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July 25, 2014 standard

Your editor thought that he would write a piece today about Center for American Progress’ interesting-yet-simplistic report on teacher pay, and how it left out such key aspects of traditional teacher compensation such as defined-benefit pensions (as well as how it ends up hurting younger teachers who leave long before those benefits kicks in). But that is a matter about which you, dear readers, and I can focus on another day.

What reformers need to do is give attention to a much more-important matter: Building brighter futures for the 57,000 undocumented immigrant children from Central America crossing the Mexican border into America. Helping these kids, many of whom are fleeing from violent and impoverished conditions in Latin America, gain the high-quality learning they need to succeed in this country is an opportunity for school reformers to humanely help these kids and transform American public education for all children at the same time.

As you already know, children as young as in preschool have been crossing the border from places such as Honduras and other Central American locales. Some are coming here because their families want them to escape from drug-related gang violence fueled both by the breakdown of civil society in those countries and America’s war on drugs (as well as this nation’s accompanying consumption of them). One out of every two of kids crossing the border are coming to reunite with mothers and fathers who are already in America undocumented working to provide their kids with money so they can ameliorate bitter poverty.

As a result of their emigration — and the surrender of these children to U.S.border patrol guards — the federal government is running out of places to hold them until it is decided whether to keep them here or deport them back to the terrible conditions from which they escape. The good news is that more than half of the kids are being reunited with relatives here. Just as importantly, the numbers are small compared to the 1.2 million emigres who arrived to our shores every year between 2000 and 2009. But the federal government doesn’t run orphanages or handle child welfare other than on a policy level. So the detention of these kids — especially in conditions that are ripe for incidents of criminal abuse — is increasingly becoming a humanitarian concern.

At the same time, the emigration of these kids has also become ensnared in the much larger battle between Nativists and supporters of expansive immigration over reforming the nation’s dysfunctional (and racialist) emigre quota system. For Nativists –a group that includes many movement conservatives (driven by racial fears as well as by their view that Latinos will naturally vote Democrat instead of voting Republican) and private-sector unions (who think the presence of immigrants will lead to loss of jobs), any effort to help these kids is a Trojan Horse for granting amnesty to millions of undocumented emigres already in the country. [The fact that these immigrants are taxpayers who are also contributors to the nation's economic and social mainstream never factors into their thinking.]

As a result, they are pushing congressional Republicans (many of whom would simply support expansive immigration) to oppose President Barack Obama’s plan to spend $3.7 billion on dealing with them. Federal lower house leaders, both unwilling to give Obama a legislative victory this election year and tired of his penchant for using executive orders to go around their opposition to his plans, are likely to do Nativist bidding. Immigration foes and congressional Republicans would rather deport the kids back to their countries of origin regardless of whether doing so is either moral or sensible, as without consideration that they will likely attempt to cross the border again. [Obama's indecisiveness on the entire matter is also rather atrocious.]

Meanwhile their rhetoric about these immigrant kids is even worse. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin claimed that the emigres would bring common childhood diseases such as lice, measles and chickenpox to her supposedly disease-fee state. Conservative commentators such as Laura Ingraham and Mickey Kaus call the presence of the kids an invasion of America — as if these young men and women, who look like their own kin at home, are somehow conducting acts of war. Amazingly, many of the very movement conservatives who are the first to (rightfully) oppose medical practices that deny the humanity of children yet out of the womb (and profess to be Christian) have gone out of their way to disavow the humanity of kids already on earth because they are immigrants with brown skin.

Children such as these three girls from Honduras are seeking better lives. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

But it isn’t just Nativists who are denying the humanity of these children. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and his Republican counterpart in Iowa, Terry Brandstad, have opposed requests by the Obama Administration to house the border children in their respective states until their immigration status is determined. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley cancelled the state’s plans to house some of the kids as well. [He is supposedly looking for a new plan to house them.] For both Malloy and Branstad, both of whom (like scores of other governors) are up for re-election this year, the fear is that bringing these immigrant children to their states will lead to losing high office. O’Malley, who is termed out this year, has different calculations to make. Helping the kids offers rewards in terms of winning Democrat votes for any future presidential nomination run, but can cost him in a general election against a Republican nominee who will likely take a harsher stance on anything regarding immigration.

In all cases, these politicians are also less concerned with being humane toward children who look like their own kin than with doing the right thing politically. And commentators such as Slate‘s Emily Bazelon are right to call out the likes of Malloy, Branstad, and O’Malley for “behaving shamefully”.

What we have here, put simply, is both the failure of America’s politicians to lead, and worse, their unwillingness to behave morally.

One reason why our nation is often consume by what Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, would call cultures of death that damage so many children is because the adults who should be giving our kids nurturing are instead preoccupied with their own concerns. It starts with the denial of the humanity of children, the refusal to acknowledge them as younger versions of ourselves. Then it ends with our children’s futures (and sometimes, their very lives) snuffed out by policies and actions that condemn them to the abyss. What these so-called politicians and commentators are doing fails to meet either God’s or man’s baseline standard for common decency.

Let’s be clear about this: The emigration of these kids from Central America to this country is not ideal. Nor is it new. As documentarian Rebecca Cammisa detailed five years ago in her film, Which Way Home, these children took a dangerous journey that includes stowing away on the top of railroad trains, encounters with bandits, and risks of dying in vast deserts of Arizona and New Mexico once they cross into the Lower 48. This is not a journey anyone should ideally recommend any child to do.

Yet these children come here as their parents and other adults have done — and as earlier generations of emigres from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe did in the previous two centuries — because they seek better lives than they can find in their home countries. For those kids whose parents are already here working hard to send home money, it is natural, even admirable, for them to want to reunite their families. For other kids, who come from place such as Honduras, (where violence has been fueled in part by America’s drug consumption and more than a century of foreign policy geared toward rendering those nations servile), even Detroit would be a better place to live than those locales from which they came. That the United States has been responsible for these problems, especially through decades of interference in the affairs of Central American nations (including the propping up of Banana Republic regimes) makes the entire migration sensible. The Monroe Doctrine (along with our position as the land of the free) has led to millions arriving to our borders.

Sending them back to the abyss from which they have escaped is just plain immoral Just as importantly, it is also not really possible. The federal government can’t simply ship off the kids to their home countries in vain hopes that officials there will do right by them. Given that many of these kids also have parents already in this country, the only place the kids can be placed is, well, here. [Update: The federal data released after this story ran shows that this is already happening, with one out of every two kids placed with relatives as part of the federal refugee asylum program.]

There’s also the fact that as much of the underlying cause of the migration lies with the United State’s long-senseless approach to immigration policy. The families of these kids, like earlier generations, are the kind of hard-working people who produce the entrepreneurs and politicians who have made America the most-powerful nation on earth. Yet they are kept out legally because of the nation’s capricious country-based quota system limiting the number of émigrés allowed into the United States to just 700,000 men and women; one’s country of origin (and thus, their ethnicity and race) is still as much a determinant as it was when the first immigration restrictions (against Chinese emigres irrationally feared by an earlier generation of Nativists) were crafted 132 years ago. When an immigration system is so irrational and dysfunctional that skilled laborers have to wait two decades of more to come to this country legally, no wonder why children and others exercise their God-given right to violate irrational laws and come to this nation.

So the kids should stay. Yet this begs a question: How do we help these kids now that they are here. This matters because these children, like their native-born peers, need high-quality teaching, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and cultures of genius in schools in order to have brighter futures in his country. While reformers cannot necessarily deal with most aspects of immigration, they can undertake steps to help these kids succeed in school and in life.

This stars with reformers on all sides of the political and ideological aisle calling upon Congress and governors (especially those who are already allied with reformers such as Malloy, Branstad and O’Malley) to do the right thing (shaming them, even) and provide these kids with stability. This includes immediately settling the kids into foster home setting where they can live until they are reunited with their families. Reformers should also work with religious leaders such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as those few politicians (including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and his counterpart in Syracuse, Stephanie Miner) stepping up to help these kids.

It also involves granting them and their families an immediate path to citizenship; while Nativists will object to such terms, reformers and immigration activists can tailor this move by tabling any discussion of addressing what to do with other undocumented emigres (other than those who have already been allowed to stay in the country as a result of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order issued last year) at least for the time being. Certainly Nativist arguments against immigration (including the rather misguided statement that undocumented emigres are the reason behind growing inequality) are wrongheaded, as the sentiments of many of them against Latinos. At the same time, the first concern must be for kids in need right now.

It also means continuing the overhaul of American public education. As reformers already know, the consequences of the nation’s education crisis are as brutal upon the lives and futures of English Language Learners (who are often immigrant children or immediate offspring of emigres) as it on peers from poor and other minority backgrounds. Implementing Response to Intervention techniques (which can keep these kids out of special ed ghettos), implementing Common Core reading and math standards (which will help them understand and embrace America’s heritage), and revamping hour teacher quality pipeline (so all kids regardless of their place of origin can get good and great teachers) are all critical steps.

Meanwhile reformers must challenge the racialism and inhumanity at the heart of Nativist sentiment. Conservative reformers have a particular obligation to challenge the views of our movement brethren. For one, the conservative movement has long been tarred — and rightly so — for ignoring the justifiable concerns of black and Latino communities; conservative reformers cannot expect those communities to support our efforts if our ideological fellow-travelers take aim at minority kids. Secondly, it is what Ronald Reagan (the last president to succeed in passing some kind of immigration reform plan) would expect; as a descendant of immigrants, he knew how they helped build America, and knew that open borders was key to the nation’s prosperity. Finally, Nativist sentiment among many of today’s conservatives is antithetical to the doctrine of natural law (and the belief that all of us have inalienable rights endowed by our Creator) that is at the heart of first principles.

The 57,000 immigrant children here now deserve far better treatment than we adults in this nation have given them. As a moral movement, reformers must stand up and help these kids get humane treatment and high-quality education so they can write their own stories.

July 24, 2014 standard

Bobby Jindal’s Politics of Personal Destruction: One of the less-settling themes of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure has been his penchant for being petty in dealing with his opponents and even otherwise allies. As I mentioned in yesterday’s piece on Jindal’s faltering anti-Common Core strategy for winning the Republican presidential nod, the Bayou State governor took aim at his lieutenant governor last year for his failure to adhere to his party line by cutting the $2 million budget used for promoting tourism. At the same time, Jindal also cut the budget of the state treasurer, John Kennedy, for opposing the governor’s use of one-shot revenues to balance the budget. A year before, Jindal successfully demanded his ally in the state legislature, House Speaker Charles Kleckley, to demote one member of the Republican caucus, Harold Ritchie, over his vote against one of Jindal’s proposed tax breaks.

So it isn’t shocking that Jindal is likely taking aim at Supt. John White over his efforts against the governor’s push to halt Common Core implementation. White sounded the alarm yesterday in a letter to the state board of education proclaiming that Jindal’s apparatchiks (including state board member and Jindal ally Jane Smith, along with Kristy Nichols, who runs Jindal’s Department of Administration) are insinuating that he and his staffers have been violating state ethics laws through the work on implementing the standards as well as in contributions made to the state by Teach For America. White also noted that one of his allies, state board chairman (and political scion) Chas Roemer, has also been hearing that Jindal’s apparatchiks are looking to find evidence of ethics violations.

Given Jindal’s endgame of kiboshing Common Core implementation — and White’s effort to keep it going — it is clear that the governor will do anything he can to force the superintendent out of office. If it means ruining White’s reputation, so be it. Put simply, Jindal is engaging in the same kind of politics of personal destruction that White’s colleague in Indiana, Glenda Ritz successfully deployed (with help from Associated Press write Tom LoBianco) against her predecessor, former Florida Supt. Tony Bennett, who is another Common Core supporter.

Just a few weeks earlier, Jindal issued another legally questionable executive order forcing the state department of education to seek the governor’s approval for contracts larger than $2,000. Under such an order, White and his staffers will have difficulty simply doing something as innocuous as ordering supplies from Staples without then being accused of some violation. As part of the earlier executive order Jindal issued kiboshing Common Core implementation, the governor demanded that White turn over any documents and contracts to see if the agency has been behaving according to his standards. Particularly at issue is the fact that the PARCC consortium that has developed Common Core-aligned tests that the Bayou State will use didn’t have its plan go through an RFP process the same as other contracting efforts. The fact that states don’t always have to use RFP processes to pick vendors for its offerings (along with the inconvenient reality that Jindal was all in on this before his political ambitions led his to oppose the standards) makes Jindal’s witch hunt desperate and vicious at once.

By accusing White of illegally using PARCC tests, Jindal is essentially setting up the possibility of eventually bringing the superintendent up on both ethics and even criminal charges. Just as importantly, through his insinuations that Common Core is just a federal takeover of education — and that White and his allies on the state board are part of it — Jindal has begun embracing the conspiracy-theorizing rhetoric of Gatesers such as once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch and Pioneer Institute boss Jim Stergios. Certainly such paranoid rhetoric would make Richard Hofstadter leave his coffin and add a new chapter to his famed text. But Jindal’s entire act against White is intellectually indefensible, morally reprehensible, and unbefitting of a state chief executive. He should be forced out of office himself.

Sadly, such gamesmanship is to be expected. This is why reformers must always engage in conduct becoming. Hopefully, White hasn’t given Jindal any ammunition beyond honestly disagreeing with the governor on providing kids with high-quality education they deserve. But Jindal’s nastiness is another reminder that the reform of American public education is a war — and one reformers must be prepared to win.

Turnabout is Ravitch Play: One of the more-interesting aspect of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch’s transformation from dilettantish school reformer to intellectually charlatan traditionalist is how willing so many defenders of failed policies have been willing to embrace her as their own. Perhaps it is because they lacked credible allies (especially those who weren’t National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers bosses), or it could be that they, like Ravitch, are already prone to racial myopia and logical fallacies. But traditionalists have been willing to stand by Ravitch even when her nastiness has cast even harsher light on their cause.

So it is a tad interesting to see that Ravitch is now being called out by some traditionalists for being, well, who she is. What happened? See, as part of a student privacy group emerging out of the opposition to Common Core reading and math standards called Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Ravitch and her partner in crime, Leonie Haimson, sent a letter to Congress calling for restrictions on the use of student data for helping teachers and school operators improve learning for kids. Ravitch and Haimson, naturally, were signatories on the letter. But so was one of their allies in opposing Common Core, the conservative American Principles Project.

This rankled some traditionalists — most-notably Melinda Anderson (who writes the speeches given by NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and predecessor Dennis Van Roekel) — because American Principles Project also opposes the defined-benefit pensions that traditionalists also defend as well as fights against efforts to legalize gay marriage (which progressives within the traditionalist camp support). [The fact that another movement conservative opposed to Common Core, the usually-sensible Joy Pullman of the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, signed onto the document, also likely set these traditionalists on edge.] As a result of this apostasy, Anderson and others railed against Ravitch on Twitter and other social media forums.

This, in turn, led those long skeptical of Ravitch (including centrist Democrat reformers such as former StudentsFirst operating chief Dmitri Melhorn) to note that others have begun looking askance at Ravitch’s perfidy, intellectual and otherwise. For example, the fact that two years ago, Ravitch was paid by Pearson (yes, the textbook and testing giant she rails against on a constant basis) to give a speech before the National Association of School Psychologists. Oh, and the fact that she gave a speech last year to a convention hosted by Teacher Union Reform Network, an NEA and AFT sock-puppet that is also funded by outfits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an outfit that traditionalists strongly oppose. In short, Ravitch is, in the minds of some traditionalists, is a traitor to their cause.

[Just wait till they remember that this is the same Ravitch who railed against black parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in her first book, The Great School Wars: A history of New York City schools, and who made her bones battling another academic demagogue, Leonard Jeffries, over incorporating black history into school curricula.]

Given the prominence of some of Ravitch’s traditionalist critics, expect this   drama to be a C-grade version of Stalinist purging and Reign of Terror guillotining. Sure, your editor can’t look down on Ravitch for taking a single-issue approach to advancing her cause. But she should have known that allying herself with the likes of American Principles (which, from the perspective of this conservative, shouldn’t even be embraced by other conservatives) wasn’t going to end well for her.

As my mother would say: Pack some meals. This is going to be fun.

July 23, 2014 standard

When Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order last month attempting to end implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, he probably thought it was a good idea. Even when the preponderance of the evidence showed this wasn’t so.

Sure, Jindal knew that the public knew that he was opposing the standards after he enthusiastically supported them. Yes, his executive order ending Common Core implementation was opposed by his allies in the state legislature, friends at the state board of education, and even Supt. John White, who have previously backed his efforts on the education front. Jindal even understood that the executive order itself was legally questionable because in the absence of state legislation, only the state board of education and education department (which he did not control) could end implementation.

But as far as Jindal was concerned, it was all worth it. After all, by opposing Common Core implementation, he thought he would win support for his run for the Republican presidential nomination from movement conservatives who oppose the standards. Jindal also thought that by abandoning the standards, his allies among school choice activists within the reform movement (many of whom oppose Common Core out of a misguided fear that the standards would hamstring their ability to provide high-quality education in ways they see fit) would also rally around him; since a large portion of the school choice activist community vote Republican, opposing implementation would also win him some votes.

But as both opinion polls and a lawsuit supporting Common Core implementation filed yesterday by a group of seven families (along with two charter school teachers) along with the Choice Foundation (with help from Black Alliance for Educational Options), Jindal was clearly mistaken. Which should be a lesson to all politicians with aspirations for higher office (especially Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is looking to kibosh the Badger State’s implementation of the standards). Abandoning systemic reform and damaging the futures of children are not strategies for electoral success.

Even before the move to stop Common Core implementation, Jindal wasn’t exactly best-positioned for the Republican presidential nod. This past February, polling outfit Public Policy Polling determined that Jindal was the nation’s least-popular governor, with just a 32 percent approval rating after nearly seven years in office. Certainly the Indian emigre’s son is unpopular with traditionalists within the Bayou State, who opposed his sensible efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations and expand school choice. But Jindal’s penchant for high-handed behavior and viciously settling scores with rivals through the use of his line-item veto powers, along with a fecklessness on state finances that makes California Gov. Jerry Brown look like an old-school fiscal conservative, has also hurt him at home.

Meanwhile on the national level, Jindal finds himself in a crowded field of Republicans who either have stronger movement conservative profiles or better records on both school reform and government reform. This includes Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (whose instigation of last fall’s government shutdown has won him support from the rabble), his colleague in the federal upper house, Rand Paul (who has bolstered his prominence over the past two years with his opposition to further military efforts in the Middle East, as well as taking strong stances on sentencing reform), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (whose record as a strong reformer cannot be questioned), and the aforementioned Walker (who will likely win a second term despite being dogged by a corruption probe).

With low popularity numbers at home and unable to stand out in a crowded field of candidates, Jindal had to do something. So he seized on the opposition to Common Core among the motley crew of movement conservatives, hardcore progressive traditionalists, conservative-leaning school choice activists within the overall school reform movement, and teachers’ union bosses opposed to the use of standards-aligned tests in teacher evaluations. Betting that movement conservatives and choice advocates would rally around his cause (and bolster his presidential aspirations), Jindal reversed his support for Common Core and became part of the opposition.

Over the past few months, Jindal unsuccessfully pushed more-sensible state legislators to pass legislation to end implementation, and even vetoed a measure that would have kept the Bayou State’s Common Core implementation efforts in place while slightly amending the standards as Massachusetts and other states have done. Having failed by June to get his way, Jindal went nuclear. He issued the executive order canceling the state’s memorandum of understanding with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association to implement the standards, as well as demanding White and his staff at the state education department account for every dollar spent on implementation.

Jindal probably figured that White would continue implementing Common Core implementation — and even file suit against the governor for overstepping the limits placed on his role overseeing education policy. He also likely knew that both state legislators and the board of education would also visibly oppose him. Jindal even anticipated that one of his foes, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne a strong Common Core backer who was already sore with Jindal over his high-handedness (especially in stripping out of the budget $2 million in state tourism funding Dardenne oversaw) would also come out swinging. But Jindal figured that it would all work out to the benefit of his ambitions.

This hasn’t happened. Public Policy Polling’s latest survey of Bayou State preferences in presidential aspirants ranks Jindal in fourth place. Not only does Jindal’s 12 percent rating, trail Cruz (who gets 19 percent of voters surveyed) and Bush (with 17 percent), he even trails former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who isn’t even likely to run for the Republican nomination. Jindal likely couldn’t even carry his own state in a Republican primary. It’s no better on the national level: Jindal trailed eight other aspirants — including Paul, scandal-tarnished New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (a Common Core supporter who has been a strong leader on the reform front), and Bush — garnering just four percent of prospective New Hampshire voters in an NBC-Marist College poll. In Iowa, Jindal came in dead last.

All of Jindal’s grand-standing against Common Core has done nothing to win him support. Movement conservatives, who know that Jindal has flip-flopped his position on the standards, see him as just another cheap-suit politician, while moderate Republicans (who are divided over implementation) just don’t see him as a compelling representative of the party.

Even those movement conservatives who are also Jindal fans thought he overstepped his legal authority. Declared American Spectator writer Quin Hillyer in the Advocate: “[Jindal's] unilateral abridgement of Common Core runs roughshod over Madisonian principles of executive restraint.” Especially for these conservatives, the goal of quashing Common Core implementation doesn’t justify the means. And for the more-principle minded within the conservative movement, Jindal becomes even more unattractive as a candidate because he is acting like their bete noir, President Barack Obama, who they loathe in part because of his penchant for using executive orders to go around Congressional opposition

Meanwhile Jindal hasn’t exactly won over school choice activists (along with Parent Power advocates) in his own state. In fact, they have thoroughly embarrassed Jindal over the past month by calling him out for opposing standards that can help provide Bayou State children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — with the comprehensive college-preparatory learning they deserve. Particularly for charter school operators such as the Choice Foundation as well as school choice advocates such as BAEO, implementing Common Core (and ensuring high-quality education for the vast majority of kids attending traditional district schools) is as important as expanding high-quality options so that families can escape failure mills.

Now, comes Navis Hill v. Jindal, the tort filed yesterday by the sevenBayou State families (along with Choice Foundation with help from BAEO) against Jindal and his staff to stop the governor’s effort to halt Common Core implementation. By working so hard to oppose the standards, Jindal has found himself opposing the very school activists and families (including those from poor and minority households) on whose behalf he has claimed to be working in his more-sensible school reform initiatives. Jindal has essentially turned his allies into opponents — and that won’t bode well for him politically.

But for Jindal, the problem isn’t just that choice advocates are opposing him on an issue on which he thought they would back him. The plaintiffs legitimately argue that Jindal’s executive order and efforts to quash contracts the state education department has already struck to roll out Common Core-aligned tests violate the state constitution, and that his decision has created chaos within the state’s public education system. Because Bayou State legislators have opposed Jindal’s efforts to quash Common Core implementation (and, in fact, have supported the standards), Jindal can’t even claim to be faithfully executing state law. As a result, the Navis Hill families likely have a far stronger shot of halting Jindal’s effort to quash Common Core than their allies in Oklahoma, whose similar suit against the halting of Common Core implementation was unsuccessful because that state’s supreme court ruled that they couldn’t legally question the policymaking privileges of the legislative branch.

Then there’s the hit Jindal has taken to his reputation as a strong leader on advancing systemic reform. Certainly Jindal’s high-handedness has won him foes. But until recently, he deserved credit for standing up and taking action to transform public education for Bayou State kids. It was his strong stance against the state’s educational ancien regime — going so far as to call out the executive director of the NEA affiliate for declaring that poor and minority families are too incompetent to make smart school choices — along with the strong lobbying of Parent Power and school reform groups, that led to the expansion of the state’s voucher program. He also proved himself ready to do the right thing. This included defending his reforms against lawsuits by the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association branches there, to finding funding for the voucher program once a state court judge invalidated the use of dollars from the state’s school funding formula for the purpose.

But by reversing himself on Common Core in the hopes of winning higher office, Jindal has tossed his entire legacy into the trash. By acting as a political opportunist instead of as a strong defender of high-quality standards, Jindal has made a mockery of every word he has spoken and every action he has taken against traditionalists. Even worse, by joining Common Cause with the likes of talk show host Glenn Beck and columnist Michelle Malkin (along with those who should know better such as Jim Stergios and Sandra Stotsky of the Pioneer Institute), he has also embraced the worst of their rhetoric.

Simply put, Jindal has behaved shamefully, and exemplifies perfidy instead of leadership. For that, he doesn’t deserve to be president, much less chief executive of a state in need of strong leadership to address its woeful performance in improving student achievement .

Within just one month, thanks to his opposition to Common Core, Jindal managed two spectacular feats: Further weakening his political aspirations, and losing the few allies he had left. Which, in turn, led to a third: Weakening his once-stellar legacy on advancing systemic reform for all kids. Walker and other politicos should think twice before following Jindal’s example.

July 22, 2014 standard

Back in 2011, your editor wrote a series of pieces on how school reformers — especially charter school operators and school choice activists — must learn from the issues of financial mismanagement and low academic quality that plagued the for-profit higher education sector. Three years later, scandals involving charters in Hartford and Chicago have once again served as reminders of how the bad behavior of operators can end up casting the entire sector (and the school reform movement as whole) in a bad light.

Once again, reformers need to take stronger measures to force out charter operators and authorizers responsible for letting such lapses to happen in the first place. Or else charter schools will face the same regulatory pressures that are now buffeting for-profits.

The latest reminder of the importance of good conduct came last week when federal investigations issued subpoenas to Hartford’s Family Urban Schools of Excellence, the former operator of the Jumoke collection of charters, amid allegations of shoddy hiring practices and financial mismanagement. The federal investigation came after a month of revelations by the Hartford Courant that the charter school operator’s founder, Michael Sharpe, had falsified his academic credentials, lived in a building owned by Jumoke, and overseen the hiring of a school staffer whose felony conviction landed him on a sex offender registry. There is a chance that the Jumoke schools, which have been successful in improving the achievement of the poor and minority kids in its care, could end up being shut down.

The federal probe into FUSE came a month after another charter school operator, Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network, settled civil fraud charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to charges of financial mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and nepotism. The agency alleged that UNO deceived bondholders about its financial condition even as it faced sanctions by Illinois state officials for handing out contracts to firms owned by the brothers of Juan Rangel, the onetime Second City powerbroker who ran the chain, as well as placing three of his relatives on its payroll. For the Chicago Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers local, the UNO scandal has offered it an opportunity to renew its opposition to efforts by mayors Richard Daley the younger and Rahm Emanuel to expand school choice.

Certainly both FUSE and UNO are rare examples of financial and operational malfeasance within a charter school sector that has served children well. Just as importantly, school reformers and charter school operators have condemned both for their bad acts. Both ConnCAN and the Nutmeg State branch of the Northeast Charter Schools Network issued their condemnations of FUSE this past weekend.

Yet these scandals come amid other episodes of fiscal mismanagement by charter school operators. The most-notable: The scandal that enveloped American Indian Charter Schools after a California state audit revealed that its former boss, Ben Chavis, had allegedly embezzled $3.8 million from the school during its tenure. Thanks to Chavis’ alleged malfeasance, the failure of American Indian to develop strong financial controls, and the poor oversight by its board, the schools the charter school chain operates (all of which have done well in improving achievement for the kids in its care) are under the threat of being shut down. Only a state court ruling has kept the traditional district that oversees the schools — which are its competitors in the education space — from closing them down altogether.

American Indian’s situation, along with that of FUSE and UNO, prove this reality: That criminal allegations like bad studies on charter school performance, last forever and do even more damage that good news can’t always overcome. Especially when you consider that  school choice sector is a new part of an American public education dominated by traditional districts, the fact that only 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe charters, and that traditionalists are willing to play fast-and-loose in their rhetorical and tactical gamesmanship, charter schools are vulnerable to mudslinging.

It isn’t just about rhetoric. After three decades, the charter school sector (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. A study of 521 kids attending charter schools released this month by a team led by University of California, Los Angeles researcher Mitchell Wong determined that high-quality charters can help keep kids from engaging in gang activity and drug abuse. Rand Corp. determined in its 2009 study that students attending high-quality charters are seven-to-15 percent more likely to graduate than their traditional public school peers.

But charter schools aren’t an unqualified success. Far too many charters perform no better than traditional district failure mills. Three years ago, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in its study of failed schools that few laggard charters are ever turned around, and even fewer are shut down; this betrays the claim made by reformers that charters, unlike traditional public schools, can be easily shut down. There are cities such as Detroit where charter schools are often performing as badly as the Motor City district’s appallingly bad operations. Add in the admittedly sparse episodes of mismanagement and fraud by charter school operators, and it is clear that reformers can’t just simply declare success and go home.

At the heart of the problem is the that charter school authorizers — including traditional districts — have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools, for example, are allowed to involve themselves in overseeing schools even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. [The fact that traditional districts are allowed to oversee charters in the first place, which is akin to McDonald's having the power to watch over a Wendy's, is especially ridiculous.] But as seen in Fordham’s own woeful experience as a charter authorizing, oversight efforts by independent outfits is no guarantee of high quality.

This is because charter authorizers can often derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they are also a vendor. Only Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington State restrict authorizers from overseeing charter operators and offering them services without a separate contract in place. Lax oversight from states is also a problem. Only Hawaii and Washington State (along with the District of Columbia) meet the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ requirements for holding authorizers accountable for their work in overseeing schools; note that Washington State has only gotten legalized charters in the past few years.

Even when charter authorizers try to hold schools accountable, they can be hamstrung by state laws that allow for charters to go for as long as a decade without their academic, financial, and operational performance being subjected to formal review, and, if necessary, be shut down. In Michigan, for example, a charter authorizer can allow school operators to go for as long as seven years without any formal review. In fact, few states require charter authorizers to conduct high-stakes reviews of school operators every five years.

The good news is that key players such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers are pushing states and reformers to pass laws that will lead to the shutdown of shoddy charter authorizers (and ultimately, shut down laggard charters). But that work has been complicated by opposition from choice activists — especially outfits such as the Center for Education Reform — out of concern that stronger accountability could lead to fewer charters and options. This shouldn’t be shocking. One of the problems these days in the school reform movement is many school choice activists — both out of genuine concern over restricting choice and because their own finances are dependent on a growing school choice sector — have become as opposed as traditionalists to the kind of accountability measures needed to transform American public education.

What the charter school sector (along with choice activists and other reformers) must acknowledge is that the expansion of school choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that charters (along with other forms of choice) will operate effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. When charter oversight is faulty, when choice programs aren’t subjected to strong accountability and oversight, they become vulnerable to scandals that do damage to the cause of systemic reform, even if they are isolated incidents compared to their overwhelming benefits. And ultimately, it is intellectually, ethically, and morally unacceptable for charter operators and choice activists to demand accountability for traditional districts and then tell taxpayers to simply trust that the programs are working properly.

So charter players and the rest of the school reform movement must take critical steps to ensure that charters are operating properly. This includes pushing for laws at the state level that force authorizers to be more-effective in overseeing charter operators or leave the sector, as well as legislation to allow for academically- and financially-failing charters to be shut down quickly. This includes only granting charters five-year contracts. Getting districts out of the business of charter authorizing — a move undertaken by D.C. a few years ago — is also critical to improving quality.

Meanwhile the sector must also engage in more-stringent self-policing, publicly and privately shame laggard charters and authorizers to either turn things around or shut their doors. The charter school sector must embrace better approaches to financial and operational management. Given that most nonprofits are terrible at their own activities, the movement should look toward the private sector for models of better practices; this includes even embracing outsourcing of functions that school operators shouldn’t be handling on their own in the first place. It also involves crafting standards and procedures for contracting and procuring services — rules that can easily be picked up from the private sector, particularly in the healthcare field — that would assure taxpayers that charters are operating properly.

Finally, reformers must step up on public relations. This includes painting portraits of what charters are doing for their students, putting kids and their teachers front and center in campaigns, traditional and viral, and touting high-quality examples of charters that are successfully building brighter futures for kids, families, and communities. As I also mentioned three years ago, charter school operators and authorizers must also build stronger ties with communities, grassroots activists, and Parent Power groups in order to blunt opposition, especially when bad actors in the sector behave, well, badly.

The FUSE and UNO scandals offer an opportunity for the charter school sector, choice activists, and the rest of the school reform movement to address challenges can hinder the expansion of high-quality opportunities our children need. Either they take the chance now — or wait until it’s too late.


Featured photo: Michael Sharpe, former chief executive officer of FUSE, before he resigned as head of the charter school operator.

July 21, 2014 standard

Dropout Nation gang is taking off today to enjoy time with family. But there are still plenty of discussions going on today in the world of education. One of them: The role of the private sector in American public education. In this Best of Dropout Nation compendium of pieces from 2011 and other years, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses the intellectual blindness of traditionalists to the benefits of borrowing lessons from the private sector, as well as the limits of what can applied to stemming the nation’s education crisis. These points are as important now as they were a few years ago.

Chris Cerf and Education’s Anti-Intellectualism Problem: For all the taxpayer-funded doctorates and graduate degrees that are found among the defenders of traditional public education, there is little going on among them other than closed-minded, sclerotic thinking. This lack of intellectual vigor — the ability to see the value of new concepts, the lack of understanding of economics and technology, and the rabid opposition to anyone outside of education arguing for reform — is one reason why American public education is mired in the kind of mediocrity that has fostered the nation’s education crisis.

And that lack of thoughtfulness manifests itself even more when it comes to the thought of private-sector involvement in education. From where defenders of the status quo sit, the idea public charter schools causes them to reach into their Cliff Notes versions of The Communist Manifesto, and the school reform efforts of nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates  Foundation make them so apoplectic that they toss around terms such as “kleptocracy” without any understanding of their meaning. From where they sit, the private sector is nothing but pure evil, their involvement in school reform means the end of public education and a return to the dark days of, whatever they think of is the dark days. The fact that they are as dependent on the wares of the private sector and the economic marketplace for their very sustenance (you know, since companies and entrepreneurial philanthropists are also those guys who provide such items as computers and soap, along with paying those things called taxes, which support schools), never factors into their thinking.

One example of this silly anti-intellectualism comes courtesy of incoming New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s move to restructure the state’s woeful education department. Foes of the new commissioner’s efforts are particularly annoyed that Cerf is getting help in this work courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is ponying up $60,000 for the hiring of the consultancy helping to develop the plan. Status quo critics of Cerf’s effort have complained that it is a conspiracy to privatize education. They have argued that the ties between Cerf, the consultant William Cox, and Broad (which helped Cox spin out rating service Standard & Poor’s school evaluation project to become, and counts Cerf among its alumni) makes the whole effort an exercise in cronyism. And they have speculated about the role Cox played in the Garden State’s failed effort to win a share of Race to the Top money.

Given the scope of work — and the reality that American public education remains quite public — the first complaint is just thoughtless. The cronyism argument would have slightly more merit if this was being paid out of Garden State coffers. Since it isn’t, the argument also falls apart. And with no evidence that Cox played any role in New Jersey’s Race to the Top bid, the speculation is merely that; given that the Garden State’s bid was rather problematic, unlikely to be picked even without the botched work of Wireless Generation (the consultancy that helped New Jersey assemble its bid and had Cox on its payroll for a time), and opposed by the same status quo defenders now using the situation for their rhetorical argument, that discussion is rather meaningless.

Now the critics could have considered some real questions. For one: Whether a consultant is really needed to think through the difficult question of how to revamp the organization? (My own answer is no; Cerf is just using Cox and Broad to gain cover for the overhaul he already plans to do.)  Another: Cerf and his boss, Gov. Chris Christie, failing to consider the more fundamental question of whether the current system of educational governance — including the array of local school district bureaucracies — is even necessary in the first place? Given that Christie’s colleagues, including Gov. Christine Gregoire in Washington State, are already pushing to restructure their state education governance structure, the governor and Cerf should be using this time to push for a Hollywood Model of Education for New Jersey under which district bureaucracies would be tossed out altogether and traditional public schools would essentially become charters.

But this would actually require status quo defenders to stop reading Diane Ravitch’s claptrap, applauding Sir Ken Robinson’s creativity snake oil, and fawning at Daniel Pink’s vapid treatises on motivation. They would have to ditch such dribble about “democratic education” and “authentic learning”. It would require them to embrace the use of data in improving the quality of instruction and curricula, and understand the lessons (good and bad) from the private sector about recruiting and retaining talent. And would mean picking up copies of Wired, The Wealth of Nations and Education Myths.

Overstating What Can Be Gleaned From the Private Sector: School reformers may have the intellectual vigor at the moment, but they also suffer from the problem of oversimplification. Particularly when referring to the private sector, it is far too easy to argue that the solutions to the problems of American public education can come from Corporate America and entrepreneurs. The reality is far more complicated.

One thing to remember: Private sector has a variety of players, each of which deal with different kinds of constraints. Healthcare companies and electric utilities, for example, are heavily-regulated. They struggle with the same problems faced by traditional school districts, including bureaucratic structures (and corresponding inertia) that would make the agencies that oversee them proud and state laws that restrict their profit-making activities. Those firms share little in common with a Wal-Mart and Google which operate in lightly-regulated sectors and are structured more-nimbly to compete in more-active markets. So the respective problems each group of companies have for their human resources, cost-management and other operational issues — and the solutions they undertake — can sometimes be as different as night and day.

Another problem lies in assuming that every solution applied in the private sector can work in education. One example: Teacher evaluation. As Rick Hess rightly points out, the private sector doesn’t use objective measures of performance as the sole criteria for evaluations. But Hess forgets this: The cost of a poor-performing employee impacts a company’s bottom line, causing problems for customers, vendors, shareholders, creditors and other employees. But the impact is limited because private sector firms aren’t generally supported by tax dollars. The impact of low quality teacher quality is borne by a far-larger group — including taxpayers and children — who cannot avoid impact by just abandoning brands, selling shares, dropping clients, refusing to lend money or switching jobs. There’s also the reality that teachers and teachers unions don’t trust principals to evaluate their work. All things considered, using objective student data (from test scores for students to portfolio evaluations for electives such as music) as the sole criteria may make the best sense.

There are plenty of lessons from the private sector that can be applied to education. But we think through those lessons, apply them in ways that fit the particular characteristics of the education sector, and not simplistically offer up companies as the source of solutions.

Featured photo courtesy of Wired.