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Wichita’s Wonder School Looks Wonderful… Despite the Founder’s Surname and Assumptions that Competition is the Answer

February 22, 2018 Leave a comment

The headline in a Wichita Times article earlier this month immediately repelled me. It read “Koch Family to Open New Kind of Private School at Wichita University“. But in an effort to be open minded, and, quite frankly expecting my repulsion to be reinforced by an article describing an ill conceived “anti-government school” that would lead to a denigrating post, I read the article. And when I read that one of the partners and co-founders of the new school, called “Wonder” was Zach Lahn, a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed conservative political advocacy group, I was certain the whole project was going to be badly conceived. But as I read deeper into the article I was stunned to find that the school envisioned by the son and daughter-in-law of one of the Koch brothers and a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity actually looked wonderful! The article described the school’s program as follows:

▪ Students will be grouped into multi-age studios, rather than traditional grade levels, and advance only after they achieve certain academic and social milestones – a mastery-based approach touted by Kahn Academy founder Sal Kahn.

The first level, Wonder One, will be a Montessori-model preschool, Lahn said. Wonder Two will be for children roughly in second through fifth grades. Wonder Three and Wonder Four, part of the school’s long-range plan, will be geared toward middle- and high-schoolers.

▪ The school’s floorplan reflects a trend toward flexible seating, rather than traditional desks, with glass walls and wide-open spaces designed to encourage collaboration and creativity.

The school’s outdoor space, which will feature berms, tunnels and various climbing structures, was designed by Katy Bowman, author of “Move Your DNA,” who argues that movement should be a part of people’s everyday lives.

▪ There won’t be any teachers at Wonder, but rather “guides” and “coaches,” Lahn said. The school plans to allow students more say in what, how and at what pace they learn.

“We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now,” Lahn said. “We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.”

▪ There won’t be traditional grades or report cards either. Students will spend four to six weeks working on theme-based, hands-on projects, presenting them at the culmination to family and community members, who will offer feedback and ratings.

“There will be conversations happening every day in the studio: ‘Is this your best work?’ And they’re constantly being challenged to produce more iterations and better iterations,” Koch said.

▪ And no homework – at least not in the early years, Koch said. Older students who want to start a business or pursue a specific career goal might work on those projects outside of school.

“We think there’s so much value in spending time with your family, having free time, playing,” Koch said. “We really want to preserve that for the kids.”

In reviewing and reflecting on these elements, I was struck by how much they align with the libertarian– AND progressive— notions of self-direction and individuality… and how contrary those notions are with the current “factory model” of schooling. I was also struck by how the “Wonder” structure was developmentally appropriate as compared to the “factory model” that groups children by age cohorts and measures their progress based on comparisons to children who are the same ages.

While I liked everything about the Wonder design, I DID find it unsettling because it was only possible because of the resources the Koch’s could bring to bear… resources that can underwrite a small start-up but would defy scaling up without a marked increase in funding levels for public schools. And in the final paragraphs, after reading that the Koch family did not want their schools to be perceived as having any kind of political mission, I was distressed to read this statement from Shirley Lefever, dean of the College of Education at WSU, who said she was “…excited to partner with the school, which will serve as a kind of living laboratory for teaching students”:

“I think they have an incredible vision, and we just feel very privileged to be a part of that conversation,” Lefever said… “We’re always looking for ways that we can continue to learn and continue to try to understand how to improve educational outcomes for students.”

Koch said she envisions sharing ideas and encouraging other startup schools.

“We want other people doing this. We want competition,” she said. “We want somebody else to open another one of these, because we feel like that would make us better.

“We’re a small school, but we feel like we could have a big impact.”

A note to Ms. Koch: the notion that competition is the only way to make schools better is reinforcing a political notion that schools are a commodity and not a public good… Schools can get better faster through collaboration… and underfunded schools can get accelerate their improvement even more rapidly if they receive the funding they need. But that cannot be seen as a viable solution in Kansas where the legislature has decided that schools don’t need more money.

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A Connecticut Neo-Liberal in the Koch Brothers’ Court: A Cautionary Tale for 2020

February 19, 2018 Leave a comment

Whenever I read about “Centrist Democrats” who might be plausible candidates to oppose Donald Trump I get a chill because many of them, like “Centrist” Governor Daniel Malloy of Connecticut, are often willing to adopt the positions of the Koch Brothers if it suits their “reform” agenda. Yesterday’s post by Diane Ravitch describing Governor Malloy’s advocacy for the expansion of 529 plans is a case in point. Quoting at length from a retired Connecticut school teacher who is calling out the Governor in her state, Ms. Ravitch offers a detailed explanation of how the expansion of “Education Savings Accounts” will draw funds from the public school coffers and redirect them into the coffers of private sectarian and private for profit schools.

As I noted in a comment I left at the conclusion of the post:

The ALEC playbook is not read only by libertarians… the neoliberal “reformers” like Malloy, Cuomo, Booker, HRC, and– yes, Obama— all like any gambits that undercut unions and empower privatizers… in 2020 those of us who want to take public education in a different direction need to avoid supporting ANY Democrat, particularly those who are good public speakers strike a seemingly sane alternative to our current Prevaricator…

I haven’t witnessed anyone emerging from the pack who will stand up for public schools or the need for us to expand government regulations. Instead Democrats seem content to run on the “Not Trump” platform and hope that they can retain the support of the billionaires who favor deregulation and privatization while activating their base voters who loathe the divisiveness of our current leadership. We need more than an anti-Trump if we hope to restore faith in government and democracy. We need someone who will give full throated support for the rule of law, for re-regulating Wall Street and the environment, and for restoring the social justice that has unravelled. Anyone who supports the expansion of 529 plans should not receive the support of any thoughtful progressive.

What Inequitable Funding Looks Like On the Ground… and How it Diminishes Opportunities for Change

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Last week Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss posted an open letter from the faculty of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, a high school modeled after Outward Bound’s approach to learning. The title of Ms. Strauss’ post was “This is What Inadequate Funding at a Public School Looks Like and Feels Like— as Told by an Entire Faculty“, and it was sobering to see just how spreadsheet analyses play out in real life.

The budget cuts in large districts like NYC have to be administered in as fair and evenhanded basis as possible, which inevitably requires someone in a business office to use staffing ratios to serve as a proxy for “equity”. But an unconventional program like Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School requires more teachers tone successful because it requires teachers to have time to collaborate with each other, to confer with small groups of students, to accompany students on field work projects in the city, and to mentor students one-to-one. Each of these programs became increasingly difficult to sustain as the city budget cut its per pupil allocations to schools four out of seven years since the school opened. But the problems for the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School go beyond per pupil cuts. Reading between the lines, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School was effectively penalized for not being a traditional high school, as these paragraphs illustrate:

When we appealed this year’s budget cuts, the city audited our budget and told us that we had a dozen more teachers than we needed. We were dumbfounded: with 34 students per class and 100-120 students per teacher, we have too many teachers?

We have cut the planning time among teachers that permits us to work together and bring our best to classrooms. While we thankfully remain well above the contractual standard of 45-minute-a-day planning periods, we have seen the time diminish steeply some years. Our special-education teachers, who manage a caseload of students with individual needs in addition to providing differentiated instruction in classrooms, have increasingly asked: “How can we adequately serve our neediest students when we already feel like we’re spread too thin?”

This year we can no longer afford to provide free after-school programming, despite our belief that all students deserve access to a rich after-school program.

Since we began charging students to participate in after-school activities, our 30 clubs from last year plummeted to nine. Gone are Model U.N., Jazz Ensemble, Photography Club, Yoga, Outdoor Club, Live Poets Society, Dance Club, Flag Football. Saddened by the change, one eighth-grader innocently asked, “Can’t everyone just keep the school open for free?”

The truth is, many of us are doing just that.

The city’s audit speaks volumes about the expectations when it comes to changing from the traditional format. Thou shalt operate school within a seven hour time frame,  thou shalt avoid any variances from the standard CBO, thou shalt stick to academics and forget about “clubs” unless you can find a way to raise money for them. The letter was published in the context of the recent federal cuts, which are going to hurt city schools serving children raised in poverty even more! As the faculty’s open letter indicates:

In the wake of debates over the latest federal tax bill passed in December, we also wish to point out that the fate of our schools is tied to our taxes. Our school lost Title 1 funding when school funds tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were not renewed. In New York City, 60 percent or more of a school’s students must come from households whose incomes qualify them for free lunch before the school receives a single cent of additional funds.

The latest tax plan gives families a tax cut to attend private schools, a proposal that caters to our wealthiest families while harming investment in public schools. Likewise, the controversy over the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT), absent from the original Senate bill, has enormous implications for schools: a 2011 report from the Center on Education Policy estimated that the complete elimination of state and local tax deductions in 2009 would have slashed public school funding by at least $16.5 billion.

At some juncture the dedicated teachers in the Metropolitan Expeditionary School will see a want ad for a job in the suburbs that would offer them the chance to develop a similar program at a much higher wage and with assured funding for the foreseeable future. Teachers want to teach and don’t want to do so under a perpetual cloud. Don’t be surprised to read a de facto obituary for schools like the Metropolitan Expeditionary School in the years ahead. Their replacement? No excuses high school that schedule six classes of 40 students a day plus lunch for students and at least 200 students per teacher. It works well on a spread sheet….

 

Virginia Superintendent Describes Plight of School Districts Across America: High Needs and Lower Funding

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I read a Virginia Pilot Online column written by James Roberts, the Chesapeake (VA) Superintendent of Schools, that could have been written by any superintendent in our nation. The specifics of Mr. Roberts’ plight might vary from state to state, but the basic outline of his description of the funding challenges his district faces are the same anywhere. Here’s the problem he faces in Virginia:

=> From 2009 to 2017, the total state operating budget increased by 40 percent. During the same period, the funding Chesapeake Public Schools received from the state decreased by 2.7 percent.

=> Thanks to the recession, we have a backlog of capital projects — HVAC projects, roof replacements, other modernizations and replacements, new tracks, and yes, stadiums.

=> The state doesn’t provide any money for capital needs to school divisions. That funding falls completely on each locality.

=> Now that there is some recovery in local funding, we can work on some capital improvement projects, but we must prioritize. We can’t put the need for a new football stadium ahead of the large backlog of HVAC repairs and roof replacements. That wouldn’t be the best use of the money we have available. However, as long as we depend only on local funding, we will never catch up with all our needs.

=> Now local school divisions, including Chesapeake, are facing a major shortage of teachers. Competition among divisions is fierce. We have had only minimal solutions at best. The real problem with low pay for teachers in Virginia lies with state funding. Without realistic, sustainable state funding, our teacher pay won’t attract quality candidates into the profession, and good teachers are key to the success of our core responsibility.

=> And…. competition between our own operating needs (mainly pay for teaching and support staff) and our capital needs (such as roof, HVAC systems and stadiums) will only increase.

Unfortunately, this algorithm for internal competition among local needs is nothing new. I wrote a similar column to this when I was Superintendent in rural Maine in the early 1980s, in the Seacoast region of NH in the mid-1980s, in Western MD in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, in Upstate NY in the late 1990s though early 2000s, and in the Upper Connecticut River Valley in the early 200os. But I did see a major difference among the districts I led. The districts I led in NH and the one in Upstate NY I led were more affluent than those in ME and MD. Consequently the operating needs (pay for teaching and support staff) were not as urgent and, as a result, the districts did not have the same kinds of staffing shortages as many of my colleagues encountered. Moreover, as the burden for facilities upgrades fell increasingly to local districts, the tax base in the relatively affluent districts was able to fund building improvements for more easily than the less affluent districts. Finally, in the affluent districts there was a core of parents and community members who rallied the importance of maintaining high-quality schools, and that cadre would help the local board persuade voters to support bond referenda when they were needed to ensure that facilities were kept in good shape and support budgets that kept our operating costs relatively high on a per pupil basis. This phenomenon of local support for schools in affluent districts being greater than local support in less affluent districts results in the rich getting richer and the poor falling further behind. And when the state fails to offset this phenomenon, the result is an ever widening economic disparity.

There was a time when state legislatures and the Federal government took steps to address this by adjusting state formulas for the distribution of funds and by providing “compensatory education” funds. But as money for public education diminished at the state and federal level, the funding formulas did not have the same impact. And once President Reagan’s declaration that “government is the problem” and “taxes are confiscatory” took hold in both political parties, funding equity was no longer seen as a priority… and the algorithm for internal competition among local needs became a reality for all districts in our country.

Mr. Roberts’ solution to this is to call for an increase in state funding for the infrastructure needs his district has. It seems obvious to me that there is another solution: an influx of federal dollars to help districts address unarguable needs like the upgrade of HVAC systems, the replacement of roofs, and the installation of the infrastructure required to provide all students with equitable access to technology. If a local or national business wants to make a name for themselves, they can offer to fund tracks, stadiums, and gymnasiums. But the notion that a local or national business will offer to fund core infrastructure needs is far-fetched at best…. and the notion that local taxpayers in poor districts will ever be able to find local funds to fix their facilities is downright delusional…. and the panacea of “choice”? Don’t get me started!

Atlantic Article Underscores Dis-equalizing Forces in “Tax Reform”, Offers Little Hope for Change

February 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Clint Smith’s Atlantic magazine article describing the “subtle subversion” of public education embedded in the new tax code fittingly features a picture of West Philadelphia University City High School with a fallen tree blocking the entrance: a great metaphor for the situation Philadelphia and ALL cities serving children raised in poverty face.

As one who lived in University City for three years, attended the two colleges that border University City, student taught at West Philadelphia HS, and lived in Philadelphia itself for a total of seven years I remember reading about West Philadelphia University City High School and how it would draw on the expertise of the colleges and nearby tech firms to help motivate the students in that part of town to work hard, stay in school, and aspire to college. In reading the Wikipedia entry about the school, it is evident it was doomed from the start, despite its high-minded goals and good intentions:

The district, community, and universities of West Philadelphia argued to make UCHS a math and science magnet school. The most gifted (mostly white students at the time) students were eligible to attend. UCHS was created to represent a new approach to learning in urban education, new in the sense that it would utilize the latest education, technology, and community resources to provide a meaningful individual program for each student, regardless of race or economic background. It aimed to create a college-based environment before entering college.

But complications with the school construction delayed the opening, the teachers assigned to the school “were not ready”, and, after three years the “Individualized Study Program” that was to be the hallmark of the program was abandoned. As Wikipedia described it: “The school’s mission was lost due to gang-related crimes. There was no structure or discipline from the beginning, allowing the students to get out of control.”

After a tumultuous time period when fights, drugs, and racial strife wracked the operation of the school and it’s test scores failed to meet the standards set by the district governed by an agency established by the State, and charter schools housed in the school facility fell short of the mark, it’s doors closed and in 2013 the 31 year old facility was leveled. Oh, and the declines in state funding didn’t help at all! Here’s data from Wikipedia:

In 1975, Pennsylvania provided 55 percent of school funding statewide; in 2001 it provided less than 36 percent.[19] An analysis determined that increased district spending was limited by a state system which relies heavily on property taxes for local school funding. As a result, wealthier school districts with proportionately more property owners and more expensive real estate have more funds for schools. The result is great disparities in school system expenditures per student. In 2000, the Philadelphia school district spent $6,969 a year per student. Seventy percent of Philadelphia’s students are at or near the poverty line. This contrasts with expenditures per student in wealthier suburban school districts: Jenkintown, $12,076; Radnor, $13,288; and Upper Merion, $13,139.[19

Given the arc of this urban school serving children raised in poverty and aspiring to provide them with the tools needed to roll in college, one would hope that any tax legislation passed at the federal level would help provide equitable funding for the Philadelphia schools and provide sufficient revenues to address the issues that face urban schools— issues like drug addiction, the lack of before and after school programming, and support for parents struggling to make ends meet. As Mr. Smith notes in his article, the new tax code not only does nothing to help public schools, it works against them by encouraging affluent parents to enroll their children in private schools. And the new tax code not only does nothing to help address the needs of children raised in poverty, it diminishes the revenues available for those programs and, until the last stalemate, was not going to fund health care for those children. As I write this post, community health centers that serve poverty stricken areas are being used as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the budget.

By expanding the use of 529 savings plans for K-12 education, capping tax deductions for local and state taxes at $10,000, and slashing education spending at the state level in the 30+ states governed by the GOP, K-12 education will be starved for revenues and the funding formulas used to allocate funds will not have the marginal amounts needed to fund property-tax poor  school districts. It will, in effect, put all the schools in the nation in the same death spiral as Philadelphia schools encountered in the 1990s and 2000s.

 

Disaster Capitalism Comes to Puerto Rico. Is ANYONE Surprised?

February 7, 2018 Leave a comment

When Hurricane Kartina hit New Orleans and forced the closure of all of the public schools in the city, then President Bush and his Secretary of Education seized on the disaster as an opportunity to “transform” the school district replacing the public school system overseen by an elected board with charter schools. Years later, despite evidence to the contrary, the GOP and the neoliberal “reformers” and researchers who supported then hailed this “revolutionary change” as unequivocally good, even though there was mounting evidence to the contrary.

Unsurprisingly, after Hurricane Maria devastated his island the Governor of Puerto Rico is now taking the same tack as the Bush administration took after Kartina, introducing a reform package that replaces the single school district that governs Puerto Rico’s schools with a voucher plan. As reported by Reuters writer Nick Brown,

Speaking in a televised address on Monday, Governor Ricardo Rossello also said every public school teacher in Puerto Rico would receive a $1,500 annual salary increase beginning next school year. It was unclear whether the pay bump would require legislation.

The governor’s remarks came 10 days after the island’s education secretary, Julia Keleher, said she planned to decentralize Puerto Rico’s education department and introduce “autonomous schools.”

The pay raise for teachers presumably will win their endorsement for this plan to introduce “autonomous schools”, but the AFT is not buying it:

The plan met with immediate scorn from the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 40,000 educators in Puerto Rico. AFT President Randi Weingarten told Reuters the plan “doesn’t add up,” saying salary bumps will do nothing without more investment in schools.

“There’s a lot of nice flowery language in here, but … you can’t actually do the things [Rossello] is talking about doing and still divert resources from public schools,” Weingarten said.

The voucher program, projected to begin during the 2019-2020 school year, would allow parents to choose public or private school alternatives, but may face legal hurdles.

Ms. Keleher has a daunting task given the fiscal issues facing Puerto Rico. She has generated considerable criticism before the Hurricane because she needed to close over 150 schools to help balance the budget and she had launched some decentralized BOCES-like service organizations across the state to help provide cost-effective support to the schools. But based on what I’ve read, her forte is applying spreadsheet analyses to the operation of schools in the name of efficiency… and efficiency is not necessarily a hallmark of democracy, though is seems to be an article of faith that it IS a hallmark of the marketplace…. and vouchers are the fastest way to impose market forces onto schools.

In the coming months it will be interesting to see if Puerto Rico moves ahead with it’s “revolutionary idea” or backs off because of the inevitable legal challenges it will face. Stay tuned.

Koch Brothers Warning Redux: Voting in ALL Elections, ESPECIALLY Primaries, Is Essential!

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

On of Diane Ravitch’s posts early yesterday included a link to an article by Jeff Bryant, a politically progressive and reliably insightful blogger on public education issues that covered the meeting the Koch Brothers heard recently that placed public schools in their cross hairs as a major target for “reform” in the coming year. Unlike Diane Ravitch, who often sidesteps criticism of the Democratic Party, Jeff Bryant is not reluctant to criticize the party for it’s failure to stand up to the “reformers” who advocate anodyne sounding initiatives like “choice”. Pulling no punches, he writes:

Democrats, over the years, have pulled away from their historical support for public schools and classroom teachers and have gradually embraced the language of “reform” and “choice” Republicans use. Many Democrats have turned against teachers union, joined the Republican chorus to “bust” the public school “monopoly,” and embraced numerous alternatives to traditional public schools that sap the system of its resources.

The Koch brothers’ 700 cronies contributed $100,000 each PER YEAR. That’s $70 million dollars… more than twice the $32 million the AFT and NEA gave to campaigns in 2016! And while that list is not available to the public, I’m guessing that some on that list might own newspapers and TV stations… I’m guessing the Sinclair broadcasting group and Rupert Murdoch might be on the list…

The unions DO need to push back harder against the neoliberals in the Democratic Party, but they will never have a megaphone as big as the Koch brothers…

And one other problem unions face is resentment among taxpayers that translates into a lack of support for their efforts to provide decent wages and working conditions for their employees. Teachers and school district employees who are union members, unlike most employees in the private sector, receive good health benefits, leave time for illnesses, and defined benefit pensions. The fact that these wages and benefits are underwritten by taxes leads to resentment and that, in turn, reduces the public’s support for public education. As long as the public sector wages and benefits mirrored that of the private sector, support for school district employees was relatively strong. Now that the private sector has embraced the private sector’s concept of employees as “free agents” and former President Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem” there is less support for school district employees compensation packages.

And last but not least, all who read this blog need to be vigilant at the state and local level. Formerly non-partisan school board races and GOP primaries are places where a small investment by the Koch’s will go a long way toward tilting state legislatures toward the ALEC mindset! Laurence Lessig cautioned in a talk I heard a few years ago that the real damage inflicted on democracy by Citizens United was in the primary elections where small bands of voters could be activated to nominate candidates who hold extreme views on either end of the political spectrum. This has contributed to the polarization as much as the echo chambers on Facebook and other social media. Informed voting in ALL elections is the only cure for this malady.