When Traditional Public School Educators Set Public Policy and Speak for Public Schools, It Makes a Difference

If you are a proponent of the Jeb Bush-“Chiefs for Change” model of corporate school reform, you conceptualize school governance in terms of tough management overriding the interests of local educators who are said to be unable to handle the inevitable and often competing pressures within a community.  In its formula for state takeover of low-scoring school districts, Chiefs for Change prescribes: “unflinching” appointed leadership; the appointed leader’s absolute autonomy to control staffing, teachers, and school culture; the appointed leader’s capacity to demand and get results or fire staff; and the appointment of an “unbiased” third-party consultant “external to the school system.”

Traditional educators understand the role of public schools very differently. Working with a community and building collaboration are skills practiced by traditional school administrators.  Last Thursday, for example, the PBS NewsHour‘s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Tony McGee, the school superintendent in Mississippi’s Scott County Public Schools when Brown wanted to learn about the how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids had affected families and children in Scott County.  Superintendent McGee told Brown: “We had approximately 154 students across our district, mainly Hispanic and Latino… that were absent from school today.  And so we have started reaching out to those families to find out about boys and girls—where they’re at or how they’re doing—just making sure that they know school is a safe place for them—it can be a safe harbor for boys and girls—and that we’re here to care for those kids… We have a lot of organizations in Scott County that are deeply rooted into the Hispanic community. And so they came to lend support to our school people… and making sure that everybody felt safe… On our end, especially in the community and the school, we had no prior knowledge. And so it was—it was pretty—pretty shocking. It was really a tough day emotionally for our educators and students and families.”

There is an ongoing battle of values and language that shapes the way we think about and talk about education.  The current threats across several states of state takeover of school districts are perhaps the best example of this conflict.  According to the Chiefs for Change model, the school district in Providence has recently been taken over by the state of Rhode Island.  Texas now threatens to take over the public schools in Houston. In Ohio, four years of state takeover has created chaos in Lorain and dissatisfaction in Youngstown.  East Cleveland is now in the process of being taken over, and the Legislature has instituted a one-year moratorium while lawmakers figure out whether to proceed with threatened takeovers of the public school districts in Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.

Among the most painful situations this summer is the threatened closure of the high school or the state takeover of the school district in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a segregated African American community and one of the poorest in the state.  Michigan has actively expanded school choice with charter schools and an inter-district open enrollment program in which students carry away their school funding. The statewide expansion of charters and inter-district school choice has undermined the most vulnerable school districts and triggered a number of state takeover actions.  Michigan State University’s David Arnsen explains: “In Michigan, all the money moves with the students. So it doesn’t take account of the impact on the districts and students who are not active choosers… When the child leaves, all the state and local funding moves with that student. The revenue moves immediately and that drops faster than the costs… In every case they (districts losing students to Schools of Choice) are districts that are predominantly African American and poor children and they suffered terrific losses of enrollment and revenue….”

Benton Harbor—heavily in debt and struggling academically—has been threatened with state intervention like Inkster, Buena Vista, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights—whole school districts which were closed, charterized, or put under emergency manager control by former governor Rick Snyder.  Now the new Governor Gretchen Whitmer has threatened to close the high school in Benton Harbor or eventually close the district.

However, the State Board of Education in Michigan, an elected body with the power to choose the state school superintendent, has appointed a public school educator who doesn’t value the corporate, Chiefs for Change model. Michael Rice understands the role of public schools in a community. Rice, who began his tenure as state superintendent last week, was the school superintendent in Kalamazoo until his recent appointment to state office.  Bridge Magazine‘s Ron French explains the significance of Rice’s appointment: “As state superintendent, Rice is independent from the… governor’s office.  Rice was appointed to his position by the State Board of Education, which has eight members who are elected in statewide elections.”  “Having the state’s highest ranking school official come out against the (high school) closure could put more pressure on officials in the governor’s office and the Treasury Department to find a way to keep the high school open… Rice’s stance is also significant because it undercuts one avenue the state could use to dissolve the school district (which Whitmer threatened to do if the Benton Harbor school board didn’t agree to shutter the high school).  The state treasurer and the state superintendent can agree to close a school district if certain metrics are met. If Rice is a firm no on closure, that avenue is closed.”

French describes State Superintendent Rice’s understanding of his role in working out what has become a political crisis in Benton Harbor: “In an interview in his office on his seventh day on the job, Rice minced no words in expressing his position on the controversy.  When asked if the high school should close Rice answered with one word: ‘No.’ ‘We, collectively in the state, need to figure out how to stabilize Benton Harbor’s finances and academics such that (closing) is not necessary.'”  Rice continues: “There’s going to be a conversation around finances, and that’s the province of Treasury… And I’m not trying to force myself into that world.  That being said, there’s an academic component to it and I will be involved in the academic component of it.  As you can see, I have strong feelings about the importance of community, and about the importance of the strength of the community relative to its public schools… A high school is the center of a community.”

The Kalamazoo school superintendent has become the new state superintendent in Michigan.  In Wisconsin, the state superintendent of public instruction was elected last November as the new governor.  Governor Tony Evers calls the new budget he signed “a start” to help Wisconsin’s public schools recover from former Governor Scott Walker’s tax cuts and the budget slashing that followed. Governor Evers has lost no opportunity for sharing his support for the state’s public school districts.  He has showed up and presented keynote addresses at all five Summer Summit gatherings of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The LaCrosse Tribune‘s Kyle Farris shares Heather DuBois Bourenane’s  assessment of what it means to have a public school educator instead of a tax cutter leading the state.  DuBois Bourenane is the director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network: “Having a budget worth fighting for was such a welcome challenge… Electing a public educator to the office of governor is amazing for kids.  We have somebody who knows how schools work in that office, which is new.”

Once inflation is factored in, the public school budget in Wisconsin is still behind where it was before Scott Walker’s election, but Farris describes how Evers has begun to make a difference: “Evers used his veto pen to allocate $87 million more in K-12 public education spending than Republican legislators had intended. He increased funding for special education, school mental health programs, and per-pupil aid—and vowed to fund two-thirds of schools’ overall costs in the future.” And Evers has been relentlessly talking about the importance—for kids and for communities—of these investments.

When public school educators frame the education conversation around the public good, it is a reminder of the essential role of a democratically governed public system designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children.

New Report Decries Theft of Democracy in State School Takeovers

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is pushing back against the rush by state legislatures to take over the poorest schools in America’s big cities—in many cases to seize entire school districts—and run them without the oversight of an elected local school board.  Examples of such state takeovers abound these days from New Orleans to Little Rock to Philadelphia to Detroit to Newark, and recently, after the Alliance’s report went to press, Youngstown, Ohio. The new report from the Alliance declares, “(T)here is a different attack on minority  enfranchisement not addressed in the Voting Rights Act.  Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected governance is being dissolved altogether.”  State takeovers cluster in low-income, black and brown communities, the report explains, while across the United States 95 percent of school districts continue to be run by locally elected school boards.

In Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through State Takeovers, the Alliance proclaims: “This fall, tens of thousands of students are returning to schools that have been placed under state authority.  Elected school boards have been dissolved or stripped of their power and voters have been denied the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency and self-determination. In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.” State departments of education, ill-equipped to run schools and school districts, are increasingly bringing in enormous charter management companies to operate the schools now under state takeover.  While school choice is said by its proponents to empower families, parents in these now privately-run, state-held school districts find themselves disenfranchised and without leverage to shape their children’s schooling.

The new report traces the history of under-investment in these districts dominated by racial segregation and rapidly intensifying poverty: “Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act (both passed in 1965), public schools have never fully served low-income students of color. Our antiquated school funding system that relies on local property taxes to support public schools embeds inequities based on race and class. When the rise of manufacturing in northern cities attracted large numbers of African American families looking for jobs, they were met with housing discrimination and redlining that led to segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools. When manufacturing left these same cities, they were thrown into decline. The loss of jobs, and later, resistance to integration led to massive white flight, further concentrating poverty in urban centers and communities of color. Over the past twenty years, systemic inequality and economic and social apartheid have intensified the challenges facing public schools serving majorities of African American and Latino students. Instead of addressing these challenges with investments in schools, neighborhoods and good jobs, the last two decades have seen the rise of an education philosophy that argues that poverty doesn’t matter. School failure is blamed on families, students, teachers, district administrations and local control itself.”

Rising achievement has not followed for the children in the state “recovery” or “achievement” districts: “These districts and schools have not seen a renaissance in academic achievement, an end to corruption or mismanagement, or financial stability. But they have seen other impacts:

Fragmentation of political power. State control removes the power to govern schools from a locally elected school board with the authority to set programs and funding for public schools. Charterized systems are worse—each school or network of schools has its own (private, non-profit) governance structure, policies and procedures…

Loss of community-based institutions. By closing public schools, removing them from local control or turning them into privately-governed charter schools, the connections between public schools and neighborhoods have been dismantled. In many cities, children no longer have guaranteed access to a school in their neighborhood…

“Increased segregation. State-run districts, by definition comprised of “failing” schools, isolate and stigmatize students and parents. Charter schools have been shown to exacerbate already-high levels of segregation in public schools…

“Financial instability. The creation of parallel school systems in many U.S. cities is undermining the financial health and stability of public schools, and resulting in devastating cut-backs in services, staffing and academic and extra-curricular offerings.”

National organizations that lead the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools are the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Gamaliel Network, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and the Service Employees International Union.

This blog has recently covered the theft of democracy due to state state takeovers of schools and school districts here and here.