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Has the NYTimes Seen the Light? Diane Ravitch Sees Progress in Op Ed by Miriam Pawel

January 16, 2019 Leave a comment

From my perspective, it is heartening to see the LA teachers strike making national news despite the headline grabbing government shutdown and the ongoing political bickering that accompanies it. But, as noted in earlier posts on this issue, the LA strike HAS national ramifications for it ISN’T about wages and working conditions in a lone district. The LA strike is about an ongoing battle within the Democratic Party about privatization of public services: between the “Reform/Reinventing Government” wing of the party that has embraced the idea that the private sector should take over more and more government functions and the “Roosevelt” wing of the party who sees a strong government as necessary to eliminate poverty and racism and eliminate the distortions in our economy that have emerged since Reagan proposed that “government is the problem”.

Thus far, the NYTimes has reliably taken the side of the “Reform/Reinventing Government” wing of the democrats, going so far as to reject countless articles on the ills of privatization from Diane Ravitch. But in a post yesterday, Ms. Ravitch pointed to an op ed article by fellow education historian Miriam Pawel as evidence that MAYBE the Times has seen the light! In “Whats Really at Stake in the Los Angeles Teachers Strike”, Ms. Pawel describes the recent history of public education in California in general and Los Angeles in particular, tracing the decline in public school quality to the passage of Proposition 13… and tracing the passage of THAT law to racism:

In the fall of 1978, after years of bitter battles to desegregate Los Angeles classrooms, 1,000 buses carried more than 40,000 students to new schools. Within six months, the nation’s second-largest school district lost 30,000 students, a good chunk of its white enrollment. The busing stopped; the divisions deepened.

Those racial fault lines had helped fuel the tax revolt that led to Proposition 13, the sweeping tax-cut measure that passed overwhelmingly in June 1978. The state lost more than a quarter of its total revenue.School districts’ ability to raise funds was crippled; their budgets shrank for the first time since the Depression. State government assumed control of allocating money to schools, which centralized decision-making in Sacramento.

Public education in California has never recovered, nowhere with more devastating impact than in Los Angeles, where a district now mostly low-income and Latino has failed generations of children most in need of help.The decades of frustration and impotence have boiled over in a strike with no clear endgame and huge long-term implications. The underlying question is: Can California ever have great public schools again?

As Ms. Pawel goes on to note, the problems whose roots can be found in Proposition 13 got even worse when deregulated charter schools were offered as the “solution”. These schools siphon funds away from public schools, which creates a cycle Ms. Powell describes in one paragraph:

It’s a vicious cycle: The more overcrowded and burdened the regular schools, the easier for charters to recruit students. The more students the district loses, the less money, and the worse its finances. The more the district gives charters space in traditional schools, the more overcrowded the regular classrooms.

And because billionaire Eli Broad spent millions to elect a pro-charter school board who, in turn, appointed a business-minded Superintendent with no experience, LA finds itself mired in a strike… a strike unlike any witnessed by a veteran mediator:

“In my 17 years working with labor unions, I have been called on to help settle countless bargaining disputes in mediation,” wrote Vern Gates, the union-appointed member of the fact-finding panel called in to help mediate the Los Angeles stalemate last month. “I have never seen an employer that was intent on its own demise.”

Like President Trump and the Tea Party wing who want to diminish the effectiveness of government, the LA school board seems to be intent on ruining what is left of the public school system in Los Angeles. Ms. Pawel concludes her op ed with this sobering description of what is at stake:

This strike comes at a pivotal moment for California schools, amid recent glimmers of hope. Demographic shifts have realigned those who vote with those who rely on public services like schools. Voters approved state tax increases to support education in 2012, and again in 2016. In the most recent election, 95 of 112 school bond issues passed, a total of over $15 billion. The revised state formula drives more money into districts with more low-income students and English learners. Total state school aid increased by $23 billion over the past five years, and Governor Newsom has proposed another increase.

If Los Angeles teachers can build on those gains, the victory will embolden others to push for more, just as teachers on the rainy picket lines this week draw inspiration from the successful #RedforEd movements around the country. The high stakes have drawn support from so many quarters, from the Rev. James Lawson, the 90-year-old civil rights icon, to a “Tacos for Teachers” campaign to fund food on the picket lines.

If this fight for public education in Los Angeles fails, it will consign the luster of California schools to an ever more distant memory.

From my perspective, it IS heartening that voters in California have supported tax increases to upgrade their schools and their legislature is sending more of those funds to economically deprived districts. But if those districts, like LA, use their funds to expand privatization Los Angeles schools will lose their luster forever… and the billionaires will prevail… the Winners WILL Take All.

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Are Schools REALLY Over-Funded

January 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday based on the Forbes article by Peter Greene that I drew from in an essay I posted yesterday morning. Peter Greene’s article included this quote:

Teachers across the country are dealing with the problems created by systematic underfunding of public schools

And THAT quote elicited this response from commenter “BA”, a response that was echoed by many who left comments on the Forbes web page:

I don’t think that most schools are truly underfunded, they are mis-funded. The money is spent on computers, that are used for testing, which are priced per test. The money is spent on iPads to report “now we have one iPad per student!” but what improvement does this bring? Students don’t need to handwrite anymore, and type on a virtual keyboard – not even a real one – this is progress? Worksheets either purchased or printed, then thrown away – money and paper is wasted. All the pencils and pens that students steal, break, throw away. All the food that the students throw away. The fences and peace officers, that make schools look like prisons. Too long to list, the point is, if the money were spent where it needed to, that is, on working curricula (not on Whole Language or any NCTM-branded junk), on good textbooks, on notebooks, on good old paper-based testing and grading, on school furniture (have you seen those tiny desks that the kids have to squeeze behind?), on teachers themselves after all, then the results would be different. Compared to most other countries, the U.S. spends a LOT per student.

But as I noted in my response to BA’s comment, the problem isn’t mis-funding: it’s a change in the public’s perception of how the economy works… and it doesn’t work for employees!

One of the biggest problems for public schools is the same problem that plagued union factories that closed in rust belt cities: legacy costs that are built into existing contracts. Public school budgets need to include money to fund pension benefits; health and life insurance benefits for current teachers; and reimbursement for college and graduate school tuitions. In addition, they must budget for contributions to State retirement systems.

Those of us who want to see teaching remain an attractive career that provides middle class wages and benefits do not see these costs as unnecessary. The vulture capitalist reformers who want to be free from “burdensome regulations”, however, want to compensate their employees as little as possible. They want to avoid paying their current employees for benefits and do not want to promise their current employees ANYTHING for retirement. Unions who want to provide living wages and benefits for current employees and security for retirees are an anathema to reformers.

Welcome to the gig economy that most workers live in… an economy that currently fosters resentment toward unions. Maybe when the temp employees with variable schedules and at-will employees who staff most workplaces see that they are being played by the plutocracy sentiments will change. Here’s hoping it changes in 2020.

The 2020 Litmus Test: Do You Support the UTLA?

January 14, 2019 2 comments

As noted in previous posts, the United Teachers of Los Angeles are about to go on strike against the school board in that district. They are not only striking for the traditional bread-and-butter issues that unions seek (i.e. higher wages and better working conditions“) they are also striking for more social services for students in the schools, more elective offerings for students, and fewer charter schools. In short, they are opposing everything the pro-privatization board stands for.

And this excerpt from a Forbes article by Peter Greene explains, the Los Angeles strike has national ramifications: 

…When Los Angeles teachers walk out, it will resonate across the country because the issues they walk for are about the health and survival of public education for children in their communities, and those are the same issues that teachers all across the country are struggling with as well. That’s what makes this strike, like last year’s wave of state strikes, different–many teachers will see it not as simply a local battle, but as a skirmish in a larger national fight.

Here’s something to watch for in the coming days: will ANY of the POTUS wannabes in the Democratic Party come out in support for the UTLA? This should be a litmus test for both the NEA and the AFT when they decide which candidate they should support in the 2020 election. In my opinion, any candidate who takes the side of the school board AND any candidate who equivocates or remains silent regarding their support for the UTLA should be rejected as a candidate for President in 2020. From what I’ve read about the union’s demands, they are clearly on the side of public school students and parents. The NEA and AFT should use this strike as a means of identifying which candidates will support public education in 2020.

LA Teachers Strike Breaks New Ground… Could Re-Define Union’s Mission

January 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Two recent articles I accessed through Diane Ravitch’s blog indicate that the teacher’s strike in Los Angeles is about more that wages, hours, and working conditions: it is about governance, support services, and equitable opportunity for students.

Capital and Main writer Bobbi Murray’s article on January 11, 2019, outlines the risks the union is taking by striking and the rewards it might reap, but as the subheading of the article indicates, their bold demands might make it difficult to know what constitutes a victory. Ms. Murray frames the issues this way:

For 21 months negotiations have ground on between UTLA and the second-largest district in the nation. (The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls 640,000 students.) The more nuts-and-bolts issues on the table include union demands for a 6.5 percent pay raise, a limit to class sizes (that can now hover around 38 pupils per classroom), and a push for more support staff such as nurses and librarians.

Kent Wong, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, notes that UTLA’s demands have moved away from larger raises and toward more funding to alleviate the deep education cuts that have been made over the years.

“It is important to understand the bigger forces at work here,” said Wong, who added that the pro-charter forces have invested millions of dollars to elect a pro-charter majority on the Los Angeles school board to shift resources from public schools to charters.

All strikes are risky undertakings and it’s an axiom that no one wins a strike. But a UTLA walkout would dramatically raise the stakes by casting the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by private charter management organizations.

“A strike is a big deal,” Wong said, because “you have this massive privatization scheme that’s been gutting support for public education and resources for public education. That’s the broader scenario that’s at stake here.”

In effect, the teachers in Los Angeles are not only embarking on a traditional strike that  pits teachers seeking higher wages and better working conditions against a school board that wants to operate as cheaply and efficiently as possible, it is striking against a group of presumably high-minded philanthropists who want to control public education and change it and it is striking to restore deep cuts to public education that have occurred since the economic melt down in 2008. Given these broad goals, what would a union victory look like? Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy offers this response:

“One definition would be very concrete things [like raises and staffing issues] —the union could win some of that… The other definition is bigger—it could be the re-funding of public education in California and the country. This kind of strike is a powerful impulse to tell the [Democratic] supermajorities in Sacramento to modify Proposition 13, to bring new sources of funds so that school districts are not starved.”

Earlier this week Education Dive writer Linda Jacobsen wrote that the Los Angeles teachers are also seeking community schools, which provide wraparound services for students. In effect, the community school model describes how additional funding for schools would not only go into the pockets of teachers, it would expand the array of services available to students, making it clear that teachers are not only looking out for themselves, they are also seeking what is best for the children they serve:

Community schools are highlighted as part of the union-led Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools platform, nationally and in Los Angeles. And in a 2017 article for Center X at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Caputo-Pearl mentioned community schools in describing the union’s campaign to see the state or at least LAUSD spend $20,000 per student by 2020.

It would mean a nurse in every school. It would mean a librarian in every school. It would mean actually having restorative justice programs, staffed with people whose job it is to help develop restorative practices,” he said. “It would mean another one of our common good proposals around investing in a community schools model. It would mean more schools with wraparound services, with real breadth of curriculum in ethnic studies, music and the arts.” 

In several urban districts, teachers unions have been actively involved in supporting the community school model. Unions “provide a vehicle to quickly reach cohesiveness between schools and communities,” José Munoz, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, wrote in an email. “That communication power helps harness and scale best practices nationally.”

Community schools develop in many ways, but they typically include formal partnerships in which community organizations provide schools with wraparound services such as health, mental health and after-school programs, and a separate coordinator position is created to make it all work. Unions view the strategy as a way to address many of the nonacademic issues — such as food insecurity, mental of physical health needs, or a lack of enrichment opportunities — that interfere with students’ learning.

“All of these issues walk into a classroom whether you want it or not,” Karen Alford, a vice president for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City, said in an interview. Alford leads the union’s “community learning school” initiative in which the union is the lead community agency and pays for a full-time community school director (or coordinator) at 31 schools across the district.

These articles illustrate the broad frame the unions are using to define their demands, and also indicate that the unions… NOT the school boards, politicians, or administrators… are taking the lead in coordinating the services children need.

As one who forged partnerships with health departments, the department of social services, and several non-profits when I was a county superintendent in Maryland in the 1990s, it is sad to see that few if any school leaders are advocating for community schools today and even sadder to see that few if any political leaders are pushing for them. But it is very heartening to see that rank-and-file teachers recognize the need for such services and are willing to incorporate demands for these services in their collective bargaining battles.

Community schools that provide coordinated wraparound services to students are the best way forward to address the needs of children raised in poverty… and with the majority of public schools educating students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, it is essential that unions promote this model. Bravo to the teachers for standing up to the philanthropists who seek to strip them of their power and offer factory model schools that assume every child can succeed with grit and perseverance.

Neoliberal Center for American Progress Issues Excellent Advice to Newly Elected Governors

January 11, 2019 Leave a comment

I usually reject many of the ideas for public education advanced by the Center for American Progress (CAP) because they tend to reflect the “reform” mode of thinking. But a recently issued set or recommendations for newly elected Democrat governors MIGHT be an indication that their thinking is changing for the better, and MIGHT provide a counter-ALEC framework for Democrat legislators to follow.

Titled “11 Ways New Governors Can Lead on Education Through Executive Actions“, the article by CAP staffers Scott Sargrad, Lisette Partelow, and Jessica Yin outlines some action steps that cold mitigate the direction GOP Governors have moved in the past few years, directions that undercut public education and reinforce the test-and-punish methods advocated by ALEC. Several of the eleven recommendations are related to the creation of task forces or commissions designed to tackle tough issues like school financing, high school re-design, infrastructure funding, and the restoration of teaching as a valued profession. Others look at issues like school safety, discipline, gender equality, and evidence based decision making. One that stood out and offers some glimmer of hope that CAP’s enchantment with charter schools might be over was this one:

7) Initiate an investigation of the for-profit and virtual charter sectors

For-profit online charter schools have made significant inroads in certain states, receiving large sums of state education funding without being held accountable for what are often inferior results.28 In addition to employing questionable business practices that put profits before kids, these schools often have much lower graduation rates than the state average and fail on a number of other academic metrics.29

Governors could request that their attorneys general or an appointed special investigator examine the for-profit and virtual education sectors in their state and produce a report on the sectors’ finances and outcomes, along with other areas of concern. The investigative report should make recommendations to improve the sectors’ transparency, accountability, and requirements in order for such schools to remain open and have their charters renewed. If governors have the authority to do so, they could propose a ban on for-profit, virtual charter schools based on the findings of the investigation. California, for example, enacted such a ban after an investigation led to a multimillion-dollar settlement over false advertising and anti-competitive practices by a large virtual for-profit charter operator.30

I doubt that the Democrat governors of NY and CT will do this, but the fact that CAP is including this while advocating for an examination of funding inequities makes me hopeful that the DNC might be moving away from championing schools like Eva Moskovitz’s Success Academy and providing more funds for public schools that serve economically disadvantaged children. If that is the case, there MAY be a choice in the 2020 presidential election.

Could Maine’s Turnaround be a Harbinger for our Nation

January 10, 2019 Leave a comment

I worked for six years in Western Maine from 1977-1983: three as a HS Principal and three more as Superintendent. At that time, I was impressed with the leadership at the State level. The Commissioner was peripatetic, visiting schools and school districts, giving countless speeches and writing op ed pieces promoting the importance of public schools, and hiring bright people to support him even though his staff was being diminished on an annual basis by an increasingly fiscally conservative legislature.

Since leaving Maine I’ve followed their state politics from afar. I noted that they elected decidedly moderate and independent individuals to lead and represent their State, often rejecting either party by electing independents. Angus King embodied their politics in the 90s and early 2000s. But then the wheels came off when their wasn’t a viable independent-moderate candidate and the voters “chose” GOP candidate and Tea Party darling Paul LePage as Governor. I put the word “chose” in quotes because he won both elections when moderate-to-liberal voters split between two candidates paving the way for LePage to win with 38% of the vote in the first election and less than a majority the second time. Like our current President, Mr. LePage appeals to libertarians and other anti-government minded voters and, like our current President, Mr. LePage holds public schools in contempt. Consequently, like our current President. the Maine Governor appointed an education leader who loathed public schools. Here’s the way Diane Ravitch described his appointee to Commissioner: “Paul LePage appointed a homeschooling parent as Commissioner of Education. He made racist remarks. He followed Jeb Bush as his idol.” 

But now, after eight years of “leadership” by the GOP, the voters elected Janet Mills to office and, as Ms. Ravitch notes in her blog post yesterday, change is afoot. Ms. Mills has chosen Pender Makin, Brunswick’s Assistant Superintendent to be Commissioner, and Ms. Makin appears to be the polar opposite of Mr. LePage’s appointee. In addition to being a public school graduate and public school teacher and administrator, she has a stellar resume:

Ms. Makin has been on Maine’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group since 2014, and co-founded the Collaborative for Perpetual Innovation, a technical assistance, professional development, and consulting company for people in the education field. She has served on legislative work panels that aim to enhance educational opportunities for Maine students and promote the work of the state’s public schools.

The Maine Principal’s Association named her the state’s principal of the year for 2013-2014, and Makin also earned the MTV Local Hero and Milken Educator awards.

Better yet, from my perspective, she appears to have the right priorities:

Makin said her top priority as Maine’s next education commissioner will be to rebuild trust in the department.

“There’s been a revolving door of short-term commissioner posts, and the constituents – the schools, the superintendents and the districts – at this point have no faith and no trust that the existing structure is able to meet our needs,” she said.

There is also a need to rebuild trust in public education among all Mainers, Makin added.

Equity of access for all the state’s students to the best education possible is another objective. “We have a growing divide between children who are living in poverty and children who are quite privileged,” and there’s a difference between schools in big cities, the suburbs, and remote rural districts, Makin said.

Makin said she also wants to tackle school safety as proactively as possible.

“I would emphasize social, emotional, behavioral mental health supports (and) screenings,” she said. “Attention to those things is going to make us safer than any type of equipment ever will.”

WOW! Imagine that! A commissioner who wants to build public support and trust for public schools, cares about those who are economically deprived, and wants to invest in “social, emotional, behavioral mental health supports” instead of “equipment“. And Ms. Makin sees Maine as a potential national leader:

“I see Maine as being in a prime position to be influencing national education policy, rather than reactively responding to every little whim that’s happening (at the federal level),” Makin said.

“We have the most unique demographics, we have innovative people in our classrooms all across the state,” she added, plus “a lot of passion and determination, hard work, and all the things that make Maine a real leader educationally. I feel that we maybe have squandered every opportunity to highlight that at the national level.”

Makin also said she sees Maine striving to achieve a world-class education for its students and pushing back against federal policies with which it doesn’t agree, instead of “absorbing blindly whatever gets handed down to us.”

She recalled implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” initiative in 2001, which launched a period of externally driven policies that created a culture of fear-driven accountability. Non-educators were telling educators how to teach, she said, and using sometimes punitive methods to try to bring about success.

There are many Pender Makin’s in the pipeline. Vermont’s and New Hampshire’s former state leaders are cut from the same cloth and there are, I am certain, other state level leaders who could lead public schools out of the “culture of fear-driven accountability” if they were given the chance. But as long as Democrats ascribe to the neoliberal reform agenda we will witness the likes of Arne Duncan and John King being tapped to lead at the national level and testing will continue. I hope that Ms. Makin is successful in leading her state and that Maine IS the template for the future.

As those of us who value public schools look at the Democrat candidates for 2020 their position on “reform” should be a litmus test. If we get another six years of test-and-punish it will mean two full decades of carrots-and-sticks. Ugh!

My Talk on Billionaires that Concludes with the Ultimate Political Question: How Much is Enough?

January 9, 2019 Leave a comment

This afternoon I gave a talk at the local Rotary Club that posed the question: Are Billionaires Good for America? A link to the power point presentation that served as the outline for my talk is provided below. It contains a lot of information that will likely be familiar to readers of this blog but, much to my surprise and dismay, was unfamiliar to most of the members in the club. It concluded with a slide that asserted that there is one question we need to ask: how much is enough. Here are the areas the slide suggests we need to pose the question “How Much Is Enough”?

•For setting income tax brackets?

•For setting the maximum taxable limit for social security?

•For corporate tax breaks at ALLlevels?

•For privatization of public services?(i.e. Police? Fire departments? Highways? Schools? Etc, etc)

•For deregulation? (i.e. for safety? the environment? Wages and working conditions? )

•For safety at all levels? (i.e. for defense? Hardening schools? Police? Fire departments? )

And here’s a link to the entire presentation:

billionaires