State School Takeovers Steal Democracy, Ignore Poverty

The takeover of the public schools in New Orleans followed a natural catastrophe, the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levies.  The mass charterization of the city’s schools is said by its proponents to have improved education for the children who have returned, but the takeover remains controversial. What is less controversial is the impact of the imposition of the Recovery School District on democratic ownership and governance.  I will always remember the words of a New Orleans mother who cried out at a national meeting, “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town.”

Politicians are rather cavalier about state school takeovers and the imposition of “achievement school districts” and “recovery school districts” when the families served by the schools are poor.  While New Jersey‘s governor Chris Christie would be unlikely to dismiss the role of the local school board in Montclair or Princeton, he didn’t hesitate to disdain the citizens of Newark when he proclaimed on television, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them.”

Tennessee‘s Achievement School District, created to seize the lowest-scoring 5 percent of that state’s schools, has been managing schools in Nashville and Memphis for some years without stunning success, despite the rhetoric on its website that says the state takeover is designed to “bust barriers” and “catapult” the low scoring schools “straight into the top 25 percent.”  Chris Barbic ran the Tennessee Achievement School District from May 2011 until late July, when he resigned after test scores had hardly risen and none of the schools reached the top 25 percent.

And in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order in mid-March to transfer the state body that has been overseeing the state takeover of low-scoring schools from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  His executive order declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes nor placed (sic) any of the identified low achieving schools.” Snyder was condemning the state takeover initiative he himself created several years ago.

Poor and mediocre results from a variety of top-down state takeover arrangements have not discouraged ideologues who believe low test scores in extremely poor communities are the result of inefficiency that can be improved from on-high.

In January, the state of Arkansas took over the public schools in Little RockBarclay Key, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a pubic school parent writes: “(O)n January 28, 2015, the state board of education voted 5-4 to take over the entire LRSD (Little Rock School District) on the pretense that six of our forty-eight schools were in ‘academic distress.'”   Key adds that the four school board members voting for the state takeover have direct ties to “foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools”—the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Arkansans for Education Reform.

In New York in April, according to Capital Confidential, “the legislature and governor created a new section of State Education Law pertaining to school receivership.  In June, the Board of Regents approved new regulations to implement the provisions of the law.”  The new state plan will directly affect 20 “persistently struggling” schools and eventually a total of 144 that have been identified as “struggling,”   The “persistently struggling” schools will be assigned to an “inside receiver,” most likely the superintendent of their school district, but the receiver will now have the capacity to lengthen the school day or school year, re-negotiate the union contract, change the budget and curriculum, or to convert the school to a charter or a full-service community school.  If schools do not improve within a year, they will be taken over by an outside receiver.

In early July, when Scott Walker finally signed the state budget in Wisconsin, tucked into the budget bill was the takeover of the Milwaukee School District.  Rob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, explains: “In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a ‘takeover’ plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a ‘commissioner’ who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up to five every year thereafter.”

In Ohio at the end of June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.

And in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal considers his greatest achievement the establishment of a statewide “Opportunity School District,” designed, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to “give the state the power to seize control of failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.”  In Georgia, unlike the other states named in this post, a majority of the voters must approve the measure in 2016 before it will take effect.  It has, however, already begun to affect the state’s education politics.  The designer of the Opportunity School District plan, Erin Hames—Governor Deal’s top education policy adviser—just resigned from her state position to sign a no-bid contract with the Atlanta Public Schools to advise the school district on how to avoid the very policy she created—the state takeover of 27 low-scoring schools.

Myra Blackmon, columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald, commented on this convoluted situation in Sunday’s paper: “Recently, we learned that Erin Hames, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education minion, is leaving her job.  In her new role, she’ll be paid $96,000 a year by the Atlanta Public School system to help it avoid becoming a victim of the Opportunity School District plan which Hames developed and rammed through the state legislature… But it gets worse.  Hames’ new consulting company filed its corporate papers on August 5, just four business days before the Atlanta Board of Education’s August 11 vote on her no-bid contract… This is how the self-selected ‘education reformers’ operate.  Their motive is profit and personal advancement.  They love the idea of schools run by private organizations….  It defies the values of local control in favor of centralized, easily managed power—all the while claiming ‘it’s for the children.'”

State school takeovers, whatever their form, fail to address what research has long confirmed is a primary factor that affects school achievement: poverty and especially concentrated neighborhood poverty.  Here is the analysis of Paul Jargowsky, a Rutgers University social scientist, about the demographic trend in the very type of school district being targeted with state takeover of low-scoring public schools: “Nationwide, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods and the population living in them has risen at an alarming pace… In the 2005-09 ACS data, before the financial crisis took hold, high-poverty census tracts increased by nearly one-third, to 3,310…. by 2009-13, an additional 1,100 tracts had poverty rates of 40 percent or more, bringing the total to 4,412. The overall increase in high-poverty census tracts since 2000 was 76 percent… The total population of these high-poverty neighborhoods has also grown… (S)ince the 2000 low, the number of persons living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or more has grown by 91 percent… One of the primary concerns about high-poverty neighborhoods is the potential impact on child and adolescent development.  Indeed, William Julius Wilson stressed the lack of positive role models within the social milieu of urban ghettos.  High-poverty neighborhoods produce high-poverty schools, and both the school and neighborhood contexts affect student achievement.”

State school takeovers have no impact whatsoever on concentrated poverty.  They do steal democracy and local control, however, in poor communities.

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“One Newark” Exemplifies the Shock Doctrine: Public Institutions Seized from the Powerless

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the takeover of the New Orleans schools in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina as a grand experiment perpetrated by policy makers on a city so vulnerable nobody could protect the public assets that should have been rescued.  Klein concludes, “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, “disaster capitalism.” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)

When we think about the Shock Doctrine applied to education, New Orleans—where the schools were charterized and all the teachers fired—is the example that comes to mind, but our test-and-punish system under the No Child Left Behind Act has branded the schools in our poorest cities as “failures” and created a crisis atmosphere that has also made way for the application of the Shock Doctrine.  Back in 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seized such an “opportunity” and set up Newark for an experiment in disaster capitalism; he staged his Shock Doctrine live on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg handed Booker $100 million to fix Newark’s schools. In a recent article Washington Post education writer Lyndsey Layton summarizes what happened as the “One Newark” plan was put in place by Christie and his appointed overseer Newark school superintendent, Cami Anderson. Public schools were closed and charter operators brought in.  Union agreements were abrogated. It has been easy to move quickly in Newark, where the schools have been under state control for twenty years and residents have been unable to establish sufficient checks and balances despite the presence of an elected school board that lacks virtually any power. Cami Anderson has not bothered to attend any meetings of Newark’s school board for well over a year now.

Layton describes One Newark: “The plan is the signature initiative crafted by Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2011 to run Newark Public Schools.  The state seized control of Newark Public Schools in 1995 amid academic and financial failure, but two decades of state control has resulted in little progress.  One Newark, which fully took effect in the current academic year (2014-2015), essentially blew up the old school system.  It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices.  It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools…. With Christie’s blessing—and freed from the need for approval from a local school board—Anderson pushed through a raft of changes, many of which were untested…  As a result, many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, and where many residents don’t own cars.  The end of neighborhood schools meant that newcomers no longer had a right to attend the school down the street.  The new citywide lottery, relying on a computer algorithm, forced many students to change schools while dividing siblings in some cases between different schools in different parts of the city.  Meanwhile, state test scores have stayed flat or even declined….”

Local elected officials have tried unsuccessfully to protect the right of parents and citizens of Newark to control their public schools.  Senator Ronald Rice, chair of the New Jersey Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, was able only after repeated attempts to require Cami Anderson to appear before his committee to defend her plan, but she refused to discuss matters of substance with his committee.  A civil rights complaint was filed earlier this year with the U.S. Department of Education.   A group of high school students  occupied the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson for several days in February.  U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., Newark’s representative to Congress, recently petitioned Cami Anderson in a formal letter to respond to the concerns of his constituents: “Your failure to respond and to engage in a meaningful dialogue on behalf of all Newark students is very disappointing to my constituents and me. There is a crisis situation going on in Newark.” And just this week, in an attempt to gain leverage, Newark’s new mayor, Ras Baraka, a high school principal elected on a pro-public school platform in the spring of 2014, was able to get his own “Children’s First Team” of three elected to the local elected board of education. All five of the elected board members support Baraka and oppose Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan.   You can read earlier posts about Newark on this blog here.

Despite the protests, Cami Anderson, has been rewarded not only with Christie’s support but also with a bonus.  She has also announced plans to expand One Newark.  Bob Braun, former education writer for the Newark Star Ledger, recently blogged: “Three related events are merging into a crisis for the public schools and their supporters.  The first is Anderson’s decision to designate nine more schools—including Weequahic and East Side high schools—as ‘turnaround’ schools that will force employees either to give up their jobs or their contract-guaranteed working conditions.  The second is Anderson’s insistence that the state grant her permission to ignore employee seniority rights so she can lay off veteran teachers to meet a budget deficit of up to $100 million that she caused.  The third is the arguably felonious refusal of the state to insist that Anderson abide by the terms of the waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements.”

The Newark Teachers Union just announced a formal protest; teachers will no longer work extra hours before or after school but will picket to bring attention to the problems with One Newark. Naomi Nix  of the Star Ledger interviewed a union leader who reports:  “(T)he teachers will participate in ‘informational picket lines’ during non-school day hours to explain their concerns to the public.”  Braun reports that Mayor Ras Baraka supports the teachers’ action.  Dr. Lauren Wells, Baraka’s chief school officer met with teachers and told them: “Enough is enough.  This is not how you change the schools.  We support you.” Braun adds: “Five members of the Newark school board also showed up to show their support—leading to the possibility that Newark might be the scene of the first teachers’ strike supported by its local school board.  The state has stripped the board of most of its powers, but the members do act as a barometer of anti-state feeling.”

Braun would agree, I think, that Newark’s schools exemplify a Shock Doctrine—the imposition of school choice, public school closures, expansion of charters, and attacks on unionized teachers—on a community whose citizens lack power.  He writes: “The last year has been its own moment of truth about the respect shown to leaders of color—even prominent, elected leaders like Rice and Baraka and members of the school board.  In a state run by Christie and allies like Steve Sweeney and Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross, the concerns of black and brown political, religious, and civic leaders simply do not matter.”  Shock Doctrine educational experiments are characterized by their imposition by the powerful on other people’s children.

Chris Christie has been very clear about Newark: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”

Stunning Article Tracks Spread of Corporate Education Reform in Newark and NJ Suburb

Update: This post has been corrected.  The original confused Andy Smarick and Jonathan Schnur, both corporate school reformers, both creative disruptors, and both with connections to school reform in New Jersey.

If you want to develop a better understanding of so-called “corporate” school reform, Stan Karp’s article in the spring Rethinking Schools magazine is mandatory reading. Karp examines the catastrophic transformation of the schools in Newark, New Jersey and a subsequent attempt by corporate reformers to take over the schools in his hometown, suburban Montclair.  In A Tale of Two Districts, Karp traces the history of Newark’s destabililization under Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, but neither was there a way Montclair could insulate itself.  He suggests: “If public education is going to survive, its supporters will need to make common cause across the divides of race and class, city and suburb.”

Karp summarizes the history of corporate reform in New Jersey in crisp, packed paragraphs, beginning with the appointment of Christopher Cerf as Governor Chris Christie’s education commissioner. “Cerf was the former head of Edison Inc., once the nation’s largest private education management firm.  A registered Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, Cerf was a pioneer in opening up the $700 billion/year K-12 education market to commercial penetration.  He was deputy chancellor under New York City’s Joel Klein and a senior advisor to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; all three are charter members of the corporate ed reform club.  In public, Cerf regularly dismissed talk about ‘corporate ed reform’ as conspiratorial nonsense.  In private, however, he described school reform politics as ‘a knife fight in a dark room’ and embraced a brand of what corporate reformers proudly call ‘disruptive innovation’ that made him a perfect choice to be Christie’s education commissioner.  One of Cerf’s first tasks was to recruit a new state-appointed superintendent for NPS (Newark Public Schools).  He chose Cami Anderson, a former Teach for America (TFA) executive who had also worked at New Leaders for New Schools, a kind of TFA for principals….”

How has all this affected racial and economic segregation in New Jersey’s already highly segregated Essex County? Karp explores the implications of what has been the explosive growth of charter schools in Newark: “On top of the intense racial segregation that characterizes all Newark schools, the charters serve fewer of the English learners, special education students, and poorest students, who remain in district schools in ever-higher concentrations.  Of the 14,000 students in schools serving the highest-need populations, 93 percent are in district schools and just 7 percent are in charters.  Some of Newark’s highest profile charters are ‘no excuses’ schools with authoritarian cultures and appalling attrition rates.  Newark’s KIPP schools lose nearly 60 percent of African American boys between 5th and 12th grades, and Uncommon Schools lose about 75 percent…  As Andy Smarick, a former deputy commissioner in Christie’s DOE, now with the corporate think tank Bellwether, wrote: ‘The solution isn’t an improved traditional district; it’s an entirely different delivery system for public education systems of charter schools.'”

This blog has extensively tracked early protests in Newark against Cami Anderson and her One Newark plan, the election last year of Ras Baraka, a public school educator, as Newark’s new mayor, and continuing massive protests that have continued all year by Newark’s residents—especially the parents and students—who do not want to lose their neighborhood schools.  Karp fills in the details and implications of this history and summarizes: “If this sounds a lot like New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities, it’s because it is…. especially efforts to disenfranchise communities of color and promote privatization.”

But, continues Karp, “If cities like Newark are the entry point for corporate reform, wealthier suburban districts are the next prize.” Montlair, Karp’s hometown, is a somewhat unusual suburb, which has struggled and succeeded to some degree at least to serve all students well in a racially integrated public school system at a time when there is little policy support for diversity.  Montclair is an upper middle income community that sends 90 percent of its public high school graduates to college. And it is also the home, according to Karp, of many who are active in the corporate reform movement including Chris Cerf himself and Jonathan Alter, a journalist, supporter of KIPP schools, and promoter of the film Waiting for Superman. “The town is also home to officials of Uncommon Schools, the Achievement First Network, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies and KIPP.”

And New  Jersey was once also home to Jonathan Schnur, who worked in the New Jersey Department of Education and was later the architect of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program.  Schnur had mentored Penny MacCormack in a superintendents’ training program, and, when Montclair needed a new superintendent, he endorsed her candidacy.  She was subsequently hired as Montclair’s new school superintendent, with an agenda, she said, to increase the use of students’ standardized test scores for evaluating teachers: “I will be using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results.” The fact that Montclair has long had a school board appointed by the mayor made MacCormack’s hiring easier.  “In Montclair, there was no formal state takeover and no contested school board elections.  Instead, the long reach of corporate education reform had used influence peddling, backdoor connections, and a compliant appointed school board to install one of their own at the head of one of the state’s model districts.”

But Montclair also had powerful residents committed to defending the public schools.  Journalist (and professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism) LynNell Hancock wrote: “This is a Montclair I hardly recognize.  It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed.  It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to ‘fixing’ schools by employing business strategies….”  The teachers union rose up and forced the board to listen to teachers testifying at board meetings.  In Montclair, unlike Newark, the protests paid off: “As we go to press, a stunning turn of events underscored again how corporate reform plays out differently across inequalities of power, race, and class.  Faced with growing opposition, MacCormack abruptly resigned to take an unspecified job with a ‘new educational services organization’ in New York City.”

Montclair’s residents have been powerful enough to pressure even an appointed school board and to insert expert voices in the press to push back the attack on their schools.  Newark’s citizens have been less successful.  Karp’s article is essential for filling in the gaps about how savvy and powerful corporate reformers are spreading disruption, privatization, and anti-teacher policies.  Near the end of his article, Karp describes budding efforts of suburbanites and Newark residents to work together to fight Christie’s corporate plans. I wish I had as much hope as Karp expresses that parents and activists across city and suburban school jurisdictions will be able and willing to frame the issues to define common cause.

The Sad History of State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts

On Wednesday afternoon the Georgia House of Representatives approved authorization for the state to create what Governor Nathan Deal calls, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “an ‘Opportunity School District’ with the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools.” The state senate has already passed the bill, which, because it is set up as a state constitutional amendment, will be put before the voters in a November, 2016 referendum.

Here is the ballot language that will be presented next year to the people of Georgia: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve school performance?”

In a recent column in the Athens Banner Herald, Myra Blackmon explores a number of reasons state takeovers and so-called “recovery” or “opportunity” school districts don’t work.  She challenges Governor Deal’s claim that such a takeover is a moral imperative: “Why was it moral to pass a formula that purports to provide all the necessary funding for a Quality Basic Education, then fail to fund it?  For 30 years, neither Democrats nor Republicans have accepted that responsibility.  And our children have suffered.  The body of research showing the link between poverty and poor school performance grows every year.  The vast majority of children in the 141 schools ‘eligible’ for takeover by the state are poor.  Is it really taking the moral high road to ignore both the root causes and the effects of poverty on learning? How is a state takeover of schools full of poor children a moral duty, but dealing with the out-of-school issues that hinder achievement somehow not our job?”

Blackmon also attacks Deal’s plan because it will diminish democracy and because it is poorly conceived: “Indeed, how can anyone claim the moral high ground for a program that creates a new bureaucracy, usurps local control, duplicates existing programs, uses an unproven model, lacks any plans for actual teaching and learning, makes selection of schools for the ‘district’ arbitrary, limits resources to a tiny fraction of schools that need help, defies current best practices and replaces educators with bureaucrats?”

I hope advocates in Georgia can effectively use the year and a half before the election to educate voters about Blackmon’s very legitimate concerns.  And about one other serious worry:  you don’t ever want to insert an experimental and unproven program into your state constitution because if it doesn’t work, it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  Think about the tax freeze laws like Proposition 13 in California or House Bill 920 in Ohio.  Ask any parent about these obstacles to adequate school funding.  But they are in the state constitutions, and who is ever going to go for constitutional amendment that would raise taxes?

If it is implemented, Georgia’s state takeover plan will join a lot of other projects by which state legislatures have assumed the state can raise achievement when the local school district has struggled. I do not know of any case in which a state has intervened in a chronically low-scoring public school or school district when it has significantly raised the school’s or the school district’s aggregate test scores.  There are so many examples.

This blog has been following the ongoing fight over the schools in Newark, New Jersey between Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark’s elected state representatives on the one side and Governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent Cami Anderson on the other. (See here, and here.)  Newark’s schools have been under state control for twenty years. There are also the problems in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder’s appointed financial emergency managers have been running the schools in Detroit and privatizing entire school districts in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. In Detroit just two weeks ago, Governor Rick Snyder seized the state’s School Reform Office, which he had helped create, “from the Department of Education—which he does not oversee—to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, putting K-12 school accountability and restructuring directly under his control,” according to a report of the Detroit NewsThe Detroit Free Press reports some agreement across party lines that the state takeover of Detroit’s schools has not been working, but there are also questions about Snyder’s recent action: “The move was criticized immediately by a number of people, including the president of the State Board of Education, John Austin.  Austin said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform, saying ‘effective action is long over due, but moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools.'” In 2012, the entire Muskegon Heights School District was turned over by its state-appointed emergency manager to Mosaica Education, a for profit charter management organization, but the deal fell apart a year ago when Mosaica lost money.  A new management company was sought for Muskegon Heights, and Mosaica has now been turned over to a bankruptcy receiver.

In Pennsylvania the state appointed School Reform Commission has been working with the legislature to slash spending in the School District of Philadelphia and expand the number of charter schools that are actively draining money out of traditional public schools. (See this blog’s coverage here and here.)  Just two days ago, it was reported that a new state takeover of the York, PA schools is being cancelled.  A television news report announced that, “The state Department of Education has confirmed that it has asked a judge to repeal its request for receivership.”  This development will please citizens of York, who had strongly protested the state takeover.  Discord is ongoing in Gary, Indiana and IndianapolisA senate bill proposed this week would allow the state to take over these financially strapped school districts. But in Indiana the state has already been authorized to intervene in low-scoring schools. The Chicago Tribune reports that the state board this week made the decision, opposed by education leaders in Gary, to close Gary’s Dunbar-Pulaski Academic and Career Academy, the district’s only middle school. “The closing was one of the options for the state board under a state accountability law when a school posts a failing grade for six straight years.”

The best known massive state takeover followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. With support from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Louisiana legislature absorbed the majority of New Orleans’ schools—deemed failing by the state—into a Louisiana Recovery School District, which then began turning over schools to charter management companies to operate.  This blog reviews what happened in New Orleans hereJeff Bryant, who writes for the Educational Opportunity Network, describes how statistics have been manipulated in New Orleans by proponents of the state takeover to make the New Orleans Recovery School District look like a national model that should be replicated in other places. Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013, the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new.  That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Those who brag about New Orleans’ transformation as a model ought to examine these facts.

In her critique of Georgia’s constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District—now passed by both houses of Georgia’s legislature and ready to be voted on in November 2016—Myra Blackmon quotes Helen Ladd, Duke University professor of public policy and economics, who describes such governance changes as the one in Georgia as “misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families.  Because they do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, these policy strategies have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.”

A mass of evidence demonstrates that standardized test scores, in aggregate, reflect economic inequality, poverty, and segregation.  State takeovers of school districts and schools presume instead that shifts in school governance can raise test scores.  I have never observed the test score turnarounds that are promised.  The experts agree about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

New Rutgers Research Says Christie Administration Favors Charters at the Expense of Public Schools

A new report from researchers at Rutgers University documents once again a serious problem with charter schools: they are cream-skimming more promising students and leaving in traditional public schools the students with the greatest needs and those who are also the most expensive to educate.  The new report shows that public schools in New Jersey, by contrast to the state’s charter schools, are educating a group of students who are poorer and who need more services for special education and learning English.

Save Our Schools New Jersey  summarizes the report’s conclusions:  “Charter schools across New Jersey educate a very different population of students by income, language proficiency, special needs, race and even gender than their sending district public schools…. The report documents that New Jersey charter schools educate significantly smaller percentages of economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners, and special education students than do the public school districts from which the charter schools draw their students.  The special education students who enroll in charter schools also tend to have less costly disabilities.”

The report explains: “the state’s charter students are overwhelmingly concentrated in seven urban communities—Camden, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield, and Trenton.”  In all of these big cities, “The lower rates of economically disadvantaged, Limited English Proficient, and special education classified students in charter schools result in those students being concentrated at higher rates within the host district schools.  This increases segregation and impacts the quality of education that districts can provide and the financial resources available to pay for that education.”

The disparity in enrollment of students with disabilities (particularly severe disabilities such as autism, multiple disabilities, and visual impairment and blindness) between public schools and charters is particularly striking. “The smaller number of special education students in charter schools and those students’ lower rates of higher-cost classifications lead to the concentration of more special education students with highest-cost disabilities within the district schools.  Yet districts must fund charter schools at a per pupil rate that does not account for these differences in students’ special education needs.”

The disparities are stark, as, for example, as the data for three of the “big seven” districts demonstrates:

  • In Newark, 80 percent of public school students qualify for free lunch, while only 70 percent of students in charters qualify for free lunch.  In the public schools 9 percent of students are English language learners; in Newark’s charters only 1 percent of students are learning English.  The special education classification rate in Newark’s public schools is 18 percent, while the special education rate in Newark’s charters is 9 percent.
  • In Paterson, 86 percent of public school students qualify for free lunch, while only 39 percent of students in charters qualify for free lunch.  In the public schools 19 percent of students are English language learners; in Paterson’s charters only 2 percent of students are learning English.  The special education classification rate in Paterson’s public schools is 14 percent while the special education rate in Paterson’s charters is 9 percent.
  • In Camden, 92 percent of public school students qualify for free lunch, while 79 percent of students in charters qualify for free lunch.  In the public schools 9 percent of students are English language learners; in Camden’s charters 3 percent of students are learning English.  The special education classification rate in Camden’s public schools is 19 percent, while the special education rate in Camden’s charters is 9 percent.

The Rutgers researchers point to the state’s failure—through its policies and oversight of charter schools—to protect the rights of New Jersey’s students:  “The New Jersey Supreme Court has consistently found that the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, who authorizes charter schools, must consider the demographic and financial impact of any authorizing decision on the host district and must use the full powers of that office to avoid segregation.  The results of the analysis presented in this report suggest that the Commissioner is not sufficiently meeting this legal obligation.”  The state’s education commissioner is an appointee of the governor.  The new study is an indictment of the management of charter schools by the administration of Governor Chris Christie. Public schools and the children they serve are being short-changed.

States Fail at “Running the Local Schools,” Despite What Chris Christie Says

Public schools are human institutions, places where adults work to foster the intellectual, linguistic, mathematical, social, ethical, emotional, and physical growth and development of children. Schools must be structured to foster a climate of physical and emotional safety and support. They need to connect with families in a natural way, for parents and guardians are children’s primary teachers.  Children thrive when there is mutuality between the school and the family.  Schools are primary social institutions in the neighborhood, places where the interests of the community converge.

The novelist Ivan Doig, who has set most of his books in the tiny homesteading communities of northern Montana’s high plains, captures this understanding in his novel about the meaning of a remote one room school.  The narrator, looking back at his seventh grade year, describes how he came to understand the importance of his school one day as he gazed at the prairie where it is set: “So there in the dwindling light of the afternoon I tried to take in that world between the manageable horizons.  The cutaway bluffs where the Marias River lay low and hidden were the limit of field of vision in one direction.  In the other was the edge of the smooth-buttered plain leading to Westwater…. Closer, though, was where I found the longest look into things.  Out beyond the play area, there were round rims of shadow on the patch of prairie where the horses we rode to school had eaten the grass down in circles around their picket stakes. Perhaps that pattern drew my eye to what I had viewed every day of my school life but never until then truly registered: the trails in the grass that radiated in as many directions as there were homesteads with children, all converging to that schoolyard spot where I stood unnaturally alone. Forever and a day could go by, and that feeling will never leave me.  Of knowing, in that instant, the central power of that country school in all our lives… Everyone I could think of had something at stake in the school…”  The narrator names the ways the community owns the school—his father and the other members of the school board, the men who built the school and the home for the teacher, the mothers who send their children off on horses in all weather, the teacher, the students. “We all answered, with some part of our lives, to the pull of this small knoll of prospect, this isolated square of school ground.” (The Whistling Season, pp 120-21)

While the portrait Doig paints is a fictional ideal, it captures a model of education encompassing public purpose and public ownership, a model described more formally by John Adams in 1785: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside one section of each township for a school.

Contrast these attitudes and assumptions about public schools to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s understanding: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

Christie was responding to a firestorm of local criticism of his administration’s management of the schools in Newark.  Newark’s schools have been under state control for nearly two decades. Controversy about state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson—her high-handed  One Newark plan to close schools and rapidly expand charter schools, her punishment of staff who dared to disagree with her—became the central issue in the Newark mayor’s race in May, with Ras Baraka, a school principal and vocal opponent of the policies of Anderson and Christie the winner.  (This blog has extensively covered the privatization and mismanagement of Newark’s schools by Anderson here, here, here, here,  and here.)

Sadly, despite his recent electoral victory, Mayor Ras Baraka does not control the schools of Newark; neither does the community.  Bob Braun, fifty-year reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger and now a blogger, recently despaired about the loss of community control: “The political power of both the city’s clergy and its public employee unions is non-existent.  The election of Ras Baraka as mayor did nothing to stop or even slow down the “One Newark” plan.  The privatization of the city’s schools will continue unabated.”  Braun reports that in June, Anderson’s contract was renewed despite that she has refused to attend public school board meetings; that she has rewarded her friends and their friends with huge contracts; that she has suspended building principals for speaking out against One Newark and told the principal of the city’s most successful high school that he must reapply for his job, fired another principal at a high achieving school, and downgraded the evaluations of other principals who were formerly highly rated but who have since criticized her leadership; that she has given huge raises to administrators she imported after laying off essential school staff to cut costs; that she has continued to close neighborhood schools and imposed a chaotic and unproven open-enrollment plan that requires parents to apply; and that she ignored the pleas of 77 members of the local clergy to place a moratorium on her plan.  Braun comments on Cami Anderson’s boss, Governor Chris Christie: “And, to Chris Christie, the governor of the state, the aspirations of the people of Newark are like mud stuck on the bottom of his shoe—he can just scrape it off on the nearest curb and keep on walking.”

Christie’s arrogance extends well beyond Newark. Across New Jersey we are watching the imposition by the state of corporate takeover in the poorest big city school districts without consideration of the wishes of the citizens of particular school districts.  Anthony Cody, who writes a column for Education Week, just published a guest post—this time about Camden—by Julia Sass Rubin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers and visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.  Rubin reports that, led by appointed Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, several charter chains, seeking to expand rapidly, exerted influence in Trenton to get a state law amended to permit them to locate in temporary facilities and without any public review and comment by the citizens of Camden. “Rather than stopping their illegal activities… the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains and the Camden Superintendent turned to their friends in the legislature to ‘fix’ the problems by amending the Urban Hope legislation so that what had been illegal could now be legal.”

According to Rubin, “The negative fiscal impact of the renaissance charter program is already being felt on the Camden District’s public schools.  Hundreds of teachers and staff members were fired this spring because of projected budget shortfalls caused by payments the district has to make to renaissance and regular charter school…  Camden parents already lament the constant harassment by those charter chains, whose representatives approach them at every venue, come to their homes, and even try to recruit their children on school playgrounds.”

Camden, like Newark, is under state control.  “Camden parents understand that the superintendent works for the governor rather than for them… The District has no elected Board of Education and even the appointed Board that served prior to the 2013 state takeover of the District has been replaced by individuals willing to rubber stamp the Christie Administration’s actions.”  “Rouhanifard, the Camden superintendent, is undeniably allied with the charter chains.” “There is even a publicly-available blueprint that details the Christie Administration’s intentions to convert Camden into a New Orleans style all-charter district….”

I do not know of one school district anywhere that has been improved by state takeover.  Historically states take over school districts to cut costs. The big-city school districts taken over are always places where family poverty is concentrated, where the tax base is in decline, and where middle class families have already taken their children to the suburbs. The story of Newark and Camden is also the story of Detroit, and Philadelphia.  The goal is efficient management, not school improvement.  I have never heard discussed an infusion of state aid in such situations.

Linda Darling-Hammond, “wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….”  (The Flat World and Education, p 164)   I believe the most important priority in American public education must be to stop pretending the imposition of “corporate” and “portfolio” school privatization is some kind of cure for inequality and to invest in improving the schools across the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities.  Successful school improvement cannot be done to a community; it must be accomplished with the community.

New Jersey Columnist: Cry for Newark

Bob Braun was a reporter for 50 years for the Newark Star-Ledger.  These days he blogs about the public school crisis in Newark, New Jersey.  Newark’s public schools have been under state control for two decades.  As in most places, state takeover has never worked in Newark.  Today the strings are being pulled by Governor Chris Christie and Cami Anderson—the state-appointed overseer superintendent, alternatively trained at the Broad Academy and formerly employed by Joel Klein in New York.

Anderson has brought a plan, One Newark, to take over neighborhood schools, bring in KIPP and other charter management companies, and give parents school choice.  Newark has erupted this spring as parents have continued to defend their neighborhood public schools.  This blog has recently covered the school crisis in Newark here, herehere, and here.

Last week Braun described the botched roll-out of Anderson’s One Newark plan.  By mid-April, Anderson had promised to announce to parents their children’s school choice match assignments for next fall.  But in a letter posted on the school district’s website and notes sent home with children in backpacks, she delayed the assignments until mid-May.  Anderson and her staff have been unable to finalize a transportation plan, there have been problems placing students with special needs, and it turns out many parents did not apply for school choice, which means there must be a second application process.  According to Braun, “One Newark was not only unworkable in design but now the state regime running the schools is so incompetent it can’t figure out what to do about the transportation and special education problems it created.”  Anderson “still doesn’t know how to handle the placement of special education students, especially those whose parents might want to go to charter schools that are unprepared to deal with them.”

According to New Jersey Spotlight, just last week in the midst of the school district controversy, Cami Anderson was awarded  promised bonuses from Governor Christie’s administration for reaching performance goals.  Anderson receives a base salary of $247,500, but she was awarded $32,992 in bonus payments: “And according to details released this past week by the administration, she continues to hit a majority of performance goals that have gained her tens of thousands of dollars in additional pay.”  Her new bonus is for hitting five of seven targets that “included both qualitative and quantitative measures, from new evaluation systems for principals to test score gains in individual schools.”

In a very moving post yesterday, Bob Braun describes the plight of parents and children trapped in this controversy.  Cry for Newark describes the pleas of Grace Sergio, the outgoing president of the Hawthorne Avenue School parent organization, and students from the school who made formal presentations to the school board (elected but rendered powerless by state control) charged with implementing One Newark.  The protests have become so contentious that Cami Anderson has stuck by her announcement several weeks ago that she will no longer attend these public meetings.

After presenting data that Hawthorne Avenue School has met the demanded achievement goals—first in the city in student growth, third in the state in student growth, seventh in Newark in academic achievement—Sergio asked Newark’s school board, “What more do we need to do?”

Brawn writes: “Anderson’s treatment of Hawthorne—and similar schools throughout the state’s largest district—has been a nightmare…  She stripped the school of its librarians, its counselors, its attendance personnel.  She has ignored constant pleas to repair crumbling walls and leaking ceilings—promising repair money only after she gave the building to TEAM Academy, the local name for KIPP charters, and the Brick schools (which will co-locate in the building).”

Braun notes that parents of 268 of the school’s 340 students chose Hawthorne for next year when they submitted the Universal Application.  The rest might have done the same, but Hawthorne will no longer be a K-8 school; its charters will serve children only through the fourth grade.

Braun concludes: “Sad. There’s a word rarely heard in the context of the state’s war on Newark’s neighborhood public schools. Sad. Yet the story of how a cruelly tone-deaf state bureaucrat named Cami Anderson is singlehandedly destroying a community’s neighborhood schools is just that. Sad.  And nothing more illustrates that sadness than the brave but probably futile effort of one successful neighborhood school to remain alive despite Anderson’s promise to give it to privatized educational entrepreneurs who include former business partners of the recently resigned state education commissioner… It’s about money and power and greed.”  (Thanks to Diane Ravitch for circulating Braun’s powerful column, Cry for Newark, late last night.)