Posts tagged ‘Otis Rolley’

April 11, 2012

Reflections on Year One of Re:education in Baltimore

Honoré Daumier 017 (Don Quixote)

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza by Honoré Daumier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A week ago Baltimore storyteller Rafael Alvarez challenged me, over pita points and taramosalata at Samos, to explain what I was doing with this blog and who I was doing it for, in 140 characters or less. I couldn’t. But I took up the challenge to explain my quixotic quest, as he painted it, in my anniversary post.

Today marks one year of Re:education in Baltimore. It’s my paper anniversary. After filling a dozen creamy pages with ink (they used to call that writing), it’s time to transfer some thoughts to the Web.

What am I doing? 

I started this blog to prevent myself from alienating my friends and family. After a year of engagement with the charter versus neighborhood school quandary, I was bombarding everyone in earshot with talk of issues they either didn’t want to talk about or didn’t want to confront at the same high level of intensity. I’d learned a lot. The people in a ten-foot radius may not have cared, but I was sure others did. Why not write a blog?

What started as (and still is) an outlet for sharing knowledge and curating stories of interest quickly turned into a platform for staging public resistance. Less than a month in, I published “Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not Just Yet. Not So Fast.).” May 2011 would prove the blog’s biggest month in page views for all of 2011, not surpassed until January 2012. The uptake was thrilling in a sort of crazy-making way. I was the rookie who hit a homer in his first at bat. But it was only the beginning. I was in it for the long haul. I had bigger fish to fry.

The uptake of that post changed the direction of the blog when Baltimore NewsTrust reposted it. The site was a short-lived experiment in allowing the public to evaluate the merits of local news stories. It’s sort of like Star Search in that readers can rate selections for “style” and “originality.” It’s a grand experiment. It’s also supremely irritating in that it turns readers into judges. State senator Bill Ferguson, of all people, rated the post, and rated it “poor.” This did not endear him to me. It did get me on his radar, though, and I called him to see if he could help me improve my neighborhood school. He gave me some names. This blog became a foot in the door, a way to link to potentially helpful people in real life. I love it for that. I think that’s why I value it most.

As a result of the NewsTrust attention I began to think of myself differently as a blogger. I began to think of myself as having a journalistic obligation. That was odd. I have a full time job writing for a marketing agency that brands colleges, universities, and independent schools. I hadn’t reported a news story since 1999. But I couldn’t help seeing a major hole in news coverage in this town and a slant in opinion making that is less than progressive or populist – two words I would like to think describe my political values. When mayoral candidate Otis Rolley came out with an education agenda that encapsulated everything that was wrong with the federal push for reform, I used it to take the national conversation down to the local level. I loved his candidacy. There is no greater friend to an activist than an enemy with a four-point plan. But the race ended. And so did my turn as a spotlighter of local politics. I turned inward again, back to the mission to make my neighborhood school a top choice, and the personal tale that goes along with it.

Who’s it all for?

“This isn’t just for your son,” Rafael tells me between bites of a gyro sandwich. He’s right. I wish I could say it was. But it’s not.

Who am I fighting for? Poor people? Black people? I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself. I can’t. I won’t. I write as a parent whose salary is not commensurate with her level of education. (The irony is that I haven’t been able to cash in on my education because I work in education. I sell it. Before that I developed content for it. These are not lucrative tasks.) I might say I am a fighter for the shrinking middle class. I’m one of its voices. I care about the direction the country is taking. I worry about the future of the world my son is growing up in. I witness behavior and read language that is thoughtless and careless, that is based in prejudice, classism, and racism, and I feel compelled to call it out. I’ve been doing that since the ninth grade. It has never won me any friends.

“You’re earnest,” Rafael tells me.

“That’s my blogger persona,” I explain. “I cultivate that. I can do snark and irony and cynicism, but the blogosphere doesn’t need it.”

“That’s fine,” he says. “You can make your nuanced arguments. You can take the high road. But people want their 140 characters.”

Fine, then: I want to leave my little world better than I found it.

If that’s not enough, follow me on Twitter. Better yet, help me celebrate my anniversary by subscribing to Re:education in Baltimore today.


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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?

Related Posts

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July 7, 2011

The Mis-Elevation of Otis Rolley

At the Otis Rolley forum at Huber Memorial Church in Govans last Wednesday, with about 45 people attending, there’s one topic up for discussion: education. And Otis Rolley, the youngest contender in the mayor’s race, seems to understand that he’s playing with fire. To ease into what promises to be a passionate conversation, the evening begins with an innocuous, looped video reel of the candidate against a calming blue backdrop explaining the basics of his education platform.

As the interview plays, we meet the candidate himself, in shirt, tie, and pleated pants. He shakes hands. Soon the video stops and Rolley begins to offer what he calls his four-point education plan:

  • Mayoral control of Baltimore City schools
  • Vouchers for students in the five worst performing middle schools
  • Fifty new or renovated schools in ten years through public/private partnerships
  • Improvements to the Maryland charter school laws

There isn’t much new here, and certainly nothing innovative. But there is a word that Rolley expects the audience will think is “dirty.” The word is “vouchers.”

Notably, the information packet on each seat whitewashes it with the term “opportunity scholarships.” As mayor, Rolley would set aside $25 million from the city school budget of over $1 billion to fund $10,000 scholarships (vouchers) toward tuition and other costs at private and parochial schools for students in Baltimore’s worst performing middle schools.

While “vouchers” may be a dirty word in some circles, it is a magic word for tapping into the fundraising potential of education reformers like Whitney Tilson, a self-described hedge-fund manager by day and education reformer by night. Tilson made a bundle ahead of the housing bubble by shorting real estate, according to CNBC’s Fast Money. Tilson, who earned a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harvard, attributes his interest in education reform to a personal connection to Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, who befriended Wilson’s brother while in college at Princeton. Tilson is on the board of KIPP NYC, a charter school in a chain founded by Teach for America alumni. Otis Rolley was on the board of KIPP in Baltimore. Hence the connection. Whitney Tilson lives in Manhattan with his wife and three daughters. He is not a citizen of Baltimore. But since Rolley announced his education platform, Tilson has been urging his readers to “join” him in supporting Otis Rolley to the tune of up to $4,000, the maximum contribution.

Rolley, clearly, isn’t interested in turning either his voucher proposal or his education program into a subject of debate. With our failing public schools valiantly continuing to fail, Rolley is more interested in winning over those parents who are desperate for alternatives. His answers to the questions audience members submitted reflect that. Here are a few extracts from the Q & A.

Question one: As mayor, will you ensure that every public school offers recess?

“I will commit as mayor to push that agenda with my superintendent and school board,” says Rolley, who was surprised to learn that not every public school offers recess.

Question two: How is your education platform different from the current mayor’s?

“I have one,” says Rolley. He then offers a few other points of contrast, painting the incumbent as the candidate who wants to “stick with what works.”

Question three: How will you continue Dr. Alonso’s success?

Rolley reiterates the importance of mayoral control of the school system, accountability, and having a staff of people who are “committed, qualified, and courageous.”

Question four: Please explain public-private partnerships.

Rolley attempts to explain. He says something about the reciprocal benefit to corporations of investing in school buildings. The idea is that good schools will generate employees for the private entities that help finance them. He uses the word “pipeline” to describe the way a working school system will prepare graduates to join the workforce. (There is a case to be made that better learning environments make for better educational outcomes. But that’s not the case Rolley makes.)

Question five: Will you use the money generated from slots for schools?

“Yes,” Rolley says.

Question six: What three things would you like to see change in the life of city students?

  1. A mayor who cares.
  2. A commitment across the board to success.
  3. A belief that every student is worthy of greatness.

Rolley asks and answers many other questions. There are a few from BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development). There is a compelling suggestion from a man in the back about how Baltimore might build relationships with other jurisdictions in Maryland that are also underfunded because of their meager tax base.

In answer to another point Rolley says he is not for an elected school board, because elected officials might use their seats as stepping stones to higher office. He insists that accountability should be with the mayor – who would presumably be held accountable at the polls every four years. He says we need to make the charter school law more amenable to outside operators who have been deterred by the current law.

There are some other Tweetables:

“I want them [meaning students] to be in buildings that say they are worthwhile.”

“We need air conditioners. Amen.”

“We are more broken than we are broke.”

“There are 249 neighborhoods, not just Downtown.”

There are mentions of the three three “A”s, to describe the building blocks of a great education that are just as important as the three “R”s:

  • Academics
  • Arts
  • Athletics

And the three “C”s, to describe the people he’d be sure to have around him:

  • Courageous
  • Competent
  • Committed

There is a great question about how you convince the two-thirds of Baltimore residents who don’t think schools are a priority that they are. Otis Rolley doesn’t think that will be too hard, for a number of reasons. But after a point I stop taking notes. That point comes a few minutes after Rolley says,

“Much of what I’m recommending is an uphill battle.”

Judging from this meeting, getting Rolley to speak frankly about public education is going to be an uphill battle. Rolley has mastered the handshake, and he’s learned how to buzz-up his language with phrases like “agenda,” “accountability,” and “pipeline.” He’s even got a punny tagline for a man named Otis: “Elevate Baltimore.”

But as a pro-neighborhood school mom in a pro-charter school world, I want a hearing. And I’m hopeful I can get it from a young politician who – as the author of Baltimore City’s master plan – is probably better equipped than anyone to see the crucial role that a great zoned public school can play in building a neighborhood.

So why is he promoting an education platform that seems to ignore the specific needs of those 248 other neighborhoods he promises to elevate? I submit a similar question on a 2-by-3 inch notecard and toward the end he gets to it:

Given that the city-wide model of charter school enrollment undermines the potential for neighborhood schools to strengthen the surrounding community, why are you – a city planner and a parent of a student in a traditional public school – pushing to promote charter schools (which are proliferating at a rapid clip as it is)?

Rolley disagrees with the premise that charter schools are undermining neighborhood public schools. He gives the education reformers’ line on choice. He believes we should have strong charter schools and strong neighborhood schools – a line I’ve heard from people who represent Alonso’s BCPSS. And like those representatives, Otis Rolley seems to be blind to the fact that those two goals are irreconcilable.

But before I can speak, an African American woman stands up. She explains that Govans and Guilford, two neighborhood public schools nearby, are underenrolled and losing money because of the recent founding of a number of charter schools in the area. She explains that when a school loses a student, it loses funds, because the funds go with that child. If a school is underenrolled, it can’t operate the way it should. She explains that a two-tiered system is forming, and that students left behind in neighborhood schools are worse off as a result of the choice presented by charter schools.

Her point isn’t that charter schools are the “bogie man,” as Rolley keeps insisting they aren’t. Her point is that Rolley can’t claim that charters are having no effect on the viability of neighborhood schools. It’s an uncomfortable fact that politicians from Rolley to Obama tend to shy away from: charters tap students and sap resources from neighborhood schools that have roots in living, breathing communities.

The woman says there needs to be a cap on the number of charter schools that can be founded in Baltimore City. Rolley responds that he doesn’t believe there needs to be a cap. Not that it matters. There isn’t a cap. What’s most interesting about this exchange is that the woman who rose to speak sends her child to a charter school. Rolley says, see, you are benefitting from choice. But she isn’t buying it.

The free-marketeers who are pushing for choice will say that consumers get what consumers want. Bad schools go under, and people flock to good schools. That market-based outlook ignores the basic foundation of public education: It’s free. It takes all comers. No lottery. No staying up late to be first in line. No hedging bets against real estate bubbles. There is no front of the line and no back of the bus. American public education is the great equalizer. Or that’s how it ought to be.

After two hours of platitudes and baseless beliefs about what works, I get the sense that Rolley’s grasp on the issues is more tenuous than mine. I also don’t know where he stands. Is he a free-marketeer who feels that the market should determine which neighborhoods wind up keeping zoned public schools and which don’t? Or does he believe that zoned schools are worth lifting up in a city that is ultimately a mosaic of 249 neighborhoods?

Right now, he seems to think we can elevate Baltimore by mimicking failed policies from other U.S. cities. That’s a shame. Here’s a candidate who has the potential to turn Baltimore into an example that other cities can follow. If he gets his head on straight, he can change the tune on education reform in this country. But all we’re getting is so much elevator music.

Related Posts:

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

Roll(ey) Call: Why the Frontrunner for Mayor Needs to Revise His Education Plan ASAP

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not just yet. Not so fast.)

June 29, 2011

Otis Rolley Education Town Hall Tonight

Mayoral Candidate Otis Rolley

Otis Rolley has invited the people of Baltimore to share ideas about how to improve Baltimore’s public schools. Here are the details:

WHEN: Wednesday, June 29th, 2011
TIME: 6 – 8 p.m.
WHERE: Huber Memorial Church
5701 York Road
Baltimore, MD 21212

Here are some links, so you can get up to speed before you go:

A little note: Since June 19, the Rolley campaign has rephrased its pitch. “Mayoral control” and “vouchers” were initially touted as “radical.” Now, you’ll hear references to “city control” and “helping students escape the worst performing middle schools.”*

  • News on the recent cheating revelations, which Rolley referred to in his invitation to tonight’s event: “Cheating, tampering found in city schools,” The Baltimore Sun, Erica L. Green, June 23, 2011
  • A light factcheck of Rolley’s criticisms of the current mayor, post cheating revelations: “O Rolley?” City Paper blog, Eric Erickson, Jr., June 23, 2011

Here are two questions I’d like to put on the table:

  1. Rolley claims his plan has “been proven to work in other cities.” I’m interested to hear which cities and what constitutes proof.
  2. The citywide enrollment model of charter schools undercuts the role that zoned public schools can play in attracting new residents to city neighborhoods. So why is Otis Rolley – a city planner and a parent of a student at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School – pushing so hard for charter schools? (Which are proliferating apace as it is.)

I may not get a chance to ask these questions. So why not start the conversation here? Comments welcome.

* NOTE: In a handout from the town hall meeting itself, the campaign refers to vouchers as “opportunity scholarships.”

June 19, 2011

Roll(ey) Call: Why the Frontrunner for Mayor Needs to Revise His Education Plan, ASAP

Otis Rolley talks at TEDx MidAtlantic 2010. Credit: Andy Babin/TedXMidAtlantic

When I wrote in May about why Hampden is ripe for a neighborhood school renaissance, I included in my praise for this place the bike shop, the baby shop, the chocolate-and-shoes shop. But I neglected to mention the other new hot spot on The Avenue – the campaign headquarters of mayoral contender Otis Rolley.

I want to like Otis Rolley. He seems like a really good guy. Watch his TEDx talk on new urban renewal and you’ll want to let him kiss your baby. But Rolley’s education plan, which started making waves last Sunday, has caused a few Baltimore parents to scratch their heads.

Here’s a quick rundown: “The Rolley Plan to Improve Baltimore’s Education System for the Future of Our Children and Our City” roots itself in the failing state of our schools. In 2010-11, six out of 10 schools didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) – the measure set forth in No Child Left Behind that demands 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

“This year,” the bad news continues, “the results are expected to be even worse. Just 39 percent of graduating seniors are prepared for college or the workforce” (emphasis added). And it’s true. While there are a few bright spots, on the whole the Baltimore City Public School System isn’t looking too hot.

But keep reading.

Rolley’s four “distinct, tangible solutions to help permanently fix Baltimore’s education system” are:

  1. Mayoral control of City Schools;
  2. Education vouchers for students in the worst performing middle schools;
  3. Fifty (50) new or renovated schools in 10 years through public-private partnerships; and
  4. State charter school law revisions to expand the options for parents.

The promise:

Together, these reforms along with expedited academic reforms currently underway, will allow Baltimore schools to increase the high school graduation rate to 85 percent and ensure that at least 90 percent of graduates are prepared for college or post secondary job training by the end of this decade. (emphasis added)

I wish I had time to do a thorough point-by-point analysis of the Rolley Plan. But I’m going to focus on #1 and #2, the points that the Rolley campaign calls “radical.”

#1. Baltimore City Bests All of New York State, or to paraphrase Rolley, “New York is nice, but it’s no Baltimore.”

You have only to look at New York City to see that mayoral control isn’t doing any good. On June 14, 2011, the New York Times reported on the level of college readiness among state graduates, with numbers for Mayor Bloomberg’s empire:

In New York City, 21 percent of the students who started high school in 2006 graduated last year with high enough scores on state math and English tests to be deemed ready for higher education or well-paying careers. (emphasis added)

Twenty-one percent for a city with a school system that has been under mayoral control since June 2002. The percentage for all of New York State – 37%. That should put the figure Rolley’s plan laments – 39% – into perspective. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lousy number. But it’s almost double that of New York City, which is number one on the list of cities that Rolley cites as exemplars of mayoral control over the school system.

#2. Vouchers Don’t Improve Academic Performance, They Breed Discrimination, and They Can’t Be Targeted
Vouchers are a 21-year-old experiment currently coming of age in Wisconsin, where the nation’s first voucher program was instituted, in Milwaukee, in 1990. We have a model to look at, and here’s what it’s showing:

a) Students in voucher versus public schools in Milwaukee do about the same academically, according to research put out a couple of years ago by the University of Arkansas. (See “Study finds results of MPS and voucher school students are similar” by Alan J. Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel, March 26, 2009.) The National School Boards Association has taken up Milwaukee vouchers as a key advocacy issue, and maintains a running archive of articles on the topic. Here’s a link. This is just to say that there is no data from the oldest voucher program in the nation to support the notion that students will be better served by private or parochial schools than they would be by traditional public schools.

b) Voucher programs discriminate, according to the ACLU. Less than a week before Rolley unfurled his education plan, Milwaukee’s voucher program came under attack by the ACLU for alleged discrimination against students with disabilities. (See “School choice program shuts out disabled, federal complaint says” by Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel, June 7, 2011, and “Milwaukee’s Voucher Program Discriminates Based On Disabilities, ACLU Says,” Joy Resmovits for Huffington Post, June 7, 2011.) I wonder if i) Rolley was aware of the ACLU’s claim and went ahead with his platform anyway, or ii) he didn’t have a chance to rethink his position. I’m hoping it’s the latter, and that he rethinks it now.

c) Introducing vouchers for a few – or “targeted” vouchers, to quote Rolley – is a slippery slope. Rolley seems to think that he will be able to limit eligibility for vouchers to students in the worst performing schools. Recent events in Wisconsin – where Republican governor Scott Walker has been in the limelight these past months for anti-union and pro-privatization schemes – would indicate that this limit may be beyond a mayor’s ability to enforce. It’s certainly not above politics, especially when funding for the program would have to be approved by the state, as Rolley admits.

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state legislature recently voted to expand the voucher program to a county outside Milwaukee and raise the income limits for parents who want to send their children to “choice” schools. (See “Amid protests, panel votes to expand school choice, cut aid to local governments” by Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel.) Who’s to say that wouldn’t happen here? How much control can a mayor assert over the budget of a city school system that is funded largely – 80% – by the state? (See this.)

I could go on. On #3 – improving or building new school buildings – the ACLU is on that tip. So is the Baltimore Education Coalition. How public-private partnerships work and what a sale-lease back deal entails – those are concepts I hope a journalist in this town will explain. On #4 – if I were in a union I would look into this piece pretty closely.

As far as #1 and #2 go, the evidence is all bad news for Rolley’s plan, and for this hopeful voter. But I really, really want to give his campaign the benefit of the doubt. After all, the New York City college-readiness numbers came out after Rolley announced his education plan. And the news from Wisconsin about claims of discrimination against the voucher program, that was less than a week old. The timing gives Rolley good reason to sit down right now and revise the plan.

Just think: a politician who can pivot in the face of evidence that demands a new line on education reform – that would be radical. It might even earn him this city mom’s vote.

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