like Trump or Pence or DeVos tell us that will solve the problem.

For public education supporters, one big challenge is political: to create the will for society to address honestly the well documented educational implications of extreme poverty. A second challenge is a matter of public ethics: to replace the far-right’s American Dream narrative (based on competition and escapes for the most able children) with a compelling narrative of social responsibility for lifting up every child.

A system of public schools, while never perfect, is the best way to meet the needs of all of our children and, through democratic governance, to protect their rights.

Lacking Checks and Balances, Government Brings Us a Tragicomic Mess

Today’s post is a lesson in basic civics.

When one party reigns supreme, as it does these days in the majority of  states and the federal government—when one party dominates the executive branch and the legislative branch—government leaders do pretty much whatever they want. They pass dangerous legislation and they pass outrageously trivial and sometimes noxious legislation. Even if you disagree and use all the avenues citizens are given to participate in our supposedly participatory democracy, your opinions may be completely ignored.

There are some lessons here—about the importance of courageous stances taken by legislators in the minority—about powerful voices in the community who help change and shift the debate—and about the need for the press to make sure the public is aware of the implications of the actions taken and to make sure everybody votes in the next election.

Ohio is a one party, super-majority Republican state.  I’ll demonstrate the importance of the three lessons with examples from Ohio just in this past week, but remember that the lessons very probably apply in your state and certainly to what is happening at the federal level.

Let’s begin with the lesson on the need for the press (and even bloggers) to make sure the public is informed about the implications of the actions taken. In a Valentine for school teachers, Ohio Governor John Kasich included in his state budget a requirement that to renew their teaching licenses, teachers will have to complete an externship with a business or local chamber of commerce. Here is Jackie Borchardt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer explaining the reasoning behind Kasich’s proposal: “The idea is the latest in Kasich’s push to better connect schools with their local business communities.  Requiring externships for license renewal was one of several recommendations made late last year by Kasich’s Executive Workforce Board.”

The response of teachers’ organizations to this ridiculous proposal has been muted. After all, teachers cannot afford to make themselves seem to want to be disconnected from their communities, and they cannot want to make themselves appear lazy either, especially in these times when teachers are routinely blamed and castigated. Fortunately, Ohio’s Plunderbund blog has exposed some of the serious issues in Kasich’s externships—such as the amount of bureaucracy that would be required merely to manage it. Plunderbund also raises some other concerns. These externships might take teachers’ attention away from children and the panoply of other accountability rules legislators have recently passed: “attention away from their full-time, salaried job of delivering the state-mandated academic content to our test-taking children across the state as also mandated by numerous state laws… (W)e believe this provision is beyond absurd. Beyond the usual absurd level of Kasich’s education reform proposals that he likes to dump in his budget bill…. Kasich, who famously compared teaching children to making pizzas, does not believe that teaching is a ‘real job.’ Educators who work tirelessly to educate children with all of their diverse needs on a daily basis? Apparently none of that… counts as ‘on-site work experience with a local business.'”

As a blogger, I’ll add that the belief-system underlying this new budget provision worries me. I guess our governor believes education’s purpose is merely job training. And I guess he believes all real jobs are in business. I’d suggest the governor and members of the legislature have mandatory externships in our public schools, and I don’t mean merely ceremonial celebrations like Principal-for-a-Day. Our state leaders ought to sit with high school English teachers as they grade the 150 essays from their five classes of 30 students, for example, along with preparing for class discussions about Hamlet or A Lesson Before Dying.  They ought to help teachers put together the portfolios of lesson plans and data that are now required for submission to the Ohio Department of Education as the way our state evaluates teachers. They ought to have to shadow special education teachers working with disabled children. They ought to spend whole days at school watching elementary school teachers shape the flow of the day with 25 tired children.

The second lesson is about powerful voices in the community who help change and shift the debate.  Last fall the Ohio Department of Education held large, facilitated meetings across the state when the federal government required public input into the development of states’ plans—to be submitted for approval by the U.S. Department of Education—to hold schools accountable.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act turns some of the power for developing criteria for accountability to the states. At our greater-Cleveland Ohio meeting, two priorities emerged through consensus. At my table, we all agreed that the state should reduce the amount of required standardized testing, but even more vociferously we insisted that the state stop labeling schools and school districts with A-F letter grades. We stopped our facilitator as she took notes, and we demanded that she use our words to insist on eliminating the letter-grade labels.  We told her that because the standardized test scores by which schools and school districts are graded tend to correlate in the aggregate with families’ economic level, the letter grades being assigned by the state to schools and school districts are branding as failures all the school districts that serve the poorest children.  The A-F school grading system is incentivizing economic and racial segregation by encouraging any families who can afford it to move to richer outer suburbs with fewer poor children. At the state’s greater-Cleveland meeting, when all the tables reported out, it became clear that our priorities were the priorities that dominated the entire regional meeting. Early in 2017, however, the state released its draft plan, and lo, neither of our greater-Cleveland priorities was mentioned.

I concluded what I presume was the lesson drawn by many of the participants: that in one-party Ohio, public participation is a sham. But earlier this week a group of school superintendents released a white paper on the very subjects our public hearing prioritized. Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer: “The state should stop grading schools and school districts with A though F grades, while also cutting the amount of state tests and making sure the tests help teachers teach students better, a group of local superintendents says. In a ‘white paper’ released Monday to state officials, superintendents from Lorain and western Cuyahoga County outlined several changes they say they wish the state had made—but didn’t—in its proposed testing and accountability plan under the federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA)… Because the state did not respond to the public’s concerns, superintendents from Amherst, Avon, Clearview, Columbia Station, Elyria, Keystone, North Olmsted, Oberlin, Olmsted Falls and the Lorain County Educational Service Center offered their own proposed changes.”  My gratitude to these school district leaders has nothing to do with believing that the Ohio Department of Education will entertain their ideas. Their white paper is important, however, for informing  parents and their communities that they listened, even if our one-party state leaders are deaf to such concerns. And they are encouraging parents and other community members not to give up.

Finally there is the third lesson about the importance of courageous stances taken by legislators in the minority.  You’ll remember that Ohio has a huge attendance problem at its unregulated online academies. The state legislature—beholden to political contributions from William Lager, who runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the two privately held, for-profit companies that manage ECOT—has refused to crack down even though the Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT ought to return $60 million of the more than $100 million it collected in tax dollars last year. The state paid ECOT for thousands of phantom students who were not logging in to participate actively in the kind of schooling ECOT provides.  In March of 2016, the Ohio Senate Minority Leader, Joe Schiavoni, introduced a bill for regulation of attendance at the e-schools.  When Peggy Lehner, chair of the state senate’s education committee, showed some interest in the bill, the senate’s president, Keith Faber, undercut her by shunting the bill to the finance committee, and the bill died at the end of the legislative session without seeing the light of day.

Patrick O’Donnell reports that Schiavoni, a dogged minority leader, just re-introduced his bill: “The Democratic leader of the state Senate has put online charter schools in his crosshairs again this year….  Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, of Boardman, reintroduced this week a bill from last year that would require e-schools to track and report student participation in online classes not just ‘offer’ them online and not make sure students learn anything. ‘It’s no longer acceptable for e-schools to simply place classes online and expect funding from the state,’ Schiavoni said.” O’Donnell explains that “Schiavoni’s bill would not affect previous years, but would make the law more clear for the future.”

The specificity of enforcement procedures in Schiavoni’s bill exposes just how outrageous has been the public rip-off by ECOT and other online schools.  O’Donnell explains that if the new bill passed, e-schools would have to “track student activity daily and report it to the Ohio Department of Education each month, not just make that information available to the state auditor if requested. Notify the state, the local school district and parents if a student fails to log in for 10 days. Broadcast all meetings of their school boards on the internet, so parents that live far away can watch… Count state test scores of students that spend 90 or more days at an e-school toward that school’s state report card, even if they leave.” Schiavoni provides that when the state auditor finds violations at an e-school, any money that was lost to the e-school from the local school district be returned to that school district.

Larry Obhof is the new Ohio Senate Majority Leader. It won’t be surprising, considering our state’s lack of checks and balances, if, like his predecessor, Obhof blocks any serious consideration of Senator Schiavoni’s bill.  But thanks to Senator Schiavoni, Ohioans have a clear explanation of the public ripoff by William Lager and ECOT.  

And thanks to Ohio Senator Joe Schiavoni, people all across the states can examine clear evidence that due to single-party dominance, power politics, and out-of-control political spending, it is virtually impossible to regulate the charter school sector in the public interest.

“Public Schools Flush with Cash” — Trump’s Assessment Is Tragically Inaccurate

It is state budget season, a time fraught with accusations and distortions and even alternative facts, but one thing is very clear. When President Donald Trump declared in his Inaugural Address that public schools are “flush with cash,” he was either ignorant about some very basic realities or he was hinting about some sort of scorched earth federal policy—or both.

The President’s own federal budget proposal is due within weeks, and Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities worries about what he thinks are likely to be large cuts to domestic discretionary spending: “Many of the cuts in the Trump team’s blueprint come from plans that the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee (RSC) issued last year, according to The Hill. The Heritage report called for more than $8.5 trillion in non-defense cuts… while the RSC report called for almost $7.5 trillion in such cuts. Moreover, the ‘Penny Plan’ that President Trump proposed during his campaign would slash non-defense discretionary funding by 2026 to an amount 37 percent below the 2010 level, adjusted for inflation, and nearly 40 percent below its lowest level under Ronald Reagan, when measured as a share of the economy. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s nominee for OMB director, supports the Penny Plan.”

What are the realities across the state governments, where about 40 percent of school funding comes from? Despite the distortions induced by state budget politics, it is pretty clear that public schools are in trouble in many places.

Take Chicago, where, the Chicago Tribune reports: “Through legislation in Springfield, (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel’s administration had struck a tentative deal for the state to send CPS (Chicago Public Schools) an additional $215 million for teacher pensions, but that fell through when (Governor Bruce) Rauner vetoed the plan… Because of Rauner’s veto, according to the district, CPS is in the midst of instituting midyear cuts for the second year in a row. The district has put in place four furlough days, a $46 million school spending freeze, $18 million in potential cuts to independently operated (charter) schools and the elimination of $5 million in training programs to make up for roughly half of the unrealized assumption that state lawmakers would send $215 million to the district’s annual budget.”  The four unpaid furlough days for teachers, according to the district, will save $35 million, and the cuts to school discretionary funds will affect textbook purchases, after-school programs, field trips, and the number of hourly staff. The District cannot borrow because its credit rating has fallen to junk status. For all these reasons, on Tuesday, the Chicago Public Schools sued the state of Illinois, “accusing the state of employing ‘separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois.’ Chicago Public Schools officials describe the legal move as the ‘last stand’ for a cash strapped district that’s ‘on the brink.'”

Meanwhile in Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal just editorialized that despite a years’ long legal battle in which the Ohio Supreme Court found the school funding system unconstitutional—saying the state was merely determining school funding by cutting up the state budget pie and giving schools what was left over without making an attempt to cost out what good schools really need—Ohio continues its practice of “residual budgeting” for schools: “Residual budgeting. The governor reinforced the concept when he joked at a recent award ceremony for innovators in education: ‘I’d like to give you money, but all I can give you are plaques.’  He has stressed how tight the budget must be, school funding under his (2017-2018 budget) plan increasing just 1 percent, or short of the inflation rate. This increase isn’t the result of calculating the amount necessary to ensure that students receive an adequate education. It reflects, essentially, the money left over. This residual budgeting stems, in no small way, from the relentless tax-cutting of the governor and his fellow Republican lawmakers (during) the past decade. The state today generates $3 billion less in annual revenue. Imagine a share of that sum applied to needy school districts… (S)tate funding, in real dollars (is) still below the level in 2010.”

And in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is trying to repeal the New York Foundation Aid Formula, created ten years ago by New York’s legislature after the state’s school funding was declared unconstitutional. In a scathing commentary, David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, accuses Cuomo of calling for a return to residual budgeting and massive inequality: “In his proposed 2017-18 budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo is calling for repeal of New York’s Foundation Aid Formula, the 2007 law responding to the landmark case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State (CFE)… In the wake of CFE, the Legislature enacted the Formula to move the state from funding schools based on available dollars and raw politics to year-to-year determinations based on student and school need. The Formula also allocated school aid based on district fiscal capacity to raise local revenue from property taxes. To accomplish this objective, the Formula provided for a four-year phase-in of increases in state aid, or $5.5 billion statewide, the vast majority targeted to the poorest urban and rural districts. In 2009, the state froze and then subsequently cut Formula aid.  Since taking office, Governor Cuomo has staunchly resisted increasing aid to move districts towards full Formula funding. The Formula remains underfunded by over $4 billion… The Governor’s announcement that he wants to eliminate the Formula is a stunning reversal of his 2010 campaign position when he made clear the state’s responsibility for full Formula funding.”

Then there is the fiscal disaster that is Kansas, where the courts have found school funding unconstitutional but there is no realistic remedy in sight. The legislature is divided about how to address a years’ long budget crisis stemming from big cuts to personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013.  The Associated Press’s John Hanna reported last week: “Top Republican legislators in Kansas on Tuesday cooked up an unappetizing budget-balancing stew of personal income tax increases and education spending cuts, defying GOP Gov. Sam Brownback on taxes and past court rulings on education funding.”  One state senate committee has proposed boosting income taxes while another suggests reducing state education aid by $279 per student. Hanna reports: “Kansas faces a projected shortfall of about $320 million in its current budget that must be closed before July 1 and total gaps of nearly $1.1 billion through June 2019.” Governor Brownback continues to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the 2012-2013 personal income tax cuts will grow the economy.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to warn: “Public investment in K-12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools. At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

“Flush with cash” is not the phrase I’d use to characterize this situation.

In Fine, New Book, Steve Nelson Urges New Education Path that Is Less Dangerous for Children

Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, is refreshing in the author’s declaration of privilege as he applies all that he has learned in nineteen years as Head of the Calhoun School, a private, progressive school in New York City to an analysis of what’s gone wrong in public school reform over the same period.

Nelson begins: “I am mindful of the position from which I write. Those of us in independent schools enjoy great privilege. This privilege allows us to draw our students into deeply satisfying and thoughtful lives. But we must recognize that these experiences should not be limited to only those children who are wealthy and/or lucky enough to enroll in our schools. Non-sectarian private schools enroll only about 6% of America’s children. So what about the other millions of children? Do we who carry privilege also bear responsibility? I think so.” (p.5)

This is a refreshing and deeply grounded book for these times when so many of our long-held values about education are being tested.

Nelson isn’t utopian; he doesn’t imagine that all public schools could possibly afford to indulge children in classes of 15 students where teachers personally appreciate each student’s learning style and developmental level, but he does believe the constructs of progressive education are a far better way to organize schools than the test-and-punish system that came with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A good teacher, Nelson summarizes the history of progressive education from Socrates and Aristotle through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, A.S. Neill, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Francis Parker, Felix Adler, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner.  He also explores the neurobiological and psychological research supporting progressive education.

What is Nelson’s definition of the kind of education he’d like to see for more American children in their public schools? “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

Nelson’s critique is biting. Writing at the end of the Arne Duncan era, when mega philanthropy collaborated actively with government to drive “corporate reform,” Nelson comments: “In short, business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined.  Philanthropists didn’t make their fortunes as violinists, so they bring their business perspectives to bear on the institutions they support. As the old saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.’  Today’s economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America’s children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.”

Nelson considers just how A Nation at Risk misunderstood our educational challenges; how testing and the intense pressure of high stakes works in children’s brains to undermine memory; how children who are drilled never learn to question and inquire; how the no-excuses charter schools enforce compliance and destroy curiosity; how scripted learning aimed at test scores hurts children and makes it impossible for good teachers to do what they know best; and how our notion of IQ which focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is insufficient and leaves out the seven other domains identified by Howard Gardner. And we learn why schools need to nurture these other domains through the arts and physical activity—the classes schools are cutting these days as test prep takes more and more time.

Nelson’s strength is his experience—nearly twenty years in his most recent position alone—working with children and adolescents at school. As he defends the needs of public schools that serve the mass of our children and emphasizes the need for reallocating our society’s resources, his focus is on what money can do inside a school to free the teachers to teach and create space for children to explore.  He doesn’t cover what he doesn’t know—meeting the children’s needs in a school where all the students qualify for free lunch, for example—assembling the resources and expertise for a quality English language program for immigrant children—finding the resources to serve severely disabled students.

Nelson style is fresh and engaging.  He is not ideological despite his strong belief in progressive schooling. He nudges schools and policy makers to move in a progressive direction. And while a lot of books about progressive education are dated, this one is very much up to date—exploring progressive education theory in the context of the destructive pressure of  “corporate reform” accountability.

While the book was written in the last year of so of the Obama Department of Education, it speaks clearly to the problems we are likely face in a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as education secretary. As the Head of an exclusive New York City private school, Nelson knows precisely why the kind of school choice being promoted by Trump and DeVos won’t work: “The private schools where privileged parents send their kids are expensive and highly selective. I know. I’m the Head of one of them. Calhoun’s tuition is an embarrassing $48,000 per year—about average for Manhattan private schools. Poor families in New York City don’t have the ‘choice’ to attend Calhoun or any of the other private schools. At Calhoun we offer a great deal of tuition assistance so that our students are not all from wealthy families, but the glib come-on in support of privatization is inaccurate and dishonest. Try taking a $5,000 to $7,000 voucher to a place like Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Sidwell’s tuition is also about $40.000.” (p. 112-113)

DeVos’s Opponents are Definitely Not Complacent Defenders of the Status Quo

Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday and sworn in as our new U.S. Secretary of Education. It became clear in the run up to the Senate’s closest-ever vote on a Cabinet secretary that millions of Americans value the idea of a system of universal, publicly funded schools and want to preserve public education despite the threat of privatization. Ms. DeVos’s views are very different.

In an editorial yesterday, the NY Times summarizes DeVos’s experience and her beliefs: “She has never run, taught in, attended or sent a child to an American public school, and her confirmation hearings laid bare her ignorance of education policy and scorn for public education itself.  She has donated millions to, and helped direct, groups that want to replace traditional public schools with charter schools and convert taxpayer dollars to vouchers to help parents send children to private and religious schools.”

Some of DeVos’s supporters have castigated her opponents as comfortable apologists for the status quo. Those of us who opposed DeVos will need to prove we neither fit this label nor accept the status quo. As primary civic institutions, public schools reflect the sins as well as the strengths of our society. We’ll need to demand loudly and persistently that our imperfect system be made to realize its potential for better serving the marginalized children who continue to be left behind even as we insist that public schools must do a better job serving all children’s needs and protecting their rights.

Here are just three of the important issues that slipped out of the conversation as we debated Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary.  We will need to be relentless in raising these concerns.

First, we’ve been ignoring poverty. There is a primary flaw in the federal school accountability system that was created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002, and it is still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December of 2015.  We judge our schools these days by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and we are set on punishing the schools and the school teachers in places where test scores don’t quickly rise. Yet, years’ of research show conclusively that aggregate test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more then they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty.  Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.  You are aware of these problems if you are reading books by Thomas Piketty, or reports from the Economic Policy Institute, or demographic sociology from Sean Reardon at Stanford University, but you sure don’t ever hear any politicians reflecting on these matters. Concentrated urban poverty is an issue our politicians won’t talk about, and it remains at the heart of our society’s biggest concerns for educating our children.

Second, the idea of instituting competition and rewarding success in a privatized system is grounded in a belief system that is contrary to the values by which our ancestors created a system of public education. Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration prefer to assume we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape through vouchers or to charter schools. It’s a lifeboat strategy that gives a leg up to a few strivers even as it isolates the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, recent immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them. This kind of thinking is epitomized by the mythology of the American Dream—that success is individual—accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience. Adherents of this story prefer to believe that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place.  If we think about it, however, most of us will admit that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others. So… we adjust our thinking again—celebrating the outliers who surmount the obstacles and succeed anyway.  Then we make policy based on the unusual success stories of these heroes. Some of us are even willing to articulate such a strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve  to escape.”  There is a basic ethical question here: whether we believe in individual merit above all or whether we are committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  When Betsy DeVos says, “Government really sucks,” she is elevating the value of individual competition in an education marketplace and trashing the idea that the community, expressed through its democratic government, is responsible for the well being of all.

And third, money in politics makes it virtually impossible ever to regulate a privatized school choice marketplace. As long as there are unlimited political contributions being donated by individuals, along with PACs, and Super PACs, and Dark Money Groups investing to buy education policy, it doesn’t really matter if the goal is to privatize education to make a profit or merely to privatize because of an ideology like Betsy DeVos’s.  All that money washing around in the politics of privatization is going to ensure that education privatization cannot possibly be regulated. People like Betsy DeVos will be able to contribute their way into office and to underwrite others who believe in—or profit from—the same ideology.  State governments—already amenable to pressure from corporate money through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council—will neglect to protect children because political contributions will ensure that privatization remains unregulated.  A public system will work only when we can curb the flow of money buying private interests.

Those of us who worked to oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination must remain actively engaged—demanding that our society grapple with how poverty constrains children’s academic promise, condemning an immoral strategy designed to privatize education and  to serve a few at the expense of the many, and naming relentlessly the fact that a charter school marketplace can never be regulated as long as politics are flooded with money. We’ll have to build the political will to insist that our representatives understand that democratically governed public schools are the most promising institution for addressing these serious problems.

The Vulnerable Young People Denied Access to What We Call the American Dream

As he promised during the campaign, President Donald Trump is cracking down on immigration—pledging to deport anyone who is caught without papers and creating chaos and injustice with an outrageous executive order late last week that suspends entry for all refugees for 120 days, entirely bans refugees from Syria and for 90 days bars immigrants from seven Muslim countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

But so far, at least, Trump has done nothing about DACA.  DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, was established by President Barack Obama’s executive order to protect adolescents and young adults—brought here by their parents when they were small children—from deportation and to allow these young adults to obtain work permits.  The protection established by President Obama under DACA is for two years and is renewable.

These young people call themselves Dreamers, named for a bill introduced in Congress in 2001 by Senator Dick Durbin, a bill that has never been passed, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Bill—the DREAM Act.  President Obama established DACA because Congress had never acted on the broader bill that would have expanded access to higher education by guaranteeing in-state tuition and access to federal financial aid and to scholarships at state colleges and universities.

In Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Dale Russakoff published an extraordinary profile of one Dreamer, a young woman named Indira, who left Mexico with her parents when she was six years old.  Her parents, both medical doctors in Mexico but working in menial jobs in the U.S. ever since, brought their family to the United States on an immigrant visa and never returned to a Mexican city where relatives had been killed by violence.  Indira is now enrolled in college, thanks to a privately funded foundation that offers scholarships to Dreamers.

Let me explain here that I have really never been able to follow the thinking of those who have opposed the DREAM Act. I guess they believe that educational opportunity and the American Dream are a zero sum game?  That if your kid gets a good education, she might edge mine out of entrance to a particular college or out of a job later in life?  That children are responsible for the so called sins of their fathers?  How could any caring adult possibly want children to have to grow up living in the shadows, and if the children and their families manage to get along, how could anyone want the children to be denied the right to in-state college tuition or the right to qualify for a Pell Grant or college loan?  Opposing the Dream Act has always seemed to me a particularly punitive and cruel definition of fairness.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, undocumented immigrant children do have a right to a K-12 education, despite their problems accessing colleges and universities. Russakoff explains that in their 1982 decision in the case of Plyler v. Doe, the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed the right for undocumented immigrant children to a K-12 public education.  Russakoff quotes the majority decision written by Justice William Brennan: “Already disadvantaged as a result of poverty, lack of English-speaking ability and undeniable racial prejudices, these children, without an education, will become permanently locked into the lowest socioeconomic class.”  In a concurring opinion, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The classification at issue deprives a group of children of the opportunity for education afforded all other children simply because they have been assigned a legal status due to a violation of law by their parents.”

Russakoff profiles Indira, whose family resides in the state of Georgia: “She was determined to go to college and medical school and fulfill her parents’ interrupted dream. In her junior year (of high school), Indira began researching college options… She was distressed to discover that Georgia barred undocumented immigrants from attending its top public universities and charged them out-of-state tuition at all others—triple the rate for citizen residents. She then turned to researching financial aid and learned that Congress barred her from accessing federal Pell grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study jobs—the most common forms of assistance for low-income students… At a college fair attended by representatives of numerous Georgia colleges, she asked admissions officers what kind of help was available for undocumented students. No one had any to offer her. She switched her focus to private colleges and was admitted to Atlanta’s Agnes Scott, which she says awarded her $20,000 annually in financial aid, less than half of what she needed.”

Her help came from TheDream.US, a private foundation that offers scholarships to Dreamers at Delaware State University. Russakoff follows Indira to college and profiles as well several of her classmate Dreamers who managed to discover this program, several of them learning about the help it could offer only after a number of years of manual work after high school graduation.  Russakoff estimates there are 2.1 million Dreamers, “who have grown up as Americans in almost every way except for their passports.”  Educated in public schools, these children are likely not able to remember much about life in their nations of origin. They may not even speak any language other than English.

President Trump’s threat to eliminate DACA during the campaign has terrified Dreamers all over the country.  For the students in Delaware, there was some reassurance: “A lifeline of sorts arrived the week after the election, when the students received letters from TheDream.US, Governor (Jack) Markel and the president of D.S.U., pledging to stand behind their scholarships no matter what became of DACA.”  Donald Graham, founder of TheDream.US, “lined up attorneys to represent them if anyone challenged their right to be in school.”

So far, President Donald Trump has taken no action to eliminate DACA.  Please read Russakoff’s profile of Indira and her Delaware State University Dreamer classmates to become more informed about the extraordinary challenges faced by the young people who are labeled “illegal” despite their exemplary academic records and their efforts to pursue what we call, perhaps erroneously, the American Dream.

Why People Who Know REALLY Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

You no doubt know that Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, has devoted her fortune and her advocacy to promoting school privatization through expansion of vouchers and unregulated charters. DeVos believes that if parents are given a choice and enough money to choose, they’ll improve the product by voting with their feet. Her theory, if not the reality, is that bad schools will then close and children will be better served. As the Senate considers her confirmation, people who know a lot about public education are warning Senators to oppose her.  Here are highlights of four articles—all by experts—all from different points of view.  Please do follow the links and read the articles themselves.  They are all short.

***

Brett McNeil, whose The High School Where Our Kids Belong appeared on Monday in the Chicago Sun-Times, describes himself as someone who shifted careers, seeking teaching mid-career, working in a Chicago public high school and a Chicago charter high school. Although he has now left teaching for work in journalism, he brings the seldom-heard perspective of a teacher from inside two contrasting high schools, and he explains: “(W)ith charter school champion Betsy DeVos set to preside over federal education policy, I thought I might highlight some key differences between the public and charter school models.”  He describes the two schools in which he taught: “Both schools have student populations that are predominantly minority—one African American, the other Latino. Both schools also have a large number of students receiving free or reduced lunches….”  McNeil contrasts the facilities, programs, and extras at the two schools. The public school has a library with librarians, a large gym and gym classes and a performing arts center, while the charter lacks a library, librarians, gym classes and performing arts. The public high school offers a range of enrichments—a video production lab; a 25-yard swimming pool and swim team; a band room, band classes and marching band; art classes; drama classes and a drama club; National Honors Society; an International Baccalaureate curriculum; an auto shop; a student council; an improv club; and a literary journal.  He describes the charter as occupying a “decommissioned” elementary school, and he explains that the facility still feels like a grade school.

McNeil’ conclusion captures a reality that would matter to a great many adolescents and their parents: “The public school, while not a feeder to the Ivy Leagues, looks and feels a lot more like what I suspect readers imagine when they read the words ‘high school.’ It’s a comprehensive institution, offers a breath of classes and activities to a wide range of students with varying abilities and interests, and it functions as a neighborhood hub. Parents and siblings attend plays, concerts, sporting events, the usual.”

***

Sarah Carr is a journalist, editor of the Teacher Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the author of Hope Against Hope, a book about the transformation of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. Even Carr, who describes herself as a supporter of school choice, worries about DeVos based on Carr’s experience covering education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 2002-2007.  In  her recent piece at Slate, Betsy DeVos’ Big Education Idea Doesn’t Work, Carr explains that part of her assignment was reporting on the evolution of the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee: “Milwaukee’s program historically targeted low-income families, allowing them to use state-funded tuition vouchers to send their children to private schools and, as of 1998 religious ones. When I started reporting in Milwaukee, potential voucher school operators basically needed only a building occupancy permit—and a group of willing families with kids to open a school and rake in hundreds of thousands of public dollars. Not surprisingly, the schools’ quality ran the gamut: Some were run by accomplished, talented, and dedicated educators; others by criminals with no background in education.”  Carr explains that many parents continued to choose schools with poor academic records.

Carr declares: “DeVos is sounding an old tune in her insistence on the power of parental choice as a lever to improve education in America.”  Wisconsin has, “over the past 10 years…  started to require much more of voucher school operators…. Now schools in Milwaukee must survive an accreditation process, meet stricter hiring and financial standards, and administer the same state standardized tests as public schools.” She concludes: “The Milwaukee story, combined with substantial research showing that charter schools tend to perform better in states with rigorous vetting of charter operators, helped usher in a new phase of ‘school choice’ in many communities: one in which government agencies or designees play a more aggressive role in determining what constitutes quality education—and what does not.”

***

Diane Ravitch and John Jackson both bring reservations about the nomination of Betsy Devos based on their experience working in the U.S. Department of Education.

Diane Ravitch is an academic historian of education, and someone who, before a radical transformation based on the evidence of the failure of No Child Left Behind, worked as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary Lamar Alexander in the George H.W. Bush administration. (In her 2010 book, Ravitch formally rejected her previous support for what is now called “corporate school reform.”) This week Ravitch addressed a public letter to now Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, a promoter of school privatization, and currently the chair of the Senate HELP Committee, which is considering the DeVos nomination.

In her Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander about Betsy DeVos, Ravitch addresses Senator Alexander as an old friend.  She worries about what she heard from Betsy DeVos in the HELP Committee’s confirmation hearing: “When asked direct questions about important federal issues… (DeVos) was noncommittal or evasive or displayed her ignorance. She thinks that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be left up to the states to decide whether or not to comply; she does not know it is a federal law and is not optional… She was unfamiliar with the terminology of education issues… I understand that she doesn’t like public schools and much prefers religious schools and privately managed charter schools, including those that operate for-profit… She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education. I have written extensively about the history of public education and how important it is to our democracy.  It seems strange to return to the early 19th century, when children attended religious schools, charity schools, charter schools, were home-schooled, or had no education at all.  This is not ‘reform.’  This is backsliding.  This is wiping out nearly two centuries of hard-won progress toward public schools that enroll boys and girls, children of all races and cultures, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English.  We have been struggling to attain equality of educational opportunity; we are still far from it.  School choice promotes segregation and would take us further away from our national goal.”

***

Dr. John H. Jackson, President and C.E.O. of the Schott Foundation for Public Education served as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights during the Clinton administration.  Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education have been leaders in promoting justice in the public schools by advocating for closing the resource opportunity gaps that drive the racial and economic achievement gaps in test scores.  In Our Next Secretary of Education Should Know Education, Jackson affirms the right of “a freely elected president… (to) appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate” cabinet officials.  However, he observes that in her Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos demonstrated that she, “lacks even the most basic knowledge and capabilities required for the responsibility of U.S. Secretary of Education… In fact, the hearing laid bare astonishing deficits in DeVos’s understanding of the obligations and authority of the Department of Education… Her inability to assemble the team and dedicate the time necessary to adequately prepare for one of the most predictable parts of the process and the job—the Senate Confirmation Hearing—should be alarming and offensive to Senate members on both sides of the aisle.”

Jackson, leader of a foundation, criticizes DeVos as a philanthropist: “DeVos is a well-heeled philanthropist who has championed the expansion of charter schools, school vouchers, and tuition tax credit programs… Yet possessing millions of dollars does not automatically make a philanthropist — or a philanthropic organization — more prepared or more credible.  As a funder dedicated to ensuring that all students in our public education system have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn, the Schott Foundation’s thought leadership has been sharpened through 25 years of experience working with and learning from parents, students, and educators in local communities, districts and public schools across the nation.  It’s clear that Mrs. DeVos has little in the way of federal education policy experience as she was rarely able to provide substantive answers to legitimate questions about her ideas and plans.  DeVos currently has no experience serving in public schools as an educator, administrator, board member or superintendent.  She has no earned degree in education.  She was neither a student of a public school nor the parent of one.  Furthermore, the results of her work championing school choice programs and privatization efforts in her home state of Michigan have been dismal.”

***

While on Monday, the Democratic Senators in the HELP Committee requested an additional opportunity to question Ms. DeVos about her qualifications and her potential conflicts of interest, the Committee’s chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, has denied the request.  The committee members will vote on the DeVos nomination next Tuesday, January 31 at 10 AM. After the committee vote, the nomination will very likely move to the Senate floor.  Please continue to call your U.S. Senators to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.