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April 21, 2015 standard

Choice has been getting a lot of good press lately. Ever since Mr. Kellogg began making corn flakes, Americans have been told that many brightly colored packages of slightly differing products are better than one. (“Would you like corn syrup and dehydrated strawberries with your cattle feed?”) Mr. Ford’s offer of the Model T in every color as long as it was black quickly gave way to automobiles in every possible, and some impossible, colors. Victorian black in winter and white in summer are only seen in certain districts of Manhattan and otherwise identical tract-houses and apartments are distinguished from one another with names intended to convey status and romance.

Which brings us to schools.

There are some 14,000 school districts in the United States and most have only a few high schools, often enough North, South, East and West, with their bitter football rivalries. Larger districts, almost from their beginnings, have differentiated some of their schools by curriculum and the class status of students. Boston Latin with its classical curriculum, serving the children of the wealthy and well-born, was complimented by vocational schools, on the one hand, and common schools, on the other. Eventually there were systems with different varieties at each level: classical and science elite schools, five or six types of vocational schools, perhaps a music and arts school. Students (actually, their families) didn’t exactly choose these schools—“Well, Jackie, do you want to go to Bronx Science or Aviation High?”—but the variety of schools in many large districts presented the thought of an alternative to the common school.

This thought was available for use when direct desegregation efforts failed and authorities attempted to lessen segregation by means of magnet schools, each excellent in its own way. These were much more a matter of choice, for White families, who could choose to send their children to one or another or to none at all. For Black children, magnets weren’t much of a choice at all. Meanwhile the schools that predominantly served them were almost never improved.

Today, many large districts offer secondary schools (and even primary schools) with bright and shiny grocery store packaging: The School for Advanced Study in Sub-Prime Mortgages, The School for Olympic Sports Commentary, and the like. There are also public charter schools and other forms of choice operating outside of districts; in New Orleans, those are the dominant forms of schools, while in most other places (namely New York and Chicago), they serve less than a fifth of the student population. But the vast majority of what some can (vaguely) call choice still exists within the confines of traditional school districts.

None of these schools, especially those operated by districts, are intended to serve the children in their neighborhoods. So as a result, choice operates district-wide. Sometimes it serves as a desegregation strategy. Other times, as resegregation by various other names. Occasionally, especially outside of the traditional school district, even as a way to provide Black and Latino children with high-quality education.

There is evidence that when structured properly, school choice can improve learning outcomes for our children. But as my Dropout Nation colleague, RiShawn Biddle, has pointed out, the infrastructure for choice – including school data – isn’t robust enough in some places for it to help children. In some places, intra-district and out-of-district choice doesn’t even work as a lever for high quality education. In the last case, it’s meant to be that way.

Take New York City. Yes, I’m calling it out again. The traditional district’s medical-school-admissions-style process for high school admission is extraordinarily complicated and driven by the actions of families, who, in an adaption of University of Chicago School of Economics rational-choice theory, are assumed to be uniformly well-informed and highly (and similarly) motivated. What is the result? Schools that somewhat well-informed (and often, usually wealthy) parents ascertain offer the best educations are filled with the children of the well-informed and highly motivated. Other children are consigned to other schools.

Wealthy, well-informed parents do not complain about the (woefully inadequate) quality of those other schools and the voices of the children in those other schools are inaudible in the corridors of power. Which allows the continuing diversion of public resources from schools serving the children with the lowest level of family resources to those serving children with greater family resources.

When school choice is structured like it is in New York City, school choice can end up validating the unequal distribution of economic opportunity that has been a problem since the days of Horace Mann. But those kids had their chance, didn’t they? Those children without parents, with parents working two jobs, with parents afraid to have their children travel out of the neighborhood. They must like things this way.

Would you like whipped cream on those corn flakes?

April 20, 2015 standard

One lesson of politics: Congratulations become condolences. This is something Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel already knows. Beating Jesus (Chuy) Garcia earlier this month to win a second term as chief executive of the Second City’s government now means having to deal with new woes. This includes the fallout from last week’s revelation that Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett (now on leave) is under investigation allegedly awarded a $20 million no-bid contract to her former employer, SUPES Academy.

But the biggest challenge facing Emanuel is figuring out how to deal with decades of mismanagement of its collection of pensions by predecessor Richard M. Daley and by public-sector unions who control the boards that oversee them. This includes addressing the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, a virtual subsidiary of the American Federation of Teachers’ Chicago Teachers Union, which continues to offer less-than-honest data on its woeful fiscal condition.

The pension officially reports a shortfall of $9.5 billion for 2013-2014, a slight decline from the $9.6 billion reported in the previous year. This can be attributed to stronger-than-expected gains in the financial markets, along with a 52.7 percent year-to-year decline in the number of retirees added to the rolls.

But as Dropout Nation readers already know, those numbers do not reflect reality. For one, thanks to an actuarial trick called smoothing, which requires losses and gains to be phased in over five years instead of immediately as they should be, CTPF isn’t reporting its true financial position. In this case, the pension is failing to report $770 million in investment gains over the past few years; when added to the officially-reported numbers, the underfunding would decline to $8.7 billion.

The other reason why the officially-reported numbers don’t reflect reality? The overly-inflated assumed investment rate of return of 7.75 percent. The value of the Chicago teachers’ pension’s assets declined by eight percent on an actuarial basis between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, and increased by only 20.9 percent (or 4.17 percent a year) on a market value basis within that period. Overly-inflated assumed rates of return are problematic because pensions can report insolvencies as being lower than they actually are during both good times and bad, which means that politicians can’t engage in honest, fiscally-sensible problem-solving of their virtual insolvencies.

To get to the heart of the matter, Dropout Nation utilizes a version of a technique developed by Moody’s Investors Service, which assumes a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of a return. [Moody’s bases its rate of return on the Citibank Pension Liability Index, which is based on the yield for AA-rated corporate bonds.]

Let’s start with the officially-reported liability: Based on the calculation, CTPF is underfunded to the tune of $12.3 billion, or 30 percent more than officially reported. The good news is that the underfunding is 1.6 percent lower than the $12.5 billion shortfall DN determined last year. But even with this slight decline, taxpayers would have to contribute an additional $722.9 million a year over the next 17 years in order to address the shortfall; this is 123 percent more than the $585 million the city contributed in 2013-2014.

[Pension costs accounted for 10.5 percent of the $5.6 billion spent in 2013-2014 by Chicago Public Schools, whose budget is technically separate from the $8.7 billion spent by the rest of the Second City’s government; an additional $722.9 million in contributions that year would have increased the percentage of district spending devoted to pensions to 23.4 percent. If the budgets for both the schools were together on one ledger — adding up to $14.3 billion for 2013-2014 — the teachers’ pension contributions would have accounted for 4.1 percent of the overall budget; the additional contributions would have increased the percentage of expenditures dedicated to the pension to 9.1 percent. In fact, the contributions made to CTPF in 2013-2014 are greater than the $478.3 million contributed by the city to its other pensions put together.]

But what if we use $8.7 billion, which is lower than the officially-reported shortfall thanks to the inclusion of unreported gains? Based on Dropout Nation‘s calculations, CTPF is underfunded to the tune of $11.3 billion, which is 30 percent higher than the $8.7 billion number and 19 percent more than the officially-reported liability. Based on a 17-year amortization schedule, taxpayers would have to contribute an additional $664 million to the pension, also more than double what they put into the pension last fiscal year.

None of this, by the way, includes the unfunded retired teacher healthcare obligations that CTPF bears on behalf of the city. The good news is that pension assumes a more-realistic 4.5 percent rage of return on the investments dedicated to covering those costs. Even better, the unfunded actuarial accrued obligation of $1.9 billion in 2013-2014 is 19 percent lower than the previous fiscal year. But when added on top of the pension insolvency, Emanuel must ultimately address insolvency of between $13.2 billion and $14.2 billion. This is a tall order, especially given the liabilities of the city’s other pensions.

Given that Chicago skipped out on contributions to CTPF over the previous 18 years thanks to an Illinois law allowing it to do so, no one can feel sorry for the city government on this front. It should have been doing the responsible thing and making those payments. But it isn’t just the fault of the city alone. The AFT’s Second City local, which controls the majority of seats on the pension, has also aided in the pension’s mismanagement. Between years of silence over the failure of Daley and other politicians to properly contribute to the pension, to allowing it to use overly inflated rates of return, CTU has done as much as city officials to poorly serve teachers, taxpayers, and children.

For the pension, it won’t get better anytime soon. Fewer Baby Boomers in the Chicago district’s classrooms retired in 2013-2014 than in previous years. Still, the pension can expect 1,550 teachers to retire every year (based on data for the previous 10 years). With each retiree collecting an average annual annuity of $45,792, CTPF can expect to add at least an additional $71 million a year in additional annuity payments, exacerbating its insolvency. In fact, new retirees in 2013-2014 received an initial average annual annuity of $70,539.89, 54 percent more than the average.

Another factor lies with the lawsuit filed by AFT’s Illinois affiliate and other public-sector unions to stop the modest pension reforms implemented by the Prairie State last year as part of Senate Bill 1; Emanuel’s own plan to address CTPF’s insolvency (and that of the city’s other pensions) is based on the state’s plan. A state court judge has already halted the implementation of S.B. 1, leading to speculation that the state supreme court will rule the reforto halt the implementation of S.B. 1 and the possibility that the state supreme court will rule the measures unconstitutional, Emanuel has little room to maneuver. Certainly the city could address the pension insolvencies by filing for bankruptcy, something that Detroit did with great success over the last two years. But no politician wants to make such a drastic move unless it is unavoidable.

Then there’s the traditional district’s fiscal woes aside from the pension. As the Chicago Sun-Times noted on Saturday, a downgrade in CPS’s credit rating may force it to pay off $228 million in interest rate swaps. Given that the district has already seen its cash on hand decline by 79 percent (from $1.1 billion to $227 million) within the last year, and that it is struggling mightily with pension payments, any pension reform plan will have to involve tapping the coffers of the main city government. With the other pensions also in trouble, Emanuel has a massive problem on his hands.

No matter what happens with S.B. 1 or with CPS’ financial position, Emanuel will have to take numerous steps to address the CTPF’s financial straits for the long haul. Making full contributions is a key part of the solution. So is addressing the governance of CTPF itself; this includes convincing legislators in Springfield to significantly reduce the eight seats controlled by CTU, and effectively giving the mayor full control of the teachers pension (along with the city’s other retirement funds). Restricting increases in cost-of-living adjustments (a key reason for increases in the pension’s virtual insolvency) is also critical.

As Dropout Nation advised last year, Emanuel’s pension reform plan must both restrict increases in cost-of-living adjustments (a reason for increasing insolvency) and also allow younger teachers to reap the full rewards of their work. so that they can reap the full rewards of their work. This would feature a defined-contribution account toward which teachers can contribute as much of their income to retirement as they see fit (with a five percent match from the city), as well as a cash-balanced plan that guarantees an annual savings rate. Such a move, by the way, would also help the pension (and ultimately, taxpayers) by reducing the number of new annuitants that will add to its insolvency.

But the first and most-important step lies with getting accurate numbers on the level of CTPF’s shortfall. Emanuel should lean hard on the pension to downwardly revise its assumed rate of return in order to get a more-realistic assessment of the pension’s woes. He must also lobby state legislators to end smoothing techniques that further obscure the pension’s true financial condition. These two key steps will ultimately help Emanuel level honestly with Second City taxpayers about what needs to be done to get the pension and the municipality on the path to solvency. And if he succeeds, will mark his second term as a well-earned success.

April 11, 2015 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle explains why we must continually affirm the genius of all of our children and provide them the nurturing, knowledge, and affirmations they need for lifelong success.

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

April 8, 2015 standard

There are reformers who are going to argue that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s victory in tonight’s runoff election for a second term is an absolute mandate for his entire agenda. Not so fast. Any situation in which an incumbent mayor wins less than 50 percent of the vote in an official election and worse, forced into a runoff, makes such a statement pure hogwash. This isn’t to say that there aren’t Second City voters supporters who back the systemic reform efforts Emanuel and predecessor Richard M. Daley have overseen for three decades. But given that the mayor is responsible for far more than public education — and in light of dissatisfaction over Emanuel’s and Daley’s efforts on that as well as other quality-of-life issues — Emanuel can’t claim a mandate. [Not that mandates exist the way ideologues, partisans, and pundits ever think.]

At the same time, traditionalists and teachers’ union bosses, along with their allies among progressives, are forced to admit this reality: That their campaign to halt the path of systemic reform — and force centrist Democrats to adopt their agenda — has all turned out for naught. Especially for the American Federation of Teachers and its Chicago Teachers Union, which (along with other AFT locals) have spent $1.2 million during this election to unseat Emanuel, this defeat should prompt plenty of soul searching about their embrace of failed policies and practices that voters have soundly rejected.

As your editor predicted on Friday, AFT declined to throw more money at Cook County Commissioner Jesus (Chuy) Garcia’s campaign to unseat Emanuel once the latest round of polls showed him trailing the mayor by as much as 28 percentage points. Even as its Second City local desperately issued press releases — including a particularly sleazy flack piece attempting to link Emanuel’s reform efforts to the guilty verdicts against 11 teachers and school leaders involved in the Atlanta test-cheating scandal — AFT refused to infuse Garcia’s campaign with more cash and didn’t do any public relations on his behalf. By Tuesday morning, it was clear that AFT was wiping its hands of the debacle, leaving CTU (along with the Service Employees International Union and its affiliates) with the job of cleaning up the mess.

Ultimately, Emanuel won by 11.4 percentage point margin. AFT President Randi Weingarten attempted a positive spin on the failed effort up by proclaiming that the runoff sent a message that Emanuel’s “education policies have to change.” But when you look closely at Emanuel’s victory, the message for reformers and traditionalists is far different than what Weingarten and her allies want to claim it to be.

As I have noted, Emanuel didn’t win an overall mandate. Certainly crime has declined under Emanuel’s watch. But Chicago’s homicide rate remains three times higher than that of New York City, while its police department’s tactics (including mislabeling of homicides as anything but and alleged torture of suspects done at a warehouse on the city’s West Side) have been generally ineffective in addressing violence in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. If Emanuel had done a better job on the crime front (and had less of an Adrian Fenty-ish demeanor to boot), he wouldn’t have ended up in a runoff in the first place.

But at the same time, the majority of Second City voters clearly showed that they were satisfied with Emanuel on other fronts. This includes his battle with public-sector unions over addressing Chicago’s massive defined-benefit pension insolvencies. Public-sector unions, especially CTU, along with the Service Employees International Union and the city’s police union, thought they could use class warfare rhetoric to win voters over to their side. But as it turned out, voters realize that the city faces a fiscal crisis — including a teachers’ pension busted to the tune of $12.3 billion (based on a preliminary Dropout Nation analysis that will be published on Friday) — that cannot be addressed by continuing the status quo. On this front, Emanuel’s pugnaciousness serves him well, especially compared to Garcia’s position as the standardbearer for public-sector unions.

As for Emanuel’s school reform efforts: Voters made clear that they should continue apace. This became clear late last month, when a Chicago Tribune poll revealed that likely voters sided with Emanuel’s efforts over those proposed by Garcia by as much as 14 percentage points.

Certainly there is plenty of divide over Emanuel’s approach and ire over his move two years ago to shut down 47 half-empty traditional district schools. As Dropout Nation noted last November, Emanuel should be even more aggressive on the reform front, especially in passing a Parent Trigger law allowing families to take over failing district schools. But voters have a hard time arguing with improved student achievement. Given that the city’s high school graduation rate increasing from 39 percent to 66 percent between 2005 and 2013, and the percentage of Second City fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 60 percent to 49 percent within the last decade, the reforms Emanuel (and before him, Daley) have undertaken are helping more kids. Add in the evidence that the school closings have actually helped more kids get into better-performing schools, and it is hard to argue that the reform efforts aren’t working.

This isn’t to say that Chicago doesn’t have more to do to improve its traditional district. Emanuel should immediately order his schools czar, Barbara Byrd Bennett, to put additional focus on improving achievement for the city’s young black men; the failure of the district on this front is simply unacceptable. Emanuel should also continue the city’s efforts to reduce overuse of harsh school discipline, which would keep more Second City kids off the path to poverty and prison.  — will help even more kids succeed. As a study released last month by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research has shown, reducing out-of-school suspensions along with over reforms can lead to schools actually being safer; if anything, overuse of suspensions is clearly tied to low student achievement resulting from laggard teaching and curricula.

AFT’s Chicago local boss Karen Lewis spent four years battling Rahm Emanuel’s reforms. Now she must figure out how to deal with her union’s big loss.

The success of Emanuel’s and Daley’s reforms even extend to the expansion of public charter schools, which now serve 15.2 percent of Chicago’s school-aged children. As a study released last month by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes has shown, poor kids attending Second City charters gained 35 additional days of learning in reading over peers in the traditional district’s schools.

This isn’t exactly unqualified success; as CREDO also shows, Chicago’s charters have to do better in improving achievement on other fronts. The fraud scandal that has engulfed the UNO chain of charter schools is a clear sign that Emanuel must overhaul how the district authorizes and oversees charters; in fact, given that Chicago city government has a conflict of interest on this front, Illinois state officials should end the city’s status as an authorizer and put that role into the hands of either the University of Chicago or another outfit. But the study bears out evidence in other studies — including Rand Corp.’s 2010 study of charters in Chicago and other locals — that expanding choice is helping more Second City kids succeed in school and in life.

In the face of all this evidence, there was no way Garcia could convince voters that his sparsely-detailed proposals on education would work better. Garcia couldn’t even prove that he would act in the best interests of Chicago’s children and families. After all, he proved through word and deed that he would only do the bidding of CTU and the national AFT; given that his bid for the mayoralty wouldn’t have happened without CTU’s early and enthusiastic endorsement (over the opposition of hardcore traditionalists who preferred Ald. Bob Fioretti for the challenger’s spot), there was no way Garcia could distance himself from the union. By be so wedded to CTU’s agenda (as well as that of other public-sector unions), Garcia proved to voters (with the help of Emanuel’s ad blitz) that he was bought by the union for a few shekels.

But Garcia isn’t the only one who lost this election. As Dropout Nation noted last week, Emanuel ‘s victory is also an embarrassing defeat for CTU and its ailing president, Karen Lewis. After spending four years challenging Emanuel’s reforms, and arguing alongside hardcore traditionalists that it was better to go radical than to embrace the triangulation previously championed by Weingarten, CTU and Lewis could do little better than garner support for its agenda from two out of every five voters in both the general election and the runoff. That CTU couldn’t even muster much support from poor and minority communities — especially black voters — is especially telling.

Because Emanuel has won this tough fight, he will now be politically invincible. Not only will the mayor remain in office for another four years, he can choose to remain in office as long as he wants the same way Daley pere (and his legendary father) were able. Without an ally in the top job, Lewis finds herself in a tough spot. Continuing her hardcore traditionalist approach will not win her any more victories; in fact, it will merely give Emanuel an even freer hand to do as he please on the education front. But if Lewis embraces the go-along approach taken by Weingarten for most of her career in the AFT, she will end up getting the business end of the hardcore traditionalist ire she has fanned since becoming the union’s boss four years ago.

But none of this should be shocking. As I noted two years ago, CTU’s biggest victory — a two-week strike that led Emanuel to back off of some of his reforms — was merely defensive. The deal Emanuel struck with the union still allowed him to increase school days, angering Lewis’ allies; that the strike couldn’t stop the use of student test score growth data in teacher evaluations mandated under state law also made the strike little more than just one overgrown tantrum. For all of CTU’s bluster, it has little support from families who have suffered the most from the failed policies and practices it (along with the national AFT) have long defended.

As for AFT? Emanuel’s victory is also a sobering moment. For all of Weingarten’s bluster last night, even she realizes that the union (along with its traditionalist, progressive, and public-sector union allies) has lost big. AFT local bosses duplicating the approach taken by Lewis in Chicago — and championed by Weingarten to satisfy the hardcore activists within national’s ranks — now know they will not succeed. Centrist Democrats, especially those in big cities, now have evidence that standing strong for school reform (as well as addressing virtually-busted pensions) will not result in political defeat. In short, they no longer have to fear losing the backing of AFT and NEA affiliates who have been the most-prominent players within Democratic Party politics.

The fact that AFT and NEA have done little to cultivate ties to Republicans (who aren’t a presence in most urban communities anyway) means that they (along with their public-sector union brethren) are isolated and, thus, have less influence than they have had in the past. This reality has been clear for some time. But Emanuel’s hard-fought victory adds the proverbial exclamation point. The ramifications of the mayor’s victory will be reflected in next year’s race for the White House; likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton could easily toss a few bones to AFT and NEA and still embrace a strong systemic reform agenda. Given that likely Republican candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin have strong reform bona fides, Hillary will have almost no choice but to do so.

Even worse for AFT is that Emanuel’s victory will continue to raise questions among the rank-and-file as to whether the grand bargain struck with the union long ago is worth the money they are (often) forced to pay. With nearly a million dollars wasted on a political campaign that only resulted in defeat, and with reformers encouraged to continue efforts to overhaul the traditional teacher compensation deals that have made teaching the most-comfortable profession in the public sector, Baby Boomers likely wish they can get those dues back. Younger teachers, who want to elevate the profession, have already raised that question. And if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to overturn its four decade-old Abood decision allowing public-sector unions to compel workers to pay dues regardless of membership status, expect more teachers to flee AFT and NEA ranks.

All in all, Emanuel’s victory is a resounding defeat for AFT and its fellow traditionalists.

 

 

 

April 4, 2015 standard

Historians such as Wilma Dunaway are now establishing that slavery was a highly profitable business for the slave owners as well as for the northern banking and commercial interests that supported them. Popular culture has left behind the romantic and highly deceptive images of slavery in the last century projected by The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to provide in their stead the realism of movies like Twelve Years a Slave and Django Unchained. Especially for those of us who have never watched Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, there is the profound sense of shock that we realize that, in this context, Quentin Tarantino is a realist.

These strands come together on the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the blacksmith shop of which was used as the setting for the scene in Django Unchained in which Django is tortured.

The recently restored Whitney Plantation is one of a series of plantations along the Mississippi above New Orleans. The tours of the others celebrate their white columned houses and the leisure of the White owners of those houses, their imported furnishings, their gardens and their gracious way of life. John Cummings, the attorney whose project the Whitney Plantation has been, takes a different approach, making it into a monument for the enslaved Africans themselves, their horrific lives, their early deaths.

Cummings has placed a large, now rusted, iron cage between the blacksmith shop and the big house. About six feet high and twenty feet long, it was used to display the sufferings, and often enough the death throes, of slaves bull whipped in front of their fellows and families for defiance, attempting to escape, or for nothing at all. They were left to bleed in that cage in the Louisiana summer heat, in the winter rain, in the clear line of sight from the covered porch in the rear of the second floor of the big house. One can visualize the Haydel family, owners of the plantation, the men and women, the children and their visitors, taking tea on that porch on a summer’s afternoon, talking among themselves of the doings of their relatives and neighbors along the Great River Road or about the politicians in the capitol, Baton Rouge, just across the Mississippi, while one of their slaves, perhaps one of their mulatto daughters, screams as the bull whip strips the skin from her back and she is tossed naked into that iron cage.

Each member of the Haydel family, of the families of slave owners all along the river, had a personal slave, often given to them when each—owner and owned—was a child. The slaves slept on the floor, at the foot of the owner’s bed or just outside the bedroom door. White infants were nursed by enslaved Black women, who slept on the floor next to their cradles, in some cases forming life-long relationships. White people of the former slave-owning class in the South had similar upbringings not so long ago, or may even have such experiences today. The memory of some of these relationships were (and still) viewed sentimentally by their White participants. These sweet stories are part of the myth, the ideology, of the Southern way of life. Of course they are no longer stories about master-slave relationships, and yet even master-servant relationships are not true human relationships based on a mutual recognition of equality. They are stories of domination.

The legacy wrought by slavery and White Supremacy upon black children of the Whitney Plantation still haunt their descendants (and those who claim ancestry from other slave children) today thanks to American public education.

That cage behind the big house on the Whitney Plantation, perhaps replacing one worn-out from use, was manufactured in Philadelphia. The owners of the Philadelphia iron works profited; the plantation owners gained an instrument to help preserve the Southern way of life. Just as that exchange united the North and the South in a common cash matrix, so did it and the persistent exchanges on other levels infect Northerners as well with the racism of Southern slave owners (thinking again on the popular culture level of Gone with the Wind and the like, and on the political level of the Fugitive Slave Act and continuing White Southern dominance in Congress).

The tour of the Whitney Plantation begins at a church, built by and for ex-slaves elsewhere in the region and moved to the plantation as an entrance to the lessons taught by the docents. The church contains statues of slave children, reminiscent of those created by the artist Kara Walker, standing at the ends of the pews, witnessing. In a corner there is a bust of Pope Nicholas V, he of the Papal Bull justifying the enslavement of Africans. The next exhibit, a few dozen yards around the back of the church, is a set of memorial walls with the names of those who had lived as slaves on this property and the next is a set of Vietnam Memorial-style walls covered with the names and ages of the children who had died there before their fifth birthdays.

After this there are slave cabins, that blacksmith shop, the carriage house, mule stable, kitchen and the pigeon towers, the cage, and finally the big house, with its genteel atmosphere. The tour is a form of adult education. It is a course in American history, in the sociology of the plantations, in the morality of the owners of those plantations, their influence on race relations even today.

Education is not limited to elementary and secondary grades. It begins at birth and continues throughout life. Some of it is formal, some not. It is difficult to distinguish education in the usual sense of the word—reading, writing, arithmetic; quantum mechanics and philology—from education as the transmission of ideology or as the promotion of commercial products. Proctor & Gamble spends half a billion dollars or more on one form of education: making their products known and attractive to consumers. Political parties and those paying for them spend billions of dollars on another form of education, which also has the purpose of making their products known and attractive to the people they wish to influence.

Efforts to educate White people to accept racism as natural began in Europe as early as the sixteenth century Papal Bull of Nicholas V and rapidly took root in the Americas. Those efforts have been, continue to be, highly successful. The White police officers shooting Black children have been educated in this way so that they do not think that they are doing anything wrong. The school superintendents preferentially funding schools attended by White children do not think they are doing anything wrong. The school principals paddling or suspending Black girls and not White girls for similar behaviors do not think they are doing anything wrong. They have been carefully taught.

Different lessons are taught by the Whitney Plantation.

Visitors to the Whitney Plantation leave with images difficult to get out of one’s mind: Those artfully decorated rooms in the big house. That cage. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

April 3, 2015 standard

Certainly your editor is a tad skeptical about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s successful effort this week to convince legislators to pass a reform package that includes the overhaul the state’s teacher evaluation regime. At the same time, Cuomo deserves credit for making key steps that can help all Empire State children.

Why the skepticism? Start with the statement by Meryl Tisch, who heads the Empire State’s Board of Regents, that high-performing schools could be exempted from the new evaluation system is none too pleasing because it essentially allows teachers working in those classrooms off the hook for their performance. Given that even top-performing schools have laggards working within them, and that the quality of education varies between classrooms than between schools, exempting one group of teachers from performance management means denying school leaders, families, researchers, and even teachers the data they need to help all children succeed.

The fact that the state doesn’t ensure that state test score growth data accounts for 50 percent of the new evaluations leaves too much room for mischief (and watering down of performance management) to take place. The American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple and Empire State affiliates, knowing that Tisch and her fellow Regents are up for reappointment over the next two years, can simply lean on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to oppose their continued rolls on the body, leading them to allow test score growth data to account for as little as a quarter of the overall evaluation. This, in turn, will make subjective observations count for a greater portion of the performance review, essentially making the evaluations as inaccurate as they are now.

Given that a decade of evidence (including the Measures of Effective Teaching studies conducted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) shows that observations are absolutely ineffective in measuring how teachers improve student achievement — the unobservable aspect of teacher performance that is the most-important for our children’s lifelong success — the lack of a specified percentage makes almost no sense at all. Gov. Cuomo will have to put pressure on Tisch and her fellow Regents to ensure that test score growth data takes up 50 percent of the overall evaluation.

[Your editor knows that some reformers, most-notably Educators4Excellence and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, think that test score growth data shouldn’t account for half of an evaluation. But they are arguing against evidence, including studies by Thomas Kane (who also oversaw Gates Foundation’s MET initiative) and are incorrect in their respective stances. That’s all.]

Then there’s the fact that Cuomo dropped his demands for expanding charter schools and passing a tax credit scholarship initiative as conditions for signing the state budget in order to get the package — which includes a school takeover plan and an effort to improve the state’s ed schools — passed by the legislature. After all, by doing so, the governor loses critical leverage in expanding school choice. Yet your editor isn’t as concerned as charter school advocates about this move because Cuomo still has leverage it the form of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to renew mayoral control of the Big Apple’s traditional district.

Because de Blasio played a key role in helping Heastie succeed the disgraced Sheldon Silver as assembly speaker, de Blasio will work hard with him to renew mayoral control. The fact that de Blasio must also make amends with the state senate’s Republican majority, which is still perturbed over the mayor’s effort last year to help Democrats take control over the upper house is also a factor. If expanding charters and passing tax credits (the latter of which is a key priority of State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos) are the conditions for winning renewal of mayoral control, then de Blasio will probably support it. Cuomo knows this and will likely get his way in the end.

As I said, your editor reserves some skepticism about the reform package. Yet at the same time, that Cuomo has managed to get the legislature to go his way is good news for children and families in the state.

The fact that the new evaluation system will only use score growth data from the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests is a strong blow for high-quality data on teacher performance. No longer will data from district-developed assessments of lower quality (including formative tests from Northwest Evaluation Association — which aren’t aligned to Common Core’s reading and math standards, and those written up by teachers lacking the knowledge to develop high-quality tests) be included in evaluations. The current evaluation regime’s use of locally-developed tests for 20 percent of evaluation is likely one reason (along with the low percentage of state test data used in the reviews) why nearly all of the Empire State’s teachers were ranked as meeting or exceeding expectations, which is laughable given the low levels of student achievement.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) and NYSUT boss Karen Magee (far right) suffered another big defeat.

If the state education department and the Board of Regents do their jobs properly on this front and require state test data to be used for half of evaluations, this will lead to more-accurate (and fair) data on teacher performance that is useful to everyone. Especially families, who under state law, can actually look at data on the teachers serving their children. This is also true with the new evaluation system’s requirement that observation from outsiders, along with those from school leaders, be included in the evaluation. As D.C. Public Schools has demonstrated through its successful IMPACT evaluation system, using skilled outside evaluators to observe teacher performance can be especially helpful for newly-hired teachers

The even bigger moves lie with two key aspects of Cuomo’s reform plan: Extending the time it takes for newly-hired teachers to attain near-lifetime employment through tenure from three years to four; and making it easier for districts to fire laggard teachers.

New York has long been one of 36 states in which newly-hired teachers gain near-lifetime employment within one-to-three years of entering classrooms. Given that it takes at least four years for teachers to prove their worth, granting such status so quickly makes it difficult for districts to weed out laggards (and even criminally-abusive teachers). By becoming the 12th state to grant near-lifetime employment after four-to-five years on the job, the Empire State is making it easier for districts to keep those who don’t belong in classrooms from gaining near-permanent jobs. Which will help end the role of tenure as protection for bad teachers and AFT locals living off their dues payments.

Just as importantly, by requiring newly-hired teachers to demonstrate that they are effective or highly effective for three years before attaining tenure, the state is also setting a high bar for attaining near-lifetime jobs in classrooms. By the way: This also puts the onus on districts to do a proper job in evaluating new hires — and gives reformers as well as families a tool for holding school leaders accountable for failure in personnel management.

An even bigger move lies in requiring districts to remove laggards after being rated ineffective for three consecutive years — and requiring those being fired to prove that the ratings are fraudulent in order to win an appeal. Currently, laggard Empire State teachers can appeal their dismissals without proving that the district engaged in an unfair firing. This change in the state’s tenure law, along with another rule allowing districts to remove laggards rated ineffective for two years in a row, also keeps school leaders from using excuses for failing to do proper work in providing all the children they serve with high-quality teachers.

By overhauling the teacher dismissal law, Cuomo and legislators finally made incompetence grounds for dismissal and allow districts to no longer waste precious time on trying to improve the performance of teachers who have long ago demonstrated they can’t hack it. This matters because under previous the state’s previous teacher dismissal law, there was almost no way for districts to remove laggards for low-quality teaching. Between 1997 and 2007, three out of every five New York City teachers found to be incompetent, abusive of children, or excessively absent still remained in classrooms, according to an analysis of the state’s teacher dismissal law by the American Enterprise Institute.

The inability to remove laggards and the criminally abusive in classrooms is one reason why the New York City Parents Union and Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice launched their Vergara suit last year challenging the state’s tenure and dismissal laws. The suit is one reason why Cuomo pushed hard for the teacher quality reforms in the first place. His moves help address the issues raised by the suit, and, along with the tort, hasten even stronger reforms in the next few years.

The fact that Cuomo managed to get all these reforms passed by the legislature despite the opposition of the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers is absolutely astounding. Certainly NYSUT has been significantly weakened over the past year, as an internal feud, along with political mistakes such as refusing to endorse Cuomo’s re-election bid and backing Democrats in their bid to take control of the state senate, earned it the ire of the governor and Republicans alike. In fact, NYSUT’s influence is in such decline that its president, Karen Magee, has been forced to lobby families to opt out of standardized tests in order to keep the data from being used in evaluations. This is just pure desperation.

But the fact that UFT, which once again has sway over New York City’s traditional district, couldn’t convince Heastie and other Big Apple legislators to shoot down Cuomo’s entire agenda is shocking. The AFT local, after all, has spent the past three months lobbying classrooms and organizing sham protests against Cuomo’s reform plans. For UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who is angling to succeed Randi Weingarten as national AFT president, the passage of the teacher quality reforms is defeat plain and simple. [AFT national also takes a beating this time around.] And this political loss will be magnified if Cuomo manages to get the charter school expansion plan passed.

The jury is still out on Cuomo’s evaluation reform. Whether Cuomo will succeed in expanding school choice is also an open question. But one thing is clear: The governor has succeeded in passing a series of reforms that will help provide Empire State children with high-quality teaching they need and deserve. And for that, Cuomo deserves praise.