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Michigan Spent Millions for Charter Schools That Never Opened…. But Is Prepared to Spend Millions More

December 30, 2019 Comments off

Michigan Public Radio reporter Dustin Dwyer provided his listeners with a synopsis of a study done by the Network for Public Education (NPE) that determined that 72 of the 257 charter schools receiving federal funding never opened… a dubious record that was unmatched by any other state in the union. But that’s not the worst:

Another 40 charter schools in Michigan that received money have since closed. In total, 44% of the schools that won grants are no longer open.

Despite that, Michigan is moving ahead with the latest round of the federal program, which could send an additional $47 million to the state’s charter schools.

Mr. Dwyer reported that some of the Michigan State Board members expressed misgivings over the oversight of these funds, but the majority of members endorsed the continuation of the program and State Superintendent Michael Rice “…told members of the State Board of Education at a meeting Tuesday that he’s asking the Michigan Department of Education to keep a closer eye on funding for the next round of grants.” Given NPE’s analysis, it seems that he or his predecessor failed to do this in the past:

The report from the Network for Public Education lists several examples from Michigan in which charter school operators paid themselves, or their family members, tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees for schools that never opened.

Given the loose regulations governing charter schools it is no surprise that “entrepreneurs” are seizing the opportunity to make money at the expense of taxpayers. But those who favor the application of the marketplace model for the public sector will be quick to point out that failing schools, like failing restaurants, failing casinos, or failing hotels, will close. The collateral damage to the “customers” in schools, though, is more far reaching than the collateral damage to customers in other failed businesses.

Heartwarming Stories About Individuals Helping the Homeless, Churches Paying Medical Debts, and Gritty Students Undercut the Need for Government Aid

December 29, 2019 Comments off

I read a recent Rolling Stone article by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren that described how Russian trolls are planting “heartwarming stories” that attract liberals who are later fed stories and memes that are divisive. In analyzing how the Russian trolls work, they offered the story of former pro football player Warrick Dunn and his inspiring charity work building houses for single mothers, which was uplifting and inspirational. What Mr. Linvill and Mr. Warren failed to note, though, was that the story itself insidiously reinforces the notion that tough problems like homelessness among single parents can be addressed by big-hearted individuals. That is, tough social problems do not need any government intervention because there are virtuous individuals who will step in to solve the problem. The story may well entice people to follow the “individual” who posted it, but the content of the story effectively undercuts the role of government in providing housing assistance as do the “heartwarming stories” like the recent one I read about a mega church paying off the medical debts of people in LA.

And there is a subset of “heartwarming stories” that pro-school-choice and pro-privatization advocates promote. Stories that tout “gritty” students who overcome the deficient homes they are raised in. Stories that talk about heroic teachers like Jamie Escalante who can help disadvantaged children score high on AP Calculus tests despite gaps in their schooling they experienced prior to entering his classroom. Stories that champion the success of “start up” charter schools whose students score higher than their cohorts who remain in “failing public schools”. All of these stories reinforce the idea that there is sufficient funding for public schools and social services. If one student with grit can succeed then ALL children could succeed “if they put their minds to it”. If one teacher can teach calculus to disadvantaged urban students then ALL teachers could do so if they replicated the methods used by one. If one shiny new “start-up” charter school was able to succeed because it was freed from regulations and “competed in the marketplace” then ALL public schools should be able to do the same.

And these “heartwarming stories” contribute to divisiveness in communities and district in government as surely as the story about Warrick Dunn does. And the real message that these “heartwarming stories” reinforce is that there are cheap, easy and fast solutions to complicated problems. Unfortunately, even if such cheap, easy, and fast solutions exist, arriving at them requires a democratic process that is often more costly, slower, and more complicated.

The apocryphal story about the demise of democracy in Italy is that the voters got behind Mussolini because he was able to get the government operated trains to run on time. The fact is that Mussolini got the trains that served well-heeled tourists and affluent Italians to run on time knowing that by doing so he would generate positive publicity in the West and the support of the plutocrats in his own country. He also spent millions of dollars upgrading roads for the few Italians who had cars and airports for those who could afford to fly. If 100 people were killed building a train tunnel in the Alps and hundreds of poverty stricken residents were displaced to build roads and airports that was not at all problematic. After all, there would be jobs for them in the military, the police force, and guarding dissidents who were placed in prisons.

Our democracy is in peril because we are willing to ignore the costs or providing a sound government. We have elected a President and political party that favors deregulation and the dismantling of agencies that enforce whatever regulations remain in place. We have elected a President and political party that favors the privatization of public services even if it means diminishing compensation for a whole set of workers and diminishing levels of service for the majority of people. We have elected a President and political party who have lowered taxes for the most affluent based on the false promise that— like Warrick Dunn and the Los Angeles mega-church— they will share their largesse and expertise to ensure that everyone else benefits. I hope that voters will examine that premise carefully when they cast their ballots in 2020.

Today’s Collegians are Surveilled 24/7, in Keeping with In Loco Parentis Standards Set By Student’s Parents

December 27, 2019 Comments off

I was initially appalled when I read the headline in Drew Harwell’s Washington Post article that appeared earlier this week. It’s title, “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands”, led me to wonder why college students were accepting this surveillance… until I reflected on the upbringing of today’s students.

The students entering college today are the first generation to go through their lives being surveilled from cradle to campus. Their parents almost certainly had baby monitors in their rooms and, as part of the post-Columbine generation, likely attended schools with video monitors in the hallways. Upon entering adolescence, their parents purchased cell phones and provided them with phone service, enabling the parents to monitor their every movement and check on every text and phone call and monitor their screen time. In short, in loco parentis- the concept that colleges should keep track of students in the same fashion as parents, is far different in the age of telecommunications than it was when I entered college in the 1960s and when my children entered in the 1980s and 1990s. I was not surprised to read the reaction of one parent who was pleased with the impact of this kind of monitoring:

Some parents, however, wish their children faced even closer supervision. Wes Grandstaff, who said his son, Austin, transformed from a struggling student to college graduate… said the added surveillance was worth it…

He now says he wishes schools would share the data with parents, too. “I just cut you a $30,000 check,” he said, “and I can’t find out if my kid’s going to class or not?”

The article also offers a chilling description of how acceptable this kind of monitoring is to students today and how administrators justify its use based on the results:

This style of surveillance has become just another fact of life for many Americans. A flood of cameras, sensors and microphones, wired to an online backbone, now can measure people’s activity and whereabouts with striking precision, reducing the mess of everyday living into trend lines that companies promise to help optimize.

Americans say in surveys they accept the technology’s encroachment because it often feels like something else: a trade-off of future worries for the immediacy of convenience, comfort and ease. If a tracking system can make students be better, one college adviser said, isn’t that a good thing?

As a parent who did not have a baby monitor, I can appreciate the “convenience, comfort and ease” that such a device offers. It would have saved many trips up and down stairs to see if my daughter was really taking a nap and many nights of shuttling between our bedroom and hers when she was fighting a childhood illness. And as a high school disciplinarian in the late 1970s I would have appreciated the ability to remotely monitor distant hallways and to track students who were wandering off campus instead of attending class. But as a parent and school administrator, I have some misgivings about the overreach of technology, especially when it is being used to classify students and predict misbehavior as described in the article:

A classifier algorithm divides the student body into peer groups — “full-time freshmen,” say, or “commuter students” — and the system then compares each student to “normal” behavior, as defined by their peers. It also generates a “risk score” for students based around factors such as how much time they spent in community centers or at the gym.

The students who deviate from those day-to-day campus rhythms are flagged for anomalies, and the company then alerts school officials in case they want to pursue real-world intervention.

And what might that intervention looks like? In one case cited in the article, the university sent an adviser to knock on the student’s door. On one level, that kind of intercession seems invasive. Yet if the gathered data suggests the student is suicidal or, worse, contemplating and capable of carrying out some kind of shooting the institution would be faulted if it failed to act. This kind of conundrum contributes to the mixed responses of students, a response that is ultimately fatalistic given the ceaseless “advancement” of technology:

Students disagree on whether the campus-tracking systems are a breach of privacy, and some argue they have nothing to hide. But one feeling is almost universally shared, according to interviews with more than a dozen students and faculty members: that the technology is becoming ubiquitous, and that the people being monitored — their peers, and themselves — can’t really do anything about it.

But some administrators and students are rightfully concerned. Here’s the reaction of a disaffected administrator:

“It embodies a very cynical view of education — that it’s something we need to enforce on students, almost against their will,” said Erin Rose Glass, a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California San Diego. “We’re reinforcing this sense of powerlessness … when we could be asking harder questions, like: Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up?”

And here’s a disenchanted student’s reaction:

“We’re adults. Do we really need to be tracked?” said Robby Pfeifer, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, which recently began logging the attendance of students connected to the campus’ WiFi network. “Why is this necessary? How does this benefit us? … And is it just going to keep progressing until we’re micromanaged every second of the day?

Mr. Harwell does an admirable job of providing a balanced perspective on this difficult issue, his closing paragraphs reveal the paradoxical perspective on the issue of 24/7 surveillance:

Joanna Grama, an information-security consultant and higher-education specialist who has advised the Department of Homeland Security on data privacy, said she doubted most students knew they were signing up for long-term monitoring when they clicked to connect to the campus WiFi.

She said she worries about school-performance data being used as part of a “cradle-to-grave profile” trailing students as they graduate and pursue their careers. She also questions how all this digital nudging can affect students’ daily lives.

“At what point in time do we start crippling a whole generation of adults, human beings, who have been so tracked and told what to do all the time that they don’t know how to fend for themselves?” she said. “Is that cruel? Or is that kind?”