Valerie Strauss Wonders: Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?

Nobody knows, of course, exactly what Donald Trump’s administration will mean for public schools, but for a balanced and insightful analysis, I urge you to read Valerie Strauss’s fine column from the Washington Post, Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?  She begins:

“There’s a reason that people who care about public education in the United States are mightily worried about President-elect Donald Trump.  There are, actually, a number of reasons—all of which lead to this question: Will Trump’s administration destroy U.S. public education?  The short answer is that he can’t all by himself destroy America’s most important civic institution, at least not without help from Congress as well as state and local legislators and governors.”

Strauss believes that Congressional action last December demonstrated a firm rejection of federal overreach by Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education: “(T)here is no appetite in the country for intense federal involvement in local education, which occurred during the Obama administration at such an unprecedented level that Congress rewrote the No Child Left Behind law—eight years late—so that a great deal of education policymaking power could be sent back to the states.”

What about Trump’s idea of a $20 billion block grant to help states privatize education?  That is a real worry, says Strauss.

Strauss explains that today’s alarm among supporters of public education has been fed by what people have been watching now for fifteen years as policies of the federal government have in many ways begun to undermine the very concept of public schools: “That many people are worried that Trump could deliver a fatal blow to public schools speaks not only to his views and those of the people around him, but also to the past 15 years of school reform and the consequences of the policies promoted by… Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and waivers to NCLB. Corporate school reform has led to standardized test-based ‘accountability’ as well as school ‘choice’ programs—pushed in part by billionaires who have made school reform a pet project….”

According to Strauss, “Not all choice supporters agree on every topic—Obama and many Democrats oppose vouchers but support charters, while Republicans are big supporters of voucher and voucherlike programs—but the trajectory of increased privatization in recent years is undeniable under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  The growth of charter schools has drained many traditional public school systems where charters are located, and the charter sectors in a number of states—especially the for-profit charters—are severely troubled because of lack of sufficient oversight.”

What about opinion across the country? Strauss provides examples from last week’s election showing that voters’ views about market-based school choice are not in line with the educational philosophy of the person these same voters chose as our new president: “The irony of all this is that just as Trump is selecting an education secretary from a pool of pro-privatization candidates, voters in a number of states just expressed deep misgivings about unrestricted growth of school choice.”

Strauss cannot provide a firm answer to her question: Will Donald Trump destroy U.S. public education?  But her solid analysis of where we stand right now is lucid and very helpful.

How Organized Citizens Helped de Blasio Sieze Equity-Driven Public Education as Core Issue

In the spring 2014 issue of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s VUE (Voices in Urban Education Reform), Oona Chaterjee, associate director for New York City organizing at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, introduces a set of articles about how it came to be that mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, “elevated a comprehensive vision for improving the city’s more than 1,800 public schools”… including “many of the signature reforms fought for by advocates throughout the twelve preceding years of the Bloomberg administration: the creation of 100 community schools in his first rerm; supports for struggling schools, rather than school closings; reduced reliance on disciplinary measures that remove students from classrooms; and an accountability system that relies on measures other than standardized tests.”

It is easy to imagine that de Blasio, who became mayor in January 2014 after a stunning victory last November, might have created his public education agenda as a response to his years as a parent in Brooklyn or to his experiences while serving as public advocate, but in fact Annenberg’s spring VUE is a collection of articles about strategic and extended community organizing that pressured New York City’s mayoral candidates to react to a community-driven platform and to embrace or reject it.  In the spring 2014 VUE, it is very much worth reading pieces by two of New York City’s best community organizers—Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education and Ocynthia Williams of the Coalition for Educational Justice—and to read Oona Chateree’s interview with New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera.

But most fascinating is Billy Easton’s, Changing Course on School Reform: Strategic Organizing around the New York City Mayoral Election. Easton is the executive director of New York’s statewide Alliance for Quality Education, which, beginning in 2011, worked with the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the Urban Youth Collaborative, to develop a strategy to create momentum for the overwhelming rejection of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s educational philosophy.  The two year campaign was designed to culminate in the 2013 mayoral race.

The goal, according to Easton, was to establish a positive agenda to counter the corporate school reform that had become Bloomberg’s signature issue: “Bloomberg used the bully pulpit of his office, his virtually unchecked authority over schools through perhaps the nation’s most absolute form of mayoral control, and his own personal wealth to aggressively promote his education agenda… Bloomberg wanted a skilled manager to run the schools like a corporation, not a professional educator—hence three non-educators as chancellors… Central management staff included many non-educators with backgrounds as investment bankers, management consultants, and corporate lawyers.  Management authority was devolved to building principals with a sink-or-swim philosophy similar to that of corporate restructurings.  The entire system was aligned to drive up the test score bottom line… As one principal described it, ‘The profit margin in this business is test scores.  That’s all they measure you by now.'”

Easton traces the agenda organizers framed as a rejection of Bloomberg’s philosophy that school districts are run for the adults they employ, not for the students.  A new, and contrasting, student-centered counter-narrative explained that those running the schools under Bloomberg had utterly failed to focus on the concerns of the students—quality curriculum, arts and music, guidance counseling, supporting teachers, programs for English language learners—and had instead emphasized adult issues—“who runs schools, who works in schools, and what the rules are for employment.”

Two large  coalitions were established with a shared purpose and different tactics—one campaign that engaged the community around policy development and a second campaign that engaged the candidates and mobilized the grassroots.  The goal of the two-pronged effort “was to see the next mayor, no matter who won, implement policies that replaced the market-reform agenda with a student-centered opportunity agenda.  A secondary goal was that the next mayor should help drive a new direction in school reform nationally by using New York city’s bully pulpit to articulate a successful vision for reform….”

Organizers posted twenty policy briefs authored by experts, took them on the road for discussion, and invited hundreds of parents and community members to “vote for the recommendations that most reflected their visions for the schools.”  At events across the city, parents and community participants then pressed the mayoral candidates to “commit to pieces of it, so that the candidates themselves would be the most effective public advocates of the agenda—thus capturing considerable media attention and framing the political debate… We identified a few key wedge issues where the candidates had to take a yes or no stand, making it difficult for them to equivocate.  In January 2013, we called for a moratorium on school closings and co-locations… The wedge issue strategy was working by creating divide lines among the candidates and between the candidates and the Bloomberg administration.  Our issues, and thus the direction of school reform were emerging as central issues in the mayoral campaign.”

The coalitions that framed an agenda to expand opportunity in the public schools have pledged to continue using their platform to press the new mayor to continue focusing on public education:  “The real challenge is to continue supporting and pressuring Mayor de Basio to provide leadership on education reform that is as assertive as Bloomberg’s but with a wholly different agenda and one that is much more successful for New York city students.”

Excluding “Over-the-Counter Children” to Protect Elite High Schools

The first time I heard the term “over-the-counter” children, I was with a group visiting New York City, where we were listening to a presentation on school choice in New York from a researcher who used the term in an off-hand way.  We visitors looked at each other and someone asked, “What are over-the-counter children?”  “They are the children who don’t participate in school choice,” we were told.  “Their parents don’t fill out the high school application, or they arrive after the school year begins, or they are homeless.  They just come to the school and try to register.”

My mind jumped immediately back to January of 1960, when my family moved to Havre, Montana on a day that I clearly remember was 35 degrees below zero.  We spent our first night in the Siesta Motel because our furniture had not arrived.  In the morning my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to register me for the second semester of the seventh grade.  I was sent immediately to class while my mother went off to get us settled.

I was an over-the-counter child.  So were most of the members of the group at our meeting that afternoon in New York City.  We talked about that term, “over-the-counter children,” during dinner that night.  Isn’t that a derogatory term, a term that commodifies children—sort of like aspirin, something you can buy over-the-counter without a prescription? Shouldn’t parents be able to show up to enroll their children in school?  Isn’t that what “the public” in public education is supposed to be about?  For most adults across America, if we moved as children to a new place, our parents took us to school to get us registered.  I had not realized that the term had become an official designation in New York City until I read a report published last week by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform: Over the Counter; Under the Radar.  The report exposes shocking details about how these children fare in the system despite that it ignores my own concerns about the term itself.

“Every year, some 36,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as “over-the-counter” or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education (DOE).  These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade, and students with histories of behavioral incidents in their previous schools.”  The report explains that the challenge of placing such students has grown under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the number of zoned high schools where neighborhood students could enroll by default has been vastly diminished.  Under Mayor Bloomberg school choice at the high school level has become virtually universal.

School choice plans always do the best job of serving the students who understand or whose parents understand the way the application process works and have the emotional, social, financial, and linguistic capacity to learn the options and complete the application process.  In a report several years ago, the New School Center for New York City Affairs documented that a serious problem for eighth graders in New York City is that middle school counselors struggle to master the vast array of high school options, and anyway case loads for middle school counselors are so large that students who can best navigate the high school choice process tend to be those whose parents are able to guide them actively as they learn about high school options and fill out the application.

In the new report, the Annenberg Institute examines whether students classified as “over-the-counter,” who are assigned by the system to available seats, are being sent to high-scoring high schools or to schools with lower test scores and most especially to schools that have already been identified for school closure.  Here is what the Annenberg researchers describe in their findings:

“OTC students are disproportionately assigned to schools with higher percentages of low-performing students, ELLs, and dropouts.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 50 percent higher rate of OTC student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”  “Assignments of such massive numbers of OTC students can quickly destabilize schools’ instructional efforts and dismantle long-established, supportive academic cultures.”  And finally, as New York City has begun phasing out large comprehensive high schools, “During each year of the phase-out process, teachers and support staff leave as the closing school’s student population declines… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out schools, the OTC assignment rate was more than 25 percent.”   The scathing report charges that the New York City Public Schools continue to assign students classified as “over-the-counter”—students who bring enormous needs—to schools that are ill-equipped to serve them. The school district has been protecting the test scores of higher-scoring high schools by neglecting to assign high-needs, “over-the-counter” students to the more prestigious high schools.  At the same time the school district continues to phase out and close low-scoring high schools, where ongoing assignment of the most challenging students further diminishes the test scores and virtually ensures these schools will be deemed “failing.”

The Annenberg Institute report is particularly timely this week in the context of the emergence of an intense conversation in the blogosphere about the morality of what has become a national, corporatized school reform strategy premised on providing escapes for the students who are most motivated or whose parents can successfully negotiate school choice to get them into high-scoring magnet or charter schools.  Michael Petrilli spawned the conversation in his recent post at the Education Week blog, Bridging Differences, The Especially Deserving Poor.  Anthony Cody pushed back, also at Education Week, in his Living in Dialogue post, Social Darwinism Resurrected for the New Gilded Age.  Finally Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute contributed to the conversation with Does “Poverty” Cause Low Achievement”?  I urge you to read carefully all of these pieces along with the new report from the Annenberg Institute.

Together these thoughtful reflections raise the central moral concern about today’s school reform that devalues all the many children who might be broadly described as “over-the-counter”—society’s least precious—the children we can discount because, we might imagine, they aren’t so likely to amount to much. Once educational opportunity depends on competition for choice slots, the most able children win while those who are most vulnerable are likely to be left out and left behind.  For a vision that lifts up opportunity for every child, check out the new Principles that Unite Us, also released just last week, by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and nearly one hundred allied organizations.  And consider the very profound words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Diane Ravitch Shares More About Jeb’s Chiefs for Change

The education historian and school reform muckraker, Diane Ravitch, is an avid blogger.  You can check out her blog at http://dianeravitch.net.

This morning she posts significant news for those who are tracking the corporate-reform/school privatization movement.  Jeb Bush leads the far-right Foundation for Excellence in Education, the group that launched the idea of having states rate their public schools with letter grades, A-F.

Jeb Bush also convenes the far-right group of state superintendents of public instruction, Chiefs for Change.  Notable until August among the Chiefs for Change was Tony Bennett, the former state superintendent in Indiana, who then moved to Florida as state superintendent.  Bennett was forced to quit in Florida two weeks ago because of a scandal going back his tenure in Indiana.  He had rigged the state’s A-F system for grading schools (the system he had himself introduced)  to raise the “C”  grade of a charter school founded by one of his biggest financial contributors to an “A.”

Other members of Chiefs for Change, all rushing to bring privatization and punitive accountability schemes to their states, include John White in Louisiana; Chris Cerf in New Jersey; Kevin Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s former husband who is the state superintendent in Tennessee; and the notorious Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’ state superintendent who fired the entire teaching staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island’s very poorest community and then went on to fire teachers across Providence as her school reform of choice.

Another member of Chiefs for Change was Stephen Bowen, school superintendent in Maine, until this week.  Ravitch reports his resignation in her post this morning, Another of Jeb Bush’s “Chiefs for Change” Steps Down.  Here is the post:

Another of Jeb Bush’s “Chiefs for Change” Steps Down

Stephen Bowen, state commissioner of education in Maine, announced that he was resigning his post to take a job as “director of innovation” for the DC Council on Chief State School Officers. He is the second member of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change to resign in the past few weeks. Tony Bennett of Florida was the other; he resigned when news broke about rigging the A-F grading system to raise the grade of a school run by a political donor.

Last year, Bowen was at the center of a scandal revealed by journalist Colin Woodard. Bowen was taking instruction and even model legislation to promote digital learning from Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. FEE gets subsidies from the tech corporations that stand to profit as digital learning expands.

Bowen previously worked for a conservative think tank in Maine.

The interesting aspect of this is the apparent transformation of the CCSSO, which was for many years a staunch defender of public education. Bowen clearly is slinger with the privatization movement, of which his mentor Jeb Bush is a prominent leader.

I Wish We Had Reached a Tipping Point in the Education Reform Conversation

Last Friday, Anthony Cody, the fine Education Week/Teacher Magazine blogger about justice for children and respect for teachers, wished aloud what public school supporters everywhere have been quietly hoping:  Tony Bennett’s Day of Reckoning Has Come: Is Corporate Reform Far Behind?  Cody hopes we are reaching a tipping point when political opinion will shift against high-stakes accountability.  Embedded in his blog post is an important film clip of Chris Hayes and PBS reporter John Merrow discussing on MSNBC the meaning of the Bennett scandal.  And today Diane Ravitch circulated a National Review critique of Bennett by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin; Ravitch hopes that even the far-right is beginning to see the error in accountability-based ideology.

If you are tracking the education blogs or if you are following scandals arising from cheating to make school rankings and ratings look good, you probably know about the school reform scandal that caused Tony Bennett, the state school superintendent in Florida to resign last week.  Bennett who came to Florida earlier this year when Indiana voters replaced him as their elected state superintendent, was exposed last week by an Associated Press reporter who searched Bennett’s e-mail to discover that, during his tenure in Indiana, Bennett lobbied for a change in Indiana’s A-F school rating system to raise the grade from a C to an A for a charter school owned by a powerful political contributor who had heavily supported not only legislators but also Bennett’s own campaign.  Bennett had brought the A-F rating system for schools to Indiana and added consequences including school funding, school closures, and state takeovers for the schools with low grades.  Valerie Strauss’s column from last Friday is the best I exploration I’ve read of the implications of Bennett’s resignation in Florida.

I’d like to hope we have reached a tipping point, but I think we have a long, long way to go.  Tony Bennett’s resignation in Florida has dominated the blogosphere, but I suspect it was neither gossiped about at coffee hour in many churches this morning nor discussed much over after-dinner coffee last night.

I know something about changing a public conversation.  My understanding is local, not national, but still relevant, I think.  Twenty years ago, after our inner-ring suburban school levy failed in May by a margin of over two thousand votes, I agreed to co-chair a levy set to appear on the November ballot.  We found chairs who recruited over 700 volunteers to go door-to-door to talk with neighbors and got those people trained along with a whole speakers’ bureau.  We established a letter writing campaign in which members of churches and synagogues and members of the faculty at universities and doctors and nurses at Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals and musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra personally wrote to explain the importance of the levy to all of their colleagues residing in our school district.  We secured and published hundreds of endorsements. Volunteers held signs on busy corners and held a parade.  Local artists designed the logo and the campaign literature. Hundreds of brochures were printed and delivered personally by the street captain on each block, and if we couldn’t get a street captain, sports teams from the high school and Scout troops delivered levy literature after we secured their parents’ permission.  Telephone answering machines were relatively new at the time, and we got everybody in the campaign to change the message to say, “I’m sorry I can’t answer the phone right now because I’m too busy working for the school levy.”  Nobody could forget the very simple message: “The future of our community depends on our schools.”  That  campaign produced 9,742 votes for the levy; 7,686 votes against, a positive margin of two thousand votes.

I learned that summer and fall that changing public opinion is possible but I also I learned the amount of work and disciplined focus required.  Something I worry about in the night these days is what will be required to change the national conversation about public education.  Are the reductive and often inaccurate A-F grading systems that are being promoted by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and its companion group, Chiefs for Change, the vehicle for shifting the conversation?  Can we accept Anthony Cody’s logic that the Bennett scandal added to the Rhee scandal added to the Atlanta cheating scandal added to the Rod Paige Texas miracle that turned out to be a lie will convince the public of the folly of corporatized reform?

How the school accountability agenda is being moved forward federally and across the states is pretty complicated even for someone like me who has spent a lot of time learning about today’s school reform.  Tonight I searched the internet to try to find out which states have adopted the A-F school “grades” as Chiefs for Change have encouraged states to do.  I found the following list in Lyndsey Layton’s August 3 Washington Post article: Florida, Indiana, Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and, in 2015, Virginia and Ohio.  My search also unearthed articles that appeared in local newspapers in each of those states, but nothing until the Bennett scandal that connected the A-F school grades across the states or to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education or Chiefs for Change.

In my own clipping file I discovered an article from page 21 of the  May 12, 2012 Education Week reporting that several states were incorporating A-F school rating systems into applications for waivers from the penalties of No Child Left Behind.  I cannot discern from this article whether the U.S. Department of Education was awarding points for inclusion of A-F rating systems. I do know that in many cases the A-F rating systems were included in proposals written and submitted by state education departments without democratic, legislative oversight.  These applications were submitted for a waiver program that has never had Congressional oversight.  Waivers are, after all, the U.S. Department of Education’s end-run around a Congress that has been unable to agree on the reauthorization of a deeply flawed No Child Left Behind.

In many states, however, corporatized reform has been enthusiastically embraced by legislatures and governors.  Defeating A-F school rating systems, a rush to charters, and the wave of new voucher programs washing across the states will require a mass of disciplined political organizing.

As someone who has recently taken up blogging, I am certainly not in position to criticize such work, but blogging alone cannot turn around the national school reform conversation.  Before the political will can shift, it will be necessary to agree on goals and strategy and to organize lots of real people to insist that state legislators and Congress begin once again to focus on investing in and improving the public schools in our poorest communities.  Building political will with that kind of disciplined organizing will be really hard work.