Archive for February, 2015

For Profit Colleges Are The Real Villain

February 28, 2015 Comments off

Cathy O’Neill gets it completely right in this post, which includes the stunning report that for-profit Corinthian “…obtained $1.4 billion in federal grant and loan dollars in 2010 alone, more than the 10 University of California campuses combined for that same year” and this great quote: “When education becomes a profit center, things go awry: admissions counselors become salespeople, students become consumers to be wrung for every last dime, and administrators become executives who cash out while students and taxpayers are left with the tab.” And we want to “reform” monopoly public schools by replacing them with deregulated for profit charter schools?


Scott Walker has recently made waves in Wisconsin by surreptitiously attempting to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin, and by threatening to remove $300 million of federal aid to the University of Wisconsin, citing the “laziness of professors” as a problem in need of a solution. On the one hand, he’s right to say there’s a crisis in higher education. But on the other hand, he has the wrong villain.

Instead of focusing on state schools like U of W, we should be investigating the toxic for-profit college industry. For-profit colleges have mushroomed in the last decade and tend to represent themselves as a solution to a very real problem; namely, that it’s become increasingly difficult to get a good job out of high school.

People who have been told to get a degree to pull themselves out of poverty are often faced with two options: enrolling at…

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Common Core vs. State Standards

February 28, 2015 Comments off

Reading “Happy Talk History”,Timothy Egan’s NYTimes column yesterday, and “Who Should Decide How Students Learn About America’s Past”, Jacoba Urist’s Atlantic post earlier this week reminded me how important it is to have a uniform set of academic standards for our country, standards that we can find broad agreement on and expect all our students to master. Both columns address the legislative debacle in Oklahoma where a fundamentalist Christian member of the House in Oklahoma introduced a bill to defund AP History because it was too critical of America and to put in its place a curriculum that emphasized the Christian roots of our country. Happily the bill was ditched after the committee voted 11-4 to advance it, in large measure because of the huge national embarrassment the legislation created for the state.

But I fear the re-write of history by Oklahoma’s legislature is a sneak preview of what will happen if the federal government gives States “flexibility” to set their own standards and devise their own accountability measures. The reauthorization of No Child Left Behind intends to do just that and, in doing so, will presumably address the concerns of both those who believe we are testing kids too much and those who believe the federal government is imposing its will on states through the Common Core. If States like Oklahoma are giving the chance to write their own curriculum Common Core opponents may have regrets… and yes, I know the Common Core is limited to Math and Reading but if states are allowed to set standards what will preclude them from setting standards in science that deny global warming and question evolution or setting standards in history that gloss over the troubling past we have with regard to slavery and the treatment of native Americans. And those who believe we are placing too much emphasis on tests may rue the day Andrew Cuomo’s “reforms” are put in place instead of those advocated by Arne Duncan… and Cuomo’s test-based “reforms” may be tame compared to what comes out of the midwest or south. Indeed, it is not too hard to envision a “testing” race analogous to an “arms race” or “the war on drugs”… a testing race where states try to outdo each other by setting every increasingly impossibly high standards to prove they are more rigorous than their neighbors.

I am not at all unhappy to see Arne Duncan’s wings clipped, but AM disappointed that President Obama used Race to the Top as his signature “education reform”. Instead of insisting that states use computers to administer standardized tests he could have insisted that states use technology to help each student develop individualized learning plans. Instead of moving toward a one-size-fits-all curriculum mode he could have gone where Vermont is headed. The inability of Congress to modify NCLB created a crisis early in Obama’s administration, a crisis that was amplified by the economic crisis the nation was facing. Obama wasted both his political capital and capital investment on Race To The Top… and that, more than anything, led to the pushback against the federal government that is being addressed in the reauthorization. He’s sowed the wind and is reaping the whirlwind.

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Cuomo Arousing Sleeping Giants

February 27, 2015 Comments off

When I was Superintendent in Dutchess County NY the union president at the time lamented the fact that the younger members of the union had no appreciation for the battles she and her generation fought to secure the wages, benefits and working conditions that were a “given” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The grassroots political activism of the unions was nascent and the sound economy at that time made it relatively easy to achieve collective bargaining agreements that both the taxpayers and the unions found acceptable. As a result parents, taxpayers, and teachers unions experienced a relatively positive relationship and public education was viewed in a generally positive light.

Since that time, and especially since the implementation of universal standardized testing that resulted from the passage of No Child Left Behind, the public has been fed a steady diet of reports that “public schools are failing” and the only solution is to close them down and turn them over to the states. The “failing schools” meme was not enough for some politicians, however. Governors like Scott Walker and Andrew Cuomo assigned blame for the “failing schools” on “incompetent teachers” who are protected by “union contracts”… and instead of advocating the passage of laws that would streamline dismissal procedures for administrators or enable local school boards to remove arguably excessive and complicated procedural protections, Mr. Walker and Mr. Cuomo sought to eliminate unions altogether and impose invalid means of evaluations that would presumably identify the “incompetent teachers” whose performance was responsible for the low standardized test scores.

This tactic worked for Scott Walker in Wisconsin: he’s eviscerated the public employee unions in his state and imposed irrational and irresponsible teacher evaluation methods with the full support of the legislature and yesterday used that “crushing victory” as evidence that he can take on ISIS. Andrew Cuomo is about to see if he can pull off a similar tactic in NYS… but in doing so he is awaking two sleeping giants: the teachers unions and public school parents.

Those union members who have been inactive for decades are seeing that their jobs threatened and their existence challenged and they are getting aroused. And, as noted in an earlier post, without prompting from the unions the parents organizations in schools across NYC and the state are getting aroused as well. And as videos like the one I linked to earlier today are circulated more and more parents will see how Mr. Cuomo’s “reforms” designed to address a “crisis” ultimately undermine local control and local schools.

Both Governor Walker and Governor Cuomo are arousing progressive-minded voters to realize that they need to find candidates to challenge the conservative and neoliberal leaders who are stripping unions of their contractual rights, parents and board members of control of their schools, and voters of their opportunity to weigh in on the direction their states are headed…. and democracy is taking a beating as a result.

200+ Blog Posts in a 22 Minute Video

February 27, 2015 Comments off

I posted this on Facebook on Thursday afternoon, shared it with Diane Ravitch at the same time, and now offer it here… If you want the philosophical basis for privatization, the “playbook” for privatization, and the consequences of privatization, click on this link… it summarizes at least 200 of my blog posts:

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A Letter from the Teachers at PS 321 in Brooklyn

February 26, 2015 Comments off

My grandson’s school, PS 295, also sent a letter opposing the bill. Here’s hoping more and more schools and school boards actively oppose this!

Diane Ravitch's blog

I received a letter from the teachers at PS 321. I have a direct connection to the school, as a member of my family is a student there. He loves school. He is in third grade. He is working on an essay whose topc he chose. He is researching “the Silk Road.” Last year, in second grade, he wrote about bioluminescence (I had to look it up.) this obviously a wonderful public school.

References in the letter are to Liz Phillips, the principal.

Here is the link:

Letter from PS 321 Teachers

February 23, 2015

Dear PS 321 Families,

It is with heavy hearts that we, the teachers at 321, reach out to you to ask for your help.

Governor Cuomo has proposed major changes to teacher evaluations in New York State. We want to let you know, from a teacher’s perspective, the changes this law could bring to…

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The Federal Government’s Leap from Charters to Vouchers

February 26, 2015 Comments off

The reporting on the wrangling going on in Congress relative to the reauthorization of NCLB plays up the Republicans-vs-Obama meme but misses several overarching points, which is unsurprising given the obfuscatory nomenclature being used by the legislators. Two articles, one by Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and another by Emma Brown of the Washington Post are long on the Duncan/Obama vs. House Republicans theme.

The Post article looks at the reauthorization through the national lens, quoting Arne Duncan’s characterization of the cuts to impoverished urban school districts as “devastating” and providing a chart that shows how the reduction in spending would play out in 33 such districts. It focussed on how the passage of the law would provide “Title 1 portability” allowing federal funds to be used wherever a child is enrolled in school and “…strip the federal Education Department of much of its current power, giving states far more latitude to decide how to define and intervene in struggling schools.”

The Journal article covers the portability issue but has less emphasis on Duncan-vs-the-House and more on how the cuts would impact Milwaukee schools, who stand to lose $159 million over six years if the new legislation passes. It also included more detailed description of the latitude that States would get as a result of the shift of power away from Washington:

Measuring student performance in schools would be left up to the states, the Common Core State Standards would be explicitly voluntary, (though they already are in Wisconsin and many other states) and the education secretary would not be able to encourage states to adopt educational standards by offering grant money or friendly agreements on other matters.

The House bill would continue annual, statewide testing requirements but states would have more authority to decide how to intervene in struggling schools and how to assess teachers. The federal government’s authority would be more limited.

As noted in the opening paragraph of this post, these article missed several overarching points:

  • Duncan’s pro-charter policies laid the groundwork for the notion of “portability”. By encouraging the expansion of private-for-profit charters within districts he effectively encouraged intra-district portability undercutting the notion of community schools and complicating a means of providing coordinated social services based on the students’ residence.
  • The Duncan/Obama “power grab” was a consequence of Congress’ inability to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, whose problems could have been solved legislatively since 2007 but didn’t because of the Republicans’ desire to move in the direction this bill will take them.
  • The term “Title I Portability” is Newspeak for Vouchers. Both articles use caveats to describe the term. The Journal writes: “Critics say Republicans are trying to open the door for federal funding to eventually follow low-income children into private, religious schools” and the Post writes: “…many Democrats see it as a first step toward federal vouchers that would allow students to use federal funding for private school enrollment.” As noted above, the door was opened and the first step taken when Duncan encouraged the spread of charter schools that allow intra-district portability. The obvious next step that is intended by this new wording is to allow the funds to go wherever the student enrolls.
  • Giving STATES the authority to decide how to intervene in failing schools, set standards, design assessments, and determine how teachers are evaluated is a giant step backward. One way States will “intervene” in failing districts is to provide them with vouchers. Indeed, as the Journal article notes, the concept of portability is already in place in many states and with 31 Republican Governors the notion will spread quickly across the country. When States set standards expect to see a de-emphasis on “controversial issues” like global warming, wars, evolution, and AP History and an emphasis on American Exceptionalism and junk science. And when States are allowed to develop assessments and evaluate teachers expect an expansion of VAM and a decline in the number of unionized teachers.
  • Giving STATES more authority to determine how to allocate funds to disadvantaged students is irresponsible given the fact that all but five states have been sued at one time or another for having unfair funding formulas.
  • The Journal quotes Duncan as characterizing the House bill as being “ reverse Robin Hood. You’re stealing from the poor to give to the rich” and later adding “When you’re moving scarce resources from poor districts to wealthy districts, what problem is that trying to solve?“. Reporters need to point out to Mr. Duncan that by enabling the expansion of for-profit deregulated charters he was doing the same thing! “Robin Hood in Reverse” is when “CEOs” of low performing charter schools and their shareholders make more money than urban superintendents and the teachers in those schools.

These overarching consequences are overlooked because they don’t fit neatly into a “Obama-vs-Republican” context… which is too bad because this oversight will lead to more inequality and less opportunity for children raised in poverty. Here’s hoping a voice outside of the Obama/Duncan sphere will speak up and point out the flaws in both the current RTTT and the proposed federal legislation.

Taxpayers Pay Ten Times Over for Schools… and Banks Love It!

February 25, 2015 Comments off

Taxpayers thrive on simplicity…. Banks thrive on complexity… and in the end those seeking simple solutions to complicated problems pay through the nose while those who understand complexity make money hand over fist.

Ellen Brown’s Truthdig blog post earlier this week explained how this chain of events played out in California… and how taxpayers “easy solution” to a complicated problem turned into “easy profits” for Goldman Sachs.

In the 1970s California voters passed a proposition that capped property taxes and made it extremely difficult for public schools to build new facilities. They did this because they wanted to save money. Over time, School Boards and parents needed to replace decaying and overcrowded facilities but couldn’t do so because of the caps on property taxes. The Governor at the time this confluence of events occurred didn’t want to raise taxes either… so when lobbyists for the banks approached him, the legislature, and key voters with a clever workaround in the form of a product called “Capital Appreciation Bonds” (CABs) everyone signed on… but as the second paragraph below indicates, paybacks on these CABs were daunting!

In 2009, the lenders’ lobbying group then proposed and promoted AB1388, a California bill eliminating the debt ceiling requirement on long-term debt for school districts. After it passed, bankers traveled all over the state pushing something called “capital appreciation bonds” (CABs) as a tool to vault over legal debt limits. (Think Greece again.) Also called payday loans for school districts, CABs have now been issued by more than 400 California districts, some with repayment obligations of up to 20 times the principal advanced (or 2000%).

The controversial bonds came under increased scrutiny in August 2012, following a report that San Diego County’s Poway Unified would have to pay $982 million for a $105 million CAB it issued. Goldman Sachs made $1.6 million on a single capital appreciation deal with the San Diego Unified School District.

Ellen Brown intimates that the sharks in the banking industry took advantage of the naiveté of school boards and administrators, but the real dupes in all of this were the voters who wanted to believe that there was a cheap, fast, and effective way to build new facilities and the politicians who never bothered to look closely at the too-good-to-be-true deal offered by banks. This naiveté on the part of voters and politicians was especially egregious given the melt-down caused by the banks promoting these “payday loans” one year prior it should have been a tip off that reading fine print was necessary. Nevertheless, Ms. Brown pulled no punches in assigning responsibility for these loans, in effect analogizing school districts with those who took out liar loans banks offered for McMansions:

Gullible school districts agreed to these payday-like loans because they needed the facilities, the voters would not agree to higher taxes, and state educational funding was exhausted. School districts wound up sporting shiny new gymnasiums and auditoriums while they were cutting back on teachers and increasing classroom sizes. (AB1388 covers only long-term capital improvements, not daily operating expenses.) The folly of the bonds was reminiscent of those boondoggles pushed on Third World countries by the World Bank and IMF, trapping them under a mountain of debt that continued to compound decades later.

She does offer two ways to solve this problem, noting that the Federal Reserve COULD have issued its own low interest loans to municipalities thereby cutting out the profiteering middlemen or California districts COULD learn a lesson from North Dakota, which is the only state with its own depository bank. In contrast to the legislative debacle that led to interest payments that were ten times more than the face value of the loan:

The state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND) was making 1% loans to school districts even in December 2014, when global oil prices had dropped by half. That month, the BND granted a $10 million construction loan to McKenzie County Public School No. 1, at an interest rate of 1% payable over 20 years. Over the life of the loan, that works out to $.20 in simple interest or $.22 in compound interest for every $1 borrowed. Compare that to the $15 owed for every dollar borrowed by Anaheim’s Savanna School District or the $10 owed for every dollar borrowed by Santa Ana Unified.

How can the BND afford to make these very low interest loans and still turn a profit? The answer is that its costs are very low. It has no exorbitantly-paid executives; pays no bonuses, fees, or commissions; pays no dividends to private shareholders; and has low borrowing costs. It does not need to advertise for depositors (it has a captive deposit base in the state itself) or for borrowers (it is a wholesale bank that partners with local banks, which find the borrowers). The BND also has no losses from derivative trades gone wrong. It engages in old-fashioned conservative banking and does not speculate in derivatives. Unlike the vampire squids of Wall Street, it is not motivated to maximize its bottom line in a predatory way. Its mandate is simply to serve the public interest.

A bank that is required to “simply serve the public interest” is an idea whose time has arrived. I know that some progressive economists have advocated such a plan… but this article by Ellen Brown explains how this idea would help public schools relieve their debts and thereby free up more funds to help children in the classroom.