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David Callahan Persuasively and Reasonably Defends the Billionaires

October 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Are ALL billionaires trying to undercut democracy or are they trying to inject innovative ideas into an ossified bureaucracy? In his thought provoking essay that appeared in Inside Philanthropy, “Enemies of the State? How Billionaires Think About Government“, David Callahan asserts that the great majority of philanthropists are not trying to undercut democracy, they are trying to inject it with innovative ideas.

While acknowledging that some philanthropists are eager to line their own pockets by reducing taxes and deregulating their businesses, he contends that most are interested in supporting and sustain democracy and, to that end, are interested in improving public education by injecting it with innovation. Early in his essay, Mr. Callahan asserts that most philanthropists are not aligned with those who have been demonized in this blog and the blogs of other anti-privatization writers:

The crusade to shrink government down to the size “that it can be drowned in a bathtub”—to paraphrase Grover Norquist’s memorable phrase—has never been a shared project of the upper class, but of a powerful libertarian faction within that class. Even the ceaseless drive for tax cuts over a generation has mainly animated wealthy people on the right. Many less ideological rich people aren’t so worked up over taxes; after all, when you’re loaded, you can easily afford them. And while polls show that the wealthy are more fiscally conservative than the public writ large, it’s also true they tend to favor many government functions: a globalist foreign policy, infrastructure, education, scientific research, space exploration, environmental protection, and so on. They understand that these things cost money…

If you put aside the libertarian ideologues like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family, what you’ll find is that most of today’s wealthy philanthropists think about government in much the same way that big donors and foundations have always thought about government: as a sector with enormous power to solve problems, but also with major limitations—such as a reluctance to take risks and experiment with new ideas, an inability to move quickly or pivot easily, and a tendency to neglect causes or concerns that don’t animate ordinary voters or which antagonize powerful interests.

In this assessment, I fear that Mr. Callahan overlooks the powerful grip the “…libertarian ideologues like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family”  have on the public’s impressions of “government schools”. He also fails to grasp the fundamental reality that those who have been identified as “successful” as a result of the existing paradigms in education are the most reluctant to “take risks and experiment” with the dominant paradigm because the rules inherent in the dominant paradigm have worked in their favor. Why should the existing method of sorting a selecting be changed if the changes might result in their children being placed at a disadvantage when the time comes for them to apply to the elite college their parents attended?

Mr. Callahan is especially upset with the way the Gates family has been cast in the privatization debates and the notion that ALL philanthropists share the world view of the Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos. He acknowledges that the Gates Foundation has been ham-handed in implementing it’s views, but believes that they truly value public education. He writes:

On education, the Gates Foundation has sometimes been cast as a key player in a philanthropic cabal to privatize public schools. This is a caricature. Rather, the foundation’s goal has been to influence how public education works in order to improve student outcomes. The huge Gates role in education is problematic; it gives a private couple way too much power over a key democratic institution. And that power has been abused, too, as a high-handed foundation has pushed through ill-conceived reform ideas.

Still, let’s be clear what’s going on here. Bill and Melinda Gates are not libertarians. Quite the contrary. Like many technocratic donors, they often want to expand the reach and authority of government.

The huge Gates push to enact the Common Core standards is a case in point. This has been viewed—rightly, I think—as a backdoor effort to enact national education standards in an area where federal power has always been limited. It’s not surprising that the right mobilized against the standards early on, pushing back against what they saw as an elite bid to elevate the power of a know-it-all state over the wisdom of local leadership—familiar battle lines that date back to the clash between Jefferson and Hamilton.

To be sure, there are some K-12 philanthropists who really do dream of substantially privatizing public education. But most of these donors, including top charter school funders, don’t believe in true privatization, and that’s not what they’re after.

What these donors want is forpublic schools to operate with more day-to-day autonomy, so that their leaders have the kind of power that effective leaders need, starting with the ability to hire and fire their own staff and control their own budget and infrastructure. These donors are not hostile to government per se; they are hostile toward government that is overly centralized, with a command-and-control model they view as archaic and ineffective.They see charter schools as a means to get around these institutional obstacles and reinvent how government works when it comes to education.

What the pro-charter investors fail to recognize is that the most conservative districts are the ones that serve children raised in affluence: the districts that reinforce the current mechanisms of college entry. The districts that strive to prepare their students for entry into “elite” colleges need to maintain the status quo because in doing so they are preparing their students for entry into colleges that seek a particular kind of student: the kind of student who is “well rounded”, has high grades, and comes from a stable home and stable community environment.

From my perspective, if philanthropists want to disrupt education they could do so by encouraging the “elite” colleges to accept more students from schools that serve children raised in poverty and offer incentives for the “well rounded” children who come from stable homes and stable neighborhoods and who earned high grades to attend the community colleges in their communities and the universities and colleges funded by their state government. Until the top 5% embrace those institutions and walk away from the “elite” schools the economic disparity in our nation will persist.

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The Parents of Homeless Children Have More to Worry About than “Choice”

October 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an article that headlined an astonishing fact:

With a subheading that read:

One out of every 10 students lived in temporary housing during the last school year.

Another header noted that there are more homeless children in NYC than there are residents in Albany. When I read this, it underscored the fact that “choice” is not going to help the neediest children in New York City or ANY city or impoverished community for that matter. If a parent has no roof over their he’d, choosing their child’s school is a secondary issue: the only thing that is important to them is finding a fixed residence; a place that they can use as a base when they seek employment, try to secure child care before and after school, and have a place to store and prepare their food.

I would agree with those who say money doesn’t matter in schools serving poor children, because if 1 out of 10 of the children attending a school lack a roof over their heads then that— and not the well-being of their child— becomes the focal point of their parents’ life.

I was appalled at the facts reported in the headline and the heartbreaking stories in the article by Eliza Shapiro, but I was even more appalled at some of the comments suggesting that it was the fault of the city government because they offered generous benefits to unwed mothers. A comment that won the approval of 40+ readers landing it in the top tier read:

This situation is a direct and predictable result of the city’s humane, warmhearted, generous, social welfare policies. The city has made itself hospitable to people who cannot support themselves in one of the most expensive urban environments in the country. There is no penalty for irresponsible life styles. Rather, there is an increase in benefits. Why limit the number of children you have,if the city will pay for them? Why not become a single mother if you get lots of benefits? With the best of intentions the city, state and federal governments have magnified a problem that should at worst, be minor.

I daresay that any young woman set out to become homeless or views their life as one that has “”…lots of benefits”. But by holding a view that blames the victims of homelessness of their status, it is possible to believe that one’s tax dollars are being spent frivolously and are being used to magnify a problem that should be minor. In short, it reinforces the GOP mindset that “government is the problem”. Another commenter, whose remarks had the highest number of approvals, escaped from being a child in a homeless household. She had it right she she wrote:

A person can only persevere so much and it saddens me that so much of our policy is based on ‘grit and bootstraps’, with no understanding of how much luck, or lack of it, plays into our place in this world. We should do better and these kids deserve better.

To which I can only say “AMEN!” My place in the world is in part because I worked hard throughout my life… but it is also the result of being born a white male into a family with two college graduates who cared deeply about me as a child and an adult. The government can’t provide every child with that good fortune, but they should be able to provide every child with a roof over their heads, nutritious meals, and clothing. That doesn’t seem to be a socialist dream… only a humanitarian one.

Backpack Full of Cash Underscores Charter’s BIGGEST Advantage: Only Engaged Parents Apply

October 10, 2018 Leave a comment

For a number of years (and posts) I have contended that the biggest advantage charter schools have over public schools is that they only draw from the population of parents who are engaged. This point has been driven home to me since my grandchildren are both enrolled in NYC public schools and I’ve witnessed the hoops parents are required to jump through to “choose” which school they wish their child to attend: the application process for middle and high schools is even more daunting than college since there is no common application. Worse, if “school of your choice” is one of the most prestigious ones you must attend one of their orientation sessions, a particularly difficult task for a working single parent.

Durham Herald Sun reporter Matt Goad reported on a screening of “Backpack Full of Cash”, a movie being shown across the country that informs parents and voters about the way privatized charter schools skim off the best students and, maybe even more importantly, scarce public funds. The article highlighted the fact that charters enroll only children from households where the parents are engaged, derive their operating costs from existing pools of funding for public education thereby diverting funds away from existing public schools, and, because they operate “efficiently” save the taxpayers money.

The movie focuses on two urban districts, Philadelphia and New Orleans. But as the closing quote in the article indicates, it has relevance in North Carolina:

“These things that are talked about in Philadelphia and New Orleans have happened in North Carolina and have happened at an incredibly rapid pace,” Durham school board member Natalie Beyer said.

How rapidly?

The cap on the maximum number of charter schools allowed in North Carolina (100) was lifted in 2012. That year, nearly 45,000 students were enrolled in charter schools. Currently, 185 charter schools, including two online or virtual charters, operate in North Carolina, serving 101,000 children. Charter school students make up nearly 6.5 percent of the total student population for grades K-12.

North Carolina recently increased its spending on education, but as of last December it was still spending 8% less per pupil that before the onset of the Great Recession. Yet in the face of this diminished funding, the legislature in the state has diverted more and more funds to charters and loosened regulations on the operations of charters. Why? I think that if one follows the money the answer will be revealed.

Arizona’s Education Savings Accounts: The Billionaires’ “Vouchers in Disguise”

October 6, 2018 Comments off

In early September the Guardian’s Steven Greenhouse wrote an article that included a paragraph that offered an excellent summation of Education Savings Accounts (or ESAs), the billionaire “philanthropists'” latest gambit to expand the privatization of public schools. The primary focus of the article was the ongoing efforts of Arizona parents and teachers to stop the expansion of ESAs and restore public education funding to a level that will put the public schools back on their feet. How bad are things in Arizona?

One study found that Arizona, at $7,613, is the third-lowest state in public school spending per student, while another study found that from 2008 to 2015, school funding per pupil had plunged by 24% in Arizona, after adjusting for inflation – the second-biggest drop in the nation.

Determined to push back against this short-changing of public schools, six determined parents decided to launch a referendum effort to push back against the recent action of the Arizona legislature that had enacted a law that was characterized as “the nation’s broadest school vouchers law”, a law that allowed state-raised taxes to be used on private or religiously affiliated schools. Over the summer these parents gathered over 110,000 signatures and got the referendum they sought on the ballot this November. What happened next?

…the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, sued to block the referendum. A judge dismissed the lawsuit and approved the referendum for 6 November – it’s called Proposition 305. The vote will be closely watched by people on both sides of the debate as the Kochs and DeVos hope to spread the voucher scheme and opponents look to Arizona for clues on how to stop them.

Near the end of the article, Mr. Greenhouse quotes Lily Eskelen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, who said what has happened in Arizona is “part of a scheme to undermine public education”.

“We know exactly how the plan goes,” she said. “You underfund the kids who need the most. You starve the public schools. You take away the funding so they can’t deliver quality services, and then when things get so bad that nobody wants to work in the schools, the voucher salesmen, the vultures, swoop in and do this nice little bait and switch. Instead of fixing the schools, they say let’s make sure you have the same program as wealthy kids at private schools.” But vouchers, she said, don’t begin to deliver on that promise.

IF the handful of parents succeed in stopping the legislature by passing a referendum it won’t help in many states because not every state has a referendum mechanism. That means parents and teachers who care about public education will need to watch their State elections carefully. During the past legislative session in New Hampshire the legislature narrowly avoided the passage of a bill that would have greatly expanded Education Savings Accounts. The NH legislators wrote their law using the ALEC handbook funded by the Koch brothers and their pro-privatization allies. Like their Arizona counterparts, the NH GOP legislators are starving public education claiming there isn’t enough money to pay for the state formula that equalizes funding so that the kids who need it most get an adequate education… BUT, they did manage to “find” funding to help underwrite ESAs. NH doesn’t have a referendum mechanism, but it DOES have a ballot box referendum. Here’s hoping the voters ensure that they elect a legislature that will abandon ESAs.

Exercise + Sleep – Screen Time = Increased Brain Power…. the OPPOSITE of What Schools (AND Parents) Are Doing

September 29, 2018 Comments off

The NYTimes featured a short article by Nicholas Baker describing a recent study reported in Lancet that determined that:

At least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, nine to 11 hours of sleep a night, and no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time were tied to higher mental test scores.

In the meantime, to boost test scores schools are eliminating recess, lengthening the school day, introducing more screen-based technology into the school day, and increasing homework. Taken together, these have the opposite impact on children. Moreover, when this is combined with the desire of middle class parents to engage children in structured activities and tutoring AFTER school to improve their academic performance, with the fear factor that compels some parents to prevent their children from engaging in free play outdoors, and the desire of some parents to fully book their children’s weekends with structured athletic competitions instead of pick-up sports, you have a toxic mix that works against the findings described above. For children in poverty, the situation is no better because poor communities lack sufficient playgrounds, green spaces, and other venues where children are encouraged to engage in physical activities.

In short, our test-centric schools, helicopter parenting, and frayed infrastructure make it impossible for children to get the exercise and sleep they need and increase the escape into screens. Maybe we need to give children the time to be children.

We Don’t Need New Report Cards: We Need Equitable Funding

September 28, 2018 Comments off

Here’s another verbatim excerpt from yesterday’s Politico feed:

The Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology and the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign are teaming up for a “challenge” centered on designing new state report cards under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The new law “requires states and school districts to make more than 2,000 data points about their public school systems available to families in a concise, understandable and uniform format,”the agency’s ed tech office writes in a blog post. “A key challenge is ensuring these digital report cards are user-friendly, engaging, and incorporate best practices for data visualization and human-centered design — a new approach for many states.”

— The Education Department and DQC are calling on experts to “design tools, templates, and other innovative solutions that will support states in tackling the ESSA data reporting requirements.” The challenge will be Nov. 8-9. More details.

I went to the link at the end of the post and offered my two cents:

My prediction: the report cards will show that districts serving children raised in affluent families with well educated parents will “outperform” districts that have large numbers of children raised in poverty.

My deep concern: the issuance of these report cards will reinforce the notion that public schools are a commodity that compete in an unregulated market. NCLB launched us on that path… RTTT reinforced that idea… and Betsy DeVos has put it on steroids.

We don’t need better, easier to read report cards: we need more equitable funding and a means of engaging all parents— especially single parents who are working multiple jobs.

WeWork’s “Conscious Entrepreneurship” Conundrum: Should Kindergartners Be Rewarded for Ambitiousness?

September 26, 2018 Comments off

Medium offers thought provoking articles to its subscribers, some of which are recent and others of which, like “WeWork is Going After Kindergartners Now“, are nearly a year old. Written by Bloomberg’s Irene Plagianos, the article about WeWork, whose mission is “to help people do what they love“, has launched a program for Kindergartners that helps them develop entrepreneurial skills.

In my book, there’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses,”(WeWork co-founder) Rebekah Neumann said in an interview. She thinks kids should develop their passions and act on them early, instead of waiting to grow up to be “disruptive,” as the entrepreneurial set puts it.

I can think of one reason why children in elementary schools might not be encouraged to launch their own business: they need a chance to experience a childhood without ambitiousness…. for in our current culture elementary school might be the last and only time children can truly experience the opportunity to be a child. And according to Ms. Plagianos, I’m not the only person who has that notion:

The hands-on, project-based learning, encouraging children to ask questions and take ownership of their education, sounds like what “progressive pedagogy has been teaching for 100 years,” said Samuel Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

But WeWork’s “very instrumental approach” to learning, “essentially encouraging kids to monetize their ideas, at that age, is damaging,” Abrams said. “You’re sucking the joy out of education at a time when kids should just be thinking about things like how plants grow and why there are so many species.”

Ms. Neumann sloughs off that criticism, with an observation that is accurate and underscores a conundrum that comes into play when someone tries to mesh entrepreneurship with progressive education principles:

Neumann argues it’s conventional education that is “squashing out the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that’s intrinsic to all young children.”Then, after college, she said, “somehow we’re asking them to be disruptive and recover that spirit.”

Ms. Neumann’s concluding observation about how individuals pursue what they love illustrates another conundrum:

In her own family, she said, “there are no lines” between work and life or home and office. “My kids are in the office. I’m doing what I love, he’s doing what he loves, they are observing that, and they are doing what they love.

I AM certain Ms. Neumann and her spouse are doing what they love… but not so sure her kids sitting in the home office are doing what they love… especially if her kids love doing what I loved doing when I was a child, which was being outside! But maybe her children like developing business plans for their lemonade stand using powerpoint.