Posts tagged ‘Walton Family Foundation’

September 27, 2011

Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton?

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

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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

“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

May 25, 2011

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

Someone stumbled upon this blog the other day by Googling the words “i want to make my own charter school.” I’m sure the Googler didn’t find this site of much use. This post is my attempt to make that search worthwhile if it’s ever repeated. Here are two handfuls of info that this curious Baltimore City mom has come to learn over the course of the last 18 months.

1 Baltimore City’s charter schools are part of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS). They are run by nonprofit boards with 501(c)(3) status. They are all not for profit and tuition free.

2 There is no legal cap on the number of charter schools that can open and operate in Baltimore City. As of this posting, 34 of Maryland’s 44 charter schools are in Baltimore City. There were 12 charter schools in Baltimore City in 2005-06. There are around 200 Baltimore City public schools. The percentage jump in the proportion of charter schools over the last five years reflects the exponential growth formula being pushed by the Progressive Policy Institute, with support from the Walton Family Foundation. See http://www.progressivefix.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2.2011_Hassel_Going-Exponential_WEB1.pdf

3 Charter school students are required to take standardized tests. Charter schools administer the same high stakes tests that all other public schools in Baltimore City administer. Test results are used to keep schools accountable for students’ academic progress, particularly in math and reading.

4 Baltimore City charter school teachers are bound to union contracts. Maryland is one of the few states in which that is the case. Some people would like to see that change. The Baltimore Teacher’s Union recently came into conflict with KIPP’s demands for a 9.5 hour school day and summer classes. The union and KIPP negotiated an agreement in March 2011 that will keep KIPP in Baltimore for the next 10 years.

5 Enrollment is open to students citywide. This stands in contrast to what BCPSS and the charter movement call “traditional” schools, which give priority to students who live within a zoned neighborhood.

6 If the number of applications to a given charter school is greater than the number of available slots, the school holds a public lottery. The names that are not chosen are placed on a waiting list for that year. The list does not roll over to the following school year.

7 Many charter schools do not offer pre-kindergarten because of state mandates on PK enrollment. Charter schools that offer PK must give priority for PK enrollment to students with need (i.e., homeless students, students living in poverty, students who need Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), students from military families).

8 Charter schools set their own enrollment restrictions regarding priority for the children of founders and staff and the siblings of current students. Whether the sibling of an enrolled student can attend without being subject to the lottery is up to the governing board of the charter school. Up to ten percent of students in a charter school can be the children of founders. The definition of a founder is determined by the governing board of the charter school. These points are significant because the more enrollment exceptions and restrictions, the fewer slots there are for students from the “random” citywide pool of applicants.

9 If you want to send your child to a charter school, you must complete and submit an application by the stated deadline. Each charter school has a separate application process. There is no limit on the number of charter schools to which one student may apply. If the deadline is missed but there are still spaces in the next year’s class, the application will be accepted and the student permitted to enroll. It is up to the parent or guardian to obtain and complete applications.

10 Charter schools are supposed to receive the same per pupil funding as “traditional” public schools. For various reasons, it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of cost per pupil at charter schools versus neighborhood schools. The FY12 BCPSS budget – released only a few days ago – allocates more than $4,000 more per pupil for students in charter schools than in neighborhood schools. (The Sun’s InsideEd blog attempted to make sense of that yesterday.) One major difference is that neighborhood schools receive in services what charter schools receive in cash. Unused services cannot be rolled into the following year’s budget, while unused cash can. But the question of fairness has yet to be answered.

I want this blog to be – among other things – a source of valid and useful information for parents who are trying to make informed choices and Baltimore residents who want to understand what’s at stake when it comes to education reform in Baltimore City. If you have questions or corrections please let me know by posting a comment. If you would rather that your comment not go public, let me know that, too.

SOURCES:

BCPSS Charter School Report 2005-06 to 2007-08 School Years, April 16, 2009 (doc)

Maryland Charter School Law 2003 (link)

Maryland State Board of Education Charter School Program Policy (PDF)

Maryland Charter Schools Founders’ Manual, Third Edition (PDF)

People for Public Schools

#FAIRSCHOOLFUNDINGNOW

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