Author: RiShawn Biddle

Doug Jones’ Lesson for School Reformers

Your editor could have spent this morning focusing on news from yesterday’s news from Bellwether Education Partners that the state plans proposed as part of implementation of the Every Student…

Your editor could have spent this morning focusing on news from yesterday’s news from Bellwether Education Partners that the state plans proposed as part of implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act show that districts are going to be allowed to perpetuate harm to poor and minority children. But that point was made earlier this month. There’s also the dueling studies from Thomas B. Fordham Institute and University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium on Policy, Research and Education on Philadelphia’s efforts to overhaul school discipline. Being ill for the past few days, I’ll be tackling them in the next week.

What is on my mind has less to do with the details of policy. Instead, it is about an important lesson reformers should be learning today from Doug Jones’ victory yesterday over the notorious Roy Moore in yesterday’s Alabama U.S. Senate special election: The need to rally poor and minority communities in advancing systemic reform to help all children.

As many of you know by now, Jones, a former U.S. Attorney and scion of a political family that includes famed judge and U.S. Senator Howell Heflin, won what was previously considered an unlikely victory over Moore, a jurist who was twice removed from his role as chief justice of the Iron State’s supreme court for willfully ignoring failing to enforce federal rulings. A Democrat will now hold a U.S. Senate seat for Alabama for the first time in 20 years despite the state having a strong Republican majority and the efforts of President Donald Trump in the last few weeks to help Moore into office.

Certainly Jones was helped by Moore’s own problems. This included revelations over the past two months that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with at least six women under age 18 back when he was a district attorney during the 1970s and 1980s. That news, along with the threat Moore posed to the tenure of Mitch McConnell as senate majority leader, gave Congressional Republicans a convenient excuse to withdraw financial and political support for his campaign, and even led outgoing Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake to publicly support Jones’ run. Even without backing from those who could have been his colleagues in the senate, Moore still managed to garner 48.9 percent of voters.

What really mattered for Jones had little to do with Moore, but with the strong turnout among Black and other minority communities in Alabama. Exit polling conducted by the Washington Post shows that Black voters made up 28 percent of the electorate yesterday, a higher level of turnout than their overall numbers among all registered voters. More importantly, Black voters turned out at levels just a quarter or so below those of last year’s general election. In Jefferson County, home to Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, turnout was at 72 percent of levels last year, according to an analysis of data by Daily Kos.

Given that special elections in general attract significantly lower levels of voter turnout, the high levels are astounding. Especially when you consider that Alabama Republicans in control of state government have worked for the past decade to disenfranchise minority voters through efforts such as closing motor vehicle branches in Black communities, a key way of frustrating voter registration. Add in the fact that Jones attracted 60 percent of Alabama voters age18-29 and 61 percent of those in the 29-to-44 demographic — especially in a state in which Mitt Romney won the majority of them five years ago — and the results stand out.

Without Black votes as well as those of young people, Doug Jones would have never beaten Roy Moore in yesterday’s U.S. Senate race.

How did Jones manage to get more minority voters (as well as young voters) to support his bid? That credit goes to grassroots advocates, including Black churches and branches of the NAACP, who, with the help of national outfits, conducted strong get-out-the-vote campaigns on behalf of Jones and, more-importantly, against Moore. Activists reminded Black communities that a Moore victory would ultimately help the Trump Administration in its war on their communities and their children. They also noted that Jones’ victory takes away a seat from Senate Republicans, who now hold just a one-seat majority, making it even harder for them to pass measures such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that have little support even within the caucus.

Put simply, contrary to the arguments of many White Democrats (as well as pundits such as Jonathan Chait of New York, Frank Bruni of the New York Times and academic Mark Lilla), focusing on the efforts of Black, Latino, immigrant, and low-income communities for economic, social and political equality (which has often been derisively called “identity politics”), is critical to Democrat success in winning elections as well as in winning support from younger voters who are also concerned about these matters. Based on yesterday’s vote, as well as last month’s general election victories (in which Black, Latino, and immigrant votes played prominent roles), White Democrats should stop ignoring minority communities and put money into registering more of them (as well as fighting voter suppression efforts in states).

But it isn’t just important for the Democratic National Committee. The school reform movement must also embrace explicit and constant advocacy for poor and minority children and their communities as a critical component in advancing the transformation of American public education.

Reformers shouldn’t be divided over this at all. After all, as recent studies of the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act has shown, focusing on socioeconomic achievement gaps improves outcomes for minority and White children (as well as struggling and high-achieving children of all backgrounds). More importantly, the most-successful efforts to expand school choice (including Virginia Walden Ford’s work in Washington, D.C., Steve Barr’s work with Latino communities in Los Angeles, and Parent Revolution’s Parent Trigger efforts), have been ones led by poor and minority communities who explicitly made the case for helping their own children escape failure mills that damaged their families for generations.

Yet this is is a point over which the movement has become divided. Conservative reformers balk over this because they still embrace a perspective, driven by their ideological conservatism, that chooses to ignore the legacies of state-sanctioned bigotry (from slavery to Jim Crow to the drug war) that are still reflected in American public education. Centrist Democrat reformers, on the other hand, prize political bipartisanship and getting “the politics” right over doing good, often at the cost of the vulnerable, failing to realize that bipartisanship and politics are only valuable if driven by the most-important goal nonnegotiable goal of helping those who are in need.

What has become clear is that explicitly focusing on the educational concerns of poor and minority children regardless of where they live, and expanding that to the criminal justice reform and other the social issues that end up touching (and are touched by) American public education, is critical, both in helping all children succeed as well as rallying long-terms support for the movement from the parents and communities that care for them. For those families, school reform must be invested in bettering the communities in which they live and in empowering their children to be leaders in adulthood. Anything less is unacceptable.

This starts by embracing the lessons learned by Barr, Ford and others in advancing reform. It means listening to communities as well as addressing the issues outside of education policy and practice that are of immediate concern to those communities. It also includes working with the churches and community organizations connected to the people who live in them, as well as working with national groups focused on issues that tie to education, including criminal justice reform. It even means philanthropists working outside of their comfort zones and supporting reform groups led by minority communities who have a better sense of the people they serve.

Reformers must also focus as much on the nuts-and-bolts of retail and wholesale politics as they do on working statehouses and policymakers. Recruiting men and women from Black, Latino, and other minority communities to run in school board races and other political campaigns is one critical step. Another lies in holding voter registration drives, which will help bring new voters to the polls and even help reformers prove their value to the politicians they need to help pass legislation. This includes targeting high school seniors who will soon leave school and become voters (as well

Finally, reformers have to go back to embracing the approach of addressing and stemming socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, a strategy that was at the heart of No Child and a driving force in expanding charter schools and other forms of school choice. Contrary to the arguments of some conservative reformers, focusing on achievement gaps even helps White middle class children by improving the quality of teaching, curricula and school environments all students experience.

As Jones learned last night, and other Democrats have realized over the past month, boosting support from poor and minority communities is critical to winning the day. The lessons also apply to school reformers working to build better lives for our children.

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529 Ways to Harm School Choice

The Weekend is usually reserved for less-topical discussions about American public education and American society in general. But this morning’s move by the U.S. Senate to pass a tax cut…

The Weekend is usually reserved for less-topical discussions about American public education and American society in general. But this morning’s move by the U.S. Senate to pass a tax cut plan brings up one of the least-sensible approaches to expanding school choice touted by the most-hardcore of advocates: Expanding the use of 529 higher education savings plans for financing private school tuition.

Dropout Nation already discussed the House Republican version of the plan, which managed to gain approval as part of the lower house’s tax cut proposal. But Senate Republicans had managed to avoid offering a similar plan. But last night, just hours after Senate Republicans hastily crafted its tax plan without a single hearing or deliberation (and often with illegibly handwritten notes redlining what little was in print), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz successfully amended the bill to include a proposed 529 expansion that is little different from the House proposal.

As you would expect, hardcore school choice activists are pleased as punch with the move. Invest in Education Foundation, whose vice president wrote an op-ed in The Hill earlier this week calling for the Senate to enact the proposal, tweeted the news proudly. Expect more to come from Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke, who has been the lead player in getting Congressional Republicans to put the idea into law.

Certainly the expansion of 529s may superficially expand opportunities for children to attain high-quality education. But the key word is “superficially”. As your editor explained last month, the effort does little for families regardless of income or background.

For poor families, especially those from Black and Latino backgrounds, the 529 expansion is of no benefit to them because they don’t earn enough income to either open up and maintain a 529 account. This is especially problematic when you consider that neither Congressional Republicans nor the Trump Administration offered up an Earned Income Tax Credit-style program that would help these families gain money that they could then put into 529 plans to pay for private school tuition payments and tutoring (as well as even save for college).

Because of the nature of 529 plans, as well as the lack of a education tax credit, the Senate and House proposals raise concerns school choice advocates such as Howard Fuller have had about Education Savings Accounts: That poor families lose out at the expense of families that already have resources and can take advantage of various vehicles that allow them to save and reduce tax burdens all at once.

Yet the 529 expansion plans also don’t help middle class and affluent families. This is because the more money siphoned off from contributions to elementary and secondary education expenses, the less money will go towards college savings. Even if a family contributed the full maximum of $14,000 a year (which is almost never done), the nation’s average private school tuition of $7,700 (which is often higher in states such as California, Maryland, and New York), results in families forfeiting both the immediate contributions as well as the future investment gains and interest compounding in the process. Given the high costs of higher education, this means more middle class families lose out on the ability to help their children gain the postsecondary knowledge they need for success in adulthood.

What makes the House and Senate plans especially bad policy is tat they could have easily expanded school choice for all families by using another existing vehicle: Flexible Spending Accounts. Those are already used by families to pay for preschool and child care expenses as well as medical costs, and could have been expanded for use in financing private-school tuition and other K-12 expenditures. That move would have been even better for families who already use those plans, as well as for poor and minority households, because those are funded through paycheck withholding and would be supported by the 20 percent federal child care tax credit already in place. But this wasn’t considered.

Put simply: The 529 expansion plans are bad policy. Contrary to what hardcore choice activists want to argue, the proposals will do nothing to help the most-vulnerable children gain opportunities for high quality education. More importantly, as I noted last month, the lack of a companion plan to expand choice for poor and minority children and their families (and the uselessness of the proposal for families who are merely middle class or affluent) means that 529 expansion is merely a tax subsidy for the wealthiest families who can already pay for private school tuition out of their own pockets (and would stick to using 529 plans for paying for college savings).

When you consider that the 529 proposals are part of tax cut proposals that eliminate the Individual Mandate, a key tool for helping poor families gain healthcare coverage they need to keep their children healthy, and September’s elimination of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (which covers 8.9 million children from low-income households), it becomes even clearer that the 529 expansion plans are callous acts of policymaking by men and women who care nothing about helping all children survive and thrive from conception to adulthood.

Meanwhile any discussion about the 529 expansion proposal cannot be divorced from the Trump Administration’s White Supremacist war against Black, Latino, and immigrant children from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This is because the administration’s failure to push for an education tax credit that would benefit those children is another example of how it has no great interest in helping anyone who isn’t White or the descendant of European immigrants. The fact that there are so-called reformers working for the administration in the U.S. Department of Education — and that Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education — means nothing. Because they, too, are part of the administration’s concerted disdain towards poor and minority communities.

Meanwhile the 529 expansion proposals will do damage to efforts by reformers to expand choice, especially vouchers and charter that have proven to help poor and minority children escape failure mills. Progressive and centrist Democrat reformers who have just begun warming up to the idea of moving beyond charters as a vehicle for school choice, now find themselves on the defensive as ideological fellow-travelers, angered by this tax subsidy for wealthy families, will oppose nearly every form of choice. Congressional Republicans basically weaponized a key approach to transforming American public education, playing into the hands of traditionalists such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and suburban districts, the most-fervent opponents of helping poor kids escape failing schools.

There is no way anyone who calls his or herself a champion for all children and a school reformer can be pleased with the passage of this proposal. Not one way. At all.


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NEA’s $151 Million Influence Spree

The National Education Association just filed its 2016-2017 financial disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor — and it is clear that the nation’s largest teachers’ union is spending even…

The National Education Association just filed its 2016-2017 financial disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor — and it is clear that the nation’s largest teachers’ union is spending even more to maintain its influence in education policy. Whether or not it benefits the teachers who are often forced to pay into its coffers is a different story.

The Big Two union spent $151 million on lobbying and contributions to supposedly likeminded organizations during its last fiscal year. That’s a 9.4 increase over influence-buying levels in 2015-2016. This, by the way, doesn’t include another $43.7 million in spending on so-called representational activities in 2016-2017, which almost always tend to be political in nature; that’s six percent less than in the previous period.

As you would expect, NEA put a lot of cash into its Advocacy Fund, the Super-PAC that is part of the union’s effort to back Congressional Democrats. It put $7 million into Advocacy Fund in 2016-2017, a 35.8 percent decrease over the previous year. Given that this an election year, the lower levels of funding isn’t shocking. But you can expect NEA to pour even more money into the Super-PAC next fiscal year — if the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME doesn’t short-circuit those plans first.

The union also spent big on last year’s Democratic National Convention, lobbying delegates and others as they formalized Hillary Clinton’s since-unsuccessful campaign for the presidency. It spent $525,004 in 2016-2017. This included handing $50,000 to the Atlantic Monthly (which was criticized by reformers back in September for receiving money from the American Federation of Teachers), as well as spending $46,000 with pollster Anzalone Liszt Grove Research.

Meanwhile NEA gave $100,000 to Majority Forward, a 501(c)4 affiliated with the Senate Majority PAC, the Super-PAC controlled by J.B. Poesch, a former head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and ally of Minority Leader Charles Schumer. It also dropped$100,000 into the coffers of Patriot Majority, another Super-PAC that backs Democratic candidates for the House and Senate. Both donations were made in September 2016, two months before the general election.

Given how poorly Clinton and the Democrats fared last year, the spending didn’t yield any immediate results. But NEA will continue to give. This includes pouring $500,000 into Main Street Advocacy Fund, the affiliate of Republican Main Street Partnership that has been one of its most-important vassals.

While NEA failed miserably at the national level, it spent $11.1 million on ballot initiatives with some success.

The union gave $4.9 million in 2016-2017 to Save Our Public Schools, the Massachusetts coalition run by its Bay State affiliate and its longtime vassal, Citizens for Public Schools, that defeated Question 2, the ballot measure that would have expanded the number of public charter schools in the state. This came on top of the $500,000 NEA gave the committee in the previous year. As Dropout Nation detailed last year, the defeat of Question 2 was a solid victory for the union and its fellow traditionalists while reformers reeled from the loss. NEA also gave $4.2 million in 2016-2017 to Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local, a coalition featuring NEA’s Georgia Association of Educators that defeated Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to allow the Peach State to take over 127 failure mills and put them into a statewide district. That was on top of the $500,000 the union gave in the previous fiscal year.

In Maine, NEA gave $1.3 million to Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, a coalition including the union’s state affiliate; this was on top of the $1 million the union gave to the group in 2015-2016. The group would go on to successfully push for the passage of Question 2, a ballot measure to levy a three percent tax on incomes of greater than $200,000 ostensibly to provide $320 million in new funding to the state’s traditional public schools. But that victory was short lived. Last July, after a three-day shutdown of the state government Gov. Paul LePage convinced legislators to repeal Question 2 and replace it with a plan to provide just $160 million a year in new funding.

Meanwhile NEA gave $225,000 to Educators for Washoe Schools, a group led by its local there that successfully won a ballot measure to levy a half-penny sales tax for new school buildings. The union also burnished its efforts to co-opt progressive groups by giving $350,000 to Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families, a coalition that featured its Copper State affiliate; it successfully pushed for the passage of Proposition 206, which increased the state’s minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $12 by 2020, as well as provide mandatory sick leave for all employees.

But the union’s efforts didn’t succeed everywhere. In Oregon, it poured $2 million into Yes on 97, which failed to pass a ballot measure that would have levied a gross sales tax on businesses selling more than $25 million in products annually, as well as allowed the state to collect gross sales taxes on business producing more than $100,000 in revenue a year. AFT, whose teachers’ and nursing affiliates are also big players in the state, also put $1 million into the unsuccessful effort. NEA also failed in Oklahoma, where the $750,000 it gave to Oklahoma’s Children Our Future, which unsuccessfully pushed Question 779, which would have levied a one percent sales tax for additional school funding.

Back on the national level, NEA still spent plenty to co-opt progressive groups. Whether it will work in the long haul — or even if the union can keep up the donations — is an open question.

A big recipient of the NEA’s largesse is the Center for Popular Democracy, a reliable ally in the efforts of the union and the rival American Federation of Teachers in opposing the expansion of public charter schools. It collected $1.1 million from NEA in 2016-2017, double the levels the union gave it in the previous year. This increase isn’t a surprise; besides doing the bidding of traditionalists, Center for Popular Democracy is also a favored recipient of the ever-secretive Democracy Alliance, the outfit chaired by NEA Executive Director John Stocks.

NEA also gave $1.1 million to America Votes, another outfit in the Democracy Alliance network that was cofounded by former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern. That’s 177 percent more than what the union gave to the outfit in 2015-2016. Of course, it helps to be part of Democracy Alliance as well as count on “partners” such as AFT and the aforementioned Center for Popular Democracy.

NEA made sure to give Democracy Alliance some coin. The union gave it $185,772 while handing another $25,000 to its Committee on States, and $300,000 to the State Engagement Fund. Altogether, NEA gave $510,772 to Democracy Alliance, one-third less than in 2015-2016. Apparently, the union isn’t exactly enthused by the outfit’s lack of results.

As for the rest of the Democracy Alliance network? NEA gave $200,000 to David Brock’s Media Matters for America, unchanged from levels in 2015-2016; $150,000 to the Advancement Project (which helped NEA and AFT in its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act) in 2016-2017, slightly less than in the previous year; $150,000 to Progress Now (a 33 percent decrease over 2015-2016); $50,000 to State Innovation Exchange; and $25,000 to Netroots Nation, unchanged from last year. NEA also spent $572,282 with Catalist, LLC, the data-mining outfit for the Democratic National Committee that is a lynchpin in Democracy Alliance’s campaign efforts; that’s 8.8 percent less than in 2015-2016.

On the progressive media front, NEA gave $50,000 to Independent Media Institute, the parent of Alternet; and $50,000 to Center for Media and Democracy, the outfit behind PR Watch and ALEC Watch. The biggest recipient: Race Forward, the parent of Colorlines, which has garnered criticism from reformers for its rather unfavorable commentary on the movement. NEA gave it $155,780. It is also a new recipient of the union’s largesse.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks is learning the hard way that the union’s pay-to-play efforts are yielding few (and scattershot) results.

As for other progressive groups? NEA gave $1.3 million in 2016-2017 to Sixteen Thirty Fund, a endowment developed by former Clinton Administration mandarin Eric Kessler’s Arabella Advisors; that’s more than double the amount it ladled out to the outfit in the previous year. It also gave $300,000 to State Engagement Fund, an outfit run by Anne Bartley, another former Clinton Administration staffer and stepdaughter of one of Bill Clinton’s predecessors as Arkansas governor, Winthrop Rockefeller. It also gave $250,000 to Center for American Progress, which is a reform-oriented outfit, but has been helping traditionalists oppose the expansion of vouchers, a key tool of expanding school choice. The union gave $50,000 to Proteus Action League, an affiliate of Proteus Fund which has played small roles in ballot measures in California, Nebraska and Maine; $50,000 to Tides Foundation’s Advocacy Fund; and $10,000 to State Voices, a coalition of 20 organizations dedicated to voter registration drives and other mobilization activities.

It gave $150,000 to Progressive Leaders State Committee; $50,000 to Good Jobs First (also an AFT vassal); $50,000 to the Chicago-based Community Justice for Youth Institute; $25,000 to  economist Dean Baker’s Center for Economic and Policy Research; and $5,000 to Cornell University’s Center for Transformative Action. It also gave $250,000 to Corporate Action Network, a division of the Action Network Fund that aims to “address the imbalance of power between corporations and people” by allying itself with outfits such as NEA, which are just as powerful.

Meanwhile NEA gave plenty to old-school civil rights groups and self-styled outfits willing to do its bidding.

The biggest recipient among that group was Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Action Fund. NEA gave it $125,000 in 2016-2017; it received nothing from the union in the previous year. The union also gave $50,300 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, gaining access to top congressional leaders as well as other influencers at its annual conference. Meanwhile NEA gave $75,000 to NAACP; the better for the once-respectable civil rights outfit to continue opposing the expansion of charters and other school choice options Black families desire. It also gave $25,000 to National Urban League, which is far less reliable.

NEA also gave $25,000 to the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, $20,000 to National Council on Black Civic Participation, $10,000 to National Center for Transgender Equality, $10,000 to Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, and $25,800 to Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Reaching out to immigration reform groups opposing the Trump Administration’s efforts to deport undocumented emigres, NEA gave $50,000 to National Immigration Law Center. It also handed out $35,000 to United We Dream, which works on behalf of the 760,000 undocumented immigrant children, youth, and adults (including 20,000 teachers) who may be deported thanks to the administration’s move in September to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

As for the usual suspects?: NEA gave $50,000 to FairTest (also known as National Center for Fair and Open Testing), the leading outfit in opposing the use of standardized tests, the data from which can be used in evaluating the teachers in NEA’s rank-and-file. The union gave FairTest the same amount in 2015-2016. NEA made sure to pay off Kevin Welner’s National Education Policy Center, sending $250,000 to the outfit in 2016-2017 through the University of Colorado-Boulder’s foundation; that’s also unchanged from last year.

NEA also handed $408,659 to Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the group that represents the nation’s woeful university schools of education; provided $124,300 to National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; gave $527,542 to Barnett Berry’s Center for Teaching Quality; and handed out $225,000 to the ever-dependable Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. NEA gave $68,400 to Learning First Alliance, and $100,000 to Education Law Center.

Again, it’s good to be NEA. For now. For the teachers who pay into it, often thanks to the compulsory dues laws the union defends, it may not be so good.

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. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for this and previous reports on NEA and AFT spending.

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When Accountability Isn’t

There is little evidence that states will do a better job of holding districts and other school operators accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act than they did under the…

There is little evidence that states will do a better job of holding districts and other school operators accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act than they did under the Adequate Yearly Progress provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. If anything, based on what we are learning so far, states are more-likely than ever to let districts perpetuate harm to poor and minority children. And despite what some reformers want to say, there is way to sugar-coat this reality.

No one can blame you for thinking otherwise if you only pay attention to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s analysis of state rating systems proposed in ESSA implementation plans released this week. From where it sits, seven states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Washington) will implement rating systems that clearly label how well districts and schools are performing, requires a “focus on all students” by looking at test score growth data instead of proficiency levels, and, through growth measures, fairly assess how districts and schools are improving achievement regardless of the children they serve.

Two-thirds of the states reviewed all clearly label district and school performance to Fordham’s satisfaction, and 37 states focus on student growth instead of just on improvements in student proficiency, ensuring to the think tank’s satisfaction that the “high-achieving students” it cares most about are being served. Declares Fordham: “states, by and large, seized the ESSA opportunity to make their school accountability systems clearer and fairer.”

Your editor isn’t exactly shocked about Fordham’s happy talk. After all, the conservative think tank long opposed Adequately Yearly Progress because it focused states on improving achievement for the 64 percent of children (many of them poor and minority) who are poorly-served by American public education. This despite ample evidence that focusing on achievement gaps helps all children — including high performers — succeed academically. So it isn’t a shock that Fordham favors accountability systems that focus less on how well school operators are helping the most-vulnerable. Put simply, Fordham continues to embrace neo-eugenicist thinking long proven fallacious (as well as immoral) that fails to acknowledge that American public education’s legacy practices are not worth preserving.

The flawed thinking is more than enough to render Fordham’s analysis suspect. But there are other problems with the analysis that render it all but useless.

For poor and minority children, strong accountability tied to consequences and clear, high-quality data, matters a lot.

There’s the fact that the rating systems may not actually be as “clear” in identifying school and district performance as Fordham wants to think. This is because the think tank didn’t fully look at how the underlying formulas for measuring achievement will actually play out.

Consider Maryland, the home state of Dropout Nation (as well as that of Fordham President Michael Petrilli, his predecessor, Chester Finn, Jr., who now sits on the state board of education there, and former colleague Andy Smarick, who is president of that body). Fordham rates the Old Line State’s proposed rating system “strong” for being simple and clear with a five-star system that “model immediately conveys to all observers how well a given school is performing”.

But as Daria Hall of the Education Trust noted at a conference last month, a district or school in the state can still receive a five-star rating under the state’s ESSA plan despite doing poorly in improving achievement for Black or Latino children under its care. One reason: Because neither proficiency nor test score growth count towards more than 25 percent of a district’s rating, effectively hiding how districts are actually improving student achievement. Another lies in the fact that while the state will measure all subgroups, it doesn’t explain how it will account for each within the ratings.

Then there’s Maryland’s Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency and growth targets, which essentially allow districts to not work toward 100 percent proficiency for all children. The state only expects districts to improve Black student achievement from 23.9 percent in 2015-2016 to 61.9 percent by 2029-2030 (versus 52.9 percent to 76.5 percent over that period for White peers). This means that districts are allowed to subject Black and other minority children to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Add in the fact that the Maryland’s ratings don’t account for how districts and schools are preparing kids for success in traditional colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships that make up American higher education, and the rating system is not nearly as clear as Fordham declares.

This lack of clarity isn’t just a Maryland problem. As Bellwether Education Partners notes in its review of state ESSA plans, the addition of multiple measures of district and school performance (including chronic absenteeism indexes that aren’t broken down by subgroup) means that the rating systems will likely be a muddle that ends up hiding how well or poorly school operators are serving children. This muddle is likely the reason why only Tennessee and Louisiana were able to provide data showing how their ratings would identify failure mills, as well as improvements in student achievement for poor and minority children, in real time.

Another problem: Many states are using super-subgroups (now called supergroups under ESSA), a legacy of the Obama Administration’s shoddy No Child waiver gambit, that essentially lumps all poor and minority children into one category. Because super-subgroups lump children of different backgrounds into one category, the measure hides a district’s failure to help the worst-served children succeed and thus, allows it to not address its failures. Put simply, a state rating system can be simple and clear and yet still not tell the truth about how districts and schools are serving every child in their classrooms.

Accountability is more than just a school rating system. Consequences must be tied together with data and standards for children, families, and taxpayers to be served properly. [Image courtesy of the Education Trust.]

One state using super-subgroups is Florida, whose school rating system uses super-subgroups instead of thoroughly accounting for Black, Latino and other poor and minority children. Essentially, without accounting for either proficiency or growth for each group, the ratings will not fully inform anyone about how well districts are serving children.

The deliberate decision to ignore how districts and schools serve the most-vulnerable (along with the Sunshine State’s request to not use test data from its exams for English Language Learners in accountability) has led Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, along with a group that includes EdTrust, NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and UnidosUS, to ask U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to reject the entire proposal. By the way: Fordham ranked Florida’s school rating system as “strong” in two out of three categories it analyzed.

But the biggest problem with Fordham’s analysis is that continues to embrace a flawed theory of action: That mere transparency suffices as a tool for accountability and, ultimately, holding school operators (and ultimately, states) responsible for fulfilling their obligation to help children succeed.

This approach, which Fordham first embraced during the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, is based on the idea that only high-quality data on district, school, and even teacher performance is needed for policymakers and others within states to hold bad actors accountable. Essentially, there will be no need for the federal government to force states to fulfill their responsibilities to children, as it did through No Child’s AYP provision.

But as seen with the failed effort to implement Common Core-aligned tests produced by the PARC and Smarter Balanced coalitions, transparency-as-accountability only works if the mechanics are in place. School rating systems aren’t useful if the underlying data doesn’t actually reflect what is actually happening in schools. This will clearly be problems in Maryland and Florida, and will be just as problematic in other states. California, for example, was dinged by Bellwether in its recent round of reviews for failing to longitudinally measure student achievement, a better way to account for changes in school populations over time. [This, in turn, is a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s moves over his tenure to sabotage the state’s school data system.]

School rating systems and other forms of transparency are also insufficient in spurring accountability if there aren’t consequences for continuous failures to meet the grade. Accountability as Sandy Kress, the mastermind behind No Child, points out, is a three-pronged approach that includes consequences as well as high-quality standards on which school ratings (and the measuring of improvements in student achievement) are to be based. Few states have explained in their ESSA plans how they would force districts and other school operators to overhaul their schools or shut them down altogether and let children go to high-quality charter and district options.

The high cost of the rollback of accountability will be felt by the next generation of children — and even harm the beneficiaries of No Child’s now-abolished Adequately Yearly Progress regime who are now in our high schools.

Few states are going beyond the federal requirement to identify the lowest-performing five percent of schools. Louisiana, for example, plans to go above and beyond by identifying (and forcing the overhaul) of the 17 percent of schools that are failure mills, while New Mexico requires districts to use an array of approaches to turn around low-performing schools. California, on the other hand, hasn’t even submitted a plan on how it will identify failure mills much less hold them accountable. [It supposedly plans to do so by January.]

It gets even worse when it comes to how states will ensure that districts provide poor and minority children with high-quality teachers. As the National Council on Teacher Quality details in a series of reports released Tuesday, just seven states offer timelines on how it will improve the quality of teaching for Black, Latino, English Language Learners and other vulnerable children, as well as the rates by which it will improve teacher quality for them. Given that teacher quality isn’t even a measure in any of the proposed school rating systems, states have missed an important opportunity to bring transparency and consequences to their public school systems.

Given that so few states are being concrete about how it will help kids stuck in failure mills succeed, the school ratings will be little more than some stars and letters on computer screens.

Two decades of research have proven that accountability works best when there are real, hard consequences for districts and schools failing to improve student achievement. No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision, which worked alongside accountability systems states either already developed or had put in place after the provision was enacted, spurred improvements in student achievement that have led to 172,078 fewer fourth-graders being illiterate in 2015 than in 2002, the year No Child became law.

Yet what ESSA has wrought so far are school rating systems that are likely to do little on behalf of children who deserve better. The benefits of clear data tied with real consequences have now been lost. If accountability is only toothless transparency, then it is neither sufficient nor necessary to help all of our children succeed in school and in life. There is no good news to be had. None at all.

Featured illustration courtesy of St. Louis Public Radio.

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Are Reformers Ready?

Certainly there is plenty of reason to celebrate the results of last Tuesday’s general elections. But the time for that is over. There’s an election coming next year, one that…

Certainly there is plenty of reason to celebrate the results of last Tuesday’s general elections. But the time for that is over. There’s an election coming next year, one that will have impact on the efforts of school reformers to build better lives for all children.

But will the movement be ready?

If you live in Maryland, as your editor does, the gubernatorial race could shape up to be a battle between two reform-minded candidates. One one hand, there’s incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan who, despite some high-profile setbacks courtesy of the Democrat-controlled legislature and White reformers unwilling to work with Black counterparts, has proven to be slightly better than your editor thought he would be three years ago. On the other side, there’s the equally reform-minded Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who took partial control of the traditional district and has made overhauling it a key priority. If reformers come out to support Baker (and rally others to do the same), it can work out for Maryland’s children.

But only if the movement is ready.

If you are in California, there’s the chance to end outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown’s deliberate rollback of systemic reform by backing former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to replace him. Unlike rival Gavin Newsom (who just gained the backing of the National Education Association’s California Teachers Association) Villaraigosa has proven effective in advancing systemic reform (and battling traditionalists) on behalf of children during his years as Los Angeles Mayor despite having no control over the traditional district there. Reformers also have a chance to put Marshall Tuck into the state superintendent’s office, effectively ending the state education department’s fealty to CTA and the AFT’s state affiliate there.

It can be done only if the movement is ready.

Marshall Tuck, who unsuccessfully ran for California Superintendent three years ago, is one of many reformers the movement must help put into office next year.

There are opportunities to continue systemic reform. There’s Georgia, where Nathan Deal’s successful expansion of school choice can be continued with the right candidate. There is also Colorado, where reformers can work with others to put Teach For America alum-turned-state senator Mike Johnston into the governor’s office. Meanwhile Florida has an opportunity to build on the reforms began under Jeb Bush that have continued in fits and starts under Rick Scott. This is all before you look at the other gubernatorial, chief state school officer, and state board races that will be on the ballot next year.

All of this can happen. But only if the movement is ready.

These days, the school reform movement can use all the political victories it can muster. On the national level, centrist Democrat, progressive, and civil rights-oriented reformers bet badly on Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign,while the hopes conservative reformers had for Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education have proven to be as illusory as your editor said they would be. That the Trump Administration is effectively engaged in a war on the futures of poor and minority children (including the 760,000 covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the native-born children of undocumented emigres) essentially proves beyond a doubt that the federal government is abandoning three decades of advancing reform.

Meanwhile the failures to win voter support expansion of charter schools and overhaul of traditional districts in Massachusetts and Georgia have only been slightly blunted with legislative victories for expanding choice in Colorado, Texas and Illinois. But as seen on Tuesday in Douglas County, Colo., and Denver, the success reformers make in working policymakers isn’t translating into political victories that can sustain those solutions for the long run. Even on the policy front, the evisceration of accountability in Maryland and California (where Gov. Brown signed legislation eliminating the state’s graduation exam), along with the weak plans submitted by most states for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, serve as reminders that past successes don’t last forever without eternal vigilance.

As you would expect, there are reformers who hope that the U.S. Supreme Court’s likely ruling against compulsory dues collections in Janus v. AFSCME will weaken NEA, AFT and their traditionalist allies and rally more progressive Democrats to their side. This is short-sighted thinking. Even if both unions lose as much as 30 percent of revenue, they still have the bodies and relationships on the ground necessary to oppose reformers at the ballot box. Just as importantly, because some of the nation’s foremost reformers (especially Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights and Center for American Progress) are dependent on funding from other public sector unions and even collect some cash from NEA and AFT, those groups will be weakened financially, hampering the school reform movement’s efforts to help all children succeed.

The school reform movement won’t sustain its solutions if it doesn’t win at the ballot box. This means changing how it does politics.

School reformers can’t simply count on legislative victories or on the weakening of traditionalist opponents. They must do more than simply stand still. As your editor has kept arguing for the better part of this decade, reformers must become politically savvier in order to sustain the systemic overhaul of American public education.

This begins by learning one of the most-important lessons of Tuesday’s success by Democrats in wining the Virginia gubernatorial campaign and other victories at the legislative and municipal levels throughout the nation: Rally support from poor and minority communities, including  immigrant households. As Center for American Progress noted last week in its post-mortem on the 2016 election, just increasing turnout among those communities would have made the difference between a Clinton victory and her ultimate defeat.

Considering that poor and minority households are the ones most-affected by the failures of American public education, reformers can make strong inroads by embracing the approaches used successfully by progressive groups this year (as well as by Green Dot Public Schools Founder Steve Barr and Parent Revolution over the past decade). This includes addressing the issues outside of education policy and practice that are of immediate concern to those communities, as well as taking a page from NEA and AFT locals by working with the churches and community organizations connected to the people who live in them. It also means recruiting those from Black, Latino, and other minority communities to run in school board races and other political campaigns, a point made by Democrats in their success this week.

The second step can also be gleaned from Tuesday’s election results: Build strong support for reform among suburban families, especially those from poor and minority households who make up an increasingly large share of the populations there as well as those that are White and college-educated. The lack of support from suburbia is one reason why the effort to expand charters in Massachusetts went down to defeat last year.

Particularly on expanding school choice, reformers can focus on how opening charter schools can help families gain new educational settings that suburban districts deliberately limit for their use in satisfying key constituencies. This includes explaining how families can launch language immersion charters that are now popular with upper middle class households (and are also needed for children from immigrant homes). It also includes helping Black and Latino families challenge Zip Code Education policies that lead to their children not receiving the high-quality teaching and curricula they need and deserve.

The third step lies in embracing tactics used by politicians and challengers in their campaigns. Holding voter registration drives, for example, will help bring new voters to the polls and even help reformers prove their value to the politicians they need to help pass legislation. Running political ads that bring attention to education issues in a simple-yet-comprehensive way is also important to do.

While reform groups have launched 501(c)4 political advocacy operations alongside traditional nonprofits, they must do more. This means starting independent expenditure groups similar to those run by NEA and AFT (as well as other political players) who can finance ads on behalf of (and against) candidates on the ballot.

Finally, and most-importantly, reformers must work together with activists outside of education, including those in the Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform movements (whose leading lights include alumni of Teach For America) as well as those working against the Trump Administration’s war on undocumented emigres and their families. After all, you can only galvanize people to your side when you show that you care about the lives and futures of their communities as well as their children. More importantly, reformers can’t call themselves champions for children if they are not defending them at all times, addressing the issues outside of schools that affect how they learn within them, and dealing with the reality that American public education at the nexus of the ills that plague the nation today.

As Patrick Riccards noted last week, conservative and many centrist Democrat reformers erred when they criticized Teach For America (as well as other outfits) when it became more-explicit in its efforts to build brighter futures for poor and minority children inside and outside of schoolhouse doors. These reformers should correct the error of their ways. This doesn’t mean that reformers have to join protest rallies. But they can sign letters of support for legislation such as a path for DACA recipients gaining citizenship, as well as support political campaigns of those who want to reform law enforcement agencies that end up patrolling traditional district schools. Such support for those efforts, in turn, help reformers gain advocates on their behalf for transforming American public education.

Reformers can even take stands in elections that are far outside of these issues. The movement’s leading lights, for example, can call out former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice-turned-Republican Senatorial Nominee Roy Moore over allegations revealed this week that he conditioned and engaged in sexual misconduct with underage women. As champions for children, we cannot stand by anyone taking public office who has engaged in the kind of evil for which we would condemn rogue teachers and police officers. It doesn’t take much — and this can even be tied to the issues of protecting our children and youth inside and out of schools.

The coming year is an opportunity for the school reform movement to gain the political support needed to help all children succeed. The steps needed to be taken can be done. It can happen.

But are reformers ready? For the sake of our children, they need to be.

Featured photo: Prince George’s County, Md., Executive Rushern Baker, who is looking to challenge incumbent Larry Hogan, is one of many reform-minded politicians who may end up on the ballot next year.

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Missouri Fails All Children

These days, the Show Me State demonstrates a lot of things to people. Few of them any good. Yet none of the black eyes it has gotten compared to the…

These days, the Show Me State demonstrates a lot of things to people. Few of them any good. Yet none of the black eyes it has gotten compared to the damage its public education systems are doing to its children.

The latest stain on the states reputation can be seen in St. Louis, where protests against police brutality after Circuit Court Judge Timothy Wilson let former Police Officer Jason Stockley off the hook for murdering Anthony Lamar Smith is a reminder of the slaying of Michael Brown by another rogue cop in nearby Ferguson three years ago. The arrests of protestors and journalists by the Gateway City’s police department — as well as  arrogant chants ““Whose streets? Our streets” by those officers — has justified the NAACP’s move earlier this year to tell Black men and women to avoid the state like the plague.

But the biggest stain on Missouri’s present reputation has less to do with rogue cops and police misconduct and more with the low quality of its public education systems. Especially in St. Louis, where the (often state-controlled) districts within the city and county have become infamous for overusing harsh school discipline, providing few opportunities for high quality education, criminalizing the lives of youth, and restricting the ability of poor and minority children to escape the failure mills that litter the landscape. But as a Dropout Nation analysis shows, St. Louis merely mirrors the woeful lack of opportunities for the kind of college-preparatory courses children need for lifelong success.

Just 13.7 percent of the 292,558 children attending Missouri’s high schools took calculus, trigonometry and other forms of advanced mathematics in 2013-2104, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. The woeful levels cut across nearly all socioeconomic backgrounds. Black children suffered the worst with just one out of every 10 taking calculus and advanced math that year. But White children did little better, with only 13.9 percent taking college-level mathematics; a mere 11.4 percent of Latino students, 13.5 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native peers, and 33.6 percent of Asian children taking those courses in the year surveyed.

The Show Me State does even worse in providing Advanced Placement courses that help prepare children for the rigors of higher education. Just 10.5 percent of all Missouri high-schoolers took AP courses in 2013-2104. This includes a mere 8.7 percent of Black students, 9.6 percent of Native peers, 10.3 percent of Latino high schoolers, and 10.4 percent of White students. Only Asian students were provided AP courses at high levels, with 26.7 percent of them taking those college-level classes that year. [Just six-tenths of one percent of all Show Me State high school students took International Baccalaureate courses, the other college preparatory coursework of choice for America’s students.]

Things get little better when it comes to physics, a science course that helps children gain preparation to take on higher ed classes that lead to high-paying careers in science and technology. Just 8.9 percent of high school students in Missouri took physics in 2013-2014. This is one area in which White students do worse than their minority counterparts. Just 7.8 percent of White high schoolers took physics versus 9.5 percent of Native students, 12 percent of Latino peers, 12.1 percent of Black students, and 17.4 percent of Asian peers.

The rationing of opportunity, of course begins long before children reach high school and can be seen in the middle school years in the numbers taking Algebra 1, a key course for college preparation. Just 11.8 percent of all Show Me State middle schoolers took Algebra 1 in 2013-2014. Again, Black children are failed miserably, with just 9.9 percent taking Algebra 1. But children from other backgrounds do little better. Only 10.4 percent of Latino middle school students, 11 percent of Native peers, 11.8 percent of White students, and 22.3 percent of Asian peers took Algebra 1 that year.

The path to denying opportunity begins in Missouri’s elementary schools, where children  (especially those from poor and minority households) are denied by teachers and guidance counselors into the gateways into what traditional districts consider to be higher levels of teaching and curricula.

Just 4.4 percent of Show Me State students are taking gifted-and-talented course. Certainly gifted-and-talented programs are questionable in their quality (as well as being a legacy of ability tracking, IQ testing frauds, and the other forms of racialism that began in the 20th century as a result of the belief that only some children are capable of learning at high levels). But they are also one of the few avenues children have for getting some semblance of high-quality education.

Oddly enough, Black children are twice as likely to gain entry into gifted-and-talented programs than White peers, with 10.4 percent of Black children in such pathways in 2013-2014 compared to just 4.6 percent of White students. This may be a result of the fact that Missouri’s rural and small town districts, which serve the bulk of the state’s White children, don’t provide such gateways. Meanwhile, just 34 percent of Latino students, 4.7 percent of Native peers, and 22.9 percent of Asian students were in gifted-and-talented programs.

An even bigger problem: That far too many children are far more likely to be condemned by districts into special ed ghettos. Thirteen-point-seven percent of Show Me State students are condemned to special ed in 2013-2014, all but guaranteeing that they will not get high-quality teaching and curricula. Black and White children are particularly prone to being condemned to special ed ghettos, with, respectively 14.7 percent and 14.5 percent being placed there compared to 3.3 percent of Asian students, five percent of Native peers, and 8.7 percent of Latino children.

There are plenty of reasons for people in St. Louis and the rest of Missouri to protest. Police brutality is one. Educational abuse is the other.

Put simply: Children in Missouri are far more-likely to end up in special ed than taking gifted-and-talented programs or any other opportunity for high-quality education. Latino and White children, for example are respectively, two and three times more likely to end up in special ed than in gifted-and-talented gateways.

One of the underlying culprits lie with the Show Me State’s failure to adequately finance college-preparatory opportunities within traditional districts. While the states provides some funds for offering AP courses, it is dwarfed by the sums spent on special education. In 2015-2016, for example, the state spent a mere $415,875 on AP (as well as dual enrollment) courses, while spending $411.5 million on special ed. An additional complication will come in the next few years thanks to the federal government’s move two years to consolidate funds used to finance AP courses for poor and minority students into a block grant, effectively making it harder for districts to offer high-quality opportunities to their most-vulnerable children.

Meanwhile the state has done little to expand the number of public charter schools serving children of all backgrounds. Just 52 charters operate in the Show Me State in 2015-2016, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, all of them in St. Louis and Kansas City because of their status as failure mills. Given that Missouri children attending charter schools gain an additional 22 days of learning in math and 14 additional days of learning in reading (according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes), the lack of high-quality charters hurts both children in big city and rural communities who need help. The efforts to

Making things even worse was the state’s decision three years ago to ditch Common Core’s reading and math standards. This move, a result of opposition from movement conservatives in the Show Me State, denied all children (including those who are poor and White as well as Black and Latino) the comprehensive knowledge they need to be prepared for college-preparatory coursework, and ultimately, for the rigors of coursework in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education.

The Show Me State’s political and educational leaders — including current Gov. Eric Greitens and his predecessor, Jay Nixon — deserve to bow their heads in shame for the educational abuse and neglect they are perpetrating on all of the children in the state’s public education systems. More importantly, these officials need to expand opportunities for all of those children to gain the knowledge critical to their future success as well as that of the state. Until then, the rogue policing tolerated in Missouri will be merely its most-public embarrassment.

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