No School Is “Doomed.” Continuous Improvement, Not School Closure, Must Be the Goal

I have read Eliza Shapiro’s reporting in POLITICO for years and I respect her as a reporter, but her story in Friday’s NY Times baffles me: New York Knew Some Schools In Its $773 Million Plan Were Doomed, They Kept Children in Them Anyway. The story raises a thousand questions and answers none of them. It fails to consider realities, which Shapiro surely knows, affect any child’s experience at school.

In Shapiro’s piece last Friday, we learn that the future of NYC’s Renewal Schools plan is in jeopardy.  And we learn that one of the interventions made in these, NYC’s lowest performing schools, as part of the Renewal Schools plan was their transformation into full-service, wraparound Community Schools. We are not told, however, what other interventions have been tried or how widely any intervention has been taken across the schools.  Over the weekend, in the blog of her organization, Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson explains that one improvement which would have been likely to support students was not tried.  Children were still assigned to classes of over 30 students. Shapiro tells us that the Renewal Schools program has cost $773 million but not how the money was spent.

Here is how Shapiro begins last week’s report on the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Chancellor Carmen Farina’s Renewal Schools program: “Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to ‘shake the foundations of New York City education’ in 2014 with a new program called Renewal, a signature effort to improve the city’s 94 poorest-performing schools by showering them with millions of dollars in social services and teacher training.  A year later, aides raised a confidential alarm: about a third of those schools were likely to fail. The schools were not meeting goals that the city set for higher test scores, increased graduation rates and other academic measures—and probably never would… ‘In order for these schools to reach their targets for 2017, the interventions would need to produce truly exceptional improvements,’ read the December 2015 memo, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times. ‘Historically, it has been quite rare for schools to improve that much in two years.’  Mr. de Blasio kept most of the schools open.  Now, after sending thousands of children into classrooms that staff members suspected were doomed from the start, the administration appears ready to give up on Renewal.  Its cost: $773 million by the end of this school year.”

The headline and the school district’s 2015 memo that Shapiro quotes describe the Renewal Schools program as “doomed” from the start because the district’s promise quickly to improve graduation rates and test score metrics would be unprecedented if achieved.  That kind of proclamation of an impossible, aspirational goal— “doomed from the start”—is surely also exemplified by No Child Left Behind’s promise to make all children in America proficient, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014.  And exemplified by the Race to the Top program, in which no school or school district raced to the top.

Here are presumably some of the realities faced by many of the students in New York City’s lowest-performing schools. Two weeks ago Shapiro herself reported that one out of ten students in the New York City Public Schools is homeless—114,659 students.  NYC is a segregated city, racially and economically, and Shapiro’s own reporting confirms that many homeless children are concentrated in particular schools: “District 10 in the Bronx served the most homeless children of any of the city’s 32 school districts last year. The district includes Kingsbridge International High School, where about 44 percent of students who attended school over the last four years were homeless.”  We know that homeless students drop out or delay graduation at higher rates than their more privileged peers and, in the aggregate, their test scores lag.

The NY Times‘, Elizabeth Harris reported last April: “The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well.  Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… “(H)omeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions, relatively flat when compared to the previous year.”

And of course, we know that homelessness represents only the most desperate marker of poverty and that many additional students in NYC’s public schools face economic challenges, which have been correlated for decades in the research literature with diminished standardized test scores and lower graduation rates.

My biggest fear as I read Shapiro’s story—which leaves a lot unanswered—is that school-reformers in the mold of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg will push for the return to an earlier era.  Based on the philosophy of corporate, test-based accountability, Mayor Bloomberg brought so-called “portfolio school reform” to NYC. The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.” School closure is the ultimate fate of so-called “failing” schools in a portfolio framework.

Portfolio school reform theory—operating across a network of America’s big cities and resulting ultimately in school closure—contrasts with the idea of continuous improvement as the goal for any human institution. What concrete steps can we take to help a public school better serve its students and families? And how can we correct as we go along to ensure that we keep on doing better?

Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Farina tried a  strategy very different from Bloomberg’s portfolio plan.  One intervention Shapiro’s article acknowledges they tried was  expanding investment in wrap-around, full service Community Schools as a way to support the students as well as overwhelmed and overworked staff at New York City’s poorest schools. Perhaps leaders in the school district hoped this investment would “cure” these schools, but I don’t believe advocates for Community Schools have never claimed that locating medical, dental, mental health, social service, Head Start, after-school and summer programs at a school will immediately turn around test scores and graduation rates.  Community Schools are designed to support families and children and thereby ensure that the school’s students are able to be more engaged in the school’s academic program.  Here are the pillars of a full-service Community School: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and collaborative leadership; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement. One Community School I visited several years ago in NYC is a model developed by the Children’s Aid Society. It is a school where the principal of the school works in partnership with the community school director to coordinate the work of a strong academic staff with a staff of social and medical service providers and to engage the parents and children in a wealth of wraparound supports and enrichments.

Here are some questions Shapiro’s article raises:

  • With the size of the NYC Public Schools (1.1 million students) and the scale of family poverty in NYC, what would it take adequately to support the principals and teachers in schools serving masses of children who struggle with poverty and homelessness? Why is our society unwilling to consider the scale of investment that would be necessary to make a dent in child poverty? Two weeks ago in her report on NYC’s alarming family homelessness, Shapiro explained that the city has invested million of dollars in new services for homeless students—to achieve, for example, a ratio of one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students and to provide school bus transportation for children who previously were trying to navigate bus and subway rides from a succession of shelters to their home school which may now be in a distant borough. But it clearly isn’t enough.  In her new report, Shapiro quotes Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson: “The Renewal school program wasn’t a silver bullet, but it sure made a big difference in the lives of kids and parents at improved schools that would have been closed by prior administrations. The mayor views the program as a foundation, not the endgame.”
  • Will policy makers in NYC eventually fall back on now-discredited interventions like school closure? Decades of research correlate metrics like test scores and graduation rates with family and neighborhood economic conditions and conclude that schools alone cannot be expected to overcome our society’s exploding inequality.  Lacking the dollars and sometimes the expertise for continuous improvement in a so-called “failing” school, Portfolio School Reformers are likely to prescribe school closure as a solution. But having watched Chicago’s experiment with school closure five years ago, we now know about the tragedy that is likely to follow school closure. Sociologists confirm that even struggling schools—the schools that are unable quickly to raise test scores—are important institutions anchoring neighborhoods and serving families in myriad unnamed ways. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research published research earlier this year documenting widespread community mourning after the Chicago Public Schools’ closure of 50 schools in 2013.  And just last month, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago published Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book tracing the impact of the 2013 Chicago school closures, with many of the closed institutions concentrated in the African American, Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing considers the technocratic point of view of Barbara Byrd Bennett, then Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, and contrasts Byrd Bennett’s reasoning with the voices of the children who were enrolled, their parents and their teachers who together explain the meaning of their schools. This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about urban public schools.

In New York City, if the Renewal Schools plan is floundering, the school district’s leaders must seek to better serve the students. Surely nobody wants the city’s poorest schools to fail. One hopes, however, that the future will feature continuous improvement, not school closure.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explains the tragic mistake of test-based, portfolio school reform theory in his essential book, The Testing Charade. High stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face overwhelming challenges:  “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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.” (pp. 129-130)

Advocates for Public Schools Have Good Reasons to Keep on Fighting Against Privatization and Corporate Reform

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis last weekend. This will be the last of a series of reflections on what I learned at that important meeting. Overall, NPE’s 2018 Conference proclaimed reasons for hope.

Neoliberal corporate reform just isn’t working out the way its proponents had planned. Diane Ravitch introduced last weekend’s conference by describing, “the slow, sure collapse of corporate reform.” “The facts and evidence are on our side,” she said. “We are driven by conviction and passion and not by money. Charters do not save poor children from failing schools. Charters are more likely to fail than the public schools they replace. Charters that get high test scores do so by kicking out the kids they don’t want. Evidence on vouchers is now unequivocal, and it’s bad…  High stakes testing has been a disaster for children of color who are labeled and stigmatized year after year… NCLB was a disaster. Race to the Top was a disaster…  National Assessment of Education Progress scores for 2015 declined for the first time in 20 years… Many reformers have been confessing that the reforms didn’t work. They know the evidence is not on their side.”

In a second keynote, the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg described the worldwide growth over several decades of privatization and top-down, business-accountability-driven school reform, the same policies we have been experiencing in the United States—and what he believes is the growing global rejection of such policies.  What’s been happening in our U.S. education system has also been occurring in Britain, Sweden, Chile, and Australia.  And it has been imposed by colonialist philanthropists and the World Bank in Africa. Sahlberg calls what’s been happening G.E.R.M.—the Global Education Reform Movement.  And he believes G.E.R.M has been contagious.  But it seems the plague is finally being contained.  Sahlberg lists G.E.R.M.’s symptoms: competition, a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability, addiction to reform, and marketization.  He believes that across the world, educators are convincing politicians of the danger of neoliberal G.E.R.M. and moving schooling back to wellness through emphasis on alternative values: collaboration, a whole child approach, expectations for teachers emphasizing trust-based responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement—not benchmarked achievement targets, and equity.  (You can watch Ravitch’s and Sahlberg’s keynotes in the opening session of NPE’s 5th Annual Conference here.)

South Carolina education law professor, Derek Black attended NPE’s conference and he describes his experience: “Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers?  In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before. I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people… Over time I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders… What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids it serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon… That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.”

Earlier this week this blog described encouraging community mobilization campaigns highlighted at this year’s NPE Conference—by the Journey4Justiance Alliance across America’s big cities and in Wisconsin to restore the state’s historic commitment to its public schools after Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack beginning in 2011.

Beyond the Network for Public Education’s recent conference, there are other hopeful signs in this election season.  After schoolteachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina walked out to protest the unspeakable underfunding of their schools last spring,  hundreds of teachers are running for seats in their state legislatures. No matter what happens on November 6, these teachers succeeded in making the wonkish annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the conventional wisdom. School funding across the states was devastated during the Great Recession and it has a long way to go before it recovers—especially in the states which have continued, according to the discredited orthodoxy of supply side economics, to slash taxes.  Teachers have shown us—by telling us the widespread story of their collapsed salaries, their overcrowded classes of 40 and 50 students, their crumbling classrooms, and the growing recruitment of foreign teachers willing to work for much less—that our society has abandoned not only our teachers but also our children.

And we have learned from Save Our Schools Arizona that a state cannot give Education Savings Account debit cards to a vast number of families to buy a series of discrete educational services in the marketplace and still have enough money to pay a living wage to teachers and have a system of public education. The SOS Arizona ballot issue to defeat the expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts has made it through a series of Koch-funded court challenges, and will appear on the November 6 ballot.

One final encouraging note: Betsy DeVos is so utterly controversial that she has herself become a widespread feature of Democratic political attack ads—as a symbol of what’s wrong in our society today.  In this 2018 election season DeVos has become a focus of ad buys by Democrats on television and across social media. Under the headline “DeVos Used as a Villain to Rally Democrats in Midterm Ads,” POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reports: “While Republicans hammer on fears of immigrants and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, Democrats have been using DeVos as a symbol of what’s wrong with Trump policies—mentioning her in more than $3 million worth of TV ads that aired more than 6,200 times, according to data provided to POLITICO by Advertising Analytics.  The analysis included ads during Democratic primaries earlier this year as well as those being aired in general election contests.  Democratic strategists say DeVos resonates with base voters because she’s perceived as an opponent of public education and a billionaire who’s out of touch. ‘Betsy DeVos is basically the embodiment of everything that Democrats were afraid the Trump administration was going to be—from right-wing fanaticism to blatant conflicts of interest to laughable stuff like owning however many yachts she has,’ sad Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive.”

Those of us who support public education—publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly operated under laws that protect students’ rights and the public interest—have reasons to keep on keeping on.

Drilling Down into the “Grading the States” Report on School Privatization

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I have been posting  reflections about what I learned at this important meeting.

One of the most fascinating workshops at the conference explored the complexity of researching the groundbreaking, June 2018 report, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools, and the importance of the report, the first comprehensive effort to track and compare the growth of privatization and the characteristics of state vouchers and charters. The report, a collaboration of the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, defines its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers.  This is not an assessment of the overall quality of the public education system in the state—rather it is an analysis of the laws that support privatized alternatives to public schools.” (emphasis in the original)

The primary assumption of a report about the privatization of education but whose title incorporates these words, “a report card on our nation’s commitment to public schools,” is that the growth of several privatized education sectors at public expense—charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits and education savings accounts—reflects diminishing commitment to the inclusive mission of public education.  Sure enough, the report confirms that assumption, most clearly in the diversion of tax funds away from public schools: “Vouchers and charters do not decrease education costs, but instead divert tax dollars ordinarily directed to public schools thus limiting the capacity of public schools to educate the remaining students.”

Last weekend’s workshop featured three speakers: the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), Dr. Carol Burris, who was one of the report’s researchers; Tanya Clay House, the report’s primary author and researcher—also an attorney and consultant who has previously served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, the Director of Public Policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Public Policy Director at People for the American Way; and Derek Black, an attorney and professor of school finance law at the University of South Carolina.

At last weekend’s workshop, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris recounted the story of their plan nearly a year ago for a two or three months’ research project that grew and grew until more than half a year had passed.  Both are sophisticated researchers, and Clay House has connections within the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. They discovered, however, as they explored the enabling legislation across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, that even in instances when requirements for transparency and record-keeping were clear in the laws states had passed, a number of states had not complied with their own rules requiring documentation. They also discovered that much of the state-by-state legislation enabling charters and vouchers does not require transparent, longitudinal record-keeping.

After looking at data kept by the National Conference of State Legislators and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, Clay House and Burris found some of the most comprehensive records kept by organizations whose mission is the expansion and promotion of school privatization, for example: the Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Charter Law Database; the (libertarian) Institute for Justice; the EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for School Choice) School Choice Constitutionality Database; EdChoice’s School Choice in America Dashboard; and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization) School Choice in America: Interactive Map.  Take a look at the Appendix of the Grading the States report. When the report was released in June, I looked at its conclusions, but until I was directed there by Burris and Clay House, I had had not explored the implications of the extensive Appendix that describes the sources for the data.

As a participant in last weekend’s workshop, I was fascinated, as Burris and Clay House described the difficulties they faced as they tried to collect the most basic data about what is now nearly 20 years of expanding school privatization. The two women told of one data set they had assumed the report would cover only to be forced to omit that issue from the report because the the records had not been kept by enough states to make it possible to draw any comprehensive or meaningful conclusion.  What became clear to me as I listened is that the promoters of school privatization trusted their own ideological belief that the marketplace would provide its own accountability. They assumed that as parents voted with their feet, parents themselves would identify high quality schools and seek them out; then schools of poor quality would not be marketable. Of course we know from research in Chicago and New Orleans  and elsewhere that parents choose schools for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with school quality—a site near home or work, the presence of a childcare or after-school program, the reputation of the football team, the advertising on the side of the bus, the incentive of the gift of a computer upon enrollment.  Several years ago, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO),  shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

The third presenter in the NPE workshop was Derek Black, a civil rights attorney and school finance professor who explored what he believes is the overall significance of the Grading the States report. I was unable to capture verbatim Derek Black’s comments at the workshop, but in a blog post when the Grading the States report was published in June, Black made the same points in eloquent detail: “The report is, in many respects, the one I have been waiting for.  It fills in key facts that have been missing from the public debate and will help move it in a more positive direction.  In my forthcoming article, Preferencing Educational Choice: The Constitutional Limits, I also attempt to reframe the analysis of charter schools and vouchers, arguing that there are a handful of categorical ways in which states have actually created statutory preferences for charters and vouchers in relation to traditional public schools.  I explain why a statutory preference for these choice programs contradicts states’ constitutional obligations in regard to education… My research, however, analyzes the issues from a relatively high level of abstraction, highlighting problematic examples in particular states and districts and synthesizing constitutional principles from various states. This new report drills down into the facts in a way I have never seen before.  It systematically examines charter and voucher laws in each state with a standardized methodology aimed at identifying the extent to which each state’s laws represent a de-commitment to public education.”

Black continues: “Each year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) releases a report detailing charter school laws, with the frame of reference being the extent to which states have laws that promote the expansion of charters. The report normatively assumes that charter schools are good and state laws that overly restrict them are bad… Because there hasn’t been any systemic response to NAPCS’s reports, it has been able to skew the conversation.  This new report brings balance.”

When the Grading the States report was released in June, this blog summarized its conclusions. Needless to say, I came home from last weekend’s conference in Indianapolis and explored the report in more depth.  Here is what jumps out at me as an Ohio citizen this fall, after I’ve been watching the fallout across Ohio all year since the state’s final closure of the giant online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, after it ripped off Ohio taxpayers and students for 17 years. The report examines charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to permit charter schools. Of those 38, including my state, earned F grades. The report explains they are “states that embrace for-profit charter management, weak accountability and other factors that make their charter schools less accountable to the public.” “Twenty-eight of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools… Thirty-eight of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers… Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services. Twenty-two states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.”  The details on the various voucher programs are equally alarming.

Thank you to the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris for digging up and reporting the alarming realities of school privatization. We must hope Derek Black and other legal scholars and litigators will be able to frame winning legal strategies to bring it all under control.

A Moment When Grassroots Mobilization for Public Education Is Making a Difference—Part 2

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I am posting some reflections on what I heard and learned at this important meeting.

One of the highlights at NPE’s Conference were presentations on excellent community organizing that is finally making a difference. Yesterday’s post and today’s describe two very different and encouraging initiatives.

What if parents, teachers and community united across an entire state were to insist that the state fund its schools adequately?  Well, advocates in Wisconsin are doing just that.  As a bit of context, remember that Wisconsin has the nation’s oldest and one of the largest voucher programs and that the Bradley Foundation, located in Wisconsin, has historically been among the most lavish funders of the school privatization movement that drains tax dollars out of the public education budget.

Today, however, the Wisconsin Public Education Network has been mobilizing citizens and pulling together a mass of local parent and advocacy groups around a unified, pro-public school agenda across Wisconsin. Executive Director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains: “The Wisconsin Education Coalition is the hub for education advocacy in Wisconsin. We are a project of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. Our work is supported by voluntary contributions of our partners around the state… Our partners don’t always agree on every issue or policy, but our common ground is always rooted in our deep commitment to the success of every student in every school.”  The organization’s website displays a map of the Coalition’s partner organizations—at least 39 of them across Wisconsin.

Launched last summer at the Wisconsin Public Education Network’s 4th Annual Summer Summit, the #VotePublic Campaign has invited, “all supporters of public schools to make public education a focus of all elections—local, state and national. Knowing where candidates stand on issues impacting our public schools is essential to electing strong supporters of our students. #VotePublic is also a challenge to hold our elected officials accountable for making votes that benefit our students and public schools once elected.”

The #VotePublic platform demands fixing the school funding formula “to prioritize student needs over property values”; working for funding fairness; restoring funding including the state’s obligation to meet mandated costs for special education; raising standards for licensure of educators and providing hiring incentives; making private and privately-operated schools receiving tax dollars fully accountable; and forcing the state to pledge not to expand the state’s already large private school tuition voucher program.

In Wisconsin, advocates have set out to reframe the political conversation. Besides spreading thousands of yard signs and postcards across Wisconsin announcing the campaign’s theme: “I Love My Public School & I Vote,” the coalition has packed its website with accessible information to educate the state’s supporters of public education. Posted there is toolkit with easily reproduced materials   There are also facts and figures and copies of public speeches and legislative testimony from the organization’s leaders.

And there are explanations and graphs including one that is particularly applicable for the Wisconsin gubernatorial election in two weeks. Governor Scott Walker has been trying to brand himself “the education governor” because the legislature raised school funding this year—a budget he signed. But the urgency of the need for more funding this year also reflects on his leadership, “In 2011-12, lawmakers reduced district budget limits by 5.5%, which resulted in an average decrease of $529 per student to districts’ budgets.”  Even this year’s budget increase won’t bring the state back up to its educational expenditure level before Walker’s cuts. The 2011 spending reduction was unprecedented, as was another Scott Walker priority—Act 10—the 2011 law to destroy public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Public Education Network is nonpartisan; it does not endorse candidates.  But it seems likely that it’s #VotePublic campaign could be instrumental in swinging the fall election to the other candidate for governor—Tony Evers, a lifetime educator who has, since 2009, served as Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction.

This is an encouraging moment when strong, well-informed local voices are pushing back effectively against the well-funded, multi-pronged attack on our public schools.

A Moment When Grassroots Mobilization for Public Education Is Making a Difference—Part 1

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  In the next few days, I’ll post some reflections on what I heard and learned at this important meeting.

One of the highlights of the Conference were presentations on excellent community organizing that is finally making a difference. Today’s post and tomorrow’s will describe two very different and encouraging initiatives.

What if city parents were supported in ignoring the glitzy brochures, radio ads, and even incentive gifts encouraging them to escape public schools and experiment with charter schools? What if, instead. parents were encouraged and supported to demand public schools designed to meet the needs of their families and children?  I found hope this past weekend in a workshop where the Journey4Justice Alliance (J4J) told the story of mobilizing Black and Brown parents to demand the kind of stable, quality public schools middle class children take for granted: no more experiments with state takeover, privatization, and school closure at the expense of their children. The #WeChoose Campaign is national—connecting and organizing parents across America’s big cities. For years, there has been a sense of confusion and despair as corporate reformers with big money swept in to seize governance and policy in big city school districts. Finally a moment of clarity and empowerment is being created.

At last weekend’s NPE Conference we listened as national organizers from the Journey4Justice Alliance and local leaders of their multi-city partners—Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization; New York City’s Alliance for Quality Education and Coalition for Educational Justice; Camden Parents Union and Camden Student Union; Newark’s Parents Unified for Local School Education; Pittsburgh’s Education Rights Network and One Pennsylvania; and the Detroit L.I.F.E. Coalition—explained how their communities are proclaiming #We Choose Public Schools: “We choose educational equity in public schools, not the illusion of school choice.”

The Journey4Justice Alliance (J4J) launched its #WeChoose campaign in February, 2017 with plans in at least 25 cities for press events, policy forums, meetings with elected officials, and direct actions along with a coordinated social media campaign. Jitu Brown, executive director of  J4J describes the campaign’s message which organized parents are proclaiming to policymakers: “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion. We have an evidence-based solution for America’s struggling, neglected schools.”

At NPE”s Conference, Brown presented a tight, pro-public education #We Choose agenda, developed from the bottom up through a series of over 30  local Town Hall meetings plus two national Town Halls which together reached over 200,000 people in cities across the country:

1.   We choose a moratorium on school privatization. “The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students, and community residents in America’s cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people.”

2.   We choose the creation of 10,000 sustainable Community Schools. “Schools that are successful… are grounded in 5 pillars: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and not punitive standardized tests; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement…. These are the interventions we recommend for struggling, underserved schools….”

3.   We choose the end of zero tolerance discipline policies. “We want an immediate end to zero tolerance policies expressed by out-of-control suspensions and expulsions and the over-policing of our schools.  We want resources dedicated to the expansion of full restorative justice initiatives….”

4.   We choose a national equity assessment to move toward erasing the effects of poverty. “America does everything but equity. Closes schools. Online charter schools. Zero tolerance policies to push out students. Creates a charter industry.  Puts a positive media spin on mediocre corporate education interventions. Anything but equity.  Equitable schools are spaces where inspiration happens.”

5.   We choose to stop the attack on black teachers whose numbers have declined rapidly. “A study in 9 American cities, Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., all noted a decline in the number of black teachers. All of these cities curiously are places where school privatization has taken root.”

6.   We choose to end state takeovers, appointed school boards and mayoral control. “We have a crisis in school governance. The overwhelming majority of state takeovers, mayoral control and appointed school boards exists in cities that serve primarily Black and Brown families… We need the elimination of these oppressive structures that ignore the voices of concerned constituents and grease the rails for politically connected charter and contract school operators.”

7.   We choose to eliminate the over-reliance on standardized tests in public schools. “Multiple studies have confirmed that standardized tests are an excellent indicator of one’s zip code, not their aptitude.”

In addition to the grassroots town halls, J4J has leveraged the #We Choose campaign by collaborating with national partners including the NAACP, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Advancement Project, the Badass Teachers’ Association, the National Education Association, the Institute for Democratic Education in America, the Dignity in Schools Coalition, Moms Rising, Save our Schools, the Network for Public Education, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools.

At last weekend’s NPE Conference it was exciting to listen as organizers from Chicago, Pittsburgh, Camden, Newark, New York City, and Detroit described successful local victories: expanding sustainable Community Schools; stopping the use of zero tolerance policies, including the use of suspension and expulsion of children in Kindergarten through 2nd grade; getting a local school district to adopt a culturally responsive curriculum; and successfully blocking the closure of local public schools.

This is an encouraging moment when strong, well-informed local voices are pushing back effectively against the well-funded, multi-pronged attack on our public schools.

Exploding Inequality and Poverty: We Got the “Failing” Schools Narrative Wrong and Failed to See the Real Problem

Two articles published this week make interesting companions.

The first is Jack Schneider’s post—published in the Washington Post as part of Valerie Strauss’s column: How Are America’s Public Schools Really Doing?  Schneider, of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, explores the fact that widespread public perception of America’s public education system tanked after No Child Left Behind labeled an ever-increasing number of schools as failing every year.  So-called failing schools were the ones that couldn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress on what we now know was a crazy and unrealistic timeline.  It became apparent, as the 2014 deadline approached when all public schools were supposed to make every child proficient or be labeled “failing,” that almost every school in America would have been received the label except that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education began granting the states waivers from what had become a ridiculous expectation.

Schneider describes what became a widely believed narrative: “(T)he emergence of this popular belief (in the failure of our schools) may illustrate the triumph of rhetoric rather than an actual shift in school quality… New lows were established in 2007 and 2008, as the failures of No Child Left Behind began to clearly reveal themselves, before confidence fell to 29 percent in 2012, the year the federal government began issuing waivers form NCLB’s accountability mechanisms… then to an all-time low in 2014, at 26 percent.”

Schneider shows, however, that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress in both language arts and math remained relatively flat, in fact growing very slightly between the 1970s and 2012.  Schneider concludes: “(I)t seems that national reform rhetoric has driven the decline in perceptions of school quality.  For the past several decades, Americans have been inundated with messages about a crisis in public education.”

Having rejected the narrative of widespread public school failure, Schneider reminds us that we do have an education problem, but we’ve chosen to ignore it as we listened to the wrong narrative: “But sweeping, large-scale reform is hardly the remedy for what ails our most vulnerable schools—the schools where our poorest and least advantaged students are all so often concentrated together. Disruption, which is so highly lauded in the private sector, is exactly what those schools don’t need. Instead, what they need is courageous policy addressing issues like school integration and compensatory funding… Instead of telling a largely untrue story about a system in decline—a story that absolves us of any personal responsibility—we might begin telling a different story: about a system that works.  It works to deliver a high-quality education to those we collectively embrace. And it works in a different way for those we have collectively refused. When a school fails, it is because we have failed.”

Schneider’s column is dated on the same day as Eliza Shapiro’s shocking story in the NY Times about the very students Schneider worries about, the students our society fails to embrace. The headline on Shapiro’s story is a shocker, although anybody who has noticed the price of housing in places like New York City or San Francisco or Seattle or Boston shouldn’t be a bit surprised: Homeless in New York Public Schools Is at a Record High: 114,659 Students. Shapiro explains: “Tonight, about one out of every 10 students in New York City will sleep in a homeless shelter or in the homes of relatives. That’s more children than at any other time since city records have been kept. In the morning, those same children will fan out across the city to go to school, some crossing multiple boroughs to get there.”  Here are some of the facts: “There are about 1.1 million children in the city’s public schools in total.” “There are more homeless students in New York City than people in Albany.” “At 144 public schools, a third of the children are homeless.” “In one Bronx school district, 10,804 students are homeless.” “For every 1,660 homeless students, there’s roughly 1 social worker.” “(T)he number of students in temporary housing has ballooned to 114,659 students as of last spring, from 69,244 children in 2010.”

Shapiro explains that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city have struggled to address this problem which has overwhelmed the city’s institutions: “The city first earmarked $10.3 million for homeless students in 2016, and increased spending on social workers and other services for homeless students to $13.9 million last year, with the City Council pitching in about another $2 million from its own budget.  For perspective, the Department of Education’s total budget for the current school year is $32.3 billion.  The amount set aside for services pays for about 70 social workers—or roughly one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students. The funding also pays for more after-school programs and additional staff to help homeless families apply to schools. In addition, the city started to send students in kindergarten through sixth grade who were living in homeless shelters to school by bus in 2016.”  Richard Carranza, the NYC Schools Chancellor, has announced that the school district is “bringing this work under the Office of Community Schools to address key challenges students and families face.”

Homeless students are not purely a school problem, but our society has neither actively chosen to connect the issues around housing and health care and poverty that converge in the lives of these public school students nor considered how to address the families’ challenges outside of school. The children’s needs must, of course, be addressed by their schools. Shapiro describes Meghan Dunn, the principal of Public School 446 in Brooklyn: “Last year, Ms. Dunn said she got a call from a mother who was injured in a nearby homeless shelter and needed surgery.  But when the mother was forced to find another shelter, her four children, all of whom attended P.S. 446, had to figure out a way to travel to the Bronx to apply for a new placement at the city’s sole intake center for homeless families… Ms. Dunn sent one of her social workers to the shelter to help arrange a paid taxi ride to bring the injured mother and her children across the city, but the four students still missed several days of school. That was one of many emergency situations that Ms. Dunn said she dealt with that week.”

Ironically, although, “New York City is arguably the philanthropic center of the world… the philanthropic arm of the Frankfurt, Germany-based Deutsche Bank is the only organization that has given more than $1 million to specifically support homeless students in recent years.”