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November 25, 2014 standard

To say that I am indignant about yesterday’s ruling by a St. Louis County grand jury to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown is an understatement. From the moment Brown was shot senselessly by Wilson with his body left on the ground for four-and-a-half hours, to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s windy and often defensive announcement of how his office’s unusual presentation of the evidence ultimately led to a delivery of no-bill on five different counts, the case was another reminder that America still struggles with addressing the racial bigotry that is this nation’s Original Sin.

Yet for school reformers, the events in Ferguson offer new opportunities to keep our young black men alive and on the path to lifelong success. This starts by tackling one of the most-pernicious of the racialist policies and practices that remain in American public education: The overuse of harsh school discipline that condemns the futures of so many.

Your editor can go through all the reasons why so many black men and women are saddened, angered, horrified, and disappointed by the Wilson’s non-indictment. Sadness because Brown’s life was senselessly snuffed out just days after he graduated from Normandy High School, his body allowed to sit on the street for nearly five hours before finally being removed. Anger because no justice at all will be sought for Brown; the fact that grand juries fail to indict one-hundredth of one percent of the time in federal cases (and, given that prosecutors at state and local levels rarely have to bring cases to grand juries at all, even less often) makes the failure to bring this case to a jury trial even more shocking. Horrifying because the Brown case is just one serves as another reminder that America has a long history of disregarding — and even sanctioning — racially-motivated murders of young black men; while Wilson’s action may not have been motivated by race (which, given his characterization of Brown as looking like a “demon” is quite unlikely), the growing evidence that police officers are far more-likely to shoot at unarmed black men than any other group casts an especially harsh light on his slaying of Brown three months ago. [Update: Wilson’s statement to an ABC News reporter that he doesn’t regret shooting Brown makes your editor wonder how someone can feel so untroubled about taking an innocent life. May God disturb Wilson’s conscience, and then save him from the torment that will soon come his way.]

Then there is the disappointment, especially among black mothers and fathers. Disappointment about the fact that from the moment Brown encountered Wilson, his life and his body were utterly demeaned by law enforcement officials, as well as put on trial by politicians more-concerned about being supportive of police officers than about an innocent young life. Dismay over the mistreatment of Brown’s mother and father during their time of undeniable grief. Disgust over the fact that even now, another generation of white people continue to fail to understand how centuries of bigotry, state-sanctioned and otherwise, have fostered the debasement of black lives. Dumbfounded that justice always seems to be visited upon those whose skins aren’t dark or brown, while the murders of those who are seem to never be worthy of it. At these moments, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future for our black children.

But as we may be, we must also remember these things: That when black people fight vigilantly for their civil rights, they can help bend the arc of history toward progress, and that out of tragedy can emerge activism and grassroots efforts that can save lives and communities. This is what is happening in Ferguson now. Each day since his death, protestors in the St. Louis suburb and elsewhere over his slaying has continually brought attention to how the militarization of police departments aided by the federal government have exacerbated the long history of antagonistic treatment of blacks by law enforcement that has long been a feature of American life. The efforts of teachers to pull together the Ferguson Syllabus is helping kids gain understanding of civic life in this country that can help address racialism. Because of what has happened in Ferguson, we now have new leaders and voices for social progress such as St. Louis city councilman Antonio French and Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.

What we are seeing now is the second prong of the latest battle for civil rights, one that has the transformation of American public education at its center, but must also include what former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff calls school reform in totality. This means addressing how the nation’s education crisis fuels the social ills that condemn the futures of our children, especially those from black, Latino, and Native households. This is where one aspect of systemic reform becomes especially important: Ending the overuse of the harshest school discipline.

Michael Brown’s life and body has been demeaned for far too long. Let us advance systemic reform for all children like him.

As Dropout Nation noted back in August, the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves this St. Louis suburb, exemplifies how districts throughout the country harm the futures of black children through the use of suspensions and other harsh discipline for nonviolent matters that are better off settled through other means. During the 2011-2012 school year, Ferguson-Florissant meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students versus 4.9 percent of white students, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. None of the suspensions were for violent acts, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; as typical throughout the rest of the country, most suspensions were for disruptive behavior, tardiness to class, and truancy, all matters better-handled through means that actually help kids understand the consequences of their behaviors. Black kids attending Ferguson-Florissant schools were more-likely to be suspended than either their white peers in the district. They were also more-likely to be subjected to harsh discipline than be a victim of violent crimes in their communities.

Harsh discipline is meted out even more punitively on black children condemned to Ferguson-Florissant’s special ed ghettos. The district meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 23 percent of black special ed students, a rate 10 percentage points higher than the (also outrageous) 14 percent for white peers in those ghettos.  Even worse, the out-of-school suspension rates for Ferguson-Florissant’s black special ed students was higher than nearby St. Louis’ 11.5 percent out-of-school suspension rate for such students.

This is not unusual. As Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted last year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 24.3 percent in 2009-2010 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education before earlier this year) is three times the 7.1 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. Even worse, the gap in suspension rates has increased over the past three years; back in 1972-1973, the out-of-school suspension rate of 11.8 percent for black secondary school students was only double the six percent rate for white peers.

At the heart of the overuse of suspensions, both in Ferguson-Florissant as well as across the nation, is the reality that adults in schools often use harsh discipline as easy buttons instead of addressing the underlying issues behind the misbehavior of children. The biggest culprit of all: The struggles children have with their literacy, and the failures of American public education to provide them with the intensive reading remediation they need (as well as high-quality reading instruction and curricula) so they can succeed. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. This fact was further borne out in a 2011 study by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Given that just 47.1 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s fourth-graders reading at or below basic proficiency on the reading portion of the Show-Me State’s battery of standardized tests, it isn’t shocking that the district (along with other failing school operators) overuse suspensions instead of dealing with underlying literacy issues.

As researchers such as Russ Skiba have demonstrated over the past three decades, the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline is academic, economic and social failure for kids who are acting out because of the failure to address their learning issues. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. At the same time, the consequences extend beyond schoolhouse doors. hen districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of some police officers in cities such as Ferguson — and the evil they have shown toward the black people who live their and pay their wages — is mirrored by the unwillingness of those working within its schools to provide all kids with high-quality education.

Thanks to the Obama Administration’s efforts on addressing school discipline — including investigations into practices by districts such as Minneapolis, as well as the guidance it issued earlier this year — reformers have opportunity to reduce suspensions for the long haul by addressing literacy curricula and instruction. This can start in Ferguson-Florissant by forcing the district to implement intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off, as well as leveraging approaches such as Response to Intervention to identify kids struggling with literacy. Wang and Algozzine demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach (when paired with an approach called Behavior Instruction in the Total School) in a 2012 study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Implementing restorative justice programs that focus on teaching kids how their behaviors affect themselves and their fellow classmates is also critical. Black school leaders and teachers, who often work in the highest-suspending districts i the country, should take the lead on transforming how we discipline kids (as well as call out colleagues who continue these failed practices); anything other than that is an abject abandoning of our responsibility to all children, especially those who are from our backgrounds.

Ending the overuse of harsh school discipline helps all our children, especially young black men, stay on the path to lifelong success.

This isn’t just a matter for traditional districts alone. As Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard and others have pointed out, public charter schools have engaged in overly harsh school discipline practices for far too long, justifying them as part of developing a culture of no excuses that are geared toward fostering school learning. [Sadly, reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland have also justified such shoddy thinking.] But as I noted last year in my criticism of Success Academy cofounder Eva Moskowitz’s justification of her charter school operation’s overuse of suspensions, the evidence has been proven long ago that overusing suspensions doesn’t lead to improvements in student achievement. If anything, because of such overuse, it allows opponents of school choice to claim that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to efforts in providing kids with high-quality education. Reformers cannot defend failed policies and practices for which we would call out traditional districts.

But addressing school discipline goes beyond the practices of teachers and school leaders within schoolhouses.

As Dropout Nation as consistently noted, districts bring law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Schools account for one out of every five status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies. When districts refer kids into juvenile courts unequipped to help them, our most-vulnerable children are put into a cycle of cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Even worse, poor and minority children regardless of whether they end up in the juvenile justice system end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured.

There’s also the fact that districts have also become as mired in the militarization of law enforcement as police departments in their communities. This is because districts, especially those in big cities, have launched their own police agencies even as youth crime has been on a three decade-long decline. Between 1996 and 2008, the number of districts operating police departments more than doubled (from 117 to 250), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The NAACP and Texas Appleseed rightfully raised this issue back in September when they issued a letter to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency complaining how the federal government’s move to hand over military-grade weapons to districts such as Los Angeles Unified was exacerbating arrests of students.

There is no reason why a district such as Compton Unified arms police officers with AR-15 rifles or why L.A. Unified’s police division had grenades in its arsenal. In fact, there is no good reason why traditional districts should operate police departments in the first place. All that does is transform schools into virtual jails where being a child is criminalized instead of communities where a kid is nurtured by high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula. As reformers, we must stand up and work to pass state laws that put an end to the ability of districts to launch their own law enforcement agencies, as well as work to force districts to dispense with juvenile justice referrals and arrests for better approaches to dealing with the children they serve.

By tackling all aspects of school discipline, along with other systemic reform efforts, we are doing honor to the life of Michael Brown and his family, as well as saving the lives of young men and women who deserve better. Darren Wilson may have escaped human justice (even as he will face God’s verdict). But school reformers can help tackle the legacy of racialism that lingers within American public education as well as on the streets where our children live.



November 24, 2014 standard

The National Education Association just filed its 2013-2014 LM-2 filing with the U.S. Department of Labor, and once again, it spent big to preserve its declining influence over education policymaking. The nation’s largest teachers’ unions spent $132 million on lobbying and contributions to what are supposed to be like-minded organizations, a slight increase over the $131 million poured into such activities last year. This, by the way, doesn’t include another $45 million spent on so-called representational activities which are almost always political in nature.

This past fiscal year, NEA poured plenty of money into Democracy Alliance, the secretive progressive group that played a big role in trying to elect Democratic candidates to national and state offices this year. As Dropout Nation reported earlier this month, NEA and AFT have worked hard to pull Democracy Alliance into its fold; this includes NEA Executive Director John Stocks, a longtime player on the organization’s board, becoming its chairman. NEA poured $160,000 to the main organization itself, along with $250,000 into its Latino Engagement Action Fund, $150,000 into its Youth Engagement Fund, and $50,000 into its Committee on States. Altogether, NEA has devoted $610,000 to Democracy Alliance and its main affiliate organizations. Things didn’t work out so well this past Election Day for either Democracy Alliance or NEA; but that won’t stop either from spending plenty this next election cycle.

NEA also continued its co-opting of other progressive groups, many of which are part of Democracy Alliance’s wider network. This includes $150,000 to Progress Now, a member of Democracy Now’s wider network of groups whose past board members included Rob McKay, Stocks’ predecessor as Democracy Now chairman. The union also poured $250,000 into Center for Popular Democracy and its action fund for its campaigns against charter schools and the so-called “privatization” of public education; $235,000 into Progressive States Network; $200,000 into David Brock’s Media Matters for America; $67,000 into Progress Michigan; $25,000 into the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (another member of the Democracy Alliance network); and $25,000 into Netroots Nation. Solidifying its relationship with Democracy Alliance outfits, NEA spent $393,542 with Catalist LLC, the data outfit for the Democratic National Committee that has provided information to the organization’s allies in order to elect progressive-oriented candidates. Center for American Progress, which is a strong reform outfit, received $160,000 from the union.

Meanwhile NEA worked harder to build ties to black and Latino advocacy groups. The big winner this year was the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which has long ago abandoned its once-powerful work on how the education crisis damaged the futures of young black men. Through its Opportunity to Learn Fund, Schott picked up $300,000, or as some can say, a lot of chicken wing money. The dollars from NEA (as well as from AFT, which poured $180,000 into the foundation and into Opportunity to Learn) explain why Schott President John Jackson has become such an enthusiastic backer of the effort by the Big Two to roll back the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. NEA gave a considerably smaller $25,000 to NAACP, which has been as ineffective on education policy for traditionalists as it was for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which gave $1 million to the outfit in 2011 for a policy agenda that it never rolled out, as well as participation in the now-moribund Campaign for High School Equity).

The NEA gave $120,400 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, while giving $50,000 to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. The union also gave $30,000 to the Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs; $25,300 to NALEO’s education fund; $15,000 to National Council of La Raza; $15,000 to the National Hispana Leadership Institute; $10,000 to MALDEF; and $7,500 to the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. A new NEA vassal is the Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, which is working in six states with La Raza, the Service Employees International Union, and NALEO on organizing Latinos to become citizens and voters; it picked up $50,000 from the union this past year. Given that new NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia likes to play upon her Latina heritage, expect the union to pour more money into reaching those communities. As part of the union’s play on immigration reform, it gave $50,000 to the National Immigration Law Center.

Speaking of signatories to NEA’s and AFT’s effort to roll back No Child: The Advancement Project received $75,000 from NEA, while Barnett Berry’s Center for Teaching Quality received $345,000. Education Law Center received $75,000, while the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (a longtime NEA vassal) received a mere $15,000. Even with the sums given to Schott Foundation, NEA spent very little money to gain adherence to its vision, especially from groups that are supposed to look out for the best interests of black and Latino children.

But NEA’s efforts aren’t just limited to that spending. The union poured $9.8 million into its Advocacy Fund super-PAC, which spent big this year to unsuccessfully help Democrats retain seats in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Colorado. The super-PAC itself spent $17 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to Over the past two fiscal years, NEA poured $15.4 million into the Advocacy Fund; whether or not it was money well spent (especially in the minds of younger teachers looking to elevate the profession) is a much-different story.

Among the usual suspects: The Economic Policy Center picked up a mere $48,000 this past fiscal year, an 81 percent decline from the $250,000 it had received in 2012-2013. Through the University of Colorado Foundation, NEA also donated $250,000 to the National Education Policy Center, whose policy studies also align with the union’s positions. A big winner among usual suspects was the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the outfit whose training programs do little to improve the quality of teaching performance; it picked up $216,904 from NEA coffers. NEA poured $397,195 into the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which was formed by last year’s merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.

The union gave $7,500 to Joel Packer’s Committee for Education Funding, $10,000 to Rebuild America’s Schools, $160,000 to the National Public Pension Coalition, and $250,000 to Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. The Republican Main Street Partnership and its Main Street Advocacy Fund picked up $275,000 from the union; while the Learning First Alliance received $121,100.

Just so it can keep support from the very teachers it is supposed to represent — and looking to show that it cares about elevating the teaching profession it debases through its defense of quality-blind seniority-based privileges and reverse-seniority layoff rules — the NEA gave $77,000 to the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. This shouldn’t be shocking; after all, the selection of teachers of the year is usually more of a popularity contest than one based on objective measures of teacher performance. Since few people give that much thought, NEA can easily gain some goodwill from the spend. It also gave $35,000 to the National Teacher Hall of Fame, and $191,600 to teacher quality reform outfit Teach Plus.

Meanwhile the NEA spent considerable sums propping up busted affiliates. It poured $1.2 million into the insolvent Indiana State Teachers Association; this doesn’t include the $52,571 loan made to the union during that period, or the $880,440 to maintain the building the Hoosier State affiliate occupies across the street from the Indiana Statehouse. Yet somehow ISTA managed to whittle down the money it owes to NEA by $2.4 million (to $13.5million) within the past year. NEA also subsidized the virtually-insolvent Michigan Education Association to the tune of $6.1 million last year, a slight decline over the $6.3 million given to the union and its PAC in 2012-2013; and poured $814,370 into the South Carolina Education Association, which the union had to put into receivership four years ago.

As for the NEA’s top honchos? Now-former president Dennis Van Roekel was paid $541,632, a 32 percent increase over his salary in 2012-2013; while Eskelsen Garcia picked up $345,728, a slight decline over her income last year (but still enough to buy some acoustic guitars for her occasional impromptu folk music performances); and Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle (now vice president of the union) pulled down $337,618, a 2.5 percent drop over last year. Altogether, the NEA’s big three were paid $1.2 million in 2013-2014, a nine percent increase over the previous fiscal year. [Note that this doesn’t include new Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss, who pulled down $96,897 as a member of the union’s executive committee.] As Dropout Nation always says, there’s nothing wrong with NEA leaders and their counterparts at the AFT drawing six-figure sums. But remind Van Roekel and successor Eskelsen about their dollars (and the corporate ways the NEA and the AFT engage in their defense of traditionalist policies and thinking) whenever they try to use class warfare rhetoric to oppose systemic reform of American public education.

This statement also applies to the NEA’s 374 staffers earning six-figure sums; by the way, that is five more than in 2012-2013. Among the highly-paid employees: Executive Director Stocks, who pulled down $412,398 in 2013-2014 (a 7.3 percent increase over the previous year); General Counsel Alice O’Brien, whose $233,153 in compensation was slightly lower than last fiscal year; and membership czar Bill Thompson, who was paid $229,878, also a slight decline from last year. NEA top lobbyist Marcus Egan was paid $$172,870 in 2013-2014, a 2.3 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Again, the NEA’s payroll shows that being a teachers’ union official is a lucrative line of work. Again, whether this is working out for teachers, especially given the union’s declining clout, is a different story.

Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the NEA’s financial filing later this week. You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the NEA’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site.

November 20, 2014 standard

If you want to understand how federal education policymaking between the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans will play out over the next two years, just check out the battle over reforming America’s dysfunctional immigration system.

As you already know, the sparring between the administration and congressional Republicans reached a new crescendo last night when President Obama issued an executive order temporarily staying deportation for five million undocumented emigres, many of whom have children who are American citizens by birth. Certainly this has aroused the ire of Republicans, especially those movement conservatives demanding even more restrictions (and red tape) upon the layers of rules already in place. House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional Republican leaders have spent the past two weeks threatening that Obama’s action would be a breakdown of good faith between the two sides that would lead to reprisals from them. This has ranged from plans to pads legislation that they know Obama would veto as soon as it got to his desk, to shutting down all but the most essential federal operations by refusing to pass another of the various continuing resolutions that have passed for what should be sensible budgeting. From where the Republicans sit, Obama has engaged in “lawlessness” because he has supposedly violated the U.S. Constitution, has behaved like an emperor, and, as a result, has “squandered what little credibility” he has left (with Republicans, of course).

Yet Boehner and his colleagues have done little other than bluster on this front. They haven’t even attempted to pass legislation overturning an earlier Obama Administration executive order on immigration, the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, which held off deportation for undocumented immigrant young people brought to the country as kids by their parents, or even filed a lawsuit against the order as they have done today over the administration’s implementation of the Affordable Car Act. Why? Because they don’t have much more they can do other than bluster.

For one, as even legal scholars and immigration experts less-sympathetic to the administration such as Ilya Somin of the Cato Institute and Shikha Dahmia of the Reason Foundation have noted, federal immigration law grants the Obama Administration we latitude in temporarily staying deportations and operating the rest of the immigration system. In fact, Congress (including Republicans now in leadership in the House and Senate) granted that authority in the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed 28 years ago. The fact that earlier administrations, including that of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, have also implemented similar executive orders. Give the law as well as the political, legal, and historical precedents, Obama’s decision is defensible on all possible grounds. That the executive order itself is limited in scope, leaving seven million of the 11.4 million  undocumented emigres subject to deportation, is also a factor, as is the reality that the Obama Administration has deported more undocumented emigres than any of his recent predecessors (a matter congressional Republicans and immigration reform opponents fail to acknowledge).

The second reason is purely about long-term politics. Like their Democrat colleagues, Republicans are quite aware of the usefulness of expansive presidential authority in advancing political goals, especially when they don’t control the federal legislature. Having a president retain wide constitutional latitude in administering the executive branch, especially when controlling parties in both houses are gridlocked on key issues, allows for policymaking to continue. Add in the reality for House and Senate Republicans that key constituencies within the party (including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) want immigration reform, as well as the need to expand the base in the long term to include black and Latino communities (the latter of which is key to the Republicans’ lock on political power in Texas), and the party has little choice but to just bluster and threaten.

Even if congressional Republicans pass legislation (including continuing resolutions) that attempt to stop enforcement of the immigration executive order, they can’t make it stick. Right now, the Republicans only control the House and, thanks to arcane rules, merely have the power to block legislation in the Senate. Even when they take over the Senate in January, they lack veto-proof majorities in both bodies to overcome Obama’s rejection of their legislation. There’s also the fact that Senate Democrats can now leverage the very rules uses Republicans used to block legislation; while Obama’s relationship with Senate Democrats are not much better than that he has with Republicans, his party has to also keep in mind the need to rally their political base in order to keep the White House in their control after 2016.

What you have with immigration reform is stalemate, one that, for all the bluster coming from Boehner and Senate colleague Mitch McConnell, favors the Obama Administration at nearly every turn and, therefore, will be exploited as the president attempts to establish a legacy that can’t so easily be reversed by his immediate successor. This is a reality reformers must keep in mind as they consider what to do on the federal level in these coming days and years.

For President Barack Obama, Election Day losses may have helped him far more than anyone has imagined.

Certainly one can say that the most-immediate consequences of this month’s election losses by the Democratic National Committee is that the Obama Administration is weaker politically. But that is assuming that Democrat control of the Senate was actually valuable to the administration in the first place. Sure the administration didn’t want the party to lose control; but the history of midterm elections for second-term presidents all but assured that this would be a reality. But given that Senate Democrats had little success in passing legislation other than continuing resolutions that would be acceptable to House Republicans (and that’s when Senate Republicans weren’t blocking every bill they could), Obama is actually no worse than he was before the election.

If anything, one can argue that the Obama Administration is in a stronger position than it was earlier this year. The first reason is that it no longer has to worry about defending vulnerable Senate Democrat seats that were quite likely to be lost because of dissatisfaction among voters over the nation’s continuing economic malaise. Free of the responsibility to keep Senate seats, the administration can do now is forge a path that may be more-helpful to Democrats two years from now when Republicans have to both defend vulnerable seats coming up for re-election and try to recapture the White House. Secondly, thanks to the Constitution, the penchant of Congress to dispense the details of legislation to administrative rule-making (the real vehicle for making laws a reality), the executive authority granted to the Oval Office both through current legislation and legal precedent, and the divisions among Republicans themselves, the Obama Administration has plenty of policymaking tools at its disposal.

These two realities are prominent in the debate over the expansiveness of federal education policymaking — and the future of the federal role in advancing systemic reform that has been embraced by presidents and Congress since Richard Nixon proposed the creation of what became the Institute of Educational Sciences five decades ago.

This hasn’t fully occurred to most reformers, especially those in the Beltway. Some conservative reformers, caught up in irrational exuberance, think that congressional Republicans and the Obama Administration will engage in honest negotiating on a compromise reauthorization of No Child next year. That’s naivete bordering on stupidity. Anyone who has watched how Obama and congressional Republicans have dealt with each other over the past six years know that neither side will deal with each other in good faith.

On one hand, Obama has proven over and over again that he will do whatever is legally and constitutionally possible to go around congressional opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike. The No Child waiver gambit exemplifies this. Obama could have gotten a reauthorization passed as early as 2009,when Democrats controlled both houses. But he didn’t as much because he didn’t want to watering down his reform agenda in order to satisfy the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers as because of opposition from congressional Republicans looking to deny him a legislative victory. The waiver gambit, along with administering of the school reform initiatives for which the administration won congressional approval, allows the president to pursue (questionable) policymaking that he favors.

The No Child waiver gambit is reckless policymaking that has weakened systemic reform on the ground. But as Conor Williams of the New America Foundation has noted, it is also a critical aspect of President Obama’s legacy. Defending the waivers, along with Race to the Top, I3, and the School Improvement Grant initiatives, is the single most-important effort the administration must do. Given that proposed reauthorizations of No Child — including the second version of the Student Success Act passed out of the House last year — would gut the waivers as well as No Child itself, Obama has no interest in negotiating.

House Speaker John Boehner and his fellow congressional Republicans talk tough. But have a weak hand when it comes to combating the Obama Administration on the education front.

As for congressional Republicans? They could have passed a new version of No Child that was more amenable to the Obama Administration that still would have accomplished their policy goals. But they haven’t had much interest in doing so. Concerned primarily with grinding down Obama’s agenda and with putting a Republican back into the White House in 2016 as well as looking to please hardcore activists among movement conservatives (including Heritage Foundation’s political action wing), congressional Republicans done everything they can to deny the administration a legislative victory. The emergence of Lamar Alexander as chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee will not change these and other dynamics one bit; in fact, the former school reformer, now an apostate from the movement, is as much a problem as the rather Machiavellian John Kline, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

There’s also the reality that congressional Republicans are divided among themselves over key educational issues, especially between hardcore movement conservatives who want to cut all federal education subsidies, suburban Republicans who represent districts that benefit just as much from them as those in Democrat districts, and Republicans who embrace No Child as fervently as their allies in the business community. There’s the discord between congressional Republicans and their gubernatorial colleagues who have benefited both from No Child and the waiver gambit (and are also concerned about their political prospects). And never forget that while Kline is the driving force on education legislation, he must still deal with a weakened Boehner, a coauthor of No Child who is not all that interested in eviscerating his handiwork (and has shown occasional willingness to speak honestly to his colleagues when they engage in reckless policymaking).

So a reauthorization of No Child is off the table until at least 2017, when the next president takes office. Until then, the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans will continue sparring over the direction of federal education policy. As with the battle over immigration reform, it is one that plays to the Obama Administration’s advantage. And the administration is already leveraging the opportunity.

Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan fired the first salvo last week when they unveiled guidance for granting No Child waiver extensions. Because the extensions may last as long as three years, the Obama Administration is essentially moving to institutionalize the gambit and make it difficult for congressional Republicans (or anyone else) to undue it. Certainly the waiver gambit itself is far more legally questionable than the president’s executive order on deportations; the idea that states can ignore federal law is not even close to acceptable. But as with immigration (where the legality of the president’s executive order is firmly established by statute, history, and legal precedent), the Obama Administration can argue that the effort is defensible.

Meanwhile the Obama Administration have already taken steps on other fronts. The move by the Department of Education and the Justice Department earlier this year to issue guidance on ending overuse of harsh school discipline (along with accompanying investigations of districts such as Tupelo, Miss., and Minneapolis), will continue even as congressional Republicans and normally-sensible conservative reformers argue against it. The administration’s effort to address the failure of districts to provide college-preparatory courses (including Advanced Placement classes) to poor and minority kids is also proceeding apace.

The waiver gambit will likely stand because congressional Republicans (along with their Democrat colleagues) will do nothing other than bluster about it. After all, complain about the waiver gambit is all that congressional Republicans have done since the Obama Administration undertook it three years ago. The easiest solution to ending the waivers was for House Republicans to team up with Senate Democrats and the Obama Administration on a compromise version of No Child reauthorization. As the Center for Education Reform noted last year in its review of the Student Success Act and the competing Senate Democrat plan (which in many ways reflects the No Child waiver gambit), there is little substantial difference between both plans, especially in their adverse consequences for the futures of children. But Kline and his fellow House Republicans never pulled that together mostly because they had no interest in giving Obama anything close to a legislative victory.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is already heading up the Obama Administration’s offensive against congressional Republicans on the education policy front. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

There’s another reason why the waiver gambit will likely stand: Because as with immigration reform, congressional Republicans have to think about the political long term. What if they gain the presidency in 2016, but lose control of the Senate to Democrats? As with Obama during the last four years, a Republican president will likely struggle mightily on gaining a legislative victory. This isn’t to say this is so: If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who like his brother, has worked well with Democrats on education, wins the Republican nomination and then the presidency, a compromise on No Child reauthorization may be possible. But given the good-but-not-great odds of Bush winning the nomination, Republicans want to keep their options open. And thanks to the waiver gambit, Obama has offered it to them.

Then there is the fact that congressional Republicans have no ability to make their version of a No Child authorization become law. Because they lack veto-proof majorities in both houses, Obama can veto any version of No Child that isn’t to his liking (that is, keeps the waiver gambit in place), and suffer few consequences. Congressional Republicans can try to cut funding for Race to the Top and other competitive grants through continuing resolutions. But as with Obama on his continued efforts to cut funding for D.C.’s school voucher program, Republicans can be easily forced into finding the dollars for those initiatives. [That even Republicans privately admit finding favor with competitive grants also factors into the equation.] Could Republicans just shut down the federal government? Sure. But given that the last time they did that ended up with the loss of sequestration (which fiscal conservatives such as Grover Norquist lamented because it led to automatic discretionary spending cuts), that won’t happen, either.

This isn’t to say that it is good news for reformers on the federal education policy front. Not at all. For one, as Dropout Nation has documented over the past three years, the No Child waiver gambit has been counterproductive to systemic reform on the ground. One of the consequences: Efforts to eviscerate No Child’s annual testing requirements, which have helped provide families, teachers, school leaders, politicians, and researchers much-needed data on how states and districts help all children succeed. it is quite likely that the Obama Administration will either sign onto congressional legislation ending annual testing or even offer waivers to states allowing them to dispense with it. So reformers must advocate strongly against such a move.

For American Indian and Alaska Native children, the stalemate will also likely mean no action on overhauling the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education. The woeful state of the federally-run school system will remain that way for some time at the expense of kids who have long been subjected to educational genocide. Even worse, given Kline’s penchant for trying to cut Title VI and Title VII funding even amid opposition from fellow Republicans representing Oklahoma and other states with large numbers of Native students, expect a renewed effort; Boehner, who has never been fond of any of it (which, given how poorly those dollars are spent, is somewhat understandable) won’t stand in the way.

The stalemate is also counterproductive to systemic reform because the federal government plays a critical role in sustaining systemic reform on the ground. This includes the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk — which took the work of southern state governors and chambers of commerce and promoted them on a national level — and No Child (which built upon the school accountability regimes of states such as Texas and Florida and gave cover to governors fighting against traditionalists to implement similar efforts). Certainly the more-active federal role in education policymaking is perfect or always an unqualified success. But it is clear that the federal role is crucial to advancing reforms that help all children succeed.

This isn’t to say that reformers should despair. Given that both No Child and the waivers reaffirm the role of state governments in overseeing public education, reformers must work hard in statehouses and in the grassroots to advance systemic reforms. That Election Day also proved to be a qualified boon politically for the movement also offers promise. Even if No Child was reauthorized in its current form, focusing on reform at the state level would still be top priority.

But the stalemate between the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans will continue. And not for the good of our children.

Featured photo courtesy of Harvard Business Review.

November 18, 2014 standard

The Obama Administration’s move last month to award $1.2 million in Tribal Sovereignty grants to six American Indian tribes to help them take over Bureau of Indian Education schools on their reservations is just the latest step in its belated overhaul of the agency. While there are questions as to whether the administration’s overall plan for the federal government’s school system — including handing over the 58 remaining schools it operates to tribes — will pass muster with a Congress that will soon be fully under Republican control, the grants are a key step toward executing it.

Yet as the Government Accountability Office noted late last week in its latest report, BIE’s financial affairs (along with its overall operations) are still in shambles. School reformers need to pressure both the Obama Administration and Congress to do right by Native children by fully overhauling BIE’s operations.

The failures of the federal agency, a hybrid of traditional school district, charter school authorizer, and state education agency, has been well-documented. A scathing GAO report released last year detailed how the U.S. Department of the Interior has thoroughly mismanaged BIE’s operations. This includes six top executives since 2007, and Interior’s unwillingness to give BIE control — either through in-house management or even sophisticated management of contracts with vendors similar to that done by private-sector companies through its procurement and outsourcing functions — over its own operations. These failures on Interior’s part is one immediate reason why BIE has done so poorly in providing Native students with high-quality education.

But as GAO notes in its latest report, BIE’s failures extend even to simple monitoring of the 115 schools operated by tribes. Such failures on the oversight front bode poorly for the Obama Administration’s plan to fully transform the agency into a state education department.

Thanks to audits conducted annually, BIE knows that 24 schools have misspent $13.8 million in federal Indian School Equalization Program funding on unallowable expenses. Yet the agency has done nothing to follow-up on the evidence, either by conducting second audits to determine the weaknesses of the schools’ financial controls, or to sanction the schools and tribes that operate them for the malfeasance. For example, the BIE found out four years ago that one school gave a no-interest loan to a local school district using $1.2 million in federal ISEP funding, yet has done little to either recover the money or “ensure that its funds are not misused again”. BIE has also done little to sanction or increase oversight over another school, which had to materially restate its financial reports by $1.9 million over three years.

This isn’t exactly shocking because BIE doesn’t actually have a financial monitoring system in the first place. Written procedures to oversee school spending are non-existent. The monitoring schools with shaky financial controls are rarely written down. BIE can’t even answer conclusively whether it even conducts site visits of schools caught misspending money. It is little wonder why BIE didn’t notice that one of its schools failed to submit audit reports for the past three years — until GAO analysts alerted the agency to the oversight. [BIE still hasn’t followed up with either sanctions or auditing.] Even when the agency does notice schools and tribes engaging in shoddy financial management practices, it does little to stop them. So a tribe can divert $900,000 in federal funding that was supposed to be used to serve kids in a school’s special ed ghetto into a savings account and likely get away with it.

As a result, much of the $402 million in ISEP funding spent by the federal government on BIE schools (along with millions more in Title I and other federal dollars) is likely being misspent. This can be seen in the fact that BIE spends $15,391 per pupil a year (excluding capital expenditures and debt service), 56 percent more than the average traditional district. Certainly some of those higher costs can be attribute to the high transportation costs tribal schools, which are located on reservations in rural communities, have to bear; the average BIE school spends $1,014 per pupil on transportation versus the $444 per pupil spent by traditional districts. But in light of BIE’s lax oversight and the shoddy financial controls of tribe-operated schools, the costs are also a result of wasteful spending.

At the heart of BIE’s failures in financial monitoring is Interior’s longstanding mismanagement of the agency itself. As state education departments and charter school authorizers can attest, oversight is as much a matter of manpower as it is a result of systems and practices in place. Yet Interior’s structuring of BIE’s operations have all but ensured that the agency can’t even do something as simple as follow up on a qualified audit. Just 13 staffers were charged with overseeing the financial affairs of both agency- and tribally-controlled schools in 2013-2014; that’s down from 22 in 2010-2011. The lack of manpower, along with nonexistent financial controls, all but assures that the agency will fail at its most-basic monitoring tasks. While Interior has begun moving to restructure BIE’s operations and give it full control over its operations, the department has failed to address the agency’s financial oversight woes.

But the problem doesn’t lie just with BIE alone. It is also a failure of the federal government to structure the operation of BIE schools in a sensible manner. While tribes technically operate all but a smattering of BIE schools, the reality is that their education departments aren’t often the ones actually operating schools. In many cases, the schools are managed by boards who play upon legitimate desires of Native communities to control their own educational destiny, but often end up resisting accountability efforts of both BIE and their parent tribes. For tribes looking to overhaul failing schools such as Navajo Nation, the most-populous tribe in the country, the byzantine governance structure often impedes their efforts; in July 2013, for example, one school board successfully rebuffed Navajo Nation’s effort to take over control of its three schools. Even when the tribes operate the schools, the lack of capacity of their education departments to manage operations properly (a result of the federal government’s inattention to this matter) often means they can end up making costly financial decisions.

The 48,000 Native children forced to attend BIE schools suffer the dire consequences of this fiscal mismanagement. When tribes and their school boards mismanage much-needed federal subsidies, kids end up losing out on high-quality teaching and comprehensive-yet-culturally relevant curricula. This ends up being compounded by BIE’s own failures on fiscal oversight. Add in BIE’s other failures — from not repairing and replacing 65 hazardous and unsafe school buildings, to snafus on academic accountability — and it is no wonder why 59 percent of BIE eighth-graders scored Below Basic in math on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress while a mere 10 percent were numerate at Proficient levels.

Certainly the Obama Administration’s plan to overhaul BIE will help address these shortcomings. But not if the agency’s failures as an oversight agency aren’t addressed. The administration must request and work with Congress on getting the talent and the financial management systems in place to track spending and hold schools accountable; this is as important a move as implementing a unified academic accountability system in order to track the progress of schools in improving student achievement. Crafting written procedures for financial spending, both for BIE and for schools, is also important. Meanwhile the Obama Administration should end Interior’s control of BIE and place it under the U.S. Department of Education. This won’t please some Native education activists. But it is clear that BIE needs to be run as a proper school operator, which is something that Education can do.

Meanwhile Congress must play its part by overhauling how BIE schools are managed by tribes. This starts with amending the various laws governing the schools — including the Tribally Controlled Schools Act of 1988 — to encourage schools to be moved from local board control to tribal education departments better-suited for the job. But that isn’t enough. While the Obama Administration’s Tribal Sovereignty grants will be helpful in allowing tribes to build up the capacity of their education departments, the money isn’t enough. The administration should bring in high-quality private and charter school operators such as Cristo Rey and KIPP to serve as consultants (with the emphasis on consult and advise) to tribal education departments who can then use their advice to build up their capacity to run schools.

The GAO’s latest report is another reminder of this country’s continued educational abuse of Native children. It is high time to stop it.

November 14, 2014 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle looks at the child abuse scandal at the California School for the Deaf in Riverside and explains why overhauling how we train and manage teachers and school leaders is critical to stemming criminal and educational abuse.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.