Author: RiShawn Biddle

Voices of the Dropout Nation in Quotes: Education as the Key to Social Mobility

The irony here, with all due respect to the fine work of our sociologists who tell us how doomed kids from bad backgrounds and uneducated parents are, is that we…

The irony here, with all due respect to the fine work of our sociologists who tell us how doomed kids from bad backgrounds and uneducated parents are, is that we have somehow turned public schools inside out. What used to be considered “the engine of social mobility” (see Fareed Zakaria in the new Time magazine), the incubator of productive and successful citizens (and parents), the school is now treated as some kind of barometer of caste and class. Instead of a place to liberate one from ones background, to become better (at parenting and citizenship), school has become a mirror for reflecting that background back on students… we created public schools in large part to get kids away from bad homes and bad parents and onerous social and economic circumstance and stigma…. we seem unable to teach kids unless their parents are educated saints and poverty is solved.”

Peter Meyer of the Fordham Institute, declaring what really should be obvious to every school reformer worthy of their title.

Americans across the ideological spectrum are unhappy with the lack of relative upward mobility out of the bottom. When given the actual percentage of people stuck in the bottom, 53 percent of Americans, and half of conservatives, deemed it a “major problem.” Living up to our values therefore requires policymakers also to focus on increasing upward relative mobility from the bottom…

Where to look to encourage more upward relative mobility? Begin with the fact that just 16 percent of those who start at the bottom but graduate from college remain stuck at the bottom, compared with 45 percent of those who fail to get a college degree. There is a legitimate debate about whether pushing academically marginal students into college will give them the same benefits that current college graduates receive, but there are surely financially constrained students who would enroll — or who would stay enrolled — if they could afford to.

Scott Winship, in National Review, pointing out the importance of helping all kids get some form of higher education. It starts with providing every child with a rigorous, college preparatory curricula.

There’s no doubt that implementing standards well will cost a lot of money. But every aspect of schooling—paying salaries, figuring out how to allocate time, providing effective professional development and so on—costs money. Spending patterns might have to change. Perhaps, God forbid, revenues will have to increase. What [California state superintendent Tom] Torlakson is really saying is that it’s an unfunded and unreasonable mandate to ask the state to actually educate kids so that they will have a shot at postsecondary success. Others might argue that the cost of not educating students well far exceeds the cost of doing so.

Education Sector’s Richard Lee Colvin rightfully chastising the Golden State’s educational status quo for sliding back on a key part of systemic reform.

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The Penn State Scandal: A Reminder That We Must Do Better By Our Most-Vulnerable

  As an outlet focused solely on covering the reform of American public education, Dropout Nation rarely ventures into discussing other issues. But the indictment of former Pennsylvania State University…


As an outlet focused solely on covering the reform of American public education, Dropout Nation rarely ventures into discussing other issues. But the indictment of former Pennsylvania State University defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for allegedly molesting eight young at-risk young men — and revelations that his legendary former boss, Joe Paterno, and other university leaders, essentially ignored this criminal behavior — offers another reminder of how poorly we treat our most-vulnerable children. And our moral obligation to do better by these kids in every way.

If even if a 10th of the allegations are true (and the more-skeptical among us suspect what we don’t know is even worse), there is nothing in this scandal that shouldn’t disgust any man or woman. The fact that Sandusky has likely took advantage of his prime positions as a legendary college football assistant coach and upstanding member of the community to behave in a predatory, abusive, pedophilic manner. The apparently craven unwillingness of Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley, former vice president Gary Schultz, and now-ousted university president Graham Spanier to report at least one allegation of molestation to the State College police or Centre County sheriff’s office nine years ago, which could have prevented more abuse. The possible complicity of the Second Mile, the organization which Sandusky had founded, in allowing him to continue his allegedly predatory behavior. The evidence that one high school where Sandusky was a volunteer allowed him to meet alone, unsupervised, with Second Mile participants attending classes there, even when some found his behavior to be :controlling” and “needy”. The mishandling of the entire revelations by Penn State until just hours ago, when the university’s board sacked Paterno and Spanier for what can be at best be called conduct unbecoming of leaders of men. And the continued willingness of some Penn State students and alum to defend what can only be kindly called the indefensible.

Sandusky is, of course, innocent until proven guilty. And innocent men have been wrongly accused, even convicted, of crimes. All that said, there are numerous lessons that come from this scandal. That loyalty is more immediate and valuable to many people than morality. That institutional and personal power, kept unchecked, corrupts absolutely. That when organizations fire bad actors, they do so for business reasons and not for the good of society. And that those who we consider to be “good” people are far too willing to let evil take hold wherever it chooses to go.

But the most-important lesson from the Penn State scandal is one that Dropout Nation readers know all too well: We treat our poorest, most-vulnerable children as if they are unworthy of our love and compassion.

Our juvenile justice systems subject far too many kids to abuse and denial of due process. Back in March, former Luzerne County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted last month on racketeering and bribery charges connected to the convictions of more than 2,500 juvenile offenders. For seven years, Ciavarella and his partner in crime, former presiding judge Michael Conahan, helped funnel $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars to cronies operating two private jails by tossing alleged youth offenders — many of whom were first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors such as spraying graffiti, writing prank notes, and truancy — into those jails. In exchange for condemning the lives of these kids — often by handing down guilty verdicts less than two minutes and essentially denying the kids the right to lawyers to boot– the judges collected $2.6 million in what can only be called filthy lucre.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that one out of every three kids held in 13 juvenile jails and prisons were sexually abused by guards, other employees, or fellow inmates. This included 37 percent of kids imprisoned at Maryland’s Backbone Mountain Youth Center, and Indiana’s Pendleton juvenile prison. Nationally, 12 percent of all juvenile prisoners reported molestation and other forms of sexual abuse.

Five years ago in Indianapolis, the city’s juvenile court system was rocked by scandal after allegations surfaced that nine employees at the juvenile jail were sexually abusing youth offenders. The news came after revelations of rampant overcrowding. Prosecutors couldn’t sustain those charges in court. But your editor would reveal that alleged juvenile offenders were often denied attorneys and, in some cases, were being falsely convicted of crimes. For example, one 16-year-old was convicted by one juvenile court magistrate for allegedly molesting her three year-old son and photographing the action; the conviction was overturned after appellate judges found that the photo used to justify the conviction actually showed the young woman kissing her child’s belly. Another 16-year-old was held in juvenile jail for 70 days — 69 days longer than allowed under Indiana state law — without so much as a trial.

America public education aids and abets the abuse with zero-tolerance policies and the overuse of harsh school discipline. Truancy accounted for 38 percent of all status (or illegal only because the child is a minor) cases filed in juvenile court in 2007; they accounted for just 30 percent of all status cases twelve years earlier (schools account for three-quarters of those referrals). In fact, the number of status cases has increased by 31 percent between 1995 and 2007, with courts hearing 35,300 more cases in 2007 than twelve years ago.

Our child welfare and foster care systems are no more humane. Each year, 26,000 kids age out of foster care, often never having either returned to their families or placed into a permanent home where they can get love and care. Even before they leave the system, they have been subject to abuse and neglect by the parents who are supposed to love them, by institutions that are supposed to protect them, and public education systems that subject them to the worst they can offer.

As National Public Radio revealed last month in its system on the negative impact of foster care systems, American Indian kids in South Dakota made up 53 percent of all foster care wards, even though they make up just 13 percent of the state’s children. All but 10 percent of them were placed in foster homes that were run by non-natives, violating federal law originally passed to stop decades of abuse against Indian kids in what were euphemistically called non-reservation boarding schools. The apparent crony capitalism — this, in the form of Children’s Home Society, which reportedly collected more than $50 million in mostly no-bid contracts over seven years from South Dakota’s child welfare system (and was once-run by the state’s current governor, Dennis Daugaard) — makes one wonder how many Native American children were taken from their families in order to generate income. Given that the federal government found 31 other states in violation of federal law six years ago — and disproportionate rates of American Indian kids being seized from families — the problem is more-widespread than anyone realizes.

American public education exacerbates the problem. Just 20 percent of 13-year-old foster care kids attending Chicago’s public schools in 1998 graduated on time five years later, according to a 2004 study by Chapin Hall, lower than the 52 percent five-year graduation rate for all Chicago students based on eighth grade enrollment used by Dropout Nation. These kids are more-likely to be diagnosed as special ed cases: Twenty-six percent of the foster kids attending school in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2005-2006 were labeled as special ed cases, double the already abysmal 11 percent rate for all L.A. Unified students and 13 percent of all children nationwide that year. In Chicago, 45 percent of sixth-to-eighth grade students in foster care were diagnosed with learning disabilities, three times the rate of the overall student population. Kids in foster care are also more-likely to be subjected to the harshest school discipline, especially when they have also been labeled  learning disabled. In L.A. Unified, the out-of-school suspension rate for foster care students is 12 percent, higher than the eight percent for all students. The fact that foster kids don’t have families who can fight for improving their education means that they often get the worst American public education offers.

The simple reality is that the Penn State scandal, as isolated as it may seem, is just another example of the clear, constant debasement of kids who deserve much better. From dropout factories that toss 1.2 million kids into poverty and prison, to juvenile justice systems that are anything but, the systems we put in place to serve our children are unworthy of them. Some will argue that this scandal has nothing to do with the reform of American public education. That is short-sighted thinking. Our schools are the clearest representation of what we stand for as Americans and as moral human beings. More importantly, it intersects (and in many cases, sustains the troubles) of many of the systems that we have put in place for helping our kids when life hits them with its worst.

Government-run systems, in general, are terrible at dealing with the social ills that can only be solved by strong families and civic society. But we can make sure that those systems don’t make the lives of our kids any harder than they need to be. Reforming all of these systems, including our schools, is the least we owe to all of our children. And every school reformer and education traditionalist should be dedicated to that most important moral goal.

If all of us, especially those who believe in the Creator, want to consider ourselves moral people, then we need to do better by every child, no matter who they are or where they live.

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Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, and the Political Lessons for School Reformers

School reformers, especially conservative reformers and centrist Democrats who are not squeamish about abolishing collective bargaining, certainly have little to be happy about in yesterday’s defeat of Ohio Senate Bill…

School reformers, especially conservative reformers and centrist Democrats who are not squeamish about abolishing collective bargaining, certainly have little to be happy about in yesterday’s defeat of Ohio Senate Bill 5. Nor can they or the rest of the movement be happy about the successful recall effort of Michigan State Rep. Paul Scott, whose work helping Gov. Rick Snyder enact a series of reforms arose the ire of the National Education Association affiliate there. Both losses prove that school reformers have less savvy in the political arena than in working congressional hallways and statehouse corridors.

But it isn’t all bad news. Not even by a country mile.

In New Jersey, school reform-minded Democrats kept control of the state legislature. Garden State senate president Stephen Sweeney — who teamed up with Republican governor Chris Christie to end the nearly-free healthcare benefits negotiated by the NEA (and require teachers to pay more toward their health insurance and pensions) — will not only keep his job, but may end up getting rid of Barbara Buono, the majority leader who voted against the plan (and other school reforms) this year. And Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who risked her own political capital to back some of Christie’s reform efforts, will also keep her job for now; her backer, state Sen. George Norcross (who stood up to the NEA affiliate this year on school reform), also remains in office.

Meanwhile in Virginia, Republicans may take control of the state senate, which could be promising for expanding school choice. Efforts earlier this year to pass a school voucher-like tax credit plan was defeated in committee by the Democrat majority. Whether or not Gov. Bob McDonnell will take advantage of the opportunity by pursuing the kind of reforms pushed by Christie and his fellow Republican governors still remains an open question. But now, reformers — especially school choice activists — can put pressure on McDonnell to step up his game.

Then there is Mississippi, where the current lieutenant governor, Phil Bryant, easily beat his Democrat opponent. As a supporter of charter schools, Bryant’s victory certainly offers reformers hope that the state will overhaul what is considered to be the nation’s weakest charter school law. Hopefully, it may also lead to some reforms on the teacher quality front as well: Mississippi allows for newly-hired teachers to gain near-lifetime employment in just two years (below even the average of three years in most states), doesn’t require annual or bi-annual evaluations of new and veteran instructors, and doesn’t require teachers to prove that they improve student achievement (even though student test data is allowed to be used under state law).

But let’s be clear: School reformers once again have plenty to learn about playing in the political arena.

For one, reformers must get better at the ground game, especially the get-out-the-vote efforts that can make the difference between victory and defeat. If reformers mounted a strong ground effort in Scott’s district — and rallied some 198 votes — it is quite likely that he would have won instead of now being out of office. School reformers could learn a lesson from infamous Indiana politician Julia Carson, who won elections by getting her allies to send out buses and round up supporters. A few thousand bucks on some Parent Power buses would do plenty of good.

Which leads to the second lesson, one courtesy of legendary political player (and proponent of Prohibition) Wayne Wheeler: Reformers must build strong coalitions with groups outside of education in order to make education a wedge issue that gets the attention of politicians. School reformers, especially those in the Beltway, have continually ignored this point to their peril. It is time to listen and work the grassroots — including the 52 million single parents, grandparents, and immigrant households ready to embrace systemic reform.

The third lesson: Reformers can’t be squeamish about backing legislators and governors who support their cause — and that means taking some flack for doing so. Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst caught a lot of flack from gay rights activists last month after it backed Scott (to the tune of $73,000), who isn’t a friend of their cause. For good reason. Certainly, no one who believes in equality under the law should be in love with Scott’s position on gay rights. (I’ve made my own legal position on gay marriage quite clear.)

Gay rights groups, for whom this is the most-important issue, are right to oppose Scott because of his stance. But from a political perspective, StudentsFirst had it right. As Wheeler and others proved a century ago — and remains true today — the candidate that supports your side may not always be the one that dovetails with all of your political views. For single-issue outfits, this can’t matter except if it means losing some of your important coalition members. What matters more in these situations is to back the politician who will support your positions while in office, and support the legislation and referendums that will best-advance reform. This also means that centrist and liberal Democrat reformers who oppose efforts to abolish collective bargaining will have to stop their double talk. After all, the teacher quality reforms they propose will do just as much to weaken NEA and AFT influence as those offered up by their conservative counterparts — and the two unions have already figured this out.

And finally: Reformers must be more savvy in how they play the political game long before election day. One of the reasons why the Ohio collective bargaining ban was successfully defeated has to do with the decision by Gov. John Kasich and his fellow Republicans in the legislature to include police and fire departments in the legislation. There is little sympathy for the arguments of the NEA and AFT, especially when the average taxpayer notices the high cost of traditional teacher compensation. But police officers and firefighters elicit strong support from nearly everyone; even attempting to eviscerate collective bargaining privileges for them was a step too far. Kasich should have followed the approach of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker limited the reach of the collective bargaining ban to teachers and public-sector employees outside of public safety. Even though there is an effort to recall Walker, it is getting little traction. And as seen earlier this year, when Republicans held on to nearly all their seats challenged in recalls, Walker’s move has staying power.

School reformers don’t need to lick their wounds. They just need to get to work for the elections that will be coming next year.

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America’s Woeful Public Schools: Achievement Gaps Have Economic Consequences

  21 The percentage of young male high school dropouts age 16-to-19 who were unemployed in 2010, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. 48 The percentage of young…



The percentage of young male high school dropouts age 16-to-19 who were unemployed in 2010, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.


The percentage of young male dropouts age 16-to-19 who were not in the labor force in 2010, or more than the 31 percent of young male dropouts who have dropped out have any form of employment.


The percentage of high school dropouts not in the labor force as of October 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add in the number of dropouts who are unemployed and half of high school dropouts are either not seeking or unable to find work.


Percentage of white dropouts, age 16-to-24 who were unemployed in October 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s double the 11 percent unemployment rate for counterparts who have at least some form of higher education, and 8 percent unemployment rate for baccalaureate recipients. Thirty-three of white dropouts are out of the workforce.


Percentage of young black dropouts age 16-to-24 who are unemployed in October 2011. That’s more than the 23 percent unemployment rate for counterparts with some college experience, and the 20 percent unemployment rate for four-year collegians. Forty-two percent of black dropouts are not in the labor force.


The percentage of young Asian dropouts age 16-to-24 who were unemployed in October 2011. A mere 7 percent of young Asian adults with some college experience, and 11 percent of four-year collegians, were unemployed.


The percentage of Latino dropouts age 16-to-24 who were unemployed in October 2011. The unemployment rate for Latino adults with some college experience is just 13 percent, and while the unemployment rate for four-year collegians is currently 20 percent, more of them will find jobs during the economic recovery.


What does the future look like for the 1.2 million sixth-graders who are likely functionally illiterate and will likely drop out in the next six years? Just consider the present of today’s dropouts. With half of them either not seeking work or unable to find jobs, these young men and women will struggle with economic poverty and be unable to experience the kind of social mobility that Americans have come to expect. And for those of us who are well-educated, earning an income and able to pay taxes, the costs are immense — from paying $594 billion into a traditional public education system that is fostering achievement gaps, to the welfare statements needed to help these young people.

As this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast points out, achievement gaps aren’t limited to just a smattering of poor black and Latino children, but to a wide number of kids from impoverished and affluent backgrounds. We cannot afford to not overhaul American public education.

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How the Harkin-Enzi Plan for Gutting No Child Can Weaken Parent Power

Yesterday’s Dropout Nation report on the lack of Parent Power voices at today’s hearing on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind led a few readers to note one…

Yesterday’s Dropout Nation report on the lack of Parent Power voices at today’s hearing on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind led a few readers to note one of the biggest problems with the Harkin-Enzi plan’s move to gut the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions: It could effectively abolish Parent Trigger laws already passed in California, Connecticut and Texas.

How is that? Start with the fact that the Parent Trigger is targeted towards schools that are persistently failing as measured by AYP for several years. In Connecticut, for example, it is for at least three years. So long as there is a form of AYP in place, families can effectively push for the overhaul of failing schools, either in petition or through school governance councils on which they are the majority. But if AYP is no longer in place, Parent Trigger laws can’t actually be used. After all, no AYP, no failing schools, and thus, no ability for parents to push for the overhaul of schools that have failed generations of kids.

While Harkin-Enzi is unlikely to pass, Parent Power activists have to worry about the Obama administration’s waiver plan which, like the Senate plan,would essentially eviscerate AYP. Congressional Republicans who control the federal lower house are divided over the matter. But House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline has made ending accountability a cornerstone of his tenure as education point man — and he is convincing other Republicans on the committee to stand in common cause on this goal.

As one can imagine, the Parent Power groups that have pushed for the law, including Parent Revolution (which successfully advocated for passage of California’s Parent Trigger law) are none too happy with Harkin-Enzi. Parent Revolution already declared on its blog that: “Removing accountability at our schools – whether at the state or national level – isn’t good for our kids and it doesn’t prepare our next generation of leaders for tomorrow’s challenges.” Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin says the outfit is already working the Hill and the Obama administration to figure out ways to protect Parent Trigger laws in the three states which already have them. Other groups, such as the Connecticut Parents Union, already gearing up for legislative battles over expanding Parent Trigger, will now have to work statehouse players on ensuring that the laws in their respective states remain in effect.

In theory, state legislators could simply overhaul the Parent Trigger laws by limiting their use to the worst-performing five percent of schools and schools with wide achievement gaps. Harkin-Enzi, along with President  Obama’s waiver plan, still require such accountability for those schools. But California’s Parent Trigger can be applied to the 15 percent of schools in the Golden State that are failure mills. Parent Revolution has made clear that it won’t accept any reduction in footprint — and chances are, other groups share that same reluctance.

Can Parent Power activists make those changes? Sure. But they, along with other reformers, will have to be especially savvy in taking on affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who have long opposed the laws and want to keep them from being implemented in other states. The AFT, in particular, had already shown a road-map on weakening Parent Trigger laws, courtesy of its Connecticut affiliate. The presentation, which Dropout Nation revealed in August has already caused the union to offer a series of non-apology apologies and has lead its president, Randi Weingarten, to meet with Connecticut Parents Union leaders; they have also issued a joint press statement in support of Connecticut’s Parent Trigger law.

Whatever happens at the state level, the efforts to gut No Child’s accountability measures have been a set-back to the school reform movement — and ultimately, to efforts to overhaul American public education so that even our poorest children can get the learning they deserve.

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Where Are the Parent Power Activists, Senator Harkin?

Certainly, no one should think tomorrow’s hearings on the Harkin-Enzi plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act will sway the direction that Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions…

Certainly, no one should think tomorrow’s hearings on the Harkin-Enzi plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act will sway the direction that Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee will take in the coming weeks. The real work (or damage) was done last month during the committee’s markup session on the plan. At the same time, the hearing — prompted by the delay tactics of Kentucky Republican Rand Paul — was at least supposed to be an opportunity for voices to be heard on the evisceration of No Child’s accountability provisions and whether other matters should be brought to bear in the legislation — including the importance of providing parents with the tools they need to take their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education. That many not happen either.

At this moment, the list of folks testifying before the committee tomorrow include Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, school superintendents such as Terry Grier of the Houston district in Texas, a Teach Plus fellow working in the Memphis-Shelby County district in Tennessee, and a school principal from Kentucky. But none of the grassroots players who have been at the heart of the Parent Power movement — from Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union (whose work with the State of Black CT Alliance led to the passage of the Nutmeg State’s Parent Trigger law), to former California state senator Gloria Romero (who led the passage of the nation’s first Parent Trigger law), to even Kevin Chavous of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (which has been successful in expanding charter schools and school voucher programs in states such as Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Indiana) — are on the list.

Perhaps HELP Chairman Tom Harkin and ranking Republican member Mike Enzi forgot to include these activists, as House education committee chairman John Kline did two months ago. Or they just couldn’t allot time for at least one of them to talk. Whatever the reason, Harkin and Enzi are missing an opportunity to foster a real discussion about an area in which federal education policy can help encourage and expand.

While No Child has had a family engagement component since 2001, the vehicle through which this happens — state- and district-level parent information resource centers — have been of limited success. One reason: Districts loathe meeting the required set-aside of one percent of Title 1 dollars for family engagement efforts required under the law. Another reason lies with the fact that a good number of PIRCS have not followed the strategies for engagement advocated by National PTA, the Harvard Family Research Project, and other organizations in this space.

Meanwhile other aspects of No Child that were intended to expand family engagement, Parent Power, and school choice have not worked out as plan. One provision, which requires districts to allow families to move their kids out of failing schools has long been wrecked by the intransigence of districts (which often failed to inform families of their choices in a timely manner) and the reality that most failure mills are part of districts that are failing altogether (and have few high-quality options in the first place).

The Harkin-Enzi plan does require states and school districts to develop family engagement plans and requires all those involved to follow the recommendations for family engagement developed by PTA for its National Standards for Family-School Partnerships. The plan also requires states to develop more-comprehensive school report cards, providing families more information they can use in school decisions. But Harkin-Enzi abolishes the school choice provisions instead of requiring districts and states to either issue vouchers to families so they can escape failure mills; the plan doesn’t even incorporate the smart suggestions from Richard Kahlenberg and the Century Foundation to allow for inter-district choice options. And ultimately, there is no provision in the plan that requires states to enact Parent Trigger laws that would allow families to overhaul the failure factories in their own communities, either in the form of petitions (as used in California) or through the slightly-less powerful committee format required in Connecticut.

Given the lack of real effort on this front, Harkin and Enzi could at least  used the hearing as an opportunity to open up this conversation and even consider adding such provisions on the Senate floor whenever the law finally is brought before the full body. Hopefully, by the end of today, their staffs will put at least Parent Power activist on the testimony list. If it doesn’t happen, the silence of these voices will speak volumes — and not in a good way.

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