NH Voucher Bill Needs to Address One Key Question: Why Aren’t “New” Funds Being Used to Address Inequity?

January 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Our local newspaper today features an article by a local reporter who looked at the benefits of SB193, a bill designed to provide de facto vouchers to parents. The article profiled a homeschooling parent and a local priest who hopes to open a parochial school in a nearby community, Claremont, that is involved in a lawsuit seeking equitable state funding. The article led to me writing a letter to the editor, which is pasted below:

Rob Wolfe’s article in Tuesday’s Valley News understates the adverse impact to public education that will result from the passage of SB 193, the New Hampshire bill establishing education savings accounts for students. His article overlooks one key question: How can legislators who claim there is no money available to address the lawsuits dealing with inequitable funding of public education in New Hampshire suddenly find funds for “stabilization grants” to underwrite vouchers for homeschoolers and private and parochial schools? I believe advocates for SB 193 need to explain to cash-strapped public schools like Claremont where the additional funding for “stabilization grants” will come from and why that additional funding isn’t being used to help those public schools who have been shortchanged for years.




University of Illinois Professor Links Sessions’ Rollback on Civil Rights with DeVos’s Choice Advocacy

January 22, 2018 Leave a comment

In a blistering op ed piece in yesterday’s Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, Sundiata Cha-Jua, professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois, links Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rollback on civil rights legislation with Betsy DeVos’ advocacy for school choice. The result is a narrative about the racism inherent in the Trump administration that is chilling and hard to refute. Ms. Cha-Jua opens her essay with these paragraphs:

Though often ridiculed by his master, Emperor Trump, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions has meticulously moved to roll U.S. law, policy and social relations back toward the 19th century.

Given his success in nullifying Department of Justice consent decrees with municipal police departments and his commitment to reversing voting rights and immigration policies, and reviving racialized mass incarceration, it’s understandable that the attorney general has become the focus of anti-fascist social movements. However, Elizabeth “Betsy” Devos, the emperor’s education secretary, is pursuing a similar backward agenda. She has similarly nullified sensible and humane policies on campus sexual assault, civil rights protections for transgendered students, refused to enforce regulations on for-profit-colleges and has vigorously advocated for vouchers and charter schools.

Ms. Cha-Jua then describes how Ms. DeVos’ religious convictions inform her desire to offer publicly funded vouchers for children to attend religiously affiliated schools, and how the voucher schemes she supports were used to keep schools in the South segregated after Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of that practice. Ms. Cha-Jua offers evidence that the deregulation of charters in Ms. DeVos’ home state of Michigan, deregulation that was the direct result of Ms. DeVos’ financial support for State legislators who shared her views, resulted in diminished funding for public education, lower test scores for those enrolled in deregulated charters, and increased segregation. She concludes her argument in opposition to Ms. DeVos’ deregulation movement noting that the “no excuses” charters that Ms. DeVos and reformers advocate push children of color out, avoiding the consequences of high drop-out rates while reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline that results in the higher rates of incarceration of African American children.

Ms. Cha-Jua concludes her essay with these two paragraphs:

Given these results, it’s not surprising the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter network called for a moratorium on charter schools.

Though her sphere is more limited, given the importance of public education, Devos’ promotion of charter schools is as dangerous as Sessions’ assault on civil rights.

Here I disagree with Ms. Cha-Jua: I believe Betsy DeVos’ promotion of charter schools is more dangerous because it is reinforcing the “sort-and-select” template of public education that reinforces the racism and racial and economic segregation that exists in our culture today. Public schools can be an incubator for inclusive and open-mindedness that is essential for democracy, but only they provide an equal opportunity for all children and encourage divergent thinking. Charter schools, especially those based on religious convictions and those that do not accept all children, do the opposite. We have educated a generation that believes standardized test scores are a valid basis for identifying the best and brightest despite the evidence that standardized test scores are highly correlated with wealth and the education of one’s parents. Until we acknowledge that reality we will continue to eliminate opportunities for those born into poverty, many of whom could achieve the same degree of success as their more affluent cohorts IF they had the same opportunity.


Unsurprising Results in Online Courses: Self-Actualized Learners Do Fine… Others, Not So Well

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

The NYTimes featured an op ed article by University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski earlier this week with the unsurprising headline: “Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need Help the Most“. The article describes a study that concluded that “…the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.” But, as Ms. Dynarsky notes, these are the very students who are being steered into online coursework in the name of efficiency and equity.

Online learning is more efficient. After all, a single teacher— or in some cases and single teacher and an algorithm— can oversee hundreds of students working online. But too often, online courses are used for the purpose of credit restoration, and when students “pass” an online credit restoration course they gain far less understanding than students who take the same content face-to-face. But passing as many students as possible is important when the metric for “success” is pass rates and if one can achieve a pass rate using computers it saves a substantial amount in the budget.

Online learning can provide equity, but only if the students are highly motivated. As Ms. Dynarsky writes:

Online courses have many real benefits… They can help high achievers in need of more advanced coursework than their districts provide through other means. This is especially true in small, rural districts that offer few specialized, traditional courses for students working ahead of their grades.

A study in Maine and Vermont examined the effect of online courses on eighth graders with strong math skills in schools that didn’t offer face-to-face algebra classes. Students were randomly assigned either to online algebra or to the less challenging, standard math offered in traditional classes.

Both groups of students were tested at the end of the school year. The online algebra students did substantially better than their counterparts in standard classrooms. They were also twice as likely to complete advanced math later in high school.

Having worked in rural schools, this result is unsurprising. Often small schools enroll weaker students in a course labelled as “Algebra” in order to provide the course for children in their school… but many of the students in the course are only marginally prepared for the rigors. The online courses, though, are often limited to those students with “strong math skills”, which would account for the differential in performance at the conclusion of the course.

The real damage done to struggling students occurs at the higher education level:

n colleges, especially in nonselective and for-profit schools, online education has expanded rapidly, too, with similar effects. These schools disproportionately enroll low-income students who are often the first in their families to attend college. Such students tend to drop out of college at very high rates. Students with weak preparation don’t fare well in online college classes, as recent researchby professors at Harvard and Stanford shows.

These scholars examined the performance of hundreds of thousands of students at DeVry University, a large for-profit college with sites across the country. DeVry offers online and face-to-face versions of all its courses, using the same textbooks, assessments, assignments and lecture materials in each format. Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enroll online do substantially worse.

The effects are lasting, with online students more likely to drop out of college altogether. Hardest hit are those who entered the online class with low grades. Work by researchers in many other colleges concurs with the DeVry findings: The weakest students are hurt most by the online format.

And to make matters worse, these for-profit “colleges” often use false advertising to entice enrollees who take out loans to pay— or more accurately OVERpay– for the courses they take. Ms. Dynarksy leads this conclusion out of her analysis: This scam, more than anything, adds to the student loan crisis facing our country.


This Just In: Privatizing Profiteers Benefit from and Exacerbate Racial and Economic Segregation

January 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Washington Post blog post by Valerie Strauss consists of an interview of author Nowile Rooks whose latest book, Cutting School, is summarized in one telling quote that leads Ms. Strauss’ post:

“If we as a nation really took seriously dismantling underperforming school districts and replacing them with the same types of educational experiences we provide the wealthy, it would negatively impact the bottom lines of many companies.” — Noliwe M. Rooks

In Ms. Strauss’ interview, Ms. Rooks provides a narrative on how segregation began after the Civil War, how it flourished and was supported by law until the mid-1950s, and how it continues today. But Ms. Rooks asserts that the privatization of public education has made the situation even worse, and that any policy that seeks to end segregation by race (or, by implication of her analysis, income) would likely run afoul of the investor class whose campaign contributions to conservatives and neoliberals ensure the perpetuation of our current system:

Students educated in wealthy schools perform well as measured by standard educational benchmarks. Students educated in poor schools do not. Racial and economic integration is the one systemic solution that we know ensures the tide will lift all educational boats equally. However, instead of committing to educating poor children in the same way as we do the wealthy, or actually with the wealthy, we have offered separate educational content (such as a reoccurring focus on vocational education for the poor) and idiosyncratic forms of educational funding and delivery (such as virtual charter schools and cyber education) as substitutes for what we know consistently works. While not ensuring educational equality, such separate, segregated, and unequal forms of education have provided the opportunity for businesses to make a profit selling schooling. 

Ms. Rooks coined a term for this phenomenon: “segrenomics”. And this paragraph on how it works could have been lifted from “Reinventing Government” or any treatise coming from libertarian think tanks:

I am calling this specific form of economic profit “segrenomics.” Children who live in segregated communities and are Native American, black or Latino are more likely to have severely limited educational options. In the last 30 years, government, philanthropy, business and financial sectors have heavily invested in efforts to privatize certain segments of public education; stock schools with inexperienced, less highly paid teachers whose hiring often provides companies with a “finder’s fee”; outsource the running of schools to management organizations; and propose virtual schools as a literal replacement for — not just a supplement to — the brick and mortar educational experience.

The attraction, of course, is the large pot of education dollars that’s been increasingly available to private corporate financial interests. The public education budget funded by taxpayers is roughly $500 billion to $600 billion per year. Each successful effort that shifts those funds from public to private hands — and there has been a growing number of such efforts since the 1980s — escalates corporate earnings.

In short, these privatized for-profit schools are designed to benefit shareholders first and foremost and if children learn as a result it is a collateral benefit.  Is there any way out of this trend given the money being spent by philanthropists and profiteers, the relentless message that privatized for-profit market driven schools are better than “government schools”, and the desire to keep taxes low at all costs? Ms. Rooks’ interview concludes with this:

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos?” I often reflect on his questions when thinking about where the contemporary paths we are traveling in relation to public education are leading. I think community or chaos are two potential destinations. We have to stop and reflect on where both our educational preferences and policies are leading us. We can either continue to encourage chaos by allowing our tax dollars to be used to educationally experiment on working class and poor children, and disrupt poor communities by closing schools, or we can embrace community by requiring that poor children are educated in the same ways as the wealthy.

The choices we make are will tell future generations much of what they will need to know about what our democracy means to us here in the 21st century.

I have been consulting in rural Vermont communities who are trying to answer a variation of this question. The legislature in Vermont passed a bill that encouraged town school districts to voluntarily merge into multi-town union districts where their local schools would be represented by regional boards instead of locally. This bill rightly assumes that a single merged K-12 district will provide greater efficiency and, thus, greater savings. But many town bridle at the changes that come with regionalization: they fear that their towns might ultimately lose their public schools, which serve as community anchors. The overarching question is one of efficiency versus community: do we want to save every dollar we can in the name of reducing costs, even if it means eliminating our community? It is clear that some Vermont towns do not want the state imposing a new definition of “community” on them in the name of efficiency. It is also clear that some suburban and exurban towns and urban neighborhoods do not want the state government or city government imposing a definition of “community” on them in the name of segregation. In both cases the hearts and minds of individuals need to be changed. I believe we need to expand our definition of “Community” to be as inclusive as possible without abandoning the traditions that make our local “community” unique. It CAN be accomplished if we lower our voices, soften our positions, and open our hearts and minds.


A Seemingly Irresolvable Dilemma: Homeschooling Parents Want Absolute Liberty; States Have Obligation to Ensure Safety.

January 19, 2018 Leave a comment

The recent case in California involving parents who operated a “private school” with virtually no state oversight in order to hide  their mistreatment of the children raised the awareness of many people who were formerly unaware of the consequences of deregulation. But, as Politico Morning Edition writer Caitlin Emma reported, it was no surprise at all to Rachel Coleman, the executive director and co-founder of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.

“We see this again and again and again,” Coleman told Morning Education. “This case was almost textbook.”

Coleman and her co-founders, who were all home-schooled with both positive and negative experiences, launched the organization in 2013 to shed light on the lack of protections for many students educated at home and cases of abuse. They scour the Internet for cases to highlight, conduct research, field questions and concerns from individuals and families, provide resources and help state lawmakers draft legislation to bolster protections.

Coleman said she has been fielding a lot of calls this week from reporters “shocked” to learn of the nation’s lax home-school laws after news of the California case broke. “The thing about home schooling is, it gives parents an awful lot of freedom and it doesn’t give any freedom to the kids,” she said. “In the hands of healthy, well-meaning parents who really care about their kids’ best interests, it can be a good thing. But there’s nothing preventing parents from using those freedoms to create absolute horror.”

Ms. Coleman goes on to note that California is hardly the only state with lax oversight when it comes to homeschooling and/or private schools: 14 other states only ask that parents notify the state if they intend to homeschool their children and 11 other states “…don’t require (homeschool) parents to have any contact with state or local officials”. Her organization fully supports the right for parents to homeschool, but advocates that regulations be in place that require homeschool children to “…have regular doctor’s visits” in order to ensure that they “…are seen somewhat regularly by people who are obligated to report child abuse or neglect.”

While this seems like an eminently reasonable requirement, it is opposed by some homeschool advocacy groups like the Home School Legal Defense Association who see ANY mandates that open the door to “the State” as a means of stripping the liberty of parents. Ms Emma reports on a recent interview of the Home School Legal Defense Association’s president Mike Smith for KNX, an AM radio station in Los Angeles.

“This is a liberty issue,” Smith said during the interview. “And unless it can be proven that parents are not responsibly teaching their children at home, then the state has no interest … And the other thing is, whether we like it or not, in America, there’s no fundamental right for a child to have an education. Do I believe there should be? Absolutely. That’s the reason I’m in home schooling … That’s the reason most families are involved in home schooling. They want their children to have an excellent education and they want to be able to guide and direct them. And if you bring the state in, once they get involved … the state simply wants to take more and more of that liberty.”

Will the 25 states that have virtually no regulatory oversight on home schoolers revisit their stance on this and, at the very least, adopt the position of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education? Given the lack of courage in most Statehouses and legislatures, I doubt it. And while few children are tortured in their homes, as Ms. Coleman of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education notes, many children will have their liberty diminished.

Iowa Legislature Debating Bible Literacy. It SHOULD Debate Funding Inequity… for “Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”

January 19, 2018 Leave a comment

The Google feed that provides articles on public education today linked me to a Des Moines Register article by Mackenzie Ryan describing legislation under consideration in the Iowa House that would require schools to offer courses on “Bible Literacy” and would require the State Department of Education to develop the guidelines for that course.

I recalled that Iowa was one of many states struggling with equitable funding, and a quick Google search led me to this Iowa Gazette article by Molly Duffy describing the funding inequities that exist in Iowa, inequities that are likely to be exacerbated if the cuts to the USDOE budget are enacted as part of the budget deal under consideration in Congress.

It is maddening to see time being spent on immaterial and unconstitutional issues like teaching religion in public schools, particularly in cases where the legislatures should be tackling tough issues like funding disparities. But if Iowa should be required to offer a course on Bible literacy, I suggest the State Department’s curriculum include these verses:

2 Corinthians 8:13

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.

James 2:1-5

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

Proverbs 20:10

Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord.


This Just In: Common Core Benchmarks Unattainable in ANY Country in the World

January 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The National Superintendents Roundtable and Horace Mann League released a report yesterday that included several findings that contradict the “failing schools” narrative set forth decades ago by the Reagan administration and built upon by every administration thereafter. The primary take away from the report is this:

Globally, in just about every nation where it is possible to compare student performance with our national benchmarks, the vast majority of students cannot demonstrate their competence because the bars are set unreasonably high.

And as the report notes at the outset, this inability for students to demonstrate competence is intentional:

One motivation for establishing the NAEP benchmarks was the desire to demonstrate that “large numbers of students were failing,” according to a former New York Times national education correspondent.

A rushed process for developing the benchmarks was adopted by the policy body governing NAEP – despite experts’ objections – in part because a prominent member of the policy body acknowledged he was “fed up with technical experts.”

It isn’t difficult to adjust cut scores on tests to “prove” students are improving OR failing… and it isn’t difficult for “think tanks” to generate “benchmarks” that have some official seal of approval that is untethered to the realities of child development or the realities of teaching students from challenging backgrounds. And, unfortunately, it isn’t difficult to persuade the public that their public schools are “failing” as a result of attaining low scores on tests with impossibly high standards while implying that other nations are doing far better.

And here’s the saddest news of all: the “reformers” who want to undercut support for the institution of public schools are succeeding. According to a recent survey conducted by NPR, only 43% of the public has confidence in public schools. But educators should be heartened to know that the public has far more confidence in them than they have in Congress (8%), or either political party (29% for the GOP and 36% for the Democrats). Somewhere Ronald Reagan and his acolytes are happy, though. The voters all agree with his assertion that Government is the Problem. Our founding fathers, though, weep. Democracy counts on an electorate that supports public institutions… and the NPR survey shows that the only institution that has broad public support is… the military.