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If It’s Booker vs. Trump? I May Seriously Consider “None of the Above”

March 11, 2019 Leave a comment

A number of friends I know who do not follow the privatization movement closely see Cory Booker as a viable alternative to Donald Trump. An eloquent African-American who embodies racial justice and has ascended the political ladder from Mayor of Newark to U.S. Senator, Mr. Booker is the heir apparent to the Clinton-Gore-Obama legacy of centrism in the Democratic Party— a level headed moderate. But, as Jacobin writer Eric Blanc reports in his bluntly titled article “Cory Booker Hates Public Schools” Mr. Booker is really the embodiment of neoliberalism, a candidate who fully embraced every element of the so-called “school reform movement”, and— therefore— is a candidate who would attract both Wall Street and Silicon Valley backing.

I am among many voters who begrudgingly cast a vote for Hillary Clinton knowing that such a vote effectively endorsed the Obama-Duncan legacy but fearing (rightly as it turned out) that Donald Trump’s direction for public education would be even worse. If Mr. Booker is the nominee for the Democrats, who can public educators– or for that matter any public employees– turn to?

Over the past two decades I’ve witnessed NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA, take instructional decisions out of the hands of teachers and put them in the hands of those who design standardized tests. At the same time, governance decisions about public education moved from local school boards to the State Houses who favor test-and-punish methods and free market solutions to public schools. Ultimately vouchers will enable all but the neediest parents to abandon public education in favor of sectarian and/or high-priced private schools… and while those schools will be free from the constraints of teaching-to-the-test the public schools will continue to be “measured” by standardized tests linked to age-based grade-level cohorts.

Given the devolution of public schools under GOP and neoliberal leaders, I may well cast a vote for none-of-the-above if I am faced with Booker vs. Trump. I await some kind of word from the other Democratic candidates on their positions on public education… but do so in dread for I fear that the “reform” movement has captured the imagination of voters.

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Cory Booker Has Background, Talent to be President. Too Bad He Opposes Public Education

February 6, 2019 Comments off

For those who follow politics but do not appreciate the devastating impact of privatization, Cory Booker seems like a candidate for President in the mold of Barack Obama: an articulate African American with his roots in urban reform and a steady ascent up the political ladder. But there is one other area where Cory Booker has an unsettling resemblance to Barack Obama: his desire to privatize public education and, consequently, his embrace of ideas akin to those of Betsy DeVos and— yes— Arne Duncan.

For those readers who believe that a Cory Booker candidacy would improve the state of public schools, I urge you to read and bookmark this article by Jacobin’s Eric Blanc. The title, “Cory Booker Hates Pulic Schools” gives you some idea of the contents.

NY Times Education Reporter Sees Change Blowing in the Wind as Teachers Reclaim High Ground

February 4, 2019 Comments off

Dana Goldstein, a veteran education reporter for the NYTimes wrote an op ed piece recently reviewing the changes she has witnessed in the coverage on public schools over the past thirteen years. The biggest change is that the union and teacher bashing that she witnessed at the outset of her career in 2006 has ebbed and in its place is a new respect for both unions and teachers. She writes:

I was at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, when one of the hottest tickets was to a panel discussion in which rising stars in the party, including Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, spoke harshly of teachers’ unions and their opposition to charter schools, which are publicly funded, privately run and generally not unionized. Union leaders argue that charters draw public dollars and students away from traditional schools…

Back then, it was hip for young Democrats to be like Barack Obama, supportive of school choice and somewhat critical of teachers’ unions. But now, the winds have changed pretty drastically.The revival of democratic socialism within the party has left many elected officials — even Mr. Booker — much more hesitant, it seems, to critique organized labor. Across the country, red-clad teachers on strike, sometimes dancing and singing, have won the affection of grass-roots progressives over the past year, leading to a new political dynamic around education, just as the Democratic primary field for 2020 emerges…

At this point, I was in complete agreement with Ms. Goldstein’s analysis. But then at the conclusion of that paragraph, she used an oversimplified, deeply flawed, and tired dichotomy to analyze what is happening:

…The emphasis now is on what education experts call “inputs” — classroom funding, teacher pay, and students’ access to social workers and guidance counselors — and less on “outputs,” like test scores or graduation rates.

While she recovered somewhat in the next paragraph by acknowledging that “…both inputs and outputs are important” and that “…the battle is ideological, over what role choice should play in our education system”, she missed the overarching ideological battle: whether public education is a commodity that can be changed through market forces or a public good that must be changed through democratic processes. She also did not make note of the reality that there is no “output” measure that can capture what public schools provide. Neither test scores or graduation rates can indicate whether a student is experiencing daily success in the classroom, is motivated to continue learning after his or her formal education, and is gaining the social and emotional skills needed to support a democracy. Those “outputs” elude fast, cheap, and easy measurement yet they are far more important than the content students are learning. She also overlooks the fact that the inputs needed in today’s public schools are far different than those needed even 13 years ago. Schools are increasingly expected to provide mental health, counseling, and nutritious meals for all students… and the span of students they are expected to educate and care for is expanding as well.

Ms. Goldstein concludes her article with a quote from the late Fred Hechinger, who reported for decades on public schools for the NYTimes:

“I began to realize that a country’s approach to education in general, and especially to its children, could tell more about its social, political and economic background than a whole battery of interviews with politicians.”

What does it say that we are spending no more on schools now than we were when Ms. Goldstein started? What does it say that our so-called “thought leaders” believe public education should be marketed like cars and household appliances? What does it say that despite what we call our federal legislation that we are leaving more and more children behind, we are offering wages that race to the bottom, and we are not providing the funds needed to make certain that every child succeeds?

 

Could Maine’s Turnaround be a Harbinger for our Nation

January 10, 2019 Comments off

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 Sadness Upon Reading Politico’s Poll on the Public’s Priorities for Education

January 8, 2019 Comments off

Politico writer Benjamin Wermund offered this synopsis of the public’s view of the priorities for public education:

EDUCATION PRIORITIES FOR CONGRESS: Americans in a new poll of education priorities say they have a couple of top assignments for the new Congress — slash student debt and boost funding for public schools

The majority of Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — said “finding ways to lessen student debt” and “increasing spending on K-12 public education” were “extremely important” goals for the Congress in a poll by POLITICO / Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Respondents were given a list of six education policy areas and asked which they believe are “extremely important” for Congress to tackle. Seventy-nine percent picked cutting student debt, making it first on the list. Seventy-six percent selected public education funding, putting it second.

There’s also broad bipartisan support for more federal spending on school buildings — a boost for Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the House education committee, who wants schools included in any infrastructure bill Congress may pass. Increasing federal spending on school buildings landed fourth on the list, with 66 percent of Americans saying it is important.

Why am I saddened by these findings? Because I daresay a poll in 2008 would have found the same items on the list and would have found the House, Senate, and White House under the control of the Democrats, the party that presumably would be in full support of funding public education and a party that had a rare opportunity to enact blog legislation that would expand the support for public schools. In the words of then POTUS’ Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanual,

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”

Alas, the crisis the POTUS faced in 2009 was the last best hope for accomplishing the kinds of things you could not do before… and the Democrats squandered that opportunity by expanding the avenues of indebtedness for college students and neglecting the infrastructure of public education completely. In 2009 we needed debt relief for students, we needed new school buildings, we needed broadband in every corner of the country… and we got Race to the Top….

The last crisis went to waste…. maybe the next crisis will result in a restoration of the public schools and services government should be providing for us.

ACT Results Show Bi-Partisan Premises Behind NCLB, RTTT, ESSA are Flawed… But They Will NOT Be Easily Overturned

October 18, 2018 Comments off

The latest ACT results are worse than ever, which John Merrow believes might drive a final nail in the coffin of the premise that annual high stakes tests will improve schools… but if last year’s debates in Congress and the ongoing debates in state legislatures are any indication there is no likelihood of changing the thinking on accountability any time soon. Why? Because ESSA delegated accountability to States and at this writing 33 states are controlled by GOP legislatures, many of whom are using the ALEC playbook to craft legislation and frame the debates about public education in their states. Add to that the ongoing debates about how best to “harden” schools and the bandwidth for debates about public education is used up.

New Hampshire where I live is a good case in point. In 2016 voters elected GOP candidate Chris Sununu as governor and elected GOP dominated legislature. Once elected, Mr. Sununu replaced widely respected Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry, a Ph.D educator, with Frank Edeblut, a business executive who homeschooled his seven children and ran to the right of Mr. Sununu in the primaries. As a result of the 2016 election there has been no discussion whatsoever about moving forward with a creative accountability plan Dr. Barry developed, a plan that was not exclusively reliant on standardized testing. Instead, the GOP Governor and GOP controlled State Legislature are trying to pass laws that would expand the use of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for parents who want to educate their children in private sectarian schools. To fund these ESAs, the GOP planned to divert funds from an equalization formula developed by previous legislatures in response to a court order that would provide more support to property poor districts so their students could meet the “adequate education” mandated by the State Supreme Court. The GOP governor’s solution? Pass a bill that would preclude the courts from intervening on issues involving public school funding and expand choice. The Governor’s thinking? If the parents of students who resided in property poor towns had the opportunity to use tax free savings to take their children out of “failing government schools” and place them in any school they wished their children would ultimately benefit.

Added to the mix of ALEC bills designed to facilitate vouchers that will supposedly allow children who reside in property poor towns to escape the “failing schools” in their community is the ongoing debate on how much to spend to “harden” public schools to make them safe from shooters. This debate about school safety is a double whammy for public education: it inevitably results in diverting funds away from making capital improvements in outdated schools, many of which are located in property poor towns; and it reinforces the notion that public schools are inherently unsafe, making the push for de facto vouchers to attend private schools more politically acceptable.

Because of the ongoing debates on vouchers and school safety, debates on the virtue of standardized testing are pushed to the sidelines. Indeed, the need for these tests is largely settled in minds of most voters. Didn’t voters need to pass test to pass courses that got them promoted to the next grade level and earn a diploma? Didn’t voters who went to college have to attain a minimum score on the SAT to gain acceptance to their higher education? Doesn’t the military and civil service use tests to sort and select applicants? Why, then, doesn’t it make sense to use tests to determine if schools are successful?

At the conclusion of his article on the decline in ACT scores, Mr. Merrow writes:

It’s past time for progressives to speak loudly in support of strong public education….as well as other social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care.  Schools don’t function in isolation, not when–for example–about 10 percent of New York City’s public school students are homeless.

I completely agree and persist in writing this blog to that end… but, I don’t see many politicians at any level speaking up for public education or “…social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care“. The Social Darwinists in the GOP want to drown government in a bathtub and the neo-liberals who dominate the DNC are comfortable with privatization of public services or relying on the goodwill of philanthropists… and NO politician in EITHER wants to advocate for the higher taxes that would be needed to underwrite these social needs. And alas, as the cold analysis outlined above indicates, I do not see much sentiment today among rank and file voters for “social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care” because they know that such initiatives will cost them money.

My bottom line is that unless we reframe the debates about public education away from “choice” and the debates about social initiatives away from their cost we will continue on the path we are traveling and inequality will persist. We need to talk more about the common good and less about the virtue of selfishness.

Thanks to ESSA, Billionaire Reformers are “Going Local”, Making State and School Board Elections Crucial

September 7, 2018 Comments off

Yesterday, one of Diane Ravitch’s posts used Andrea Gabor’s recent Bloomberg op ed as a springboard to alert her readers to the change in tactics by the billionaire “reformers”. Here are the opening paragraphs of Ms. Gabor’s Bloomberg essay:

For two decades, the prevailing wisdom among education philanthropists and policymakers has been that the U.S. school system needs the guiding hand of centralized standard-setting to discipline ineffective teachers and bureaucrats. Much of that direction was guided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent billions since 2000 to influence both schools and education policy.

But as schools open this year, top-down national initiatives based on standardized testing and curricular uniformity are in retreat.

And what will take the place of “the guiding hand of centralized standard-setting”?

In the coming years, its K-12 philanthropy will concentrate on supporting what it calls “locally driven solutions” that originate among networks of 20 to 40 schools, according to Allan Golston, who leads the foundation’s U.S. operations, because they have “the power to improve outcomes for black, Latino, and low-income students and drive social and economic mobility.”

The billionaire “reformers” did not become billionaires by accident. They are all strategic thinkers who look at national political trends and try to get in front of them in developing their profiteering instincts. Sometime in the 1980s it dawned on some of the market-driven vulture-capitalist-hedge-funders that there was a huge “market” to be accessed in the public sector. With a surplus of teachers, especially at the elementary level, it might be possible to operate private schools at a profit if the operators of those schools could receive the same amount of taxpayer-raised money as public schools. After all, public schools had legacy costs (i.e. retirees, bonds, highly compensated veteran staff members, negotiated agreements with benefits and guaranteed step increases) that were baked into the per pupil costs. If someone opened a brand new school they could operate it for far less money than a public school! When computer-aided instruction emerged as a viable (albeit ineffective) means of “educating” children, the potential profit margins got even larger. The problem was how to get the door opened.

The privatizers access to public schools became a real possibility with the passage of NCLB. That law mandated the takeover of “failing schools” by the states. But by 2001, most states had gutted their departments of education making a “State takeover” impossible. The solution? Privatization! And by the mid to late 2000s states had identified lots of failing schools, most of them serving low income students. This was an ideal outcome for the privatizers, for they could establish beachheads in each state without alienating the affluent suburban parents. By the time suburban schools started “failing” in some states the privatizers had their nose under the tent and were working to pass state legislation that would win over parents who opted out of public education without further alienating the parents in affluent suburbs and communities who were happily funding outstanding public schools.

But here’s an important note to anyone reading this: because the billionaire investors in privatized schools ARE going local it is important to make certain the state legislatures and governor’s mansions are flipped ASAP. The GOP now has 33 governors and the GOP controls 34 legislatures compared to a paltry 13 by the democrats. With ESSA, the states and local school board races are more important than ever. It is a daunting task to flip a state once a single party controls both the executive and legislative branches… but unless several states change course ESSA will have accomplished the goals of the privatizers and public education will be on the run.