Sunday, May 28, 2017

Politics vs. Ed Reform

Derrell Bradford is the head of NYCAN (and some other CANs too), one of the reformy arms of 50CAN, a reliably reformy group. He turns up in many of the usual reformy places, including Campbell Brown's the74 site, where he recently wrapped up a three-part series about the state of the reform movement, adapted from his speech at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference in April. It's the third piece that I found most interesting; in it, he addresses the growing partisan problems that the reform movement has faced ever since Donald Trump became President.

I know what I think I see-- reformsters who self-identified as Democrats faced a challenge in a President whose politics they opposed, but whose policies were pretty much in line with what they've been advocating all along. But I'm curious about how they see it, and Bradford has always been an articulate advocate for the reformy world.

Party allegiance is the new litmus test not just for political philosophy, but for personal belief and social inclusion. Answering the wrong way on the wrong question not just on reform — but on anything — carries the weight of possible ostracism from both the left and the right. 

Agreed. In fact, that fits the trend I've seen presented that we are entering an era of "tribal epistemology," where the truth of any proposition or observation is not tested by any objective means, but by whether or not the proposition is supported by the tribal leaders. This has the effect of turning everything political-- if Beloved Leader says the sky is green, to look up at the sky yourself becomes an act of political defiance. You must prove your allegiance to the tribe.

Bradford notes that the election was tough to navigate.

I ultimately supported Clinton despite my firm belief that she would appoint a secretary of education determined to make our lives harder, not easier. In the professional sense, I voted against my own interests because I thought it might be best for America.

Agreed. Pretty sure that's a broadly held position in the education world.

He notes that These Times have led to many reformers heading further into their hard right or hard left positions, and this would be the place where I'd like to see further explanation because it remains hard for me to see the "left" wing of the reform movement as being all that leftist. But here he offers a pretty simple encapsulation of the political split of reformsterism:

We don’t have an education reform movement because liberal Democrats believe in civil rights. And we don’t have one because conservative Republicans believe in market solutions, low regulation, and freedom. We have one because they could believe in them both, at the same time, together, and at the same table. The golden age of “reform” that folks associate with President Barack Obama exists only because of a history of this sort of collaboration.

Out here in the cheap seats, I'm not sure that's what I saw.

First of all, what's up with putting "freedom" on the GOP list, as if Democrats aren't interested in freedom?

Second, this model suggests that reformsters came together as equals in this coalition. I'm not sure this is true-- the charter movement (which is about all that's left when we talk about an "ed reform movement") has been almost exclusive a business-driven movement. Corporate and privatization interests have used a variety of ideas as protective cover, including progressive ideas about equity and civil rights, but after years of this, I remain unconvinced that the major players have any real political bent at all. But we're talking about the left because it's impossible under the current administration to pretend that ed reform policies are about social justice or equity. And it is telling that when the language of equity and social justice is stripped from ed reform policy, hardly anything about the actual policy actually has to change.

In other words, charter and choice policy that doesn't explicitly pursue equity and social justice looks almost exactly like charter and choice policy that claims to care about equity and social justice. Mostly you just have to change some language in the PR.

In fact, Bradford is very correct to put "low regulation" on the GOP list, because that is the one significant difference between reform policy that does or does not pursue equity. Regulation and accountability are a necessary element if you don't want the reform landscape to be clogged with fraudsters and scam artists, not to mention operators who are racist and classist. 

The golden age that Bradford speaks of could exist not because reform had protective cover on both flanks. Obama could not easily be accused of being anti-progressive, and yet his neoliberal leanings put him in perfect tune with the corporate privatization approach. 

Bradford recaps some reform history to underscore that it has been built on bipartisan deals. True enough. Dems and GOP politicians have put party aside for something else. Bradford suggests that something else has been, and should be, For The Children. My cynical sided suggests that the something else has been For The Money, or For the Deep-Pocketed Private Interests Driving So Much of Ed Reform. 

And Bradford offers an interesting example of working across lines of personal and political belief-- Martin Luther King, Jr., and his willingness to work with all manner of people (including the hugely racist LBJ) to achieve goals of social justice. 

"Keep your eye on the goal" seems like an excellent piece of advice (it's actually one of my rules), but it highlights exactly the problem that Bradford is trying to address. Bradford suggests that the goal to keep eyes on is the needs of 

 a boy on a corner in Bridgeport who just needs you to be on one side — and that side is his. He’s actually the last person who needs you to be a partisan — steeped in what you won’t do and closing off policy opportunities that make you uncomfortable because of your political beliefs — because in the end, it’s his life, not yours, that depends on it.

First, there are huge differences of opinion about how to serve that boy's needs.  

But more importantly, that boy's future is not the goal that all reformers have their eyes on. For some, choice for its own sake is what matters, and if a choice system leaves that boy in a lousy school, well omelets and eggs. For some others, the goal has always been to open up that billion-dollar marketplace so that they can get in there and compete for those sweet, sweet dollars. And some reformsters are in no hurry to help that boy on the corner until he proves himself to be worth the trouble, because it's possible he's not a striver and out on the corner is where he deserves to be left. 

On the most fundamental level, we have two philosophies of school operating-- one that sees education as a means of raising up every single child, and one that sees schools as part of a way to sort the deserving form the undeserving. The sorters thought they had to at least pretend to get along with the uplift crowd to get what they wanted, but now they are ascendant, in power, and damned sure they're not going to stop the bus to pick up some ragamuffin on the streetcorner who is just looking for a hand out paid for with some deserving wealthy person's tax dollars.

In any coalition, as the endgame approaches, the different views of what that end should look like become more evident as coalition members pull apart for their special. It's easy to carpool from Omaha to New York City for the first several hundred miles. But once you get to the city limits, if one car is headed for the Bronx and another is headed for Wall Street and another is headed for Long Island, your carpool is going to have problems.

The ed reform coalition was always going to fall apart. Well, unless you take a cynical view of the movement. Because maybe it was never a coalition at all, but a big solid core of pragmatic opportunistic corporate privatizers who surrounded themselves with just enough of people from different political viewpoints that they could protect that core. Maybe the "coalition" was just a thin candy shell, and now some parts of the shell are being sloughed off.

There is one other thing that always strikes me about these calls for cooperation within the ed reform community. I realize that Bradford's original material was a speech for a particular audience, but if we are talking about social justice activists working with racists and Democrats working with Republicans, couldn't we also talk about folks who want to remake the education system working with, talking to, even listening to the people who work in that system. Everyone should think about working side by side with everyone else-- except teachers. And I don't mean some carefully handpicked we-know-they-mostly-agree-with-us teachers. Bradford says that real progress is uncomfortable, and yet reformsters largely remain unwilling to suffer the discomfort of listening to actual working teachers who might disagree with them. 


ICYMI: Memorial Day Weekend Edition (5/28)

The best read of the week was actually an eight-part series at Slate about cyber schooling, and that's so important that I gave it its own post. So if you haven't caught that yet, you can find the posts laid out here. 

And for reasons to cast a careful eye on that series, read this piece from Wrench in the Gears.

In the meantime, here's the rest of your reading selections. Remember to post, tweet, promote and otherwise amplify the work of the writers you support. It's a way that everyone can help shape the conversation.

Trump Budget Would Abandon Public Education for Private Choice

How the Trump/DeVos education program looks to a law professor (spoiler alert: not good).

Five Startling Things Betsy DeVos Just Told Congress

There was a lot to process in the DeVos testimony at the top of the week. Here Valerie Strauss lays out the five most striking things that came out of DeVos's mouth.

Who Is Behind the Assault on Public Schools

Howard Ryan at the independent Socialist magazine takes a look at what, exactly, has been driving the assault on public education.

Don't Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats.

Diane Ravitch in the New Republic with a little history lesson to remind us how Democrats bear some of the blame for Betsy DeVos and her policies.

Why Do Billionaires Care So Much About Charter Schools

Harold Meyerson in the LA Times talking about why folks like Eli Broad just have to get their fingers in the charter pie. You have to love a piece that ends with this line:

Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself. How very comforting for them.

Personalized Learning Pathways and the Gig Economy

How not really getting an education dovetails nicely with growing up to not really get a job.

What Betsy DeVos Calls Education Transformation Is Actually Public Theft

Jeff Bryant walks us through what DeVos is actually telling us, and what's she's telling us is that she's going to turn education over to privateers.

The TFA Top-Ten Listers: Where Are They Now?

Remember when ten TFA-ers went on Letterman to say why they became a teacher? That was four years ago. Gery Rubinstein checked to see how their teaching careers are coming along.

The Facts about Charter School Finances in Camden, NJ

Jersey Jazzman is actually continuing his series about how University of Arkansas screwed up its study, but this segment also has some larger implications.

The New York Times on the "Little-Known Statistician" Who Passed

Audrey Amslein-Beardsley on the passing of William Sanders, the inventor of VAAS. 


Betsy DeVos has brought Robert Eitel in to "right-size" the Department of Education. His previous experience is running a fraudulent for-profit university. Jennifer Berkshire and Christopher Crowley look at all the bad signs here.

Death by a Thousand Retirements

Marie Corfield passes on her speech from a retirement dinner that saw 800 years of educational experience head out the door. 

I Am Done-- I Hope Public Education Is Not

Thomas Ultican, friend of this blog, is retiring, and he offers some reflections on what he's been through in his career.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

NC: Vindictive GOP Cuts Education Just Because

This is now two-week old news, but I swear-- in the current climate, somebody can murder a nun with his bare hands in front of a bus full of young orphans, and the outrage will die down in less than twelve hours (or be replaced by the outrage over a new awfulness). I almost passed on this story, thinking it was past time to comment on it.

It's only two weeks old, and that makes it moldy and stale-- except that the outrage over this should be endless. I mean, God bless the people who keep a steady count of the number of days the people of Flint have gone without clean water, because leaders in Michigan poisoned an entire city and the country was in an uproar, and then-- squirrel!!

I imagine these days a politician who intends to do something terrible, even if he understands that a lot of people will call it terrible, figures that after twenty-four hours of anguished tweeting and blogging and the sharing thereof, everyone will just move on, and all the politicians have to do is run out the clock.

Maybe democracy got lost in those hills somewhere
So if you ask me how the GOP of North Carolina keeps doing terrible things, I'm betting that's part of the explanation. "Don't worry boys," someone days in a back room. "In about two days the fuss will blow over and our newest plan will still be in place."

So two weeks back, Senate Republicans got testy about the length of budget debate, so they called a recess after midnight, and came back at 3 AM with, among other things, an amendment to combat the opioids crisis.

What they didn't mention was that the million dollar program would be funded by cutting the education support for the districts of Senate Democrats. This included some very specific chopping. For instance, a program to help teacher assistants become full-fledged teachers didn't have its funding cut, but the program itself is now only allowed in GOP districts. As Dems skew rural and minority in NC, that means that areas that particularly need to get more future teachers in the pipeline have now had that pipeline tightened instead. Another cut removes support for getting fruits and vegetables into school lunches-- but only in Democrat-represented districts.

NC Republicans have been spanked twice this month by the Supreme Court, with that court striking down measures intended to reduce the non-white vote and negating some of NC's spectacular gerrymandering. According to the New York Times, NC Republicans will just rewrite the laws.

It is fair to note that NC Dems were not exactly models of fair play and democracy when they had power. But the NC GOP has abandoned all pretense of fairness or cooperation. Besides trying to find new ways to bring racist Jim Crow practices back to government, they have rewritten the rules of government to try to keep a newly-elected Democratic governor from doing his job, worked steadily to destroy the teaching profession, and designed bold new ways to destroy public education.

North Carolina might once have stamped "First in Flight" on its license plates, and it has a nifty Latin motto, but it seems that the signs greeting visitors to North Carolina should be read "North Carolina: Where Democracy Goes To Die." Anyone who cares about North Carolina should keep paying attention and keep making noise.

What Do Charter Schools Solve

The challenge-- the problem to be solved-- for public education is fairly simple: How do we provide a solid education for every child in the United States for a politically sustainable cost? (I wish the last part of the challenge wasn't there, but let's face it-- it's not like education is, say, a war in Afghanistan for which politicians are willing to write a blank check).

The challenge is not easily met, and in many places, in many ways, public schools have not fully succeeded. From entrenched racism, to the effects of poverty, to denial of necessary resources, to "failures" that are manufactured or imposed on schools, to widespread and hard-to-budge inequity, public schools are sometimes hampered by larger issues, and sometimes are part of the problem.

Public schools are not perfect. They're pretty damn good, and in many cases, their problems have been exaggerated or created out of whole cloth (Oh nos! Low PARRC scores!!!). But public schools are definitely not perfect.

I don't know any public school advocates who won't acknowledge that, despite being labeled as intractable flat-earth defenders of the status quo. But charter advocates often fall back on a style of argument roughly outlined as "There are HUGE problems here, therefor we must use our solution." This is the rhetorical equivalent of a person who shouts, "You're on fire, so you have to let me punch you in the face" and when you try to ask why, exactly, a punch in the face is a solution, they just keep hollering "But you are on FIRE!"

The presence of a problem does not automatically prove that a proposed solution is actually a solution. Which is why I keep coming back to this question:

What problem do charter schools solve?

Are charters just a road to nowhere?

Public school critics say that wealthy folks can choose the school they want by choosing which upscale neighborhood they want to stay in. Do charter schools solve this problem of privilege? Entry to some charter systems require an educated adult who can navigate an application system(and has time off during the day to do it). Some charter schools require contributions of either time or money or both. Privilege does help with access to a charter system-- just like the public system. How that plays out varies from location to location-- just like the public system.

Public school critics say that they want to extend the same kind of choice that rich folks get. But charters don't solve that problem. Poor families can't choose to live in a rich neighborhood so that their child can attend a rich neighborhood school. But a charter system does not give them a free selection, either. Ultimately the charters will choose who attends them by finding ways to reject or discourage or push out students who "don't fit." Charters will choose to bar students with language issues certain special needs by refusing to offer the supports those students need. Charters also choose WHEN students can enter-- if you miss the window at a relatively young age, you're SOL because they don't accept students in the middle of the year or entering higher grades.

And our current Secretary of Education has made it quite clear-- she cannot imagine situation in which the federal government will say to a charter or other private school, "You  may not have federal tax dollars if you are going to discriminate against those students." The ability of charters to pick and choose their students without penalty is being dramatically expanded.

Public school critics say that public education is hidebound and trapped in other centuries, in need of a stiff shot of Vitamin Innovate. But we've had modern charters for over a decade-- exactly what educational innovations have they discovered that can be used to improve the nation's schools? If you have good facilities, plenty of resources, and a carefully chosen batch of students, you can run a good school? That's not an innovation-- everybody already knew it. Other attempts at innovation, from strapping a child to a computer to enforcing a prison camp atmosphere, have proven to be not particularly useful and often depend on the power to get rid of students who "don't fit" to keep from totally collapsing.

I don't bring these up simply to play neener-neener so's-your-old-man. In fact, if these were the only problems that charters failed to solve, I'd say go ahead and let a thousand charters bloom. But that is not the case.

Public school critics say that public schools cost a lot of money and don't give enough returns. But running a parallel system of schools, duplicating administration and buildings-- it's a very expensive way to do education. And again, I would say, even as a taxpayer, to bring it on. But most states have set up a system of trying to run several systems with the same money that used to run one system, and that means that every child taken out of the public system weakens that system for the students left behind, the students whose parents can neither move them to a ritzy neighborhood OR get them into a charter school.

Public school critics say that the public system is an unresponsive monolith, and that can certainly be the truth. But how is it an improvement to have a charter school whose operators are unelected, do not have to meet in public, and are not accountable to the public. My small town is served by a public school system and some cyber charters. This month, the proposed budget for the public system is available to anyone who wants to look at it. Taxpayers can come to the next board meeting to comment on that budget, or they can just call their elected board member and spout off. Meanwhile, nobody knows who even runs the cyber charters or what they intend to do with the tax dollars they collect. How is that better?

Public schools screw up, and it's not just public school critics that notice. But there are laws and rules and regulations in place that govern public school and public school staff, providing an avenue for reporting, punishing, and correcting those issues. Charters are mostly operating with far fewer rules and regulations. How does that make them more accountable or reliable?

Public schools often reflect and exacerbate equity issues. But charters have also been instrumental in increased segregation, as well as programs that seem aimed at creating compliant worker drones and not future leaders.

Again, my point is not "Hey, these charters are no better than public schools." That would suggest that the effect of charters is simply neutral. But it's not-- modern charter policy is economically damaging, the dispersal of students to charters damages the community, and charters attempt to rescue a handful of students at considerable expense to all the students who are left in public schools.

This is like taking a special tonic that costs a thousand dollars a bottle and makes you feel worse. It's bad policy.

Charters do solve the problems of some individual families-- I don't want to send my child to public school (for any number of reasons, some more admirable than others) and now I don't have to. I'm sympathetic to that choice (well, unless your beef is that you don't want your white kid to go to school with those black kids-- then you're just a racist jerk) and I understand why you want to make it. But as a nation, our approach to education can't be, "We'll make sure that some kids can get a good education, and the rest-- oh, well. They're not our problem."

The challenge of public education is, again, to provide a good education for every child in the United States for a politically sustainable cost. It is a challenge that comes with lots of obstacles and problems, and after so many years, it is still not clear to me how modern charter schools help meet that challenge. Instead, I think modern charters have been set up to be one more obstacle. But by all means, if you want to explain to me exactly what problems charter provide a solution for (and not more explanation of how public schools are bad), my comments section is open for business.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Slate Series Unmasks Cyber School

Slate, for whatever reason, teamed up this week with Columbia Journalism School's Teacher Project, to take a look at on line education. Much of their work is focused on on line courses as a means of credit recovery-- the quick-and-easy method of letting students replace credits for courses they failed. But the series tells us a great deal about what on line "education" is really like-- and it is not pretty. This is just how bad cyber schooling is.

As always, I will include the preface that A) cyber school doesn't have to be as awful as it is and B) it is a real boon to certain students.

The series ran through eight articles, and you should not miss any of them, but here are links and blurbs for each article in the series so you can make your choices (and so that they don't disappear entirely once Slate moves on to other things). Read these:

The New Diploma Mills

Zoe Kirsch digs deep for this opening article. While focusing on how Florida has used on line courses to boost graduation rates "many school districts, including several of the nation's largest, have seen graduation rates soar"), Kirsch also looks at the policies boosted cyber-schooling and just how bad it looks on the ground to actual cyber students. This piece gives a good overview-- with well-sourced specifics-- for the problem issues of virtual schooling, like cheating and content that is far less than rigorous.

Fast. Isolating. Superficial.

After she failed English her junior year at Riverbend High School in Spotsylvania, Virginia, 17-year-old Amelia Kreck had to retake the class. It took her two days.

The title of Stephen Smiley's article comes from the answer to the question, "What are on line courses like for students?" Short reading excerpts, simple questions, work without any depth-- these themes turn up throughout the interviews with many on line course students. That and missing the interaction of a classroom, not just for social purposes, but because it helps with the learning.

I Am an Online Credit Recovery Dropout

Smiley also tried some on line courses as a student-- and found them so boring and superficial that he didn't complete them. "Boring and lonely" was his characterization. A look at how just how bad these courses are to work through.

Take These Students, Please

Francesca Berardi takes us to Chicago to look at how cyber-credit-recovery can morph into full-time cyber school for students who are far behind and at risk of not graduating and ruining a schools graduation rate numbers. It's a sad picture:

Daniel has had a lonely high school experience for the past two years. He spends four hours a day at Bridgescape, usually four days a week, and he seldom interacts with peers and teachers. When he struggles with an online test, his “best friend” is Google—something he is not discouraged to use—while teachers are a last resort. His main companions are his smartphone (for listening to music) and his Galaxy smartwatch (which helps him kill the time and stay in touch with his friends). “I can spend an entire day at school and not talk with anyone,” Daniel told me. Sometimes, he returns to visit his old teachers and classmates solely because he misses the warmth and bustle of a traditional high school.

Bottom of the Class

Berardi and Kirsch take a look at which cyber-schoolers are really awful. Odysseyware, Study Island, and A Beka Academy emerge as the bottom of the heap. Read why.

Online Education Doesn't Have To Be Isolating

Sarah Carr takes us to Bronx Arena for a look at some methods for making cyber school less isolating and awful. You'll have to decide on your own whether or not you're convinced.

Why Bad Online Courses Are Still Taught in School

Kirsch and Smiley take a look at the politics behind cybers. Florida, for instance, rates cybers, but does not do anything with the ratings. In many places, even though a cyber is rated a failure by the state, local districts can and do continue to use their services.

Why are the laws so toothless? Lobbyists and money. Cybers like K12 have dropped a bundle, and it turns out that ALEC is instrumental in making sure that the Right Connections are made to keep the laws favorable to the cyber school industry.

Just Take It Again

How easy are on line tests to game? Skipping over flat out cheating (like giving someone your login to take the test for you), the answer is "Pretty easy."

Meet Jeremy Noonan, who discovered that students doing cyber credit recovery through Edgenuity were getting roughly 37 out of 50 questions repeated on retakes of a major test. It's no surprise-- developing a larger question bank costs money. But particularly if a school district is enjoying the numbers boost that easily gameable tests provide, it's one more sign that actual education isn't really happening.

The entire series of articles is worth your attention. Read them in whatever order you like, but read them. This is the reality of cyber school.     

PA: Report Shows Charter Financial Impact

Pennsylvania's Legislative Budget and Finance Committee has released a report looking at "Public [sic] Charter Schools Fiscal Impact on School Districts." The findings of the joint committee underscore what many have already been saying-- charter schools, particularly in a badly regulated state like Pennsylvania, are hurting public schools.

The report is 105 pages long, so I'm going to be focusing on just some of the highlights here.

How PA Stacks up Against US

The committee looked to compare PA to its chartery brethren and sistern, so it looked across all forty-three states that allow charter schools. In particular, they noted some differences in charter laws.

* Twenty-two states (including PA) have no caps on schools on enrollment.

* Eleven states (including PA) require public schools to provide transportation for charter students.

* Thirteen states include "access" to local funding in charter revenue. PA is up in front of the pack on this, which makes a certain kind of sense since PA also leads the pack in requiring local revenue to fund public schools.

* PA is one of two states that has a special ed supplemental formula. That means every charter gets some funding based on nothing more than the assumption that around 16% of its student body is special needs. According to PDE data, in the 20145-2015 school year, the state gave $466.8 million in special ed tuition payments to charter schools, and roughly $294.8 million of that was special ed supplement. Actual charter expenditures on special ed-- $193.1 million. In other words, in PA and Massachusetts, it's extra-profitable for a charter NOT to take students with special needs, because they will get paid to educate those students even if those students are not enrolled at the school.

* PA is one of the the only three states that let charters appeal to the courts when they don't like the answer they get from other folks (we just saw an example of this).

* "Virtually all" of PA's pubic school districts have at least one student enrolled in a charter. However, Philadelphia accounts for about half the charter students in the state.

This chart puts the PA charter industry in the context of other states in the region. I do wonder what exactly it means that Ohio has over twice as many charter schools that handle fewer total students than PA, but that's a question for another day.

What Superintendents Say

The joint committee's staff reached out to several districts, including the "financially distressed" and charter-heavy in PA. Thirty-six superintendents responded with observations about the economic impact of charters.

Four had nice things to say, like "innovative programming," "customer-friendly," "prevents overcrowding," and "replaces the high school we can no longer afford to run."

Twenty-nine had less positive thoughts.

* When charters pull students from private schools, that shifts additional costs onto the public sector.

* Running multiple parallel systems is expensive.

* Consolidating buildings in a district often leads to charter exodus, which pressures districts not to consolidate even when it is costly to keep all buildings open.

* Transportation is expensive.

* Oversight of charters within district also costs money.

You see the pattern here. Having charter schools in your district makes education more expensive.

Policies That Add To Issues

The joint committee found that certain policy decisions by the state had an impact on how much charters could hurt local districts. Which-- well, yes. I look forward to the commission to study where the sun will come up tomorrow. Pennsylvania has several policies that make charters more damaging.

For instance, the state used to reimburse local school districts for part or all of the charter tuition that they handed over. In 2010-2011, that was $225 million. Currently, the figure is $0.00, a de facto funding cut to public schools.

PA has also opened up the field to "regional" charters. Originally, a charter had to have the approval of the district from which it would poach students. Now students can travel across district lines, meaning that the public district hands money over to a school over which the public district has no oversight at all.

And as many education observers in PA note repeatedly, our charter tuition formula is not related at all to the actual costs of running the charter. This is particularly striking with cyber schools, which have no bricks-and-mortar expenses, and yet receive the same tuition money as a bricks-and-mortar school.

Why Do Parents Choose Charters

Choice proponents like to fancy a world where parents "shop" by checking out academic indicators like Big Standardized Test scores. The BS Test scores aren't really academic indicators, but that's okay because parents aren't worried about academics anyway.

The joint committee looked at both national and state-level studies and found many curious things. There's the Indiana study where parents say they go looking for academics, but actually switched their children to lower-performing schools. Of the New Orleans study where parents said they go looking for academics, but actually choose based on location. And although the committee doesn't connect these dots, some studies show parents choosing charters for smaller class size, less emphasis on testing, and more specialized programs-- in short, they want a school like the public schools we had before the test-centered reformy juggernaut hit.


Let financial impact count. Current law doesn't allow a district to consider financial impact when approving (or not) a charter application. This is crazy-pants, like saying you are only allowed to choose not to eat something based on appearance, and not on whether it's poisonous or not. Districts should be able to say, "No, we can't afford this." Also, applying charters should provide a detailed financial plan, including "the proposed actions the charter school will take to protect the school districts (and the Commonwealth) from financial liability in case of charter school bankruptcy or other illegal acts."

Permit the public school district to negotiate per-pupil costs. Instead of letting the state set a required tuition rate, let the local district work it out with the charters. At a bare minimum, the committee suggests revisiting the flat rates for cyberstudents and students with special needs.

Fix the transportation piece. PA requires districts to provide transportation services for charter schools that they do not provide for their own district's students.

If you are going to pull your child out of private school to send her to a charter, you should register with the district that will be paying the tuition. This and a provision for changing how PDE "intercepts" funds is more bureaucratic streamlining than cost saving. The report also recommends that local districts be relieved of their duties as attendance watchdogs for charters, and that charters operate with considerably more financial transparency.

Other Thoughts

The report is perhaps a bit narrow in scope and context, given that Pennsylvania has 500 separate public school districts. But while the report focuses on PA, its attempt to give a national context to charter policy means it gives an interestingly broad picture of the charter industry across the nation. For that reason alone, you might find this interesting reading.

But for those of us in PA, anything that can put a little more weight behind any real attempt to fix our terrible charter laws would be great. Our legislators keep trying to come up with bills that can be sold to parents, taxpayers, school districts, and the general population, but which keep the deep-pocketed friends of the charter industry happy and the results, like this most recent attempt, don't really fix a thing. Pennsylvania taxpayers and students deserve better.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

DeVos Still Anti-Accountability

As she's spent time in the public eye this week, Betsy DeVos may have enraged, but she hasn't surprised. She continues to be what we always thought she was-- and that includes her attitude about accountability.

She's against it.

Here's a critical CNN clip from today's hearings:

If a school wants to use federal money to discriminate on the basis of race or religion or sexual preference or gender orientation, DeVos thinks that's between the parents and the state. She literally refuses to imagine a scenario in which the federal government would hold a school accountable for the way it used federal dollars. The issue is perfectly captured in this exchange. DeVos is dodging a question about whether or not she would allow federal dollars to go to a school that was discriminating against African-American students:

DeVos: But when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of--

Clark: This isn't-- this isn't about parents making choices. This is about use of federal dollars.

At another point in the day, similarly pressed on whether or not she would require voucher schools to comply with IDEA, DeVos took a similar stance.

Her long answer is thank you for asking that question about [insert good standardized testing technique of restating the question--sort of--in your answer] and  states should get to set the rules and parents should get to make the choices.

Her short answer is, no, she's not going to hold anybody accountable for anything.

If a state wants to bring back Jim Crow schooling and funnel federal dollars to a school that only accepts white kids, she's okay with that. If a state wants to funnel federal dollars to schools that refuse to adequately serve students with special needs, she's okay with that.

No reframing of the issue budged her in the slightest. DeVos really does bear an infuriating resemblance to Dolores Umbridge, except that J. K. Rowlings ultimately gives audiences the pleasure of seeing cracks in Umbridge's self-righteous calm. DeVos shows no such cracks. It's the kind of calm that comes from absolute righteous True Belief, of knowing that your enemies can't hurt you because you are armored in Righteousness and Truth. It's also the kind of calm that comes from an empathy deficit; you don't feel sympathy or empathy for your Lessers because they have chosen their path. You can watch the world burn because you know the fire will never touch you, and the people who burn are people who are lesser beings who deserve to burn.

But enough armchair analysis. What we know is what we've known since the days that DeVos beat back attempts at accountability measures in Michigan-- she opposes anything that might in any way tie the hands of the Right Kind of People, the people who deserve to set policy and create schools and profit from all of it.

I can understand how liberals are bothered by this policy. What I don't quite understand is where the conservatives are. Where are all the people who built up the education reform wave in the first place with rallying calls for teacher accountability and school accountability and don't just trustingly throw money at schools and where the hell are our tax dollars going, anyway? Oh wait-- they are off in the corner, counting up all the money they aren't going to pay in taxes under the GOP plan.

As my college ed prof told us in the seventies, the accountability needle keeps swinging back and forth-- but this time it has gone so far in the accountability direction that it has come out the other side in a place so unaccountable that the federal Secretary of Education cannot imagine a situation in which she would deny federal dollars to any voucher school, ever, for any reason. This isn't just throwing money at schools-- it's lighting the money on fire and throwing it off a cliff. This is wrapping all the money around a big club that will be used to beat anybody who's not white and wealthy and healthy.