Posts tagged ‘Teach for America’

October 1, 2012

Two Thumbs Up for Won’t Back Down

The latest film from Walden Media and 20th Century Fox shows American audiences how to stage a parent revolution.

Won’t Back Down is a new feature film starring Oscar-nominated actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two moms, Jaime and Nona, who take over their F-grade public elementary school. The school has a mathematical problem: Eighty percent of graduates can’t read. It’s personal for Jaime, whose 8-year-old daughter, Malia, is a walking statistic. The film opens with Malia’s anguished attempt to sound out a command: “Put the story in order.”

Okay.

  1. Choose an American city with a troubled public school system. Make it Pittsburgh.
  2. Cast a svelte pale-skinned girl with deep brown eyes and honey-blond hair as a FARM-eligible dyslexic second grader.
  3. Give her a feisty, single white mom who has no college degree, works two jobs, and earns less than $27,000 a year.
  4. Stick them in a class with a really bad union teacher who is “tenurized” (in non-college-educated-white-mom parlance), and therefore can never be fired.
  5. Block the exits. a) Make sure the kid can’t switch classrooms. b) Show the heartless Catholic school turn the child away for her parent’s failure to make timely tuition payments (as in Walden Media’s Waiting for Superman.) Then c) recreate the emotional trial of a lottery for a seat in a charter school. Call it Rosa Parks.
  6. When luck is less than a lady, have a linebacker of a principal (Ving Rhames) say something locker room-speechy, like, One in four Americans can’t read. If you don’t like the odds, go out there and fight for something better. You can do it. Yes you can.

But how?

  1. Read The Secret (Jaime has), and brush those teeth. Your winning smile is your greatest asset.
  2. Get the gossip. Pull the receptionist card to get in with the superintendent, then buy that chatty gal a cup of coffee. You’ll never need her again, but she’ll give you the skinny on the latest law that will enable you to takeover your failing school if only you can get half the parents and teachers to agree.
  3. Find a partner. A smart woman. A smart Black teacher whose ideals are in a cardboard box at the bottom of a closet in a Cosby Show-quality African-American home from which her soon-to-be-ex-husband has removed his clothes. Throw in a kid who is picked on for being slow. (This fact may be her fault and your plot’s undoing. Drama!)
  4. Crush on the miraculously still-teaching Teach for America alum at your F-grade school who plays the ukelele, can do the electric slide, and will rub his teeth clean for a woman with a full grown kid and no college degree. You’ll need him.
  5. Try and try and try again to get girlfriend fired up. Keep at it until you see a curl of smoke in her smile and a glint in her eye.
  6. Get to work.

This is the point when real parent organizers will start sharpening their pencils. Because from the looks of it, you need to buy three reams of paper ($15). Make that colored paper, so it looks good on camera (add $3). Copy up some petition forms (200 x $.10). Then take off from your minimum wage receptionist job so you can gather signatures when school lets out at 3 p.m. sharp (at least 8 hours at $8.48 an hour) and lure your new squeeze away from his union with shots of Jack Daniels from the bar where you work nights ($9). Use him to a) convert other teachers to your anti-union cause (his soul), and b) babysit your kid (free) while you and your partner canvass the tenements in your inner city neighborhood in the dark (priceless).

Once you’ve got your petitions signed, stage a rally. Borrow some bullhorns. Call the media. Make sure to have 220 or so custom green T-shirts ($2,200), two bounce houses ($378 plus tax), and a bakery-grade cookie the size of a Frisbee for everyone and his/her mother ($500). Reserve one plate of cookies for the crew in the local news van so they’ll run your story at the top of the hour. Don’t forget the $60 you need to replace your daughter’s backpack, which her classmate broke during an in-classroom cat fight. You’ll also need money for the two buses it takes you to get to the tony private school where the beret-wearing head of the teacher’s union (Holly Hunter) wants to pay your child’s way in a last ditch effort to prevent your becoming the downfall of the American labor movement ($9.50).

By my count, Jaime is out $3262.34 so far. Not that the film ever mentions money. (That is, not until a line item in a proposed budget almost torpedoes the entire enterprise. But I don’t want to spoil the ending.) The question of who’s paying for all this is another math problem the film never solves. For that, one has to look at “actual events.”

“Inspired by actual events” may be the most honest line in Won’t Back Down. Though the city and the cast looked and sounded a lot different. In real life, the first attempt to call “Action!” on the set of a parent trigger law-enabled takeover took place not too far from the sound stages of Hollywood. Printing up forms, canvassing, transporting people to rallies, handling the press – Parent Revolution, a nonprofit with a $1 million budget paid for by corporate philanthropists, took care of all that. (For the skinny, read Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton? I wrote it.) Parent Revolution told parents about the trigger and collected their signatures. Just like in the movie, they never asked about a PTA. They even fronted people matching T-shirts. They made them yellow.

Won’t Back Down is unbelievable crap. But it’s also phenomenal as a witless send up of Parent Revolution. The Los Angeles-based equivalent of a production company hammers together Potemkin villages of faux-populist uprising for audiences across America. The ruse, for which Compton was a dress rehearsal, seems designed to convince elites (Democrats for Education Reform, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Michelle Rhee, etc.) that real people will buy the reform package that their money bought and paid for.

Brilliant. Two thumbs up.

UPDATE: Parent Revolution had a $1 million budget when it was working in Compton, per this article in Mother Jones published April 7, 2011. According to this article, published October 2, 2012 in the Hechinger Report, Parent Revolution’s budget is “roughly $3 million.”

November 30, 2011

In the Baltimore Fishbowl with Morgan State’s Ray Winbush – Outtakes

I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011, when I went to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for an event put together by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. They have been running a series of discussions called “Talking About Race.” The twelfth – on educating black boys – seemed tangentially relevant to me, a person who blogs about education. I wrote up my notes here and promised to follow up with more from Ray Winbush.

I’ve kept my promise. A short thread from what was around a 6,000 word interview featured yesterday on the homepage of Baltimore Fishbowl. 

What else happens when you get a white mom living in Hampden together with a black professor from Morgan State for a little interview on race, education, and the future of public schooling in Baltimore? This.

Your 140-character-or-less Twitter profile describes you as “a person attempting to replace white supremacy with justice.” What do you mean by that? And how does education fit into that personal mission?

I believe – and it’s not just me believing, it’s not a religion, but – there is a system of white supremacy. And what we want to do is just analyze people who are victims of that system. So it’s easier to say ‘there’s something wrong with black boys’ rather than look at the entire system of white supremacy.

I believe that the worst thing a person can experience on earth is injustice. What I try to do is bring out the issues of racism, of white supremacy, that are impacting the individual or the institution. And hopefully people will be motivated to do something about it.

I mean, Dr. King replaced white supremacy with justice. Rosa Parks did it. I’m putting more fancy words to it, but Malcolm X did that. So did John Brown. And I think wherever there’s racial injustice it should be replaced. That’s the one white people often find difficult to do and black people often times are reluctant to do.

Right. So, what do you think we can replace it with? What does that look like?

With justice. Justice means that everybody literally is treated fairly and equal. The European symbol of justice in this country at least – is a woman that is blind with a balance in her hand meaning that she doesn’t see who’s in front of her. She just weighs it the way the evidence is. I know it sounds simple but how it looks is that everyone is simply treated equally. Fairly. That no one is judged by his or her skin color. And that’s difficult to do. A tangible example is that the jury that is deliberating right now with Conrad Murray [pop star Michael Jackson’s doctor] consists of seven whites, four Hispanics, and one black person. The Constitution of the United States says that you should be judged by a jury of your peers. Clearly the Constitution didn’t take into consideration black people, but only in rare instances will you find a white male being judged in the reverse – like seven blacks – I can’t imagine a white male being in a jury that only has one white person on it.

There are imbalances in our society. Rosa Parks shouldn’t have had to have sat in the back of the bus. So she replaced white supremacy with justice.

So it can be just a moment.

It can be the moment, exactly. When Gandhi was thrown off the train in South Africa, simply because he was Indian and he was dark he was thrown off the train. In that moment Gandhi says, we’re not gonna do this anymore. So oftentimes, the movement to replace white supremacy with justice it comes in a moment. Or it can be planned. The ones that tend to be the most impactful are the ones that occur in a moment.

I had tweeted at you about segregation and the desegregation of schools…

I’m a psychologist by trade. One famous psychologist who I’m sure you’ve heard of, Alfred Adler, –  he was the one who coined the term inferiority and superiority complex – He had another term that was just as intriguing as far as I’m concerned, and it was known as fictional finalism. And he says that human beings tend to put out lofty ideals in their personal lives and in their public lives, which sound so wonderful but in reality it’s impossible to achieve.

One could argue that even what I just said – replacing white supremacy with justice – is a fictional finalism. The idea that Adler has that we put these ideals up there and we strive for them even though we know it’s not gonna happen 100 percent.

So to desegregate Baltimore City Public Schools could be classified as a “fictional finalism.” It sounds good. It sounds wonderful. So did “to desegregate the public schools of the United States of America with all deliberate speed” in Brown v. Board. It happened and it didn’t happen.

Because as we know when Brown was issued in 1954  – and one of my colleagues at Harvard talks about this all the time – there were two seemingly unrelated events that occurred at the same time. Brown went down in 1954 and the building up of the interstate highways expanded under Eisenhower. So whites then had access to the suburbs, and that’s when you see suburbs growing. Towson in 1950 – it was like nothing. It was just nothing! White people fled the inner city because of desegregation and they fled even faster after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. And the interstate system facilitated that.

[The conversation turns to teaching teachers to educate African-American children.]

When I taught at Vanderbilt it was so common for me – Vanderbilt as you know is called like “the Harvard of the South” – you know, and I taught there for fourteen years. True story – one of the girls in my class told me I was the first black professor she’d had and it was her sophomore year. It is impossible for a black person or a Latino to grow up in America and go to their sophomore year of college go to a class and never ever have a white teacher. It’s impossible.

Right. Right.

And if it does happen it’s so incredibly rare that it’s like a sighting of the abominable snowman.

The point is that whites who negotiate, who sincerely, sincerely – There’s a story in my book, I talk about a white teacher – this is a true story – it happened when I was teaching at Vanderbilt – she just simply could not teach black kids. She didn’t know how!

Johns Hopkins School of Education is not gonna teach you a damn thing – and I can be quoted on that – not a damn thing about really educating black inner city kids. It really isn’t.

Morgan will. And I’m not saying that as a biased participant. It’s just a fact that Morgan knows how to teach teachers to teach black students better than at Johns Hopkins or the University of Maryland or whatever.

So do you think Teach for America students should be getting their M.A.T.s at Morgan rather than at Johns Hopkins?

In my opinion, yes! You know, if, IF, they’re going to be teaching black, red, or brown children. You see, if they’re going to teach Hampden kids – and there’s nothing wrong with Hampden kids – they can keep it, you know, at Johns Hopkins.

You would be surprised by how many emails I get in a given month, about ten a month, from white kids and black kids who have been in the city schools and they said my entire education has been totally irrelevant, has been totally irrelevant. And Dr. Winbush I’ve read your book, tell me what to do. Ivory [Toldson] gets the same kind of emails. Most of us who write – it’s just the way it is. Schools of education – they don’t change easy.

Mortimer Adler – I did my doctorate at the University of Chicago and Mortimer Adler, who taught there for many, many years – said ‘Changing a university is like moving a graveyard.’ And I thought that simple sentence is so true. The oldest institutions in the western world are universities. Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, Harvard is one of the oldest institutions in this country, in fact. And universities outlast and outlive everything. But they’re very reluctant to change. Schools of Education are part of universities. And even though we see the browning of America, the blackening of America – we are still teaching stuff like this is “father knows best,” you know, 2.5 kids with a picket fence in the inner city. It doesn’t make any sense. But universities don’t change.

[Conversation veers in many directions. We talk about race blindness. Teaching kids about race. The intersections of race and class. I end with some word associations.]

Black.

White.

White.

Black.

Gray.

Neutral.

African American.

American African.

Achievement gap.

Racism.

Charter school.

(pause) Better than nothing.

Vouchers.

(pause) Could be racist.

Accountability.

Overused word.

Standardized tests.

Racist.

Common Core.

Racist.

Neighborhood school.

Great idea.

Segregation.

Apartheid.

Integration.

Two-edged sword.

Privatization.

Two-edged sword.

 “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”

One of my favorite expressions.

Really?

Yeah.

You know that comes out of George W. Bush.

That’s the only thing I ever quote from him.

So John Legend, and a bunch of other people, mostly white guys, talk about education reform as “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Rhetoric. Of course it is, but it always has been a civil rights issue. It’s just that now because whites are seeing the increasing deterioration of the public school system and the economy is bad now we gotta say, we gotta make some money, we gotta get something outta this thing.

[Correction: I’d originally said Usher was among the celebrities who claimed education reform was the civil rights issue of our time. It was John Legend.]

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

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

“Highlights from Annapolis”

Related Stories

Astroturf Activism: Who Is Behind Students for Education Reform?
George Joseph and Extra Credit, The Nation, January 11, 2013

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.)

April 18, 2011

Highlights from Annapolis

First-term Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson today emailed constituents of the 46th District highlights of the 2011 Legislative Session of the Maryland General Assembly. From the email:

EDUCATION:
Despite having to make deep cuts, we, and others in the Baltimore City Delegation, made it a priority to replace the nearly $17 million cut from Baltimore City Public Schools as was initially proposed in the Governor’s FY 2012 budget. Baltimore City Schools have been making tremendous progress in recent years and such a deep cut would have been devastating to the quality of education for our City’s kids. We restored funds to education that the Governor proposed cutting, so that our students and teachers can continue their progress. As a result, public education will continue to represent 40% of the state’s general fund budget.

In addition, we created a path for utilizing surplus dollars to build new schools and renovate existing school structures. Our kids need safe and modern classrooms to learn to compete in the new global marketplace. As a former teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, I can say firsthand that for many of our schools are long overdue for much needed upkeep. I was also pleased to sponsor and pass legislation that would give public charter schools the right to occupy existing school buildings if those buildings are no longer needed by the local school board. In addition, this legislation yielded a compromise for an ongoing debate in Annapolis about charter school facility costs by making charter schools exempt from local property taxes when these schools occupy private facilities.

Despite the budget challenges, the legislature was able to protect the $1.2 billion investment in public colleges and Universities, which will help to prevent drastic tuition increases. Keeping public college education affordable is vital to keep our kids learning and able to take the next step into higher education.

Senator Ferguson and his wife are both alumni of Teach for America in Baltimore City. You can find more about Bill Ferguson here.

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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