Archive for ‘Politics & Politicians’

April 3, 2017

Public School Numbers Games Hide What Matters

I drafted this piece on Saturday, March 25, 2017, when no one knew if or how much money Governor Larry Hogan would “give” to Baltimore City Public Schools in his second supplemental budget. My child’s school was facing a 20 percent cut to our budget. I updated it on the 27th, when Hogan announced his add for City Schools. Now it looks like my child’s school budget will be cut 5 percent. I’ll just leave this here. I have been told it deserves to be shared.

On March 27, the governor of Maryland announced a plan to allocate to Baltimore City Public Schools an additional $23.7 million, which represents a small fraction of a multi-million dollar budget gap. For advocates like me, a big trick of fighting for  funding has been figuring out what to show to illustrate projected losses: a dollar sign, a percentage, an image of a classroom with 25 students next to the same one with 40?

The figure Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises presented, and then leaders of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance ran with, and now Fox45 News is promoting to particularly misleading effect, is $130 million. That is the amount – rounded up by one to the nearest 10 – of the structural deficit that City Schools lacks the revenue to fill this year, and next year, and the year after that. Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 10.17.55 PM.pngDivided by the average teacher salary, it signifies more than 1,000 positions, rounded down by hundreds. In a panic that elided the need for a three-year fix, DBFA branded a campaign #releasethe130. In a simple pie chart, Fox45 reduced the 130 to a sliver – 10 percent – of the school system’s $1.3 billion budget.

Fox45’s coverage hands rural Marylanders ammunition to fight spending on the big city. “Baltimore City Schools spend nearly $16,000 per student every year, making it the fourth highest nationally, according to the most recent federal data available,” Fox asserts. “In return, taxpayers get some of the worst student outcomes in the state.” Countless “school reform” pushers and county politicians have used the same talking point, neglecting to mention that Baltimore has the highest rate of concentrated poverty, the highest percentage of students with special needs, the highest number of lead poisoned children. Their point: Money is wasted on Baltimore.

Also lost in the discussion of $130 million are the figures by which Baltimore City Public Schools have been underfunded for years. City Schools would have no deficit at all if the state had not cut the inflation adjustment nine years ago. If not for a decade of flat funding and rising costs, we would have at least $290 million more revenue this year, from the state alone. That does make $130 million seem small, not to mention $23.7 million.

Moreover, a state study released in late 2016 found that Baltimore City Public Schools would need an additional $350 million from the state to meet a funding level adequate to enable students to meet state standards. In three years, when the commission working on a revised state funding formula arrives at one that is fair and equitable, one can only hope for the sake of all students in Maryland that the governor fully funds it.

What no one in the media has looked at is what happens to the 10 percent district-level deficit when you distribute it across schools. It balloons.

My child goes to a Pre-K–Grade 8 public school in Baltimore City with more than 700 other students. The school touts low teacher turnover, a middle school Ingenuity program, a recently won E-GATE certification for gifted and advanced learning instruction, partnerships with MICA for arts instruction and McDonogh School for middle grades enrichment. It offers vocal and instrumental music, art, Spanish, fitness, and library time. After-school clubs include STEM, dance, musical theatre, French, Italian and Spanish.

If the district’s 10 percent deficit does not close, our school will lose up to 20 percent of our budget. One fifth. It will be as if we have lost funding for 140 students.

When that cut was announced in late February, “school choice” came to mean deciding whether to keep the half-time librarian. It meant weighing whether to eliminate the Gifted and Advanced Learning position or the vocal music position in exchange for keeping two kindergarten classrooms rather than squeeze them into one. It meant taking a hard look at whether the PTO at a school that receives the highest level of Title I funding possible, because nearly 9 of 10 students’ families qualify for nutrition assistance, has pockets deep enough to purchase a year’s worth of printer paper and fill the tuition gap for a sixth grade outdoor education program that will now take a lot more than T-shirt boosters and church-basement chili dinners to fund.

If that 10 percent gap is not filled, my school alone stands to lose six teachers and five staff. We will lose the Playworks coaches who elevate the mood at school on and off the playground. The school will make do, but it will not be the same.

That is what will happen to my child’s school as a consequence of this sudden budget crisis, a crisis the CEO says she did not see coming. But fighting that doesn’t stop me from thinking about what happens when whole school districts are inadequately funded. Many families with means leave. The few that stay invest in our own children’s schools. Buildings crumble. What is left are majority black and brown, minority-run, urban Democratic districts from which white Republican governors feel fine withholding tax dollars. And amidst the politics and the backroom dealing and the accusations of bloat and mismanagement, poor children don’t learn how to read.

The debate on this over the years has centered on whether the cause of “student failure” is teachers – and their unions – or poverty. The reformers say, “Hold teachers accountable.” The teachers say, “We can’t correct for poverty.” The reformers say the highest spending per pupil happens in poor performing schools, ignoring again and again that the highest spending goes to students with the highest need – students who need to learn English, or need speech and occupational therapy, or need a paid adult to accompany them throughout each school day. Some teachers unions inexplicably agree to have their pay correlated to student test scores.

All this — the underfunded school districts, the concentrated poverty, the race baiting politics, the crippling of teachers unions, the ignored needs, the batteries of tests — has forced a crisis of low student achievement. When students can’t reach “proficiency,” agenda-driven nonprofit groups peddle solutions to politicians eager for a fix that promises to preserve the racial status quo and please everyone — urbanite and county bumpkin alike. Those solutions are vouchers to private and religious schools, charter school expansion, “turnaround districts” that wipe out traditional public schools. Governors impose “accountability measures” for districts in exchange for state funding, even if that funding is not only a pittance but decades past due.

This year in Baltimore, as parents have been rallying to #releasethe130 and #fixthegap, Governor Hogan’s staff and appointed school board members have been rallying, too. It’s all in the open. They proposed legislation to create a separate, governor-appointed chartering authority for Maryland that would override local control, turn charter teacher unionization into a “right to work” opt-in situation, and undo efforts toward fair and equitable charter and traditional school funding. The governor and state board of education are aggressively resisting a bill that would limit test scores to just over half of student proficiency measures, gunning for three quarters. They have no interest in improving, let alone sustaining, a system of schooling that is publicly managed and run. In fact, Governor Hogan doubled funding for private and religious school vouchers as he ran out the clock on deciding to support the 11 Maryland school districts, including Baltimore City, that lost state revenue because they lost enrollment.

The media is full of numbers: $130 million, $290 million, $1.3 billion, $16,000. So is my head: One-fifth cut, six teachers gone, 9 of 10 classmates in poverty, $10,000 in printer paper for a whole school year. In the end, though, it all comes down to one individual. I don’t mean the governor. And I don’t mean my kid. I mean one whole child. No one should tolerate for a second the notion that Maryland’s budget – whatever Governor Hogan might say – funds a student in a single public school as if he or she equates to a fraction of a person. We all have a responsibility to keep our children whole.

March 22, 2013

Maryland HB 860 Third Reading Passed (107-30)

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 4.14.56 PMThanks for the good news, Baltimore Education Coalition.

March 21, 2013

Last Chance to Support #transformbmore EXTENDED

Picture 5

Twitpic of MD Delegate Maggie McIntosh of the 43rd Legislative District arguing for HB 860 on March 20, 2013

If you’ve been following the fate of the Baltimore City school construction bill, you were probably hoping for closure Wednesday night. The vote has been postponed to give legislators a chance to read the bill. Haven’t read the details yet yourself? Why wait? Download the PDF of HB0860 here. The bill returns to the floor March 21 at 10 a.m.

For national context on the state of the nation’s public school buildings, this article is also worth a look. It explains that a recent report estimates the cost of repairing America’s dilapidated school buildings at half a trillion dollars. Sounds like a whole lot. But in these days after the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it may be appropriate to note that Americans spent an estimated $1.7 trillion on that effort at nation building.

The time is ripe for nation building at home. Public school buildings are the right place to start.

February 25, 2013

Rally Tonight in Annapolis for Baltimore City Schools (Quick Links)

Wish every Baltimore City Public School could look something like this? Rally tonight at 6pm on Lawyer’s Mall in Annapolis.

For more about the issue, click around:

Wanna get on a bus? Looks like limited seats are still available on buses leaving from Poly and Northwood Elementary: For emails and phone numbers of bus captains click here:

February 19, 2013

Re:education in Baltimore: Baltimore Brew Edition

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 11.37.08 AM

Have you ever witnessed an exchange that you couldn’t get out of your head for days? Like seeing a total stranger quit her job on the spot, or watching a fight go down in the street? That’s what the last meeting of the Hampden Community Council was for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And talking about it. So I sat down (during the Super Bowl, with the radio on in the background) to write about it. Thanks to Fern Shen and Mark Reutter at the Baltimore Brew, I got to share my writing with some of the most thoughtful and engaged readers in town.

Here it is, my Brew debut.

November 4, 2011

Re:education in Baltimore – Fishbowl Edition

I wrote a new post for this week based on a selection of articles and op-eds I’d read over the past two. Here are the links:

Alonso plans to close schools that are underused, dilapidated
Specific list hasn’t been finalized
By Erica L. Green
The Baltimore Sun
October 14, 2011

Why smaller is better
Our view: Consolidating students in fewer buildings makes the best use of the city school system’s limited resources
Baltimore Sun – Editorial
October 18, 2011

A big build for city schools
Creative bond financing proposal could infuse billions into Baltimore for school construction and renovation
By Heather R. Mizeur and Thomas E. Wilcox
Baltimore Sun – Opinion
October 25, 2011

Study Warns of Limited Savings from Closing Schools
By Christina A. Samuels
Education Week 
November 1, 2011

I called my 600 word post  “Pointless Silos, or Will Rebuilding Baltimore City Public Schools Mean Shutting Some Down?” – and it was published today on the local website Baltimore Fishbowl. Check it out.

October 29, 2011

Speak Out to Raise $2.8 Billion for Baltimore City Public Schools

Scene from a Baltimore City Public School via Transform Baltimore's Flickr Gallery

The Transform Baltimore campaign is organizing a Speak Out, where teams representing any Baltimore City Public School can tell the powers that be about the state of their school buildings. The purpose is to inspire the political will to raise $2.8 billion through creative bond financing. Get in touch with the campaign if you’d like to get a team from your school a five-minute slot on the docket.

Lead in the water, windows painted shut, classrooms too hot in the summer and below zero in the winter – these are all good points to bring to the mic. Speak.

DATE: Thursday, November 3, 2011
TIME: 4:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
PLACE: War Memorial Building, across from City Hall
CONTACT: 410.889.8550 x 123 or

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:

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:

Bill Ferguson

September 27, 2011

Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton?

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