Strengthening Public Education in the Face of Relentless Assaults

Hundreds of teachers, parents, students, school board members and other public education advocates gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 16 and 17  for “And Justice for All: Strengthening Public Education for Each Child,” the third annual conference sponsored by the Network for Public Education and its political advocacy affiliate NPE Action.

The mission of the Network for Public Education is to “protect, preserve, promote, and strengthen public schools and the education of current and future generations of students.” It was founded by education historian and author Diane Ravitch as a way to mobilize supporters of public education in opposition to powerful forces that promote privatization and other “reforms” that undermine public education as a core democratic institution.

Rev. William Barber, who heads the North Carolina NAACP and has because a hero to progressive advocates for his inspirational leadership of the Moral Mondays movement, gave a rousing opening keynote before heading to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Democracy Awakening. Barber said public schools are “where we learn to be a public” and develop a “common civic identity.” But, he said, “racism always gets in the way of us meeting the noble goals of public education.”

“We’ve seen this before,” Barber said of attacks on public education combined with tax cuts for the wealthy. He recounted the history of resistance to Brown v. Board of Education and racial redistricting of school districts, noting that schools are re-segregating in high poverty areas today faster than they did in the 1970s.  He said school reforms that contribute to separate and unequal school systems are “giving in to the vision of Plessy v. Ferguson.”

Among the more than 45 panels and workshops was a conversation with two members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, State Sen. Dwight Bullard from south Florida, and County Commissioner Jessica Holmes from Wake County, North Carolina, with PFAW Director of Outreach and Partner Engagement Diallo Brooks acting as moderator.

Bullard, the only classroom teacher in the state legislature, said that bad education policies are moving through the legislature for a variety of reasons: some of his fellow legislators are naïve about education policy and some have family and financial ties to charter school operations.  Bullard said that even though the state government has expanded so-called school choice provisions, the “house of cards is falling apart” when it comes to overzealous testing that harms students’ education. He said dissatisfaction with the overuse of high-stakes testing offers opportunities for coalition building, noting that a recent press conference included liberal legislators, members of the teachers union, and Tea Party activists.

Holmes said that she is a first generation college student attributing her success to “amazing, wonderful public school teachers.” She described herself as a reluctant politician, but urged other participants to consider becoming policymakers as a way to make a real difference.  In a state that ranks near the bottom of the scale for teacher pay, she said, she worked to win approval for the largest education budget in her county’s history, while also developing support for early childhood development. Meanwhile, at the state level, millions in tax dollars were diverted to unaccountable private schools through vouchers.  

The panelists said that supporters of public education must respond to the amount of money and political influence wielded by privatization advocates with on-the-ground organizing that can provide public officials with both incentive and cover to do the right thing.

Another topic of conversation was the damage caused by the explosion of high-stakes testing and the diversion of educational time and resources to test taking. Speakers argued that testing should be used to identify areas of needed improvement for students, not as simplistic evaluation tools that label students and schools as failing. The “test and punish” approach has set up teachers and schools to be declared failures by implementing high-stakes tests without resources and professional development.

Another keynoter, Seattle teacher and blogger Jesse Hagopian, noted that when Washington state declined to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan revoked a waiver from unrealistic standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, nearly every school in the state, including some of its best, was classified as “failing.” School officials sent parents a letter required by the federal government informing them that their school was now classified as failing, but included a cover letter explaining that NCLB was “regressive and punitive” and that the designation was bogus.

Among other topics covered at the conference:

  • alternatives to increasing privatization and of public school systems, including proven community schools approaches that use schools as a vehicle for addressing broader community needs;
  • the impact of charter schools’ disproportionate use of suspensions and other “zero-tolerance” policies against students of color;
  • the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in promoting right-wing attacks on public education in state legislatures.  North Carolina’s Tom Tillis was ALEC “Legislator of the Year” before the Koch brothers helped finance his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate;
  • the growing movement among educators to resist high-stakes tests and an opt-out movement among parents and students.

A number of speakers denounced HB2, the recently enacted North Carolina law that overturned Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance – and banned localities from passing their own protections against discrimination as well as living wage ordinances.

People For the American Way Foundation board member Bertis Downs is also a member of NPE’s board of directors, said the conference was a “big success” in bringing together advocates from around the country to meet and compare notes with fellow activists. Downs praised the quality of the presentations and the fact that many of the workshops and all of the keynote speeches were livestreamed and are being archived online at



‘School Choice’ Just Part of DeVos Family’s Far Right Agenda

Members of the DeVos family, which made billions with the Amway direct marketing company, have long been funders of far-right causes and Republican politicians. Over the years, they’ve appeared in PFAW and PFAW Foundation reports like Buying a Movement and Predatory Privatization. This week Inside Philanthropy has taken a  look at DeVos funding, which has been instrumental in driving anti-public education efforts all across the country.

The story’s author, Rick Docksai, writes that the DeVos family’s success at pushing “school choice” reflects its “remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes and putting it to work to shift voters’ and lawmakers’ mindsets in a rightward direction.”

Among the right-wing groups DeVos has funded are the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Federalist Society, Council for National Policy, Traditional Values Coalition, the Acton Institute, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. But education policy is a top priority.

Betsy DeVos is quite the political ringleader in her own right. She formerly chaired the Michigan Republican Party. And she's been called "the four-star general of the voucher movement," for her activism on this issue, which includes her present-day gigs as a board member of Advocates for School Choice and as head of All Children Matter, a group that has been pumping contributions into state elections since its inception in 2003. Conservative education reforms—school vouchers, in particular—are its rallying cause, and the organization claims a "win/loss record" of 121 to 60...

Docksai contrasts the DeVos family’s commitment to Religious Right and and social conservative causes with the Koch brothers’ more libertarian leanings. But, he notes, the DeVos family is just as far-right as the Kochs on economic policy:

DeVos' influence helped turn Michigan into a "right-to-work" state (e.g., no company in the state can obligate its employees to pay dues for union representation), for example. And they firmly back opponents of affirmative action: The Center for Individual Rights received funding from Dick and Betsy DeVos in 2001 after it challenged the University of Michigan's race-based admissions process in court, a lengthy legal fight that resulted in new court-imposed restrictions on the use of race as an admissions factor.

Inside Philanthropy says that Jeb Bush’s failed presidential campaign got “a significant share of its funding from Richard DeVos,” but says that’s a departure from the DeVos’s political win-loss record: “The family has been a major shaper of policymaking at the state and national levels and will surely remain so for years to come.”  


Rating States' Commitment To Public Education

In the wake of National School Choice Week, the Brookings Institution released a report card on the largest school districts, which were ranked according to how open the districts are to school choice. That reflects a common assertion among education “reformers” that maximizing choice will always be best for students, a presumption also evident in scorecards from right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and corporate-minded reform groups like Students First.

But such an assumption is not true. We know that charter schools, for example, have a mixed record of success and failure. And a recent report from scholars at Berkeley, Duke, and MIT found that the test scores of Louisiana students who won a voucher to attend a private school “dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of lottery losers.”

This week the Network for Public Education released a different kind of report card, one that grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia according to how well they support their public schools. “Valuing Public Education: A Fifty State Report Card” was released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where Network for Public Education co-founder and president, education historian Diane Ravitch, and NPE Executive Director Carol Burris spoke about the report.

Ravitch said the NPR report is based on factors that have proven to be important to the success of public schools. The report draws on the work of the University of Arizona’s Francesca Lopez and a team of researchers. They identified 29 measurable factors that could be used to evaluate states on six criteria: use of high-stakes testing; professionalization of teaching; resistance to privatization; school finance; spending taxpayer resources wisely; and “chance for success.” The latter category recognizes that factors outside schools that are influenced by policymaking decisions also have a big impact on schools and students, such as the percentage of children living in poverty even though someone in the household works full time, and the extent to which schools are segregated racially and ethnically.

Grading in the report is tough: while some states receive “A” grades in particular categories, no state earns higher than a C overall, and a majority were graded D or F. Ravitch said those scores reflect in part the impact of the “unprecedented assault” that is being waged against public education and the teaching profession, as well as the “unconscionable” number of American children now living in poverty.

Burris, a 2013 New York state high school principal of the year, said improving a school is hard work and happens incrementally over time – “there are no silver bullets.”

Regarding school finances, she said, the report considers not only funding levels but whether money is spent on things that are known to make a difference, such as class size in elementary schools.

Ravitch said that the current policy framework grounded in high-stakes testing has proven to be a failure, and that standardized tests in general reflect income levels more than anything else. Burris said that closing the opportunity gap is essential to closing the achievement gap, noting that schools with a high percentage of children in poverty need resources like social workers, guidance counselors, and nurses. But many poorer schools have been “stripped clean” of those resources, said Ravitch.

The report, “Valuing Public Education: A 50 State Report Card” is available online, and as an interactive map.


Report Calls For Stronger Accountability Against Charter School 'Profiteering'

A new report published this month by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder examines the ways that “charter school policy functions to promote privatization and profiteering.”

The report’s authors, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, identify four major policy concerns:

  1. A substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain, creating substantial inefficiencies;
  2. Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense, risking the future provision of “public” education;
  3. Charter school operators are growing highly endogenous, self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction which further compromise the future provision of “public” education; and
  4. Current disclosure requirements make it unlikely that any related legal violations, ethical concerns, or merely bad policies and practices are not realized until clever investigative reporting, whistleblowers or litigation brings them to light. 

Al Jazeera America quotes National Education Policy Center Director Kevin Welner:

“What we found is that there are a host of real estate and tax laws that were not put in place with charter schools in mind, but that the owners of charter school enterprises are using in order to profit. I think that understanding the nature of the charter school gravy train, as I call it, is extremely important for the public and policymakers.”

Charter school laws across the country vary wildly in terms of accountability, and school privatization proponents have become big spenders on state-level politics and lobbying in order to win laws that maximize their access to cash while minimizing their accountability to the public.  A recent Associated Press investigation in Florida examined taxpayer funding for charter schools that closed down, finding that “charter schools that receive millions of taxpayer dollars often spend the money on non-tangible assets, including lease payments for facilities,” meaning there are few tangible assets for school districts or taxpayers to recover if a school closes.

Baker and Miron, the authors of the new NEPC report, argue that the “financial incentives embedded in state law, combined with the need for most of the companies to make a profit” have led to schools being run by charter chains or “educational management organizations” to operate “in ways that are often at odds with the goals of charter school reforms and, ultimately, the public interest.”

As we have noted before, all charter schools are not the same – some do an excellent job educating students and some do worse than their public school counterparts. But the original purpose of charter schools – to be labs allowing creative teachers some freedom to identify new approaches that could strengthen public schools – has frequently been flipped on its head, wrote Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter in “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” Often teachers are forced to follow rigid rules while administrators and/or corporate operators rake in huge amounts of money diverted from public schools. Charters are often promoted under the broad  “school choice” mantle along with vouchers and other tax schemes as part of a broader privatization movement that seeks to dismantle public education and undermine teachers unions.

The NEPC report offers a set of specific policy recommendations designed to address areas of concern, improve transparency, and strengthen accountability for the public subsidies received by charter schools and management organizations that operate them. 

The need for greater accountability was also the focus of “The Tip of the Iceberg,” a report published earlier this year by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy, which estimated $1.4 billion would be lost to “corruption and mismanagement in charter schools” in 2015.

Change is possible. For years, Ohio’s charter school sector has been the source of embarrassment and scandal, characterized by the Columbus Dispatch as “[f]ailure to close poor-performing schools,mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, and an abundance of conflict of interest issues” -- what ProgressOhio called “a national joke.” Earlier this year, the man chosen by to oversee charter school accountability in the state was forced to resign “after getting caught manipulating school ratings to cover up for chronically failing online charter schools.” But after previously failed attempts to reform the state’s charters, a new law passed this fall with bipartisan support. And in November ProgressOhio cheered the announcement that Richard Ross would step down from his position as State Superintendent of Education, which the group said “gives the state a chance to properly enforce a sweeping new charter school accountability law.”



National School Choice Week: PR for Privatizers?

On Wednesday morning, a roomful of school children were herded into a congressional meeting room and required to sit through an hour and a half worth of speeches by conservative Members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, Sens. Ted Cruz and Tim Scott, Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Patrick McHenry, Education & Workforce Committee Chair John Kline of Minnesota, and a handful of others. Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana was the emcee.

The Capitol Hill event was in honor of National School Choice Week, whose organizers describe it as a nonpolitical, nonpartisan “independent public awareness campaign” promoting the idea that every child deserves access to an excellent education. Who would disagree?

In other words, it’s a PR campaign, one that wraps itself in the moral mantle of children. But the bright yellow scarves it wraps around its participants are meant to distract attention from the fact that sponsors of this week’s thousands of events include many anti-public education, anti-union, anti-government ideologues, including the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance for Prosperity and others. The President of National School Choice Week, Andrew Campanella, used to work at the Alliance for School Choice, whose board is chaired by deep-pocketed right-wing activist Betsy DeVos and is funded by a who’s who of right-wing foundations.

As we noted during last year’s NSCW:

Education policy is a vast, complicated, and hotly contested arena. Terms like “education reform” and “school choice” sound good, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. They can be applied to genuine efforts to strengthen teaching and educational opportunity as well as cynical schemes to destroy public employee unions and dismantle public education altogether.

In particular, “school choice” encompasses a huge array of education policies, from public charter and magnet schools to taxpayer-funded for-profit cyberschools and homeschooling.  Even a seemingly specific term like “charter schools” cloaks a more complex reality that ranges from innovation labs co-located in public schools to for-profit chain operations.  

Indeed, this year, Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter published “A Smarter Charter: Finding What works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” The book documents that the original vision for charter schools – teachers empowered to be creative in diverse schools that could identify ways to strengthen public education – has been turned on its head. Rather than a teacher-empowering and collaborative paradigm, charter schools are often noted for tightly controlled teachers in highly segregated schools dominated by an ideology of competition with public schools. 

There are more collaborative models, just as there are charter schools with strong academic track records as well as those that lag behind the public schools that choice advocates consistently disparage. Important distinctions get lost under the big, vague, banner of school choice. And that’s intentional.

NSCW is about painting in broad strokes and drawing no distinctions, for example, between public magnet schools and for-profit corporations cashing in on the “reform” movement. No distinction is made between giving students choice among their district’s public schools and diverting education dollars into religious academies and online homeschooling via vouchers and other schemes.  These do not have the same impact on public schools, or the same levels of public accountability, but in the interest of keeping things simple, and winning public support for across-the-board expansion of these programs, they’re all “choice.”

As we wrote last year:

The problem with this “collective messaging” approach is that it hides the anti-public-education agenda of some “reformers.” Celebrating “school choice” across the board lends credibility to organizations pushing for destructive policies that are not at all popular with the American public. In spite of decades of right-wing-funded attacks on public education, for example, Americans oppose privatization plans like vouchers that transfer public education funds to private schools.

Self-proclaimed reformers often dismiss concerns about privatization as a “red herring.” But you can’t embrace the Milton Friedman Foundation as a partner and then pretend that privatization is only an imaginary threat dreamed up by teachers unions.  Friedman has an explicit goal of getting rid of public schools altogether; they see programs like vouchers for poor kids as a tactical stepping stone toward that ultimate goal.

Other supporters of National School Choice Week have included companies that want to tap into the huge flow of public dollars spent every year on education. K12, a member of the “choice”-promoting American Legislative Exchange Council and a company the New York Times has described as “the biggest player in the online-school business,” paid its president more than $5.5. million last year; two other executives each made more than $4 million. A November 2014 investigation by Bloomberg focused on the company’s efforts to turn around “subpar test scores” and declining enrollments.

National School Choice Week promoters say it is nonpolitical and has no legislative agenda, but that’s hard to take seriously given the agendas of its backers. At this week’s event on Capitol Hill, the only Democratic Member of Congress to join the Republican parade was Illinois’ Dan Lipinski, who declined to endorse Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. (Former Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford also spoke.)

Members of Congress at Wednesday’s event talked about pushing legislation this year to expand “school choice” programs, meaning that battles over vouchers, charter schools, and other education issues will be on the agenda this year, including February’s Senate markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “There are currently private school voucher and tuition tax credit programs in 23 states and at least 10 states are looking to create new or expanding existing school voucher programs this year.”

Obviously, not everyone who participates in National School Choice Week activities is an anti-public-education ideologue. People from across the political spectrum are eager to strengthen schools and give students an opportunity for a great education. That includes public school teachers, administrators, and school board members – people who are collectively smeared as “the blob” by some “reformers.” People who are seeking to strengthen public education and make schools better for all children should think twice about making common cause with organizations that see public education as something to be dismantled and corporations that see students as the means to a bigger bottom line.


People For the American Way Action Fund Endorses Young Progressive Candidates in Michigan

People For the American Way Action Fund today announced its endorsements of a slate of young progressive candidates running for the Michigan State Legislature. The endorsees include a diverse mix of 35-and-younger candidates running for the Michigan state House of Representatives and state Senate, representing a new generation of progressive leaders who will put Michigan’s legislature back-on-track towards a common sense, inclusive, accountable public policy agenda for the state’s future. Their leadership represents a progressive vision that will benefit all Michiganders as they fight for social, economic, environmental justice and equality for all.

The endorsements are part of People For the American Way Action Fund’s Young Elected Progressives (YEP) program. YEP evaluates and endorses young progressive candidates age 35-and-younger in their bids for elected office around the U.S. at all levels.

People For the American Way Action Fund is proud to endorse these Michigan YEP candidates for 2014:

Stephanie Chang – MI House District 6

Running for Michigan’s House of Representatives District 6, Stephanie Chang is a Michigander whose dedication to the community has benefited many. Chang has worked around the state advocating for Affirmative Action, serving as a mentor for Detroit Asian Youth Project, and promoting a fair justice system. Chang’s knowledge and breadth of experience in Michigan make her an important leader for the state as she fights for social, economic, and environmental justice. Visit Stephanie’s page for more details.

Jon Hoadley – MI House District 60

Jon Hoadley is the clear choice to represent Michigan’s 60th District in the state House of Representatives. Hoadley, a small business owner and member of several advocacy organizations in Kalamazoo, is deeply ingrained and in tune with the needs of his community, which makes him the ideal representative. He has already worked to better Kalamazoo advocating for full LGBTQ equality, creating strong and sustainable public schools, and protecting the environment. Visit Jon’s page for more details.

David Knezek – MI Senate District 5

David Knezek is running for Michigan state Senate’s 5th District and has proven that he is the ideal candidate for the position. Knezek is a true leader, having been promoted to the rank of Sergeant during his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, he was elected Student Government President, and in his senior year of college he was elected to be a Michigan state representative. Knezek has proven that he will advocate for his community and improve education, public safety, and job opportunities for Michigan citizens. Visit David’s page for more details.

Kristy Pagan – MI House District 21

Born and bred in Michigan, Kristy Pagan is the ideal candidate for the 21st District of Michigan’s state House of Representatives. She has worked in Washington, D.C. as a legislative aide and a national grassroots organizer. Her determination to serve coupled with her knowledge of and dedication to Michigan will serve the state well. Pagan is a true progressive, and has both the resolve and the passion to reform Michigan’s educational system, advocate for women and children, and improve job growth. Visit Kristy's page for more details.

Rebecca Thompson – MI District 1

Rebecca Thompson is running for election to the 1st District of the Michigan state House of Representatives. Thompson was born and raised in Detroit, and overcame experiences with poverty and homelessness to become a leader in the community. She has worked tirelessly to better Detroit for everyone, using her own experiences to positively impact those around her. Thompson is passionate about affordable education, improving safety, protecting women’s rights, and advocating for her community. Visit Rebecca's page for more details.

Robert Wittenberg – MI House District 27
Robert Wittenberg is running to represent District 27 in the Michigan state House of Representatives. After being inspired by his parents’ and brothers’ work, he is determined to follow in their footsteps and serve his community. As a public servant, he advocates for full equality for the LGBTQ community, increased public transportation, and access to healthcare for all. Visit Robert's page for more details.


Six Decades Later, Still Fighting for Equality in Schools

The following is a guest post from the Reverend Dr. Merchuria Chase Williams, a former school teacher and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.

Last month, sixty years after the Supreme Court threw out the toxic doctrine of “separate but equal,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked us to keep our “eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” She pointed out that in law and in daily life, race still matters deeply and cannot “be wished away.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote those words in a dissent to the Schuette decision that upheld Michigan’s state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action, six decades after the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that said schools may not be segregated by race. It’s no coincidence that both of these decisions were about education. If anything proves that race still matters in America, it’s our public schools.

While the 1954 Brown decision brought badly needed change and helped invigorate a nationwide civil rights movement, glaring racial inequalities persist to this day – and nowhere are they more evident than in the classroom. In recent years, school segregation has actually gotten worse rather than better. On average, a black student today goes to a school where 29 percent of her fellow students are white – a percentage that has dropped seven points since 1980. Students of color are less likely to have access to a broad range of math and science courses and are more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And according to the Center for American Progress, on average American schools spend hundreds less on each student of color than they do on each white student.

While we may no longer be legally separate, educational opportunities and conditions for our nation’s students are far from equal.

Despite these gaps, big funders on the Right continue to pour money into efforts to privatize the education system rather than strengthen the public education system that the vast majority of our nation’s children use. The Walton Family Foundation, created by the family that established Walmart, has pumped millions into efforts to expand private school vouchers, undermining the public schools that are, in education advocate Diane Ravitch’s words, “the heart of most communities.”

Those of us who have been working for many years to improve the education system in Atlanta and across the country know that we need to support and strengthen public education, not undercut it. We need to work to address ongoing education inequalities for students of different backgrounds, not pretend that race simply doesn’t matter or that racial inequalities do not exist. Let’s use the anniversary of this landmark decision to recommit ourselves to building an education system that truly provides equal opportunities to all of our nation’s children.

Today’s Supreme Court majority may not get it, but the millions of children failed by our school system do.

PFAW Foundation

On the Brown Anniversary, The Struggle for Equal Education Continues

The following is a guest post from Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard, a member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.

Six decades ago the nation said “separate, but equal” is separate, but it certainly is not equal. This week we celebrate the 60 year anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown gave our nation the opportunity to show the world that we are as good as our promise. And while the impact of this groundbreaking decision cannot be overstated, a quality education is still not a guarantee for African American and Latino students today.  

In my state of Florida and across the country, students of color continue to be underserved by our school system. Recent data from the Department of Education highlights massive racial inequalities that persist six decades later. Beginning in preschool, African American students are suspended disproportionately – a distressingly early start on what many have characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline. Students of color are more likely to have lower paid teachers and fewer course options.

Undocumented students also face serious barriers in our education system. In Florida, undocumented students do not receive in-state tuition at state universities and colleges. Florida’s DREAM Act would fix this, allowing undocumented students who attended a Florida high school for at least three years to receive in-state tuition to attend one of Florida’s public colleges or universities.

Our students’ success or failure is incumbent on each and every one of us. As a teacher and as a member of the state Senate’s education committee, I know that building strong communities, a strong economy, a strong electorate, and a strong country requires investments in a public education system that works for all students. When we fail to fight for equal educational opportunities, our democracy is at risk. If we hope to improve our future, we must realize we are only as successful as our least privileged.

On the anniversary of the Brown decision, May 17th, I will join over 120 young elected officials from all corners of the nation to discuss and build education policy together. We will honor this moment in history through continued action to improve our children’s education system. We will do this because our kids deserve the chance to be their best, and because our future will demand it of them.


Mobilizing to Defend and Strengthen Public Education

I wish politicians and pundits who make a habit of railing against teachers and public schools had spent some time at the conference put on by the Network for Public Education (NPE) last weekend.  The organization’s first national conference brought together about 400 teachers, scholars, education bloggers, and activists to learn from and encourage each other, and to strategize on how to push back against the assault on public education.

The passion that fueled the high-energy gathering was not teacher pay or pensions. It was a commitment to students, teaching, and the future of public education as an institution that serves all children and helps prepare young people for life.

There was also plenty of anger and frustration at the status quo: budget cuts, diversion of energy and funds into various privatization plans, and a vast amount of time being taken away from teaching to satisfy ever-increasing demands for high-stakes standardized tests.

At the end of the two-day conference in Austin, Texas, NPE called for congressional hearings on the use, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing in America’s public schools. In a letter to members of Congress, the group urged them to examine 11 questions about the quality, costs, and effectiveness of such tests. The letter, which has drawn some surprising support, concludes:

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.

After the conference, NPE board member Bertis Downs, who also serves on PFAW’s board, published a compelling open letter to President Obama inviting the president to consider the harmful impacts of excessive high-stakes testing and other educational policies backed by the administration.

A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts.  In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.

Saturday’s keynote speeches were by Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and John Kuhn, who as a Texas school district superintendent might be considered by some a more surprising speaker. Kuhn gave a barn-burner of a speech on behalf of public education and the children it serves. Kuhn is the author of a new book, part memoir and part pro-public-education manifesto, called Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education.

“I am here speaking for one reason. I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my children,” he said. “Anything that weakens the public schools in the United States of America weakens the nation.”

Kuhn slammed the ongoing political efforts to divert more public funds to for-profit charter chains and voucher schools that are not required to serve all children, as well as the underlying premise that educational opportunity will be improved by turning education into a system based on competition.  In education, he says, competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting and search for competitive advantage.  Competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellence, he said. “If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around.”

Sunday’s keynoter was Diane Ravitch, widely considered America’s finest education historian. Ravitch, an NPE board member, served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, but she has since become an energetic critic of the corporate reform movement, saying it is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it threatens to destroy public education in America.  Ravitch’s most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which Jonathan Kozol calls “a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch’s speech was also a manifesto and call to battle against the corporate-reform “juggernaut” that is “devouring education.” 

While conference participants shared a burning desire to change the conversation and push back on efforts to dismantle and privatize public education, there wasn’t always unanimity among participants. A panel on Common Core, for example, featured a number of educators who are strongly opposed, but also included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who defended the standards as a way to build broader public support for a public education system that serves the common good.

At the conference, more than two dozen panels focused on a wide range of issues regarding the future of public education, including teacher preparation, the role of parents, the impact of educational corporations and foundations promoting privatization, the importance of truth-telling academic research and investigative reporting, and organizing and communications strategies.

A consistent theme at the conference was the imperative to better serve high-needs students living in conditions of concentrated poverty. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of success on standardized tests, but the corporate reform movement often dismisses talk about the impact of poverty and inequities as excuse-making.  “They want us to say that poverty and segregation and policies that continue to foment that should not matter,” said the CTU’s Lewis. “Well, yeah, that would be lovely. They should not matter. But they do.”

Among the organizations offering resources was the Opportunity to Learn campaign. For example, Opportunity to Learn challenges school closures as a reform tactic and provides examples of alternatives that have proven effective in strengthening public schools.  Among those strategies is creating “community schools” by wrapping schools and students in social and family support services.

In spite of the huge challenges and relentless attacks on public education, the conference as a whole, like Ravitch’s speech, had a kind of David vs. Goliath optimism.  She devoted part of her speech to educational heroes. Among them was the Providence Student Union, which has engaged in creative protest and street theater against tests required for students to graduate. In one high-profile project, the group recruited 50 prominent Rhode Islanders to take the math tests students would have to pass to graduate from high school; 60 percent of the adult professionals failed.

Ravitch said that the tactics of those who are out to destroy public education are failing, and that parents and educators are mobilizing to build public opposition to “reforms” that are based on “junk science.”

There’s no question the facts are on our side. But we have to shape the narrative. And the narrative is, we have a great public institution. Our public schools are not failing. If you’ve read my last book you know that the test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children. The graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in history. So their narrative is a lie…We are defending American democracy. We are defending children. We are fighting for what’s right….

She called for parents and others to be active both in advocacy and in politics.

So my message is, first of all, be not afraid. Be strong. …. Speak proudly of our children. Our children are amazing -- the fact that they’re able to put up with all the garbage that’s being thrown at them. And get political…Run for office. Get involved. We cannot win unless we throw some of these guys out of office….I’m 75 years old…I’m not gonna be here forever….Who’s gonna take my place? My answer is, “you will.”

….We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning. Not profit centers for corporations and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. We are many, and they are few, and this is why we will win.


The Problem with “School Choice” Week: What’s Behind the Bright Yellow Banner

“School choice” will be celebrated this week at thousands of events across the country, with speakers talking about empowered parents and educational excellence.  It will probably be a public relations bonanza for the “school choice” movement.  But here’s the problem: the bright yellow banner of National School Choice Week is designed to distract attention from the least appealing and most dangerous aspects of that movement -- anti-government ideologues, privatization profiteers, and religious fundamentalists eager to get their hands on public education dollars.

Let’s back up a bit.

Education policy is a vast, complicated, and hotly contested arena. Terms like “education reform” and “school choice” sound good, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. They can be applied to genuine efforts to strengthen teaching and educational opportunity as well as cynical schemes to destroy public employee unions and dismantle public education altogether.

In particular, “school choice” encompasses a huge array of education policies, from public school charter and magnet schools to taxpayer-funded for-profit cyberschools and homeschooling.  Even a seemingly specific term like “charter schools” cloaks a more complex reality that ranges from innovation labs co-located in public schools to for-profit chain operations.  

If you believe that public education is an important democratic institution, and you think education policy should be aimed at giving every child the opportunity to attend a quality public school, these policies don’t all look alike. They don’t all have the same impact on public schools, or the same levels of public accountability.

But the folks at National School Choice Week would like you not to think about that.  Here’s Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, in a January 2 column:

To individual parents – “school choice” is not just about charter schools, or private schools, or traditional public or magnet schools, or online learning and homeschooling. It’s about having a choice of all of these options, being able to make a choice, and selecting the learning environments that are right for their individual children. When school choice organizations work together, the collective messaging of these partnerships and this broad, familiar definition of school choice resonates with families.

He acknowledges that people have different ideas about what school choice means: “It goes without saying that a charter school association and a private school choice group might not agree on every policy issue, or that a homeschooling organization and a magnet school consortium will not always find common ground,” he says, but we can all come together on “the basics.”

The problem with this “collective messaging” approach is that it hides the anti-public-education agenda of some “reformers.” Celebrating “school choice” across the board lends credibility to organizations pushing for destructive policies that are not at all popular with the American public. In spite of decades of right-wing-funded attacks on public education, for example, Americans oppose privatization plans  like vouchers that transfer public education funds to private schools.

Self-proclaimed reformers often dismiss concerns about privatization as a “red herring.” But you can’t embrace the Milton Friedman Foundation as a partner and then pretend that privatization is only an imaginary threat dreamed up by teachers unions.  Friedman has an explicit goal of getting rid of public schools altogether; they see programs like vouchers for poor kids as a tactical stepping stone toward that ultimate goal.

Others view the huge amount of money we collectively spend on educating children as a source of cash. One of the sponsors of National School Choice Week is K12, a member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council and a company the New York Times has described as “the biggest player in the online-school business,” one “that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards.”  In September 2013, a hedge fund manager betting that the company’s model was unsustainable said that “K 12’s aggressive student recruitment has led to dismal academic results by students and sky-high dropout rates, in some cases more than 50% annually.” And yet Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis was paid more than $9.5 million last year; Morningstar reports that K12’s compensation to top executives went from 8.89 million in 2011 to 10.89 million in 2012 to 21.37 million in 2013. According to Sourcewatch, $730.0 million of the $848.2 million K12 earned last year came from its “managed public schools” – in other words, taxpayers.

For-profit schools that are doing a lousy job can be protected by the huge amounts of money they spend lobbying in state legislatures. A November 2011 investigation by Lee Fang for The Nation reported that White Hat Management, which runs both traditional and virtual charter schools, had become Ohio’s second-largest GOP donor; the company’s success rate under No Child Left Behind was 2 percent, compared to 54.9% for traditional schools and 30 percent for “virtual schools” run by nonprofits.

Publicly funded vouchers to pay for private schools have been rejected each time they have come before voters, and there is scant evidence that the voucher programs that are operational produce better academic outcomes.  But they are still a cherished goal of anti-government ideologues and operators of for-profit and religious schools.  One of the biggest “school choice” advocates among the country’s governors is Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who has embarked on a grand privatization plan grounded in school vouchers, many of which have been used to send students to religious schools with questionable curricula and substandard academic achievement.  Data released by the state in November indicated that almost half of the vouchers were being used at schools that scored a D or F on the state’s rating scale.

There are unquestionably well-intentioned people in the education reform movement, some of whom will be participating in National School Choice Week activities. There are people of all political persuasions eager to find ways to give students a better education, and that includes teachers, administrators, and school board members – people who are collectively dismissed as “the blob” by some “reformers.”

People of good faith can and do disagree about the best way to strengthen teaching, hold schools accountable, reduce the devastating impact of poverty, and more.  But people who are genuinely seeking ways to strengthen public education and make schools better for all children should think twice about making common cause with organizations who see public education as something to be dismantled, and with companies whose bottom line is measured not in student achievement but in the profit margins demanded by their investors.

PFAW Foundation