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Billionaires Philanthropists NOT the Solution to Improving Public Services

April 10, 2019 Leave a comment

Business Insider recently published Anand Giradhardas’ reaction to billionaire investor Ray Dalio’s acknowledgement on 60 Minutes that his cohort should be paying more taxes… and it was pointed without being scathing. The one section of Giradharadas’ critique that resonated with me was his reaction to the news that Dalio and his wife donated $100,000,000 to Connecticut public schools:

“It is fine to donate money to Connecticut. But Dalio’s personal preferences should have zero influence on how the money is spent. This is the problem with the public-private-partnership model he venerates: It puts some rich guy and the State of Connecticut on an equal footing to negotiate a plan to enhance the general welfare. Why? You wouldn’t ask an arsonist to lead the firefighting brigade, and you shouldn’t ask those who have benefited most from a rigged system, and who have the most to lose from genuine reform, to lead the reformation of the system.”

While Mr. Dalio’s $100,000,000 “donation” to public education is commendable, it is roughly 15% of what is needed to close the gap in needed capital outlay if that state hoped to close the gap as determined in a 2016 study by a consortium of school construction organizations. As noted frequently in this post, the targeted contributions by philanthropists usually DON’T match those identified by state or local school boards. They are appreciated… but having every billionaire pay their fair share of taxes would be even more appreciated and beneficial to public education.

And here’s the ultimate bottom line: we will never reform schools until we reform the economic system that created them.

 

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Washington Post’s Explains DeVos’ Complicated Shell Game Involving ESAs, Justifiably Awards Her 3 Pinocchios for Lying

April 9, 2019 Leave a comment

As Washington Post writer Salvador Rizzo’s article on Betsy DeVos’ latest budget illustrates, the ALEC gambit of Education Savings Accounts is easy to sell to voters under the rubric of “choice” and complicated to explain as a device to siphon scarce tax dollars out of the pockets of public employees and into the pockets of billionaires. Here’s the way the gambit works:

Billionaires donate a large sum of tax deductible money to a charitable “Education Savings Account” that a presumably “needy” family can use as a de facto voucher to attend a school of their choice if their child has the misfortune of being assigned to a “failing school.” The effect of this writ large is that the federal government loses income— in the case of the DeVos budget $5,000,000,000 worth— and local districts are “held harmless”. The fact that the funds lost at the federal level are not necessarily those earmarked for schools is offset by the fact that at the same time as Ms. DeVos is advocating for this income loss at the Federal level she is also proposing a budget that cuts $8,800,000,000! In the words of Mr. Rizzo: “A clever bureaucratic design cannot paper over the reality of money going in and out.” 

If this concept were floated in a world where the use of these funds for sectarian schools or unregulated for-profit schools was prohibited it might be a means of helping “needy” children escape from “failing” schools. But the world we live in isn’t set up that way. In the world we live in STATES get to define which schools are deemed to be “failing” and too often they base that determination on flawed metrics that identify over 70% of the public schools as deficient. In the world we live in STATES get to define which students are deemed to be “needy” and too often they base that determination on income levels that identify over 70% of the families as requiring subsidies to attend non-public schools— including those families who are already enrolling their children in those schools. In the world we live in STATES get to pass legislation based on the same kind of “clever bureaucratic design” and end up diminishing STATE funds away from their budgets while diminishing funds for public schools since most state funding formulas are based on enrollments.

Long story short: if this kind of “clever bureaucratic design” was limited to the federal government it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it is if STATES were not using the same “clever bureaucratic design” to cut public school funding. As Woodward and Bernstein learned decades ago when they were unravelling the Watergate scandal, if you want to find the source of a problem… follow the money. And in this case the money is leaving the pockets of teachers and going into the pockets of the billionaires who get tax deductions when they make contributions to Education Savings Accounts.

Jeff Bryant’s Three Questions Wreaked Havoc at the US Department of Education… But Shine Light of Duncan’s and Devos’ Lax Oversight of Charters

April 9, 2019 Leave a comment

As noted in a previous blog post, Jeff Bryant co-authored a recent report demonstrating that billions of federal dollars were wasted on charter schools that never opened or operated for only a short period of time. One of Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism posts over the past weekend drew from one of Bryant’s recent articles in AlterNet describing how three questions he posed to several Department of Education bureaucrats reportedly “created havoc” in that department. It seems that during the Obama administration some of the charter schools that received large sums of money from the federal government basically took the money and ran. As a result a directive was issued requiring that some kind of audit be issued by any entity receiving funds for charter schools. That, in turn, led to Mr. Bryant’s recent inquiry at the Department of Education. He wrote:

This is to inquire about the current grant application review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities. Specifically, in 2015, the Department published an “Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process.” My questions:

  1. Can you provide a similar document describing how the grant review process is currently being conducted for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities?

  2. If not, can you briefly comment on how the grant review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities aligns with or varies from the Overview referenced above?

  3. Regarding a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to State Education Agencies in 2015 emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars, was there any follow-up by the Charter School Program to ascertain how many SEAs complied with this request and what was the nature of the new systems and processes put into place by SEAs to provide for greater accountability?

Send on March 8, the emails he received a voice mail in response on March 15. Here’s Mr. Bryant’s recounting of what happened (or more accurately what DIDN’T happen) next:

On March 15, I received a voicemail message from an official in the public affairs division of the department asking me to call her back. The message started out nice enough but then veered toward criticism. “Apparently you have sent his request to multiple people,” she said (emphasis original), “and that just creates havoc for everyone.”

When I immediately called her back, I explained I had merely sent my inquiry to the contacts provided on the relevant sections of the department’s website. “That’s understandable,” she replied, but for “future reference” I was told to send inquiries to “a director”—though I’m not sure who that is. And I was told again my questions had “created havoc” in the office but that department staff members were “working on it” and would “take a few days.”

As of this writing, I’ve yet to receive any other replies.

Mr. Bryant went on to report that this kind of stonewalling regarding the performance of charter schools is nothing new: it happened in the Obama administration as well as the Trump administration. The sentiment in favor of charters and opposed to “traditional” public schools seems to be baked into the DNA of the department. Here are the concluding paragraphs of Mr. Bryant’s report:

On the issue of how a federal agency could allow charter operators to rip off American taxpayers with impunity, and generally suffer no adverse consequences for their acts, DeVos acknowledged that waste and fraud in the charter grant program had been around for “some time.”

That much is true.

It was under Arne Duncan’s watch that the federal charter grants program was greatly expanded, states were required to lift caps on the numbers of charter schools in order to receive precious federal dollars, and the administration Duncan served in insulted public school teachers by proclaiming National Charter School Week on dates identical to what had always been observed as Teacher Appreciation Week.

And most of the wanton charter fraud we detailed in our report that ran rampant during the Duncan years is now simply continuing under DeVos, with little to no explanation of why this is allowed to occur.

So at least we have that clear.

When and will it change? That is a question every candidate for President in the Democratic party should be asked and their answer should be heeded… for if it isn’t the “waste and fraud in the charter grant program” that has been around for “some time” will certainly continue in perpetuity.

A Debate Over the word “Democracy” in Michigan’s Social Studies Curriculum Lays Bare Conservatives’ Opposition to the Term… and the Concept

April 8, 2019 Leave a comment

A front page article by Dana Goldstein in today’s NYTimes should give everyone in the nation pause. Titled “Is the US a Democracy? A Social Studies Battle Turns on the Nation’s Values“, the article describes a five-year battle over the definition of the government of our country. In a country where it is seemingly impossible to achieve consensus on the teaching of subjects like reading and mathematics— let alone evolution, climate change, and reproduction— it is not surprising that reaching a consensus on social studies is difficult. But unlike the debates where the facts are clear, social studies content focuses on shared values, and as one who worked in public education for four decades I would have thought that politicians, parents, teachers, and voters would readily agree that we live in a democracy. I write this knowing that I do not believe it is the case— but believing that no organized group would want to argue the fact. As Ms. Goldstein writes, though, I am off-base with that presumption: a proposed revision of Michigan’s standards drops the word “democratic” from “core democratic values,” and reduces the use of the word “democracy”. Why?

The changes were made after a group of prominent conservatives helped revise the standards. They drew attention to a long-simmering debate over whether “republic” is a better term than “democracy” to describe the American form of government.

That the two sides in that tussle tend to fall along party lines, each preferring the term that resembles their party name, plays no small part in the debate. But members of the conservative group also brought to the table the argument that K-12 social studies should be based on a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents.

They contended that the curriculum ought to focus more on the nation’s triumphs than its sins.And they pushed for revisions that eliminated “climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights.

Given a desire to base social studies on “a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents”  the elimination of the terms “…”climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights” makes perfect sense! After all, the founders didn’t want to allow anyone but white, male landowners to vote. And those who penned the original documents could not foresee the impact that industrialization, advances in medical science, and changing morays might have nearly 250 years in the future.  Indeed, the founders realized that they were not writing a set of commandments since they provided a means of amending their original document, probably because they realized that 250 years prior to the writing of the Constitution literacy was barely in place and the notion of democracy was fanciful given the monarchies and feudal economic systems in place.

The article describes the protracted process that carefully expanded the number of participants in the writing process as it attempted to draft a set of standards that would allow every student in the state to “see themselves” in the instruction. But despite all of the efforts to be inclusive, at this juncture the definition of our government remains elusive. Ms. Goldstein writes:

But in the days before the document was to be sent to the State Board of Education, fundamental questions about how to describe American government and citizenship had not been resolved.

It was not just that some Democratic-leaning committee members liked the term “democracy” while some Republican-leaning members preferred “republic.” The debate was really about bigger disagreements that transcended party lines: about how to deal with populism and protest, and about whether the United States is a unified entity of citizens or a conglomeration of groups divided by race, class, language and other identities.

On March 7, the heads of all the subcommittees gathered at the Historical Society of Michigan in Lansing to go through the draft one last time. The laptop screen of the head writer, a district social studies consultant named Dave Johnson, was projected onto the wall as he made last-minute revisions in a Google document.

It strikes me that process of developing the standards, something I called “management by rough draft” when I was leading schools and school districts, is an apt description of our governing model at it’s best. And when the process was complete, here’s how it ended up:

The list of core values that the standards writers eventually agreed on was “equality; liberty; justice and fairness; unalienable individual rights (including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness); consent of governed; truth; common good.”

And after months of sometimes bitter debate, the group decided these values could still be called “democratic.” As part of a compromise, the nation’s political system would be referred to primarily as “American government,” but also, in some instances, “constitutional government” and — yes — “democracy.”

But the conservative lawmaker who protested initially and whose protests led to the lengthy and contentious debate, was not pleased.

Mr. Colbeck, the former state senator who had helped write the previous draft, was displeased. Calling the nation a democracy was not “politically neutral and accurate,” he said.

As one who leans left, I agree. I believe we are now living in a plutocracy…. and I would have to believe that Mr. Colbeck and his anti-democratic colleagues who support an originalist interpretation of the Constitution would be OK with that. After all, Mr. Colbeck is a white male who owns land… HE would be able to participate in making decisions about the direction our country is headed.

In the end, Ms. Goldstein final sentence concludes that our debate about who we are will continue…. and implicitly agrees that the management-by-rough-draft will persist:

The process of retelling the nation’s history — deciding what gets left out and who is heard from — never ends.

I hope she is right… and that the pendulum that is now swung in the direction of the plutocrats who want to change the core values of our nation swings to the left.

Skewed Priorities: 14,000,000 Students Attend a School With a Police Officer But No School Counselor, Nurse, Psychologist, Social Worker

April 3, 2019 Comments off

A Common Dreams article at the end of last month had the subheading that is repeated above. The headline of the article by Angela Mann read:

Why School Psychologists Are Worried About the Mental Health of America’s Students

The article was an outgrowth of a recent study conducted by the ACLU– “Cops and No Counselors,”, written by Ms. Mann and six other experts in the field. Drawing on data from the US Department of Education, the report described the appalling consequences of the nation’s collective decision to “harden” schools instead of supporting students who are experiencing social and emotional problems. She writes:

We found that the majority of K-12 schools are ill-equipped to address the mental health needs of children who are experiencing record levels of anxiety and depression during their formative years.

Children today are reporting just as much stress as adults, with 1 in 3 reporting that they are feeling depressed. Suicide, once on the decline as a risk for young people, is now one of the leading causes of death among youth, second only to accidents. Many of the kids I personally work with have one thing in common: significant trauma histories.

Knowing that suicide is on the increase and those children who are troubled have “significant trauma histories”, how does it help to spend scarce funds on surveillance cameras, entryway upgrades, and “good guys with guns”? How does it help to pass laws that enable teachers to carry weapons in schools? Here’s how Ms. Mann posed those questions, noting that there is no evidence whatsoever that police in schools do anything to improve school safety:

Rather than helping students suffering from stress and depression by investing in adequate support, precious resources have been diverted toward “hardening” schools, including hiring law enforcement personnel who may not be properly trained to work in schools. This approach has been pushed by the Trump administration and many state governments after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, but there is no reliable evidence that embedding police in schools makes children any safer.Yet 14 million students attend a school with a police officer but no school counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker, as the ACLU report found. This is the epitome of misplaced priorities and the foundation of a crisis.

Ms. Mann notes that improving school safety remains a priority… but the way schools are addressing this priority is maddeningly misbegotten:

…Only three months into 2019, state legislatures nationwide have proposed nearly 250 bills to enhance school security, and the pattern is disconcerting: emergency preparedness and funding for on-campus police officers (without requirements for appropriate training to work in schools) top many lists. While schools need improved threat assessments and crisis response, they also need more funding for mental health services. What we don’t need are more hardening measures like metal detectors, minimally trained law enforcement, and armed teachers. We know that metal detectors can’t detect abuse.

School resource officers, with the right training, can be helpful in addressing depression or suicidal thoughts. But ultimately, identifying and treating these issues is the fundamental job of school psychologists and other mental health staff. It’s up to all of us to make sure that every child has their needs met and goes out into the world with a fighting chance.  

Political capital, like every resource, is limited. Spending it to harden schools is a terrible thing to waste.

Techno-Autocrats Already Control 1/3 of Globe… and US is Ripe for Picking

March 20, 2019 Comments off

Axios writer Steve LeVine’s recent article, “A Paradise of the Age of Techno-Autocrats”, offers a chilling account of how China is using a combination of omnipresent surveillance cameras and AI to monitor citizens they deem to be “deviant” from the norm. But, as his article notes, this combination of AI and surveillance data is not limited to China: it is spreading to other authoritarian regimes across the globe… and to the United States.

So far, the use of this technology in the United States is dispersed… but it is trending in the wrong direction. LeVine’s overview describes how “benevolent” uses of facial recognition technology can quickly be translated into malevolent ends, as has occurred in China:

The big picture: Lisa-Marie Neudert, a researcher with Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project, said researchers are working on powerful AI technologies with enormous potential “for good.” But they also can have malicious uses — facial recognition employed for police purposes at a football stadium can also be used to repress the Uighur people of western China.

“When these technologies become weaponized, they can be used for surveillance, manipulation and self-generating propaganda,” Neudert tells Axios.

  • Critics say that facial recognition systems deployed by China and passed on by Beijing to other autocratic states increasingly resemble Orwellian tactics.

  • But “persuasion architectures via surveillance-based micro-targeting are already deployed in the United States,” Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Axios.

  • Mostly that has been for use in advertising, such as at Facebook. “But we’ve already seen it used for politics and more,” Tufekci said.

As noted often in this blog, the hardening of schools is raising a generation of children who are increasingly comfortable with surveillance technology and data collection. District Administration, a journal for school administrators, reported that “according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 80 percent of public schools—and more than 94 percent of high schools—in the U.S. used security cameras to monitor students during the 2015-2016 school year, nearly doubling the number of schools using cameras a decade earlier.” And surveillance cameras are not the only way authoritarian monitoring is being witnessed by students. According to data from a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, armed officers were present at least once a week in 43 percent of all public schools during the 2015-16 school year, compared with 31 percent of schools a decade before.

The trend over the past several decades toward “data-driven decision making” is based on the premise that teachers can target academic deficiencies of students by examining data generated by standardized tests– not only the annual summative tests administered by the States to determine “school success” but also periodic on-line formative tests used to determine if a child is making progress. This “benevolent” use of instructional databases to help teachers make decisions regarding an individual students academic progress is relatively innocuous in terms of its potential misuse outside of schools. But the newer forms of data collection, touted as a means of addressing the unique needs of students who have “behavioral challenges”, could have some chilling effects. Saint John’s University, for example, touts 7 apps that can be used to catalog and collect data on student misconduct as part of its Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy. The goal of ABA therapy, “to collect objective data based on responses made by the child and analyze the data to determine if behavioral improvements are being made” is high-minded. But what assurance is there that data collected on a student’s behavior will not be used to perpetually pigeonhole a child as a “problem” in the future.

When this acceptance of monitoring and data mining is combined with a sense that technology offers a cheap solution to the complicated problems that face us as human beings we are setting ourselves up for a world where a centralized team of “techno-autocrats” can assume a dominant role. The access to the data collection currently occurring in schools is currently limited to school personnel. But it’s systematic collection makes it plausible that it could someday be used for repressive purposes… as could the data being collected on surveillance cameras, smart phones, and internet searches.

As one who read George Orwell’s writings, I find the trend of widespread data collection, the expansion of video surveillance, and use of facial recognition software unsettling. As Richard Kagan noted in the Axios article, our current trends in the use of technology indicate that “We may find ourselves back where we were circa 1914, when the only free, democratic space was in what Walter Lippmann called the ‘Atlantic Community’ — comprising the U.S. and Western Europe.”

I hope that as we contemplate “hardening” our schools even more that we will do everything possible to ensure that our students are not being raised in a democratic space.

 

Another Year, Another Lawsuit Against New Hampshire’s Funding for Public Education

March 15, 2019 Comments off

Yesterday’s “Advancing New Hampshire Public Education” (ANHPE) blog posted the news that the Conval School District in the southern part of the state filed a lawsuit against the state for failing to provide the funding needed to provide an adequate education to students. The suit caught several funding advocates off guard because the legislature is currently deliberating on how much money to provide in the coming fiscal year based on an as-yet-unfunded settlement with a group of property poor districts. Coeval, unlike the districts in the current litigation, is NOT property poor… and despite their presumed ability to pay for schools is filing the suit under the pretext that the level of funding the state is offering for an “adequate” education is woefully inadequate. Here’s an excerpt from the post:

The lawsuit says the current price tag for a base “adequate education” —  $3,636.06 — does not reflect accurate costs for facilities, transportation, and teacher salaries and benefits….

By ConVal’s calculation, the state should pay $10,343.60 per student, which would total over $22 million per year.

An NHPR broadcast journalist indicated that the lawsuit troubled some advocates for higher spending because of the timing of the suit, a sentiment echoed by Carl Ladd in the ANHPE post:

Carl Ladd, the executive director of the N.H. School Administrators Association, says he worries about the lawsuit’s timing.

“I can really sympathize with school board and community, but the courts aren’t going to be a quick fix,” he says. “My fear is that if this is back in court, the legislature will just wait and not do anything.”….

I fear that Carl Ladd is correct in his assessment of the timing of this suit… but… it begs the question of whether there will EVER be a “good time” for a lawsuit and whether NH will ever change it’s system for funding public schools. When I first came to NH as a Superintendent in 1983 there were rumblings of lawsuits by property poor districts and since then there have been “victories” in court that have not translated into fair and equitable funding in reality. The Conval suit is unlikely to result in any quick fix unless the filing by a district with relatively strong tax base paves the way for a full scale debate over school funding in the 2020 gubernatorial election. As Michael Tierney points out, the “arguments that Conval is making would be applicable to many school districts across the state” and if the voters in those “many districts” get behind a candidate who wants more State money to go to schools maybe another court victory won’t be needed. Indeed, as we have witnessed for decades, a court victory without legislative support will go nowhere.