Education Opportunity Network

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10/1/2015 – A Misdirected War On Mayor De Blasio

THIS WEEK: Kids Get Shafted … Opt Out May Win … Money Matters In Education … Segregation Hurts Black Males … School Cops Raise Alarms


Education ‘Reformers’ Wage A Misdirected War On Mayor De Blasio

By Jeff Bryant

“If you listen to advocates for ‘education reform,’ New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and his education plans are to be regarded with high suspicion, at best, or flat out rejected … Regardless of what critics of de Blasio and his education plan say, this is not an argument ‘about the kids.’ It’s about money.
Read more …


Why Is Spending On The Elderly Protected, But Spending On Children Always On The Chopping Block?

Think Progress

“The United States government will soon spend more on servicing the national debt than it does on its children … Kids will see an even smaller share of total spending in the coming years … This paltry allocation comes amid ample evidence that American kids need more help, not less … Stagnant and declining federal investment in young people is hard to understand in the context of the data about American children’s economic outlook. The trend stems in part from a structural bias in our public policymaking toward spending on adults at the expense of programs that invest in the future … Programs for the elderly, by contrast, have baked-in structural protections from political turbulence.”
Read more …

Experts Predict The Opt-Out Movement Will Get Some Of What It Wants

The Hechinger Report

“A survey conducted this month … revealed that education policy and political ‘insiders’ think that the opt-out movement will likely sway many state legislatures, but will struggle to change things in Washington… Only 47% of those surveyed … expect to see any change to federal law … 70% say they think the thousands of students refusing to take exams will force states to rethink what tests they give and how they use the results … 3% think more students will opt out next year and 62% think the opt-out movement represents a significant challenge to current systems … Many states have already set out to cut the number of tests students have to take and the number of hours students spend taking the tests.”
Read more …

Boosting Educational Attainment And Adult Earnings

Education Next

A new research study finds “compelling evidence that money does matter, and that additional school resources can meaningfully improve long-run outcomes for students … Increased spending induced by school finance reforms positively affects educational attainment and economic outcomes for low-income children … For low-income children, a 10% increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school is associated with roughly 0.5 additional years of completed education, 9.6% higher wages, and a 6.1-percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty … To put these results in perspective, the education gap between children from low-income and non-poor families is one full year. Thus, the estimated effect of a 22% increase in per-pupil spending throughout all 12 school-age years for low-income children is large enough to eliminate the education gap between children from low-income and non-poor families … these results highlight how improved access to school resources can profoundly shape the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged children and thereby reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty.”
Read more …

Black Males Struggle In Segregated Schools

The Washington Post

“Black students who attend schools that have a majority of black students score lower on achievement tests than black students who go to school with fewer other black students. The findings held true after researchers accounted for family income, level of parent education and other factors … The overall black-white achievement gap on the NAEP 2013 math test for eighth-graders was 31 points – equivalent to three years of schooling. That gap has not changed from 2007 to 2013 … The achievement gap between average white males and black males attending a ‘high density’ black school was 25 points, compared to a gap of 17 points for black males who attended schools where blacks made up 20% or less than the student body.”
Read more …

When Schooling Meets Policing

The Atlantic

“In settings where schooling and policing intersect, the disciplining of students – often for behavior as innocuous as school-age pranks or as commonplace as temper tantrums, and in some cases including children who are so young they still have all their baby teeth – can extend beyond the purview of principals and school staff to law-enforcement … over three in four high schools and the vast majority of large schools … have armed security staff … But there is great variation based on race and class: Schools where at least half of the children are nonwhite, as well as high-poverty schools … are home to the highest percentages in the country … Police in educational institutions exaggerates how school misbehavior, much of it involving minor infractions, is interpreted … These tendencies result in arguably unnecessary arrests that increase the likelihood that a child will end up in the juvenile-justice system – and later, as a byproduct of these experiences, adult prisons.”
Read more …

Education ‘Reformers’ Wage A Misdirected War On Mayor De Blasio

In New York City, this school year opened with a historic event: Every child who wanted to start pre-kindergarten was given a seat.

As the Daily News reports, “Some 65,504 four-year-olds are now enrolled in full day pre-K.”

A more recent article from the same news outlet reports, “More than half of the four-year-old kids who live in city shelters have signed up for universal prekindergarten programs … a whopping 1,175 kids.”

The person most responsible for these incredibly good developments, virtually everyone agrees, is Mayor Bill De Blasio.

Among other positive new education initiatives de Blasio has launched this year is a an effort to create community schools to support schools in high-need neighborhoods with mental health services, vision testing, physical wellness, tutoring, job training and family counseling. And since the opening day of schools, de Blasio has also introduced an ambitious education plan for the city that goes beyond pre-K. As Chalkbeat New York reports, de Blasio called for bolstering reading instruction with new specialists in schools for students who struggle the most and new curriculum options in computer science, algebra, and advanced courses for college preparation.

Supporters of public schools have generally embraced these new efforts coming from the mayor. In an independent news outlet, public school activists Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, says, “Reading specialists and Advanced Placement courses are pieces in the puzzle for what our students need and have been required to do without for far too long. Combine these with pre-K and community schools, and we can finally see a working vision for school reform taking shape under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership.”

But if you listen to advocates for “education reform,” de Blasio and his education plans are to be regarded with high suspicion, at best, or flat out rejected.

Who Hates De Blasio

The editorial board of The New York Times questioned de Blasio for not making school closings the centerpiece of his policy as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg did.

Writing at The New York Post, Campbell Brown – a former CNN news anchor who now runs a media outlet funded by the Walton Family Foundation and other wealthy corporate backers – chastises the mayor for not being “radical enough.” Calling his efforts to support struggling schools “confused and under-imagined,” Brown snidely remarks, “It may be naive to think that Bill de Blasio will ever become serious about education.”

“The central problem,” argues an editorial on the website operated by Brown’s organization, “is that these new policies are built on flawed foundations. The community school model as a way to improve student achievement is unproven.”

Really? There’s no proof students who are hungry, sick, emotionally traumatized, or who can’t see what’s written on the whiteboard are less apt to learn in the classroom? A recent review of the research, and just plain old common sense, finds that providing an array of academic and nonacademic supports in a coordinated fashion is an approach “solidly based in the literature on child and youth development, practitioner experience, and studies of education.” By the way, that research review, as a report from Education Week explains, was paid for by ex-Mayor Bloomberg, the city leader the editorial staff of Brown’s media operation pine for.

Charter school advocates have been especially vitriolic critics of De Blasio, accusing him of, according to one press outlet, “forcing minority students to attend ‘inferior’ schools.”

Regardless of what critics of de Blasio and his education plan say, this is not an argument “about the kids.” It’s about money.

Mad Scramble For Cash

For sure, de Blasio’s proposals demand new sources of funding.

The cost of de Blasio’s effort to enroll every four-year-old in the city into pre-K is $409 million this year. His community schools initiative is reported to cost the district $52 million. And his new ambitious plans announced this year carries a price tag of $186 million in new annual spending. According to a report in The New York Times, the initiatives for reading specialists will cost $75 million a year. More Advanced Placement classes carry a price tag of $51 million. Algebra for every eighth grader requires $19 million. “And $15 million was proposed to provide more than 16,000 students with dedicated counselors from sixth through 12th grade.”

Understand that de Blasio’s desire to ramp up funding for new education programs comes at a time when powerful forces who control state education policy in New York state are convinced public schools need to make do with less. As a recent article in The Nation explains, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “has banked his gubernatorial legacy” on refusing to adequately fund his state’s public schools.

Reporter George Joseph traces Cuomo’s stubborn refusal to abide a court-ordered overhaul of the Empire State’s education finances to a “coalition” of extremely wealthy people – principally, only nine individuals – who back an organization, Families for Excellent Schools, and operate a Super PAC that has smashed almost all lobbying records in Albany, the state capital, and influenced elections with massive campaign donations.

Joseph finds that FES – combined with New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, another powerful organization financed by the same individuals – now largely shapes education policy in the state, a policy that strongly opposes the legally required equitable funding of New York public schools.

“The state owes its schools a whopping $5.9 billion, according to a recent study” Joseph points out. “Yet somehow in this prolonged period of economic necessity, billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers.”

The state’s stingy attitude toward education funding flies in the face of recent research studies showing funding levels for education have real consequences for students. Even people who are politically conservative recognize this.

A recent analysis from Brookings, a conservative leaning think tank, finds, “The latest research suggests that money does matter. Of course, it matters how and where it is spent and it needs to be combined with accountability for results. But the whole notion that we can reduce spending on education and do no harm or that new resources don’t have the potential to improve both the level and the distribution of student outcomes is just plain wrong.”

Another research study published in Education Next, a politically conservative education policy journal, finds “compelling evidence that money does matter, and that additional school resources can meaningfully improve long-run outcomes for students.” The study looked at instances where increased spending induced by court ordered school finance reforms, the very thing Cuomo and his allies are resisting, and found that the increased spending had positive effects on educational attainment especially for low-income children. Further, the positive effects of increased funding lasted into adulthood, producing higher average wages and lower poverty rates. The study concluded, “Improved access to school resources can profoundly shape the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged children and thereby reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty.”

Nevertheless, the selfishness of powerful, rich people, who have outsized influence on New York education policy, has thrown school districts full of low-income kids, like New York City, into a mad scramble for a diminishing amount of cash.

When de Blasio announced his ambitious pre-K program, he wanted to pay for it by raising marginal tax rates on New York City residents making half-a-million dollars or more each year. Governor Cuomo refused and Republicans in the state legislature, along with a faction of centrist Democrats, refused to do that. A new allotment of money given by Cuomo and the legislature to pay for pre-K across the state was not nearly enough to support universal access in New York City alone, so de Blasio was forced to find money in the budget he had.

Left without the ability to raise taxes on the wealthy, de Blasio has clearly chosen to spend the money he has where it’s needed most: on direct interventions for students who are struggling. Those who oppose de Blasio want the money to go toward something else – primarily, charter schools.

Kids Or Charters

Last year when de Blasio was forming the budget to pay for his pre-K program, he reached into coffers that had been intended for charter schools.

As The New York Times reported, district chancellor Carmen Fariña, with the mayor’s support no doubt, “redirected $210 million that had been reserved for classroom space for charter schools and other nonprofit groups … to create thousands of new prekindergarten seats.”

Continuing into this school year, de Blasio has refused to bend to every demand from charter school advocates, earning him their boundless outrage.

Ironically, Families for Excellent Schools, the very organization lobbying in the state capital against increased school funding, is the leading organization demanding the mayor direct more money to charter schools. Most recently, FES produced a new television ad accusing de Blasio of “forcing kids into failing schools.” The ad, reports Politico’s New York outlet, costs “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to distribute, a strikingly disturbing contrast coming from an organization opposing any increased funding for education.

Supporters of the mayor have called the ad “racist,” arguing, according to the Observer, “The rhetoric of this ad, and the people and money behind it, are part of the problem.”

Charter school advocates have vowed to rally as many as 150,000 of their supporters to oppose the mayor. Charter school leaders who claim their schools are starving for cash have miraculously found huge amounts of money to staff event organizers, pay for many thousands of bright red tee-shirts, and provide bus transportation for the protestors. Many of the schools, including the largest chain, Success Academy, plan to close and “strongly encourage” parents to go to the rally with their children – something no public school would ever be able to do.

Thunderstorm warnings have persuaded the charter rally leaders to postpone their event. But an alternate date has been planned.

“Stealing Possible”

Observing the back-and-forth, New York City classroom teacher José Luis Vilson writes at The Progressive that opponents of the mayor have created “a perception that the pro-charter lobby fights for the educational and political interests of people of color.” But if these advocates are sincere, Vilson questions, then why do they use their considerable funding and lobbying power to fight for the interests of African American and Latino students only when the interests of charter schools are central to the conflict?

Specifically, Vilson points to the “heated debate” happening now in New York City on the rezoning of the DUMBO district where two public schools –  white P.S. 8 and predominantly black 307 – are being pitted against each other in a stand off over resources.

At the center of the controversy: P.S. 8 is an overcrowded, mostly white school deemed “successful” by assessment guidelines defined by the reform community, namely, standardized test scores. On the other hand, predominantly non-white P.S. 307 was deemed “failing,” by the same flawed guidelines, some time ago, and its enrollment has steadily declined under the pressures of competitive charter schools. Proposals by the school district to combine the two schools have drawn opposition from parents from P.S. 8 who don’t want to send their children to a “failing” school, while parents from P.S. 7 are reluctant to open their building to families who have openly disparaged their school.

“P.S. 307 is a great school,” Vilson maintains. But “they also haven’t shaken the perception of having low academic standards because of low test scores” – a condition perpetuated by misguided and flawed reforms of the past administration.

Where is the pro-charter movement in all this?

“Families for Excellent Schools (an awkward name since everyone wants excellent schools surely) prints ‘Don’t Steal Possible’ on red shirts and hands them out across the city,” Vilson argues. “When a whole host of inequitable conditions, including the stratification of rich and poor, steal possibilities (and lives) from children and adults of color on a daily basis, we won’t see similarly impassioned rallies for their rights. When parents have to take off work for a rally or risk their student getting transferred to a local public school that was stripped of funds for losing students to charter schools, that’s also stealing possible.”

What’s entirely “possible” of course is for the state of New York and its current governor to come up with the necessary funding to help ensure every student, everywhere, has access to equitable opportunity to learn, regardless of the form of governance operating the school.

But instead of joining Mayor de Blasio in a fight for that cause, his opponents have chosen a misguided proxy battle over charter schools foisted onto them by the rich.

9/24/2015 – Memo to Scott Walker From Milwaukee: “We’re Not Going To Let Our Public Schools Die”

THIS WEEK: 2,500 Closed Charters … Education Gap Grows … California Accountability … Teacher Evaluations Loosen … Virtual School Booms


Memo to Scott Walker From Milwaukee: “We’re Not Going To Let Our Public Schools Die”

By Jeff Bryant

“If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker thought running for President of the United States was a big challenge, he may be facing an even more imposing contest back in his home state … In Milwaukee, parents, teachers, and students have a range of specific complaints that can all be attributed to Walker’s governance … Milwaukee is fighting against public school privatization.
Read more …


CMD Publishes Full List of 2,500 Closed Charter Schools

Center For Media And Democracy

“A complete state-by-state list of the failed charter schools since 2000 … reveals that millions and millions of federal tax dollars went to ‘ghost’ schools that never even opened to students. The exact amount is unknown because the U.S. Department of Education is not required to report its failures … This release comes as the U.S. Department of Education and industry insiders currently deciding which states to award half a billion dollar in grants designed to bolster the school privatization industry … Nearly 2,500 charter schools have shuttered between 2001 and 2013, affecting 288,000 American children.”
Read more …

Education Gap Between Rich And Poor Is Growing Wider

The New York Times

Columnist Eduardo Porter writes, “The achievement gaps between more affluent and less privileged children is wider than ever… Racial disparities are still a stain on American society, but they are no longer the main divider. Today the biggest threat to the American dream is class … American higher education is increasingly the preserve of the elite. The sons and daughters of college-educated parents are more than twice as likely to go to college as the children of high school graduates and seven times as likely as those of high school dropouts. Only 5% of Americans ages 25 to 34 whose parents didn’t finish high school have a college degree … Our public school system has proved no match to the forces reproducing inequality across the generations.”
Read more …

Test Scores To Be Only One Factor In Measuring School Progress


“California … is in the middle of building a new accountability system … The [state education] board wants to create a broad measure of student and school success that takes into account many measures of progress, such as high school graduation rates and student suspension rates, as indicators of progress in middle and elementary school. There may be early education metrics as well … ‘Standardized tests scores’ role will be smaller – no longer the only thing’ to judge student progress or to be the sole grounds for state intervention in low-performing schools, Michael Kirst, president of the state board, said in an interview.”
Read more …

Teacher-Evaluation Reins Loosen Under NCLB Waivers

Education Week

“The [Obama] administration initially took a hard line on evaluations, asking states to roll them out over a specific time period and to include state test scores as part of the mix. But over the past year and a half, the U.S. Department of Education has offered states more and more flexibility … Last August, the [education] department told states they didn’t have to tie teacher evaluations to test scores during the 2014-15 school year … Duncan left the door open for additional flexibility … telling states in a blog post last year that he generally expected most would put evaluations tied to new tests in place by 2015-16, but that he would work with them if they needed additional leeway beyond that year.”
Read more …

Virtual Schools Are Booming. Who’s Paying Attention?


“Online schooling at the K-12 level has exploded over the past 20 years. As many as 5 million out of the country’s 54 million K-through-12 grade students have taken at least one online class. And more than 300,000 kids, some as young as five years old, were full-time online students during the 2013-14 school year … We know very little about what makes for a quality online instructor … It’s not at all clear that taxpayers and parents know what they’re getting … With online schools, it’s notoriously difficult to tell if they are delivering students a decent education.”
Read more …

Memo to Scott Walker From Milwaukee: “We’re Not Going To Let Our Public Schools Die”

If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker thought running for President of the United States was a big challenge, he may be facing an even more imposing contest back in his home state.

Last week, all across the community of greater Milwaukee, thousands of parents and public school advocates showed up before the opening bells at neighborhood schools to protest education policies many Wisconsinites attribute to Walker and his administration. The protests were called “walk ins” – a tactic borrowed from school protests in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014 – as opposed to walk outs which disrupt students’ learning time.

Parents, teachers, and students had a range of specific complaints that can all be attributed to Walker’s governance.

As the local Journal Sentinel newspaper reports, “at more than 100 public schools” protestors turned out to oppose a “program, devised by Republican state lawmakers from the suburbs,” that created a state-operated district to oversee a portion of the city’s public schools that are deemed under-performing.

The Milwaukee County Executive hand picked by Walker to oversee the district is about to name a commissioner to run the special district.

As the Journal Sentinel report notes, protestors wanted to voice their resentment at having local schools taken out from under the control of their democratically elected school board. They also wanted to send clear warning to the ruling Executive, Chris Abele, that he had better not select someone inclined to turn the yet-to-be-designated schools over to a charter school organization, which is what is generally feared.

Straight Out Of Scott Walker

The school takeover program “comes straight out of Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign rhetoric, ” says a Wisconsin progressive blog based in Green Bay. The post quotes Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca who notes the takeover program “[was] not requested by Milwaukee or any of the other large cities that could be affected; no hearings were held, and the effects could be devastating to our large school districts.”

But parents at the walk ins also had long-held grievances with the underfunding of their public schools while tax dollars meant for education are increasingly redirected to charter schools and private schools that qualify for money in the district’s school voucher program. Milwaukee is the site of the nation’s longest-running school voucher program that allows families who qualify to remove their children from public schools and use vouchers from the state to send the students to a school of their choosing, even if the destination school is private or religiously based.

“The state will spend $258 million in the 2016-17 school year on private school vouchers,” a Madison, Wisconsin-based news outlet reports. “At the same time, the amount of state aid sent to public schools will be reduced by $83 million to offset the voucher spending, for a net cost to the state of $175 million … the amount spent each year on vouchers will have increased by 77 percent next school year over 2011 levels.”

These voucher schools have virtually no accountability. Privately operated charter schools that are now proliferating across the state are little, if any, better. In Milwaukee, high school closures, almost all of which were charter schools, likely decreased “high school graduation rates by nearly 10 percent,” according to a recent study. The effects persist “even if the students attends a better quality school after closure.”

Currently, in the Milwaukee district, about 41 percent of the students attend schools that are private schools or privately administered charter schools.

“We’re Angry”

“We’re angry at the continued loss of funding,” parent Angela McManaman told me in a phone conversation. McManaman, a parent with three children in Milwaukee Public Schools and a fourth on the way, attended one of the walk-ins.

McManaman points to Walker’s most recent budget that she believes will lead to “loosing vital access to education opportunities … fully staffed libraries … access to art and music education … larger class sizes.”

“The Wisconsin budget accelerates Walker’s four-year attack on the public sector, in particular the public schools,” writes Bob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine. Writing at the Answer Sheet blog run by Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, Peterson explains that as a result of Walker’s budget, “A majority of public school districts in Wisconsin will receive less funding this year, and no school district’s state funding will keep up to inflation. At the same time, the budget expands taxpayer support of private voucher schools, which are overwhelmingly religious schools and which are subject to minimal public oversight.”

McManaman is also dissatisfied with the Walker plan for potential charter take-over of schools in her district. “It’s a continued loss of local control,” she maintains. “Our schools are under a serious threat.”

A Hostile Takeover

“The County Executive has all the power,” Kim Schroeder told me in a different phone conversation. Schroeder has been teaching in the district for 20 years and is president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association.

Schroder acknowledges Abele has pledged to not bring in charter school authorizers, but he doesn’t believe him. Like McManaman, he sees what’s being imposed on his school district as an existential threat.

He argues that funding what are essentially three separate school systems – the private voucher schools, the privately operated charters, and Milwaukee Public schools – is driving the district toward financial insolvency. “We’re reaching a tipping point. If more of our schools are chosen for privatization, MPS won’t exist in three to five years.” His concerns echo the MPS board president’s warning earlier this year that, according to an independent news outlet, the Walker devised plan “would bankrupt the district by hijacking money and facilities from the district and into private but taxpayer-supported schools.”

“Let’s call it what it is – a hostile takeover,” the board president told the reporter.

Resistance Is Better Organized

What McManaman and Schroeder describe happening in Milwaukee is almost an identical copy of what I reported happening in Nashville, Tennessee. The program for “reform” goes like this: First, underfund schools to the point it seriously harms their capacities to educate, especially in underserved communities where the schools are already challenged with students whose grinding poverty puts them behind even before they reach the schoolhouse door. When these underfunded schools score low on state assessments, as they almost always do, the state declares an “emergency” situation to hand the schools over to a charter management organization or siphon off their enrollments with vouchers. One-by-one, schools are picked off for takeover until the whole district is threatened with insolvency and becomes a candidate for the next New Orleans.

What’s different between Nashville and Milwaukee is that in Milwaukee the resistance to reform seems better organized.

Earlier this year, the folks at Think Progress noticed Milwaukee is “fighting against public school privatization.” Alice Ollstein reported, “As Governor Scott Walker’s state budget inches toward passage, parents, teachers and students are taking to the streets to oppose sections of the education budget, which include sweeping changes they say would effectively privatize many public schools while draining funding from others.”

The resistance from parents fuels organizations like Schools & Community United and the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope that helped organize the walk ins, and an active Facebook page “Stop the Takeover of MPS.”

Teachers seem better organized too. Schroeder recalls that when he started teaching in 1995, the district was already into its fifth year of the voucher program, and voucher schools were using clever marketing tactics, such as gift cards from Walmart, to attract families. “We didn’t have a plan to battle them,” he recalls. That’s changed, he contends.

“Now we’re going out and having one-on-one conversations with parents,” Schroeder says. “We’ve brought back 500 parents to public schools.

“We’re not going to let our public schools die.”

9/18/2015 – Seattle Teachers’ Strike A Win For Social Justice

THIS WEEK: Teacher Shortages … Black Teacher Crisis … TFA Ineffective … School Choice Failure … Ed Tech Doesn’t Help


Seattle Teachers’ Strike A Win For Social Justice

By Jeff Bryant

“Striking teachers in Seattle appear to have been victorious in getting most of their demands met … Their demands for increased pay was just one item in a much more extensive list of demands that demonstrate how badly fans of education reform misrepresent and misunderstand what teachers unions often fight for.”
Read more …


School Districts See Teacher Shortages After Years Of Cuts

Associated Press

“After years of recession-related layoffs and hiring freezes, school systems in pockets across the United States are in urgent need of more qualified teachers. Shortages have surfaced in big cities such as Tampa, Florida, and Las Vegas … as well as in states such as Georgia, Indiana, and North Dakota … California … will need 21,000 new teachers annually over the next 5 years … School administrators and academic researchers point to a variety of reasons for the shortages … Nationwide, the number of students training to be teachers has declined from 719,081 in 2010 to 499,800 in 2014 … Even districts that were able to meet their needs this year are bracing for a projected shortage.”
Read more …

The Number Of Black Teachers Has Dropped In Nine U.S. Cities

The Washington Post

“The number of black public school teachers in 9 cities … dropped between 2002 and 2012 … In Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. … The issue of teacher diversity is important because research has suggested that students who are racially paired with teachers – black teachers working with black students and Hispanic teachers working with Hispanic students – do better academically … Researchers examined the decade between 2002 and 2012 because it was a period of rapid expansion of public charter schools and closures of traditional district schools. There also were other state and federal policy changes, such as the use of teacher evaluation systems, that caused some churn and upheaval in teaching ranks.”
Read more …

After 25 Years, Teach For America Results Are Consistently Underwhelming

Nonprofit Quarterly

In an op ed Patricia Schaefer writes, “TFA has total assets of close to half a billion dollars and revenues of more than $330 million, of which about 90% comes from government grants and contributions … While TFA teachers in early primary grades produced roughly 1.3 months of extra reading gains … an overwhelming majority of TFA staff (87%) reported that they did not plan to spend the rest of their career as a classroom teacher or, for that matter, in any education-related career … Even in those limited cases in which TFA shows a positive impact, it is consistently small, and other reform efforts, such universal pre-K, teacher mentoring programs, and smaller class sizes, may have more promise over the long run. The sticking point that returns again and again is that of teacher attrition … There is remarkably little testimony available from veteran teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and other school stakeholders about TFA’s ultimate impact on whole school environments.”
Read more …

When “School Choice” Leads Families To Trade One Bad School For Another

The Hechinger Report

“In Chicago, researchers … found that many families did pull their children out of failing schools. But they usually ended up in ones that were just as bad, or only slightly better … Given the choice of commuting a long way to a high-performing school on the other side of town and transferring to a school in the neighborhood, low-income parents tend to choose the latter … The choices closer to home are often little, if at all, better than poor students’ current schools … This NYU study largely conforms with earlier research, finding that public school choice doesn’t suddenly improve schools for low-income students.”
Read more …

Putting More Technology In Schools May Not Make Kids Smarter: OECD Report

The Huffington Post

” While school districts around the globe have invested immensely in technological resources over the past few years – 72 percent of students in OECD countries now use computers at school – this development isn’t necessarily having a positive impact on student learning … Students who use computers moderately at school tend to do somewhat better than students who use computers rarely and significantly better than students who use computers frequently … Increased exposure to technology in school does not mean that disadvantaged students are catching up to their affluent peers in terms of digital skills. To close these gaps, low-income students will have to be provided with better schools overall … Schools should invest more in training teachers on digital tools, while maintaining a healthy skepticism about computer programs they use in the classroom.”
Read more …

Seattle Teachers’ Strike A Win For Social Justice

Teachers unions are routinely vilified by pundits and politicians on the right and left these days. So when schoolteachers in Seattle began the school year by going on strike, the editorial board of The Seattle Times was quick to accuse the teachers of “demanding too much.”

The editors called the strike “illegal,” “disruptive,” and “a symbol of excess for those who oppose more school spending.”

What seemed to bother this august body most was that teachers’ demands would “have a negative effect on broader efforts to reform the state education system.”

Now that a tentative settlement is in place (to be approved by the teachers on Sunday), and it appears teachers have been victorious in getting most of their demands met, it’s apparent what teachers were fighting for were issues that are in the best interests of their students.

“It’s a win for public education in many ways,” says Jesse Hagopian, a prominent spokesperson for the striking teachers. In a phone conversation, Hagopian – a Garfield High School teacher, editor of the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award – tells me in a phone conversation, “For the first time, our union was able to make social justice the center of the debate. We took a huge step forward.”

For sure, the Seattle teachers were demanding an increase in their pay. After all, as the local Fox News affiliate reports, teachers in one of America’s most expensive cities to live in have gone six years without a cost-of-living increase and have received, over that time, a mere 8 percent increase in base salary from the district.

However, the pay increase – a bargaining position the teachers ultimately greatly compromised on – was just one item in a much more extensive list of demands that demonstrate how badly fans of education reform misrepresent and misunderstand  what teachers unions often fight for.

Student-Centered Demands

Also in the settlement terms, according to a local television news outlet, were student-centered demands including requests for guaranteed 30 minutes of recess for all elementary students, additional staff such as school counselors and therapists, a reduction in the over-testing of students, and the creation of new teams in 30 schools to ensure equitable learning opportunities and treatment of students regardless of race.

While recess may seem to be an unworthy demand to the reform-minded editors of the Times, classroom teachers understand it to be something critical to the health, development, and academic success of their students, as numerous research reports have found.

Having access to school counselors, therapists, and other specialists is critical to many students, but in inadequately funded school districts, such as Seattle, these are the positions that are routinely the first to be cut.

The demand for less testing is also, ultimately a student-centered demand. As Hagopian explains, this time to Erin Middlewood for The Progressive magazine, “’We oppose these tests because there are too many of them and they’re narrowing the curriculum and they’re making our kids feel bad, but they’re also part of maintaining institutional racism,’ says Hagopian, who serves as an adviser to Garfield’s Black Student Union.”

Hagopian sees the increasingly popular campaign to opt out of standardized tests as being connected to the Black Lives Matter movement because money that should be used to support and educate children and youth of color is being directed to punitive measures such as testing and incarceration.

The connection of education injustice, represented by standardized testing, to broader social injustices is also driving teachers’ demands for equity teams in schools to address widespread imbalances in disciplinary action based on race. Numerous studies have shown black students – especially in Seattle – are far more apt to face harsh disciplinary measures including suspensions and expulsions, and Seattle teachers are wise to insist the district address this disparity.

Social Justice For Teachers Too

For sure, student-centered demands coming from the teachers are related to teachers’ work issues too.

In their demands for less testing, Teachers also asked for, and received, relief from having those test results used in their performance evaluations. Although test-based evaluations have been a favorite policy point for the Obama administration and other reform advocates, leading experts have deemed this approach unreliable and invalid as the formulas used in this process can lead to results that can vary dramatically from year to year for each individual teacher.

The district’s demand for an extended school day, an issue teachers objected to at first but now seem to be accepting, is another instance where teachers’ working conditions are intertwined with student learning. What’s ironic about extended-day mandates – another favorite policy point from the reform community – is that the demands usually come from those who are most critical of local public schools. If these critics believe schools are doing such a bad job, why would they insist students spend more time in them?

Further, those who demand students spend more time in school don’t generally consider what exactly that extra time – in this case, 20 minutes – is supposed to be used for. Adding an extra five minutes to core subject classes makes little sense. Adding extra time for, say, tutoring sessions or study time also hardly seems impactful, and may necessitate more costs.

What’s most likely to happen, Hagopian laments in his phone conversation with me, is that teachers will ultimately see the extra time taken out of their time to plan their lessons, examine student work, and collaborate with their peers – all of which are teacher activities that have enormous effects on student learning.

Parents Can Relate

Rather than angering Seattle parents, the striking teachers drew their support. As a Huffington Post reporter observes, “More than 4,000 people have signed a petition calling on parents to support the union. Several parents have co-authored op-eds advocating for the teachers’ demands. “

The local NBC News affiliate reports parents rallied in front of the school district’s administrative center in support of the teachers. “I think the district needs to buck up,” a parent is quoted. “I don’t want the teachers to fold.”

In response to The Seattle Times’ indignation with the teachers, blog posts and a Facebook page went up urging people to cancel their subscriptions to the paper.

Joining in the support of the teachers was the Seattle city council that voted unanimously to support the teachers and directed the city’s community centers to care for elementary-age students at no additional costs to parents.

“The biggest win for us [teachers] is not what’s in the contract,” Hagopian explains to me, “but in the solidarity of the community – the support we received from parents, the local chapter of the NAACP, the council, everyone.”

Hagopian points to a “Soup for Teachers” Facebook page that was used to organize thousand of parents to bring food to teachers on the picket lines, and he notes even as news of the settlement was breaking, supporters were rallying to their cause. The outpouring of support prompts Hagopian to regret somewhat the compromise on pay the teachers took. He calls the 2 percent increase above base pay for the least paid teachers in the district a “punch in the gut.”

Despite Hagopian’s regret on teacher pay, Seattle teachers got most of what they wanted because their demands were undoubtedly in the best interests of the students

Connecting The Dots

Writing for the feminist news outlet Dame Magazine, Sarah Jaffee sources the success of the Seattle teachers to the tactics used in the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012. “Chicago’s teachers were legally prevented from striking over anything but wages and benefits,” she writes, “but their organizing, their speeches, their actions highlighted everything from the lack of air-conditioning in the schools to the forcing of students to cross gang lines when their neighborhood school was shut down. Their working conditions, they noted, were their students’ learning conditions. In Seattle, the teachers have been able to explicitly make issues like recess or racist suspension policies part of the bargaining process.”

“We’ve been connecting the dots,” Hagopian says.

9/10/2015 – Charter Schools Aren’t “Public”

THIS WEEK: Pre-K Works … How Choice Works For Poor Kids … Student Poverty Crisis … Lost Generation Of Children … Jeb Bush Broke Charter Schools


Court’s Ruling Charter Schools Aren’t “Public” Is No Surprise

By Jeff Bryant

“The recent ruling by the supreme court of Washington state that charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren’t really public schools has sent advocates for these schools into a fit. But their often over-the-top criticisms of the decision are reflective of what is most often misunderstood about the charter school sector and what that industry has come to represent in the political debate about public schools … Operating under the mask of being purely ‘public,’ charter schools haven’t faced the scrutiny they warrant.”
Read more …


10 Years In, Tulsa’s Pre-K Investment Is Paying Off


“Researchers who’ve been studying preschoolers in Tulsa say … ‘These children did show huge gains in early math and early literacy skills … They were more likely to be engaged in school, less timid in the classroom and more attentive’ … Today, as eighth-graders … most of these kids are still doing really well … Researchers then compared these eighth-graders to a large sample of Tulsa eighth- and seventh-graders who did not attend preschool. They found that those students were not doing nearly as well … Tulsa’s program is considered a model for high-quality preschool programs nationwide.”
Read more …

When You’re Poor Or Homeless, It Can Be A Long Trip To School, Studies Find

Education Week

“Poverty can limit students’ ability to choose schools, but that doesn’t mean they stay close to home … In Chicago neighborhoods where families made on average less than $25,000 per year, high school freshmen attended a pool of about 13 different schools, commuting on average nearly 3 miles to school … By contrast, in neighborhoods with a median income over $75,000, most students attended a pool of about three local schools, and the commute was on average 1.7 miles … Homeless students traveled longer commutes to school on average than poor, housed students.”
Read more …

Map: How Student Poverty Has Increased Since The Great Recession

The Washington Post

“Not only are more American children poor today than before the Great Recession, but poor kids are increasingly clustered with poor classmates at school … Between 2006 and 2013, the number of students in high-poverty school districts – in which more than 20% of children live below the federal poverty line – increased from 15.9 million to 24 million … Nearly half of the nation’s 50 million public school students go to class with large numbers of peers who are growing up with poverty … The number of children going to class in school districts with even greater student poverty – higher than 40% – also increased, from about 1% to 4% of the national student population. Such high-poverty districts need more money to help address the issues that their students bring to school, including hunger, homelessness and higher risks for mental health challenges.”
Read more …

Unicef Warns Of Lost Generation Of War Children Out Of School

The New York Times

“War and upheaval across parts of the Middle East and North Africa in recent years have driven more than 13 million children from school – 40% of the affected area’s school-age population … In some countries – particularly Syria, which once had one of the world’s highest literacy rates – many children who ordinarily would be third or fourth graders by now have rarely if ever been inside a classroom … Five or 10 years ago, he said, it was unusual to have even 10% of the school-age populations in the region out of school … The collapse in primary education is another compelling reason for families with young children to flee.”
Read more …

How Jeb Bush’s Florida Plan For School ‘Choice’ Created An Industry Of Corruption And Chaos


Jeff Bryant writes, “Charter schools may continue to enjoy generally favorable ratings in national surveys of Americans, but many parents and public officials across South Florida, where these schools are now more prevalent than in other parts of the country, openly complain about an education ‘innovation’ that seems more and more like an unsavory business venture … An increasing fear among parents and public officials across South Florida – and Broward County in particular – that any educational value charter schools were supposed to bring to the state is now overshadowed by corruption and chaos linked to money-making … Most people trace the manic scramble for more charter schools in Florida to one source: former governor and current Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. In 1996, two years before he became governor, Bush helped steer passage of the state’s first law permitting charter schools. That same year, he led the effort to open the state’s first charter … There’s no doubt Bush’s ties to the charter industry will stay strong during his presidential run.”
Read more …

Court’s Ruling Charter Schools Aren’t “Public” Is No Surprise

The recent ruling by the supreme court of Washington state that charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren’t really public schools has sent advocates for these schools into a fit. But their often over-the-top criticisms of the decision are reflective of what is most often misunderstood about the charter school sector and what that industry has come to represent in the political debate about public schools.

First, about the ruling: As Emma Brown of The Washington Post reports, “Washington state’s Supreme Court has become the first in the nation to decide that taxpayer-funded charter schools are unconstitutional, reasoning that charters are not truly public schools because they aren’t governed by elected boards and therefore not accountable to voters.”

Brown explains how voters in the state previously rejected charter schools on two ballot initiatives only to see an initiative pass on the third attempt, in 2012, when a who’s who of billionaires – including Bill Gates and members of the Walton (Walmart) and Bezos (Amazon) families – donated millions of dollars to ensure passage. Today, there are nine charter schools in Washington serving about 1,200 students.

The court’s 6-to-3 ruling, Brown explains, relies “on a century-old precedent that defined ‘common schools,’ or public schools, as those that are ‘common to all children of proper age and capacity, free, and subject to and under the control of the qualified voters of the school district.’”

The Washington court’s ruling certainly didn’t catch education historian Diane Ravitch by surprise. On her personal blog, she points to a letter from Parents Across America, a parent-led advocacy group supporting locally operated public schools, that explained to the state superintendent, over two years ago, “Charter schools would not meet the definition of ‘common schools’” in the state constitution.

Nevertheless, charter school advocates seethed.

Early out of the gate to object to the ruling was the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal whose headline blared, ” The Judges Who Stole School Choice.” The editors opprobrium continued, “The liberal majority’s real concern is preserving the union monopoly … Charter schools are public schools too.”

At the blog site of the right wing Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the director the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education called the ruling a “decision only the Kremlin could love.”

But anyone with a clear understanding of the issues – rather than a charter school advocacy job bankrolled by billionaires – could see this ruling coming from a mile away.

Why Charter Schools Aren’t Really “Public” Schools

As the Post’s Brown reported, the Washington’s court’s ruling “highlights a question that has spurred much debate in education circles as charter schools – which are funded with taxpayer dollars, but run by independent organizations – have expanded rapidly during the past two decades: What makes a public school public?”

To critics of the charter school sector, the very idea of calling charter schools “public” schools makes about as much sense as calling defense contractors “public” companies. The fact these entities get taxpayer money does not mean they are “public.”

For years, education law and finance scholars have warned that the legal status of charter schools is on shaky ground. In 2012, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker asked, on his personal blog, “Charter Schools Are… [Public? Private? Neither? Both?].”

Baker notes, first, that charter schools differ from public schools, in most statutory law, because they are limited public access. Unlike public schools, charter schools “can define the number of enrollment slots they wish to make available … admit students only on an annual basis and do not have to take students mid-year, [and] set academic, behavior and cultural standards that promote exclusion of students.”

These points of difference between charter and public schools are glaringly obvious in the neighborhoods where charters are common. Those who protest charter school expansions in their communities note how charter schools use lotteries to limit the number of students in their schools while public schools are frequently overcrowded. Charter schools are often criticized for not “back filling” and taking in new students mid-year as empty seats become available. And charter schools are notorious for enforcing student behavior codes that lead to frequent discipline violations and increase suspension and expulsion rates.

Baker found that in their authorization, governance, and operation, charter schools are frequently exempted from requirements public schools have, such as open meeting laws, disclosure of financial records, and employee rights.

In January 2015, Baker collaborated with two other scholars to publish a review, the “Legal Status of Charter Schools in State Statutory Law” in the University of Massachusetts Law Review which found that in most states the legal distinctions between charter schools and public schools are not at all clear due primarily to how legislation providing for charters is often drafted without including any “clear set of rules to follow” for governing the schools – a provision, by the way, the charter lobby often insists on.

The analysis examined whether charter schools, which are generally run by private boards or educational management organizations, are entitled to governmental immunity and whether they are subject to public accountability laws. The scholars examined whether charter schools are subject to the same wage statutes and student expulsion requirements as public school.

Their conclusion was, “While charter schools are generally characterized as ‘public schools,’ courts have had a difficult time determining their legal status because charter schools contain both public and private characteristics.”

Education research experts at the National Education Policy Center also looked at the issue of whether charter schools are public or private and concluded, “Their operations are basically private.”

The NEPC analysis found that because most charter school board operate on “an advisory role,” they outsource their school’s operations to private education management organizations (EMOs).

“It is common practice,” NEPC noted, “for EMOs to write charter school proposals and determine how the school will be managed and operated long before a board is appointed. It is also common practice for the private EMO to provide a list of names for board members, which the authorizer then approves. In recent years, board members have been refused access to information about how money is being spent. Further, there are cases where EMOs have asked the authorizer to remove board members when they start asking uncomfortable questions about finance.”

A False Frame For “Accountability”

For years, charter school advocates have insisted on calling their schools “public” mostly because it is an effective rhetorical frame – and because it is a rationale for why they de facto deserve tax money, government grants, and favorable lending rates.

“Charters are public schools, despite propaganda from unions and their supporters suggesting otherwise,” political analyst Jonathan Alter wrote recently for The Daily Beast. His op-ed, “Why Liberals Should Learn to Love Charter Schools,” focused mostly on propping up the charter industry’s campaign to make the all-charter New Orleans school system a model for troubled urban school districts elsewhere.

This campaign makes the claim charter schools are the truest form of “accountability” because they are “freed from the bureaucracy” of elected school boards and other forms democratic control – a truly bizarre contention in line with believing car drivers would be more “accountable” if we freed them of speed limits and other driving “constraints.” Further, the supposed greater accountability of charter schools is contradicted every time one of these closes unexpectedly, whenever they want to, as they so often do.

Responding to Alter’s argument, public school teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene writes, “Charter schools will be accountable when they are just as transparent and just as accountable as public schools … Financial records completely open to the public … all meetings of governing bodies completely open to the public, and run by people who must answer to the public and whose first responsibility is not to the nominal owners of the school, but to the actual owners of the school – the people who pay the bills and fund the charter – the taxpayers.”

A Movement Gone Totally Awry

Charter school advocates would do their cause a big favor if they were to define their schools to the public as exactly what they are and what the mission of their schools’ really is.

Indeed, the rhetoric driving charter school advocacy has changed dramatically over the years as proponents of charter schools condition public perceptions to accept the expansion of these schools.

That evolution has been documented extensively in the recently published book “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education,” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.

The original vision of charter schools, the book contends, was to provide “laboratory schools” to “experiment” with different approaches that could eventually be considered for adopting on a much larger scale. Two foundational tenets to these experimental schools, the authors maintain, were for teachers to have a stronger voice in determining the management of the school and for the student body to have higher degrees of economic and racial diversity than traditional public schools.

However, as states began enacting legislation to create and spread charter schools – beginning with Minnesota in 1991, then ramping up significantly under the presidential administration of Bill Clinton – there was a “more conservative vision” repeated again and again that reinforced charter schools as “competitors” to the public school system – even to the extent of replacing public schools, some argued.

“The public policy rhetoric changed from an emphasis on how charters could best serve as laboratory partners to public schools to whether charters as a group are ‘better’ or ‘worse,’” the book argues. And “over time, the market metaphor came to replace the laboratory metaphor.”

The authors conclude, “The current thrust of the charter school sector … is bad for kids.” They recommend “changes to federal, state, and local policy” and a greater degree of “neighborhood partnerships” among charters, public schools, foundations and universities if these schools are to “be a powerful vision for educational innovation in a new century.”

Those policy changes need to be accompanied by a completely different rhetoric for defining exactly what charter schools are and what purpose they have in the country’s education system. Operating under the mask of being purely “public,” charter schools haven’t faced the scrutiny they warrant. Now that the Washington Supreme Court ruling has stripped the mask away, charter school advocates are left grappling with the responsibility of redefining their cause. And it’s their own damn fault.

9/3/2015 – Why The Fight For Dyett High School Is A Fight For Democracy

THIS WEEK: Common Core Isn’t Common … Success Of Long Beach Schools … Teachers Work Without Pay … Black Students Expelled At Higher Rates … Court: Choice Not A Right


Why The Fight For Dyett High School Is A Fight For Democracy

By Jeff Bryant

“Twelve members of a coalition to save a local, public school in Chicago, Dyett High School, are in the 17th day of a hunger strike. Here’s why their local grievances deserve national concern …”
Read more …


Initial Common Core Goals Unfulfilled As Results Trickle In

Associated Press via ABC News

“Results for some of the states that participated in Common Core-aligned testing for the first time this spring are out … Even when all the results are available, it will not be possible to compare student performance across a majority of states, one of Common Core’s fundamental goals. What began as an effort to increase transparency and allow parents and school leaders to assess performance nationwide has largely unraveled, chiefly because states are dropping out of the two testing groups and creating their own exams … The exams have also experienced technical glitches and an opt-out movement that surfaced this spring. Most states have not been able to release test scores before the start of classes, a delay that was expected in the exam’s first year, but nonetheless frustrating for some teachers and parents.”
Read more …

Back To School In Long Beach, Where The Superintendent Has Lasted Longer Than Your K-12 Career

Los Angeles Times

“As Long Beach’s 79,000 students head back to school, [Superintendent Chris] Steinhauser is … at the helm of a district that began seeing major improvements two decades ago … and led improvement in areas like AP enrollment and college preparation … The story of Long Beach’s long-term improvement has inspired busloads of educators hoping to learn how the district acquired its sterling reputation … Steinhauser maintains that parent involvement is key to kids’ success … He focuses on making neighborhood schools attractive to parents … Unlike other much-touted districts, though, Long Beach has only two charter schools.”
Read more …

Is This Any Way To Run A School District?

The Washington Post

“Back in 2012, the long-beleaguered Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania ran out of money – literally – and the unionized teachers and staff agreed to work without pay… It’s happened again … Pennsylvania lawmakers failed for years to adequately fund Chester Upland … Making matters worse is the funding controversy involving the district’s charter schools, which were encouraged and supported by Pennsylvania lawmakers and the former Republican Governor Tom Corbett … Chester Upland pays local charter schools about $64 million in tuition payments ever year – more than the district receives in state school aid … Lawmakers set up a funding formula in which Chester Upland’s charter schools get far more in public funds to educate special education students than traditional public schools receive.”
Read more …

Analysis Finds Higher Expulsion Rates For Black Students

The New York Times

“New analysis of federal data identifies districts in 13 Southern states where black students are suspended or expelled at rates overwhelmingly higher than white children … In some districts, the gaps were even more striking: in 132 Southern school districts, for example, black students were suspended at rates five times their representation in the student population, or higher … In 181 school districts where blacks represented just under 60% percent of enrollment on average, all of the students expelled during 2011-12 were black. Within the 13 states, Louisiana and Mississippi expelled the highest proportion of blacks … The disparities existed in high-achieving as well as low-achieving schools.”
Read more …

Children Don’t Have Constitutional Right to Switch Schools, Appeals Court Rules

The Wall Street Journal

“The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday rejected claims by a group of Arkansas parents that they had a right to transfer their kids out of a struggling school district in northeast Arkansas to neighboring districts where they thought the children could be better educated … The opinion, written by Judge Lavenski R. Smith, said there was no precedent that supported the position that ‘a parent’s ability to choose where his or her child is educated within the public school system is a fundamental right or liberty’ … The plaintiffs’ children are enrolled in the Blytheville School District in Blytheville, Ark., an impoverished small city in northeast Arkansas. The state has classified the district’s high school and middle school as ‘academic distressed’ based on student performance on standardized tests, and the parents sought to move their kids to two nearby, wealthier districts.”
Read more …

Why The Fight For Dyett High School Is A Fight For Democracy

Jitu Brown is a mountain of a man, tall and broad shouldered – the kind of person whose presence you notice when he walks into a room and whose deep, resonate voice commands your attention. When you shake his hand, you can’t help notice your palm completely disappears in his all-encompassing grip.

Yet on Wednesday, “Brother Jitu,” as he is customarily called, looked weary, a little slumped over, almost faint, as he sat in a folding chair at the base of the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. Brown you must know is on his 17th day of a hunger strike. He has traveled to here from his Chicago neighborhood, hundreds of miles away, with one of his fellow strikers, April Stogner.

According to one health news source, “After two weeks, people on a hunger strike may have difficulty standing; they can also suffer from severe dizziness, sluggishness, weakness, loss of coordination, low heart rate and a chilled feeling. Low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1) become a real risk after two or three weeks and can result in severe neurological problems, including cognitive impairment, vision loss, and lack of motor skills.”

Two of Brown’s fellow hunger strikers – there are 12 in all – have already made trips to the hospital.

So as Brown listens quietly to the handful of speakers presenting before him, it’s natural to worry he won’t be able to address the crowd gathered on the plaza, or be concerned he’ll suddenly be overwhelmed by the travails of withholding solid food for so long.

Why have Brown and his fellow striker made the trek to Washington?

Reporter Lyndsey Layton for The Washington Post briefs the story: “The hunger strikers are concerned about Walter H. Dyett High School, which was closed by Chicago Public Schools in June after years of poor performance and dwindling enrollment … Protesters say they want to keep the school publicly operated and have asked that Dyett be reopened as a ‘leadership and green technology school’ with a science-based curriculum that takes advantage of the school’s location near a major park.”

But the backstory is way more complicated, and more importantly, of national significance.

As the Chicago Sun-Times reports, “Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School have lobbied for years on behalf of the neighborhood school, without success.”

The school is located in the Bronzeville neighborhood, a community that historically was a destination for throngs of African Americans migrating from the rural south in the early decades of the 20th century. Bronzeville was home to numerous black cultural luminaries including Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, and Ida B. Wells, and the school is named after a legendary music teacher who taught the likes of singer Nat “King” Cole and tenor saxophone giants Von Freeman, Gene Ammons, and Johnny Griffin.

Brown, a chief organizer from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) in Southside Chicago, has been on Dyett’s local school council since 2003. During his term, Dyett underwent a community-led improvement effort that brought honors and AP classes to the school, and, according to a local news outlet, the school “had the highest increase in graduation rate of any facility in the 600-school district.” In 2011 the ESPN program Rise Up made a $4 million investment in the school to revamp its athletic facilities.

What also happened in 2011 was Rahm Emanuel resigned as the White House Chief of Staff for President Barak Obama to run for the mayor of Chicago. After Emanuel won, he and his administration began a program to disinvest in local schools, closing 50 neighborhood schools – a historic high – while opening dozens of new charter schools that are privately operated. The school closures occurred in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black (88 percent) and low-income (94 percent).

As a local, independent news website reports, the Chicago Board of Education, an administrative body appointed by Mayor Emanuel, “voted to phase out Dyett in February 2012, citing continually low performance and graduation rates … But advocates for Dyett have argued the low performance was due to continual disinvestment that destabilized the school.”

The reporter quotes Brown lamenting the loss of all the improvements he and his fellow school council members worked for: “Students don’t have honors or AP classes … Students don’t have art. Students don’t have music classes, and students also have to take physical education as an online class.”

Brown accuses the mayor and his appointed board of “gutting” the neighborhood by closing the school.

“After news of the closing plans broke,” the International Business Times reports, “the community reacted negatively, even filing a civil rights complaint alleging the planned shutdown was racially motivated. In response, the board decided to accept proposals with the intent of reopening Dyett as a public or contract school for the 2016-17 school year. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett put forth the idea of focusing the school’s curriculum on the environment, economy, green technology, and community, while the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy advocated for an arts and culture institute. The third and final proposal would turn Dyett into the Washington Park Athletic Career Academy, centered around letting students explore sports-related jobs.”

Brown and his fellow hunger strikers argue, in a letter they went to DC to deliver to Secretary Duncan, their plan should take precedent over the other two because it has been community led, developing over a four year period that included town hall meetings, extensive consultation with community and educational institutions, the input of experts who have developed Level 1 high schools in Chicago, and the support from over 3,000 Bronzeville residents.

In their letter, the protestors point out that were Dyett to close, Bronzeville students would not have access to any neighborhood high school that is open enrollment and free of an application process.

Working under a city regime that declares its allegiance to “school choice,” you would think officials would respond to the community’s demands for an open enrollment neighborhood school based on their vision and values. But instead, the hunger strikers accuse city officials of delaying tactics and hidden agendas.

They call attention to the fact that while neighborhoods in whiter, more affluent parts of Chicago continue to enjoy neighborhood schools that have well-maintained facilities and rich, well-rounded curricula, schools in black and brown, low-income communities increasingly have imposed on them charter schools that practice minimalistic “no excuse” approaches to educating their children.

“There are more Dyetts across our country,” declares American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who spoke just before Brown. In an AFT press release she says, “In communities where neighborhood public schools were closed, not fixed. In communities destabilized by bad policy … in Chicago, in Newark, N.J., in Philadelphia, in Pittsburgh.”

“In places like Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and other large districts that serve primarily children of color,” writes Eve Ewing who is a former Chicago classroom teacher and currently a doctoral student at Harvard University, “where once the only way to exercise some kind of ‘school choice’ was to attend private school, children can now stay in the public school district and apply to a magnet school, enter the lottery for a charter school, apply to a special vocational or career academy, or try to test into an academically elite ‘selective enrollment’ school serving only a small sliver of top-performing students.”

The problem this system of “choice,” explains Ewing, is that parents who want a local school that guarantees their children access to a high quality education increasingly have no choice at all. Instead of a choice, they get a chance at testing into one of the few selective enrollment schools (which in Chicago only serve about 12 percent of the students), they can win a lottery to place in a desirable charter school, or they can be resigned to attend one of the more prevalent charter schools that are notorious for expelling or suspending students with disabilities or losing high percentages of students between freshman year and graduation.

This system of choice rolling out in so many communities, Ewing argues, “is based on the premise that children, teachers, and schools are indistinguishable widgets, to be distributed as efficiently as possible across the landscape. But the fact is that schools are ecosystems, each with its own history, culture, and intricately woven set of social relationships. Schools are community anchors. They not interchangeable, nor are they disposable. Schools are home.”

So that’s why Brown and his neighbors are on a hunger strike. They refuse to be treated as numbers. They protest attempts to make their proud neighborhood indistinguishable from everywhere else. They will not let their children be rendered disposable. They are fighting for their home.

Back at the plaza in front of the US Department of Education, when it is Brother Jitu’s turn to address the audience, he rises to his feet without any sign of faltering. In commanding the microphone he declares his refusal to remain “voiceless” in determining what happens in his neighborhood and what prevails on his and his neighbors’ children. His strong voice reverberating against the concrete, he speaks undeniable truths: “What happened to Dyett is a case study in separate and unequal education in this country … We’ve lost the choice of having a neighborhood school … There has to be accountability to the public for the destabilizing of schools in our community and the sabotage of our children’s education … This is structural racism at its worst.”

After his address, Brown and Stogner indeed met with Secretary Duncan. According to the Chicago Sun-Times , the two said the meeting “went well,”although the Secretary made no commitments.

Later that night, back in Chicago, when Mayor Emanuel attempted to conduct a town hall address, protestors chanting “Save Dyett” rushed the stage and forced him from the room.

Brother Jitu is being heard, loud and clear.