There are reformers who wonder how why systemic reform of American public education matters in addressing the underlying racial issues that have led to the alleged murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown and the protests happening in Ferguson, Mo. All they need to do is to consider the data on overuse of suspensions and expulsions by the Ferguson-Florissant school district, which serves the kids in the St. Louis suburb.
During the 2011-2012 school year, 829 young black men and women were meted out one out-of-school suspension by Ferguson-Florissant. That’s 8.1 percent of the 10,197 black children attending the district’s schools, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Another 705 black children — or another 7.2 percent of kids — were suspended by the district more than once during the 2011-2012 school year. All in all, Ferguson-Florissant meted out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students.
Meanwhile Ferguson-Florissant meted even more discipline. This is in the form of in-school suspensions, which often involves tossing kids into rooms where they often sit around instead of learning in classrooms. While some have touted in-school suspensions as a better alternative to tossing kids out of school, the evidence suggests that this isn’t so. The district placed another 2,087 black children into in-school suspensions; that meant 20.5 percent of Ferguson’s black children, who make up the majority of the district’s population of 13,234, were kept out of classrooms.
Let’s put this into context compared to the white kids who attend Ferguson-Florissant. A mere 68 white kids — or 3.3 percent of the district’s white student population — was suspended only once in 2011-2012, while another 33 white kids (or 1.6 percent) were suspended more than once during the school year In-school suspensions were meted out to another 149 white kids, or 7.2 percent of the population.
Put simply, if you are a black kid attending Ferguson-Florissant schools, you have at least a one-in-seven chance of being subjected to some form of harsh school discipline. If you are a white kid, the chances are only two in 100.
Ferguson-Florissant kids weren’t being suspended because they were engaged in violent behavior or carrying guns. The district had no out-of-school suspensions for violent acts, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, nor were kids suspended for alcohol consumption. While Ferguson-Florissant’s suspension rate for drug use was 0.4 per 100 kids in its schools, that rate was only slightly higher than the 0.3 percent rate for the state as a whole.
Yet Ferguson-Florissant’s out-of-school suspension rate of 5.6 per 100 students is rate five times higher than that for the entire state as a whole. The length of times kids are suspended by the district is also high. On average, 2.2 kids per 100 students were suspended for 10 consecutive days during the 2011-2012 school year, almost double the 1.3 kid per 100 for the state overall. And Ferguson-Florissant suspended 3.4 kids per 100 students for more than 10 consecutive days, eight times the statewide rate of 0.4 per 100 students.
Are Ferguson-Florissant’s kids coming from violent and crime-ridden neighborhoods? Not based on the data. There were just two reported homicides per 100,000 people in Ferguson in 2012, a sixty-percent decline from the homicide rate of five per 100,000 in the previous year. The aggravated assault rate of 37 per 100,000 (a decline from 47 per 100,000 in 2011) is also extraordinarily low. Certainly Ferguson has higher levels of poverty than many parts of the United States. But as the data shows, poverty and crime aren’t correlated. Nearby Florissant, which is also served by the district, had a homicide rate of zero in 2012 and just one per 100,000 in the previous year; the city’s aggravated assault rate was 47 per 100,000 in 2012, a slight decline from 53 per 100,000 in the previous year. Keep in mind that 73,387 people live in both Ferguson and the much-larger Florissant.
Again, let’s put this in context: A black child attending Ferguson-Florissant schools is more likely to be subjected to harsh forms of school discipline than be affected by violent crime in their neighborhoods.
What is clear is that Ferguson-Florissant is likely suspending kids at high levels because of issues such as disruptive behavior and attendance, all of which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means that can both teach children the impact of their behavior on school communities and themselves while also giving them a path to getting back onto the path to graduation. With 47.1 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s fourth-graders reading at or below basic proficiency on the reading portion of the Show-Me State’s battery of standardized tests, the overuse of suspensions and expulsions shows that the district isn’t dealing adequately with the literacy issues that often lead to discipline issues.
The only good thing that can be said is that the out-of-school suspensions on their own have not led to a lower graduation rate; Ferguson-Florissant’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012 was a mere five points lower than the state average. But that could easily be because Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions is overcome by its proximity to other school districts; kids who are being pushed out by the district can attend other schools in districts such as the ever-woeful St. Louis and the soon-to-be-shut down Normandy district (from whose high school Brown had graduated before his tragic demise). Without such proximity, it is quite likely that Ferguson-Florissant’s graduation rates would be as low as many districts that overuse harsh school discipline. More importantly, given the low graduation rates for those surrounding districts, it is quite likely that those who have been subjected to suspensions and expulsions have also likely dropped out.
Certainly the experience of Ferguson-Florissant illustrates what decades of data on school discipline have shown long ago: That far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. That children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. That the underlying reasons for discipline have less to do with violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession,than with misbehavior that can be addressed through better means. That such discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) doesn’t improve school cultures or even makes schools safer for kids. That overuse of suspensions and expulsions lets teachers and school leaders off the hook for not addressing the learning issues at the heart of why kids act out in school.
We also already know that the consequences of such use of discipline is that kids end up dropping out into poverty and prison. Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Considering the high likelihood of young men dropping out of school landing into prison — especially young black male dropouts, who have a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34 — suspensions and expulsions often leads to academic, economic, and social failure.
But Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of harsh school discipline — and that of other districts throughout the country — isn’t just about a district failing the children who most need nurturing, high-quality education. It is also about this reality: What happens in our schools ends up in our streets. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of the police in Ferguson — and the evil they have shown toward the black people who live their and pay their wages — is mirrored by the unwillingness of those working within its schools to provide all kids with high-quality education.
In fact, districts end up bringing law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Truancy cases account for 33 percent of all status (or illegal only because the child is a minor) cases referred to the nation’s juvenile courts in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; schools accounted for 55 percent of all truancy referrals (and, given that schools often work closely with police departments, that rate is likely even higher). In fact, schools account for one out of every five status cases referred to juvenile courts that year, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies.
Because judges are ill-equipped to deal with most juvenile cases — which often results from some combination of shoddy education and bad parenting — the result is that our most-vulnerable children end up being put into a cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Or, as Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman would say, they become the usual suspects, and thus, are known as such to teachers, school leaders, and law enforcement.
But this perception isn’t just limited to those kids who end up getting caught up in school discipline and juvenile courts. All poor and minority children, especially young black men who are the ones subjected to educational abuse and malpractice, end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured and developed. As a result, they end up facing their virtual and literal Michael Brown moments, both at the hands of police and even at the hands of other black people. All this perpetuates cultures of death in which our kids are dehumanized, and then their futures and lives are slaughtered.
School reformers, especially those who try to downplay the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline on the futures of children, must realize that the damage of failed policies and practices done by districts against kids don’t stay within schoolhouses. Making the use of harsh school discipline rare and only for the most-serious offenses, along with overhauling how we provide kids teaching and curricula, is critical to keeping our children, especially our young black men and women in Ferguson and Florissant, on the path to futures in which everyone treats them with dignity and respect. The time for reformers to step up and lead, both within American public education and outside of it, is now.
Life shows us clearly that parents, relatives, and communities are our children’s first teachers. Those of us who can read to our kids, teach our kids how to tie their shoes, show them how to go “potty” for the first time, and, if you are parents of color, remind them to put lotion on them ashy knees and elbows. –
As parents in turn, we teach our kids to blindly trust schools to educate them equally and we even teach them to blindly trust law enforcement to protect and serve all communities justly, all because we were also taught these things. Especially when it comes to our police officers. In my town, I grew up in a time where kids were taught to like police officers because they are our friends. So we introduced our own children to Officer Friendly, too.
But as we have learned a long time ago about trusting traditional public education, we have now learned that we can’t trust our police officers either. And incidents such as the alleged murder of 17-year-old high school graduate Michael Brown have made mothers and fathers like me afraid of Officer Friendly, because he doesn’t seem to be so friendly to young black men that look like my son.
If you are white, you may ask why black parents such as I are fearful of law enforcement, and why we believe that law enforcement officials are enemies to young black men that look like my son.
The first reason is that as we get older, the lessons we are taught as a child are replaced by the history lessons about young black men like James Earl Chaney, who was murdered by police officers in Philadelphia, Miss., because he was fighting for equality. Then we watch news stories about young black men like Sean Bell, who was murdered by New York City police officers who misidentified him as a suspect in one of their investigations – and then watch how the officers get away with their crimes.
Then we watch how the police department in Sanford, Fla., initially let George Zimmerman off the hook after he murdered Trayvon Martin, a boy whose only mistake was to wear a hoodie, hold a can of iced tea, and eat a bag of Skittles. If not for the protests of black mothers and fathers like me, Zimmerman wouldn’t have even faced a jury trial for his crime.
For black parents like me, men and women who work hard every day to teach and raise our black boys, Officer Friendly is no longer so friendly. He’s a buddy of men like Zimmerman, who walked free after committing cold blooded murder of an unarmed young black man. He’s the comrade of Paul Headley, Michael Carey, Marc Cooper, Gescard Isnora, and Paul Oliver, the men who murdered Bell, an innocent man just hanging out at a club with his friends. He is the successor to Cecil Ray Price, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Deputy who orchestrated the murder of Chaney and the two white men who were with him, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.
So we fear for our sons. We fear for our daughters too. But especially our sons, because they are no longer cute little tykes white people smile at. They are now the big black men that many of our teachers fear –and many cops fear them too. They are just young men. They can barely pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time. But for so many people in authority, who have bought into myths about how black men are dangerous, our sons are to be feared instead of loved.
For me, I tossed out those hoodies I bought for my son right after the Zimmerman verdict because it isn’t safe for my son to wear one. Unlike white parents, we don’t get to only focus on “stranger danger”. We talk to our sons about the facts of life being black men, how they can’t walk too proud like Richard Sherman, or talk too loud either. I explain to my “husky built “son with deep mellon skin tone that he had to be careful about Walking While Black and Being Black in School. As with so many teenagers, my son says “mom, you are just overreacting”. He doesn’t think that what has happened to Trayvon and to Sean can happen to him.
Then our children have their Trayvon moments, their Sean Bell moments, and now, their Mike Brown moments. And that changes everything for them – and for their parents, too.
For me, that Mike Brown moment came this past winter, after a snow storm that hit Connecticut and the rest of the Northeast this year. That day, my son, my huskily built son, my 15-year-old son, walked home from school around 2:15 in the afternoon, was walking down the street behind some kids who moved slower than him. To get around them, he walked around the kids onto the street. But then, as soon as that happened, a cop car was coming fast toward them. My son got back onto the sidewalk as the cop car screeched to a halt next to him.
The cop called for him. The officer thought my son moved too slow in response. He then threatened my son saying “I swear to God if I have to get out of this car there is going to be a problem”. Once my son was next to the cop, the officer searched my son’s back pack without any probably cause. My son didn’t give him any consent for such a search. Then my son was placed into the back of the squad car, and taken to the police station. He wasn’t even read his Miranda rights.
I only learned about what the cop did after the police department called me. The good news is that he wasn’t charged with any crime.
Clearly, what happened to my son is better than what happened to Mike Brown, to Sean Bell, and to James Chaney. At least my son was not shot down in the street like an animal, his body left there for hours uncovered. But the officer didn’t treat my son like a human being worthy of respect. The officer didn’t behave like Officer Friendly. He behaved like a man looking for a reason to arrest any young black man. And as a black mother, who knows the stories all too well, it scares me.
Listen, I try to be fair and open minded, I try to believe that we don’t live in a country in which significant numbers of people don’t believe that the lives of black children have no value. I know that there are teachers who want to nurture our black children. I know that there are also police officers who follow the law and behave justly for all people regardless of color.
But as I help black (as well as Latino) parents every day fight for high-quality education for their children, my hope is slipping. After my son’s incident, and now, the savage murder of Michael Brown, my belief that we will all be treated equally under the law is slipping as well. It is increasingly clear to me that many who work within our public education and law enforcement systems do not believe that black boys like mine are even worthy of life.
What is a black parent to do? Seriously, what is a black parent to do. The only answer is to keep fighting. Because our sons deserve better than this.
Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary on why school reform is critical to stemming unwed pregnancy and poverty evoked plenty of e-mail responses to yours truly. Those who view poverty and unwed pregnancy as consequences of bad choices — also known as the Personal Responsibility Myth that is a dominant strain in anti-poverty and education policy discussions — were particularly vexed that your editor didn’t fully validate their perspective. After all, from where they sit, if single mothers and others exercised some form of personal responsibility, be it not getting pregnant until they got married, or spending wisely, then they wouldn’t be impoverished.
Such arguments are seductive, especially to your editor, who is conservative on social issues (even as I am libertarian on economic and political matters, and a creative radical on education policy). Yet as an editorialist and reporter, I’ve learned to dismiss simple answers because they don’t explain everything. This is true when it comes to arguments from those who espouse the Poverty Myth (or that structural and other issues render the poor fully incapable of helping themselves). And this is especially so when it come to Personal Responsibility myths.
If bad choices were the sole or even the predominant reasons why so many people are mired in poverty, then Paris Hilton would be suffering economically and socially from her myriad bouts of misbehavior, my mother (who gave birth to your editor at age 16) would be on welfare, and Watergate player Charles Colson would have died as impoverished and ostracized as most convicted felons. Yet none of these things have happened. Hilton has been greatly rewarded financially and socially thanks in part to her infamous porn tap. My mother is a college-educated second-generation member of the American middle class with a lovely suburban home to boot. And Colson died last year after having spent the last three decades attaining redemption (and even a pardon) through his ministry to his fellow convicts.
Keep in mind that Hilton, my mother, and Coulson are not outliers. Humans being, well, imperfect creatures with a penchant for error, this isn’t possible anyway. From suburbanites in the D.C. suburbs living way above their six-figure means, to movie stars self-medicating their pain through drug and alcohol addictions, to middle-class moms and dads who hire maids to clean up the homes instead of having their kids do some chores, bad decisions are as common as crab grass. This is especially true when you keep in mind that you and your next-door neighbors in Alexandria have engaged in the same vices — including as alcohol consumption and premarital sex — as people who live in Anacostia.
Yet your decisions, and those of Hilton, my mother, and Coulson, haven’t been harmful in the same way as they are for those in poverty. Why? The first reason lies with the fact that unlike most poor people, those of us in the middle class had the resources (from income to health care) available to overcome bad choices. For Hilton, her status as a scion of the most-famous name in the hospitality industry has given her the money and the connections needed to parlay even the worst decisions into profit and fame. My mother? Thanks to my grandparents, whose middle class status and high levels of education were the resources they needed to help care for me during my childhood, my mother could go on to overcome one not-so-great decision (for which I am grateful she made) to make smart decisions. As for Coulson? His friendships in Republican political circles, among with his notoriety and sensible decision to become born again, helped him focus his life away from the amorality of politics and towards helping other ex-convicts change their lives for the better.
The other reason lies with the most-important of resource of all: Knowledge. Not only is it power, it is the most-crucial tool for acquiring the financial and social resources needed to emerge and stay out of poverty. This is especially true in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society in which what you know is more valuable than what you can do with your hands.
My mother is a perfect example of how knowledge can keep people out of poverty. Even as my mother carried me in her womb, my grandparents made sure she stayed in high school, and kept her on the path to graduation even after I was born. Because my mother was in a household where my grandmother was also college-educated and my grandfather was an avid reader and learner, she also became a lifetime acquirer of knowledge. A decision she made in the early 1980s to move from working as a claims adjuster for an insurance company into the information technology field put her into a field in which incomes were (and are still) increasing; this gave her the income she needed to support my siblings and I. By the 1990s, she sought her college degree, and then a graduate degree, providing her with
As I pointed out last week, poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. But it is more than that. Poverty is also the consequence of the interplay between resources, knowledge, and decision-making.
For middle class families, bad decisions can be easily overcome because they have the means — from higher incomes to social connections — needed to do so. This includes bad decisions made by laggard teachers and school leaders. One out of every five young white male high school seniors from college-educated read Below Basic on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But most middle-class households have more means to ameliorate the consequences of the nation’s education crisis — including the ability to send their kids to tutoring services — while the wealthy can insulate their kids from the worst American public education offers.
The poor aren’t so fortunate. Because poor families are the ones most-likely to attend dropout factories and failure mills — and because Zip Code Education policies such as school zones restrict their options — they are less likely to graduate from high school or even complete any form of higher education, the keys to gaining financial and social capital. As a result, the consequences of any bad decisions are even more pernicious because they have no means to bail themselves out of them. And even good decisions may not be enough if the resources — especially a wide array of high-quality school options — aren’t available for those choices to be beneficial to their lives.
Just as importantly, because poor families have been subjected to educational neglect and malpractice, they also lack the academic knowledge (including understanding of how to ask questions and find resources) they need to even make the best of good decisions. Natural curiosity just isn’t enough; it must be honed by practices of the mind that come from being nurtured by high-quality teaching, college-preparatory curricula, and even religious instruction. The fact that they cannot access high-quality data, either on schools or teachers, that they need to make smarter decisions makes it even tougher for them to emerge from poverty.
In fact, the lack of academic and social knowledge ends up obscuring the ability to make good decisions. The negative becomes the positive because the truly positive isn’t visible. It is why a young woman who dropped out of high school at age 17 ends up pregnant at 20; the better solution may be to avoid pregnancy, go back to school for learning remediation, then attain a high school diploma and a college degree. But you don’t know what you don’t know. So you make decisions blind. The more decisions you make without high-quality knowledge, the more likely the choices will be negative. And without the resources (which come as a result of acquiring knowledge) to ameliorate bad decisions, the consequences are even more pernicious.
[The lack of knowledge also explains why the arguments of Poverty Mythologists that more money is the solution also doesn't work; as I noted last week, knowledge is critical to managing resources and acquiring more of them.]
This isn’t to say that poor families are helpless automatons in structures that work against them. When poor families are provided the knowledge they need to make smarter decisions, they will often do so because, as the legendary civil rights activist Ella Baker would likely say, strong people emerge from knowledge. This is why systemic reform — from overhauling how we recruit, train, and reward teachers, to expanding school choice — is so critical to stemming poverty and the ills that emerge from it in the first place. In fact, transforming public education can help provide to our poorest kids schools that can nurture them both academically and emotionally, helping their families help them stave off the mental illnesses that can keep them mired in poverty when they reach adulthood. But thinking that bad choices alone explain poverty is as wrongly simpleminded as believing that impoverished people are too tied down by structural inequities to emerge from their conditions.
Reformers have an opportunity to help anti-poverty activists on all sides engage in more-nuanced thinking about what poverty is and how we can stem it. And it starts by reminding all sides that education is a critical solution to helping poor people help themselves out of poverty.
Featured photo courtesy of Arleen Hodge. Please support her work.
On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle takes stock of the murder of Ferguson, Mo., teen Michael Brown, and explains how Black America and reformers should use this strategy as a step toward addressing the education crisis for young black men.
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 iTunes, Blubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.
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.
The last time Dropout Nation took a look at the battle between Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other state officials over his effort to halt the implementation of Common Core, the governor was engaging in the politics of personal destruction, trying to destroy the reputation of Supt. John White, who is pushing ahead with putting the reading and math standards in place. Since then, as expected, the fracas between Jindal and Common Core supporters has moved into the courtroom.
Last week, the state board of education voted to join the suit filed earlier last month against Jindal’s executive order halting Common Core implementation by a cadre of seven families and charter school teachers (with the help of the Choice Foundation and Black Alliance for Educational Options). Days later, Jindal counter-sued the board, asking a state court judge to invalidate the memorandum of understanding it struck with the PARCC consortium to use its Common Core-aligned tests.
Meanwhile outside the courtroom, Jindal’s hopes that his decision to oppose Common Core (after first backing it) would win allies in the Bayou State fell apart this week when U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the likely Republican nominee to succeed the governor declared his backing for the standards. As with Republicans in the state legislature who opposed Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation, Vitter’s endorsement of the standards further isolates the governor, proving once again that his strategy against implementation is a failure.
Yet Jindal continues to oppose Common Core unabated,, The amended motion submitted by the governor to halt the roll-out of Common Core-aligned tests embraces nearly every faulty argument offered up by opponents of the standards at the national level — and embraces their conspiracy-theorizing to boot. Jindal’s argument for canceling the state’s memorandum with PARCC doesn’t stand even basic legal scrutiny. More importantly for reformers across the country, Jindal’s antics in opposing Common Core implementation is weakening much-needed efforts to revamp state education governance.
The amended brief alone is less a work of legal argumentation than a recitation of every anti-Common Core argument that can be cribbed from the texts of the Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project. But since Dropout Nation has Ginzu-knifed these fairy tales ad nauseam, I won’t spend more time on it.
The heart of Jindal’s complaint is that the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s memorandum with PARCC should be cancelled because it violates the state constitution. How? Because PARCC’s governing board (of which Louisiana is a member) is charged with overseeing the development and roll-out of the assessments, and that a super-majority of board members decide on various issues related to the effort, Jindal argues that the state board is essentially handing off its responsibilities to a “private non-Louisiana entity” and thus, illegally “binding” the state’s citizens to education policy that the state won’t decide (and, as far as Jindal is concerned, will ultimately be decided by the federal government, which supposedly “compelled” the state to strike the memorandum with PARCC as a condition of competiting for Race to the Top funding).
Jindal’s argument would be convincing if not for some inconvenient facts. For one, as Dropout Nation noted last year, PARCC doesn’t set the test proficiency cut scores that are key to ensuring that standards are reinforced; this is a job that is done by the state board and the superintendent. There’s also the fact that Louisiana can still require PARCC to make adjustments to the tests, including add questions that may result from amendments to Common Core’s reading and math standards; this is going to be done for Massachusetts, which amended Common Core as part of adopting the standards four years ago.
This means that the state board still controls the testing and assessment aspect of education policymaking — and that the PARCC is doing is essentially no different than what every testing company does on behalf of the states for which they work. [The consequences of this reality, by the way, is why your editor expressed skepticism to the transparency-as-accountability approach advocated by many Common Core supporters as a replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act's accountability provisions.]
A bigger problem with Jindal’s argument is that the state’s memorandum with PARCC is perfectly legal based on the wording of the state’s own Competency-Based Education Program law, which was amended two years ago (at the governor’s own behest, by the way) to charge the state board of education with implementing tests based on Common Core, the only set of”nationally recognized content standards” available in any form. As Jindal’s attorneys admit, the law gives the state board of education plenty of leeway in selecting any testing regime or vendor it so chooses. Not only can the state board choose to work with PARCC, Jindal isn’t allowed to use his role as the state’s chief budget administrator to interfere with any of its assessment decisions.
Jindal’s brief, in short, is merely political posturing in legal type. It will likely be tossed out of court — and the governor (along with his attorneys) already anticipate that. But for Jindal, the legal maneuvering, like his decision to oppose Common Core after first supporting it, isn’t based on any first principles legal or ideological. It is less about winning a legal victory than about convincing movement conservatives opposed to Common Core — especially those who wrongly believe that education is akin to indoctrination — that he is truly committed to opposing them After all, they know Jindal is engaged in flip-flopping on an epic scale just so he has a chance to win the Republican presidential nomination.
At the same time, the legal wrangling also gives Jindal the chance to further his scorched earth effort to ruin the reputation of Supt. White and muddy the future political aspirations of state board chair (and political scion) Chas Roemer for having the temerity to stand up against him on behalf of Louisiana’s children. By the time this battle is over, Jindal will have ruined his once-stellar reputation on systemic reform as well as limited his possibilities for higher political office. But he may not mind those losses so long as he also damages his foes.
But for reformers, the tactics Jindal is taking to halt Common Core implementation is a problem — and not just because he may actually succeed. It is also because his antics are giving traditionalists and others ammunition for opposing any overhaul of state education governance that involves placing decision-making solely in the hands of governors.
One of the reasons why systemic reform can be arduous to achieve is because of the byzantine structure of the districts, ed schools, and other clusters that make up public education within states. Most of the time, the governors who are the ones best-positioned to advance systemic reform have the least amount of power over it. Only 15 states allow for governors to appoint chief state school officers on their own or with consultation from state boards of education, while only 35 governors can appoint all or the majority of members on state boards of education. This means that in many cases, the governors must either hope for state boards to appoint reform-minded superintendents or can convince the public to care enough about education to elect the right people to oversee public education.
As a result, governors who who don’t have a governance structure that places education under their control will struggle to make things happen unless they either have the political capital (and leadership ability) to make reforms reality, or are in states where the conditions for overhauling public education are already in place. More importantly, byzantine education governance ends up becoming captured by the very politics the 20th century Progressive Era reformers who crafted these structures were trying to avoid. Competing bureaucracies end up in turf battles to justify their existence even when, as in the case of teacher licensing agencies, they shouldn’t exist independent of state education agencies in the first place. As seen in Indiana (where Supt. Glenda Ritz is battling with reformers who control the state board of education), policymaking can end up devolving into senseless sparring matches. And because of such diffusion of authority, no one can be held responsible for policies and practices that continue an education crisis that damages far too many kids.
Reformers have long ago recognized that moving away from byzantine education governance to structures under which the governor is solely in charge of policymaking would both help reform-minded chief executives advance their efforts and lead to coherent, unified decision-making. Most importantly, gubernatorial control means one person can be congratulated for smart decisions and held responsible for bad ones. Some good steps towards that have begun to happen. Last year, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead succeeding in essentially taking over control of the state’s education bureaucracy, while once-and-future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (a subject of a Dropout Nation profile three years ago) is essentially the state’s chief school officer. Last week, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the outfit run by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, editorialized in favor of ending Arizona’s election of superintendents and making the top education post a gubernatorial appointment.
But citizens and policymakers are only willing to move to gubernatorial control if they can trust that the chief executive in office will behave properly. This means a governor can’t go around using his political office to wage vendettas against those who oppose his efforts; cannot engage in policymaking that is geared solely toward advancing aspirations for higher office; and cannot embrace Hofstadter-like paranoia when being a leader calls for cool, sensible, thoughtful decision-making. Governors who misbehave both lose the ability to make the case for greater control over education policymaking and hurt the efforts of the movement to advance governance reform in the rest of the nation.
Which is why Jindal’s antics in pushing for the halt of Common Core implementation are so troublesome for governance reform. By using state agencies and even the courts to engage in a witch hunt against White and his allies on the state board, Jindal has made it much more difficult for reformers in the Bayou State to make a compelling case for giving governors greater power over education policymaking. The fact that Jindal issued a legally-questionable executive order to halt Common Core implementation even after the state legislature rebuffed his legislative efforts promotes the old Progressive Era perception that governors will simply act as dictators (and ignore the separation of powers clauses in state constitutions) just to get their way.
It is hard for reformers to argue that governors should be in charge of education decisions when a currently-seated chief executive shows that he won’t respect either law or engage sensibly in the policymaking process. In the case of Jindal, his actions are undercutting his own demands through his opposition to Common Core that he, not the state board or White, should have the final say over state education decisions. In fact, Jindal’s misbehavior has given White more influence on education policymaking, both at the state and national levels (and thus more credit for the efforts undertaken over the past few years), while obscuring the strong and sensible leadership on systemic reform the governor has shown for most of his tenure.
For both traditionalists and others who are concerned with expanding executive branch power, Jindal’s antics are the best argument against any reform of state education governance. This is a shame. Byzantine educational governance does nothing good either for kids, taxpayers, or even governors. But Jindal may have wrecked education governance reform for the next decade. Thanks for nothing, Bobby.