Back and Forth with Senator Bill Ferguson on DFER and Parent Revolution

To Senator Bill Ferguson:

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my post on the parent trigger law, Parent Revolution and Democrats for Education Reform. You’d written to me that your comments were written “off the cuff.” I’ve tried my best to respond in the same fashion, and I thank you, too, for laying out ideas that have helped me clarify my thinking. I am hoping this is only the beginning of an extended conversation.

*

My take on the Democrats for Education Reform rhetoric, which I describe as pitting the interests of children against those of unionized teachers, is based on the first paragraph of DFER’s “Statement of Principles”:

A first-rate system of public education is the cornerstone of a prosperous, free and just society, yet millions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children. This perverse hierarchy of priorities is political, and thus requires a political response. (SOURCE: http://www.dfer.org/about/principles/ Emphasis mine.)

I’ve taken no liberties there. The statement continues: “Fighting on behalf of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals is what our party is supposed to stand for.” That’s debatable. But it’s more than safe to say that fighting for millions of vulnerable low-income children of color is what DFER thinks it is doing. They portray themselves as spokespeople for the disenfranchised – children, who can’t vote, and low-income children at that, the parents of whom politicians generally do not spend their campaign dollars enfranchising.

It’s unclear, at least to me, that the mandate to a) close the achievement gap, and b) do that by (i) opening public charter schools and (ii) beating back teachers’ unions when that’s deemed a necessary “means” (to use Joe Williams’ word) is coming from low-income children of color.

I take from the Joe Williams blog post you mentioned that the means-to-an-end ethic justifies DFER’s engaging in battles with teachers’ unions from time to time. DFER isn’t anti-union. It isn’t pro-union, either, unless standing in solidarity is in its interests. It has no principled stance on unions – protecting the rights of which many in the labor movement think the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for.

Democrats for Education Reform is in a fight with the teachers’ unions over the soul of the Democratic Party. Children shouldn’t even be in the room.

To the next point: “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.” You’ve phrased this claim in almost the same way that DFER board member Whitney Tilson did back in May:

“I challenge anyone to show me even one quote from one leading reformer who says that reforming the schools is all that is needed or who believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance.”

Robert Podiscio of the Core Knowledge blog has already taken up the challenge. Here’s the link to Podiscio’s post, “Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually…,” which has some gems from various education reformers, including the Obama administration’s Arne Duncan. You may be right that none of these people are officially DFER supporters. Maybe it’s enough that Arne Duncan was a cabinet pick supported by DFER.

In any event, whether or not these folks think poverty has an impact on what goes on in schools, they’re not doing anything to fix poverty other than trying to fix teachers. The point of contention is whether you can fix schools without addressing poverty and its effects – hunger, low attendance rates, poor study habits, a fundamental distrust of authority, and so on.

Poverty is itself a negative “externality” (to use your term) of the very same laissez faire economic policies that have already weakened labor unions. The frustration and anger coming from Diane Ravitch and the Save Our Schools movement – which is often directed at financiers and corporate philanthropists – is in part a response to the hypocrisy of the greatest beneficiaries of the free market offering market-based solutions to a problem that is a by-product of wildly free markets. The market creates a mess, in other words, that public school teachers have been trying to clean up for years, with little in the way of thanks from the people who can’t help making it.

You write: “…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…” The obvious question here is why, if what you say is true, well-intentioned people with money would rather use wealth that has been sheltered from taxation to reform public education than pay taxes on their earnings to boost the supply of public dollars available for public education and other social programs?

Giving is good, but no human being gives solely for giving’s sake. That’s why governments create financial incentives to promote charitable giving. Acknowledging the power of philanthropies to help government to address systemic poverty, governments are now offering social impact bonds – the Obama administration calls them pay for success bonds – to offer philanthropists opportunities to profit from tactical investments in social programs. This isn’t to say anyone is evil. It’s just to explain how the system works.

My own purpose in following the money is to find a logical explanation for political and legislative agendas that are at odds with what I believe (along with many others) to be the solution to the problems we face: community schools built on a core of trust between teachers, parents and guardians and the children that it is their privilege to fight for. There’s hope in doing it – hope that reasonable and well-intentioned people can work together to find a better way forward. I know we can do that.

Thank you, again.

Edit Barry

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4 Comments to “Back and Forth with Senator Bill Ferguson on DFER and Parent Revolution”

  1. Thanks for passing that link along! I had only seen Mr. Tilson’s newsletter.

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  2. I think it’s abundantly clear that DFER is content to toss all of its advocacy behind policy that flies in the face of the vast bulk of the educational research up to this point. These policies also happen to benefit corporate interests, create worse teaching and learning conditions, and thus hurt children.

    I have no idea whether that’s the motive, and I don’t care to speculate on that point. But whether acting out of ignorance or malice, it’s time the “accountability” flow both ways. DFER has pushed policy that has failed and continues to fail the children of the country. How about they focus some of that same fiery rhetoric at themselves?

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  3. Thanks for sharing this discussion and your thoughts on ed reform, parent triggers, etc. I am excited to follow your blog. I just wanted to make two quick comments. First, while I agree with you on parent triggers (they – like elected school boards – are open to manipulation by MANY outside interests) and I was pleased to see Sen. Ferguson withdraw his bill on the same, I think the dim view that you take of DFER is neither fair nor accurate. Even in your follow-up discussion, I am vexed by the conclusions you reach regarding whom DFER claims to represent. The block quote that you use simply does not say or imply what you conclude it does, and I’ve never heard anyone representing DFER make any claim along the lines you suggest. Second, I think that it’s important to recognize that DFER is not Whitney Tilson. Whitney Tilson supported Otis Rolley, DFER did not. Whitney Tilson’s newsletter contains are his own thoughts, which often do not even align with DFER’s stated positions (for example, on the voucher issue). Thanks again for continuing this discussion.

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    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. And sorry for the delayed reply. I’m pleased by Sen. Ferguson’s withdrawal of the Parent Empowerment legislation, as well. I hope we can do more to support community schools on the ground before we start legislating changes that communities may not want or need. On point #2: DFER put Otis Rolley on its August 2011 “Hotlist”: https://secure.actblue.com/page/dferhotlist. I read that as a show of support. Please keep reading and responding so we can continue the discussion together.

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