Chicago Teachers Strike for Better Conditions for Students and to Protest Decades of Anti-CTU Policies

After 94 percent of its members voted in late September to authorize a strike, and now, after two more weeks of intense contract negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike yesterday.  WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports that differences remain over manageable class size and teacher assistants’ salaries, along with chronic shortages of support staff needed to serve Chicago’s children—school nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.

Chicago’s teachers are striking for the second time in a decade—fighting to turn back a quarter century of school policy that has demonized teachers and their unions and substituted corporate-style governance reforms, school closures, and the expansion of charter schools at the expense of the traditional public schools where they teach.

In his 2014 book, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Micah Uetricht describes Stand for Children’s executive director, Jonah Edelman bragging (in a videotaped interview) at the Aspen Ideas Festival about how, in 2011, his Oregon-based, astroturf organization hired lobbyists in Springfield, Illinois to ensure passage of a law crippling the Chicago Teacher’s Union by requiring a 75 percent vote by a union’s membership to authorize a strike: “‘In effect, they wouldn’t have the ability to strike,’ Edelman says matter-of-factly in the tape. ‘They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold.'” (Strike for America, p. 61)  Edelman’s taunt only challenged CTU’s membership, which authorized the 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Strike by 90 percent of the union’s members.

Edelman’s effort was the second time in recent decades when corporate reformers in Springfield lashed out specifically at Chicago’s teachers union. In a 2016 book, A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike, University of Illinois professors Bob Bruno and Steven Ashby describe the state’s 1995 intervention in Chicago’s public schools by imposing mayoral governance: “As 1995 opened, the new legislative session created a frenzy of anti-Chicago teacher ideas. Republicans offered draconian proposals to ban teachers strikes, eliminate tenure, and inaugurate periodic teacher testing in the Chicago public schools.”  With the support of Chicago’s corporate-reformer mayor, Richard M. Daley, the legislature enacted mayoral control of the city’s public school district: “The plan gave the mayor a large measure of control over the system, which he had long sought, while also containing ‘significant anti-union elements.’  The new law did away with the School Board Nominating Commission, permitting Daley to handpick his own five-person school board. The position of superintendent was also eliminated, and Daley now had the sole power to appoint a school ‘chief executive officer.’ Further weakening the influence of the CTU and its role in reform, at the mayor’s insistence the law also amended the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act… by banning teachers strikes for eighteen months; prohibiting bargaining over class size, layoffs, staffing, and teacher assignments, eliminating seniority as a factor in filling teacher vacancies; and limiting teacher rights to file grievances.” (A Fight for the Soul of Public Education, pp. 28-29)  The law applied to Chicago alone, without affecting other school districts in the state of Illinois.

Richard M. Daley was Chicago’s mayor from 1989 to 2011, followed by Rahm Emanuel.  Both pursued a corporate agenda.  In 2004, there was the glittery new promise of Renaissance 2010, by which the district would close so-called ‘failing’ public schools and replace them with a hundred new schools—many of them charter schools. Arne Duncan headed up Renaissance 2010, and then became the school district’s CEO. School choice and competition have been at the center of Chicago’s school reform, a process that has left traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods increasingly vulnerable and that ultimately closed 50 schools in May of 2013. In her history of the 2013 school closures, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explains what happened: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”  (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Writing about the pending strike last week in a Chicago Tribune commentary, two law professors—Sumi Cho of DePaul University College of Law, and Erica Meiners of Northeastern Illinois University, summarize the meaning of the strike which began yesterday: “(T)eachers are the front line of resisting this bipartisan austerity agenda. Chicago teachers won a historic 2012 strike that laid the foundation for the wave of successful teacher strikes that followed in red states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and in blue cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, California.” This year, “the CTU’s unity with working people and marginalized communities led it to reject the city’s offer that focuses on teacher pay and health benefits.  Instead, the CTU is also demanding vital services and staffing that its members know Chicago’s most disadvantaged students need to thrive—such as a librarian in every school, more nurses, and health care professionals, and an expansion of sanctuary and community schools.”

Cho and Meiners add that, with this strike, leaders in the Chicago Teachers Union are also pushing back against the constraints on teacher organizing put in place along with mayoral governance in 1995. That law included language directed at the Chicago Teachers Union specifically to prevent CTU from negotiating as part of the union contract the conditions in their schools such as class size and presence of support staff. These negotiating conditions were not set in Springfield for any other teachers union in the state of Illinois.

Cho and Meiners explain that CTU’s members are angry that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, recently made a move to delay a new state law that would have repealed some of the anti-union provisions in the 1995 law that set up mayoral-control: “More disturbingly, after the Illinois House passed two bills last term to create an elected school board and to repeal the discriminatory provision restricting only Chicago teachers from striking over their working conditions, Mayor Lightfoot asked Senate President John Cullerton to stall these bills. As a result, Illinois’ legislative session ended last May with these bills sidelined in the Senate, just prior to contract negotiations between CTU and the city.”

Decades of tough, anti-public school teacher, anti-union policies—at both the state and local level—are underneath the current teachers strike in Chicago. Chicago teachers, like their counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, are on strike to protect their students from inequitable school funding along with corporate school reform programs, which have featured competition and thereby denied staffing and small classes most particularly in the schools serving Chicago’s poorest children.


Court Injunctions Protect Immigrant Families from Imposition — Yesterday — of Trump’s Public Charge Rule

Last Friday, NPR reported the good news: “Federal judges in three states—New York, California and Washington—have issued temporary injunctions against the Trump administration’s ‘public charge’ rule, preventing it from taking effect on Oct. 15.”

For NBC News, Daniella Silva explains exactly how the Trump administration’s punitive rule—which DID NOT go into effect yesterday as planned—would have excluded legal immigrants and their families.  An old rule previously denied green cards to immigrants, “who depended on cash assistance or government-funded long-term institutional care.”  “The new rule expands the definition to include additional benefits such as food stamps, non-emergency Medicaid, certain prescription drug subsidies and housing vouchers.  And the rule would now define public charge as any immigrant who uses or is deemed likely to use at some point one public benefit for 12 months during a 36-month period. Receipt of two public benefits in one month counts as two months, the rule noted. Once labeled a ‘public charge’ immigrants could be denied green cards, visas and other forms of legal immigrant status.”

The judges’ injunctions issued last Friday will delay the imposition of the new rule, described by the NY Times‘ Miriam Jordan as “developed by Stephen Miller, the White House aide who is the architect of several of the government’s hard-line immigration policies.”

The Trump administration’s rule has not been permanently overturned.  However, the courts have blocked its implementation while the matter of its constitutionality moves through the court system.  Jordan quotes Steve Yale-Loehr, an immigration professor at Cornell Law School: “The court rulings today represent at least a temporary setback in the Trump administration’s attacks on both legal and illegal immigrants… Ultimately, I predict these issues will go all the way to the Supreme Court.'”

In his ruling on Friday, Judge George B. Daniels, of the Southern District of New York explained: “The Rule is simply a new agency policy of exclusion in search of a justification… It is repugnant to the American Dream of the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work and upward mobility. Immigrants have always come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their posterity.  With or without help, most succeed.”

The Trump administration’s extremely punitive public charge rule was intended to frighten immigrant families from seeking perfectly legal assistance when they are desperate. The NY Times‘ Jordan provides statistics demonstrating high employment among immigrants—often in jobs without sufficient benefits: “Nearly 85 percent of legal immigrants live in a family with at least one full-time worker… a rate higher than that of citizens.  However, they are more likely than citizens to live in low-income families and work in jobs and industries that do not offer health coverage, which is why many turn to government-funded assistance such as Medicaid.”

And, Jordan reports, the number of affected legal immigrants, if the rule were to go into effect, would be sizeable: “The new standards would directly affect about 1.2 million applicants annually, including about 500,000 who are already in the country. But that figure does not include millions of family members and others who might also be affected.”

The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit reports that if the rule had gone into effect this week, it would have directly affected children served by the federally subsidized school lunch program: “About a half-million students could lose access to free school meals under a Trump administration proposal to limit the number of people who qualify for food stamps… The change, proposed over the summer, would cut an estimated 3 million people from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP–today’s term for food stamps). Children in those households could also lose access to free school lunches, since food stamp eligibility is one way students can qualify for the lunches.”

Fear has very likely already caused some families to give up urgently needed services. The NY Times‘ Jordan explains why: “Diminished participation in Medicaid and other programs would undermine the financial stability of immigrant families and the healthy development of their children…. Nationwide, 13.5 million users of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, including 7.6 million children, live in a household that includes at least one noncitizen…. The complexity of the regulation and fear of being denied a green card already have sown confusion in immigrant communities.”

In a moving reflection on the potential impact of the public charge rule, the education writer and a professor of education at UCLA, Mike Rose posted on his personal blog the story of his grandparents: “My grandfather, Anthony Meraglio, was among the four million immigrants from Southern Italy—most were poor and minimally educated—who flowed into the United States between 1880 and 1920. Many of the men entered the basic labor force of the heavy industries that would contribute to American economic preeminence by mid-Twentieth Century.  Tony found work in the expansive yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania, clearing waste and debris, hauling materials, coupling and uncoupling freight cars… One day in 1921, in the main yard of the railroad, Tony was standing under a locomotive’s ash pan that had been secured to a crane. As the pan was being lifted, it slipped loose and caught Tony across his leg, resulting in an injury so severe that his leg was amputated. This was before the protections of our country’s social safety net existed—the kinds of protections Mr. Cuccinelli (the Trump administration’s acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) wants to restrict, or penalize people for using.  My grandmother, Frances, went into crisis mode: taking in boarders, pulling my mother out of school in the 7th grade to tend to the house, getting the other kids, some still in the primary grades, into the work force. Theirs was a hard, grinding life.”

The executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, Olivia Golden commented on last Friday’s court injunctions: “The public charge rule is rooted in discrimination and racial animus, targets lawfully present immigrants and sends the message that only wealthy and white immigrants have a place in the United States.  But today, once again, the courts have stepped in to stop this administration in its attempt to implement a policy that divides us as a nation and damages the lives of millions of immigrants, their families, their children and their communities.  Today’s ruling means a temporary halt in the implementation of the public charge rule… We encourage immigrants to continue to seek the services they need to take care of their families and to ensure their children’s health and economic security.”

State Punches Youngstown with New HB 70 Assault on Local Control of Public Schools

Officials from the Ohio Department of Education have begun replacing the locally elected school board in Youngstown with a mayoral appointed school board.

This week we learned about one more extension of autocratic state power backloaded in 2015 into the HB 70’s school district takeover of Youngstown. Because at the end of four years of state takeover, the Youngstown school district earned another “F” on the state report card, the state is now imposing a previously unknown provision of the 2015, HB 70, which established state takeover in the first place.

The replacement of the elected school board in Youngstown with a state-approved, mayoral-appointed school board is designed to punish Youngstown for not raising its grade to “C” during four years of state takeover. What is particularly shocking about the new development is that the locally elected school board has had no role to play in the operation of Youngstown’s schools since the time of the state takeover in 2015. The state has been running the district through a state appointed Academic Distress Commission which appointed a CEO to lead the school district.

Krish Mohip, the state-appointed CEO whose term ended on July 31, was never happy in his position, and last spring, several months prior to the end of his term, Mohip took family medical leave. At the time The Youngstown Vindicator‘s Amanda Tonoli reported that Mohip explained: “I’m going to take care of some issues that have accumulated at home, and I’m going to focus my attention there… I don’t see my absence as being a hindrance to all the great work that’s happened and will continue to happen over the next few years.” Mohip left, but he did not resign.  Instead he collected the rest of his $170,000 salary.  Tonoli added: “A longevity provision in Mohip’s contract allows him a $10,000 payout if he completes his full contract.”

Nobody was sorry to see Mohip go. The chair of the Academic Distress Commission explained: “We have to uphold what the contract says… We are following the law and following the contract that was agreed upon with Krish Mohip.” The blatant arrogance of Mohip’s mode of departure was merely the latest example of his abuse of the public trust.  He did not ever move his family to Youngstown, for example.

A new CEO, Justin Jennings, formerly the school superintendent in Saginaw, Michigan, was recently appointed by the state-appointed, Youngstown Academic Distress Commission.

Under HB 70, the residents of the school district have been permitted by the state to elect a local board of education, but its only power has been to decide whether and when to put a property tax levy on the ballot.

The imposition of an appointed board of education is happening even as the Ohio Supreme Court will hear a case  on October 23rd brought by Youngstown’s school board and school employees’ unions to challenge the state’s now four-year takeover of the school district.  And the Ohio Department of Education is moving forward to establish a mayoral-appointed school board in Youngstown despite that, embedded into the state budget signed into law in July, is a one year moratorium on state school district takeovers.

Currently several candidates are running for Youngstown’s local school board in the November, 2019 election.  WKBN Youngstown‘s reporter, Stan Boney explains that current board members are barred from consideration for the soon-to-be-appointed board of education, but candidates running for office may be considered if they are not incumbents: “On Thursday, Ohio Superintendent of Schools Paolo DeMaria made his first appearance in Youngstown since HB 70 became law to announce the process of selecting a new school board… DeMaria was clear that no person currently holding elected office is eligible, but people running in November who are not currently on the board are eligible even if they win….”

For WFMJ 21 Youngstown, Michelle Nicks reports on the process the state is imposing on Youngstown: “There will be eight members on the nominating panel, but only seven will vote. The chairperson of the group from the State Board of Education is a non-voting member… The panel will vote on at least ten names that will be presented to Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown on November 8th. Mayor Brown will have at least 30 days to pick five people as the ‘newly’ appointed Youngstown Board of Education. Out of the five selected, one person will be chosen as the Chairperson. The new board will begin serving on January first.”

Last week, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, Bill Phillis challenged the state’s recent move to replace the elected school board in Youngstown: “Never thought this would happen in America: The state is in the process of replacing elected school board members in Youngstown. The electors in Youngstown elected board members. These board members will be replaced via the HB 70 process. The Youngstown Board of Education has not been in control of the district for several years.  State control of the district has not resulted in improvement. Therefore, elected board members are being removed from office because the state’s improvement process has failed… How can Ohio legislators and the Governor allow this despicable process to come to fruition?”

Ironically HB 154, a bill to repeal HB 70, was passed last spring by an overwhelming, bipartisan 83-12 margin in the Ohio House of Representatives. The bill has stalled in the Ohio Senate, however, because key senators strongly favor autocratic rule of Ohio’s poorest school districts by the state. Ignoring massive evidence that the test scores, which are the primary measure used as an indicator of school quality in the state report cards, are a much stronger indicator of a school district’s aggregate family income and a poor measure of the quality of a school or school district (see here, here and here), members of the Ohio Senate have doubled down to endorse a plan intensifying the state’s control of Ohio school districts posting low scores. Ohio’s senators blame local educators and the voters who elect local school board members. At a recent legislative hearing, one member of the Ohio Senate expressed disdain for local control of schools, an attitude that prevails among many in his chamber: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?”

At the end of September, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized against the 2015 law which set up state takeover of local school districts: “While it’s easy to find fault with local school boards, teachers’ unions and state bureaucrats, the task that urban school districts face—helping kids learn despite… poverty… is immense.  Conservatives and other skeptics of public schools like the idea of taking the reins away from education bureaucrats who have failed and giving outsiders a crack.  That’s what House Bill 70, written in secret and rushed into law four years ago, did.  Schools in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are living with the results and they’re not good. The districts have seen little improvement but lots of controversy… The elected school board is stripped of all powers except putting levies on the ballot. The CEOs in Lorain and Youngstown seemingly have made little effort to win the confidence or support of those communities. In Youngstown, three of the five appointed commission members quit and Krish Mohip, the CEO, was actively looking for a new job by last December.”

Even Though ESSA Dropped the Requirement, 34 States Still Evaluate Schoolteachers by Students’ Test Scores

Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reports this week that 9 of the 43 school districts which adopted the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers have stopped using students’ scores for teacher evaluation. This is an important development because all sorts of research has shown that students’ scores are unreliable as a measure of the quality of a teacher.  But too many states are still evaluating their teachers with unreliable algorithms based on students’ test scores.

Barnum reminds us about the history of using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers: “The push to remake teacher evaluations was jump-started by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which offered a chance at federal dollars to states that enacted favored policies—including linking teacher evaluation to student test scores… Philanthropies—most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—provided support for a constellation of groups pushing these ideas.”

Evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores also became a condition for states to qualify for a No Child Left Behind Waiver. After it became apparent that No Child Left Behind was going to declare a majority of schools “failures” because they were not going to be able to meet the law’s rigid schedule, in 2011, the federal government offered to relax some of the law’s most punitive consequences by offering states waivers from No Child Left Behind. But to qualify for a waiver, states had to promise to enact some of Arne Duncan’s pet policies. Using students’ standardized test scores for evaluating schoolteachers was one of the requirements for states to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers.  Education Week explained: “In exchange, states had to agree to set standards aimed at preparing students for higher education and the workforce. Waiver states could either choose the Common Core State Standards, or get their higher education institutions to certify that their standards are rigorous enough. They also must put in place assessments aligned to those standards. And they have to institute teacher-evaluation systems that take into account student progress on state standardized tests, as well as single out 15 percent of schools for turnaround efforts or more targeted interventions.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Barnam explains the impact of these federal requirements: “Between 2009 and 2013, the number of states requiring test scores to be used in teacher evaluations spiked from 15 to 41, including Washington, DC.”

But in 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  And  the new law was partly shaped by a protest against Arne Duncan’s misguided teacher evaluation scheme. Barnum explains: “The backlash culminated with the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which explicitly bars future secretaries of education from doing what Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan did—trying to influence how teachers are evaluated.”

At the time, the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton described how the new ESSA would specifically stop the U.S. Secretary of Education from intervening in the formulation of state laws by limiting, “the legal authority of the education secretary, who would be legally barred from influencing state decisions about academic benchmarks, such as the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations and other education policies.”

Barnum outlines many of the problems with the schemes states set up to comply with Arne Duncan’s requirement that—to qualify for a Race to the Top grant or a NCLB waiver—states must judge teachers by students’ scores: “States that complied with federal urging to overhaul their evaluation systems struggled with exactly how to measure teachers’ performance. Classroom observations were usually the biggest factor, with tests playing a key role. But since many teachers do not have a standardized test corresponding to their grade and subject, some districts created new tests or had teachers create their own, raising concerns about overtesting. In other instances, teachers were evaluated in part by student performance in subjects they didn’t teach—the situation for half of New York City teachers in 2016. In many states, the new evaluations debuted just as new academic standards and tests were being implemented, frustrating teachers and their unions who felt they were being held accountable for unfamiliar material without adequate training.”

It became popular to use statistical algorithms called Value Added Measures (VAMs) of student learning rather than merely the aggregate benchmark scores of a teacher’s students as the basis of each teacher’s evaluation. However, in 2014, the American Statistical Association, and in 2015, the American Education Research Association released evidence that calculations trying to measure each teacher’s discrete contribution to her students’ learning were statistically flawed. The American Statistical Association warned: “Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers… The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences. The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”

The problem is that a lot of states continue to use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.  Education Week‘s Madeline Will explains: “Now 34 states require student-growth measures in teacher evaluations… Ten states and the District of Columbia dropped the requirement, while two states (Alabama and Texas) added a student-growth requirement during the same time period. Among the states that do still require an objective measure of student growth, eight do not currently require that the state standardized test be the source of the data. Instead, districts can use measures like their own assessments, student portfolios, and student learning objectives to determine teachers’ contribution to student growth….”

The 2015 replacement for No Child Left Behind—the Every Student Succeeds Act—ended the federal policy pushing states to judge teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. It is reprehensible that so many states are still holding on to this kind of discredited teacher evaluation scheme.

Why Democratic Candidates for President Need to Stop Waffling About Charter Schools

On Monday morning, Diane Ravitch sent around what I believe is an urgently important post from Michigan’s Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan, a retired, National Board Certified Michigan public school teacher and 1993 Michigan Teacher of the Year, previously blogged regularly at Education Week.  She now blogs personally at Teacher in a Strange Land.

In the post Ravitch highlights this week, Flanagan regrets that Democrats running for President continue to waffle about charter schools and too few people are holding them to account on this issue.  At a recent gathering with women discussing politics in her community, Flanagan tried to protest when someone supported Cory Booker’s candidacy: “I interrupted the happy talk: ‘His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools.  He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.’ I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces.  One voice spoke up: ‘So? Why is that so bad?'”

Flanagan explains her own strong opposition to charter schools: “I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts. There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a ‘right’ to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.” (emphasis in the original)

Why are so many people complacent when it comes to considering the complex issues around charter schools? Flanagan believes: “Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US Military.  Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there.  Pick a new school. It’s the American way.”

Flanagan challenges such consumerist complacency: “Let’s invest more in fully public education…. Let’s acknowledge the places where (public schools have) crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them.  Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals”

Reading Flanagan’s column caused me to consider what I would say if somebody asked me why it matters so much that the Democrats running for President refuse to take a courageous stand.

I’d begin by explaining that by waffling—trying to have it both ways about the issue of school privatization—the candidates are refusing to provide strong leadership.  A strong leader would demand that citizens consider all the reasons for protecting America’s most important civic institution.

Here are my seven reasons for believing Democrats running for President ought to express strong support for public schools and opposition to charter schools:

First:   The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of schools.  Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school, public charter school, and homeschool enrollment increased, while private school enrollment decreased… Traditional public school enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”

Second:   Public schools are our society’s most important civic institution. Public schools are not perfect, but they are the optimal way for our very complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. While our society has not fully realized justice for every child in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all children.

Third:   Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

Fourth:   While some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”

Fifth:   Opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point.  In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit (managed-for-profit) charter schools were in my state, Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company.  The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit.  All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.

Sixth:   Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Because charter schools were established by state law across the 45 states where charters operate, and because much of the state charter school enabling legislation featured innovation and experimentation and neglected oversight, the scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools.  Because neoliberal ideologues and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector, adequate oversight has proven impossible.

Seventh:   The federal Charter Schools Program should be shut down immediately. Here is a brief review of the Network for Public Education’s findings in last spring’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the federal Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country. The CSP has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants. The Network for Public Education found that the CSP has spent over a $1 billion on schools that never opened or were opened and subsequently shut down: “The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

Last June in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner defined the political philosophy known as neoliberalism and showed how this kind of thinking has driven privatization across many sectors previously operated, for the public good, by government: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

For three decades, neoliberalism has reigned in education policy. The introduction of the neoliberal ideal of competition—supposedly to drive school improvement—through vouchers for private school tuition and in the expansion of charter schools has become acceptable to members of both political parties.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains elegantly and precisely what is wrong with neoliberal thinking in general. I think his words apply directly to what has been happening as charter schools have been expanded to more and more states. The candidates running for President who prefer to waffle on the advisability of school privatization via charter schools ought to consider Barber’s analysis:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  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. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Tim Slekar on the Exodus of Schoolteachers from Their Chosen Profession

Tim Slekar is the Dean of the College of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin.  Early in September, Slekar was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio, an interview recommended to me by a public school teacher who said it is the best statement she has heard of the truth about public education today.

You can listen to Slekar explain what is described in many places as a growing shortage of public school teachers.  Slekar believes we are not merely experiencing a shortage of teachers;  what is happening instead is an exodus of public school teachers from their chosen profession. If it were a classic labor shortage, explains Slekar, pay would be raised, conditions would be made better, and enrollment in teacher training programs would grow.  All of this would attract more people to teaching, according to how a labor market is supposed to work.  But, argues Slekar, fewer and fewer people now want to be schoolteachers.  He explains that in his office, he has listened as parents of his college students beg their children to choose another profession instead.

Slekar believes that teachers are being driven out of the profession by the impossibility of working under the conditions imposed by test based school accountability, a strategy designed to be punitive. The goal was to make teachers work harder and smarter for fear their schools would receive a low rating. Test based accountability was a bipartisan strategy designed in the 1990s and cast into law in 2002 in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools were then judged by their aggregate test scores, and the lowest scoring schools were punished.

Slekar also has a blog, Busted Pencils, where he has covered this subject extensively.  In a post last April, Slekar declares: “Accountability—loved by Democrats and Republicans—has almost become a religious movement. In fact the idea of even questioning the usefulness of test based accountability can cause enraged panic in accountability zealots. ‘How will we know what children are falling behind?’ ‘How will we close the achievement gap if we don’t measure it?’ ‘How will we fire bad teachers without the data?’ ‘How will we know what schools to close?’… Time for the hard truth.  Test based accountability has done one thing well. Over the past 35 years, we have beyond any doubt, measured and confirmed the achievement gap. That’s it. Nothing else.”

He continues: “However, test based accountability has destroyed the profession of teaching and caused a mass demoralization and ‘X’odus from public school classrooms. Oh, and let’s not forget about the thousands of hours of lost instruction time in the sciences, social studies, arts, music, and anything else that doesn’t conform to basic literacy and numeracy skills.”

There is a book which clearly examines all the problems with test based school accountability, a book written by Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction and use of standardized tests.  The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better was published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press, which is currently offering it on sale at the considerably reduced price of $11.00.

Daniel Koretz demonstrates how standardized testing in schools is corrupted—and how education itself is corrupted—when standardized tests become the basis of high-stakes accountability. The problem epitomizes the operation of Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the education process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Koretz demonstrates the many ways that testing undermines education—how scores can be inflated by various kinds of direct test preparation: cutting back on the important subject matter that isn’t tested; spending time within a particular subject on the material known to be emphasized by a particular test; and even in some cases cheating: “The entire logic of our reforms depends on rewarding the schools that do better and punishing those that don’t. However, because in most contexts we can’t separate score inflation from legitimate improvements, we are sometimes rewarding people who game the system more effectively, and we are punishing educators who do good work but appear to be doing relatively less well because they aren’t taking as many shortcuts. On top of that, we are holding out as examples to be emulated programs that look good only because of bogus score gains and overlooking programs that really are good because the teachers using them are doing less to game the system. In other words, the system can propagate bad practice.” (The Testing Charade, p. 64) (emphasis in the original)

Finally there is the problem—confirmed in a recent study by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon—that standardized test scores reflect primarily a school’s or a school district’s aggregate family income.  The tests do not accurately measure the quality of the school. In a series of very simple bar graphs, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner also demonstrates the striking correlation of Ohio’s school district grades on the state’s school report card with family income and parents’ level of education.

Daniel Koretz explains the correlation: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

In the recent Wisconsin Public Radio interview, Tim Slekar emphasizes that in the United States, over a trillion dollars has been spent on standardized tests and the data systems that process the results.  As a professional educator, he recommends the money be spent instead to surround children with the best children’s literature because reading is at the heart of education. He would also spend part of the money on wraparound programs to ensure that the poorest children are well fed, they are healthy, and they have care and enrichment in after school programs.

In a recent legislative hearing of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, one state senator twice posed the following question: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” This legislator’s attack on teachers epitomizes Tim Slekar’s diagnosis of the cause of an exodus of schoolteachers from their profession.

We now know that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—and all the state-by-state test based accountability these federal policies spun off—did not improve the education of our nation’s poorest children, who are still being left behind.

I wonder how long it will be before we stop allowing our elected leaders to get away with shifting the blame onto teachers while they—the policymakers—fail to invest the resources and power of government in equitable school funding and in programs to support the needs of our society’s poorest children.

What Does Educational Opportunity Mean?

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, has spent a good part of his life examining the meaning of educational opportunity.  In Why School? (2009 and expanded in 2014), Rose considers how students experience opportunity at school: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation.  But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)

In a much earlier exploration, the 1989, Lives on the Boundary, part of it biographical, Rose investigates the ways educators connect with students and the role of quality literacy and remedial education: “Lives on the Boundary concerns language and human connection, literacy and culture, and it focuses on those who have trouble reading and writing in the schools and the workplace. It is a book about the abilities hidden by class and cultural barriers. And it is a book about movement: about what happens as people who have failed begin to participate in the educational system that has seemed so harsh and distant to them. We are a nation obsessed with evaluating our children, with calibrating their exact distance from some ideal benchmark… All students cringe under the scrutiny, but those most harshly affected, least successful in the completion, possess some of our greatest unperceived riches.” (Lives on the Boundary, p. xi)

In the 2012, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose explores the role of  community college programs to educate adults and provide technical training: “Equal opportunity is something every conservative affirms as a core American value. Yet in no realistic sense of the word does anything like equal opportunity exist toward the bottom of the income ladder… Recent studies show that parental income has a greater effect on children’s success in America than in other developed countries… Many of the students I’ve taught at UCLA who come from well-to-do families grew up in a world of museums, music lessons, tutoring, sports programs, travel, up-to-date educational technologies, after-school and summer programs geared toward the arts or sciences.  All this is a supplement to attending good to exceptional public or private schools.  Because their parents are educated, they can provide all kinds of assistance with homework, with navigating school, with advocacy.  These parents are doing everything possible to create maximum opportunity for their kids, often with considerable anxiety and expense… (P)oor parents would do the same if they could.  But it would require quite a distortion to see young people from affluent and poor backgrounds as having equal opportunity at academic and career success.” (Back to School, p. 21)

In a new blog post just last week, Rose, who has been studying educational opportunity for an entire career, describes how a recent experience expanded his own understanding of the fragility of the lives of the students whose needs are greatest.

A friend who has endowed a small education foundation invited Rose to read letters of appreciation, sent after applicants—students at a community college—were awarded very small, one time grants of $500 to $1000: “The letters provide a view into the lives of successful students, people who are close to completing a two-year degree, or about to transfer to a university, or are finishing a nursing program and preparing to take the licensing exam. The letters convey a detailed, vivid sense of how precarious these students’ lives are. Money for the bus or gas for the car is a big thing.  People don’t get their textbooks on time because they are searching for the lowest price. Balancing school, work, and family is intensely demanding, and more often than not, it is school that suffers. (An aside: A just-published report from the College Futures Foundation reveals that among students in California two-and four-year colleges, housing and food costs—not just tuition—are increasingly becoming barriers to college completion.) Almost all of the letters reveal a web of responsibilities to other family members beyond one’s own spouse and children. The letters are graceful, and brimming with gratitude, and exude drive and determination and immense strength, but they also reveal how one mishap, one piece of bad luck, an accident, a lost job, illness—can jeopardize what these people have worked so hard to attain. The evaporation of their American Dream.”

The emergency grants Rose describes cannot compensate for the depth of overall poverty challenging these students or the explosion these days of structural inequality: “The causes and scope of this economic insecurity, of course, are way beyond what can be remedied with a small grant. A few hundred bucks will not alleviate chronic housing or food insecurity. But a quick, targeted award can help in an emergency: can repair a car needed for school and work, replace a stolen computer, pay for food or rent during a time when a breadwinner is recuperating from surgery.  Or the funds can be used for one-time expenses that are crucial for students’ careers. A number of the letter writers will use their award to pay for their nursing licensing exam, several noting that without that award, their certification would be delayed.”

I grew up in northern Montana, and interested in Montana’s giant, end-of-September snowstorm this past week, I happened to look at my own hometown newspaper, the Havre Daily News.  Once on the newspaper’s website, I kept reading and discovered an obituary describing the life of the very kind of student Rose has written about. This student, Norma Jean King — He Mani Wi, “Mountain Walks”– lived all her life in Hays, Montana, in the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “Norma was a proud cultural member of the Little Shell Metis Tribe and embraced her husband’s Assiniboine culture also.” This woman epitomizes determination as well as the impact on the broader community of someone who, in very isolated and what might have been limited circumstances, pursued an education.  After her high school graduation in 1963, Norma Jean King, “worked as a clerk for Kerns store until 1969, when she began working as an aide at the old Hays School. It was there where she decided to extend her passion in education, so Norma worked and went to college all at the same time. She enrolled in the first-of-its-kind in the area ‘distance learning’ program called Urban Rural out of the College of Great Falls. The satellite classes were based at the old Hays School Campus in a trailer. In 1975, Norma graduated from College of Great Falls with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She applied at the Hays School and immediately started working as a teacher as she began her long career in education… In 1988, Norma earned her master’s degree in education administration from MSU (Montana State University) in Bozeman. Norma received many certificates in education and moved from teaching at the elementary level to the junior high and high school levels, eventually working her way up to principal, also in those three levels. She attained working at the highest level as superintendent.”

There is no evidence that Norma Jean King needed the kind of emergency financial help Mike Rose describes in his recent blog, but her life is a reminder that education can be a very complicated balancing act for people who do not come from backgrounds where parents can provide ample enrichment and funding. Her life exemplifies the significance of education not only for her but also for the many students she taught and the schools she led during her long and very important career in Hays, Montana.