Posts tagged ‘Arne Duncan’

October 4, 2011

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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August 31, 2011

Who Says Education Reform Is the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’?

Little Rock, August 20, 1959. Rally at state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School. (Image via Oxford African American Studies Center, courtesy of the Library of Congress)

“The civil rights issue of our time.” “The civil rights issue of this generation.” “The civil rights issue of this era.” You’d have to be living in a soundproof booth to avoid the echo of civil rights talk these days. Only it isn’t coming from civil rights leaders. (Just as the language of “choice” isn’t coming from liberal feminists anymore.) It’s coming from Juan Williams (watch) and Steve Brill (listen) around issues of education reform – particularly school choice and, per Slate, “breaking unions’ grip on public education.” 

John McCain made the very same claim about education during his presidential campaign. Here’s a little Q&A from the Saddleback Church Civil Forum on the Presidency hosted by evangelical pastor Rick Warren in August 2008, the first forum held with the candidates after they’d become their parties’ presumptive nominees:

WARREN: Let’s talk about education. America ranks 19th in high school graduations, but we’re first in incarcerations. Everybody says they want more accountability in schools.

MCCAIN: Um-hum.

WARREN: About 80 percent of America says they support merit pay for the best teachers. Now, I don’t want to hear your stump speech on education.

MCCAIN: Yes, yes, and find bad teachers another line of work. (APPLAUSE).

WARREN: You know, we’re going to end this, you’re answering so quickly. You want to play a game of poker?

MCCAIN: Can I — choice and competition, choice and competition, home schooling, charter schools, vouchers, all the choice and competition. I want — look, I want every American family to have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama made as well, and that was, we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice. And charter schools work, my friends. Home schooling works. Vouchers in our nation’s capital works. We’ve got thousands of people in Washington, D.C., that are applying for a voucher system. New York City is reforming.

I go back to New Orleans. They were — as we know, the tragedy devastated them. They have over 30 charter schools in the city of New Orleans, and guess what? It’s all coming up. It’s all coming up. It’s a simple principle, but it’s going to take dedicated men and women, particularly in the teaching profession, to make it happen.

And by the way, here — I won’t go any further, but the point is… it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century

McCain said it again during his speech at the Republican National Convention. (Read.) And he said it again during the third and final presidential debate against Barack Obama. (Click.) It was one of the few ways in which McCain didn’t try to distance himself from George W. Bush in Election ’08. After all, it was Bush who first said it, in January 2002.

Now, I think it’s kind of awesome to hear Republicans talk about education as a civil right. And yet I can’t help feeling there’s some hoodwinking going on when Steve Brill starts attributing the notion to Democrats (by which he means Democrats for Education Reform) and President Barack Obama.

This is from the transcript of Brill’s appearance on the Diane Rhem Show, during which he responds to a 62-year-old black grandmother in Cleveland who says, “I know Republicans want our children back into separate and unequal”:

BRILL

11:30:49
The only thing I will say is that it’s not the Republicans now who are leading the reform movement. Barack Obama’s not a Republican, Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, is not a Republican. There are dozens of examples….
So it’s a much more mixed situation, you know, than just a bunch of Republicans, you know, trying to go after unions. And there are many very sincere people in the Civil Rights community, Barack Obama being one of them, who consider this to be the Civil Rights issue of our time, fixing the schools. (emphasis mine)

To be sure, Obama’s turn from the education plan he laid out in 2007-08, with advice from Stanford University education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, to the one being put forward today, under the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has soured many public school teachers and parents on his administration. (They thought they’d elected Obama on education. But they got something more like candidate McCain.) The bait-and-switch pissed enough people off that thousands gathered on the White House Ellipse on July 30, 2011 for the Save Our Schools Rally and March.

I was there. One of the most passionate speeches I heard was made by Jonathan Kozol, the author of Savage Inequalities and Illiterate America. His was a fiery, fist-pounding show that hinged on a damning accusation aimed straight at Arne Duncan:

Secretary Duncan, Arne Duncan [CROWD BOOS] has turned his back entirely on the precious legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. [APPLAUSE] Instead, he’s very, very busy trying to do Plessy v. Ferguson. Mr. Duncan, listen to me. Mr. Duncan, separate and unequal has never been successful. It didn’t work in the century just passed and it will not work in the century ahead. And anyone who tells himself otherwise is lying to himself and to the people of America.”

According to Kozol, Arne Duncan is restoring a system of segregation to America’s public schools. Steve Brill would like to have Democratic voters believe that, too. (Especially the ones who belong to the politically omnipotent teachers’ unions.)

But it’s a far more serious accusation coming from Jonathan Kozol. Because if Obama’s base starts to believe that the resegregation of public schools is the doing of the Obama administration, boy, the Democrats are in big trouble in 2012.

So let’s dig a little deeper, for the sake of all my new friends in the SOS March twitterverse. This resegregation problem didn’t start with Arne Duncan. We’d have it even if Obama had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond to the post of U.S. Secretary of Education. The problem is the Supreme Court.

Rewind to the 2007 NAACP Presidential Primary Forum, held July 12, 2007. The question is about the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down school integration plans put forth by school boards in Louisville, Ky. and Seattle, Wash. in June of that year. This Q&A is with then-candidate Barack Obama. The transcript is from OnTheIssues.org.

Q: In light of the recent anti-integration Supreme Court decision, please tell us what would you do to promote an equal opportunity and integration in American public schools and how would you ensure that the courts would hand down more balanced opinions

A: The Supreme Court was wrong. These were local school districts that had voluntarily made a determination that all children would be better off if they learned together. The notion that this Supreme Court would equate that with the segregation as tasked would make Thurgood Marshall turn in his grave. Which is why I’m glad I voted against Alito & voted against Roberts. But let’s remember that we also have a crisis in all our schools that have to be fixed, whether they’re integrated or not. We’ve got to have early childhood education. We’ve got to fix crumbling schools. We’ve got to have an excellent teacher in front of every classroom. We’ve got to make college affordable. The Supreme Court doesn’t have to order that. We can do that ourselves.

Did you get that? Obama said, “whether they’re integrated or not.” This is the kind of progressive pragmatism that defines Barack Obama’s leadership. He is not an idealist. He never was. Idealists, like Jonathan Kozol and Martin Luther King, Jr., set out a vision of greatness – a dream – and measure the world against it. The world never measures up. Progressive pragmatists, like Barack Obama, deal in the world as it is, and figure out practical ways “of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”

(There’s the finer line dividing groups like Parents Across America (PAA) from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). There are other, fatter ones, of course. But if you get past DFER’s Whitney Tilson “ripping” people like Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and dismissing Jonathan Kozol’s concurrence on the civil rights slant against charters as “dimwitted,” you see someone who believes he’s doing the right thing.)

Back to Obama’s response to the NAACP. Beyond expressing his own pragmatism, he’s saying we need to take responsibility. We need to correct the problem with our schools. We do. We can do it without the Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court that made integration the civil rights issue of Martin Luther King’s time, and Vernon Jordan’s time, and Thurgood Marshall’s time? That’s not today’s Supreme Court. So – and this is me talking now – if the NAACP wants to take the fight against the segregating effects of the market segmentation that results from “choice and competition” to the Supreme Court, public education is finished. Game over. We’re going to keep getting the same 5-4 result. Just take a look at the mug shots in the justice lineup at the bottom of this Oyez piece on Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. (Read and scroll.)

Here’s another twist. During the current Baltimore City mayoral campaign, candidate Frank Conaway has said on numerous occasions that he came out of segregated schools, and he came out pretty well. He said so again at the League of Women Voters debate at the Enoch Pratt Library last night. Some blacks look back fondly on the education they got before Brown v. Board. It’s odd, isn’t it? Independent schools trip over themselves to introduce diversity into their classrooms while parents in public schools have to fight to hold on to integrated classrooms. Baltimore-son Thurgood Marshall probably is rolling over in his grave. (Did you feel that earthquake?)

To sum up: In 2002, Republicans appropriated the language of civil rights for the purposes of radically changing public education as we know it. They kept doing it in 2007-08. Now the Right is telling the media that it’s not only the Right that feels education reform is a civil rights issue, but the Left feels school choice is a civil rights issue, too. If the Left feels that way, and we start fighting these battles through the courts, we’ll lose. And anyway, there are black Democrats who actually don’t much care to guard against the disintegration of Brown v. Board.

Here’s what I think: The Milton Friedman-inspired ideology of market-based competition that’s behind school choice is anathema to the whole idea of civil rights – which implies a great deal of the kind of government protection that the libertarian freedom fighters Juan Williams has been hanging out with feel are obstacles, if not shackles, to the American way.

I mentioned market segmentation. It’s a different animal from segregation. In injecting competition and choice into the public school ecosystem, we’re going to Social Darwinist route. Only the strong survive. But more than that, those who survive are those who find a niche. Competition and choice imply a free market, where there is no regulation. That means no affirmative action policies, no quotas, no demands by government for private or semi-private entities to address inequity. I know this is going to get me into trouble, but it means niched schools where white gentry moms and aspirational middle class black and brown moms strive to send their kids. And generic public schools where the weak and the poor wind up.

If we feel this country is in the midst of creating an educational landscape far from our highest ideals – and I do – the answer won’t come from the courts. And it won’t come from the White House. And it won’t come from corporate philanthropists or Democrat hedge fund managers. It won’t come from union leaders, either.

The power is idling at the grass roots. It’s time we rip it up.

July 30, 2011

If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

This is what rapid growth looks like, in the world of stock images.

Baltimore City is a case study in the push for school choice. In November 2004, with the benefit of pro bono services from global lawyering giant DLA Piper, the founders of City Neighbors Public Charter School succeeded in an effort to eliminate the cap on the number of new charter schools that could open here. By 2005-06, there were 12; by 2007-08, 22. Now there are 34 of about 200. Next year, there will be more. With only 15 schools making Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011, no one can claim that the reforms of the past few years are doing much good. But right now, the school choice story isn’t about quality. It’s about quantity.

Whether or not Baltimore City will turn into another New Orleans, where 61 of 88 public schools were charters as of August 2010, the campaign for the exponential growth of charter schools in the name of “parental choice” is overwhelming. On July 17, the New York Times printed a story on conflicts over a boutique charter school in an affluent New Jersey suburb. This week, Maryland’s Montgomery County approved its first charter school.

In terms of national policy, under the leadership of Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education is “incentivizing” an increase in the number of charter schools by states as a condition of winning Race to the Top funds. Corporate philanthropies are also pushing hard and fast for choice. In February 2011, the Progressive Policy Institute published a report coaching charter school supporters on how to take advantage of acquisition opportunities and eliminate barriers to expansion titled “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” The paper was written by three education policy consultants at Public Impact with support from the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Walmart. As of this week, the Walton Family Foundation is also the single largest private donor to Teach for America.

Back in Baltimore, another backer of Teach for America, the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), is making big ripples in the political pond. DFER is raising funds for local and state-level candidates who are on board with their board‘s agenda, which includes mayoral control of city school systems, opening more public charter schools, and closing failing schools the way an investor might dump poorly performing stocks. Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who bested a 27-year incumbent for the 46th district’s seat in the Maryland state senate (and who has commented on this blog), recognized DFER as one of the earliest supporters of his campaign. DFER board member and hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson used his education blog last month to rally donors to the aid of Baltimore City mayoral candidate Otis Rolley. (Rolley’s education platform would be right up DFER’s alley, if not for the voucher part.)

Despite a 2009 report by BCPSS stating that the only significant area of superiority in the performance of charters versus traditional public schools is school climate, the school board’s push for choice in the form of charters continues. Given the resounding drumbeat, the number of “schools of choice” in Baltimore could double in the next five years. It’s reasonable to expect that it could more than double.

What then?

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“Portfolio: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One”

“Highlights from Annapolis”

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April 17, 2011

Lessons from the Bronx

If you’re interested in improving your neighborhood public school, Jonathan Mahler’s cover story in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine is a provocative read. It’s about a principal named Ramón González and his relative success at the helm of Middle School 223 in the Bronx. And it’s about how the “forces of reform” that you’d think would be supporting him are working against him.

Principal González has a visionary goal: to make his school a place where he’d want to send his own kids.

Here are his circumstances: His school is in the heart of the poorest Congressional district in the nation. Many of the young teachers who come to him through Teach for America are useless the first year and great in the third, but they often leave after the second – at the end of their commitment. The U.F.T. contract allows teachers to miss 10 days of every school year and requires a majority vote each year to start the school day 10 minutes early. Parents are indifferent at best. Like all other public schools, M.S. 223 is responsible for educating the students that no other school – neither charter, nor parochial, nor private – wants to touch. What’s more, an estimated 20 percent of his students need glasses.

Then there’s this:

…The ever-growing number of charter schools, often privately subsidized and rarely bound by union rules, that Klein unleashed on the city skims off the neighborhood’s more ambitious, motivated families. And every year, as failing schools are shut down around González, a steady stream of children with poor intellectual habits and little family support continues to arrive at 223. González wouldn’t want it any other way — he takes pride in his school’s duty to educate all comers — but the endless flow of underperforming students drags down test scores, demoralizes teachers and makes the already daunting challenge of transforming 223 into a successful school, not just a relatively successful one, that much more difficult.

The folks running the reform movement from the top – from President Obama to Arne Duncan to school-system chancellors nationwide – want principals to think like CEOs. Which makes it all the more inspiring that González sees himself as a community activist.

Here is a man so committed to his neighborhood that he returned to it after a great escape – to a boarding school in Boston and then to college at Cornell. He’s committed to turning his school into a neighborhood school. And it makes sense. If the American education system is meant to prepare young people for citizenship in a democratic republic, don’t we need to commit to strengthening the communities in which the value of citizenship takes root?

You’d think. But the movement for reform sees neighborhood ties as a throwback. “His vision for 223 is in some respects anachronistic in the era of school reform,” writes Mahler. And I’ve had the same thought about my flickering fire for making my neighborhood school a top pick for every zoned family.

Like González, I want to make my neighborhood school a place where I’d want to send my own child. But the forces of reform – charters, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, “better” tests, budget cuts – are stifling. Am I trying to hold on to a past that everyone else has let go of? Or am I actually doing the progressive thing?

I have to believe the latter. What do you think?

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