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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clueless Betsy DeVos Blames School Teachers, Doesn’t Get that Test-and-Punish Is Core Problem

After our new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Washington, D.C. middle school last week, she insulted the teachers there.  She said the teachers were “in receive mode,” and continued: “’They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,’ DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. ‘You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.’”

Let me point out that I have not noticed this “receive mode” among the teachers I know here in Ohio. Just last week Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), sent out a call for “activism now.”

Ohio requires far more testing than the annual test that was mandated by No Child Left Behind.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act  offers a way for states to develop their own accountability plans and a way to reduce—at least somewhat—over-reliance on test-and-punish.  Cropper is protesting the inaction of the Ohio Department of Education, which has just provided evidence that it will ignore the opportunity for states to have more latitude for shaping their plans for educational accountability rather than just have punitive sanctions imposed on them by the federal government. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “Ohio’s proposed new state education plan under ESSA… avoids making any changes in state tests or even any recommendations, despite complaints of excessive testing of students dominating surveys and feedback sessions across the state.”  O’Donnell adds that Ohio’s draft plan isn’t final.

Cropper castigates the draft plan: “This plan is devoid of an overall vision for education and does nothing to move Ohio away from a testing culture and towards a culture that is more responsive to the needs of children.”  Why, wonders Cropper, does the Ohio Department of Education intend to submit its empty draft to the federal government on April 3, despite that the state doesn’t really have to submit its final draft until September 18?  Is the state rushing this along to avoid public input and discussion?

Cropper urges school teachers and members of the public: “Continue your activism. Take the online ESSA survey now.  In each section, feel free to add whatever comments you might have about the topic, but make sure to include something that indicates that the plan does nothing to change our current testing culture and that the state needs to wait until September to submit so that it can be rewritten to reflect the vision Ohio wants for its students.”  She adds that the Ohio Department of Education will accept comments until March 6.

Bill Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding amplifies Cropper’s plea for engagement by forwarding an e-mail notice from the Legislature’s Joint Education Oversight Committee, which is also holding hearings on Ohio’s ESSA draft plan: “The Joint Education Oversight Committee will be hearing testimony regarding Ohio’s State Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  JEOC will hold two meetings on Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 2:30 PM and Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 1:30 PM in the Senate South Hearing Room. If you are interested in testifying please contact Haley Phillippi,  haley.phillippi@jeoc.ohio.gov or 614-466-9082 and indicate a date preference.” People wishing to testify should send their testimony to Phillippi 24 hours prior to the meeting.

The reason I was so amazed to hear Betsy DeVos criticize teachers as “in receive mode” is that, as part of a local education coalition in my own community, month after month, I listen to our teachers complain about the burden of testing and test prep on them and the students in their classes.  The teachers in our coalition were the people who demanded that we all read Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve, a plea for a return to progressive education.

While Betsy DeVos insulted teachers last week as “in receive mode,” in my community and my state, teachers are dismayed and up in arms about what they are receiving. Here in the words of Steve Nelson’s new book about progressive education—First Do No Harm, is the kind of pressure our teachers are irate about receiving from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Education: “Public schools all over America are judged by the standardized test results of their students. In many, perhaps most, communities the test results are published in local newspapers or available online. The continued existence of a school often depends on its standardized test scores… Neighborhood public schools are labeled ‘failing’ on the basis of test scores and closed, often to be replaced by a charter operation that boasts of higher test scores… What has occurred is a complex sorting mechanism.  The schools, particularly the most highly praised charter schools do several things to produce better scores…. (S)tudents  are suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than at the ordinary public schools in their neighborhoods. Several studies show that charter schools enroll significantly fewer students with learning challenges or students whose first language is other than English.” (pp. 68-69)  All this pressures school administrators to force teachers to teach to the test at all cost.

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

The teachers I know describe how they slip progressive projects and exploration in around the edges of the demands made on them to prepare children for tests.  They also manage to save enough energy to respond when Melissa Cropper of OFT asks them to speak up for a better Ohio ESSA Plan.  We must join them in speaking up.

We should also remind Betsy DeVos again and again that by reducing test-and-punish she could help everybody at school—superintendents, principals, teachers and children—escape education “in receive mode.”  If Betsy DeVos were honestly concerned that too many students are being trained and taught and instructed and that they are in schools that fail to emphasize deeper education—discovery, examination, problem solving, skepticism, curiosity and compassion, Betsy DeVos would be absolutely in agreement with the school teachers I know.

If Betsy DeVos really believed in progressive education, as Secretary of Education she could use her powerful position to support  teachers as they excite children’s curiosity and support their personal interests and development.

How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”

Lacking Experience, What Will Trump and DeVos Do to Rural and Small Town Public Schools?

I am fascinated by an article that appeared the Washington Post over the weekend: Where School Choice Isn’t an Option, Rural Public Schools Worry They’ll be Left Behind.  The reporters take us to East Millinocket, Maine, where: “The small parking lot outside of Schenck High School was crammed with cars, all there for the basketball game, the town’s featured event that night…  This small, remote high school is perhaps East Millinocket’s last and most crucial community pillar. Even before the local paper mill shut down three years ago, the town had suffered a stark economic decline because of the mill’s dwindling profits and the widespread poverty that followed. With a shrinking tax base and an aging population, Schenck High faces an uncertain future. Washington has long designed education policy to deal with urban and suburban challenges, often overlooking the unique problems that face rural schools like this one.”

The reporters include a map of the 50 states that identifies six states where over 55 percent of the students attend rural schools: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Maine. The article explores this question: How will the Trump administration—which has promised its priority will be to enhance competition and school choice by expanding vouchers students can carry to private and parochial schools and by expanding privately operated (but publicly funded) charter schools—do that in a town like East Millinocket, Maine?  That is, of course, the question that Maine Senator Susan Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski kept asking during the Senate’s debate on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our U.S. Secretary of Education, and they both voted against the confirmation because they were not satisfied with the answers they received. Jose DelReal and Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s reporters, add that almost 9 million of the 50 million public school students across the United States attend rural schools.

I am especially interested in this article because, while today I live in inner-suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in a small town in northern Montana, one of the largely rural states identified by DelReal and Brown. My town of 10,000 people isn’t classified as rural, but within a hundred miles in all directions were the tiny communities where fewer than ten or fifteen students made up the high school graduating class every year. Even in my small (not rural) town, the schools were a central institution. High school basketball games were packed on frigid Friday evenings, and the high school football team played on a field surrounded by small hills and a sort of terraced roadway on which fans from the community (not just parents) would park to watch the games in their heated cars. After all, the temperature was sometimes below zero even in football season. While today, my husband and I buy tickets to hear the Cleveland Orchestra and attend plays at the Cleveland Playhouse or Great Lakes Theater, in my hometown, everybody bought tickets to see the plays produced by the high school, and students and the community alike came to the high school, the town’s only auditorium, to listen when Community Concerts brought a musical event to town. One time when I went for my regular checkup, my doctor congratulated me for making the high school honor roll, which at that time was regularly published in the newspaper.

Schools in small towns and rural communities may have trouble offering salaries that will attract teachers to remote areas. DelReal and Brown explain: “Rural schools have trouble recruiting and retaining good teachers and principals because housing is so limited, pay is so low and working conditions are difficult… Trump has decried failing public schools that are ‘flush with cash,’ but many rural schools—hobbled by a poor local tax base and weak state support—struggle with tight and often shrinking budgets.”  Neither can rural schools offer the kind of broad curriculum provided in the huge suburban high schools. There are real advantages, however. The students are known and cared for by the teachers who also live in their neighborhoods, and even people in town track students’ accomplishments. The superintendent of schools in East Millinocket, Maine adds another reality in his interview with the Post‘s reporters: “If you shut down schools, you destroy a town… There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”

So… what might a federal administration committed to expanding a school choice marketplace through competition do for a place like East Millinocket, Maine?  It’s not hard to imagine.

The online academies are the first thing that come to mind. These are the schools children and adolescents can attend in the privacy of their own homes on the computer. The U.S. Department of Education might dangle incentive grants for states to create competition in rural school districts by bringing in e-schools—perhaps even encourage states to save money by making online education the only thing available in areas too remote for the schools to be consolidated together or with a larger district. The federal grants would come with baubles—tablets and computers provided to students and enhanced broadband that would benefit not only the schools but also be available to residents in the region. Consider the marketing and branding potential of such a project.

There are a couple of serious problems, however.  The virtual e-schools we have today have proven themselves abysmal compared to other kinds of education. The students are not learning nearly as much, for example. Just a year ago, after several years of support for an experiment with e-school charters, the Walton Foundation’s education program officer announced that based on a major, three-part, Walton Foundation-sponsored investigation by Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the Walton Foundation would be seriously reconsidering making grants for online charter schools: “The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading then their peers in traditional charter schools, on average. This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states.  If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing. ”

Another problem with online charters has been epitomized by Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a huge Ohio virtual school operated by two for-profit, privately held companies owned by William Lager, a powerful Republican political contributor. There is evidence at ECOT of a serious online truancy problem. The Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT, which collected $100 million from the state in 2015 alone to educate about 15,000 students, needs to repay $60 million, because a lot of those students were not logging on for the state-required five hours per day—or even 20 hours per week. ECOT has argued that it is merely required by an old, 2003 agreement with the state to provide 920 hours of curriculum per year but not required to prove that students are actively engaged with that curriculum for 920 hours. Because the state legislature and the governor’s office and the elected state supreme court are all dominated by the Republican Party, and because ECOT’s operator William Lager has been investing regularly and heavily in campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans, it seems that online education in Ohio cannot be regulated effectively. The $100 million dollars, including last year’s $60 million non-recoverable overpayment for ECOT’s phantom students, is coming right out of the state’s education budget and hence reducing funding for the state’s public schools.

We can only hope that President Trump and Betsy DeVos, neither of whom has a bit of experience with public schools as a student or parent or teacher, will spend some time in these public institutions and pay some attention to their mission and their contributions to their students and to the vast array of communities they serve. The UCLA education professor and writer Mike Rose has made visiting public schools all across the United States and writing about these visits a centerpiece of his professional career.  In his little book, Why School?, Rose explains that public schools everywhere are embedded in the communities they serve—something impossible for e-schools: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, p. 216)

Rose’s perspective on the broader policy debates about education comes from reflecting on the time he has spent in public school classrooms:

“So much depends on what you look for and how you look at it. In the midst of the reform debates and culture wars that swirl around schools; the fractious, intractable school politics; the conservative assault on public institutions; and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose of the common public school…

“The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation—the feel and clatter of teaching and learning… Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions… Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life…. The free-market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance abut all things public…

“We have to do better than this. We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education. One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life I have witnessed. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language…

“There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good…. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, pp. 201-206)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh No! Are We Heading Back Towards the Scopes Trial?

Science is about empirically proven realities in the natural world and religion is about belief.  Stephen Jay Gould, the historian of science and evolutionary biology called religion and science separate categories of learning—“nonoverlapping magisteria.” We don’t question the scientifically documented theories about the spherical shape of the earth, for example, or the existence of gravity. But lots of people want to question evolution, even though scientific data have proven its truth, because it seems to conflict with the Biblical stories of creation.

A short, 2006, resource from the National Council of Churches explains how many believers in Protestant denominations respond to this controversy, including this statement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu about the Biblical stories of creation: “Those first chapters are much more like poetry than prose, replete with religious and not scientific truths, conveying profound truths about us, about God, and about the universe we inhabit.”

Many people worry that with the administration of Donald Trump, we are headed back into the pitched battle about the substitution of religion for science in our public schools—a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against the government’s “establishment” of religion. Valerie Strauss describes these concerns as characterized by Glenn Branch, a deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, who “said he is concerned that President Trump’s denial/questioning of man-made climate change and Vice President Pence’s denial of the theory of evolution could encourage state legislators to push through new anti-science legislation.”

Strauss describes a bill recently passed by the South Dakota state senate which includes the following language: “No teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established….”

To interpret this abstract language, Strauss turns to a public school science teacher from Sioux Falls, who believes, “that the bill says that teachers can essentially teach what they want in science class as long as they do it in a certain way: ‘(L)et’s say I believe in eugenics. (S.B. 55) says that I couldn’t be prohibited, I couldn’t be stopped from teaching that, as long as I did it in an objective scientific manner, and it doesn’t specify what that means.'”

Strauss continues, “The bill is one of four that have been introduced so far in 2017 in state legislatures—the others are in Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas—that would allow science denial in the classroom.  Since 2014, at least 60 ‘academic freedom’ bills—which permit teachers to paint established science as controversial—have been filed in state legislatures all over the country.  Louisiana passed one in 2008, and Tennessee did, too, in 2012.”  While the South Dakota bill has been introduced previously and never passed, Strauss reports that it has already passed the state senate this year and is awaiting action in the South Dakota house.

A spokesman for Betsy DeVos, who was confirmed by the Senate yesterday as U.S. Secretary of Education, tried to calm worries about what kind of science teaching DeVos might encourage.  Greg McNeilly is quoted by Annie Waldman for ProPublica as saying, “I don’t know the answer to whether she (DeVos) believes in intelligent design, it’s not relevant… There is no debate on intelligent design or creationism being taught in schools. According to federal law, it cannot be taught.”  In other words, McNeilly is aware of the prohibition of teaching about religion in public school science classes.  However, in Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, when she was asked about the First Amendment and the teaching of science, DeVos herself answered that she endorses science teaching that “allows students to exercise critical thinking.”  Waldman points out that as far as science classes go,”‘critical thinking’ has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design.”

Intelligent Design is an educational theory promoted by the Discovery Institute, which advocates Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution—the bedrock scientific explanation of the origin of the living creatures of the world.  Intelligent Design has been presented as a safer, non-religions way to question the scientific theory of evolution. After all, God is not mentioned.  Instead the Discovery Institute has promoted “teaching the controversy”  based on the conjecture that the natural world is so intricate that its creatures cannot have evolved, but must instead have been purposefully designed.

In 2005, a lawsuit in Dover, Pennsylvania, challenged “teaching the controversy” and a school district policy that permitted the teaching of Intelligent Design in Dover’s public school science classes.  Federal Judge John E. Jones concluded that teaching Intelligent Design constitutes the teaching of religious belief under the guise of science.  In his 2005 decision in case the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Judge Jones declared: “The Board’s ID (Intelligent Design) Policy violates the Establishment Clause.  In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious antecedents. Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.”

At issue here for conservative Christians is how the Bible is to be read—as a literal description of the natural world or as a reflection of religious truths. The Episcopal Church Catechism of Creation seeks to explain the difference: “Theology puts into words our rational and prayerful reflections on revelation. A theology of creation presents the Church’s thinking about the relationship between God and the world as it is informed by our understandings of Holy Scripture and observations of nature.  It seeks to express in human language the mysteries of this relationship.  It is not a theory about the universe but a doctrine about the God who creates it.”

Senate Will Vote at Noon on DeVos Nomination; Protests Continued through Last Night

Stopped by Senate rules from filibustering to delay the vote on a Cabinet nominee, Senate Democrats tried the closest thing to it yesterday and throughout last night: a 24 hour marathon of speeches against Betsy Devos, right up to the moment her confirmation vote at noon today.

Here is Kimberly Hefling writing yesterday afternoon at POLITICO: “Senate Democrats will take the floor throughout the day and night Monday to voice their opposition to Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary—a Hail Mary effort to convince one more Republican to join them so that they can thwart her confirmation.”

Emma Brown of the Washington Post explains further: “DeVos’s confirmation vote is scheduled for noon Tuesday. All 48 members of the Senate Democratic caucus are expected to oppose her, along with two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Democrats need just one more Republican to flip to defeat the nomination, and they are hoping their 24 hour speech-a-thon will ratchet up the pressure.”

Brown quotes Senator Patty Murray, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: “This nomination is dead even right now—on the razor’s edge… For the vast majority of people across the country, public education isn’t just another issue. It’s different… We believe that a commitment to strong public schools is part of America’s core. The idea that every student, in every community, should have the opportunities that strong public schools offer. This is a notion that is embedded in our values. It’s who we are. It’s in our blood.”

Anti-DeVos rallies took place over the weekend and on Monday. Here in Cleveland, Ohio, late yesterday afternoon an enthusiastic crowd of over 500 people assembled in front of Republican Senator Rob Portman’s office to protest his pledge to support the DeVos nomination. WKYC covered the rally and provides a good summary of DeVos’s record.

Teachers, parents, grandparents and citizens gathered to protest not only DeVos’s record but her poor showing at her Senate confirmation hearing a couple of weeks ago.  Some members of the crowd at the Cleveland rally were part of a group of 23 local and statewide organizations who—on January 9, even before her confirmation hearing—delivered to the Cleveland offices of Senators Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R) a joint statement protesting the Betsy DeVos nomination.  The signers, who included the Northeast Ohio Branch of the AAUW, teachers groups, a PTA, several local public school support coalitions, a band and orchestra parents’ organization and a local school foundation, declared: “Traditional public schools serve 90 percent—approximately 50 million—of our nation’s children and adolescents, yet Betsy DeVos has no experience with public education. She has never attended a public school, nor did she educate her own children in public schools. Neither is she a public school teacher… She has said that public education is ‘antiquated and frankly embarrassing’—‘a dead end.’  Ms. DeVos is a billionaire whose only experience with public schools is her extensive philanthropy that has underwritten lobbying to privatize public education” through groups she funds like the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, “a Michigan lobbying group founded by and supported by Ms. DeVos and her husband (that) blocked legislation in the Michigan House to responsibly regulate charter schools….”

While Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s Democratic Senator and a firm supporter of public schools, has declared he will vote “no” on the DeVos confirmation, Senator Portman shows no sign of following his constituents’ pleas that he oppose DeVos.  Stephen Koff, the Plain Dealer‘s Washington reporter, describes Portman’s constituents as “angry that Portman, known to many as a compassionate conservative, says he will vote to confirm her… Editorial boards have urged Portman to vote no on DeVos, an unapologetic champion of private companies that get taxpayer money to run charter schools, some with questionable oversight… Portman is not dissuaded….”

Koff interviews David Cohen, a University of Akron political scientist about how Portman’s firm support of Betsy DeVos will play with Ohio voters: “Until now, Portman has always portrayed himself ‘as a compassionate conservative who would break with his party if needed’  … Now, if he ends up voting for DeVos—the most controversial of Trump’s Cabinet picks because of her support of charter schools and lack of understanding of basic education policy—Portman will have a much harder time selling himself as an independent-thinking Republican. ‘Instead,’ Cohen concludes, ‘he’ll look like a follower who faithfully takes orders from Republican leadership and Donald Trump.'”

It is still worth keeping up the pressure on your Senators before today’s scheduled confirmation vote on Betsy DeVos at noon.  Here are links to the Senators’ phone numbers and here is an action alert from the National Education Association that you can personalize and send if you cannot get through on the phone.