Archive for September, 2011

September 29, 2011

Parent Revolution: Maryland State Senator Bill Ferguson Comments

In response to “Parent Revolution: Straight Outta Compton,” Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson submitted this comment, on September 28 at 10:45 pm. I asked his permission to post it here, so it wouldn’t get buried in the comments section. He generously agreed:

“Thanks for bringing attention to the issue. I certainly understand your position.

But I think you’re taking a bit of liberty in generalizing and characterizing the groups affiliated (even remotely so) to parent empowerment efforts and their intentions. I am sure (although there’s no reason to take my word for it) that not a single person associated with DFER would ever claim to be the spokesperson for low-income communities of color. More importantly, I am sure there is not a single person associated with any of the foundations listed or amongst DFER or its supporters that would say that ineffective teachers are the sole cause of educational achievement gaps.

In fact, I’d imagine that nearly all of them would say that poverty and the struggles that are associated with poverty are the driving causes of the achievement gap. They’d also say that the risks associated with a poor education are significantly greater for children living in poverty than for children of families of means. That’s the point of contention.

Without hesitation, poverty and its externalities are leading causes of achievement gaps between socioeconomic cohorts. The single most effective vehicle for creating a path out of poverty, though, is through access to an excellent education. Safe housing options matter; effective & affordable health care plans matter; employment opportunities matter; sustainable wages matter; and the list continues. But public education is the arena where public dollar investments have the biggest impact. It’s why a number of well-intentioned people with money have started focusing on public education. They believe it will have the biggest return on philanthropic investment (and that’s investment and return in people, not in dollars). If we can create amazingly great schools for all communities, especially in low-income communities, we will have a better opportunity at leveling the playing field and setting the framework for allowing all kids the chance to excel. Do we have to work in the other areas as well? Absolutely.

I understand that it’s tempting to look at funders, find a commonality, and allow that commonality to drive a conclusion. I completely understand. But I believe it is unfair and unreasonable to paint someone as evil or ill-willed merely because he or she works in the financial sector; has created significant wealth used to start a foundation; or is willing to make political contributions to candidates.

The public education challenges that we have in Maryland, and across the country, are enormous. While I understand that many may disagree, I do not believe that educators and current parents of kids in schools alone will solve the problem. We need good ideas and good advocacy from all sectors in order to truly offer a new way for families that have faced generations of poverty. I believe that it will take people of significant means, non-traditional business leaders, ministers, journalists, artists, doctors, and many many more to truly move the needle on the achievement gap. Will every idea be good? Absolutely not. But some will be, and we need the diversity of resources from people of all backgrounds to address this gross inequity.

I urge you to take a second look at DFER. They are not anti-union, nor are they in any way anti-teacher. They believe that all kids should have access to a great education. They believe that teachers are not interchangeable widgets. And they believe that all kids can learn in the right environment. If you have a minute, here’s a blog entry that I found with a quick google search that touches on the subject: http://www.dfer.org/2011/02/dfer_on_wiscons.php.

One last, quick note of clarification, I did put in the Parent Empowerment Act during the 2011 Session, but I also withdrew it before any bill hearing took place. I believed that the problem had not clearly been defined in Maryland, nor was I sure that the mechanism I had drafted was the correct way to address it. So I withdrew the bill. Here’s the link to the bill status:http://mlis.state.md.us/2011rs/billfile/sb0776.htm

Bill Ferguson
billforbaltimore.com

September 27, 2011

Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton?

You can buy an N.W.A.-inspired Straight Outta Compton cap today from Zazzle.com. Word.

Two stories of class ventriloquism jumped out at me last week. You probably heard about Mitt Romney’s delusions of middle class brotherhood. Romney, who has a net worth of at least $190 million, called himself one of “us.” (Which was, if you think about it, a nice acknowledgment that you ought to be if you’re going to attempt to represent “us.”)

Then there’s a story of political inauthenticity you may not have heard. It’s about an experiment in Compton, California, with a piece of legislation called the parent trigger. Here’s the story: ‘Parent Trigger’ Law to Reform Schools Faces Challenges.

Here’s some background, organized as a sort of Q & A.

What’s the “parent trigger”?

It’s a California law that “empowers” public school parents to do one of four things:

  1. Allow a charter school nearby that is “doing better” than the local school to take it over. That’s called a charter school conversion.
  2. Have half the staff fired, bring in new leadership, and get more local community control over making changes. That’s called turnaround.
  3. Force the school district to find a new principal and make a few other small fixes. That’s called transformation.
  4. Gain “collective bargaining rights” by collecting names on petitions.

(If this is raising questions in your mind about the person firing people, finding new leadership, and granting community control – or why you need a law to create a petition – we’re in the same boat. Grab a paddle.)

How do parents get their finger on the “trigger”?

First they find out if they’re school is failing. (Apparently, they might not know that.) Next, they organize more parents. “Parents” may be current parents, future parents zoned for the school, and parents whose children are set to feed into that school. Who calculates the total, I don’t know, but if 51 percent signs a petition demanding one of the four prefab options that the authors of the law built into it, bang. They’ve pulled the trigger.

Who drafted the parent trigger law, and who got it passed in California?

The parent trigger law was introduced by Gloria Romero, a former California state senator. She is now the director of the California branch of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER. Ben Austin drafted the law. Austin is a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and a policy consultant at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator. Austin has a seat on the Los Angeles school board – California governor Jerry Brown dismissed him from the state education board – and he is the executive director of a nonprofit called Parent Revolution.

What’s DFER? And why should I care?

DFER is a political action committee run by hedge-fund managers and investment bankers. Closely tied to KIPP charter schools and Teach for America (the single largest donor to which is now the Walton Family Foundation), DFER’s aim is to close the “achievement gap” between students in poor black Harlem and their peers in rich white Scarsdale. To that end, the PAC raises money for Democrats who push an education agenda that includes the closure of “failing” public schools and the proliferation of charter schools. It’s an agenda shared by the Obama administration, and it’s being pushed by their education reform competition, Race to the Top.

In Baltimore, DFER has supported two candidates for public office (that I know of). One is Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who worked for Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Andres Alonso before running for state senate. (You can watch him tell the story of how he got elected here. It’s cool.) He put forward a version of the parent trigger law called “The Parent Empowerment Act” this year. (You can see Senator Ferguson’s legislative agenda from February on his Facebook page.) It didn’t pass. DFER also backed mayoral candidate Otis Rolley, whose platform included mayoral control of the public school system, making charter laws more amenable to outside operators, and providing means-tested vouchers to children in the lowest performing middle schools. He didn’t win.

What’s remarkable about DFER is less its political track record than its rhetorical strategy. DFER presents its interests as the interests of children. (In effect, its spokespeople have appointed themselves spokespeople for America’s mainly urban, mainly black and brown public school children.) DFER pits the interests of these children against the interests of unionized teachers, who are, in the DFER narrative, ultimately responsible for high dropout rates and abysmal performance on high-stakes standardized tests. DFER does not admit that lack of school funding or poverty is an important determinant of academic performance, citing academic outcomes at KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone as evidence of what great instruction can do. DFER’s critics point out that the PAC has a stake in undermining the pull of teachers’ unions, the largest single source of funding for the Democratic Party, in order to wrest power and political influence in its favor. Many on the right support their aims. Indeed, their agenda was effectively authored by George W. Bush.

What’s the deal with Parent Revolution?

When Diane Ravitch warned her Twitter followers to watch out for “astroturf” parent groups, I bristled. How can anyone question the authenticity of parents who are organizing on behalf of their own children? But I didn’t understand what she meant by “astroturf” – a group that adopts the populist guise of a grassroots organization in the interests of parties that are neither populist nor grassroots. Independent bloggers at Solidaridad have been calling Parent Revolution “astroturf” for years. This story in a March 2011 article in Mother Jones magazine is more mainstream, explaining the group’s corporate ties.

Parent Revolution operates on a $1 million budget, funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Education historian Diane Ravitch argues that the Gates, Walton Family, and the Broad Foundation combined invest far more funding in education reform than any foundations before them, with unchecked power to expand charters, vouchers, and other business-inspired reforms.

In Compton, Parent Revolution paid organizers from outside the community to gather signatures in support of a charter school conversion at McKinley Elementary School. Their second-in-command allegedly invented a group called “McKinley Parents for Change” and claimed on its behalf a desire to open under new management. The group never told the P.T.A. at McKinley that they were circulating a petition.

Volumes of news stories and opinions have already been published on the battles over the parent trigger law and its expansion across the country. (I particularly like California community organizer-turned-teacher Larry Ferlazzo’s take.) Ben Austin’s summary of the Compton results in that story I mentioned from the Times shows a level of awareness that ought to lead to a major course correction:

We came in with a prepackaged solution of a charter school and didn’t have enough of a deep buy-in from enough parents, and we didn’t develop enough leadership,” Mr. Austin said.

This year, he said, the organization will rely on the local parents’ unions to ask for the specific changes they want. In some cases, it may be as simple as more consultation from school leaders.

Now what?

DFER and Parent Revolution continue to organize “parent unions” across the country from the top down. The rhetoric pitting teachers against “kids” drones on. Billionaire philanthropists keep throwing money at a problem that they argue a shift of wealth from the top can’t fix. And Diane Ravitch keeps tweeting her fingertips ablister to keep concerned citizens up to date on the latest expressions of all this misguided reform.

Meanwhile, off the national radar, middle class parents like me are taking notes on cautionary tales like the one from Compton. We’re trying to learn how to breathe new life into local public schools that already have lives of their own.

Please share your own suggestions and cautionary tales in the comments section.

September 15, 2011

Middle Class News Roundup

It’s been a big week for the middle class. At least in my Internet meanderings.

I woke up to this:

The income of the typical American family dropped for the third year in a row, putting it at 1996 levels when adjusted for inflation, according to a new Census report. The median earnings for men who work full-time year round is particularly troubling, hitting a low not seen since 1978, when adjusted for inflation.

From the ThinkProgress Morning Briefing for September 14, 2011

Then I read this, in that same morning briefing, which is a nice antidote:

Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren announced her intention to challenge Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) in the 2012 election. Warren built President Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from the ground up. In a statement, she said, “The pressures on middle-class families are worse than ever, but it is the big corporations that get their way in Washington. … I want to change that.”

(Here’s a link to her campaign website: http://www.elizabethwarren.com/)

An antidote to the antidote, this article was in my Yahoo! news slideshow this morning: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/How-to-Escape-the-MiddleClass-usnews-1418898375.html?x=0#mwpphu-container

Then I learned that Blue Chip companies aren’t doing anything to change the situation. What can they possibly do? (Besides promote changes in the tax code. Why would they do that? Or maybe manufacture products in U.S. factories. Again, why would they do that?) What they are doing is changing the way they market goods to respond to a market that’s looking more and more like an hourglass – haves on one side, have nots on the other. “The decline and fall of the American middle class” by Paul Harris sums it all up.

Before I read any of that, this Michelle Rhee tweet led me to an article in the Wall Street Journal from Sept. 12 titled “Middle Class Schools Miss the Mark” by Stephanie Banchero. Apparently, a few days before the 2010 Census data made headlines, Third Way put out a report called “Incomplete: How Middle Class Students Aren’t Making the Grade.” As the title suggests, it’s on the lackluster achievement of middle class public schools – defined broadly as schools with anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of students living in poverty. Apparently it’s not only the poor schools that need Superman. Middle income earners who send their children to underachieving public schools need an intervention as well.

Middle class public schools are “underachieving.” Whether or not that’s a reasonable claim to make, I’m waiting (cynically? logically?) for the specious reasoning that links the decline of the middle class to their lackluster education, rather than to an economy that has shifted capital from manufacturing – which requires a robust middle class – to finance – which has no such need. The education reform establishment is talking that way about people already in poverty. What’s to stop them from doing the same to the people next in line?

Highly educated yet middle class people like me, I guess.

Thoughts?

September 8, 2011

Flashback: Candidate Barack Obama on Segregated Schools

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union” (March 18, 2008)

*

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