A Climate of Fear Makes It Harder for Children and Their Teachers to Consider Our History

We have all seen pictures in the news and listened on television to parents shouting at the members of their local school boards. The parents have been inflamed by a well coordinated campaign to infuriate parents about the teaching of so-called “divisive” concepts. I am alarmed when I watch this sort of thing. But I think being horrified by the theater and screaming at school board meetings or the laws being considered in more than half the statehouses to ban so-called Critical Race Theory misses something important.

It is essential to clarify exactly who are the extremists stirring up the controversy and how they are misrepresenting the American history curriculum in public schools.  But another perspective on the controversy has too often been missing.  What is our experience and our children’s experience when we learn accurately and honestly about the injustices that are part of the nation’s history?  Does it feel dangerous? Does it hurt us psychologically?

The National Education Policy Center does a great job of explaining how right-wing ideologues are actively sowing discord in our communities by stealing and changing the meaning of an old graduate school and law school concept—Critical Race Theory—which, in higher education, has been used to describe systemic, structural racial bias: “Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts. These organizations include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute…. The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-CRT narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

It is important for us to understand the role of the Manhattan Institute and Christopher Rufo and others who seek to distort our politics for their own political purposes.  I worry, however, that we are not paying enough attention to the educational consequences for our children, although several organizations have warned us.

In conceptual terms, the National Education Policy Center summarizes the educational impact of the far-right when they stoke the current controversy about the teaching of American history: “The anti-CRT narrative is thus used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by  members of marginalized groups.”

In a similarly abstract definition, the American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians summarize the controversy and condemn a bill passed last June in Texas: “Texas House Bill 3979—‘relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools’ and signed into law on June 15, 2021—prohibits slavery and racism from being taught as ‘anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.’ Such laws… risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn and seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements.”

These formal explanations are essential, but something is missing. The goal of ideological, far-right political operatives is to ignite a visceral emotional response. The goal is to terrify white parents and make them believe their white children will feel uncomfortable or guilty or sad if they learn about racial oppression in American history.  Many of these parents have been able to insulate themselves in mostly white communities and largely avoid considering people whose culture and life experience might bring different perspectives on our history. By creating an atmosphere of fear, the far-right seeks to further sow anxiety and division.

By contrast, in a thoughtful Washington Post column, Michael Gerson considers how studying history is intended to challenge our various parochialisms and, within the relative safety of the classroom, to show us, if we are willing to see and hear, the complexity of our society: “‘The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period’s participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries… Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them.”

Gerson also points to the new Texas law, but he examines precisely how the law functions psychologically to freeze teachers’ capacity to help children consider other perspectives: “The state of Texas—confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy—did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any ‘concept’ that causes an individual to ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.’  The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children—really the White parents of White children—have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their ‘discomfort.’ Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.”

Reading Gerson’s column caused me to think back to a community-wide discussion last winter (on ZOOM, of course) of Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning.  Black’s immediate topic is the danger of the widespread collapse of public school funding over the recent decade and today’s politically conservative (Betsy DeVos pushing vouchers) and neoliberal (Arne Duncan pushing charter schools) attempt to privatize the public schools. I was part of two small group conversations about this book, but on neither evening did participants find the greatest interest in the chapters on the current wave of vouchers and charter schools. Instead people wanted to talk about the chapters in the middle of the book that trace the development of the institution of public schooling during and after the Civil War—the demand for schooling by freed slaves, the expansion of public schooling during Reconstruction, and the convulsive aftermath in the years after Reconstruction ended n 1876.  Derek Black explores this post-Reconstruction  period when the formerly Confederate states segregated schools racially and imposed extremely localized school funding to avoid undertaking the education of Black children. Our discussion last year included African American and white participants; in almost every case, people were fascinated by the details in the chapters which covered what for most of us, at least, was a hidden history we had never been taught at school. Everybody talked and talked about what they learned from the historical chapters in this book. Learning this history just seemed important; it didn’t feel threatening to anybody.

We were appalled by much of this history, but it was also layered with something positive: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions… (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning p. 53)

There is a lesson from these history chapters in Derek Black’s book. What happened in history does, in fact, speak directly to our problems today. In Ohio we have been caught for decades in debates about the school finance provisions in our state constitution, and we now anticipate a lawsuit over the constitutionality of private school vouchers. Our community conversation last year made us more appreciative of the role of our state constitution and for the strengthening by Congress in the context of the Civil War of the protection provided by government for the rights of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

In his recent column, Michael Gerson observes: “A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.”

New Allegations Condemn Moskowitz’s NYC Charter Network for Possible Cheating

School privatizers have flooded the media with miracle stories about saving children who are lost in the “wasteland” of public schools until they are “saved” by a particular brand of charter school.  Entrepreneurial charter operators have hired expensive public relations companies to trumpet these supposed wonders to the press.  In New York City, Don’t Steal Possible, a half million dollar television advertising campaign sponsored by billionaire hedge fund managers was mounted to convince parents that NYC’s mayor was trying to steal the future of their children by directing too much money to traditional public schools and not to the expansion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools.

But underneath all of Eva Moskowitz’s glitz, we have been learning this year about ugly pressure at Success Academy charters on children and teachers to raise test scores at all costs.  The NY Times published a video (secretly made) of a first grade teacher insulting and punishing a little girl who became confused as she tried to explain her arithmetic (see here, and here), and we learned that another school maintained a “got-to-go” list of children the school intended to encourage to withdraw prior to the standardized testing date.  It has also been documented that Moskowitz’s schools do not “backfill” (a term commonly used in NY City charter schools) by adding new students when others drop out.  In this way, the schools can cultivate a particular group of higher-testing children who have internalized the schools’ harsh, zero-tolerance culture.

This week, however, Eva Moskowitz got more very bad press. Eliza Shapiro, a reporter for POLITICO New York has uncovered new and very serious allegations of intense pressure on staff, the likelihood that some staff have been cheating to ensure their students score well, and an unusually high turnover rate among teachers. Roy Germano, an ethnographer, was hired by Moskowitz “to study her rapidly expanding charter school network.”  After Germano turned in internal memos and reports in the spring and summer of 2015 that suggested teachers might be cheating, however, Moskowitz banned Germano from her schools and soon fired him. “While Germano did not conclusively prove that teachers were cheating, he reports multiple incidents of Success staffers informing him that Success teachers may have prepared students for specific questions on internal tests, allowed students to copy answers from each other, scored their own students higher than students in other classes, and pointed to incorrect answers on exams and warned students to rethink their answers. He compared Success’s data-driven, high-stakes environment to the state of the Atlanta public schools system when a widespread cheating scandal was uncovered there.  Germano also suggested that Success introduce measures to spot check and prevent cheating.” His internal report warned Moskowitz: “The credibility of the organization could be greatly undermined if a third party were to detect cheating among our teachers and leaders before we detected and began dealing with it ourselves.”

Shapiro reports that, “Germano’s reports and memo, along with a trove of other documents obtained by POLITICO—a separately commissioned internal draft risk assessment report, a compilation of exit interviews, and internal Success staffing records, among other documents—paint a picture of a growing enterprise facing serious institutional strain in the form of low staff morale, unusually high turnover, and the kind of stress that could drive teachers to exaggerate their students’ progress.” “Success principals—many of whom were teachers for only a few years before being promoted—are expected to have all the children in their schools pass state exams, and have up to 80 percent of their students scoring the highest level on the tests…. Principals are sometimes rewarded with 20 percent bonuses if their students do particularly well or improve dramatically on state English and math exams… although the network’s bonus decisions are not purely based on student performance.  And Success teachers are publicly ranked according to their students’ performance on tests.”  Germano reports: “When observing… classrooms, I observed instances where all the emphasis on test taking strategy may be sending the message that scores matter more than actual learning and that exceptional results are to be obtained by any means possible.”

Shapiro followed up with second report yesterday that further explores the documents obtained by POLITICO NY.  Moskowitz commissioned the work by Germano and a major “‘Enterprise Risk Assessment’ based on 14 interviews with members of the network’s senior leadership team” at a time when Success Academies anticipates rapid growth and expansion: “The expressions of concern come as Moskowitz aims to harness tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds to expand the network from its current 34 schools, serving 11,000 students, to 100 schools and 50,000 students over the next decade… The internal documents cited in this article illustrate some of the challenges that have already resulted from its early growth spurt to 30 schools, including considerable staff churn and uneven quality among schools within the network… (T)he risk most often cited by senior managers was the network’s ability to recruit and retain its existing staff, including school principals and top executives… In the sixteen months since the risk assessment was drafted, at least five high-level Success executives have left the network out of 20 total ‘leaders’ listed on the network’s website.”

As the network has grown rapidly, its capacity to manage data has “been plagued with problems.”  Staff expressed concerns in the risk assessment, for example, that the very expensive technology system the network has been trying to develop is “slow, not very reliable lack(s) basic functionality.”

Shapiro summarizes the incredible philanthropic dollars Success Academies has been able to attract from well known hedge fund supporters including one $25 million gift this year from Julian Robertson, but she also notes the charter network’s lavish expenses: a 15-year, $30 million lease in the financial district, a $567,000 annual salary for Eva Moskowitz (more than double that of NYC schools chancellor Carmen Farina), and enormous expenses to public relations firms including the Washington, D.C. firm of SKDKnickerbocker, Sloane & Company, and now Mercury, the same company recently hired by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to help manage press coverage of the Flint water poisoning.  Shapiro explains that Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter, pro-Moskowitz organization, spent $734,000 for the pro-charter, pro-Success Academy rally in Albany in March 2015, including $71,900 for beanies and $62,795 for matched T-shirts for the participants.

Although Success Academies is spending a lot of money to create the appearance of glitzy school reform and high test scores, POLITICO NY‘s important new revelations raise serious ethical and educational issues. I urge you to read both of Shapiro’s new articles here and here.

But my own deepest concerns about Moskowitz’s schools are captured in the video the NY Times posted earlier this year of a teacher’s cruelty to a first grade child and the follow-up description of the way Success Academies betrayed the hope of the child’s mother, living in a homeless shelter but trying to do the best she could for her daughter.

Bombshell Report Exposes Federal Failure to Oversee Charters

I was once in a meeting where Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared: “Good charters are part of the solution. Bad charters are part of the problem.” Unfortunately, Secretary Duncan has done nothing to increase federal oversight for the purpose of addressing what he called “the problem.”  A new report from the Center for Media and Democracy, Charter School Black Hole, exposes the U.S. Department of Education’s total abrogation of responsibility for oversight of an education sector to which it has granted $3.7 billion since 1995. The federal Charter School Program (CSP) awards grants to state departments of education to encourage charter school expansion.

Who’s in charge?  Really nobody: “The system insulates each element from accountability for what actually happens in charters.” The federal government has relinquished oversight to the states receiving federal grants, states which have then turned over regulation to  charter school authorizers in what the Center for Media and Democracy calls, “a classic example of ‘industry capture’ of the agencies charged with oversight by the industry they are tasked with overseeing.” “This is due in part to the way laws governing charters have been built by proponents, favoring ‘flexibility’ over rules…  Charters are policed—if they are policed much at all—mainly by charter proponents….”  “Theoretically, the charters are held ‘accountable’ to charter authorizers.  However, enforcement of standards by charter authorizers appears lax in many instances, and states have said they lack legal authority under statutes that created the charter option to demand compliance.”  “As a consequence, the public does not know how much federal seed money each charter has received and does not know how it has really been spent…” “Unlike truly public schools, which have to account for prospective and past spending in public budgets provided to democratically elected school boards, charter spending is largely a black hole.”

The Center for Media and Democracy gathered the information in the report through a series of formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the U.S. Department of Education as well as requests to the state education offices (SEAs) that administer federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants.  First CMD asked the U.S. Department of Education for a list of all charter schools that have received money under the Charter School Program. Only after repeated requests and many months did the Department of Education comply: “Finally, in late summer, the agency gave CMD a list of charter schools that had received CSP SEA money in recent years.  But, due to the poor quality of the format, CMD had to manually transcribe the list.”

CMD explains that the application process for federal charter school funding has never been public; hearings are neither held to share who is making the federal proposal nor to examine what is being proposed.  No one has the opportunity to testify publicly on the quality of the application being made by a state agency or a charter management company before the federal grant application is submitted or the grant awarded. “Without calling for broader public input, federal charter school bureaucrats accepted the word of state charter proponents that their charter programs had adequate controls for performance and against fraud and waste.”  “In the current structure, the U.S. Department of Education hears only from proponents of the charter school grant application and in this closed loop—unsurprisingly—it approves money to a state like Ohio based on formal submissions that praise it, in spite of numerous failures.”

The Center for Media and Democracy examines the role of federal Charter School Program grants in eleven states plus the District of Columbia: California, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Texas, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Wisconsin.  In coming weeks this blog will return to the information in the state reports.  Here is just one example— a taste of what CMD discovered as it surfaced information about poor oversight of federal charter school grants in Michigan: “(C)harter schools in Michigan received $34,997,658 between 2010-15 under the CSP (federal Charter School Program) umbrella, after the state was awarded $43.9 million under the CSP expansion in 2010.  (This discrepancy is based on appropriations amounts and cycles and other differentials.)  Almost half (139) of the charters in Michigan were subsidized in part by federal tax dollars, in the past five years… Since the inception of charters in the state (back into the 1990s), more than 100 charters have closed (108).  Many of them have closed due to lack of ‘academic viability’ (poor results) while others have closed due to lack of ‘financial viability’ (such as inadequate enrollment) and some for both or other failings… Another area of concern is that four out of every five Michigan charter schools are really being run by for-profit management companies…. Perhaps one of the most surprising takeaways from the federal information available about how taxpayer money is being spent or wasted is the existence of ‘ghost’ schools that never opened.  Out of the charters that were approved for CSP funds by the Michigan Department of Education in 2011 and 2012, twenty-five never opened…  The organizations behind these proposed charter schools were approved for a total of nearly $3.7 million in federal tax funds in ‘pre-planning’ and ‘planning grants…”

Ohio is another of the states covered in the report: “Ohio has been awarded a substantial amount in federal CSP SEA grants: more than $195 million between 2004 and 2015.”  At the end of September 2015—in grants awarded for 2016 or over the upcoming five years—the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $157 million to seven states, the District of Columbia, and eleven charter school projects across the country for the expansion of charter schools.  Ohio was granted the most of any state—$71 million—even as the state was locked in a political battle about establishing even the most minimal oversight of charter schools.  (Subsequent to the receipt of the federal grant, the Ohio legislature did pass a modest bill to begin correcting some of the most egregious problems in the states out-of-control charter sector.)  Aware of the state’s unregulated charter schools, in July of 2015, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced a bill for federal regulation of charter schools; some of the proposed bill’s provisions were folded into the Senate’s proposal for the reauthorization of the federal education law.  (Very different Senate and House versions of a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act have passed, but a joint version has not yet emerged from a conference committee.)

And last week Senator Brown stepped up again to provide leadership by demanding federal oversight.  Senator Brown joined Ohio Representative Tim Ryan to introduce a bicameral Congressional bill to regulate charters  through increased “accountablity, transparency, and community involvement.” The legislation would impose Congressional oversight over a process that until now has been hidden inside the Department of Education.  The proposed Charter School Accountability Act would require independent financial audits of charter schools and reports on each school’s program, mission, school discipline policy, student attrition rates, staff turnover, and data reflecting admission and recruitment policies and student retention.  The proposed bill would require states applying for federal grants to set charter school performance standards and to collect data on school closures and performance reviews.  It would also require state legislatures to establish state “authority to suspend or revoke a charter schools’ s authorization based on poor performance or violating policies,” and it would demand that states establish regulations to prevent conflicts of interest and implement fiduciary policies for charter school boards, treasurers, and staff.  The bill would also require states to seek parental and community involvement as charter schools are planned.

The new report from the Center for Media and Democracy confirms the pressing need for the kind of federal oversight proposed by Senator Brown and Representative Ryan. The federal government’s protracted failure to oversee it’s $3.7 billion investment in charter schools has been among the most egregious problems in Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.  While Duncan has been in charge for seven years as Secretary of Education, he has made no attempt to regulate charter schools; his clear priority has been innovation rather than oversight.  This blog has covered Duncan’s failure to establish adequate regulation of the out-of-control charter sector here, here, here, and here.