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Edelblut, Like DeVos, Gets Appointment as Chief School Officer Despite Inexperience, Potential Conflicts of Interest

March 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Unsurprisingly, former NH GOP State House Representative and gubernatorial candidate Frank Edelblut was appointed to a four year term of office by a partisan 3-2 vote by the Executive Council, the body that endorses gubernatorial appointments to key offices in the state. Today’s Valley Newsarticle by Rob Wolfe offers some background on the hearing for Mr. Edelblut’s appointment, which featured a picture of a room crowded with protesters, one of who carried a sign reading: “WHO WANTS A PILOT WHO NEVER HAS FLOWN?”, a reference to the fact that Mr. Edelblut has never served in public education in any capacity. Compounding this lack of service in public education is the fact that he chose to homeschool all seven of his children and he chose to make an undisclosed donation to a fund to support a school district seeking to use public funds to send a child to a private Montessori School. That lack of disclosure, described in an earlier blog post, led to some pointed questioning from Andru Volinski, a Democrat Executive Councilor:

During the panel’s Wednesday morning meeting, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, expressed concern that Edelblut’s hitherto anonymous gift, which likely was made before he was appointed commissioner, represented a conflict of interest.

“I don’t have any quarrel with his contribution,” Volinsky said. “I have some concern that when I asked him about any potential conflicts of interest he did not think to disclose this.”

Edelblut last week told Volinsky that he had donated $1,000 to the Croydon School Board’s legal defense of a lawsuit brought by state officials over the board’s payments of public money to private schools.

The disclosure came after the Valley News reported that Croydon rejected a request to reveal unnamed donors to the $23,000 fund and that Edelblut for two weeks declined to answer questions about his role.

As noted in the earlier post, Mr. Edelblut and Betsy DeVos are like peas in a pod: they both lack experience and both advocate that public funds should be used to whatever purpose parents deem to be in the best interest of their child, be it public school, an on-line for profit school with limited success rates, a parochial school, or— presumably, an Islamic fundamentalist school. Mr. Volinky’s argument, like that of his counterparts in the US Congress, fell on deaf ears.

Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, said he trusted Edelblut’s integrity and warned the group not to “jump to conclusions.”

“I do not believe that he would go back on his word,” Prescott said, referring to Edelblut’s promises to act as a mere implementer of policy.

With that, the council voted along party lines, 3-2, to confirm Edelblut for a four-year term.

And so the dismantling of public education can proceed apace in New Hampshire unless more voices like Mr. Volinsky’s are raised in protest.

“It should not have required an express request from an executive councilor to disclose that,” Volinsky said.

Volinsky also said he was concerned that, contrary to statements Edelblut had made during confirmation hearings in January, the new commissioner was seeking to further his own “agenda” rather than implement policy created by others.

NYTimes Editors Remain Oblivious to the Link Between Choice and Austerity

March 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Today the NYTimes editors took Kansas Governor Sam Brown to task for his wrongheaded approach to taxation in his State as he is reportedly set to leave his state in the lurch as he leaves for a rumored  Ambassadorship to Rome. The editors offered a description of the tax scheme and its impact:

Mr. Brownback, a Republican first elected on the Tea Party crest of 2010, used his office as a laboratory for conservative budget experimentation. His insistence that tax cuts create, not diminish, revenues has left the state facing a ballooning deficit plus a ruling by the state Supreme Court that Kansas schoolchildren have been unconstitutionally shortchanged in state aid for years, with the poorest minority children most deprived.

The court ruled this month that they would shut the state’s schools if funding wasn’t made equitable by June 30. It found reading test scores of nearly half of African-American students and more than one-third of Hispanic students were deficient under aid formulas favoring more affluent school districts.

Brownback’s solution to this deficit is not a tax increase to improve the funding deficiency cited by the court. His solution is to offer the students “choice”, a solution the NYTimes editors derided:

Mr. Brownback played no small role in the long-running school crisis by leading the Republican Legislature to limit school aid after enacting the largest tax cuts in state history, for upper-bracket business owners. Characteristically, the governor’s reaction to the court mandate was to further undermine schools by suggesting parents “be given the opportunity and resources to set their child up for success through other educational choices.”

But wait! Isn’t this the same editorial board that champions Eva Moskovitz’ Success Academy because ti gives parents “the opportunity… to set their child up for success through other educational choices”? Isn’t this the same editorial board that views charter schools as the best means to improve the failing schools in New York City?

My question to the NYTimes editors is this: Can’t you see that the underlying motive of the pro-charter school movement and Sam Brownback are identical? They BOTH want to diminish funding for schools while deregulating their operations so that privatizing profiteers can take them over. Maybe the results of Governor Brownback’s failed policies linking tax cuts to deregulated charters will help them connect the dots going forward.

Trump/GOP Budget Ignores Scientific Findings and Students in Poverty— And the Planet— Pay the Price

March 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Guardian articlereporter Sam Thielman posted an decrying the Trump/GOP budget’s decision to cut funds for school lunches by $200,000,000 despite solid evidence that they are a cost effective way to improve student performance and health outcomes. In yet another case of the Trump administration’s ignorance of science (see the denial of climate change for countless other examples), the President’s budget director offered this explanation for the cuts:

When Mick Mulvaney, director of Donald Trump’s office of budget management, told press on Thursday that the administration’s attack on school meal programsbecause they “don’t work”, he did not mean that they don’t feed hungry children.

“Let’s talk about after-school programs generally: they’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re actually doing that,” Mulvaney said. “There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better in school.

This last statement got the attention of Dr. Michael Weitzman whose studies DID demonstrate that “kids who don’t get fed at home” do better in school when they receive a nutritious meal:

That statement is “an outrageous, fallacious comment that clearly reflects a lack of knowledge, or perhaps even worse, dishonesty”, said physician Michael Weitzman in an interview with the Guardian. Weitzman is the former chair of pediatrics at New York University, where he currently teaches, and this year’s recipient of the John Howland award, the highest honor bestowed by the American Pediatric Society.

And Guardian writer Thielman offers more evidence in case Dr. Weitzman’s word is insufficient:

The connection between childhood nutrition and hard educational metrics such as attendance and test performance has been documented repeatedly, by universities as well as government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Weitzman and the other researchers who worked on the Boston study demonstrated explicitly that federally funded nutrition programs improve academic performance. That they help to alleviate poverty as well is simply a bonus.

So why would the Director of the Office of Budget and Management fly in the face of scientific findings and support cutting school lunch? For the same reason that the current administration and the GOP want to ignore the findings of climate science: the benefactors of scientific findings are not profiteering lobbyists with deep pockets. School children raised in poverty do not vote and do not have anyone with boatloads of money for political campaigns who can speak on their behalf. The planet earth has vocal supporters who generate petitions but there is no profit-making group advocating for clean air and clean water that compares with the auto and petroleum industries…. or the nascent water sellers.

So taxpayers save a few cents in order for corporations to save huge sums on their tax bills while children suffer and corporations no longer need to follow “stifling regulations” that help sustain planet earth. Welcome to the plutocracy.

Calling a For Profit Cyber School Receiving Public Money a “Public School” is Misleading and Disingenuous

March 18, 2017 Leave a comment

On Thursday afternoon, Common Dreams posted education reporter Jeff Bryant’s latest Education Opportunity Network article, “What Betsy DeVos Means When She Says “Public Schools” on their website today… and it is an understatement to say her definition of “public schools” is misleading. As Mr. Bryant notes, there is an effort underway across the country to rebrand “…for-profit virtual charters and private school recipients of taxpayer-backed vouchers as public schools.” Such re-branding is misleading and disingenuous. These schools play by different rules. They are deregulated, not subject to the same accountability standards as public schools, and not governed by publicly elected officials. They are no more a public institution than a bouncer at a bar or a security guard at a department store are “policemen.” While the bouncer and security guard perform some of the same functions as a police officer, they have far less training, a far narrower scope of responsibility, and are not answerable to the public. If police departments heard that bouncers and security guards were “re-branded” as public policeman they’d be annoyed. Yet people seem to think public school teachers should be unperturbed when for profit institutions or virtual instruction enterprises are called “public schools.”

But, as Mr. Bryant notes, the public is generally unaware of the differences between charter schools and bona fide public schools, and this lack of understanding has created an opening for opportunistic charter profiteers:

These important differences between charter schools and traditional public schools are not generally understood or appreciated by even the most knowledgeable people, which is why charter advocates put so much energy and resources in marketing their operations as “public” schools.

Jeff Bryant concludes his article with this:

School choice proponents like DeVos often argue that all that matters is whether students who attend charters, online schools, and private academies do well on standardized tests and that parents are generally satisfied with these choices.

But this argument ignores the tax-paying public that deserves to know whether those outcomes are being achieved without wasting our public dollars, which more often than not, they probably are.

If a school is governed by a board elected by the voters, adheres to regulations developed by a state agency in accordance with laws passed by elected officials, and is held to standards set by elected officials or their appointees, it is a “public” school. Anything else is anti-democratic and private and should not receive any public funds from taxpayers.

Who Paid for Legal Expenses in NH Tuition Lawsuit? Privatizing Profiteers? Voucher Advocates? or the New Commissioner?

March 14, 2017 Leave a comment

One piece of legislation wending its way through the State legislature in New Hampshire is getting the attention of our local newspaper, the Valley News, and media outlets across the state, including the Manchester Union Leader The background on HB 557, the so-called “Croydon Bill”, was summarized as follows in the Union Leader when it was filed in January:

Croydon School Board member Jim Peschke has been fighting since 2006 to expand educational choices in the Sullivan County town north of Newport with a population around 700.

The town’s ongoing struggle with the state Department of Education and in the courts over its attempt to send five local children to a nearby Montessori school at taxpayer expense has become a rallying point for school choice advocates throughout the state and beyond.

On Wednesday, Peschke continued the battle as he testified before the House Education Committee on a bill that would essentially allow Croydon and any other town in similar circumstances to do what the courts and Department of Education have said they cannot do.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate last year passed an identical school choice bill only to have it vetoed by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

House Bill 557, if signed into law, would allow a school district to assign a child within the district to any state-approved private school, even a religious school, if there is no public school for the child’s grade in the district.

Many of the smaller communities in the state, like Croydon, do not have a local K-12 school district. They contract with larger nearby districts to educate their students, usually through a per-student tuition contract paid for by the sending town.

The Croydon School District has maintained there is nothing in state law that prohibits it from using private schools if that is the best educational option for a student.

As noted above, the battle lines have been drawn on this district for several years, with Croydon’s battle over de facto vouchers gathering financial and political support from those who want unfettered school choice and strong opposition from those who do not want public funds being used for sectarian or any non-public schools.

While the political battle is getting the most attention inside and outside the state, it is the financial support that is getting the attention of the Valley News. In an article in today’s paper, Rob Wolfe provides some background on when the financial issues came into play:

In autumn 2015, the Croydon School Board launched a campaign to finance its legal defense through the online crowdfunding site GoFundMe. Thousands of dollars poured in over the following months, according to a list of donations on the page, and the still-running total stands at around $23,000.

Most of the largest gifts are anonymous, including two donations listed at $14,020 and $3,300 about a year and a half ago.

Jody Underwood, a board member who serves as the panel’s school-choice liaison, said the $14,000 contribution was actually three separate checks that the board received physically, not online, and then added to the campaign.

Underwood last month rejected a Valley News records request under N.H. RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law, for documents such as those checks that would reveal the identities of the major donors.

Ms. Underwood’s contention that the donors would be shielded from the right-to-know law didn’t wash with Andru Volinsky, one of the five Executive Council members who pass judgement on the Governor’s appointees and a staunch advocate for equitable school funding:

Andru Volinsky, a Democratic executive councilor,… said the exemptions Underwood cited did not appear to apply to this case.

“Neither one flies,” he said.

The exemption for “confidential, commercial, or financial information,” he said, “is for something that you might think of as a trade secret. I’m on the Executive Council; if a company submitted a bid and had to submit all of their backup financial data to establish their financial viability until they’re approved, this is the kind of protected financial information that this applies to — not the fact that somebody contributed a certain amount of money.”

Volinsky said the second exemption cited, for invasion of privacy, was a “balancing test” between “what kind of ridicule or invasiveness” a disclosure could create for a person and the pertinence of a disclosure to the activities of a public body.

“This is directly about how the Croydon School District funds itself,” he said. “You can’t get a better description of learning about how Croydon funds itself as a public enterprise.”

Mr. Volinsky might be interested in learning about the donors because there is a suspicion that one of them might have been Frank Edelblut, the recently appointed Commissioner of Education who Mr. Volinsky voted against. The Valley News seems to share this suspicion, and gives some background to explain why Mr. Edelblut might have been a contributor:

New Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, who as a state representative sponsored an earlier version of the bill, refused to answer numerous inquiries by email and phone over the past two weeks about whether he was one of Croydon’s anonymous benefactors.

A visit on Monday morning to the state Department of Education office in Concord did not yield a response, either.

An aide there said Edelblut was busy throughout the day, but promised to convey a request for comment to him.

A short while later, a man who identified himself as “Skip,” and said he handled security for the commissioner, told a reporter to leave the public waiting room and the building — “or,” he said, “I’ll have to call security to remove you.”

Edelblut appeared at a New Hampshire commissioners forum later that day at Concord’s downtown Holiday Inn. He declined to respond to questions in person outside the event.

Volinsky, who sharply questioned Edelblut about his experience and educational beliefs during Executive Council confirmation hearings, urged the new commissioner to address the question.

Edelblut, a consultant and venture capitalist who homeschooled his seven children, has never worked professionally in public education and faced opposition to his appointment from Democrats on the Executive Council and from the state Board of Education.

He was nominated education commissioner after posting strong results as runner-up in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.

Given his refusal to deny that he was a donor to the lawsuit, it seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that he DID make a sizable contribution to the Croydon case. Based on what has transpired at the federal level, if Mr. Edelblut was a donor to the “Croydon” cause he might as well acknowledge it. His donations to a lawsuit defending a district trying to issue de facto vouchers would be no different than Betsy DeVos’ generous donations to various voucher plans and, like DeVos, he would have the full support of his boss and, in all probability, the continuing support of the three executive counselors who voted in favor of his appointment. By avoiding the question he is, in effect, acknowledging some degree of shame or embarrassment relative to his support for the Croydon case or fearful that some might see the donation as unethical given that he was at that time trying to get legislation passed on behalf of the district. Either way, Mr. Edelblut’s evasiveness is not helping his establish credibility among public school leaders and board members who are wary of his intentions.

I salute the Valley News and other newspapers for pursuing the question of who made the donations to the Croydon “go fund me” campaign. If it was a group of small donors from the town who want to act on New Hampshire’s motto “Live Free or Die” by sending their children to whatever non-sectarian school they wish, that seems acceptable. But if the largest donors are privatizers who would profit from the this scheme or wealthy politicians looking to promote legislation they’ve introduced, it is a different story. And like the Valley News and Mr. Volinsky, I believe the public should learn who is footing the bill for a public lawsuit.

Sue Legg: The Origins of Florida’s Tax Credits for Constitutionally Banned Vouchers

March 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch invited Sue Legg, education director of the Florida League of Women Voters, to write a post explaining the history of the “Florida Tax Credit” plan, the template used by ALEC to provide de facto vouchers to “needy” students. As Ms. Legg’s post illustrates, most of the “scholarship” money goes to students attending sectarian schools… and into the pockets of those who “administer” the scholarships.

The beauty of this scheme is that it is so complicated the the adverse impact on public education cannot be easily explained in an “elevator speech” or a tweet… but the presumably positive aspects of it— namely “choice”— lend themselves to glib slogans.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Sue Legg, education director of the Florida League of Women Voters, wrote this history of the state’s tax credit program at my request. Thank you, Sue.


Not all Choices are Good Choices

Following Jeb Bush’s 1994 defeat in his run for governor, he dented his image. According to a Tampa Bay Times report, in a televised debate Bush responded ‘not much’ when asked what he would do for black voters. Faced with criticism, he launched a charter school in Miami, and the school choice movement in Florida began.

In 1998, John Kirtley, a venture capitalist, personally funded private school scholarships to low income children.

He took the idea to then Representative Joe Negron, who is now the President of the Florida Senate.

Jeb Bush was governor, and the state’s voucher and corporate tax credit scholarship programs began.

Florida’s constitution, however, prohibited the direct or indirect transfer of money from the…

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The Privatization Paradox: Deferred Maintenance is “Profitable” for Shareholders… or Taxpayers

March 8, 2017 Leave a comment

I read two articles in sequence this morning that brought to light a paradox of privatization. One article by Mitch Smith of the NYTimes described the decision of the City of Omaha to “reclaim” a pothole riddled street by converting it into a dirt road. The other article by David Hetherington of the Guardian described the sweeping privatization program underway in Australia.

Here’s the paragraph from the NYTimes article that describes why the city of Omaha decided to “reclaim” some of it’s roads:

Omaha’s most problematic streets were mostly built by developers decades ago who skimped on costs by paving with asphalt instead of concrete, and by forgoing sidewalks and sewers. In other cases, Omaha annexed suburban-looking neighborhoods with roads not built to city standards.

For years, an uneasy truce persisted: Public works crews would fill potholes and perform other maintenance work on those roads, but insisted that residents pay if they wanted repaving. Those streets, labeled “unimproved” by the city, account for about 6 percent of Omaha’s roads.

Then repair costs escalated, and potholes started going unfilled. On particularly troubled blocks, the city converted the asphalt surface into a gravelly dirt, a peculiar sight in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in the center of a city. Only a small fraction of them, less than 10 miles, have been reclaimed….

Residents have responded with angry phone calls, neighborhood meetings and at least one lawsuit. But Todd Pfitzer, the city’s assistant director of public works, said Omaha’s policy on unimproved roads is a matter of equity. When the houses were built two generations ago with subpar streets, he said, the builder and homeowner saved money.

“Now you’re asking the rest of the citizens to come in and essentially subsidize you and rebuild your road,” Mr. Pfitzer said. Bringing all of Omaha’s unimproved streets up to city code would cost about $300 million, officials estimate.

There is another perspective on this. The City of Omaha’s decision to annex the “…suburban-looking neighborhoods with roads not built to city standards” undoubtedly helped their balance sheet at the time. My guess is the city government either did not take the difference in road construction standards into account or ignored it altogether. It was not a bill they needed to pay at the time, and the added revenues from having the “…suburban-looking neighborhoods” on their tax rolls would enable them to fund things like the “busy downtown with new developments and a glimmering baseball stadium that hosts the College World Series” described later in the article. Fixing infrastructure is expensive and doesn’t “glimmer”. And who wants to pay taxes to fix the road in front of someone else’s house?

David Hetherington’s Guardian article describes Australia’s decision to expand privatization, using the recent decision to privatize public disability support care as well earlier decisions to privatize hospitals and electricity as the lens to view all of the various areas that are being commoditized. Mr. Hetherington notes the many areas Australia is privatizing public services:

These are some of the areas, but not all. Tafe, cleaning services, prisons, CSIRO, the ATO, land titles registry, housing, home care, jobs services: the list of services being privatised or outsourced is far larger than the community would believe.

Many not-for-profit NGOs that participated in the inquiry raised significant concerns about privatisation and the marketisation of services, arguing that competition and contestability do not work in services that involve caring for people. They talked about targeted services being lost, about race-to-the-bottom tendering and a lack of funding making it difficult to provide the services the communities need, of being swamped by the for-profits, and that increasingly they are forced to behave like for-profits to survive.

The hearings also brought out the sense of loss that communities feel when vital services are privatised, when institutions that fulfil a deeply human function: teaching, caring for people at their most vulnerable moments, are forced to behave like businesses, whose primary concern is maximising profit, not focusing on performing tasks that rely fundamentally on empathy. We heard that once these services are privatised, it becomes so much harder for communities to hold anyone to account for the standard of services. The people who end up bearing that responsibility of care are primarily women – and it shouldn’t be theirs to carry alone.

The common thread between the Omaha experience and Australia’s movement toward privatization is this: in both cases the politicians are looking for solutions to long term problems that do not require any immediate financial sacrifice on the part of citizens or the businesses, neither of whom want to see any tax increases whatsoever. In short, both taxpayers and profiteers receive a financial benefit when public services are privatized. Before they were annexed by Omaha, the nearby sprawling communities with “…suburban-looking neighborhoods” used their relatively lax standards to entice developers to build home on “roads not built to city standards“. And, as a result, as Mr. Smith noted, these subpar streets built two generations ago saved the individual builder and individual homeowner money. Now the taxpayers collectively have to cover the costs of these lax regulations or… they can ask individuals to pay for them if they have the wherewithal to do so. And in Omaha, here’s the result:

Bruce Simon, the president of Omaha Steaks, a major employer here, sued the mayor and the city last year after finding out that the asphalt road in front of his $2.3 million house was scheduled to be pulverized into gravel. He dropped the lawsuit after Ms. Stothert helped negotiate the 50-50 payment deal.

“I got a road,” said Mr. Simon, who paid $5,200 to cover his share of the smooth new asphalt surface. “Did I like chucking out the five grand? No. Did I like spending the money with an attorney to deal with it? No.”

About a mile away, on Leavenworth Street, Ms. Amoura and her neighbors are waiting to hear from City Hall about whether they will get a deal similar to Mr. Simon’s. But on other reclaimed streets, residents have scoffed at the notion that they should have to choose between living on gravel and paying for new pavement.

Omaha’s experience is a classic case of what happens when the attitude of privatization prevails over the attitude of communitarianism: the wealthy get paved roads, everyone else lives on a dirt road.

I keep waiting for some politician to explain to voters that government provides a means of collective gain and collective cost-sharing. Didn’t the Omaha taxpayers collectively benefit for two generations from the additional tax base that the annexation provided? If so, why shouldn’t the Omaha taxpayers expect to absorb the costs to improve the infrastructure of the communities they annexed?

One other “selling point” of privatization is the notion that businesses can operate more efficiently than the government, especially if the business does not have to face the regulatory hurdles. One of the primary reason business can deliver goods more cheaply is what Mr. Hetherington referred to as “race-to-the-bottom tendering”, that is paying the lowest wages and offering the fewest benefits possible to workers. When governments require fair labor wages and governments compensate their employees well and provide them with decent benefits and pensions, many taxpayers complain. Those same taxpayers are silent, though, when a corporation like Walmart intentionally underpays employees and advises them to seek government benefits, benefits that are paid with the same dollars that COULD have gone in the pockets of one of their neighbors who worked for the local government. Low bidders who operate with the Walmart mentality often under compensate their workers at the expense of taxpayers but get away with it because it is an indirect cost. And here’s what is particularly vexing: if a bidder does NOT operate with the Walmart mentality they will find themselves without work. And so we have job market full of temporary workers taking whatever work is available at whatever wage a company is willing to pay: a race-to-the-bottom tendering that undercuts employees faith in their employer and the financial well-being of the community.

The solution to all of this is more government regulation, larger government work forces, and higher compensation for every able bodied individual willing and able to work. People who complain about private sector compensation packages often overlook one fact: the agreements negotiated in the 1960s and 1970s that serve as the baseline for bargaining today reflected the corporate compensation routinely offered to employees when the contracts were written. One consequence of the race-to-the-bottom tendering is that today’s compensation for public employees is often superior to the packages offered in the private sector… and that feeds the anti-government resentment. The best way to stop the cycle of resentment is to restore the tax structures that were in place at that time, tax structures that required high wage earners to pay higher taxes and had regulations in place that prevented the off-shoring of corporations in order to avoid taxes. A shift in that direction will require a major shift in the public’s thinking, a shift that will take time. But one benefit of observing the impact of privatization on Australia and, to a lesser degree, Omaha is that we can learn frothier mistakes. Let’s hope we do so!