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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!

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

January 8, 2019 Leave a comment

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.

Philanthropy is Undermining Public Education – Part Two: Billionaire’s Think Tanks Promote Privatization

September 2, 2018 Comments off

Over the Labor Day weekend when I will be unable to write extended posts, I am posting a three part series making the case that philanthropic giving is having an adverse impact on public education. The case is drawn primarily from Gospels of Giving, a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert that, in turn, draws from several books that have recently been published describing how philanthropic giving is distorting the inequities that exist in our economy.

Today I want to examine how 501(c)(3) groups, which the tax codes deems as charities, provides a means for mega-donors to advance anti-democratic ideas that can be amplified even more when combined with relatively small political donations. In her essay, Ms. Kolbert gives several inches of print to David Callahan, David Callahan, the founder and editor and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a website that provides a penetrating look into the way philanthropists operate. He is quoted as follows:

“An ever larger and richer upper class is amplifying its influence through large-scale giving in an era when it already has too much clout,” he writes in “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.” “Things are going to get worse, too.

Part of the problem, according to Callahan, lies in the broad way that philanthropy has been defined. Under the federal tax code, an organization that feeds the hungry can count as a philanthropy, and so can a university where students study the problem of hunger, and so, too, can a think tank devoted to downplaying hunger as a problem. All these qualify as what are known, after the relevant tax-code provision, as 501(c)(3)s, meaning that the contributions they receive are tax deductible, and that the earnings on their endowments are largely tax-free. 501(c)(3)s are prohibited from engaging in partisan activity, but, as “The Givers” convincingly argues, activists on both sides of the ideological divide have developed work-arounds.

At this point in the article, Ms. Kolbert cites examples from left-leaning as well as right leaning websites, using Tim Gill, who’s spent hundreds of thousands supporting the L.G.B.T.Q.-rights movement as the left-leaning example and Art Pope whose used his millions to support a network of foundations that “…advocate for voter-identification—or, if you prefer, voter-suppression—laws.

But here’s what is true in public education: there is no right or left argument to be made. Instead, the debate is between those advocating non-sectarian “school choice” and those advocating a pure voucher system that can incorporate sectarian schools. NO ONE IS ADVOCATING FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION GOVERNED BY ELECTED SCHOOL BOARDS. When it comes to public education, the “bi-partisan reformers” have co-opted the think tanks that draft public education policy. Unions and professional organizations with no deep packets and, therefore, no lobbying clout are the only groups advocating for public schools. And their arguments are drowned out. These paragraphs from Ms. Kolbert’s article describe the situation:

It is difficult to say what fraction of philanthropic giving goes toward shaping public policy. Callahan estimates that the figure is somewhere around ten billion dollars a year. Such an amount, he says, might not sound huge, but it’s more than the annual contributions made to candidates, parties, and super-pacs combined. The result is doubly undemocratic. For every billion dollars spent on advocacy tricked out as philanthropy, several hundred million dollars in uncaptured taxes are lost to the federal treasury.

“It’s not just that the megaphones operated by 501(c)(3) groups and financed by a sliver of rich donors have gotten louder and louder, making it harder for ordinary citizens to be heard,” Callahan notes. “It’s that these citizens are helping foot the bill.”…

“When it comes to who gets heard in the public square, ordinary citizens can’t begin to compete with an activist donor class,” Callahan writes. “How many very rich people need to care intensely about a cause to finance megaphones that drown out the voices of everyone else?” he asks. “Not many.”

The 501(c)(3) deductions, then, are hurting public education in two ways: they are eroding the tax base AND they are funding foundations that hammer away at the message that public schools are failing and the only way to improve them is to compel them to compete for “customers”.

Can bloggers and advocates for increased funding to ensure equity among public schools hope to compete against billionaires like Bill Gates? Mr. Gates spent millions underwriting think tanks who promoted the Common Core, millions more helping those same think tanks underwrite the common core, and tens of thousands more supporting presidential candidates in both parties. His rewarded was President Obama’s misbegotten Race to the Top which alienated not only teachers but most “on the right” who disfavor “federal overreach” when it comes to schools. The right was, however, eternally grateful that Race to the Top helped convince a majority of voters that “choice” was the solution, which opened the door for Betsy DeVos to promote vouchers as the antidote.

It will be an uphill fight to persuade the public that given time and resources all public school students could perform at the same level as those enrolled in the “elite” districts…. but rather than spend more money and be more patient the public is now persuaded that a fast, cheap and easy solution exists… and fast, cheap, and easy is ALWAYS better than slow, expensive, and difficult. But change takes time, costs money, and requires effort. MAYBE when fast-cheap-easy fails minds will change and we’ll set a better course. MAYBE a billionaire can help change the public’s thinking on that issue the same way they’ve persuaded the public that their democratically operated schools are “failing”.

The Hard Bigotry of NCLB: State Takeovers Undercut Democracy in Predominantly Black Districts

August 27, 2018 Comments off

One of the phrases that George W. Bush coined when he was Governor of Texas that he used to sell the nation on No Child Left Behind was “the soft bigotry of low expectations“. This captured the fundamental idea of federal legislation since NCLB: the reason that inequity existed in public schools was NOT an issue of inequitable funding. Rather, the inequities in public education were the result of inequitable expectations. Children were not failing. Schools where teachers did not expect enough were failing and if those schools changed their mindsets children would flourish. So NCLB set out to identify and reward successful schools as measured by standardized test scores with the intention of using the programs in those schools as models for “failing” schools.

This paradigm was appealing to politicians because it meant that inequitable funding was not the issue! Thus, it was unnecessary for them to raise and direct more funding to schools serving underprivileged children. Instead, funds would be directed to “successful schools” that would replace the “failing schools”.

What happened over the next decade, though, was unsurprising to anyone who knows how norm-referenced standardized tests work: the “highly successful” schools were all found in well-heeled districts serving affluent children and the “failing schools” were all found in property poor districts serving underprivileged children. But instead of looking at the test results and concluding that property poor districts serving underprivileged children needed more money, NCLB’s baked in conclusion was that these failing schools needed to be taken over by the states and turned over to (ka-ching) private for profit schools.

But when states took over districts, where were local school boards replaced with state operated appointees? Rutgers political scientist Domingo Morel explored that question and came up with a disturbing answer: districts serving minority children! As reported in a recent NY.Chalkbeat post, research in his forthcoming book showed that as of 2017, 33 states had takeover laws and by then 22 states had actually taken over school districts. And what happened when the States took over school districts? Here’s what Diane Ravitch reported:

A chart from Morel’s work shows that in the rare event that a majority white district is taken over by the state, 70% keep their elected school board.

In a majority Latin district, 46% keep their elected board.

But when a majority black district is taken over, only 24% retain their elected school board.

The NY.Chalkbeat article featuring an in-depth interview with Mr. Morel leads to one inevitable conclusion: when NCLB began closing schools and replacing them with for-profit charters, the hard bigotry of racism replaced the soft bigotry of high expectations and democracy in majority black districts was undercut. If we ever hope to end racism, we need to examine the way we implement laws that are intended to be even handed and face the reality that in order to establish equal opportunities we need to establish more equitable funding for schools.

Kavanaugh’s Court Likely to Rule in Favor of Vouchers for Parochial Schools… Reaping What NCLB, RTTT, and “Reformers” Sowed

August 22, 2018 Comments off

Blogger Gaius Publius, who writes for several websites is who is frequently featured in Naked Capitalism, wrote a post last week forecasting that should Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed to the Supreme Court that “his” court will ultimately rule that public funds may be used to underwrite sectarian schools. And he convinced that once sectarian schools are funded, it is highly likely that those funds will not be available for ALL religiously affiliated institutions:

The purpose of that flow of funds would not be to ensure that a broad spectrum of religious ideas get funded — imagine the response from conservatives, for example, if a large group of Muslim madrassas were funded by the U.S. government or one of the states. That response would be like the response from whites if a large group of blacks in, say, Alabama exercised their Scalia-minted Second Amendment rights and took open-carry to the streets.

The purpose of that new funding would be to “save the nation” by creating an army of politically active fundamentalist true believers.

I am less certain that Gaius Publius that funds might be limited to Christian institutions given that Indiana, which already has de facto vouchers in place, provides funding for Muslim schools as well as parochial schools. In making his case that the intent of any case brought before the Supreme Court would be to create “…an army of politically active fundamentalist true believers” he seizes on this quote from Betsy DeVos and concludes that is one of the reasons Mr. Kavanaugh should be rejected:

Here’s Ms. DeVos belief about the mission of education: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

DeVos wants to devote government dollars to that mission. And that’s the mission a Kavanaugh Court will enshrine into law. Just one of many reasons confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court would be a generational disaster for a nation already in crisis.

But, as I noted in a comment left on the Naked Capitalism website, we are reaping what the “school reformers” sowed when they decided to use “choice” and “competition” as the mechanism for “improving failing public schools”.  After all, if schools are a commodity like grocery stores and parents are “consumers” who are given the opportunity to “shop”, how can a court deny them the opportunity to shop wherever they wish to make a purchase?

Schools are not commodities… they are a public good. One of public education’s primary goals is to help children develop the skills needed to become informed voters who can help guide the direction of local, state, and federal government and who can live harmoniously with their fellow citizens. Isolating children into tribes based on religion or demographics will undercut that mission.

 

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