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August 19, 2014 standard

Two hundred forty-nine black high school children in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri took advanced math subjects such as trigonometry, statistics, and pre-calculus during the 2011-2012 school year, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s a mere 9.3 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s 2,868 young black men and women in the district’s high schools. How bad is it? The percentage of black kids taking these college preparatory math courses is lower than the already-abysmal 13 percent of white high school peers (or 67 out of 527 white children) in those classes. What this means is that far too many kids of all backgrounds in Ferguson-Florissant schools — especially young black men and women who are from poor homes — are not getting the high-quality education they need and deserve for success in adulthood.

But this isn’t shocking. Ferguson-Florissant is like other districts, both in Missouri, and the rest of the nation, in failing to provide all children (especially those from poor and minority households) with college-preparatory curricula. If anything, the district exemplifies the need to advance systemic reform to help all children attain the knowledge they need for higher ed completion and ultimately, to make it into the middle class.

As you know, as part of Dropout Nation’s coverage of Ferguson in the aftermath of the senseless slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown, your editor took a look last week at Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions, noting how it was far more likely for black kids in the district to be suspended than be victims of violent crime in their communities. But the district’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012, a mere five points lower than the state average, gave pause. Not because it was a conundrum: It has long been shown that districts and other school operators can goose graduation rates by pushing out the kids they didn’t want to educate into nearby districts. Not even because Ferguson-Florissant has gone through turmoil over its suspension and then, firing of Art McCoy, the district’s first black superintendent.

No, the high graduation rate became interesting because it raised another question: Whether Ferguson-Florissant was actually providing kids with the college-preparatory learning they needed for lifelong success. As seen with districts such as Houston, it isn’t enough to get kids to the point of graduation. So DN took a look at Ferguson-Florissant’s data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights database. And the answers, though not shocking, were still astonishing.

The good news, sort of speak, is that Ferguson-Florissant is providing a plurality of middle-schoolers with introductory algebra, a key college-preparatory course for our children. Some 625 black seventh and eighth-grade children in the district, or 40 percent of the 1,575 black middle-schoolers there, took Algebra 1 during the 2011-2012 school year. Forty-six percent of Ferguson’s white middle-schoolers — or 115 of the 251 white children served by the district — also took the math course.

But Ferguson-Florissant falls down on the job once kids get into high school. Just 432 black high-schoolers, or 15 percent of them, took Algebra II in 2011-2012; a mere 16 percent of white peers (84 of them) took the college prep course. Only 18 percent of black high-schoolers took geometry, lower than the paltry 21 percent of white peers taking the course. Meanwhile a mere 19 black high school students and 14 white peers took calculus in that same year, resulting in, respectively, just six-tenths percent of black high schoolers and three percent of white peers taking the course.

Matters get worse when you look at how few kids in Ferguson-Florissant are being provided science courses. Especially young black men and women, scientific illiteracy means losing out economically and socially in the increasingly knowledge-based world. Just 24 percent of Ferguson’s black high-schoolers took biology in 2011-2012, slightly lower than the 27 percent rate for white high school peers. But only 7.3 percent of black high school students took chemistry, a key college prep course; 14 percent of white peers took chemistry that year. And just 2.1 percent of black high schoolers — that’s 63 young black men and women — took physics; 5.5 percent of white high school students (5.5 percent of them), took physics that year.

One could surmise that perhaps Ferguson-Florissant isn’t providing its own math and science courses because they are directing them to Advanced Placement courses that are also key to preparation for success in higher education and career. This isn’t true. Just 1.4 percent of black high schoolers (40 kids) and three percent of white peers took A.P. math. Just 10 black high school students and two of their white school mates took AP Science. All in all, just 4.2 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s black high schoolers and 11 percent of their white peers were taking A.P. courses. Which means that most of the kids were languishing in low-quality courses that weren’t preparing them for success in outside of the schoolhouse doors. Since the district doesn’t offer International Baccalaureate courses, not one kid was taking them.

What all this means is that most of the kids graduating from Ferguson-Florissant aren’t getting any form of college-preparatory curricula. Sixty-seven percent of Ferguson’s graduates were admitted to higher ed institutions, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a rate slightly lower than the Show Me State’s 71 percent average. But there’s little chance that most of the kids will graduate in six years with associate, baccalaureate, and technical school credentials. Just 35 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s vocational school graduates land jobs, a rate far lower than the 53 percent for all such students statewide.

Especially for the black children, who make up most of the district’s student population, the lack of high-quality education means being locked out of the economic and social mainstream, which doesn’t bode well for either Ferguson or the rest of the St. Louis region. You can say that Ferguson-Florissant’s decision this week to not open its doors to serve kids — a move done in response to the protests and militarized policing being done in the city — is terrible. But even when the district’s doors are open, it isn’t serving children well.

There are three reasons why Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide kids with college-preparatory learning matters so greatly, both for the people who live in there as well as for the rest of the nation.

For one, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson points out (and as Dropout Nation has illustrated in its Why Systemic Reform collection), far too many black children from poor households (along with those from Latino, Asian, and white backgrounds) are being left behind economically and socially. This is because they are not being provided the college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching, and cultures of genius) they must have in order to gain high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in an increasingly knowledge-based world. Particularly in Ferguson, where the median household income of $36,121 in 2012 is $9,101 less than the average for Missouri and $14,896 less than the national average (and even in Florissant, whose median income of $49,612 keeps it in the ranks of middle-class communities in Missouri), the shoddiness of the traditional schools serving it will condemn its economy and society to long-term failure.

There’s also the fact that Ferguson-Florissant’s failures to provide kids with college-preparatory curricula exemplifies the failure of the Show Me State to do well by all children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. The move last month by the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — along with the mishandling of the outrage surrounding Michael Brown’s slaying, and Brown’s alleged murder itself — shows that the state’s political leaders are uninterested in building brighter futures for poor and minority kids. The fact that so few white kids in Ferguson are getting college-prep learning makes one wonder if state and district leaders even care about children that look like them. No one in the Show-Me State can morally justify denying all kids college-preparatory learning.

Your editor suggests to reformers and Common Core supporters on the ground that they take to the courts to hold the state responsible for its constitutional obligation to provide kids in Ferguson and elsewhere with high-quality education. At the same time, they must team up with community leaders and families on the ground to build political support for reviving the standards. As Education Next‘s latest survey shows, 60 percent of black people queried were supportive of Common Core implementation in their states; rallying black and Latino families and communities is critical to making this effort work.

Finally, Ferguson-Florissant’s shoddy curricula (and likely, laggard teaching) also makes the strong case for expanding school choice in both St. Louis and the entire state as a whole. Doing so has been a struggle. The state’s move last year to allow kids from the failing Normandy district to attend schools in other districts has been fought hard by both officials in that district (who don’t want to lose the state dollars that come with those kids) and by counterparts in districts such as Francis Howell (who don’t want those kids and don’t want to have school choice become a reality for their kids either). Normandy beat back efforts to keep choice going for more kids in June when it successfully convinced the state’s board of education to ignore its unaccredited status and keep kids trapped in its failure mills. While Ferguson-Florissant is technically functioning well according to state law, this data makes clear that kids forced to attend its schools should also have the ability to escape.

Bringing high-quality charter school operators, launching voucher programs, and even passing a Parent Trigger law allowing families to take over failing schools in their community are key steps. Requiring all districts in the state to allow families to choose college-preparatory courses instead of them having to go through gatekeepers who often don’t want those kids to get into those classes is also important. The most-critical step of all: The Show Me State taking full responsibility for funding schools. Because the state only provides 42 percent of the $10 billion spent on public education in 2012 (the latest year available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), traditional districts can justify opposing any form of choice and Parent Power, both to families outside of their boundaries and even to those who live within them. By taking full control of school funding, Missouri can voucherize those dollars, expanding school options for every kid.

Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide all children with college-preparatory learning is almost as shameful as the slaughtering of Brown’s life. The children there — and all kids everywhere — deserve curricula fit for their futures.

August 15, 2014 standard

If you want to understand why a strong federal role is needed in advancing systemic reform of American public education — and why arguments for a so-called “energized retrenchment” or backsliding in that role from some conservative reformers like Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education are unconvincing — consider what happened in 1946 after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Morgan v. Virginia.

The case, which stemmed from the arrest of Irene Morgan, a Baltimore woman who had just gotten over a miscarriage, by Hayes Store, Va., police in 1944 for refusing to hand her seat on a Greyhound bus to white riders, would be one of the first blows against Jim Crow segregation. Under the ruling, the high court ruled that it was unconstitutional and illegal for southern states to segregate bus stations and other transportation hubs. For civil rights activists of the time, there was hope that southern states would obey the ruling and stop enforcing these set of Jim Crow laws.

This didn’t happen. Southern states continued to enforce Jim Crow in bus stations and train terminals for another 15 years, ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling. Governors and state legislators, along with the Klansmen and ancien régime of plantation owners who backed them, there was no reason for them to end the segregation laws and policies from which they benefited politically, ideologically, and financially. More importantly, from where they sat, black people were not human, and thus, not deserving of equality under the law. Morgan would not be enforced until 1961, when U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in response to the violence against civil rights activists during the Freedom Rides, successfully pushed the Interstate Highway Commission to enforce the high court’s order.

For civil rights activists of that time, and for school reformers of today, there are several clear lessons from the Morgan experience, several of which I have illustrated over the past few years. But one of those lessons is crystal clear: That without a strong, active, federal role, states will rarely do the right thing when it comes to addressing policies and practices that are damaging to blacks, Latinos, and other minorities (as well as to poor whites). And that is especially true when it comes to American public education. Which is why arguments by Smarick and others for a less-active federal role don’t square with reality. You can’t be a reformer and think that you can do the right thing by all children by simply relying on activism at the nation’s statehouses.

Why is this even a discussion? You can, in part, thank Smarick, who has done a service for reformers by writing a series of pieces on the role of movement conservative thinking in the school reform movement. In his latest essay, Smarick takes a wrong turn by arguing that it is time for what he calls an “energized retrenchment” that involves scaling back the federal role in advancing systemic reform embraced since the 1980s by Ronald Reagan and his successors. Anticipating that Republicans will capture control of the U.S. Senate, noting the disdain for expansive federal role among movement conservatives within the party’s political base (especially with their opposition to everything the Obama Administration undertakes), and pointing to opposition to the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, Smarick argues that the next wave of reform will feature less-active federal policymaking.

There are a number of problems with Smarick’s argument. There’s the assumption that the reforms undertaken by Obama, most-notably Race to the Top, haven’t worked out. Tell that to the school choice activists who have successfully passed voucher measures in more than 13 states, the children who attend the 1,091 new charter schools opened between 2010 and 2013, and families in cities such as Adelanto, Calif., who have taken over failing schools using Parent Trigger laws passed as a result of the competitive grant competition. This isn’t to say Race to the Top has been a qualified success — and it will be another few years before we know for sure. [Let's not even bother with the administration's waiver gambit.] But this big initiative, like the No Child Left Behind Act, has shown that big initiatives at the federal level lead to the success of smaller efforts spurred by it.

There’s also Smarick’s failure to acknowledge that the dissatisfaction among movement conservatives has far less to do with principles than with their disdain for the Obama Administration, and their desire to roll back anything associated with the Second Bush Administration. More than likely, a Republican president will embrace the reformer-in-chief role because they will understand, as Reagan and his successors did, the consequences of the nation’s education crisis on its economy and society. The fact the federal government should hold states accountable for the subsidies they are given under No Child — part of the whatever government is doing it should do well that is an oft-forgotten tenet of modern conservatism — also forces it to take a more-prominent role in education policymaking.

But the biggest problem with Smarick’s argument comes crystal clear in his declaration that scaling back the federal role in advancing reform doesn’t mean “do-nothing-ism” that leads to “the most disadvantaged kids will be forgotten”. That doesn’t square with history, that stubborn thing that interferes with all elegant theories. What American history has long ago shown is that without strong federal action, state governments rarely do the right thing by poor and minority children. Especially black children and their communities.

As Ilya Somin of the libertarian Cato Institute points out in a recent policy analysis on federalism and liberty, the underlying reality is that without federal intervention, states would have continued policies such as slavery and state-sanctioned segregation. This is especially clear when you look at the history of American public education during the civil rights era.

After the Supreme Court handed down its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation of public schools and the official refusal to provide equal financial resources to schools serving black and white kids, southern states refused to obey the law. Instead, states such as Virginia and Arkansas engaged in Massive Resistance efforts, shutting down school districts in order to defy the ruling, and even stopping districts such as Alexandria, Va., from engaging in their own school integration efforts. Other states would follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit, shutting down schools in black neighborhoods instead of providing what was then considered to be high-quality education.

Smarick is well-meaning. But he offers a misguided vision that will not serve the school reform movement well.

It took Lyndon Baines Johnson’s successful passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, the key civil rights law governing American public education, to finally force southern states to follow Brown in both letter and in spirit. But the law that is now the No Child Left Behind Act wasn’t just geared to dealing with recalcitrant southern states. Districts in New England and Midwestern states such as Massachusetts and Indiana engaged in their own equally-pernicious forms of state-sanctioned segregation; thanks to this predecessor of No Child, civil rights activists were able to address those issues.

This isn’t to say that the more-active federal role in education policymaking is perfect or always an unqualified success. The Obama Administration’s debacle of an effort to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions offer a cautionary example of what not to do. Nor is it to say that the federal government necessarily does the right thing on its own accord. As I noted earlier this month, federal intervention in civil rights matters, for example, only came after activists forced Eisenhower and then Kennedy to take action. Johnson’s own laudable efforts to pass civil rights legislation, as much driven by his own morality as by political calculations about winning higher office, waned after he felt that Martin Luther King and others didn’t cater enough to his prodigious-yet-fragile ego. And as Somin notes, we must keep in mind that the federal government itself helped perpetuate slavery and segregation thanks in part to senators and congressmen from southern states who held sway over Congress.

All that said, it is clear that the federal role is crucial to advancing reforms that help all children succeed. This is because it can be difficult for even the most reform-minded governors, with strong support for his efforts from activists and wonks on the ground, to overhaul public education. Because NEA and AFT affiliates, along with suburban districts, and university schools of education have often been the ones with the greatest influence and control over public education, they can resist systemic reform efforts. Ultimately, it takes the imprimatur of the federal government, along with legislation and other policymaking inside the Beltway, to give reformers at the state level the tools needed to beat back traditionalists.

While it was southern state governors and chambers of commerce who began the first steps toward systemic reform during the late 1970s, it was the Reagan Administration’s 1983 release of A Nation at Risk that pushed other states to make reform a priority; by 1986, some 250 commissions and panels were working on school reform, according to Susan Fuhrman (now president of Columbia University’s Teachers College). Though states such as Florida began developing accountability regimes in the early 1990s, it was the steps taken by Bill Clinton with his successful reauthorization of ESEA in 1994, then George W. Bush’s work in passing No Child nearly a decade later, that would spur the array of reforms that have proceeded in the past two decades.

Yet conservative reformers and their movement conservative brethren refuse to fully understand and accept this reality. But this isn’t surprising. The first reason: Movement conservatism’s penchant for relying on traditional institutions and ideas has always been as much a flaw as a virtue. The blind adherence to what my friend Jeremy Lott calls the democracy of the dead can often result in conservatives being unwilling to address injustice by those institutions even when it is morally and intellectually justified to do so. As a result, conservatives find themselves loyal to institutions and policies that may not deserve their loyalty as intellectuals or morally decent people.

This reliance on tradition also leads many conservatives to eschew systems thinking and fail to admit that structures can perpetuate policies and practices that damage the futures of children. Because of this, conservatives fail to appreciate that problems are often a result of bad structures that perpetuate human failings. Just as importantly, conservatives fail to realize that reliance on tradition can often be as senseless as technocratic thinking because it is based on limited human reasoning. As famed conservative philanthropist John M. Olin would likely note, because earlier generations don’t have the benefit of data and knowledge that has come since they left this earth, the correct conclusions for their time may be incorrect today (and, with benefit of hindsight, may have been wrong even then).

Reason number two has to deal with modern conservatism’s longstanding problem in dealing with the racialism that is America’s Original Sin, which still perpetuates itself in American public education through policies and practices such as zoned schooling and overuse of suspensions and expulsions. As Claremont’s William Voegeli noted in a 2008 essay, the conservative movement has still never fully reckoned with its shameful legacy of downplaying the need to end Jim Crow segregation during the civil rights struggles of the last century. And as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg has noted, we who are conservative should admit this more often.

Because movement conservatives of that time such as William F. Buckley Jr., and Barry Goldwater didn’t view state-sanctioned racism as the great moral question that it was, because their fetish for preserving tradition led them to believe that the federal government didn’t have the obligation to address segregation, because of their concerns about communism and the expansion of federal government, and because they viewed the civil disobedience by activists such as Martin Luther King (as well as their push to force social change) as an affront to the order they craved, they essentially gave succor to Jim Crow segregationists even if that wasn’t their original intent. Most movement conservatives and many conservative school reformers still have never fully addressed or atoned for these mistakes, and in a lot of cases, compound them with insensitivity to the justifiable concerns of blacks and other minorities.

As civil rights activists learned after the Morgan ruling, reformers must realize that the federal government must play a strong role on behalf of poor and minority children.

A third reason lies with the fact that most conservative reformers — save for Smarick — work in movement conservative institutions where their thinking is unlikely to be strongly challenged. Because these institutions are either activist in nature, or as in the case of Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, increasingly so, there’s little opportunity to understand the underlying theories behind the viewpoints of fellow centrist and progressive Democrat reformers. [This, by the way, holds true for centrist and progressive counterparts in the reform movement.] As a result, movement conservatives and conservative reformers close themselves off to knowledge and ideas that may change or widen their thinking. The fact that many conservative reformers and movement conservatives no longer live in big cities and almost never live in suburbs with significant minority populations such as Prince George’s County, Md., also means that they rarely have deep conversations with people who live in them or address their concerns in meaningful ways. [By the way: This is why the presence and work of the Manhattan Institute, one of the few conservative think tanks concerned with urban affairs, has to be so greatly appreciated, regardless of your ideological leanings.]

Sure, your editor greatly appreciates Smarick’s efforts to give his progressive and centrist counterparts a much-needed (if at times, limited) primer on the underpinnings of movement conservative thinking. But this conservative reformer dares to say my fellow-travelers, including Smarick, and American Enterprise Institute contrarian Rick Hess, need to open their minds as well. They would do well to pick up Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (a Dropout Nation Top Eight book in 2011) as well as read Aram Goudsouzian’s Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, to start expanding their thinking. [For progressives and centrists, picking up Friedrich Von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions would help them greatly.]

Finally, conservative reformers find themselves at a crossroads. The second wave of reforms needed to transform American public education involve supporting policies such as implementing Common Core that are considered anathema for many reasons by many of their movement conservative fellow-travelers. At the same time, conservative reformers are being challenged by their allies in the school reform movement on whether they will embrace the expansion of accountability regimes and other solutions that don’t always square with movement conservative ideology. Meanwhile they must decide how far do they evolve their thinking or even to do so at all; while ideology may die in the harsh sunlight of facts and data, it doesn’t mean those who believe in them will let them go.

Centrist and progressive Democrat reformers have already spent the past two decades dealing with challenges to their thinking and efforts from both traditionalists within their ideological circles and from conservative reform allies, especially on matters such as school choice. Conservative reformers are facing the same challenge. As with centrist and progressive counterparts, conservative reformers must decide if their greatest concern is with building brighter futures for all children (and working in the big tent that is the reform movement), or with adhering to first principles that may not always match up with the reality of the education crisis (as well as disturbing the relationships they have with their ideological counterparts). That for some conservative reformers, most-notably school choice activists, the fact that they also benefit financially from their work also makes matters difficult.

This isn’t to say that Smarick isn’t well-meaning in his misguided argument for energized retrenchment. Like so many of my fellow conservative reformers, he does mean well. But on this matter, Smarick is off-target. Let’s hope energized retrenchment on systemic reform never happens.

August 9, 2014 standard

There’s one thing that can be guaranteed when reformers and Parent Power activists take on the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — especially in opposing the near-lifetime employment laws and traditional teacher compensation regimes at the heart of their influence: They will go strike back with any weapon available.

At times, the two unions will engage in the nastiest of rhetoric (including quietly setting up Web sites such as the now-defunct RheeFirst) instead of addressing the facts. Other times, the unions will issue enemies’ lists, as the AFT and its president, Randi Weingarten, has done over the past two years with its reports on money managers that bankroll reform outfits. Occasionally, the NEA and AFT will even offer an honest defense for the policies and practices they support.

But for those times when the two unions want to go nuclear, they can always call upon the outfits they bankroll to the tune of $163 million or so a year (as well as count on fellow traditionalists who oppose anything that smells like reform). The AFT went down this road earlier this week when two of its vassals, the Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change, put together a Web site, Twitter feed, and 10-page report (if you can call it that) targeting former CNN anchor-turned-school reformer Campbell Brown as being “right-wing, elitist, and wrong”. Why? Because her group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, has (along with the New York City Parents Union) has filed suits modeled off the successful Vergara v. California tort targeting tenure laws that help the AFT fill its coffers and theirs as well.

But because their effort is merely a rehash of previous attacks by progressives in the AFT’s pocket (and, in most cases, based on data planted by the union’s public relations staff and opposition research teams), the nuclear attack goes off like a dud grenade. More importantly, by essentially defending near-lifetime employment laws that subject the very poor and minority kids and households AQE and New York Communities claim to represent, the two groups (along with the AFT) expose themselves as being intellectually and morally bankrupt.

The Web site itself is merely a shell. So it isn’t even worth analyzing. But the 10-page clip job isn’t exactly much better. In it, AQE and New York Communities claim that Brown can’t possibly be concerned about helping poor and minority kids mostly because she is married to Republican political strategist Dan Senor, who serves on the board of StudentsFirst’s New York State affiliate with Third Point Strategies boss Dan Loeb (who is also one of the affiliate’s donors). The fact that StudentsFirst and its boss, Rhee, have long aroused the ire of AFT and Weingarten doesn’t get mentioned by AQE and New York Communities at any point.

The two groups also recycle accusations that Brown has something to hide, including the failure of the Wall Street Journal to mention Brown’s affiliation with StudentsFirst in a piece that ran two years ago, and the unwillingness of Brown to disclose Partnership for Educational Justice’s backers. Of course, the fact that neither AQE nor New York Communities disclose the fact that have been financed by the AFT (through its New York State and Big Apple units, the New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers) to the tune of $1.7 million between 2010-2011 and 2012-2013, makes all of their outrage seem, well, rather selective.

But it is the sections where AQE and New York Communities attempt to claim Brown is “wrong” for working to abolish tenure and New York State’s teacher dismissal laws where the unintended hilarity begins. They try to prove that Campbell’s point that New York State’s teacher dismissal laws are so onerous on districts that it can take as long as 830 days (or more than two years) to fire a laggard teacher is incorrect because it is based on a six-year-old report from the state school boards’ association that doesn’t account for the minor changes enacted by the Empire State’s legislature two years ago. That the report itself doesn’t offer a countering set of facts on this point means that the two groups (and by extension, their client, the AFT) is conceding that Campbell is correct. That nonpartisan outfits such as California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office have also noted how teacher dismissal laws in other states turn out to be as just as lengthy as New York’s and ultimately, serve as obstacles to removing incompetent and criminally abusive teachers only makes AQE’s and New York Communities’ argument even more laughable.

The defense of near-lifetime employment itself is especially laughable, citing effort by teachers’ unions in Texas against an effort by state board officials to replace the word “slavery” with a less-exact terminology as evidence that tenure allows teachers to fight against “institutionalized bigotry”. This sounds nice until you consider that NEA and AFT affiliates, along with many teachers, have been silent on (and often aid and abet) such policies and practices within American public education as the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that harm the futures of young black and Latino men, alongside young white men from low-income families. In light of that reality, along with the fact that other policies the NEA and AFT defend — including reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoff rules — end up leading to black and Latino kids losing young high-quality teachers makes AQE’s and New York Communities’ effort on behalf of the union look even worse than it already appears. Of course, like smoke and fire, if it looks bad, it probably is.

All in all, the AQE’s and New York Communities’ report is slipshod propaganda with footnotes that isn’t worth the cash the AFT and its affiliates have likely paid for it. Honestly, it is as lame as some street punks telling “your mama” jokes. The union and its units would have been better off spending the money on some trashy “My Mom Went to… and all I got was this lousy” t-shirts.

If anything, the report (along with the nastiness coming from traditionalists) may have rallied more reformers and others generally uninterested in education to Brown’s side and that of Parent Power activists looking to end tenure. But AQE’s and New York Communities’ targeting of Brown (and ultimately, that by the AFT) exposes three critical realities.

The first? That the AFT and its allies can’t really make a case for keeping the status quo ante. The Vergara ruling last June once again reminded the public that two decades of data, along with reporting by outlets such as Los Angeles Times, have shown that tenure and teacher dismissal laws work together to “impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students”. Traditionalists also cannot argue against evidence that the laws end up keeping criminally abusive teachers in classrooms. New York Communities and AQE can’t offer a legitimate argument for near-lifetime employment with the likes of now-former Los Angeles Unified instructor Mark Berndt (who had to be paid off by the district in order to end his appeal of his dismissal by the district for what is legally called “lewd conduct” against kids), and former New York City teacher Steven Ostrin (who was only given a six-month suspension and reprimand for sexually harassing students and even propositioning one of his young women students for a striptease).

Secondly: The AFT and its allies can only go after Brown because she is a big-named target who can easily absorb the nastiness. [This is also true in AFT President Weingarten's class-warfare rhetoric against David Welch, the tech entrepreneur whose Students Matter backed the Vergara tort.] Traditionalists have a much-harder time arguing that Parent Power activists such as the New York City Parents Union and the Connecticut Parents Union, groups who represent families from poor and minority households who are rightfully fighting for brighter futures for their children. Wengarten and the AFT learned this the hard way three years ago when Dropout Nation exposed the presentation by the union’s Connecticut affiliate on how it fought to stop (and then, water down) the Nutmeg State’s Parent Trigger law. Attempts to argue that families are merely pawns of Wall Street donors comes off as condescending, especially when their rhetoric is confronted by the righteous and eloquent indignation of advocates such as Mona Davids and Gwen Samuel. It is even harder to accuse children such as Beatriz Vergara, the name plaintiff in Vergara as being unable to think for themselves.

Thirdly, traditionalists have figured out that they can no longer count on any public support for their aims. This has been clear for a while, especially with efforts of celebrities such as singer John Legend and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim becoming among the most-ardent backers of systemic reform. But Brown’s own efforts, along with the Vergara ruling, and the work that reformers and Parent Power activists have done for the past decade, have even won over the likes of comedian Whoopi Goldberg. That even those otherwise supportive of traditionalists such as John Merrow have argued against continuing near-lifetime employment in its current form as well as even exposed the reality that many teachers treat families as afterthoughts and nuisances, shows how little support the AFT and other traditionalists can muster for their defense of failed policies and practices.

Finally, by even engaging in this exercise, AQE and New York Communities have exposed the underlying reason why so many traditionalists are opposing systemic reform: Because they profit financially and politically from the existing order. Without AFT money, the two outfits would be hard up. For their prime funder, the AFT (as well as the NEA), the end of near-lifetime employment laws means the end of the grand bargain the two unions struck six decades ago with teachers that fills their coffers to the tune of $788 million in 2012-2013 alone. Their claims that they speak for teachers are belied by the fact that they continually defends policies that do nothing to elevate the teaching profession, and, in fact, force high quality teachers to work alongside laggards whose shoddy work makes it harder to do their jobs. Particularly for the AFT, the moves by its Big Apple local and other units to suppress the votes of younger teachers who are the most-hurt by reverse-seniority layoff rules, betrays its claim that it speaks for all teachers.

The AFT and NEA have to fight hard against ending near-lifetime employment and other policies because they have nothing else to offer teachers in their respective rank-and-file memberships. For the AFT, in particular, efforts to provide professional development (including the biannual TEACH conferences and the Share My Lesson venture the AFT launched with British corporate firm TSL Education Ltd) have proven to be unsatisfactory for its members. Because it is so tied to working on behalf of Baby Boomers who are still in control of the union (and are the ones who think they have the most to lose from systemic reform efforts), it has been unable to adapt to the needs of younger teachers who are the majority of membership.

Without near-lifetime employment policies in place (and laws that force teachers to pay into its coffers regardless of their desire to do so), younger teachers would likely flee to professional association-like groups that can better serve their interests. That would likely result in the AFT no longer existing as an enterprise — and its vassals finding themselves without cash.

You can say that AQE and New York Communities have earned their money for the year — and that the AFT has gotten something for its cash. But they haven’t gotten the public relations victory they were seeking. In fact, they have exposed their intellectual disingenuousness, moral bankruptcy, and general inability to sustain arguments for laws that damage the futures of kids which should have long ago been abolished.


August 5, 2014 standard

One of the most-unfortunate aspects of the political sparring over the 57,000 children from Central America emigrating to this country is the nasty rhetoric coming from Nativists  — including those in movement conservative circles — insinuating that the kids should be kept out because they are supposedly infected with diseases. From Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin claiming that the emigres would bring common childhood diseases such as lice, measles and chickenpox to her supposedly disease-fee state, to congressional Republicans going on talk radio claiming that the presence of border kids may lead to communities suffering illnesses, they are engaging in the kind of careless rhetoric that essentially dehumanizes the most-vulnerable when they should be treating them like their own children.

But House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita went a step further — and played upon otherwise-reasonable fears about the possibility of an Ebola epidemic spreading from West Africa to this country — by suggesting that border kids may be infected with the deadly virus. For such deliberately careless rhetoric, Rokita shouldn’t even hold his subcommittee chairmanship, much less serve in the federal lower house. And conservative reformers, who should broach no rhetoric that perpetuates cultures of death that harm all children, should demand his resignation.

During an appearance yesterday on Indianapolis talk show host Greg Garrison’s radio show, the Hoosier State Republican argued that “we need to know the condition of these kids” because they may be carrying Ebola. Rokita then went further by arguing against moves by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to place border kids with parents, relatives, and other sponsors because he doubts that the agency is examining and vaccinating them.

Certainly border kids who are suffering illnesses should be quarantined and treated. But Ebola is a virus that primarily plagues sub-Saharan Africa. There has never been an outbreak of Ebola in any Central American country, according to the World Health Organization, and the most-likely people to bring the virus to this country are Americans who have worked in places affected by the disease such as Liberia. So Rokita’s speculation, which he could have easily figured out was wrong just by getting one of his congressional aides to consult the WHO’s Web site, is both silly and irresponsible.

[By the way: Rokita hasn't called for a travel ban on flights to and from West African nations or demanded that American aid workers traveling back from those countries be put into quarantine. This pretty much tells you that he isn't all that concerned about an Ebola outbreak.]

Rokita’s claim that he doubts border kids are being screened and vaccinated is also false. This is already happening. Every border child brought to a detention center is screened for tuberculosis and other illnesses, then vaccinated. Just as importantly, most of these kids already come to the United States already vaccinated from childhood diseases; 93 percent of kids who come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been vaccinated, according to WHO, another data point Rokita could have gotten a staffer to dig up. Even for those few kids who may be sick with measles or tuberculosis, they are unlikely to foster an outbreak. Some 9,945 tuberculosis cases are diagnosed every year for an average of 3.2 people per 100,000, according to CDC; 200 cases of measles are diagnosed every year. While a record 288 cases of measles have been diagnosed during the first five months of this year, most of that has resulted from Americans who haven’t received vaccinations traveling to nations in Europe, Asia, and Africa, where the childhood disease is still common. In fact, the biggest threat to the health of American children and adults are those parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids because of false fears spread that vaccines cause autism. Rokita can thank the daughter of former Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, who, along with celebrity Jenny McCarthy, have been the most-prominent proponents of the bad vaccines myth.

These are the children Rokita is dehumanizing with his rhetoric. Photo courtesy of Ross D. Franklin of the Associated Press.

Certainly Rokita isn’t the only congressional Republican insinuating that border kids may be infected with Ebola. Last month, his colleague, Phil Gingrey, fired off a letter to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demanding that the agency alert the public of the possibility of border kids having Ebola and other diseases. But unlike Gingrey, Rokita actually chairs a House subcommittee that oversees federal policymaking that affects children attending the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Given his role, along with the low likelihood of border kids having Ebola, Rokita should have behaved far more responsibly than he did. But he chose to engage in the kind of Ravitchian demagoguery that no political leader, much less one of the key players in education policymaking, should do.

Rokita’s attempt to link border kids to diseases is also nothing new. Throughout history, Nativists have raised concerns of infections, along with eugenicist claims of mental inferiority, as reasons for opposing emigres entering the nation’s borders. During the 19th  and 20th centuries, Irish , Jewish, and Italian immigrants were supposedly carriers of cholera, polio and tuberculosis, diseases common in American society before their entry because of poor sanitation and the lack of modern medicine. What Rokita, along with his colleagues opposed to the presence of border children are doing is borrowing the language of earlier demagogues to dehumanize defenseless children. In the process, not only is Rokita behaving inhumanely, he is even violating the compassion toward children born and unborn that is a tenet of movement conservatism.

Put simply, Rokita should lose his chairmanship. He should also lose his seat in the House. Your editor doesn’t expect any of that to happen. After all, for House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, Rokita’s inexperience on education policymaking (as compared to that of fellow Hoosier Luke Messer, who did admirable work advancing reform during his tenure as a state legislator) makes him quite useful in pushing his goal of eviscerating the No Child Left Behind Act. Kline has yet to show that he will make a responsible decision that would hurt his cause. As for losing his seat? Thanks to gerrymandering, along with the penchant of Hoosiers to keep less-than-stellar politicians in the halls of Congress (a group that included Burton, who held office for 30 years in spite of missing numerous votes in order to attend golf outings, and the notorious Julia Carson), Rokita will likely keep his job.

The big question is what will conservative reformers — including American Enterprise Institute honcho Rick Hess (whose think tank gave Rokita a platform to explain House Republican efforts on federal education policy this past May), and Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli — will do? Conservative reformers can no more tolerate Rokita’s rhetoric about border kids than traditionalists should when it comes to the demagoguery of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch. At the very least, conservative reformers should call out Rokita for his nastiness and should go further than that. Any silence on their part and they can no longer complain about traditionalists engaging in similar nastiness.

Rokita has shown through his words that he is incapable of treating the least of our children with basic human decency. He should not be heading any congressional committee involving any issue that deals with kids or their education.

August 4, 2014 standard

A common complaint among opponents of the implementation of Common Core such as American Enterprise Institute czar Rick Hess and Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute is that those of us who support the reading and math standards are condescending to them. From where they sit, Common Core supporters merely fan the flames of opposition by ridiculing the positions of those opposed to the standards instead of engaging in honest conversations about the various technical and philosophical issues that are being raised.

Your editor wishes he could empathize or sympathize with them. But he cannot. This isn’t because I don’t think there aren’t those whose opposition to Common Core  are based on principled ideological, policymaking, or education practice grounds. You can disagree with intellectuals among movement conservatives who aren’t concerned with education policy about the interpretations of conservative theory that drives their opposition to the very idea of common curricula. [Your editor has done so on more than enough occasions.] But it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to their views, even if the consequences of their thinking on the futures of children are objectionable. The reason is because those principled Common Core foes haven’t helped their cause by associating with fellow-travelers who engage in conspiracy-theorizing and rank demagoguery.

It is hard to give Common Core foes any credence when they don’t call out the likes of talk show host Glenn Beck, whose tirades against the standards (already bordering on the illogical) veered into Hofstadter-like paranoia over the past two weeks with his book and film special. When an intellectually demagogic figure such as once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch (a Common Core foe) calls out Beck for engaging in “false and hysterical” rhetoric (a move that, by the way, is both ironic and admirable), then Common Core foes should take pause. You can’t complain about your side being dismissed as verging on lunacy when the most-prominent of your fellow-travelers are, well, doing exactly that.

It’s tough to give serious thought to the objections of Common Core foes when they fail to disassociate themselves from people such as Florida State Rep. Charles Van Zant, who proclaim that the standards will “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can”, and similar ridiculousness from outfits such as the Phyllis Schafly’s Eagle Forum. When you allow such blatantly incorrect (and bigoted) talking points to rein supreme in your movement, you can’t then complain about being dismissed by the other side. Particularly for conservative foes of Common Core, who, along with conservative reformers and movement conservatives, complain about caricatures of their side (and the conservative movement itself) as being a movement of bigots, it becomes critical to weed out the rabble in order to provide credible messaging.

It is difficult for Common Core foes to be given fair hearing when they argue that the standards are somehow a conspiracy against American democracy because approval came from state boards of education (33 of which are appointed by elected governors and the rest elected) and chief state school officers (who are often either appointed by those boards or elected in their own right) instead of from state legislators. Such arguments demonstrate a complete misunderstanding, deliberate and otherwise, about how political decision-making works in a democratic republic such as the United States, where legislators often defer policymaking to appointed boards (who are subjected to open meetings laws and other requirements as legislators are).

[By the way: For black reformers mindful of history, the rhetoric also comes off as the kind of statements once made by Jim Crow segregationists to denigrate Brown v. Board of Education and other rulings by judges properly interpreting the Constitution. And that, along with the opposition to expanding school choice among progressives opposed to Common Core and the general lack of concern for minority children in the work of Hess and others skeptical of the standards, rightfully causes us to think that they oppose Common Core because they want to continue denying comprehensive college-preparatory education to black and Latino children. Common Core foes may not like the characterization and may argue that it isn't so. But you are defined by both your words and actions. And if you don't demonstrate that you care, then don't be surprised that people think exactly that.]

Common Core foes can’t demand serious consideration when their fellow-travelers claim that the standards are a conspiracy by the Obama Administration and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (along with textbook giant Pearson Plc.) to either indoctrinate children or generate what they call filthy lucre. When libertarian and conservative foes of the standards argue that Common Core is merely an idea of the Obama Administration, they fail to acknowledge the clear historical evidence that reform-minded governors and school leaders have been paving the way for Common Core since 2004 when Achieve Inc., launched the American Diploma Project. As for progressive traditionalists? The privatizing arguments they make fail to acknowledge the reality that the work of implementing Common Core is being done not by companies, but by nonprofits, as well as typifies the anti-intellectualism on the role of the private sector in public education that has led to the worst traditionalist rhetoric.

Meanwhile Common Core foes are asking a little too much out of their opponents to give their arguments credence when their arguments about the quality of the standards themselves don’t even pass the sniff test of sensible people. This was made clear last week in a conversation your editor had with pal Jeremy Lott of Rare, no fan of Common Core implementation, who said that he found little wrong or problematic with the reading standards. When a highly-educated writer and editor such as my pal Jeremy looks askance at claims such as those by Pioneer’s Sandra Stotsky about the quality of Common Core (even when they are skeptical about how effective implementation can be), then foes of the standards should stop with such foolishness altogether.

Put simply, Common Core foes cannot complain about not being given serious consideration when they tolerate or soft-peddle less-than-serious rhetoric from their own side. Both in politics and the marketplace of ideas, your credibility is ultimately as dependent on the seriousness of your arguments as it is on how you advance them (and how they are countered by your opposition).

This doesn’t mean that Common Core foes won’t win any victories; they already have in Indiana and South Carolina. But it has less to do with the quality of their arguments than with the reality that there will always be politicians who cynically play to demagoguery out of career considerations. This was true during the civil rights battles of the last century, and, in fact, a reality of American life since the debates over enacting the Constitution. But as seen in Louisiana, where the arguments of Common Core foes have not won over gubernatorial frontrunner (and U.S. Senator) David Vitter, demagogic arguments will crowd out legitimate concerns and ultimately, hurt your cause with sensible people. It also gives Common Core supporters the arsenal they need to point out how opposition to the standards means damaging the futures of children.

But for those conservative reformers opposed to Common Core, the consequences of unserious rhetoric is especially problematic. The Pioneer Institute, for example, is waging what should be considered an admirable effort for ending the cap on the expansion of public charter schools that can help provide kids in Massachusetts with high-quality education. But it is hard for reformers who also back Common Core to give Pioneer any support for its cause. Why? Because Pioneer is the same outfit engaged in many of the most-egregious episodes of conspiracy-theorizing against the standards and those who support them. That it’s president, Jim Stergios, was among the first to call for the head of Common Core supporter Tony Bennett to resign as Florida’s chief state school officer after last year’s fracas over his decision as Indiana superintendent to amend its A-to-F grading system also makes it hard for fellow reformers to give Pioneer anything more than token support.

As I pointed out in June, by opposing Common Core implementation, and particularly, by engaging in such demagogic and senseless rhetoric, opponents of the standards who are also in the reform movement end up weakening support for the solutions for which they advocate. You can’t expect support from erstwhile allies after your rhetoric on an issue with which you disagree veers into demagoguery. When you also consider that some of the states kiboshing Common Core implementation are either the ones struggling the most to provide all kids with high-quality education, or, as in the case of South Carolina, have done little to expand choice and advance other reforms, reformers in the Common Core opposition end up betraying their own commitment to helping all kids succeed. What intellectually and morally honest reformer wants to allied with those who are both unprincipled in their alliances and unable to consider the consequences of their thinking?

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t Common Core foes with legitimate arguments against the standards. It also doesn’t mean that supporters of Common Core don’t have issues to address when it comes to successful implementation, or that they shouldn’t address serious arguments seriously. But it strains credulity for principled Common Core foes to demand that supporters pay attention only to their serious arguments when they won’t weed out the demagoguery of their allies.