The Golden Arches Come to Public Education

January 27, 2015 Leave a comment

NPR’s Anna Kamenetz recently gave a report on a study completed by NOLA school choice by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans suggesting that parent choice doesn’t always play out the way “free market” advocates think it will. Choice advocates believe that breaking the monopoly on public schools will create a competitive environment whereby parents will opt into schools that have better academic performance. This will create a virtuous circle where poor performing schools are driven out and only high performing schools remain.

From the outset I found this notion to be preposterous. If the free market worked in the fashion envisioned by “choice” advocates the Bronx would be full of grocery stores that offer the same items as those found in Bronxville and have sidewalk cafes comparable to those found in, say, Park Slope. Those advocating deregulated charter schools conveniently overlook the fact that poor neighborhoods and communities do not have car dealerships, department stores, boutiques, or hospitals that provide the wide array of consumer goods and services that are routinely available in the more affluent suburbs. The free market does not guarantee quality or equity for groceries, restaurants, consumer goods, or medical services… yet charter advocates seem to think it will provide “quality education” to economically disadvantaged children. After nearly a decade of nearly universal choice in NOLA (86% of the children do NOT attend their neighborhood school) here’s what the research found:

Parents, especially low-income parents, actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars — preferences that can outweigh academics.

And what are the factors that parents value?

The study split families up into thirds based on the median income in their census tract. What they found was that the lowest-income New Orleans families were even more likely to pick schools that were close by, that offered extended days, and that had football and band in high school — and, conversely, they had a weaker preference for schools based on test scores.

This last point is crucial because it suggests that a choice-based system all by itself won’t necessarily increase equity… These parents appear to be more interested in factors other than academic quality as the state defines it. Maybe they have access to different, or less, information. If this is true, choice could actually increase, rather than diminish, achievement gaps within a city.

Based on my experience this is not at all surprising. The proximity means greater convenience and less of a “hassle cost”. What parent wants to put their child on a bus or drive them across town when the nearby school is comparable. The extended days provide working parents with child care for their elementary children. And good “football and band programs” are far more important to loosely engaged parents than “test scores”. Finally, parents are wise to the fact that test scores are not a reliable proxy for “quality” despite what politicians, economists, psycho-metricians, and privatizers believe. Informed parents, like informed travelers, rely less and less on metrics conceived by organization like AAA or Mobil Travel Guides and more and more on word-of-mouth reviews found in Trip Advisor.

There IS a lesson in all of this for public schools: instead of introducing “choice” they might provide all schools with after school programs and a robust extra-curricular program. Parents could opt out of the extended day if they wished to provide their children with less structured activities or activities different from those offered by the schools and extra-curriculars would remain optional. Oh… and last but not least… replace the test-driven metrics with “costumer reports” like those found in Trip Advisor.


The Disappearing Middle Class and Burgeoning School Population in Poverty

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Over the past several days, several articles cited a the Southern Education Foundation report indicating that more than half of the students in public schools qualify for free and reduced lunches. Yesterday’s Kennebec Journal editorial posted on line in had the strongest response to this finding. Titled “Public Schools Must Lead the Fight Against Poverty”, the editorial leads with this paragraph:

In the fight against poverty, public schools are the first line of defense. Teachers, counselors and administrators are in the best position to notice when a student is not getting enough food, doesn’t have the proper clothing or is otherwise experiencing something at home that makes learning difficult, and it is those adults who are in the best position to see that student gets the help he needs so that school is not such a struggle.

The article then enumerates all the ways public schools can intervene and assist students who enter with deficient academic and social skills and pulls no punches when it comes to the solution: more funding will be needed to accomplish all that public schools can and, according to the editors, must achieve if we hope to overcome the effects of poverty.

Midway through the editorial there is a brief paragraph offering an explanation of why the percentage of public school students raised in poverty is increasing:

There are a number of reasons for the increase — a rise in single-parent households and immigration, increased enrollment at private schools by those with means and stagnant wages amid rising costs — but the latest recession is not one of them.

NYTimes article in today’s newspaper provides a more detailed picture of the economic forces at play and the demographics of the “middle class” today as compared to 15 years ago:

But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom. At the same time, fewer of those in this group fit the traditional image of a married couple with children at home, a gap increasingly filled by the elderly.

The Times article shows that as people of my generation retire with pensions and social security, the percentage of over-65 members of the middle class is increasing. At the same time the unionized manufacturing jobs that offered decent wages and benefits to my generation are disappearing and being replaced by lower paying part-time jobs. The Times articles offers several profiles of middle class wage earners with school aged children who have fallen into the poverty range and while it doesn’t describe the impact on children it is obvious: job losses and wage decreases can only cause stress at home.

The Kennebec Journal editorial concludes with this assessment of what the public needs to do given the presence of so many children being raised in poverty:

The solution is a commitment to public education and all it has to accomplish.

That means not only valuing and rewarding the best educators, but also funding the pre-K and literacy programs that help low-income students get a fair start to school, as well as the preparatory and counseling initiatives that help them apply for and go to college.

That also means supporting the school-based social service programs that feed, clothe and counsel low-income students, and keep them engaged and learning after school and during the summer break.

It’s not easy, and it is certainly not cheap. But it is necessary. Failing to provide an equal education to low-income students is unfair when they make up a third of all students. When they make up more than half of all students, it’s a potential disaster.

To which I can only say: “Amen”.


Cuomo Declares “Crisis” Where None Exists, and Somewhere Reagan is Smiling

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

I have read several articles and posts about Mario Cuomo’s State of the State speech wherein he declares that NYS schools are in a state of crisis…. but the NYTimes looked into the issue a couple of days ago and found no evidence to support that assertion. This quote captures the findings of independent education researchers:

In any case, experts said it would be hard to justify describing the situation in New York as a crisis, unless persistent mediocrity itself were a crisis. “Since the early ’90s, New York scored about average, and nothing’s changed,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, of the NAEP scores. “If New York schools are in a state of crisis, they’ve been in a state of crisis for 20 years.”

Well something HAS changed. It seems that Mr. Cuomo and his “reform” minded friends who operate or invest in privatized charter schools need to have a crisis declared in order to continue their expansion into the “market” of public education. A manufactured “crisis” will help accelerate the spread of these for-profit institutions across the state.

It also seems that Mr. Cuomo has joined the majority of governors who face financial challenges in declaring the “failure of public education” on “bad teachers”. Mr. Cuomo made the link explicit in his speech:

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, drew a contrast between students’ performance on state tests and teachers’ performance on their annual evaluations. Noting that only a third of students passed the state’s new reading and math tests, and that the vast majority of teachers received good marks, he said the current evaluation system was “baloney” and called for it to be made more stringent.

In Mr. Cuomo’s world there would be fewer “bad teachers” and higher test scores if only the evaluation systems were more stringent. But, as noted in earlier posts, Mr. Cuomo has created the low test score by instituting inappropriately scaled tests and Mr. Cuomo’s analysis of the evaluation systems overlooks the fact that many weak teachers leave the profession when they learn that they might be non-renewed, an action that requires no action by the local Board and is largely unreported in board minutes. Acknowledging that administrators are carefully and thoughtfully evaluating new teachers would not support the “crisis” narrative, though, and so it is unreported in the media and unappreciated by the public.

In declaring a “crisis” where none exists Mr. Cuomo is using the playbook of former President Ronald Reagan, “the great communicator” who declared government as the problem and appointed Terrell Bell whose publication “A Nation At Risk” started the whole meme of “failing schools”. Mr. Reagan would be pleased to see the son of one of his staunch liberal opponents extolling the virtues of the marketplace in public schools.

Citizens United and School Reform

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Zephyr Teachout, whose candidacy against incumbent NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo was surprisingly strong, wrote an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes titled “Legal Bribery“. The column decries the effects of Citizens United on the way business is conducted in politics. Using the recent arraignment of Speaker of the House Sheldon Silver as a springboard for her analysis, Teachout describes the way campaign contributions can impact political decision making and lead to outright bribery:

Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one.

I read this on the heels of reading a recent blog post by Diane Ravitch about campaigns in Douglas County, CO, where pro-privatization candidates won elections and began to dismantle a schools system that was not encountering any serious difficulties. That led me to post this comment:

There is an effect of campaign finance that should disturb public education advocates like Ms. Teachout: investors in privatized public education are underwriting the campaigns of “reform” candidates who favor the replacement of “failing” public schools with for-profit charters. If you don’t think this is happening now read Diane Ravitch’s blog where you’ll see many examples… this one for example:

And state residents must wonder why “school reform” is a front burner issue in NY, NJ, and CT whose schools are performing far better than headlines and their governors want you to believe. Perhaps a look at campaign financing could shed some light on this issue as well.

I realize that there are differences between the kind of campaign contributions Teachout cites and the ones frequently recounted in Diane Ravitch’s column.

  • Governors and state legislators oversee a wide array of functions and, therefore, have many more opportunities to receive campaign funds with implicit quid pro quos.
  • Their elections, particularly those of Governor, tend to generate more coverage and, therefore, engage a higher percentage of the electorate.
  • Contributors interested in providing privatization services need to spend more money to get a state official elected than getting a local official elected.

All of this makes local school board elections and/or elections of “undercard” positions like State Board or State or County Superintendents a relatively cost-effective way to make inroads in privatization. And these “investments” have two benefits: they are completely transparent and, therefore, more defensible; and they can achieve results more rapidly.

Candidates who run on “reform” campaigns are often clear about their intentions and appeal to those who want to be certain their taxes will not increase. By promoting the virtues of the marketplace and the “failure” of public schools candidates can run on platforms that make it clear they are advocating privatization and, if they choose to or need to, accept donations from any number of enterprises that will offer privatization services with a straight face. The campaign contributions in this case mirror the explicit principles of the candidate. They are, in effect, no different than the Sierra Club contributions received by a pro-environmental candidate.

Most importantly to an investor in privatization, once a school board has a majority of pro-privatization candidates, change can occur democratically AND rapidly. By raising hands at a board meeting it would be possible to replace “failing” public schools with for-profit charters or possible to institute some form of vouchers within the constitutional framework of the state, or possible to close all the schools and replace them with for-profit charters. There will be pushback from those who opposed the candidates platforms— especially those who neglected to vote and especially those who would be effected by the closure of schools.

This direction for public education is difficult to reverse once it gets started… and, unfortunately, “the train has already left the station” in several states. As the analysis above indicates, campaign reform won’t necessarily fix the problem: only voter engagement will work… and voters seem to be slow to recognize the demise of their locally controlled public schools.


This Just In: Spending More For Schools DOES Matter

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

In a study that was cited in many articles over the past few days, economists C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico report that spending more for schools makes a difference… especially in schools service children raised in poverty. Specifically, their study shows that “a 10 percent increase in spending, on average, leads children to complete 0.27 more years of school, to make wages that are 7.25 percent higher and to have a substantially reduced chance of falling into poverty.” And wait… there’s more!

  • An educated work force earns more and spends more, increasing the strength of the overall economy.
  • An educated electorate is more civil and forward thinking making discourse more rational and decision making more sound.
  • Educated citizens commit fewer crimes thereby reducing social costs.
  • An evenly educated workforce would have less inequality, making it increasingly easy and less expensive to educate children in the future.

But there IS one hitch, as BloombergView blogger Noah Smith notes:

The (study) finds that the benefits of increased spending are much stronger for poor kids than for wealthier ones. So if you, like me, are in the upper portion of the U.S. income distribution, you may be reading this and thinking: “Why should I be paying more for some poor kid to be educated?” After all, why should one person pay the cost while another reaps the benefits?

While I wish Smith’s questions were rhetorical and irrelevant, they are, sadly, direct and practical. Maybe in our country where we still believe a good education is important in order to achieve a good life we might convince voters that providing more money to schools serving children who are raised in poverty is the right thing to do because it provides every child with an opportunity to succeed.

Blackstone Group CEO Takes Hypocrisy to New Levels

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

International Business Times reporter David Sirota posted a story on January 23 about a speech given at Davos by Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, a report that seemed so far fetched that I needed to make certain it was not from a satirical source. Schwarzman, “who was once rumored to have likened tax increases to Hitler invading Poland”, suggested that public education was not lacking resources. Why?

“In the Catholic schools they spend much less money than the public schools, and they get amazing results. Private schools spend much more money than the public schools and they get remarkable results. So as an analyst, this can’t be just about money because you keep having great outcomes regardless of that. And so I would suggest that there are a lot of ways to be successful in education. It’s usually good to have more resources of all types, but you can make due with a lot less and have great outcomes in large scale.”

And how would Schwarzman suggest schools provide more services to children? With volunteer retirees who will work for free and unemployed who will work for “next to nothing”…. oh and “technology and other types of things“. Really!

“I’ve always wondered, what you do in a society with people who just retire. If you could get those people, like a board, [to be an] unpaid workforce, pay them next to nothing or nothing, and have them go into the school system to be mentors to kids, and be an example of a certain type of success that you would get dramatically different outcomes. If you can get unemployed people that cost nothing, that can have this dramatic difference, that costs nothing. I love things that cost nothing that have great results. Imagine if you laid on technology and other types of things, you could really set the world on fire with this type of stuff.”

This from a CEO who has also defended the outrageous salaries paid to financial analysts because those sums are needed to attract and retain talent.

This from a CEO who touted Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s efforts to let religious groups run unpaid student mentorship programs in public schools.

This from a CEO who has 1/3 of his investment pool comprised of money from public pension plans — that is, the retirement money of government employees like public school teachers.

To paraphrase one of the commenters to this post, if this is what billionaires are saying publiclyimagine what they are saying when the doors are closed!



Kansas: Funding For Shareholders and Fundamentalists?

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, the US edition of  The Guardian posted an article by Sarah Smarsh on the state of public education in Kansas.  As reported in  earlier blog posts, KS finds itself in a funding crisis because their Governor has lowered taxes to entice the expansion of business and recently lost a Supreme Court case filed by a parent who felt that KS was not sufficiently funding its schools and that lack of funding resulted unconstitutional inequities. The Guardian suggests that the Governor or the legislature, which is sympathetic to his cause, might offer a solution that would not only please the court, but would also please privatization advocates like the Koch bothers who live in KS and the large number of fundamental Christians: vouchers. If the legislature closed public schools and offered vouchers to parents that could be used in any school at all, fundamentalists could open private academies to address their concerns about the secular humanism rampant in public education and the Koch brothers’ kindred spirits could open for profit charters and taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay any more money at all. It would be a win-win-win for the taxpayers, the fundamentalists, and the profiteers… but it would be dreadful for the very students whose parent filed the lawsuit because it would end public education as we know it today.

Smarsh notes parallels between Brown v Board of Education in 1954 and this case today, one of which was that the plaintiffs in both cases were pastors of churches. She writes:

It was a good legal strategy that a longtime Christian clergyman became the namesake for Gannon v Kansas (the lawsuit seeking funding equity), a lawsuit bent on increasing funding for a secular institution. Similarly, in Brown v Board some 60 years ago, Topeka dad Oliver Brown took the title spot for being a respected pastor. The two cases contain plenty more parallels, and if there was a poor people’s movement to match the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century today, people would be marching in the streets – not to desegregate schools but to keep them open.

Unfortunately for those of us who want to see a strong and vibrant public education system, the poor people whose children are being shortchanged cannot see how the system is working against them and taking tax revenues to either promote religion or increase profits. The war against the poor is subtler than racism but every bit as pernicious… and seemingly as intractable.