The Privatization of York City Schools

December 16, 2014 Leave a comment

AlJazeera America posted an article describing the pending recommendation of the State-appointed “Chief Recovery Officer” to turn all York City schools over to for-profit charters. This action was made possible by enabling legislation passed during Governor Thomas Corbett’s soon-to-be-concluded term, legislation that effectively turned the entire operation of “failing” school districts over to the State. Why the PA legislature would think that state intervention is the solution to “failing schools” is a mystery: they assumed control of the Chester-Upland school district decades ago and it hasn’t improved and the sad saga of the State’s intervention in the Philadelphia district has been lamented in many posts on this site. The bottom line: there is NO evidence that ANY for-profit charter operation will improve student outcomes and NO evidence that the loss of local control contains costs in the schools without cutting services to unacceptably low levels.

And here’s what is really happening in the urban areas in state receivership:  democracy and local rule are being thrown out and a “chief recovery officer” appointed by the state is being given complete and total authority. Voters and taxpayers in York City, Chester-Upland, and Philadelphia should be pushing back on this and insisting that the local school board be given the tools (and money) needed to improve the schools. It doesn’t take an degree in political science or an MBA to see what is going on here: the plutocrats who funded ALEC are getting lower corporate taxes, the opportunity to make profits through the privatization of public services, and the elimination of democracy at the local level. Here’s hoping the incoming Governor will undo this… and here’s hoping his actions are reported in the mainstream media as well as ÂlJazeera.

Charter Logic Exposed

December 16, 2014 1 comment

Diane Ravitch provided a link to David Katz’ blog post that was an extended reaction to a NYTimes Room For Debate” feature posing the question “Are Charter Schools Cherry Picking Students?” One of the respondents, Mike Petrilli, the Executive Director of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, concluded his brief essay on this topic with this insight into the thinking of charter advocates:

Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.

As one who believes that the existing discipline codes are too constraining for the majority of students because they are based on the false assumption that all students mature at the same rates and come from “Leave it to Beaver” households, the notion that MORE structure is the answer to the problem of classroom disruption is preposterous. In Petrilli’s world and the world of “no excuses” charter advocates, students who want to “escape” the schools where the “cancer” of disruption is in place must be subjected to discipline codes like those imposed in Catholic Schools or military academies.

Katz provides a wealth of information rebutting many of the assertions Petrilli and lays bare many the amoral basis of this kind of thinking. But he misses one key point: the reason this form of discipline is a feature and not a bug is that in order to operate a charter school cheaply (and therefore increase the profit) it cannot be troubled with the root causes of discipline problems and it must treat students with discipline problems the way an automobile factory deals with defective raw materials. In the “old days” factory schools would push out students who did not adapt to the rows of chairs and worksheet regimen of school…. but in the old days those who quit school or were expelled found their way into the workforce as unskilled laborers and, thanks to unions, could earn a middle class wage. The deep flaw in the deregulated for profit world is its clinging to the 1930s factory model and to the notion that students who cannot adapt need to be eliminated like defective raw materials because the bottom line will decrease if the costs of refining raw materials goes up…. and in for-profit charters the bottom line is everything!

Daily News Op Ed Gets it Right

December 15, 2014 1 comment

An op-ed article in today’s NY Daily News, typically the source of a lot of privatization blather, is on the money. Written by two “transfer school” staff members, Tyler Brewster and Kate Rubenstein, “School Suspensions Ruin Students’ Lives” describes the absurdity of suspending students for minor offenses and expecting improvements despite years of evidence that this punishment does NOT change behavior. Brewster and Rubenstein provide data supporting this assertion and note the disparate treatment of students who make up the pool of students suspended from school and analogizes it to the “stop and frisk” practice that de Blasio opposed when he was running for mayor: :

According to the Department of Education, there were 53,504 suspensions in New York City during the last school year. Black students make up about 26% of the student population, but were 53% of those suspensions. Students with special needs or disabilities make up 19% of our students but were 36% of the suspensions.

And guess what? The most common reason for suspensions in New York City was “Infraction B-21: Defying or disobeying the lawful authority or directive of school personnel.”

Translation, in many cases: Talking back to a teacher or principal.

What we have here is the stop-and-frisk of school discipline policies. It might have been conceived as a neutral policy, but that’s not the way it plays out in practice. While the Department of Education Discipline Code outlines a range of nine possible responses to a B-21 infraction, far too often the response is still a suspension.

Instead of reflexively suspending students Brewster and Rubenstein offer alternative ideas:

What’s the better approach? Restorative justice programs that challenge students to take responsibility and make amends for their behavior, creating a safer and more positive environment for everyone in the school building. We should also roll out conflict resolution, collaborative problem-solving, peer mediation and mentoring programs.

And… anticipating the pushback from taxpayers, they offer an idea of where the funding might be found:

We often are told we don’t have the resources, training or time to handle conflict and discipline in a constructive way.

And yet we do have about $200 million to place thousands of School Safety Officers in our schools. In fact, there are more School Safety Officers in New York City schools than guidance counselors.

SROs are part of the “good guys with guns” approach to school safety… a method of behavior control that is external and reinforces the notion that having armed policeman on every corner will ensure safety more so than implementing programs that prevent the kind of anti-social behavior that results in suspensions and violence in school. We’ve chose to spend on good guys with guns, surveillance cameras, internet filters, and metal detectors instead of investing in programs that will help us gain mutual understanding and appreciation for each other. What’s wrong with this picture… and what does it portend for future generations?

The Future of Education Funding? Kansas

December 15, 2014 Leave a comment

In the last election cycle many States elected “fiscal conservatives” who believe corporate tax cuts are the road to prosperity. Sam Brownback (and his like minded colleagues Chris Christie and Scott Walker) decided four years ago that cutting corporate taxes would stimulate the economy in his state. But, as today’s NYTimes reports, that hasn’t happened. The new jobs haven’t materialized and new revenues that would result from those new jobs is non-existent and as a result Kansas is facing a large deficit…. and Brownback is faced with a dilemma: he either needs to cut far deeper than the public will support or face the music and roll back the tax. The sad reality for KS teachers and school children is that he seems intent on cutting even more deeply into their state funds. In addition to making cuts to pension funds, infrastructure projects, and every government program outside of schools and Medicare (more on this below), Governor Brownback is proposing the redirection of funds for early childhood education:

A state advocacy organization for children said that the governor’s proposal to transfer $14.5 million out of an endowment for early-childhood education programs could affect services in the future. The money comes from a settlement with tobacco companies and is used to fund things like Early Head Start, preschool and a program that trains parents to teach their young children skills at home.

With the transfer, the endowment balance is less than $100,000. Each year, the fund receives a check for $50 million to $70 million, said Christie Appelhanz, the vice president for public affairs for Kansas Action for Children, an advocacy group. But the programs cost about $50 million a year to administer, she said.

“We’re really calling into question the stability of early-childhood programs in Kansas for the future,” she said.

And why isn’t Brownback cutting education funding? Because the courts ruled that the current funds are inadequate to provide fair and equitable funding for schools in accordance with the state constitution. So based on my reading of previous articles on this State’s woeful legislature, here’s what KS will be considering to balance the budget going forward:

  • Amending the constitution so that fewer tax dollars go to schools
  • Unilaterally changing pension formulas
  • Selling off as many state owned assets as possible to yield one-time savings that will help balance the budget for a year
  • Transferring money from categorical funds like those cited above to help keep other government services afloat
  • Privatizing to save money (and pay people less)

When this is kind of government strategy is transferred to the national level— and it looks more and more like it will be— expect the same kind of scenario at the Federal level with a slightly different twist since the Federal government, unlike the States, can operate in a deficit for the short term:

  1. Convince voters that deficits are bad
  2. Convince voters that spending at the Federal government level is “out of control” and full of “waste fraud, and corruption”, especially spending for social services
  3. Convince voters that tax cuts will stimulate the economy to help close the deficit
  4. Give huge tax breaks to private corporations
  5. Sell as many assets as possible (the Onion suggested selling Grand Canyon to China— which may not be so far fetched after we recently appropriated parklands from Native Americans to allow fracking)
  6. Cut as many pension obligations as possible
  7. Privatize services (and lower wages to make this pay off)

If the first four items on the list sound familiar, it’s because they’ve already happened. And if you don’t think the next three items on the list are possibilities, look no further than Kansas, NY, and Wisconsin— they’ve successfully accomplished the first four steps and to balance their budgets they are implementing the next three… and school children in those states— especially the children raise in poverty– are suffering as a result.


Douthat and Moynihan

December 14, 2014 Leave a comment

A few days ago I wrote a blog post on Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes article titled “The Intergenerational Transfer of Disadvantage” that included questions on the kinds of programs the government might be able to institute to address the cultural behaviors that distinguish the “advantaged” from the “disadvantaged”. After reading “The Imitation of Marriage”, Ross Douthat’s NYTimes column today, I came up with a few answers.

Douthat’s hypothesis is that “liberals” want to encourage non-college educated males to behave more like those males who have degrees. He summarizes his premise in this paragraph:

The core idea here is that working-class men, in particular, need to let go of a particular image of masculinity — the silent, disciplined provider, the churchgoing paterfamilias — that no longer suits the times. Instead, they need to become more comfortable as part-time homemakers, as emotionally available soul mates, and they need to raise their children to be more adaptive and expressive, to prepare them for a knowledge-based, constantly-in-flux economy.

Because Douthat is a cultural warrior and one who favors the unregulated capitalistic system beloved of conservatives and libertarians, he believes strongly in the power of the institutions of marriage and religion and it comes through loud and clear in his analysis. As one who sees the unregulated capitalism in place now as antithetical to equality, I see many ways where “profit sharing” could help solve the problem… and I offered a few in the comment section:

Our corporate desire for higher profits led to a race to the bottom in wages which, in turn, led to the outsourcing of virtually all unskilled labor and/or their replacement by technology. This cycle is impossible to reverse unless we as a nation decide to transfer wealth from the .01% who are the primary shareholders of the corporations who benefit from this “new economy”. That could be done by imposing tariffs on things like flat screen TVs and computers that COULD be assembled in our country… or imposing higher taxes on the .01% to establish more government funded infrastructure jobs that pay what passes today for a middle class wage… or increasing the minimum wage to a level that would enable a breadwinner to earn what passes today for a middle class wage… or encourage the creation of unions in the retail sector thereby forcing that sector to provide higher wages and be able to experience the same working conditions as those working in jobs requiring a college degree. Each of these requires additional costs to corporations and, therefore, diminish profits. Taken together these would put more money in the pockets of workers, create opportunities for the work schedules experienced by those working in jobs requiring college degrees, and empower individuals to have the time and fiscal wherewithal to make rational choices. Maybe if our politicians weren’t dependent on huge donations from the profiteers we might debate these ideas.

Douthat either glosses over or is oblivious to the way work schedules in the service sector preclude the kind of life-style college degreed employees experience. Someone whose work shift isn’t determined until mid-week cannot plan to attend their child’s T-Ball game let alone serve as a T-Ball coach. They cannot attend a PTA meeting let alone schedule a parent-teacher conference. They cannot even schedule child care on a predictable basis. Unfortunately the new just-in-time scheduling methods used by retailers and fast-food companies are alien to most college degreed employees. Many college degreed employees work long hours, but many of those hours can be scheduled at their convenience and the majority of the work time is regular and predictable. These practices corrode family life but enhance the bottom line and will not change unless government regulations are put in place or employees unionize… But profits are invested in lobbying and lobbyists too often write the laws of the land or prevent them from being written.

Money For Nothing

December 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Two recent articles described the findings of a recent study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). The Pacific Standard article by Lauren Kirchner, titled “The Cost of Juvenile Incarceration”, describes the broad findings of the JPI analysis, while the Reuters newswire cuts to the chase in it’s lengthy title: “Hidden Costs of Youth Incarceration Nationwide Estimated to Run Between $8 billion and $21 billion per year”.

Both articles describe the folly of this spending. The Reuters article reported that “Research shows that the experience of incarceration increases the likelihood that young people will commit a new offense in the future”. The Pacific Standard article provided some specific data to support that the money was not well spent:

If incarceration were expensive, but it worked, that would be one thing. But, as this report argues, it just doesn’t. About 60 percent of juveniles currently incarcerated are in for non-violent offenses, but research has shown that incarceration itself can increase the probability that they will re-offend as adults.

The Reuters article described the reality that black and Hispanic youth are incarcerated at MUCH higher rates.

…the report also notes that the system does not affect all young people equally. For example, African American youth are incarcerated at a rate nearly five times that of white youth, and Hispanic/Latino youth at a rate twice as high as whites. Even though young people engage in similar behavior, there are big differences in the way young people of color and white youth are treated.

The Pacific Standard dug into the economic analysis more deeply, noting that the costs for incarceration of youth would be even more staggering if the number of incarcerated youth hadn’t declined over the past…. and it notes that the unspent funds COULD have been invested in more effective programs:

“We have seen reductions in incarceration, which is great, but we have not seen those resources be re-invested sufficiently in communities,” said David Muhammad, director of national justice programs at the National Council of Crime & Delinquency. “We can re-invest those resources into things that are much better, like in-home family counseling, academic support, mentoring, and other positive youth-development approaches, to build on the strengths and assets of young people—and not simply focus on their deficits, or the one act of delinquency in their life that forever marks them.”

But we haven’t done so… and consequently we are spending just under $149,000 per incarcerated student on average in our country: more than ten times the average per pupil cost for a school student. Money for nothing….

“Fixes” Column’s Broken Premises

December 12, 2014 Leave a comment

The NYTimes “Fixes” column often includes creative ideas for changing the way we provide needed services to those in poverty or suffering from disease. Today’s column, “Big Ideas in Social Change, 2014“, however, is way off the mark. It offers three ideas that seem to be ripped from the pages of the 1%: Downshifting Jobs; Focus on People’s Strengths, Not Their Needs; and Target the “Social Determinants”. Many of the ideas are unconventional: they are different from the traditional approaches to the challenges those raised in poverty face. But all of the ideas are based are based on conventional wisdom, which is deeply flawed, as noted in the comment I left on the page:

These “Fixes” all seem to assume that we don’t have the money to fix things that are broken in our system… instead of paying those lacking a college degree a decent wage we help them “get an education” by finding welfare benefits and loans that will keep them indebted for years… instead of providing enough funds for the urban schools to employ paraprofessionals and teachers to work over the summer we draft unemployed and/or underemployed parents to volunteer… instead of paying medical professionals to treat illnesses like depression we get people to “cure themselves” by volunteering… instead of providing safe and decent housing for all and funds to monitor complaints by tenants we provide pro bono attorneys to sue negligent landlords… The notion that these “Fixes” are examples of “the perfect getting in the way of the good” is preposterous. These are examples of what results from Reagan’s premise that “government is the problem”; Bush I’s notion of that “a thousand points of light” can take the place of government services; Clinton’s notion that we needed to end “welfare as we know it” by requiring people to work at minimum wage jobs that formerly paid middle class wages; Bush II’s notion that people ought to assume personal responsibility for everything— including the bad luck of being born into poverty; and Obama’s unwillingness to push for single payer health care or a higher minimum wage. All of these lead us to believe “we don’t have the money” to fix what’s broken and reinforce the meme that “government is not the solution”.

The section of this article dealing with the Philadelphia schools use of volunteer instructional assistants was especially lacking in logic. Philadelphia HAD paraprofessional jobs that often paid decent wages and were held by people without teaching degrees… but when the State cut their spending on education many if not all of those jobs vanished. Now we are replacing PAID jobs with individuals drawn from the welfare rolls and from those who are underemployed. We took people who were earning sufficient funds to be independent and making them dependent on the government. How is THAT a “fix”?