The Presidential Candidates and the Press: Missing What’s Important

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noticed something in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates so far: “Now it’s getting ridiculous: four debates among Democratic presidential candidates, and no questions—or serious discussion about K-12 education.”  She notes that Michael Bennet alone made a plea to “fix our school system,” but beyond that imprecise declaration, explains Strauss: “Some candidates made passing references to universal preschool, and moderators did raise college affordability and student debt.  But when it comes to K-12 public education, which many believe is the most important civic institution in the country, nada.”  Strauss blames the moderators, and I encourage you to read her pointed speculation about what they might have been thinking when they ignored our public schools.

The school superintendent turned member of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center, Bill Mathis also asks some tough questions of the press and policy makers, this time about the widespread and relatively unquestioned assumption that standardized test scores are a good measure for the quality of public schools.  While Mathis writes that parents, educators and students all seem to agree that other things matter at school more than test scores, he criticizes: “pundits and politicians who find it far easier to blame the schools than to confront our real problem… Poverty has a far greater influence on test scores than any other factor, including the schools. Poverty causes absenteeism, impaired attention, diminished social skills, lowered motivation and ambition, and increased depression… The state tests will not cure poverty but curing poverty will improve test scores.”

Lifelong professor of education and among our society’s finest writers about education, Mike Rose has also been worrying about the lack of a substantive conversation about what is happening in our public schools.  Rose has noticed the absence of the voice of professional educators in the traditional “high-and middlebrow media”—publications that “still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion makers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.”

Rose worries about who is doing the framing of the national conversation about our public schools: “When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor—medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion—we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics.  We rarely see this treatment of education.”  Rose thinks the absence of the voices the professional educators has constricted our vision, “For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like.  This economic managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education.  If the dominant language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.”

Rose quotes education philosopher, John Dewey: “The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.”  Rose continues: “I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery—or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach—what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars—move them to want to teach it?  How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them—and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students?”

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist also worries about the absence of what is important in our public conversation. Believing that Donald Trump’s presidency has degraded our politics and the way we talk about important policy issues, Brooks examines our current political dialogue more broadly: “If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal.  If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s.  If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.  But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.”

Brooks continues: “Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators are both materialistic wonks. Elizabeth Warren is a social scientist from Harvard Law School who has a plan for everything—except the central subject of this election, which is cultural and moral.  Bernie Sanders… is incapable of adjusting his economics-dominated mind set… The bigger problem is simply the culture of the Democratic Party. ”

Brooks lists five values this election ought to be about:

  • “Unity: We’re one people.”
  • “Honesty: We can’t have deliberative democracy without respect for the truth.”
  • “Pluralism: Human difference makes life richer and more interesting.  We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”
  • “Sympathy: We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.”
  • “Opportunity: We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life.”

I believe that Mike Rose’s concern is about finding space where educators can share broadly the way these same values can be encouraged and enhanced in their classrooms. And Bill Mathis would list these values as the central parts of a fine education that will never show up in standardized test scores.

If our politicians and the press really began to talk substantively about Brooks’ fifth value—opportunity, the educational conversation would have to get beyond Pre-K, free college tuition and college debt relief. Debate moderators would need to begin asking questions like the ones Valerie Strauss suggests: “Is it too difficult to compose questions that get at the heart of major matters confronting public schools?… How about: ‘America funds its public education system largely through property taxes, and federal efforts to close the gap between high-income and low-income neighborhoods have not bridged the gap.  Should there be a fundamental change in the way public schools are funded?’  Or: ‘If the Supreme Court rules, as it may do, that it is constitutional for states to use public funds for religious education, would you take any action as president to override that decision?  Do you believe it is constitutional for public funds to be used for religious education?’ Or: ‘Do you agree with any education move that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made?’  Or: ‘What is the most damaging step Betsy DeVos has taken, and how would you change it?’  Or: ‘Do you agree with Betsy DeVos on expanding charter schools, and if not, where is the disagreement?’  Or: ‘Can you name the three biggest problems facing K-12 education today, and how you would fix them?’ Or ‘What is the role of the federal government in education policy?'”

An inquiry that pays attention to Brooks’ five values would lead the press and our politicians to explore some of the deeper issues in our schools.  What can teachers tell us about the effect of the enormous class sizes we heard about as teachers struck last year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles and Oakland? What is the role of school nurses and what can teachers tell us about why their presence is so important? What sort of support for students is really needed at school in terms of social workers and counselors?  How much should we pay teachers and how do teachers’ salaries help stabilize a school’s faculty in a way that supports children and families? What can school principals tell us about how a library with a professional school librarian enriches a school or why theater programs and bands and orchestras are so important in high schools?  I haven’t seen serious consideration of the needs of children and their schools mentioned in the plan of any of the candidates.

David Brooks is right: “We need an uprising of decency.” And public education—a human endeavor as well as a matter of public policy—needs to be part of our serious political conversation—including the voices of the professionals who nurture and educate 50 million of our young people.

And, of course, there is that serious public policy question about school privatization that our Democratic presidential candidates keep trying to hedge. Most of them sort of support and at the same time sort of oppose charter schools—when they are for-profit.  And almost none of the candidates seems to realize that it is the management companies, not the nonprofit schools themselves, which are stealing away millions of our tax dollars.  This issue is, at its heart, also a matter of what I would add to Brooks’ list as the sixth important value we ought to be talking about: JUSTICE.  I hope that a presidential candidate will emerge who understands and can explain to the American people why justice cannot be other than systemic.  Any policy that takes from the many to serve a few—or that incorporates competition with winners and losers—cannot answer our society’s needs.  Public schools are the institution designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of ALL of our children.

High School Students Stand Up for Press Freedom and Public Education

A society’s public institutions reflect the strengths and also the faults and sins of the culture they embody. For this reason, America’s public schools that serve over 50 million children in every kind of community will never be perfect. There will be instances of mediocrity and examples of poor school administration and poor teaching. There will be schools stuck in the past and schools where there is sexism and racism—schools where poor children aren’t served up the kind of curriculum that rich children are offered—schools where families persist in segregating their children from others who are “not like them.”  We must expose the problems in our schools and surely, as a society, we are obligated to address our schools’ faults and problems.

But something else has happened in America as we have permitted advocates for privatization to capture our national imagination. How did so many come to view public schools as a problem?  How did we accept the terms “failing schools” and “failing teachers”?  How did we allow policymakers in our very unequal society to extol privately operated schools as a solution?  The education writer and UCLA professor of education, Mike Rose, demands that we be more discerning as we confront the “failing schools” conventional wisdom: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of the public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.” (Why School? p. 203)

After he spent four years visiting public school classrooms across the United States—urban schools, rural schools, Midwestern, Eastern, Western, Southern and border schools, and after observing hundreds of public school teachers from place to place, Rose celebrated the schools he had visited in a wonderful book, Possible Lives: “One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed, out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.” In the book’s preface, Rose reflects on the learning moments he witnessed during his journey: “The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. 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.” (Possible Lives, p. xxviii)  Later in the book, Rose continues: “When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, p. 433)

These days most of us do not have the kind of experience Rose acquired in four years of visiting public schools. Schools have been forced to worry about security and to lock kids safely in their classrooms. Most of us might think of what happens at school—if we think about it at all—only as we remember our own experiences, good and bad.

But sometimes, evidence of what students are learning finds its way outside the school and into the press. It happened last week in Lexington, Kentucky when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to town to participate in a roundtable conversation with Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who made a name for himself last year supporting a bill undermining teachers’ pensions.

At the roundtable conversation, Governor Bevin and Secretary DeVos were slated to discuss her new proposal for a $5 billion federal tuition tax credit, a plan that would divert federal tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers. There is no expectation that Congress will adopt DeVos’s new proposal for the tax credit plan she calls “Education Freedom Scholarships,” but she has been on-tour promoting her idea. We can presume she expected a sympathetic ear from Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year Kentucky’s teachers went out on strike to protest his education policies, and this year they have been staging sick-outs to protest several bills in the state legislature—one of them to set up a statewide private school voucher program. All year Bevin has been on the attack against the state’s public school teachers. Covering Bevin’s re-election campaign, Fox News describes Bevin’s political future as threatened by his persistent attacks on schoolteachers.

Governor Bevin’s roundtable conversation with Betsy DeVos might not have been widely noticed, covered as it was supposed to be by a group of invited journalists, but the members of the editorial board of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School’s Lamplighter, a public high school newspaper, received permission to leave school to cover the 11:00 AM event.  Despite “PRESS” identification tags, they were turned away at the door because they were unable to present one of the special invitations.  Instead of covering the event, the high school journalists did some thinking and some research, and penned a scathing high school newspaper editorial demonstrating not only the quality of their public school training as journalists but also their education in civics along with considerable curiosity about the meaning of their experience trying to cover what should have been a public event.

The Lamplighter editorial, No Seat at the Roundtable, and its high school authors became the subject of Monday’s Washington Post, Morning Mix column: “Unable to document the event, or query DeVos in person, they set about investigating the circumstances of her private appearance at the public community college. Ultimately, they penned an editorial flaying the education secretary and the Kentucky governor, accusing them of paying lip service to the needs of students while excluding them from the conversation.”

In their editorial, the students describe what happened as they encountered the guard at the entrance to the meeting they had set out to cover. Notice the role of the students’ journalism teacher and advisor to help them explore and plan their actions: “We presented our school identification badges and showed him our press credentials. He nodded as if that would be enough, but then asked us if we had an invitation.  We looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise. Invitation? For a roundtable discussion on education? ‘Yes, this event is invitation only,’ he said and then waved us away.  At this point, we pulled over and contacted our adviser, Mrs. Wendy Turner. She instructed us to try again and to explain that we were there as press to cover the event for our school newspaper. We at least needed to understand why were were not allowed in, and why it was never publicized as ‘invitation only.’  We watched as the same man waved other drivers through without stopping them, but he stopped us again.  Instead of listening to our questions, he just repeated, ‘Sorry.  It’s invitation only.’… We scrambled to get ourselves together because we were caught off guard, and we were in a hurry to produce anything we could to cover the event and to meet our deadline… After more research, we found mentioned on the government website that the meeting needed an RSVP, but there was no mention of an invitation.  How do you RSVP when there is no invitation?  On the web site, it also stated that the roundtable was an ‘open press event.'”

The Lamplighter‘s editors continue: “Doesn’t ‘open press’ imply ‘open to ALL press’ including students? We are student journalists who wanted to cover an event in our community featuring the Secretary of Education, but ironically we couldn’t get in without an invitation… Why was this information (the press notice about the meeting the next day) only shared a little more than 24 hours before the event?  When the Secretary of Education is visiting your city, you’d think you’d have a little more of a heads up.  We can’t help but suspect that the intention was to prevent people from attending.  Also, it was held at 11 AM on a Wednesday.  What student or educator is free at that time?  And as students, we are the ones who are going to be affected by the proposed changes discussed at the roundtable, yet we were not allowed inside.  How odd is that, even though future generations of students’ experiences could be based on what was discussed, that we, actual students, were turned away? We expected the event to be intense. We expected there to be a lot of information to cover. But not being able to exercise our rights under the First Amendment was something we never thought would happen.  We weren’t prepared for that.”

Before they wrote their editorial, the student journalists did more work to track the story: “We emailed FCPS (Fayette County Public Schools) Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.  Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders—educators, students, and parents.  Fayette County School Board member Tyler Murphy even took to his Twitter to satirize the lack of time DeVos and Bevin took to visit local public school educators. When we reached out to him via email to explain what we experienced, he responded: ‘If Secretary DeVos wanted a true understanding of our public schools, she should hear from the people who participate in it every day.'”

The students also followed up with journalists who were admitted to the event.  They explore in some detail comments reported in the local press about the event from Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Wayne Lewis, someone who endorses DeVos’s proposed federal tuition tax credit voucher proposal. They also report that one high school student attended the roundtable—a scholarship student from Mercy Academy, a Louisville religious high school. This student is quoted in the Lamplighter report: “I was the only student at the table and I was invited because of a scholarship program I was a part of in Louisville.”

The student journalists conclude their editorial: “The bottom line is that we do not think that it is fair to have a closed roundtable about education when it affects thousands of Kentucky teachers, students, and parents.”

The reporter for the Washington-Post‘s Morning Mix, Isaac Stanley-Becker comments on the students’ experience and the way they responded as journalists: “As their travails became the story, the students began to see the terms of the event as emblematic of the approach of the education secretary, who has been criticized as displaying only cursory understanding of the subjects in her remit… Still, they sounded an optimistic note.  Though they were unable to gain the experience they had set out to acquire, they had learned a lesson nonetheless. ‘We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary… We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.'”

The public high school newspaper editors of the Lamplighter exemplify education theorist Henry Giroux’s idea of the value of quality, universal public education. Commenting on the importance of what striking public school teachers—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Los Angeles and Oakland—have been trying to protect, Giroux writes: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy.”

The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated.

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

The New Orleans mother understood exactly what Benjamin Barber explains here: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Please Take a Minute Today to Call Both of Your Senators to Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP ) Committee’s confirmation hearing on Betsy Devos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, is scheduled for this coming Wednesday, January 11.

Today I am privileged to be part of a small group who will deliver a statement from a number of organizations to the local offices here in Cleveland of U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.  I am delighted we’ll have the opportunity to talk with a staff person in our Senators’ local offices about why we believe Betsy DeVos is the wrong person to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

This blog has covered extensively all the reasons why Betsy DeVos—a billionaire philanthropist who has devoted her life and her money to opposing public schools and lobbying for school privatization through expanding vouchers and unregulated charter schools—should not be confirmed to lead the U.S. Department that oversees Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Even if you have signed onto one of the many online petitions that are circulating to oppose the DeVos nomination, please make a phone call today to the offices of your two Senators. Tell the person who answers the phone that you oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. The staff people in these offices are counting the phone calls they receive to support or to oppose confirmation of each nomination by President-elect Trump.

Make the phone call even if your Senator does not serve on the Senate HELP Committee, which is conducting this week’s hearing. DeVos’s confirmation will come before the entire U.S. Senate for a vote.

The Network for Public Education’s Campaign to Say ‘No’ to Betsy DeVos provides a toolkit including the phone numbers of the offices of all U.S. Senators. In the Network for Public Education’s toolkit, you will also find a couple of short sample scripts to help you when you make the call.

I will share that when I asked my own adult children who now live in other states to make calls to the offices of their Senators to oppose the DeVos confirmation, they didn’t even accuse me of nagging. They attended public schools and graduated from a public high school to which they are very loyal. They are determined that Betsy DeVos must not threaten public education, the institution that has been so important to them.  They even asked some of their friends and colleagues to make calls.

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Push Increasingly Discredited School Policy

While public schools across the United States are the quintessential institution of the Ninety-Nine Percent, for years now public policy has been driven by the ideas of the One Percent. Nobody exemplifies this ironic contradiction better than the woman nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as our next Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She is the founder and chair of the board of the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, and she leads the All Children Matter PAC. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick lead the Great Lakes Education Project, the organization behind the massive growth of unregulated—and mostly for-profit—charter schools that are now known to have contributed to the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools. DeVos is also a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll describes the political influence of the Michigan DeVos family: “The DeVoses sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement. Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”

Here is Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: “(I)t would be hard to find a better representative of the “donor class” than the DeVos, whose family has been allied with Charles and David Koch for years. Betsy, her husband Richard, Jr. (Dick), and her father-in-law, Richard, Sr., whose fortune was estimated by Forbes to be worth $5.1 billion, have turned up repeatedly on lists of attendees at the Kochs’ donor summits, and as contributors to the brothers’ political ventures. In 2010, Charles Koch described Richard DeVos, Sr., as one of thirty-two “great partners” who had contributed a million dollars or more to the tens of millions of dollars that the Kochs planned to spend in that year’s campaign cycle.”

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are One Percenters, and both are proponents of the privatization of education —vouchers by which children carry tax dollars to pay tuition at parochial or private schools, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. States and the federal government, pushed by far-right politicians and advocates like the DeVos family, have been trying out both forms of privatization since the 1990s, long enough that there is now a body of evidence to compare the performance of privatized schools to that of the local public schools and to see how their presence is affecting the school districts in which they are situated.

For example, University of Illinois professors of education Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, researching the quality of mathematics instruction in public, private, and privatized schools, published a book (2014) demonstrating, that because public schools employ curriculum staff exposed to the best current research and because certified teachers are trained in up-to-date theory at teachers colleges, there is a Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage, pp xvii-xviii)

Even the proponents of school choice have begun raising questions. Robin Lake leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the organization that has made its name by promoting “portfolio school reform,” a theory that school districts ought to be managed as a business portfolio—shedding failing schools and opening new charters in an environment of perpetual market churn. Robin Lake went to Detroit in 2014 to observe how all this is working in the environment that has long been promoted by Michigan’s biggest charter school advocates—including Betsy DeVos. Here is how Lake described what she saw: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

And in Detroit, the DeVos family has helped ensure that charter schools remain unregulated.  Last May and June (2016) as the Michigan legislature worked on a plan to save the Detroit School District, made virtually bankrupt partly by the massive expansion of school choice, even Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed to the creation of a Detroit Education Commission as part of the plan.  The Commission’s role was going to be guiding the location of any new charter schools to ensure there remain quality schools in all of the city’s neighborhoods and to help regulate the worst charter schools out of existence. It seemed the plan would be approved  by the legislature until the DeVos’s Great Lakes Education Project unleashed its lobbyists and $1.45 million in political contributions to members of the Michigan House, who then soundly eliminated the Commission from the Detroit Schools’ rescue plan.  Believing in the power of the market as the sole source of accountability, Betsy and Dick DeVos purchased the obliteration of meaningful charter school oversight in Detroit.

Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, has watched as the School District of Philadelphia has been undermined by the rapid expansion of charters, just as Detroit has suffered.  He explains: “Take a look at Detroit — Ground Zero for education reform in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where the heiress has pumped millions into the political system to boost what advocates call “school choice.” The result is a broken urban school system where charter-school privateers have made big profits — aided by the failure of a charter oversight bill that the DeVos family spent $1.45 million to fight — and low student achievement has been locked in. Federal auditors discovered last year that an “unreasonably high” number of charters were among Michigan’s worst 5 percent of schools… The president-elect’s endorsement of a radical “school choice” agenda comes as the Philadelphia School District struggles to find equilibrium after a two-decade charter-school exodus that created massive budget holes and devastated dozens of fading neighborhood schools. During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to re-purpose some $20 billion in federal dollars for school choice spending, to be administered by the states through block grants. Now, DeVos will be the high-profile point person for getting that done.”

Even the bond ratings agencies have begun to consider the impact of the rapid growth of charter schools in big city school districts where rapid expansion of privatized charter schools has sucked money out of the traditional public schools that serve the vast majority of children, and especially children in extreme poverty and those with expensive special needs.  Chicago and Detroit are two of the districts where bond ratings have recently been lowered, but more recently Moody’s has been writing about Massachusetts, where, on November 8, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have expanded charters. In a new report, Moody’s celebrates the statewide defeat of Massachusetts Question 2 and in doing so expresses concern about the kind of school privatization that President-elect Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education have announced as their priority.  Shira Schoenberg describes Moody’s new report for the Springfield Republican: “Charter schools tend to proliferate in urban areas where school districts already reflect a degree of underlying economic and fiscal stress that can detract from a city’s ability to deliver competitive services and can prompt students to move to charter schools; this growing competition can sometime create a ‘downward spiral,'” the report stated. “A city that begins to lose students to a charter school can be forced to weaken educational programs because funding is tighter, which then begins to encourage more students to leave which then results in additional losses.”

Betsy DeVos has not always limited her school privatization activity to what is legal. Back in 2006, she helped David Brennan, owner of the notorious, privately held, for-profit, White Hat Charter School management empire to make an illegally large donation to the campaign coffers of Ohio legislators. On his personal blog, Steve Dyer, former Akron Beacon Journal reporter and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, describes what happened: “DeVos has a bad history here in Ohio. In 2006, she allowed David Brennan to launder campaign cash through her All Children Matter PAC. That led to the largest fine ever levied against a candidate or PAC by the Ohio Elections Commission — $5.2 million. By all accounts, that fine was larger than all fines put together.”

The Betsy DeVos nomination has received wide coverage by knowledgeable reporters. For excellent summaries, check out Kate Zernike in the NY Times, and Emma Brown and Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

Research Summarizes the Public School Advantage

A book like Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms from the National Education Policy Center—a compendium of two decades’ of academic research on today’s public school ideology, policy, and trends—is invaluable even for a non-expert, citizen-reader who just wants to get informed. After all, most academic research is published in the paywalled academic journals, and more specialized books are unlikely to appear in smaller, regional libraries.  There is a lot that I miss, even though I do a lot of searching around in books about education.

One book that I have always felt I ought to read is The Public School Advantage, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois. Here in NEPC’s new compendium is a chapter from the Lubienskis’ book—“Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education,” (pp. 365-391 in NEPC’s compendium). The Lubienskis conducted an enormous study of the practices and student achievement in public, private and privatized schools. Their finding: “Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service compared to schools in the independent sector.” The Lubienskis continue: “(O)ur analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning.” One reason people turn away from the public schools, they write, is simply that many believe that if people are willing to pay for private schools, they must be the superior model.

Other reasons people desire school choice?  “Obviously, some parents will prioritize safety…. Many parents consider extracurricular options or perceived pedagogical fit…. (F)or many families, finding a school that reinforces their values may be more important (religious schools)…. Some children enroll in schools that their friends are attending or where other families look like they do.”

What about the belief that expanding charters and school vouchers is a good way to boost achievement for the children our society has left behind?  “Although marketists believe that choice will open up opportunities for disadvantaged children, the data show that private and independent schools under enroll such students… (D)isadvantaged and minority students who are in most such schools are on average, no better served then they are in public schools, diminishing hope that private sector-based strategies have much potential to reduce achievement gaps between groups… Once we account for the SES (socioeconomic status) differences between the populations of students served in the different sectors, it is clear that the variables that differ between sectors are not significant predictors of achievement… The extended infatuation with vouchers for private schools, for instance, or the nationwide effort to expand charter schools, regardless of the thin empirical basis for these policies, speaks to the power of… belief to guide policy.”

The Lubienskis summarize a half century of economic theory and the role of organizations representing economists’ ideas to normalize assumptions about the benefits of privatization—Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and their neoliberal philosophy, and free-enterprise organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute. “When the traditionally centrist Brookings Institution began producing pieces favorable to private/independent models, as with Chubb and Moe’s seminal 1990 work, the agenda really moved into the political mainstream.  Now advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and the Alliance for School Choice actively promote evidence that they see as favorable to private and independent models.”

Philanthropists—notably Gates, Broad, and Walton—“have been instrumental in shaping the policy climate around education issues by providing political and financial support for pilot programs, stipulating particular policies from grantee districts, and underwriting researchers and research organizations that are predisposed toward their agendas.”  These philanthropies are underwriting think tanks that mask themselves as academic departments at major universities: “(T)hese major funding agencies have also directed strategic support to individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles… The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-voucher scholars and public figures on its board. Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”

What are the assumptions underneath the movement to privatize public education?  First is the belief in public sector failure.  Second is the belief that consumer choice ought to be a right: “This recasts the beneficiaries of public education from the wider community to a focus on more immediate chosers…. Fundamental to the theory is that parents are wise and informed consumers acting on behalf of their children, and many are.  However, much evidence suggests that many parents do not have access to useful information on school options.. and that such information—and the tendency to use it—is unequally distributed, with children most in need of better quality options least likely to have parents willing or able to effectively advocate for their children.”  The third assumption is that competition spurs school improvement. In response to this third assumption, the Lubienskis recognize a reality that is neither acknowledged nor examined by proponents of school choice: precisely because of their public mandate, public schools cannot cut costs to be competitive or emphasize the mere elevation of overall test scores as their sole mission. “(M)arket theory misses the fact that the multiple responsibilities placed on public schools as institutions created to serve common, nonmarket goals often require that they be shielded from the competitive pressures of the market.”

For me, the Lubienskis’ most important critique of privatization is their attack on the privatizers’ contention that school choice will expand opportunity by offering power to families and children who have heretofore been left behind. The Lubienski’s remind us that research documents the impact of peer effects on children’s school achievement: “Regardless of school type, having a child in a school with students from more affluent families with higher academic aspirations can have a beneficial impact on that child. Yet, choices based on such criteria can also lead to greater social sorting… As policy makers increasingly seek to shift students en masse from public to private or independent schools, or to privatize public schools, our analyses and the analyses of others indicate that such efforts can create a less effective (and more socially segregated) system of schooling.” “Even when they are working well markets can lead to inequitable outcomes, since those with resources are better positioned to use markets to increase their advantages and pass them on to their children.”  This gets at the ethical dilemma in competition-based school choice, a problem pointedly described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would 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.”

NEPC’s inclusion of this chapter from the Lubienskis’ book motivates me to locate and read The Public School Advantage.

Politico NY Sells Ads to Pro-Charter Advocacy Group but Fails to Label Them As Paid Ads

Even though I live in Ohio, every morning in my e-mail in-box, I receive and scan an update on news about education from Politico New York. I read it as a summary of public education issues surfacing in the state of New York and because its authors—Eliza Shapiro, Keshia Clukey and Conor Skelding—select and recommend a list of national stories about education.  As a blogger, I use a lot of tools to find current news.

Imagine my surprise when in yesterday’s morning e-mail newsletter from Politico NY, I found the following in a section called “TRACKING EDUCATION” as the second of several blurbs :

** A message from Families for Excellent Schools: New York City’s schools are divided into two separate and unequal systems – one for white, affluent children, and another for low-income children of color. But we can change that. Visit DontStealPossible.org today to take a stand for school equality. **

Then at the end of the newsletter, I discovered a similar message:

** A message from Families for Excellent Schools: 478,000 New York City children — almost all black and Hispanic — are stuck in a network of failing public schools. That’s more children than the entire Chicago Public Schools, and they’re trapped in a separate and unequal education system. Our leaders must do better – especially Mayor de Blasio. It’s time for bold action, not more of the same.

That’s why New Yorkers from every borough are coming together to take a stand for school equality. If you believe EVERY child in New York City deserves a quality education, join Team Possible today: Join us at DontStealPossible.org **

Both of these pieces are highly political.  Both condemn the New York City public schools and identify “Team Possible,” known to be affiliated with charter schools, as a fine alternative to the problems of public education. (I paste these sections into this post, because I cannot provide links; I cannot locate on Politico NY‘s website a cache of its daily e-newsletters.)

A lot of readers would skim such a publication without careful and detailed reading.  I checked my “delete” file and discovered that these very messages have been appearing in my e-mail newsletters all this week, but I hadn’t noticed them until yesterday, when it took me a minute to register what I was skimming over.  My eye caught precisely the same wording as the script in the television advertisements a group called Families for Excellent Schools has been running in New York City to denounce Mayor Bill de Blasio and the improvements that he and his chancellor Carmen Farina have been making in New York’s traditional public schools and also to lavish praise on the city’s charter schools, most particularly Success Academy Charter Schools, the charter school chain led by Eva Moskowitz.

Families for Excellent Schools, the sponsor of the television advertising campaign, claims to be a non-political, educational not-for-profit, though it continues to be very much involved in New York state education politics.  It appears that, besides paying for its television campaign, Families for Excellent Schools is also buying space in my morning e-newsletter, though you’d hardly guess these were ads unless you thought about it.  The newsletter is made up of bullets of information in the news about education; these ads are different from the other blurbs only because they begin and end with a series of stars.  There is no formal notation that they are paid advertising.

In a news story, Politico NY (the online news outlet that also sends around the morning e-newsletter) quite recently posted a report on its website about Families for Excellent Schools and its ad campaign.  The story declared: “Charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools is attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio in a television ad for the second time in just a few weeks, this time by targeting his K-12 education agenda.  The new ad, called ‘Reality,’ started airing on Friday and attempts to rebut the educational policies de Blasio announced during a recent speech… FES, which is closely aligned with Success Academy and its CEO, Eva Moskowitz, has been one of de Blasio’s most relentless antagonists over the last two years.”  So what does it mean when Politico NY‘s e-newsletter appears to promote Families for Excellent Schools?

This blog recently covered the very same television advertising campaign in a post, Plutocrats in NYC Wielding Power, Buying the Airwaves, and Trashing Public Schools Again, which explains: “Here is what Families for Excellent Schools is attacking in its new ad.  In a recent major address, De Blasio committed to extending school improvement well beyond his vast expansion of pre-school over the past year.  Well over 65,000 children in New York City are now enrolled in pre-K programs, including many low income children, even children living in shelters for homeless families.  The district is also engaged in the ongoing transformation of New York City’s lowest-achieving schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools.  In the recent address de Blasio promised to ensure reading specialists across the city’s second grades and access to algebra for all students by ninth grade.  He also promised that all of the small high schools created by Mayor Bloomberg will offer courses in advanced sciences and math.  Many of these schools that have offered a more personalized education have not, until now, provided a curriculum with enough courses for students to earn a Regents diploma.”

I urge you to read the entire blog post that explains how Families for Excellent Schools has been able to shield its donors to ensure that people watching (or reading) its ads do not know who is sponsoring them. The organization is closely affiliated with wealthy hedge fund managers, and has, to avoid naming its contributors and the limitations that might be imposed on their political giving, skirted the law that distinguishes nonprofit educational organizations from political advocacy groups.

This blog’s recent post suggested that readers reflect on the Families for Excellent Schools’ television ad campaign and, “Consider what it would be like to live in New York City these days with a bunch of wealthy plutocrats sponsoring political ads designed to trash your community’s public schools.  Mayor de Blasio has committed to making significant improvements in the way the city’s public schools serve over 90 percent of the city’s young people. What are a few rich friends committed to helping Eva Moskowitz grow her charter network doing undermining the public interest?”  This blog also recently covered Eva Moskowitz and her charter school empire so closely tied to Families for Excellent Schools in this post: Moskowitz and Petrilli Push Education Model Designed to Serve Strivers and Shed the Rest.

It would be easy for a reader of Politico New York‘s morning e-newsblast mistakenly to assume that Politico NY is somehow endorsing Families for Excellent Schools’ cause and that Politico NY is recommending that readers follow the link to the anti-deBlasio ads—just as readers are expected to follow the links to the news stories collected each morning.

I challenge Politico NY to re-format the publication for the purpose of distinguishing clearly and without ambiguity the blurbs designed to inform from the blurbs designed to advertise. Ads ought to be labeled as “paid advertising.”  And I wonder, frankly, whether a publication devoted to coverage of what has become a highly politicized policy war in New York, shouldn’t stop selling ads to the proponents of one side in that battle.

Jerry Brown and CA Legislature Demonstrate Support for Public Education in State Budget

Summer weather is being intensified by the heat of the state budget season—a time when, in too many places, the cost of tax cutting and privatization of the public schools is being represented clearly in dollars and cents.  And today’s attack on the common good is bipartisan.

A new report shows that New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the NY legislature have been the target of $13 million in lobbying in the past year to push the expansion of charters and a tuition tax credit voucher program—both hot topics in NY’s budget debate—with Cuomo leading the charge for privatization and vouchers.

Another report explores the impact of pro-charter school lobbying on the Democratic governor of Connecticut, Dan Malloy—money from people like Jonathan Sackler, who made his fortune producing Oxycontin at Purdue Pharma, and who is the founder of ConCAN (which is part of a nationwide, Sackler supported, coalition of far-right privatizers, 50-CAN). In an opinion piece in the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker explains: “Governor Malloy’s tenure has been characterized by denigrating teachers, vigorously opposing adequate funding of public schools and vastly increasing financial support for privately run charter schools…. Why would Malloy favor these questionable privately run schools over underfunded public schools?… The web of charter money is so thick it must have blinded Malloy to the needs and wishes of constituents from Stamford and Bridgeport.”

And  in the middle of the country, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican and radical income-tax slasher, was forced to raise sales and cigarette taxes to keep the state from going broke—the predictable result of his deep income tax cuts enacted last year.  No matter that regressive sales and cigarette taxes eat up a larger percentage of the income of poor people, Brownback had bragged about his adherence to far-right orthodoxy, in his belief that the income tax cuts that have left his state on the verge of bankruptcy will eventually grow the economy.  John Hanna explains in an Associated Press report: “Kansas found itself in such a deep budget hole because the tax cuts implemented in 2013 initially led to a steep fall in revenue that has still not reversed as much as Brownback had hoped.  For the fiscal year beginning next month, the state estimated in mid-April that it would face a shortfall of 12 percent of its general fund budget.”  Hanna explains further: “Brownback and his GOP allies managed to avoid backtracking on past reductions on income tax rates… Instead, they raised the state’s sales tax to one of the highest rates in the nation and smokers will be paying 50 cents more for each pack of cigarettes.  Republican legislators cobbled together a mix of tax policies to both balance the budget and attract just enough votes for passage, but it’s not yet clear whether they’ve created long-term fiscal stability.”  A number of school districts in the state had been forced to cut weeks off the school year this spring when the state suddenly was unable to provide funding that had been previously allocated and promised.

In this context, what just happened in California looks pretty encouraging.  Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature just agreed on a budget that increases spending for education at all levels. California’s state fiscal capacity continues to benefit from the four-year Proposition 30, passed in November of 2012 specifically to pay for education.  Proposition 30 increased income tax rates for joint filers earning over $500,000 per year and single filers earning $250,000 per year, and it increased sales taxes for four years by a quarter of a cent.

At least until the four-year Proposition 30 ends, California has the capacity to increase education funding, and the new  budget agreement does just that. As reported by John Fensterwald for EdSource, the new agreement between Governor Brown and the legislature adds $6.1 billion (on top of last year’s 13.2 percent increase) for general funding for public education through the Local Control Funding Formula: “That’s an average of $1,088 more per student for an average district, in which 63 percent of English learners and low-income children receive extra money under the formula.”  The agreement also allocates $500 million this year for staff development for teachers.  It adds over $1 billion over three years for career and technical education.  It provides $60 million in new funding for interventions to support toddlers who have special needs. It adds $10 million to increase counseling and tutoring for children in foster care. It provides $7.9 billion this year for community colleges, a $700 million increase from last year.  Finally it provides $4 billion for debt repayment: “This includes $3 billion for unpaid state mandates and $1 billion in the final repayment for deferrals—late payments that required schools to borrow money.”

Having frozen local property-taxing capacity in 1978 with Proposition 13 and, over time, reduced the state’s investment in education, California has desperately needed to increase its budget for education.  In 2012 just before Governor Jerry Brown pushed through Proposition 30, according to the Education Law Center, California was spending only $8, 218 per pupil (when the average expenditure per pupil across the states was $11,110 ) and ranking 41st among the 50 states.  In a commentary back in November of 2012 immediately after passage of Proposition 30, Molly Hunter of the Education Law Center commented on what had been the deplorable level of tax effort in California: “Not surprisingly, California received an ‘F’ on fiscal effort.  This measures the percentage of the state’s fiscal capacity that is spent on education.  California, despite its enormous economy and relatively high fiscal capacity, devotes a small proportion of its wealth and economic vibrancy to public education.”

California continues to face serious problems in education funding.  John Fensterwald comments: “The fat budget years for education are expected to level off with the expiration of temporary taxes under Proposition 30.  Surging revenues have enabled the state to pay back most of the more than $10 billion… owed to districts in past years…. But districts are still owed $700 million, and that amount is expected to grow post Prop. 30.”

While for years to come California will grapple with a legacy of disastrous cuts to state and local funding of schools, at least this year Jerry Brown deserves credit for leadership in talking about the need to fund public services that serve California’s children from pre-school through the K-12 years and into community colleges. His declared support for public education, with dollars allocated to prove it, is refreshing.

Orwellian Language Again: Info-Graphic Answers Your Questions about Democrats for Education Reform

It has perhaps slipped your mind, but beginning Sunday afternoon and ending this morning, a group of New York hedge fund managers and charter school supporters has been meeting at Camp Philos in a retreat center at Lake Placid, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.  The honorary chair of this event was Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York.  Governor Cuomo is not only the man who went before an Albany rally this spring to proclaim, “We will save charter schools,” but also the man who, we discovered later, worked behind the scenes with supporters of a well connected New York City charter school network to stage the rally.

Billy Easton is the executive director of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, a large statewide coalition of organizations that has been working hard for over a decade to help ensure that New York’s public schools are adequately funded.  AQE, as the organization refers to itself, has worked assiduously to ensure that New York lives up to the commitments made in response to a statewide school funding lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, only to be disappointed repeatedly by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been more interested in cutting taxes and supporting charter schools.

According to Easton in a recent commentary published at Gotham Gazette, “While backers of the corporate school agenda are proclaiming Cuomo as a conquering hero, public school parents around the state are protesting against him.  His policies have systematically forced classroom cuts every year he has been in office and have promoted a damaging culture of teaching to the test…  The organizers of Camp Philos are literally bathing in money from hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy donors that are ready to continue arming the Governor in his effort to push forward more corporate-style reforms…. Meanwhile, our public schools are barely scraping by.  Year after year, school districts across the state have been through an endless cycle of classroom cuts that have resulted in shrinking opportunities for students.”

In honor of Camp Philos, late last week Easton’s organization, AQE, and its allies put together an info-graphic to help us all connect the dots among Camp Philos’s sponsors, their allies, and the people who spent $1,000 to attend the three day event ($2,500 for VIP attendees).  The info-graphic is helpful because you may have wondered about the involvement of hedge fund managers in the promotion of charter schools.  You may have wondered about Democrats for Education Reform, that has chosen a name that sounds progressive but instead promotes school privatization and works with the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos and her pro-voucher American Federation for Children.  And you may not have been able to figure out that Education Reform Now (the group that just last month spent nearly $5 million for TV ads supporting Success Academy Charter Network’s right to co-locate three charter schools into New York City public school buildings) is the 501(c)(3) arm of Democrats for Education Reform.  And maybe you thought Democrats for Education Reform couldn’t touch public schools in your state because it is only a New York organization, but you didn’t realize that DFER, as it is called for short, has also been spending huge amounts to impact state and local elections across the country.

This info-graphic, Democrats (In Name Only) for Education Reform,  along with the links it provides to background material, will establish DFER clearly in your memory and straighten out any misconceptions you may have about what this organization really stands for.

Important Reading: Mike Rose Has Revised and Expanded “Why School?”

Mike Rose, UCLA professor and author of a series of books that champion public education, opportunity, equity, and excellent teaching, has just published a revised and expanded, 2014 edition of Why School?.

Why School? is a  philosophy of education, a reflection on  the public role of our schools and our responsibility to these schools as members of the public.  Rose writes:  “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.  Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.”  “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 loses its civic heart.”

In the 2014 edition, Rose has revised, updated, and expanded Why School?   It now addresses the impact of President Obama’s Race to the Top program and other federal programs that have emerged since 2009—including problems with the waivers now being granted to address the lingering effects of the the No Child Left Behind Act, long over-due for reauthorization.  A much expanded chapter on standards and accountability now explores the goals of the Common Core Standards as well as Rose’s worries about the Common Core testing and implementation.

Three new chapters speak to issues that have emerged since the first edition of Rose’s book.  “Being Careful About Character” examines books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed with their thesis that schools can help overcome poverty with programs to strengthen character.  “My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.”  Another new chapter examines the wave of MOOCs and other on-line education, exploring the learning assumptions we rarely discuss and raising serious questions we ought to be asking before we thoughtlessly adopt these technologies.

From my point of view the most important new chapter is “The Inner Life of the Poor.”  “The poor,” writes Rose, “are pretty much absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the socioeconomic status index—or as a generalization: people dependent on the government, the ‘takers,’ a problem.”  “More than a few of Barack Obama’s speeches are delivered from community colleges, but the discussion of them is always in economic and functional terms…  I have yet to find in political speech or policy documents any significant discussion of what benefit—other than economic—the community college might bring…  To have a prayer of achieving a society that realizes the potential of all its citizens, we will need institutions that affirm the full humanity, the wide sweep of desire and ability of the people walking through the door.”

Readers will still find the thoughtful critique they remember in the original chapters, some updated, others unchanged.  In the chapter titled “Business Goes to School,” for example, Rose wonders about business leaders who promote their own “Principal for a Day” photo ops but at the same time “lobby, litigate, and proselytize against tax increases, minimum- or living-wage laws, and a whole range of policies that would help poor and working-class families better prepare their children for school…”  “Instead, what we have is an erosion of broad-based economic support and, in its place, a selective philanthropy—which, I’ll be the first to admit, is better than selfish, opulent capitalism.  But such generosity is targeted and partial.”

Late last week I got my copy of the 2014 edition of Why School?  I intended to  spend an hour skimming the chapter titles and maybe glancing at some of the new material.  But the book captivated me and I read the whole thing over the weekend. Because I am increasingly troubled about the direction of education “reform”—school closings—privatization—blaming school teachers—our society’s refusal to address child poverty, I found myself delighted to discover that the new edition is even tougher and more hard hitting than the original.