Author: RiShawn Biddle

The Mess of Betsy DeVos

Your editor had little hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would demonstrate competence — as she didn’t do during January’s hearing before a U.S. Senate panel — after…

Your editor had little hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would demonstrate competence — as she didn’t do during January’s hearing before a U.S. Senate panel — after last month’s confirmation by the full body. Nor did I think she would be able to stand up successfully and strongly on behalf of our most-vulnerable children against those in the current administration who mean to do harm against them.

Based on events of the last two weeks, both my suspicions and those of other reformers have been confirmed. Which is why the movement (and those within it who are still committed to building brighter futures for all our children) will have to work zealously on the behalf of our youth.

The DeVos regime demonstrated a stunning lack of basic public relations savvy earlier this week when the Department of Education issued a press release on the current administration’s new executive order on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that served as a tool for its messaging on expanding school choice.

The agency could have simply stated that the executive order, meaningless as it is (because no additional money would be provided to those institutions), is an important move to make on Black History Month because it affirms the important role universities such as Howard and Wilberforce have played in helping generations of Black people access higher education and oppose the racialism that is America’s Original Sin. Instead, in a politically tone-deaf manner DeVos and her staff used it opportunistically to tout the administration’s other priorities, declaring that HBCUs “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality”.

The outrage over the remarks, both from traditionalists and many civil rights-oriented reformers, as well as Black people in general, could have been easily anticipated. After all, HBCUs didn’t come to existence because of the desire for higher-quality options, but because southern universities (especially public universities funded by the tax dollars of African Americans) wouldn’t allow young Black adults to sit in their classrooms. More-importantly, while a case can be made for the role of HBCUs as a form of choice in higher education, Black History Month is just not the time to do that. All DeVos did was make it even more-difficult for Black reformers and others to support the expansion of high-quality school options our children need and deserve.

All of this could have been avoided if one of DeVos’ appointees made a call to any number of Black school reformers, especially those who aren’t tied to the American Enterprise Institute or the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A call to DeVos’ predecessor, John King (now at the Education Trust) or even yours truly would have sufficed. Or better yet, talk to any of the Black people working in the Department of Education’s headquarters on Maryland Avenue. This didn’t happen, because of incompetence in handling public relations (a key tool for the agency’s task of overseeing federal education policy), along with a lack of concern for the families and communities of Black children.

The good news, or so it seems, is that DeVos didn’t repeat that error in this morning’s USA Today op-ed touting the meager efforts done so far by the current administration.

Meanwhile DeVos’ inability to stand strongly on behalf of the most-vulnerable became clear last week when unsuccessfully fought now-embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the rest of the current administration over its move to repeal the Obama Administration’s executive order requiring traditional districts and other public school operators to allow transgendered children to use bathrooms of the sex with which they identify.

The directive, which was issued last year after North Carolina interfered in the decisions of cities and districts by banning any accommodation of transgendered youth, was helpful in protecting those children from bullying, but engendered the ire of those ideological conservatives who both oppose gay rights as well as felt that the Obama Administration shouldn’t have enforced the federal government’s obligation to protect the civil rights of school-age children.

As Politico‘s Caitlin Emma reported, DeVos pushed for a “more-cautious” approach on rolling back the guidance, asking for a comment period that would allow gay rights activists and others to at least offer feedback before the administration made its long-stated goal a reality. One source told Emma that DeVos mindful of the criticism she received during the confirmation for her family’s support of gay conversion therapies and opposition to gay marriage, didn’t want to roll back the rules at all.

But she could not beat back Sessions, long an opponent of enforcing the federal government’s civil rights role, who wanted to roll back the rules before the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal in G.G. v. Gloucester County, which involves a district’s decision to not accommodate a 17-year-old’s use of the men’s restroom at a local high school. At the end of the day, the current administration once again proved itself unwilling to do the right thing by vulnerable children.

The inability of DeVos to fight strongly on behalf of our children in this role should surprise no one. As Dropout Nation noted back in November, DeVos refused to condemn then-President-Elect Donald Trump for his campaign of race-baiting and bigotry. Instead of condemning him for speaking ill of the families of Muslim, Black, and undocumented immigrant children, she expressed her willingness to work with the administration. Any effort she may mount on behalf of vulnerable youth was bound to be weak.

The fact that the current administration is hostile to the communities and families to which these children belong also makes it difficult for even the few good people who may be within it to stand up on their behalf. After all, one of the first actions this administration took was to essentially bar Muslim refugees from seven countries (including children fleeing war-torn Syria as well as five-year-olds seeking surgery and medical help) from entering the United States. The move, since struck down by a federal appellate court panel, is part of the long-term ideological goal by President Trump’s chief advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, to rid the nation of immigrants and socioeconomic minorities who aren’t Caucasian. [The executive order enacting the Muslim ban also barred refugee children from Central American nations from entering the country.] American public education will be as much a front as immigration in their racialist efforts.

The current administration isn’t standing alone in this. As seen in November, there is a significant number of Americans, most of them White (and sadly, many of them calling themselves Christian), who are perfectly happy to support those measures. As much driven by the desire to support policies that harm their fellow human beings as well as by their nativist fears of America becoming increasingly more diverse and less-White, they welcome the current administration’s efforts.

Also in the current administration’s amen corner: Many of those who call themselves conservative school reformers. While those so-called reformers may attempt to distance themselves from the worst of its more-noxious ideas, they are perfectly willing to support any effort by the administration to roll back the federal role in education policy (so long as it continues to support the expansion of school choice). This includes the Obama Administration’s efforts to stop districts and charters from overusing out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that damage the futures of black and other minority children.

For the reformers who remain focused on building brighter futures for children, the fight will only get harder as the current administration remains in office. They cannot expect DeVos or her appointees, regardless of any personal relationships, to be supportive in any way that will actually be helpful. So the movement must focus on advancing systemic reform in spite of DeVos’ presence or that of the administration.

This starts with the regulatory process, which includes administrative rule-making and the various comment periods during which regulations and other policies are red-lined (or rewritten and amended). The current administration will work hard to shut out civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers. But those reformers can easily use laws requiring public input to expose any efforts to weaken xisting systemic reforms as well as beat back any efforts to dismantle important data systems such as the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Concerns about the future of the latter is one reason why a coalition of groups, including Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, Teach for America and the Education Trust, issued a letter this week demanding that the data system remains comprehensive and intact.

None of what has been done so far by DeVos or this administration has been shocking or surprising. Nor should reformers be stunned. It will only get worse. Which means reformers must get to work.

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Beyond DeVos

There should be no surprise that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon by the Senate. Nor should anyone be surprised that her confirmation required a…

There should be no surprise that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon by the Senate. Nor should anyone be surprised that her confirmation required a vote by Vice President Mike Pence in his role as ceremonial leader of the federal upper house. DeVos has managed the astounding feat of gaining more votes against her confirmation than any previous appointee to the post.

Also not shocking, of course, is the visceral reaction to DeVos’ confirmation from those who supported and opposed her, especially conservative, centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers in an increasingly divided movement.

On one side, American Federation for Children, the school choice advocate DeVos previously chaired before her nomination, declared that her confirmation is “a time of opportunity and transformation”, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education sent out tweets thanking Senate Republicans (other than Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) for voting for her. Meanwhile Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute celebrated DeVos’ nomination, accusing opponents of her nomination of “being unfair to her”.

On the other side, DeVos’ immediate predecessor as education secretary, current Education Trust President John King, hoped that DeVos would “prove us wrong”, while House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Democrat Bobby Scott declared that she “failed to make a credible case” for getting her job. Catherine Brown, the education czar for the Center for American Progress (which has emerged as the leading school reform outfit opposed to DeVos’ confirmation — and garnered the criticism of conservative reformers for its stridency), proclaimed that DeVos’ confirmation was an example of how the Amway heiress’ fortune bought her support despite being “Unprepared, unaware, and unqualified.”

Your editor has already spent months explaining why DeVos shouldn’t be Secretary of Education. Certainly her strong support for expanding school choice is much appreciated here on these pages. But transforming American public education requires more than championing choice. A Secretary of Education, who runs the agency charged with ensuring that all children, especially those black and brown, gain high-quality education must be strident and vocal against those who want to subject the most-vulnerable to the rarely-soft bigotry of low expectations, oppose bigotry even from her counterparts within an administration, and have curiosity and grasp of the policy and practice issues within American public education. DeVos has exhibited none of this so far, and unlike King, your editor has no expectation that this state of affairs will change.

This, by the way, extends to other appointees whom DeVos is bringing to the Department of Education. Certainly some of the people coming to work for the agency — including former Thomas B. Fordham Institute staffer Michael Brickman, and Matt Frendewey (who was running American Federation for Children’s communications department) are people who have proven their commitment to helping all children succeed. But past performance isn’t enough — especially when choosing to work for an administration that has denigrated the families of immigrant children, Latino children, and those of the Muslim faith. Your editor prays for them to do right by all children — and so should you. They will need every prayer for discernment we can give.

But in any case, DeVos now holds the office. Which means that reformers must continue to do the hard work transforming American public education regardless of what she and her appointees do — and, given the Trump Administration’s professed and public bigotry against those who aren’t white, in spite of them.

This starts by remembering our mission: Building brighter futures for every child, no matter who they are or where they live. As civil rights activists of the last century understood, there will always be administrations, elected officials and interest groups who will be hostile against helping all children succeed. What matters more is that we work smartly, strategically, and stridently for children as well as the families who love and care for them.

It starts by playing the Capitol Hill political game. Over the next four years, there will be regulations that will be drafted and finessed through administrative rulemaking and red-lining; legislation that will be deliberated and debated; and meetings that will be held quietly and privately. Reformers must get into every step of these processes, and master every arcane rule that can either stop legislation from passing, or lead to its passage.

This means remembering that the most-important battles over overhauling American public education lies not in Washington, but in the statehouses and local communities throughout the nation. Now, more than ever, reformers must build stronger ties to families and communities (including immigrant households, single-parent families, grandparents, and minority households).

It also means working more-closely with Black Lives Matter activists and others working to reform the criminal justice systems that also harm so many of our children. And it even means working with immigrant rights groups and branches of the American Civil Liberties Union that are fighting stridently against efforts by the Trump Administration to deport undocumented immigrants as well as working to protect children covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Finally, it means advancing the solutions needed to help every child succeed. From overhauling how we recruit, train, manage and compensate teachers, to expanding choice and Parent Power, to advancing stronger accountability (and ensuring that every institution and adult is providing high quality education to our children), there is much to be done, much we can do, and not one minute to waste.

Along the way, there will be divides between various camps in the reform movement. In some cases, reformers will have to agree to disagree. Other times, there will be open conflict. Some within the movement will leave it because they feel that colleagues with different ideologies are on the wrong side. This is to be expected. What must be accepted among all reformers is that there will be conflict. What needs to be done is to make those conflicts productive so that it crystallizes, clarifies, reveals, humbles, and creates so that we can build better worlds for our children.

Now that the battle over DeVos’ confirmation is over, let’s continue working for brighter futures for every child. Especially in this age, they need us to do all we can for them.

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No to Betsy DeVos

By tonight, we will know whether Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education. But it has become clear that there is significant opposition to her possible tenure…

By tonight, we will know whether Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education. But it has become clear that there is significant opposition to her possible tenure — and she has proven that she is undeserving of the job.

As you already know, the Amway heiress’ effort to win confirmation hit snags within the past week. First came the rather narrow 12-to-11 approval last Tuesday by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee after a rancorous executive session that featured Ranking Democrat Patty Murray sparring with the committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, over his casting a vote for the nominee on behalf of colleague Orrin Hatch (who wasn’t present at the time).

Then last Wednesday, two Republicans on the committee, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, announced that they would vote against DeVos’ confirmation, effectively creating a 50-50 tie in the full Senate and casting doubt about her chances of winning. As you would expect, movement conservatives such as the editors at National Review accused both of doing the bidding of the National Education Association, which, naturally, opposes DeVos’ confirmation.

While conservative reformers such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute worked to spin the news as a sign that DeVos would gain confirmation (a funny thing given that they have been wrong about so much else when it comes to congressional votes), news that other Republicans, including Nevada’s Dean Heller, were still undecided and leaning towards voting her down cast new doubts on her chances.

Then on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that a vote on DeVos’ confirmation set for today was being delayed until Tuesday. The stated reason was to give Republicans a chance to spend time with donors at an out-of-the-Beltway event. Left unsaid: That other Republicans, including those in states with influential American Indian tribal populations opposed to DeVos such as Oklahoma and Alaska, are likely under pressure from those tribes to vote her down. That there are plenty of Senate Republicans, more-concerned about beating back Democrat efforts to stop the confirmations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch, willing to give opponents an easy victory by letting DeVos lose her bid is also a factor.

Meanwhile DeVos has taken more hits, many of them self-inflicted. Just as the Senate education committee voted on her confirmation last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that several passages from DeVos’ response to questions posed by Murray were cribbed from various sources, including an Obama Administration report. For someone being put at the helm of overseeing American public education, the allegations of plagiarism against her (and, given reality, staffers who wrote the response for her) angered even more people than necessary. At the same time, DeVos’ response to Murray that she would not require linking data on charter school performance to their operators alarmed reformers who are looking to improve the quality of student learning.

The chance of DeVos being confirmed today is still rather high. After all, even with a tie vote, all the Republicans and President Donald Trump need for DeVos’ victory is for Vice President (and President of the Senate) Mike Pence to show up and cast a vote. Which, of course, he will. There’s also the fact that DeVos’ nomination is scheduled before that of Sessions, giving the latter the chance to vote for her. But the fact that Senate Republicans waited so long to vote on her confirmation is one sign that there is little unity within the caucus behind her tenure.

As your editor expected back in December, DeVos’ nomination has divided the school reform movement as bitterly as every other discussion of late.

Falling in line with their ideological fellow-travelers, conservative reformers have largely lined up behind DeVos, arguing that any opposition to her has been driven by the smearing of her record and her character as well as what Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls a lack of civility. Given that many conservative reformers are recipients of donations from DeVos and her family’s foundations, this is to be expected.

Centrist Democrats and civil rights-oriented reformers, on the other hand, have raised concerns about DeVos’ competence and willingness to aggressive advance strong accountability. They have found themselves allied with opponents of school choice such as Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in opposing DeVos’ confirmation. The latest announcement came last Thursday when former Secretary of Education John King announced in his new role as president of the Education Trust that he and the organization actively oppose DeVos’ confirmation.

Meanwhile those outside of school reform have debated over DeVos — and their arguments have painted either side in a good light.

Allies of DeVos have argued that she would be a breathe of fresh air because she is an “outsider”. Yet in doing so, they fail to admit that her long (and largely beneficial) advocacy for advancing the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice, along with her role as a leading force in transforming public education in her home state of Michigan, makes her as much of an insider as AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. More-importantly, despite DeVos’ poor performance last month before the Senate education panel, they continue to dismiss legitimate criticisms of DeVos’ competence as being mere politicking.

On the other side, traditionalist arguments that DeVos will destroy American public education is absolutely silly. They are still stuck in the outdated notion that public education is about traditional districts and other bureaucracies, and refuse to embrace the concept of providing all children — especially those black and brown — with high-quality opportunities to learn regardless of the type of provider. They lambast DeVos for not sending her kids to traditional public schools while conveniently ignoring the fact that Former President Barack Obama himself didn’t do so either.

At the end of the day, the grandstanding of many DeVos’ allies and critics don’t matter. What does matter is if there are legitimate reasons to not confirm DeVos. From where your editor sits, there are more than plenty.

As I have noted back in November and December, DeVos would be taking charge of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown at a time in which the administration’s key leaders (including Trump and his consigliere, Steve Bannon), have demonstrated records of denigrating them and their families. No matter her assurances to the contrary, there is almost no way DeVos can enforce those civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act, especially since it is likely that Trump will work to gut the agency’s Office for Civil Rights.

DeVos’ unwillingness to condemn the bigotry of Trump and his underlings (especially the failure immediately after his election last November to demand his apology for rank demagoguery against immigrant and minority children) means that she will be unreliable in overseeing the federal government’s role in protecting the educational civil rights of black and brown children. To expect DeVos to show courage for our most-vulnerable once she’s in office when she hasn’t done so thus far is pure folly.

Her opposition to last year’s effort in Michigan to bring stronger accountability to the Wolverine State’s charter school sector (as well as bring high-quality schools to areas of Detroit outside of the center city deprived of those options) is problematic to say the least. At best, the episode shows that she is far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability. Some of her allies will note that she supported requiring private schools in Louisiana taking in children in the state’s voucher program to take state tests, and that is admirable. But what an influential player does in her own home state matters more. On this front, she was more-willing to allow problems within Michigan’s charter school sector to remain in place.

Most importantly of all, DeVos has shown almost no knowledge or even basic curiosity about either the underlying causes of the woes within American public education or about what role the federal government can play in advancing systemic reform. Certainly your editor doesn’t expect an incoming Secretary of Education to know absolutely everything about the ins and outs of policymaking or practice. But that person should demonstrate basic knowledge about current teacher quality reform efforts; exhibit interest in how states are working to overhaul the recruitment and training of school leaders; understand the debate over overuse of harsh traditional school discipline; and understand why presidents since Ronald Reagan have embraced the concept of the federal government as a key lever in advancing systemic reform.

DeVos exhibited none of this during her confirmation hearing last month. What she did demonstrate, however, was her arrogance, her flippancy, and her lack of basic knowledge about education policy. The fact that she had to be lectured by senators on such matters as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is unacceptable for someone who is looking to oversee the most-important federal education in American public education. Put simply: DeVos doesn’t deserve the job, a point reformers who have opposed her confirmation have been making for some time.

If DeVos does get confirmed today, hopefully she will do better than what the record so far has demonstrated. If not, then it is an opportunity for conservative reformers and congressional Republicans to demand Trump to nominate a more-qualified candidate.

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Again, About Betsy DeVos

There has been plenty of discussion about U.S. Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos in the weeks since your editor wrote a series of commentaries about why reformers shouldn’t support…

There has been plenty of discussion about U.S. Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos in the weeks since your editor wrote a series of commentaries about why reformers shouldn’t support her, much less anyone in the incoming Trump Administration. The resulting discussion and sparring among reformers over DeVos exemplifies the splits that have been developing within the movement for some time. Just as importantly, the discussions around DeVos’ efforts to oppose the closing of failing charter schools is another reminder of why the movement must rally around strong accountability for all schools serving our children.

The latest example of the split came yesterday when Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, a prominent champion for the kind of strong accountability measures promulgated by the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act, issued a letter calling out DeVos for her support for anti-gay rights measures and her opposition to holding charters in Detroit and the rest of Michigan accountable for poor performance.[Leadership Council also wrongly chastised DeVos for supporting vouchers. It should rethink its position on that aspect of choice.]

Naturally, Leadership Council was able to get the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and their vassals to sign on to the letter. But Leadership Council also got support from Stand for Children and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, two of the other key players among civil rights players in advancing systemic reform. That three key players within the civil rights wing of the movement have explicitly declared opposition to DeVos — and joined hands with traditionalists to boot — won’t make conservative and even some centrist Democrat reformers very happy. As it is, your editor’s commentaries, along with a piece cowritten by Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries, comments from Catherine Brown of Center for American Progress, and the pronouncement last month by Teach For America has rankled them.

Conservative reformers have come out of the woodwork to back her. This included Jason Crye of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who complained that arguments that DeVos’ place in the Trump Administration tarred school choice with bigotry were “simplistic and unfair”; and Philip Stutts, a public relations man who works for outfits such as the DeVos-funded American Federation for Children, who took to Fox News to tout her school reform bona fides. [Among other conservatives, DeVos has already won the endorsement of National Review.]

Former CNN anchor-turned-reformer Campbell Brown, who wrote a valentine to in her news outlet (which is funded by DeVos’ family foundation). After reformers and traditionalists criticized the column, Brown later announced that she wouldn’t write again about DeVos and stay out of coverage of the incoming federal official. Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, the former editor-in-chief of Education Next, wrote approvingly of DeVos in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile Daniel Quisenberry, who runs the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the lobbying group which DeVos helped cofound, took to the pages of Education Next to defend her and her record on advancing systemic reform in Michigan. Declaring that “DeVos has put kids before adults, parents before institutions, and students’ success before politics”, Quisenberry proclaimed that she would do the same as head of federal education policymaking. Expect even more public support from conservative reformers in the coming days, especially as some (most-notably the American Enterprise Institute) are reminded that the DeVos family is among their most-important donors.

But even more questions from civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers about DeVos will likely come today after they read Kate Zernike’s New York Times report detailing how the Amway heiress worked zealously this year to oppose efforts by a cadre of reformers (including Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan) to overhaul oversight of Motown’s traditional district and charter schools. The plan, which would have created an oversight board, called the Detroit Education Commission, which would have developed an A-F grading of performance for all Detroit schools, shut down failing charters, and pushed for high-quality options to be opened in sparsely-served parts of the city, was scuttled by Republicans who control the Wolverine State’s legislature after DeVos and her family reminded them who finances their campaigns. [The A-to-F grading eventually made it into final legislation that included other reforms for charters statewide.]

Some conservative reformers have already criticized Zernike’s report. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli argues that Zernike failed to mention that DeVos opposed the creation of the school oversight board because of fears that it would end up being captured by the AFT’s local there. [Zernike responds by noting that the local lacked the influence needed to make that fear a reality, though, of course, politics can always change.] Others argue that DEC  was worrisome because the board would be appointed by the mayor instead of elected. This is a strange concern given that many charter school authorizers are neither elected nor even politically appointed. A few even note (reasonably) that Duggan, who supported the legislation, also signed a measure restricting charters from acquiring city-owned property, thus making him unreliable on advancing school choice. You can also expect MAPSA and Jeanne Allen’s Center for Education Reform, both of which have strongly defended Michigan’s charter school sector from criticism, to offer more strongly-worded polemics.

As you can imagine, Zernike’s report is another reminder of a point that folks such as Robin Lake of Center for Reinventing Public Education have been making for some time: That strong accountability is key to expanding school choice throughout the nation.

Certainly over the past three decades, charter schools (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. As Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes determined in its study of charters in 41 cities, the average child gained more than 28 additional days of learning in reading than peers attending traditional district schools. Other data has shown that charters and other form of choice improve the chances that poor and minority kids will graduate from higher education and attain lifelong success.

But as seen in Michigan, not every charter school does the job. As CREDO notes, the average child in a Michigan charter gained 36 additional days of learning in reading over a traditional district peer. More than likely, that is because of the high-quality operators within the sector; as CREDO reported in a special study on the state, 65 percent of charters in the Wolverine State perform either at the same level or worse than traditional districts, making the sector among the lowest-performing in the nation. That 14 percent of Michigan’s charters are both low-performing and do little to improve student achievement is especially troubling.

DeVos’ allies argue that Michigan has closed more charter schools than the national average. What they fail to note is that few charters close because of academic failure. Just one of the 11 charters shut down in 2015-2016 were closed because of academic failure, according to data from the Wolverine State’s Department of Education. The rest were shut down because of financial problems, low enrollment, lost its contract, or were never opened in the first place. [Meanwhile the state is looking to shut down some of the 100 district-run failure mills in coming years.]

Charters in Detroit perform better on average than counterparts in the rest of the state. On average, children in Detroit’s charter schools gain 50.4 days of additional learning in reading over their peers in the failing traditional district, according to CREDO in its urban charter schools study. But as in the rest of Michigan, the performance is driven by the high-quality schools. Fifty-three percent of charters in Detroit either keep pace or do significantly worse in reading than district schools. Just as importantly, because children in Detroit are struggling academically compared to peers in the rest of the Wolverine State, the need to replace failing charters with higher-quality options becomes ever more necessary.

Meanwhile, as CRPE has noted, Detroit also has a charter distribution problem. Most of the high-quality charters in Motown are located in the city’s downtown core, far away from the neighborhoods where the poorest children and families reside. Because Michigan doesn’t require charters in Detroit or elsewhere to provide transportation — and authorizers don’t make that a condition of approval (something that the mayor of another Midwestern hub, Indianapolis, has done for the past two decades) — poor kids are often kept from the highest quality options. What this means is that the mission of the school reform movement to help all children succeed isn’t being fulfilled for those in the most need.

The key problem lies with charter authorizers — including traditional districts — who have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools are allowed to be charter authorizers even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. But as Education Trust-Midwest noted in its review of charter authorizers in the Wolverine State, even the independent oversight groups do poorly in keeping tabs on charter school performance. One key reason why: They derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they also collect money from them for providing services.

Some of these issues could have been dealt with through the creation of the oversight board. In fact, the DEC could have actually made it easier to increase the number of charters serving Detroit children by assuring taxpayers and others that high-quality operators would come in to serve children still bereft of choice. But DeVos and her allies among hardcore school choice activists were far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability (as well as the possibility that some charters would be shut down, reducing revenue for authorizers and operators alike). By successfully opposing the creation of the DEC, many of the problems remain in place.

Certainly there are reasonable concerns about putting in accountability measures for charters that can end up being regulatory strangulation of choice by traditionalists opposed to them. That failure clusters such as Detroit’s district continue to operate partly justifies some of the skepticism about holding failing charter counterparts accountable.

But as your editor noted two years ago, support for choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Otherwise all we are doing is creating a second system of public education that fails children as badly as the traditional system already in place. The fact that failing districts continue to operate doesn’t justify keeping equally laggard charters open for business.

It is bad enough that DeVos is undercutting support for expanding choice by incoming President and administration that engages in race-baiting, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Even worse is that DeVos has continually remained quiet and not disavowed Trump’s bigotry. But the report on her opposition to reasonable accountability for charters adds another strike against her possible tenure overseeing federal education policy. DeVos doesn’t merit much of a defense.

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Homeless Children’s Lives Matter

Your editor isn’t exorcised, as some reformers and charter school advocates seem to be, about Friday’s New York Times report that fewer homeless children attend the Big Apple’s public charter…

Your editor isn’t exorcised, as some reformers and charter school advocates seem to be, about Friday’s New York Times report that fewer homeless children attend the Big Apple’s public charter schools than traditional districts. Nor do I think that Kate Taylor’s report is some sort of “hit piece” on the charter operators such as the deservedly-controversial Success Academy, as those reformers, as well as editorialists at the New York Post, think it is.

Save for a brief mention of one of Success’ charter schools, as well as a quote from the operator’s public relations staff noting its outreach to 30 homeless shelters throughout the city, Taylor didn’t give the outfit much consideration at all. What she did do was honestly note that there was some pretty legitimate reasons why only homeless children made up seven percent of enrollment versus 10 percent for the Big Apple’s traditional district. One reason: The lottery system of charter admissions which often disadvantages homeless children and their families. Based on that reason alone, reformers can actually make a strong case for expanding the number of charters serving children in the Big Apple; more charters equal greater opportunities for all families, especially those who are homeless, to choose high-quality schools fit for their kids.

But that point, of course, got lost amid the rancor that once again, Taylor, who broke news over the last two years about Success Academy’s woeful overuse of harsh school discipline, once again mentioned the outfit in her reporting. The chain’s public relations chief, Ann Powell, unsuccessfully tried to argue that homeless children make up nine percent of overall enrollment, a point shot down by Taylor (who came bearing receipts). As you would expect, traditionalists also tried to weigh, including American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten, who discreetly tweeted out the Times piece to her rabid band of followers.

Yet the much more-interesting story, one that both traditionalists and reformers have danced around, isn’t about whether or not charter schools are serving fewer children. It’s about whether homeless children are being served properly at all by traditional and other public schools within American public education. The sobering answers should force all of us who care about the futures of children to help more of our most-vulnerable gain the high-quality education they need and deserve.

Two-point-five million children, or 3.4 percent of all children 17 and younger were homeless in 2013, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data conducted by the American Institutes for Research. Of them, 1.2 million of them (or 49 percent of all homeless children) attending America’s traditional district and charter schools, making up 2.4 percent of all children attending public schools that year.

More often than not, the parents of these children themselves are poorly-educated. As Angela R. Fertig of the University of Georgia and David Reingold of Indiana University noted in a 2006 national study of homelessness in 21 cities based on data from the federal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, one out of every two homeless mothers surveyed a year after entering the survey were high school dropouts (as were 40 percent of mothers who were “doubled-up” or sharing residences with other households). Four out of every ten homeless men and women in Los Angeles were high school dropouts, according to a 2004 study by the Weingart Center.

Seven percent of homeless children are considered “unaccompanied” or without a parent or guardian. As with children in foster care, this group of kids especially struggle in American public education because there is no caring adult who can advocate for them, much less care for them outside of schoolhouse doors. Another 15 percent are English Language Learners; these children end up being especially vulnerable because of their struggles with English fluency and literacy.

What happens to these children once they get into American public education? They often end up on the path to academic and social failure.

Just 77 percent of homeless children were regularly enrolled in school. Even when they can register for school, showing up can be an arduous task. Thirty-six percent of homeless children attending New York City’s public schools were chronically absent (or missing more than 18 days of the school year) in 2013-2014, according to a study by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.

The result for homeless children is condemnation to the worst public education offers. As Amy Dworsky, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, pointed out in a 2008 study, 22 percent of homeless children in Chicago were labeled as special ed cases, often at twice the rate of students from more-stable homes depending on grade level. Nationally, 20 percent of homeless children are labeled special ed cases, seven percentage points lower than the national average, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. The condescension experienced by families with greater levels of affluence is magnified for mothers and fathers struggling to find housing and with getting better education for their kids.

For homeless children, American public education can often exacerbate their instability.

In turn, these children are less-likely to get the high-quality education they need for lifelong success. Seventy five-point-three percent of all homeless children in grades three-through-high school read below proficient (or grade level) as measured on state tests, according to NCHE. Given that proficiency cut scores on state tests are usually far lower than the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it means that even more homeless children are struggling with literacy.

Even worse, the likelihood of these children graduating from high school (or even being ready for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships that make up American higher education) is slim to none. In the Big Apple, just 52 percent of homeless high schoolers in the Class of 2015 graduated on time, 18.5 percentage points lower than the city’s overall graduation rate.

As with other aspects of poverty, homelessness doesn’t have to be academic or social destiny. As ICPH points out, 89 percent of homeless high school students in New York City who are put into stable housing and school conditions graduate on time. This is 37 percentage points higher than the average. So why do so many homeless children struggle?

One reason why: Zip Code Education policies that require families to prove residency in a traditional district, something that homeless families cannot possibly provide. The rules violate the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (part of what is now the Every Student Succeeds Act), which requires schools to allow children to attend school in their “school of origin” so long as they remain homeless (and allows for the child to remain in school, whether or not he lives with their parents or “has been temporarily placed elsewhere”).

But districts such as that of Hawaii (the only one that serves an entire state) and Steelton-Highspire in Pennsylvania often violate the law with impunity — and few families have the resources to file suit to hold them accountable. [That the federal government spends just $49.35 for every homeless child through McKinney-Vento, versus $1,743 for each kid condemned to special ed, ensures that districts will focus their time on where the money’s at.]

As mentioned earlier, the lack of high-quality charter schools and caps on the expansion of them essentially mean that homeless children end up being bereft of options. But it isn’t just about expanding choice. McKinney-Vento requires all public schools to provide transportation so that homeless children can attend school. Yet just 15 of the 42 states in which charter schools are allowed to operate require either the operators (or the district that authorizes it) to provide transportation. For homeless children in New Orleans (in which charters serve 92 percent of all students) and Detroit (where 53 percent of students attend them), this means choice is illusory.

Another problem lies with the failure mills that often serve homeless children (and in many cases, served their parents long ago). In New York, just 26 percent of third-graders in districts with high levels of homeless children read at proficient levels on the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests in 2013-2104, worse than the already-abysmal 34 percent level for districts with low levels of homeless children, according to ICPH. The lack of high-quality teaching and curricula combine with the instability at home to foster academic disengagement.

Meanwhile the very lack of nurturing school cultures for children in the nation’s foster care ghettos — a subject of a Dropout Nation commentary five years ago — is also a problem for homeless youth. The lack of teachers with both empathy for all children as well as strong subject-matter competency that damages all poor and minority children is especially tough on those without homes. That districts, including New York City, as well as charter schools, struggle mightily with addressing the particular needs of these children means that homeless children find themselves isolated from peers who don’t have to worry about sleeping in shelters or “double-up” in temporary housing.

Certainly, as your editor noted four years ago, systemic reform can’t address all of the issues that feed into homelessness. The issues of mental illness, housing policy, and even welfare play prominent roles in making the lives of homeless children even less secure than they should be. As with so much about poverty, homelessness is explained by neither the Poverty or Personal Responsibility myths perpetuated by so many hardcore progressive traditionalists and conservative reformers.

At the same time, there are concrete things school reformers, both in New York and in the rest of the nation, can do to help our most-vulnerable.

One critical step starts with districts and charters working together (as well as on their own) to meet their obligations under McKinney-Vento. The common school applications now being used in Newark and other cities can be used to get much-needed information on the needs of homeless children. Another step lies with transportation. Last year, Center for Reinventing Public Education highlighted the need for charters to address transportation; the obligations under McKinney-Vento make it paramount that charter operators to team up with districts or with each other to improve the ability of homeless families and others to exercise choice for their children.

As your editor mentioned, expanding charters and other forms of choice is critical to providing homeless children with high-quality and caring school cultures. At the same time, they should team up with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union to ensure that all public schools serve homeless children. As you can expect, such suits won’t be welcomed by conservative and centrist Democrat reformers within the movement for various reasons. But reformers can’t claim to work zealously for all children if they won’t use all the tools available to help them get justice in and out of classrooms.

Reformers can also team up with the grassroots organizations, churches  and even courts who deal with homeless children on improving the quality of instruction, leadership, curricula, reading remediation, and school cultures in schools. Working with advocates for homeless children to ensure that unaccompanied children are given support is also important. These steps would also further the other reforms that the movement has been advancing for so long. Especially at a time in which federal action will be limited at best (and, given the incoming Trump Administration, corrosive at worst), such activities build alliances for transforming the futures of all children.

Homeless children, both in New York City, and the rest of the nation, deserve better. The bickering over news reports would be better-utilized toward actually helping our most-vulnerable at all times.

Featured photo courtesy of the New York Times.

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NEA’s Bleak Financial Future

One of the bigger stories with the National Education Association is the loss of rank-and-file. Thanks to efforts by governors and state legislatures in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, and Alabama…

One of the bigger stories with the National Education Association is the loss of rank-and-file. Thanks to efforts by governors and state legislatures in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, and Alabama to end collective bargaining and compulsory dues payments, the nation’s largest teachers’ union and its affiliates has seen declines in rank-and-file, putting strain on its finances in the process. As a result, NEA’s rank-and-file declined by 6.3 percent between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015 (from 3.3 million to three million), resulting in a 2.2 percent decline in dues collection within that same period.

But as the union reported in its 2015-2016 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, the declines have stopped, at least for the time-being. The bad news? The finances of its affiliates, along with the long-term loss of rank-and-filers to come, continue to weigh heavily on the union’s future prospects.

NEA sustained no declines in rank-and-file this past fiscal year. That’s the good news. But it didn’t significantly increase them, either. NEA added just 8,804 rank-and-filers and agency fee-payers to the rolls in 2015-2016, which led to a mere two-tenths of a one percent increase over the past year.

As a result of stemming those losses, as well as a $1 average increase in annual dues (from an average of $119.05 per member in 2014-2015 to $120.05 in 2015-2016), NEA collected $367 million in dues last fiscal year, a 1.1 percent increase over the previous period.

NEA’s overall revenue of $388 million was a slight decline from levels in 2014-2015. This included $8.4 million in revenue from NEA Member Benefits Corp. the financial scheme the union runs to peddle annuities to its rank-and-file (which also gets kickbacks from the Wall Street firms that sell through it); that is 13.6 percent more than revenues generated from the outfit last year.

Meanwhile the union generated a surplus of $1.4 million for 2015-2016. That’s a 95 percent decline from the $27 million in surplus generated in the previous period. Why? A 30 percent increase in general overhead costs (from $51 million to $66 million), and a 65 percent increase in asset and investment purchases (from $8.3 million to $13.7 million) offset declines in benefit expenditures. A five percent increase in payments to its pension (from $19.7 million to $20.7 million) also led to the lower surplus. At least none of the lowered surplus can be blamed on poor internal controls or embezzlement.

But the good news on rank-and-file numbers, such as it is, doesn’t hide the reality that NEA’s future, financial as well as political, is quite bleak.

The union’s affiliates affected the most by the abolition of compulsory dues are still taking hits. The union’s virtually-insolvent Michigan Education Association, for example, had just 127,785 rank-and-file in 2015-2016, according to its filing with the Department of Labor, a 2.5 percent decrease over the previous fiscal year; its rank-and-file declined by 16 percent over the past five years. Meanwhile a 59 percent decline in rank-and-file has forced the Wisconsin Education Association Council into a merger with the American Federation of Teachers’ hard-hit affiliate as well as pushed it to sell its sweet headquarters in Madison.

But the problems lie not only with NEA’s state affiliates in right-to-work states. The end of class size reduction regimes in many states, the lingering effects of the last decade’s economic meltdown, the virtual  insolvencies of defined-benefit teachers’ pensions, and the retiring of Baby Boomers from classrooms, has resulted in growth being slim to none for many affiliates.

Rank-and-file numbers for NEA’s still-influential units in Illinois, and Ohio barely budged between 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 — and almost no growth at all for either within the past five years. Rank-and-file numbers for union’s Florida affiliate (which is also affiliated with AFT) barely budged; in fact, membership declined by 5.6 percent between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016.

One of the few bright spots for NEA is its Education Minnesota unit, whose rank-and-file numbers increased by 2.7 percent between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016. But it barely added members during this past fiscal year. If Republicans who just took control of the Land of Nice’s legislature have their way, the union’s ability to forcibly collect dues will eventually go into history’s ashbin. But thanks to the presence of Democrat Mark Dayton in the governor’s office, that’s not likely for now.

The lack of rank-and-file growth is troubling for NEA because the long-term financial woes of many of its affiliates are worsening.

Unfunded defined-benefit pensions and retiree health liabilities have long-damaged the balance sheets of some key affiliates. The union’s Michigan affiliate, for example, reported $296 million in unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities in 2015-2016, a 3.1 percent increase over the previous year. If the affiliate was forced into bankruptcy, its $67 million in assets (a 9.8 percent decline over 2014-2015) couldn’t cover these and other liabilities.

The NEA’s Illinois unit reported $46 million in unfunded pension and other retiree liabilities in 2015-2016, a whopping 44 percent increase over levels in the previous fiscal year. [Its $63 million in overall liabilities is a 25 percent increase over 2014-2015.] If it ever landed in bankruptcy court, the Illinois unit’s $53 million in assets couldn’t cover any of what it owes to retired employees and other creditors. The union’s Pennsylvania State Education Association reported $75 million in pension and retiree health liabilities in 2015-2016, a staggering 37 percent increase over the previous year; the only good news is that the unit’s $102 million in assets can cover those and other liabilities.

Even NEA’s most-influential and wealthiest affiliate, the California Teachers Association, is struggling with pension and healthcare liabilities. In a memo to its staff union CTA revealed that its Retirement Trust has unfunded liabilities to the tune of $105 million. While CTA can cover those shortfalls with $183 million in assets (as of 2013-2014, according to its filing with the Internal Revenue Service), the growth in those liabilities (along with reasonable long-term fears that it will no longer be able to forcibly collect dues from classroom teachers) has forced the affiliate to play hardball with its staff union during its most-recent contract negotiations.

[As Dropout Nation reported last month, the virtually-busted New York State United Teachers (which is an NEA affiliate despite being controlled by AFT) has $503 million in unfunded pension and other retiree healthcare liabilities, a 31 percent increase over 2014-2015.]

For these affiliates, along with three under NEA receivership — Indiana State Teachers Association, Alabama Education, and South Carolina Education Association — the subsidies from NEA are more-welcome than ever.

NEA subsidized WEAC to the tune of $2.1 million in 2015-2016, an 11 percent increase over the previous year; based on the affiliate’s reported revenue of $13.2 million in 2013-2014 (the latest year available), NEA subsidies likely account for 16 percent of its money stream, and given the unit’s flailing finances, likely more than that. NEA also poured $5.5 million in subsidies into its Michigan affiliate, a 15 percent decline over 2014-2015; even with those declines, NEA dollars accounted for 4.9 percent of the unit’s revenue of $111.8 million.

The union subsidized its Illinois affiliate to the tune of $4.5 million in 2015-2016, an 8.2 percent drop from the previous year; the subsidies accounted for six percent of the unit’s revenue of $75.5 million. As for Pennsylvania? NEA provided $5.3 million in subsidies to the unit, barely budging from levels in 2014-2015; those dollars account for 5.2 percent of PSEA’s revenue stream.

What about ISTA? NEA provided $1.3 million in subsidies to the busted Indiana affiliate in 2015-2016, a 24 percent decline from the previous year. ISTA also managed to whittle down its debt to national by another $1 million in the last year, leaving it with $11.5 million in arrears. The national union has subsidized ISTA to the tune of $6.9 million in the last five years alone, not including the millions it has had to pour into the Hoosier State unit since 2009, when its VEBA went insolvent amid a $67 million deficit and spectacular financial mismanagement.

As for NEA national? The union’s defined-benefit pension plan reduced its insolvency by 18 percent to $91 million (as of 2014, the most-recent year reported), according to its annual notice to retirees. The good news is that NEA could liquidate some of its $377 million in assets to address that insolvency if needed. On the other hand, the union’s retiree healthcare trust remains well-funded, with just $55,480 in liabilities compared to $117.6 million in assets (as of 2015, the latest year available, according to its filing with the IRS).

Meanwhile the long-term threats to NEA’s clout and finances loom larger and more-immediate than ever. The union’s big bet on Hillary Clinton to win the presidency blew up badly, while its support for Senate and Congressional Democratic candidates also went pear-shaped. With the incoming administration of Donald Trump being hostile to public-sector unions and an even less-sympathetic Republican-controlled Congress, NEA has even less influence on Capitol Hill than it did two years ago. The institutional Blanche DuBois will have to depend on the kindness of outfits such as National School Boards Association (whose ties to Republicans are cozier thanks to suburban districts in its membership) and that’s not a great place to be.

Trump still has to fill the Supreme Court spot vacated earlier this year through the death of the legendary Antonin Scalia. This likely means that the next justice will finally overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the five decade-old ruling that allows NEA and AFT affiliates to force teachers to pay into its coffers regardless of their desire for membership. The union likely already expects a version of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (which the court shot down in a 4-4 ruling after Scalia’s demise) to work its way through the courts.

Based on the struggles of NEA’s state affiliates in Wisconsin and Michigan, it is clear that neither national nor its other affiliates are ready to adapt to the end of compulsory dues laws and workplace monopolies. The union hasn’t even followed AFT’s steps and hired staffers from the Service Employees International Union, which has long been the nation’s most-successful labor organizer, in order to prepare for the future.

In short, long days ahead for NEA’s guitar-slinging president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, and the rest of the union’s leadership.

Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the NEA’s finances down the road. 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 previous reports on NEA and AFT finances.

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