Education Opportunity Network

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2/11/2016 – State Leaders Need To Back Away From School Takeover Agencies

THIS WEEK: Teacher Shortage Fight … How Many Kids Have Lead Poisoning … Republicans Hate School Boards … UN Experts Horrified By US Schools … Schools Suspensions Hurt Achievement

TOP STORY

Why State Leaders Need To Back Away From School Takeover Agencies

By Jeff Bryant

“Republican governors and legislators in at least eleven states are in various stages of seizing control of schools and school districts and overriding local governance of education … But if elected school boards are the problem, are state takeover agencies the answer? ‘No,’ says a new report.”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

Teacher Shortages Put Pressure On Governors, Legislators

Education Week

“In a number of states with dwindling supplies of new teachers, overcrowded classrooms, months-long substitute assignments, and droves of teachers quitting midyear … governors and legislators are floating a variety of approaches to address the challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers.”
Read more …

America Does A Terrible Job Tracking How Many Kids Have Lead Poisoning

Vox

“In the wake of Flint, Michigan’s lead poisoning crisis … it’s nearly impossible to know how much lead exposure kids in a certain zip code, neighborhood, or census tract might come in contact with … There are thousands of children in the United States with lead exposure above the federal threshold.”
Read more …

GOP-Led States Increasingly Taking Control From Local School Boards

The Washington Post

“Republican lawmakers in Illinois last month pitched a bold plan for the state to seize control of the Chicago public schools … Governors in Michigan, Arkansas, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio, and elsewhere … say they are intervening in cases of chronic academic or financial failure … State takeovers were once a rarity, but they have become increasingly popular.”
Read more …

U.N. Experts Seem Horrified By How American Schools Treat Black Children

Huffington Post

“American schools are hotbeds for racial discrimination, according to a preliminary report from a group of United Nations experts … The U.N. experts also expressed concern about mass school closures, which typically target predominantly black neighborhoods.”
Read more …

How School Suspensions Push Black Students Behind

The Atlantic

“Racial disparities in school-discipline rates … contribute to the race-based achievement gap … The act of suspending a child who’s already at risk of underperforming academically could prove devastating.”
Read more …

Why State Leaders Need To Back Away From School Takeover Agencies

What do Republicans have against school boards?

That’s a question to take away from a recent article in the Washington Post, in which education writer Lyndsey Layton reports that Republican governors and legislators in at least eleven states are in various stages of seizing control of schools and school districts and overriding local governance of education. The state takeover agencies are branded with various names – Recovery School District, Achievement School District, Education Achievement Authority – but the goal is always the same: dismantle school boards or take their governance powers away.

Layton notes how odd it is for Republican leaders who profess the preeminence of “local control” yet suddenly go full top-down authoritarian when it comes to schools. But as she explains, the typical process behind these state takeovers is for the governor or a state appointed board to use a rating system, mostly based on student test scores, to designate a group of schools or a whole district “low performing,” then appoint a manager with “broad powers to redesign schools or close them entirely. The state manager can hire and fire, set curriculum, reconfigure the school day, sell property and, in some cases, break existing labor contracts. Increasingly, state managers are turning over traditional public schools to charter school operators, which are funded by tax dollars but are privately managed.”

“This model is quite appealing to [Republicans],” Layton quotes Kenneth K. Wong, chair of the education department at Brown University.

But if elected school boards are the problem, are state takeover agencies the answer? “No,” says a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy.

Very Disappointing Results

The report, “State Takeovers Of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm,” examines the track record of district and school takeovers in states that have employed this governance method the longest time – Louisiana, Michigan, and Tennessee – and concludes, “There is no clear evidence that takeover districts actually achieve their stated goals of radically improving performance at failing schools.”

“We wrote this report to warn state leaders about adopting these takeover methods,” report author Kyle Serrette, CPD’s director of education justice, tells me in a phone conversation. “We saw seven states recently adopt new legislation authorizing takeover agencies, and we wanted to show them the promised outcomes of these agencies just aren’t there.”

Instead of helping students and improving schools, state takeovers of public schools have led to very disappointing results, CPD finds. “Children have seen negligible improvement – or even dramatic setbacks – in their educational performance,” the report states. And takeovers have led to a great many unintended negative consequences, including, high rates of teacher turnover, the spread of harsh disciplinary measures that discriminate against children of color, and widespread “fraud and mismanagement” in schools that have been taken over and handed off to privately managed charter school organizations.

This Clearly Doesn’t Work

In Louisiana, the report finds “mixed results” at best, for the state’s Recover School District, as state standards and achievement levels have stayed mired near the bottom compared to the rest of the states in the country. State education officials, in attempts to obscure the poor track record of the takeovers, have also frequently changed the metrics used to gauge school performance from year to year.

Michigan’s state takeover agency has been “a disaster,” the report finds. The report quotes the head of the agency admitting that after three years of direct state administration, “achievement hasn’t improved.” In schools overseen by the state authority, student scores on state standardized tests have continued to decline. Significant percentages of students in poor performing schools who had previously shown proficiency in state math and reading exams have experienced declines since the takeovers of their schools took place.

In Tennessee, the six Memphis schools taken over by the state in 2012 have all experienced declining reading scores on state tests; half have had math scores drop too. The goal of using state takeover to move the lowest performing schools out of the bottom level of performance looks more like a pipe dream. “Only six out of the 17 takeover schools had moved out of the bottom performance decile by the end of the 2013-2014 school year,” the report finds.

What went wrong?

It’s The Democracy, Stupid

“We know these schools were struggling before the state takeovers,” Serrette explains, “but state officials opted for structural change alone. And structural change by itself doesn’t work.”

It’s understandable that sorting out the problems of chronically struggling school districts can be a very frustrating experience for public officials. Locally elected school boards are often overly contentious to the point of dysfunction. Too few people bother to vote in school board elections, and the electoral system is often prone to manipulation from powerful individuals and self-interested groups. And the country’s history is replete with examples of local boards that perpetuated widespread mistreatment of minorities to the point where outside intervention was necessary.

But local school governance, through elected schools boards, has always been “a major part of the engine that maintains and strengthens our U.S. democracy,” states John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, in a forward to the CPD report. Therefore, in Jackson’s view, “any state action that limits or takes over that process is paramount to a state action limiting a fundamental vehicle of democracy.” [Disclosure: the Schott Foundation is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network.]

Furthermore, Jackson contends, the state takeovers frequently occur “while the states themselves fail to first meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with the resources needed to provide their students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn.”

Jackson points to Flint, Michigan, where a state appointed emergency manager made unilateral decisions that caused thousands of children in the city to be exposed to concentrated levels of lead, as an example of how direct state oversight lacks the local context and the citizenry input to make good decisions. “It is clear,” Jackson concludes, “that while states can be supportive in providing relief and standards, history and outcome data have proven they are not best positioned to manage or take over complex local school operations.”

What struggling schools needs instead of structural change is “strategic change,” Serrette maintains. “Taking over schools or closing them down is not accountability,” he argues. “Real accountability would be taking responsibility to make sure these schools get the strategic supports they need.”

Those strategic supports Serrette refers to are spelled out in the report in the form of six recommendations that include changes to curriculum, instruction, staffing, and parent engagement.

So why aren’t state officials taking these steps instead?

Why Are States Doing This?

Layton quotes various Republican governors saying the takeover districts are all about “riding to the rescue of kids” and taking steps “to protect the schoolchildren and their parents.”

Despite good intentions, however, “lawmakers often have very little experience in governing schools before they take office,” Serrette argues. “They frequently only know what was put into place before they took office,” or they are influenced most by “what they’re being told” by outside agencies and actors.

Increasingly, one of the most powerful influencers of education policy is the richly financed charter school industry, and it is no coincidence that one of the most prevalent outcomes of state takeovers of local schools is the eventual handover of those schools to charter management organizations, as the CPD report points out.

As I reported for Salon over a year ago, when Tennessee created its state takeover agency, called the Achievement School District, state officials required districts to enforce, for their lowest performing schools, either or both of the following measures: fire school staff or hand the school over to a charter school management organization.

Conveniently, the ASD is also a charter authorizer, so it can designate any of its schools for charter takeover, and indeed has done so numerous times. In fact, the first superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools. When the ASD rolled into Memphis, the ASD immediately began targeting the district’s schools for takeover by charter operations.

My article quotes Metro Nashville Public School board member Will Pinkston who explains how “the charter school movement has hijacked education policy” by using the ASD as an opening to impose more privatization of public schools without any local consent of the educators and families affected.

Pinkston should know. As a staffer in the administration of former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, he was instrumental in devising the state’s successful proposal to receive money from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program, which financed and led to the creation of the ASD. Pinkston takes credit for coining the very name of the agency.

Now, in his role as a local school board member, Pinkston accuses the ASCD of engineering “hostile takeovers” of local schools that marginalize community input. “It’s immoral to force this kind of change on people who don’t want it,” he states.

The CPD report confirms much of what Pinkston contends not only in his home state but also in Louisiana and Michigan. While these takeover districts do not deliver improved student performance, they end up being “largely comprised of charter schools under private management … These schools have been accused of cherry-picking students, failing to provide adequate services to children with special needs, and implementing punitive disciplinary measures, such as suspensions, which often disrupt educational outcomes for students of color.”

Furthermore, handing over public schools to these privately operated charter firms also “can siphon millions of dollars away from direct investment in the students enrolled in turnaround schools,” the report concludes. And transferring public assets to private control “has allowed theft, fraud and mismanagement to run rampant in the scattered and fragmented takeover districts.”

So yes we need locally and democratically elected school boards, as imperfect as they are. Not only are they likely the best vehicles we have to scrutinize public education expenditures, they are also likely still the best governing structure we have to ensure students are learning.

2/4/2016 – An Emerging New Narrative For Education

THIS WEEK: How Bernie Would Improve Schools … Poverty Sprawl … Black Students Get Harsher Discipline … Test Rebellion Gets Bigger … Which Students Get Newer Teachers

TOP STORY

An Emerging New Narrative For Education

By Jeff Bryant

“The simple story about education no longer works – at least the one we’ve been hearing for the past 20 years … Fortunately, a new narrative is emerging from sources outside the usual think tanks and policy shops … It’s a radical departure from the current policy that constricts educational opportunity by imposing financial austerity, expanding private ownership of the system, and using narrow-minded measures of what constitutes ‘results.’”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

Bernie Sanders Has A Bold, Simple Idea For Improving Public Education

Vox

“Bernie Sanders came out in favor of a massive change in the way the US funds schools … Bernie’s right: The property tax system of funding schools is inherently regressive, granting fewer resources to poorer towns with lower property values and more to rich towns with high property values. Federalizing funding of public schools … would be a huge boon for both economic and racial equality … Done right, it can improve school quality while maintaining a degree of local autonomy … Federalizing education spending would entail raising federal spending on the order of $500 billion a year … It’s … possible to raise a big chunk of that revenue by, for example, raising the top income tax rate to 50%.”
Read more …

What Will Poverty Sprawl Mean For School Districts?

Education Week

“The geography of child poverty is changing, and research suggests educators may need to tailor their supports for disadvantaged students in rural, suburban, and urban areas … Urban poor students tend to have more chronic stressors … Urban poor areas generally have a wider variety of programs … Rural poor students may have lower crime and costs of living and better access to nature and play areas, but may be more economically … isolated … have fewer early-childhood or school-age support and welfare programs … Suburban poor students tend to have lower stressors and higher resources … but they may face more frequent discrimination from wealthier peers.”
Read more …

Black Students In South Twice As Likely As Whites To Be Physically Disciplined And Suspended, Report Shows

Atlanta Black Star

“Black students in the South are twice as likely to receive corporal punishment … One in 100 Black Georgia students reported being struck by a teacher… Black male students were more likely to receive physical punishment … 42,000 Black male students reported being beaten … Black students are not just physically punished at a higher rate. They also have higher rates of suspension than white students … 15% of Black students will be suspended in a given year and Black students are twice as likely to receive in-school suspension.”
Read more …

The Testing Opt-Out Movement Is Growing, Despite Government Efforts To Kill It

The Washington Post

Award-winning New York school principal Carol Burris writes, “The testing ‘opt out’ movement is gaining momentum, even as efforts to derail it ramp up … The Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would take opt out students out of accountability reporting … which would, in turn, result in less local resistance to parent requests … In Delaware, the State PTA led the fight to overturn their governor’s veto of a bill that would have made it easier for parents to opt their children out … The leader of the Florida House Democrats, Mark Pafford, publicly urged parents to opt their students out of the tests, which he characterized as meaningless … Keep an on eye on the state that accounted for nearly half of the half million opt outs last year – New York. Despite attempts to convince the public that there will be real change to the standards, testing and teacher evaluation, the parents’ opt out movement is gearing up.”
Read more …

Black, Hispanic Students Tend To Have Less Experienced Math Teachers

Education Week

“Black and Hispanic students are much more likely to have an 8th grade math teacher with five or fewer years’ experience than are their white and Asian peers … There’s good proof that experience begets quality, at least to a point – a recent study found that the average teacher’s ability to boost student achievement increases for the first 10 years of teaching, and possibly longer … 36% of black students and 33% of Hispanic students have a math teacher who has taught secondary math for five years or less.”
Read more …

An Emerging New Narrative For Education

The big news about education policy in the presidential race is that there is no news.

As Laura Moser writes for Slate, “None of the candidates are talking about education. Like, at all.”

At Salon, parent and public school activist Bertis Downs argues that even the few times Democratic Party candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have mentioned education, their “words don’t seem to resonate with many of the largely untapped public education parents and teachers who are in search of a candidate.”

(I’d submit the one candidate who has made education prominent in his campaign is Jeb Bush. But his weak showing in the Iowa caucus and bottom-feeder status in polls might be enough evidence to convince other candidates to see Bush as less of a role model and more of a warning sign.)

To understand why education is a no show in the race so far, Moser points to a column by conservative education poohbah Frederick Hess in Education Week. Hess surmises education isn’t in the debate because voters are more concerned about other issues – terrorism and their depleted pocketbooks – and because current candidates don’t see education polity as a way to burnish their “personae.”

Moser argues that education is AWOL because the “subtlety” of issues – such as school choice, charters, and Common Core – don’t always align cleanly with political ideologies and make for poor “sound bite” material.

It’s true that nuance doesn’t fare well in political campaigns. Voters want the simple stories told to them over and over again: about the child of humble means who rose to success, about the greatness of a country based on freedom and equality, and about sinister forces who are “rigging the system” or who threaten the “American way of life.”

But the simple story about education no longer works – at least the one we’ve been hearing for the past 20 years.

An Old Story

For decades, politicians have told the easy story that our public schools were “broken,” that they lacked “accountability,” and that the way to “fix” them was to impose mandatory outcomes – higher test scores and graduation rates – that would be evidence of better “results.” Now we know that story was flawed.

Today, we have reams and reams of test data and record-high high school graduation rates, but the rage over education policy burns hotter than it has in over 50 years, and more school districts are on the brink of total calamity every day.

Republicans want to tell a new story about schools as consumer products that will improve when “customers” have more “choice” imposed by the private sector and big business. It’s not a terribly new story. It’s also, frankly, an abdication of leadership, suggesting that these folks really have no idea how to provide for better schools so they’ll make parents fight it out for themselves, despite the obvious dearth of high quality choices already in the system.

Democrats, on the other hand, don’t’ really seem to have a story to tell about public education. But fortunately, a new narrative is emerging from sources outside the usual think tanks and policy shops.

The Emerging New Narrative

This new narrative is familiar to parents and educators and anyone who can reflect on their own education journey: that every child has the innate ability to learn, that access to education opportunity is an inalienable right, and that it is incumbent on government to provide education opportunities as a common good, free and accessible to all.

This may not sound like a new story – indeed, it’s as old as America itself – but it’s a radical departure from the current policy that constricts educational opportunity by imposing financial austerity, expanding private ownership of the system, and using narrow-minded measures of what constitutes “results.”

Where can you see on this emerging new narrative?

Opposite Of What’s Told In Mainstream Media

Any good narrative about public education has to identify what’s wrong with the status quo.

A new analysis from parent and educator led organization, the Network for Public Education tells that part of the story all too well in its report card on the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In its analysis, NPE awarded the nation as a whole a grade of D. Thirty-seven states, in addition to the District of Columbia, scored an overall grade of D or F, and 13 received a C. No state got an A or B.

Why so negative?

In presenting the report card in an event at the National Press Club, education historian and NPE co-founder Diane Ravitch explained NPE’s analysis tells a story “quite the opposite of what is in the mainstream media.”

NPE Executive Director and former New York school principal Carol Burris said NPE’s analysis started with an understanding of the research-based evidence of what works in education rather than blindly accepting the conventional wisdom.

“The current policy framework that pushes for more testing and privatization has failed,” Ravitch stated. “It’s insanity … Let’s try some common sense for a change.”

So Far In the Wrong Direction

In NPE’s view, that “common sense” means less reliance on ineffective measures such as high-stakes standardized testing, more restriction on privatization from charter schools and vouchers, increased funding of public schools and support the teaching profession, and wiser investments in proven programs.

Burris explained during Q&A, “You can’t close the achievement gap [another popular measure] until you do something about opportunity gaps.” As anecdotal evidence of this, she cited her own experiences as a school principal and recent news stories from schools in Flint, Michigan, Philadelphia, and other cities where student learning was impeded by basic health and safety measures that could have been addressed if there were more funding for school nurses and other staff.

The report card was particularly critical of the overuse of testing while states under-invest in more proven measures such as teacher salaries, small class sizes, and early childhood education. For the grading category of “Spends Taxpayer Resources Wisely,” NPE gave just one state, Montana, a B and no states As.

“We’ve gone so far in the wrong direction,” Burris lamented. “The overuse of testing is producing noise rather than good information.”

NPE is not alone in its calls for a big change in education policy.

Community Schools

Prominent public school advocate, the Schott Foundation for Public Education also sees the need for a new narrative for struggling schools.

A recent statement on its website calls for “surrounding our public schools with the supports capable of addressing a host of interconnected issues” both insie and outside of schools, including poverty, racial and economic inequity, punitive student discipline, and disengaged communities. [Disclosure: Schott is a current partner of the Education Opportunity Network.]

Schott’s idea is to “promote a community school model of public education. A community school is one that provides wraparound supports – like healthcare, mentoring, and job training – for all students. It’s a school that opens its doors to serve the community in which it resides and partners with local organizations to integrate a full spectrum of services. More than just an idea, it’s a model that we see working in towns and cities across the United States like Oakland, Cincinnati, and Hartford.”

Whole Child Accountability

Another prominent public education advocate, ASCD, recently published its new narrative for the nation’s schools in its “Legislative Agenda” for 2016. ASCD also urges policy makers to “align educational programs and create a coherent system to support and develop the whole learner, from early childhood to graduation.” [Disclosure: ASCD is a former client of the author’s.]

ASCD’s remedies for struggling schools are to create a foundation of systemic support – very similar to what Schott is calling for and what the NPE report card finds so lacking in most states. ASCD calls for a new vision of accountability that is based on multiple measures that take into account the whole child and goes beyond test scores “embrace a broader, more comprehensive definition of student success.”

These bold, new statements may sound good, but are there any schools actually acting on these ideas to rewrite the policy story for education?

It’s Happening In California

In California, a consortium of school districts calling themselves California’s CORE districts are in process of implementing a School Quality Improvement Index that takes into account more than just standardized tests and simplistic ranking or grading of schools. As a blog post in Education Week explains, this new Index is used to gather data beyond tests scores, identify strengths and weaknesses in school programs, and provide a report card that includes both academic and social-emotional domains.

The blogger, a university education professor, explains how the assessment system integrates measures of academic growth along with other important factors affecting learning, including absenteeism, suspension rates, social and emotional skills, school culture, and English language fluency.

With this more “fine-grained” information, educators, parents, and communities can take more targeted action to ensure students have sufficient opportunities to learn

Of course, policy ideas like those being put to use in California may be too deep into the weeds for the purpose of political campaigning. But the new narrative for public education – that a policy based on providing students with opportunities to learn rather than testing and punishing schools – is not hard to tell or difficult to sell.

True, this story is “outside the bipartisan consensus in Washington, DC,” as Ravitch admitted. Given the current state of affairs, that’s probably a really good thing.

 

1/28/2016 – The School Choice We Have Vs. The Choice We Want

THIS WEEK: Spending On Schools Falls Again … Defending Detroit Teachers Strike … Graduation Gap For Special Ed … What Arne Duncan Did Wrong … How Parent Debt Affects Kids

TOP STORY

The School Choice We Have Vs. The Choice We Want

By Jeff Bryant

“It’s that time of year when National School Choice Week is staged by – well, we really don’t know who – to elevate ‘education options,’ primarily, charter schools and vouchers, for K-12 students … But this year’s celebration of ‘choice’ plays out against a more compelling national news story in Detroit, where teachers have been staging a series of ‘sickouts’ to protest the deplorable conditions in their public schools … What we see in Detroit is increasing evidence of the ‘school choice’ American communities really have, especially in low-income communities of color. What kind of ‘choice’ is this?”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

Spending In Nation’s Schools Falls Again, With Wide Variation Across States

The Washington Post

“The nation’s per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools dropped in 2013 for the third year in a row … It shows that, in many places, funding for public education has not rebounded as the economy recovered from the Great Recession. 20 states saw per-pupil spending decline by 1% or more in the 2012-2013 school year, and some saw much larger decreases … State funding accounts for about 45% of schools’ revenue, and it declined two-tenths of a percent in 2013 … Federal spending on education dropped more dramatically – by nearly 10% … Local governments ponied up nearly 1% more … But in most states, local governments depend on property taxes to raise money for education, which means that poor communities have less wherewithal than affluent ones to fill budget holes.”
Read more …

Sick of Inequality: The Case For The Detroit Teacher Strike

The Progressive

New York City school teacher Jose Luis Vilson writes, “National attention is focused on inhumane conditions in two Michigan cities: Flint’s lead-filled drinking water and Detroit’s rotten public schools. The former has garnered the attention … The crisis in Detroit’s public schools has a long history but has not gotten the attention it deserves. For years, teachers have been complaining about miserable learning conditions for students … Part of the lack of media attention to DPS may have to do with the narratives about Detroit public schools told by current education ‘reformers.’ Charter schools and free market choice advocates have capitalized on the discord and lack of resources in public schools to recruit students … To whom is it not obvious that schooling is as much a public good as safe drinking water?”
Read more …

Special Education Graduation Disparities Highlighted In New Report

Education Week

“Many states are still doing a dismal job in getting students with disabilities across the high school finish line on time with a standard diploma. Fewer than half of the students with disabilities in Alaska, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, Mississippi, and South Carolina graduated with a regular diploma … 33 states graduated fewer than 70% of their students with disabilities.”
Read more …

New Education Secretary To Teachers: Our Bad

US News And World Report

“Acting Education Secretary John King offered teachers an olive branch … acknowledging his department’s role in creating a politicized education environment … King … addressed the Education Department’s laser-like focus on getting states to adopt new teacher evaluations that take into account student test scores … The Obama administration’s hallmark competitive grant program, Race to the Top, and its offer of waivers from the then-federal education law, No Child Left Behind, both pushed states to adopt new evaluation systems … Despite his previous comments about not always being inclusive of teachers, King reiterated the Obama administration’s continued belief that students’ test scores should be part of an evaluation system.”
Read more …

Parents’ Financial Debt Linked To Behavioral Problems In Their Kids

Live Science

“Children whose parents have certain kinds of financial debt may be more likely to have behavioral problems, a new study suggests … Children in the study whose parents had ‘unsecured debt,’ such as credit card debt or unpaid medical bills, were more likely to experience behavioral difficulties than kids whose parents did not have this type of debt … This type of debt may trigger stress and anxiety in parents, which may affect their parenting and, in turn, their kids’ emotional well-being … The researchers found that, among the parents who had unsecured debt, the average amount of the debt was $10,000.”
Read more …

The School Choice We Have Vs. The Choice We Want

It’s that time of year when National School Choice Week is staged by – well, we really don’t know who – to elevate “education options,” primarily, charter schools and vouchers, for K-12 students.

 

This year’s NSCW apparently includes a record number of events around the country. A stirring video put out by the organizers kicked off the week with an invitation to engage in “the largest series of educational events in American history.” Images of the American flag intermingle with the official bright yellow scarf the celebrants don. There’s even an official song and dance.

But this year’s celebration of “choice” plays out against a more compelling national news story in Detroit, where teachers have been staging a series of “sickouts” to protest the deplorable conditions in their public schools. Most recently, students joined in the protests, walking out of class and defying warnings from administrators that they could face suspensions for exercising their free speech.

“We deserve books, we deserve money, we deserve better education,” said one of the students.

So what we see in Detroit is increasing evidence of the “school choice” American communities really have, especially in low-income communities of color. What kind of “choice” is this?

What Does Choice Mean?

So who is behind National School Choice Week and what do they want?

The week is backed by numerous right-wing organizations “that support a range of efforts to divert funding from public schools,” according to People for the American Way.

Among those supporters, PFAW finds numerous politically conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that crafts extremist legislation for state and local lawmakers; groups that are part of the Koch bothers network, such as Americans for Prosperity; and private foundations, such as the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame) that spend millions on expanding charter schools. “According to PFAW, a spokesperson for NSCW said, “The group’s operational budget is covered by ‘private philanthropic foundations’ but did not provide any details.”

Drilling down into the rhetoric of these events, the range of “choices” being promoted is pretty narrow – mostly charter schools and vouchers or variations of vouchers. A quick perusal of the more than 1,600 events scheduled on the NSCW website found the sites are mostly at charter schools and private schools. And the rhetoric you hear overwhelmingly emphasizes these education providers.

At a school choice event in Indiana, Governor Mike Pence hailed “the dramatic growth of charter schools and vouchers” according to a local media outlet. In North Carolina, proponents of school choice added homeschooling to the mix of charters and vouchers they were advancing.

On his website, Republican Wisconsin US Senator Ron Johnson’s “official comment on National School Choice Week” touts “the increasingly high demand nationwide for charter schools and private school choice programs” as evidence of growing popularity for choice. In a video, Texas US Senator and Republican Party presidential candidate Ted Cruz proclaimed school choice “the civil rights issue of our time” and called for instant relief of the “more than one million children” on charter school waiting lists.

Rob Schofield, for a North Carolina left-leaning advocacy NC Policy Watch, calls the whole affair “wildly, even laughably, deceptive,” as those intent on privatizing public education apply a gloss of choice and freedom to the “growing diversion of taxpayer dollars to charter schools and school vouchers.”

The PFAW folks point to a piece written by its president Michael Keegan at the Huffington Post that asks “what does school choice mean?” For those participating in National School Choice Week, Keegan writes, the intent of advancing “choice” is no doubt to proliferate alternatives to public schools rather than to build up the available choices within the public system.

That’s certainly what’s been happening in Detroit.

Choice For Who?

While the gruesome details of physical conditions of Detroit schools were being displayed across the Internet, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder kicked off Michigan School Choice Week, according to a local media source, to brag about the states’ efforts to expand charter schools.

Rapid expansions of charter schools in the Great Lakes State has Snyder’s signature all over it. According to a charter industry source, Michigan has the fifth most charter school students in the country at 159,000. Most of these schools are for-profit.

In 2014, the Detroit Free Press conducted an exhaustive investigation of the state’s charter schools and found Michigan charters don’t perform much better than the public schools in their districts while in the meantime more than $1 billion steered away from public schools and toward charters was spent with very little accountability, transparency, or oversight. The newspaper’s editorial staff recommended the state make serious changes to how charter schools are regulated.

One year later, “there isn’t much to report in the way of progress,” according to the paper’s editorial page editor Stephen Henderson.

According to another Free Press editorial, the state’s grant request of to the US Department of Education for $45 million to expand more charter schools was rejected “largely because the state lacks oversight of the authorizers who approve and oversee” charters, because of the “academic performance of charters,” and because the state’s inadequate plan to “improve achievement among disadvantaged students in charters.”

At the same time, support for public schools has been left on a back burner. Overall spending on education during the Snyder administration has not kept up with inflation, according to this analysis, and the level of Michigan’s spending on public schools is still less today than what it was in 2008.

Detroit has been particularly hard hit.

Under Snyder’s watch – Detroit schools are managed by the state – the city’s schools took deep cuts in 2012. And now the legacy of this underfunding is showing up in the daily conditions of the city’s schools.

In the meantime, Michigan’s charters “have siphoned just enough children and money from public schools to leave districts like Detroit looking like half-deflated balloons,” according to Henderson.

The Choice Offered To Detroit

What does a half-deflated balloon look like close up?

At her blogsite at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss allowed a teacher from Detroit to explain:

I have taught in horrible conditions. Classrooms have old, drafty windows that are poorly insulated. In some rooms, we have to wear winter coats in class until lunchtime. In other rooms, it can be ridiculously hot. Both temperature conditions are extremely distracting to the educational process. It’s hard for kids to concentrate when their hands are freezing or they’re sweating profusely. When it rains, water leaks into the classrooms from the roof. We have had to place buckets under the leaks and pray for dry weather. Unfixed structural damage causes water-soaked tiles to frequently fall from the ceiling of classrooms. The carpet has an ever-present moldy smell.

When city inspectors, prompted by the teachers’ complaints, looked at the conditions in 11 Detroit schools, they found “widespread code violations, including multiple instances of rodents, mold, damaged roofs and broken glass,” according local news reports.

Michigan lawmakers responded to Detroit teachers, not by drafting new legislation to rescue the public schools, but by determining how to stop the teachers from calling in sick to their dilapidated schools. The district administration, which operates as an extension of the state, filed an injunction against the teachers, which a judge promptly threw out. Then the state-appointed Emergency Manager who oversees Detroit Public Schools enacted a number of new ordinances to stifle the teachers’ voices, including one that requires teachers to report to the administration the names of any teachers who may be discussing a potential sickout or other protest.

Most recently, local news reported a judge had to stop Detroit’s state-appointed school administration from drastically cutting back on the oversight of school boilers. Citing the recent debacle in Flint, Michigan where cost-cutting on the municipal water supply led to widespread poisoning of the populace, the judge wrote, “Let us not have the next headline to go national be: ‘Detroit Schoolchildren Injured and Killed in Unattended Boiler Explosion.’ ”

So if you are a parent in Detroit, the school choice you have is not one of your design but one that has been engineered by a system that encourages you to flee the increasingly unhealthy, unsafe, and dysfunctional public schools and get your kid in a charter school.

Is This Really Choice?

Of course, the organizers of National School Choice Week send kind regards to “traditional public schools” too. But instead of accepting what school choice proponents say, look at what they do. What have governors Snyder and Pence and senators Johnson and Cruz done to ensure high-quality neighborhood schools that are accessible to all students?

For that matter, what are government officials and policy makers across the board doing for public schools? As they happily expand the population of charters and the number of voucher programs that siphon money away from public education, they continue to cut financial support. The latest report shows per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools nationwide has dropped for the third year in a row.

If you don’t see this shift in education policy at work in your town, you will soon.

You don’t have to live in a city like Detroit – or like Flint, Ferguson, New Orleans, or Baltimore – to see the shared calamity befalling communities across the country one by one. Even a Nashville parent writing on his personal blog sees this policy at work in his own children’s schools too. These places are not “outliers.”

The reality is that what most people really want, the guarantee of a high quality public school accessible to all students, is a rapidly diminishing opportunity in this country. Any staged political event trying to sell you a product called “school choice” is just an empty song and dance.

1/21/2016 – A Ruling In Favor Of Friedrichs Will Hurt Education

THIS WEEK: Childhood Trauma Hurts … Ethnic Studies Increase Overall Achievement … Why School Suspensions Decline … No To School Metal Detectors … Surge In College Debt Forgiveness

TOP STORY

A Ruling In Favor Of Friedrichs Will Hurt Education

By Jeff Bryant

“Earlier this month, news about a US Supreme Court case Friedrichs v California Teachers Association raised concerns for progressives everywhere – and for good reason … Should the court decide to uphold the plaintiffs in the case, and not the teachers union … please understand the judges’ decision won’t just hurt teachers’ paychecks and their rights to organize and speak out. It will hurt our children’s education.”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

Kindergartners With Traumatic Life Experiences Struggle More in School

HealthDay

“Childhood traumas of various sorts can cause kindergartners to struggle in class as well as life … Those with difficult experiences up until age 5 had math and reading difficulties and difficulty focusing in kindergarten, and were also more likely to have social problems and to be aggressive toward others. The experiences included neglect or physical, sexual or psychological abuse. They also included living in a household with domestic abuse or with a household member who was in jail or prison, had a mental illness or had an addiction or substance abuse problem … Caregivers of just over 1,000 children found that slightly more than half of the kids had faced at least one out of nine adverse experiences; 12% had experienced three of them.”
Read more …

Study Suggests Academic Benefits To Ethnic Studies Courses

Phyz.org

“A high school ethnic studies course examining the roles of race, nationality and culture on identity and experience boosted attendance and academic performance of students at risk of dropping out … Students not only made gains in attendance and grades, they also increased the number of course credits they earned to graduate … The findings come as educators and policymakers in Arizona, California, Oregon, and other states debate adding or taking away such curriculum … Ethnic studies proponents contend the courses can help address academic disparities … Opponents have argued they are anti-American.”
Read more …

Suspensions And Expulsions Decline As Districts Adopt Alternatives, State Says

EdSource

“The number of students expelled and suspended from California schools continued to decline in 2014-15 as more school districts focused on resolving behavior issues without taking students out of class … Advocates praised the decline in punitive discipline and called for continued training and support for school employees … In addition … The state’s education finance system introduced in July 2013, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, has been ‘a game changer’ for school discipline practices … The funding accountability plan requires school districts to track measures of school climate, including rates of suspensions and expulsions and results from student, parent and staff surveys about the welcoming environment on campus.”
Read more …

Do Metal Detectors in Schools Do More Harm Than Good?

The Atlantic

“Almost as many New York City students run the gauntlet of X-ray machines each day as pass through the scanners at busy Miami International Airport. And the procedure is numbingly similar … The daily ritual is borne disproportionately by students of color … The metal detectors were first installed in the early 1990s when crime rates were much higher and have stayed in place even as crime in the public schools has fallen 48% over the past 10 year … In the approximately 3 million scans conducted in the first two months of this school year, only a tiny number of contraband items were discovered … Some school officials believe the daily security checks actually lead to behavior problems among the students … The metal detectors send a message to the students that ‘we don’t trust you. And even if we trusted you, we don’t necessarily trust the guy behind you.’”
Read more …

Thousands Apply To U.S. To Forgive Their Student Loans, Saying Schools Defrauded Them

The Wall Street Journal

“Americans are flooding the government with appeals to have their student loans forgiven on the grounds that schools deceived them with false promises of a well-paying career … In the past six months, more than 7,500 borrowers owing $164 million have applied to have their student debt expunged under an obscure federal law … The law forgives debt for borrowers who prove their schools used illegal tactics to recruit them, such as by lying about their graduates’ earnings … The program could prove to be one of the few lifelines for hundreds of thousands of Americans buried in student debt … The surge in applications reflects the growing savvy of student activists, who discovered the law last year after it had largely sat dormant for two decades.”
Read more …

A Ruling In Favor Of Friedrichs Will Hurt Education

Earlier this month, news about a US Supreme Court case Friedrichs v California Teachers Association raised concerns for progressives everywhere – and for good reason. As my colleague Dave Johnson writes, the case is about “making every state a ‘right-to-work’ state, and suppressing unions and wages.” So this case is another example of right wing conservatism siding with concentrated wealth and power to undercut the abilities of working people to organize and demand better wages and work conditions.

Others warn Friedrichs is another attempt to limit the collective voice of workers at a time when corporations continue to enjoy virtually limitless voice in the public sphere.

And numerous critics of Friedrichs point out the case’s legal underpinning has been orchestrated and funded primarily by the same right wing network – the Koch Brothers, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and others – that has been pressing a radical agenda for the country for at least the last 30-40 years.

But because Friedrichs started with a disagreement among teachers – the plaintiff is a teacher who feels she is unfairly having her income extracted from her paycheck by the union – some people who might normally support progressive causes have so far been less than vehement in voicing their concerns.

You often hear even left-leaning folks question the idea of teachers having a union. Since teachers are professionals, the argument goes, why do they need a union? Aren’t unions just for “workers” who punch a clock and are paid “wages”? Other sorts of professionals, such as doctors, they don’t have unions.

Actually, teachers need unions because of their profession. Let’s look at why that’s so.

Teachers Aren’t Doctors

First, comparing teachers to other professionals is inappropriate and not useful given the nature of teachers’ work. Take doctors, since so many people tend to draw that analogy most often.

As classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene explains, “Education is not medicine.” Students are not people who have a sickness, injury, or other malady that has to be “cured.”

Also, while doctors’ work can often be compartmentalized in a number of discreet steps, – to sew up a wound, fix a broken bone, or prescribe an antibiotic to defend against bacteria – teachers’ jobs invariably involve multiple factors outside the teacher’s control. It’s really way hard, and takes many years, to teach a kid how to read.

And what teachers do is much more subject to the judgment of others, including students, their parents, even the whole community. The consternation that so frequently occurs when a teacher assigns a particularly controversial book or teaches a scientific theory that is not universally accepted is generally unheard of in the day-to-day work of the physician.

Why Teachers Need Unions

There are very good reasons why teachers formed unions. As Dana Goldstein explains, historically, teaching was a job for itinerant males who wanted a temporary way to earn money before they went on to higher paying white-color careers. Two hundred years ago, the vast majority of teachers in America were male.

When our nation determined schools should serve more than just the wealthy and privileged students who generally attended them – historically, we’ve reached near-universal access until relatively only recently – we needed to have a more ample and permanent workforce. But government and policy leaders heeding the call for universal access also determined the teaching workforce needed to be less costly. So that meant hiring more women.

As Goldstein recounts, “Most female teachers earned just half the salary of a male teacher, and their jobs were getting harder and harder each day. In turn of the century Chicago, classrooms housed 60 students, many of them new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who couldn’t speak English. Yet teacher pay had been frozen for 30 years.”

Back then, women couldn’t vote either, so organizing into a union became virtually the only way to have enough power to help create a teaching workforce with the capacity to uphold the promise of universal access to schools.

Of course, the work of teachers and the rights of women have changed a lot over the years. But that doesn’t make teachers unions an anachronism. Women in general, and teachers in particular, are still chronically underpaid and subject to exploitation by male-dominated management.

And although there’s constant rhetoric about paying teachers more and granting them more autonomy, those sentiments are always undermined by efforts to target better pay and work status only to those deemed to have “merit” – a legendary status we’ve yet to be able to validly and reliably identify and connect to better outcomes for students.

The fact is, if we want a relatively stable teaching force – and research shows high teacher turnover hurts all students – we have to pay them well and provide them positive work conditions. But while the general public tends to believe that universal access to public schools is important, they often are reluctant to part with the money to fund the education of students other than their own or their immediate neighbors. So given those circumstance, teachers unions will continue to be a necessary aspect of the education enterprise.

Teacher Voice Matters To All Of Us

Finally, the organizing capability unions provide is essential to the whole function of schooling. Public education is the most collaborative endeavor the nation undertakes, by far. But teachers, who are often so critical to the education effort, are often left out of the collaboration. There is a reason for this.

Many of the maladies that plague our society – the ravages of poverty and racial discrimination on children, parental abuse or neglect, the prevalence of malnutrition and poor health care among children – present themselves in public for the first time in a school classroom under the purview of a teacher. Teachers simply see things that are not only invisible to the general public, but also are inconvenient for the public to accept.

A teacher here or there speaking these inconvenient truths to the public can be easily ignored. Teachers speaking out en masse with the collective voice of a union behind them are harder to ignore.

Teachers, with their unions, have been the driving force lifting the curtain that hides chronic societal problems in Chicago, Seattle, and other communities.

So a month or so from now, when you hear about the court has decided to uphold the plaintiffs in the Friedrichs case, and not the teachers union, as many expect will happen, please understand the judges’ decision won’t just hurt teachers’ paychecks and their rights to organize and speak out. It will hurt our children’s education.

 

 

1/14/2016 – How Much De We Hate Our Children?

THIS WEEK: Fixing Urban Schools … Computers Widen Achievement Gap … Closing Schools Hurts Students … College Degree Gap Grows … Why We Need Unions

TOP STORY

How Much De We Hate Our Children?

By Jeff Bryant

“Conversations with Americans still elicit lots of sentiment for the well-being of kids. But it’s increasingly harder to see that sentiment reflected in policy … Big numbers don’t tell the whole story … Anecdotal evidence of our, not just neglect, but abject militancy toward the needs of children is even more disturbing. But there are recent examples of adults taking actions to change policies and practices to address the needs of children, and those examples are growing and spreading.”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

How To Fix the Country’s Failing Schools. And How Not To.

The New York Times

Public policy professor David Kirp writes, “A quarter-century ago, Newark and nearby Union City epitomized the failure of American urban school systems … Today Union City, which opted for homegrown gradualism, is regarded as a poster child for good urban education. Newark, despite huge infusions of money and outside talent, has struggled … Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders. Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structure.”
Read more …

Using Computers Widens The Achievement Gap In Writing, A Federal Study Finds

The Hechinger Report

“Last year, more than half of U.S. states gave computer-based writing tests to children as young as third-graders … The majority used a computer … High-performing students did substantially better on the computer than with pencil and paper. But the opposite was true for average and low-performing students. They crafted better sentences using pencil and paper than they did using the computer. Low-income and black and Hispanic students tended to be in this latter category … [Children] do better writing by hand if they’re less experienced [with computers]. And if they’re more experienced, then there may actually be an advantage toward writing on the computer.”
Read more …

Students Attending Closing Schools Graduated With Less Rigorous Diplomas

Education Week

“What happens to the students who are still attending low-performing high schools while those schools are being phased out? A new look at such students … found that those students … were less likely to graduate college-ready when compared to peers at demographically similar low-performing schools that had not been targeted for closure. In addition, students … were less likely to graduate on time when compared to students at low-performing schools that were not scheduled to close … School closures and their impacts on students are fraught with controversy as schools officials and policymakers continue to wrestle with the best ways to turn around low-performing schools.”
Read more …

College Degree Gap Grows Wider Between Whites, Blacks And Latinos

The Hechinger Report

“The racial gap in who’s graduating from college has widened since 2007 … Companies that have benefited from the loan program range from debt servicer While more blacks and Latinos are graduating from college now, the percentage of whites graduating has grown even faster … At the same time, states have cut the funding they provide to public colleges, per student, by 21% since the economic collapse in 2008, and have raised tuition by 28%. As public colleges become more costly, it’s harder for low-income students to finish a degree. In many states, those students are disproportionately black and Latino … The widely accepted prediction is that 65% of jobs by 2020 will require education beyond high school. So state economies and the wellbeing of states’ residents could suffer if these trends continue.”
Read more …

Strong Unions, Strong Democracy

The New York Times

Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation writes, “In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association … the ruling bloc of conservative justices appears ready to render a decision later this year that would significantly weaken public sector labor unions. By stripping these unions of key financial resources – their fair share of fees provided by nonmembers – the court would upend a longstanding precedent. A decision in favor of the plaintiff would effectively slam the door on an era in which some conservatives joined liberals in recognizing that vibrant unions help make our democracy work. This is radicalism, not conservatism … Because today’s conservatives are typically hostile to unions, it’s easy to forget that they were not always opposed to unionism or fair share fees … Teachers unions are strong champions of American public schooling, which undergirds our democracy … Unions aren’t faultless, but they are a crucial source of stability and strength for our democracy.”
Read more …

How Much Do We Hate Our Children?

When President Barack Obama recently made an impassioned plea to do something about the proliferation of gun violence in America, he drew upon the images of elementary school children gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut to engage our emotions.

“First graders,” he exclaimed, with tears coursing down his cheeks.

His reference to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting seemed like a strong rhetorical tug that should spur citizens and lawmakers alike to take action to reduce gun deaths, especially deaths of children.

But do Americans really care all that much about children – other than their own?

Certainly, conversations with individual Americans still elicit lots of sentiment for the well-being of kids. But it’s increasingly harder to see that sentiment reflected in policy.

As the Southern Education Foundation revealed in a study a year ago, a majority of children attending the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families. And there are more homeless students in American schools than ever before. These developments have huge implications. The impact of poverty on the future well being of children is quite well known. Students who come to school hungry have more difficulties focusing on schoolwork. Students who grow up without books in the home or without computers or Internet access at home have a severe disadvantage in today’s schools. Students who don’t have stable home lives or who need clothing or lack medical care are more apt to have behavioral problems.

Yet what has been the policy response to this? Federal, state, and local support for education and health and nutrition services to children have been steadily declining over the years. Our nation responded to news about the increase of poor children by cutting spending on child welfare for the first time in 20 years. In 2014, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell looked at a report from Urban Institute and found “a smaller and smaller share of government budgets is expected to go to children over the coming decade.”

Conservatives like to say it’s not government’s job to address these issues, but it’s pretty apparent not anyone else has taken up the cause.

The most recent annual assessment of child well-being compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that since 1990 government supplements to children living in poverty have helped lessen somewhat the impact of rising poverty rates for children. But more recent trends show the economic well-being of children worsening in just about every way measurable.

In looking over data from the most recent report on the state of America’s children, from the Children’s Defense Fund, another Post writer Valerie Strauss quotes, “Children are the poorest age group and the younger they are the poorer they are.”

So the situation is getting worse, even as the economy has slowly recovered from the Great Recession.

Currently, there are few signs of any political discussion of the calamity befalling the nation’s children. Even though fears of growing economic insecurity dominate the current presidential election primaries, the candidates hardly ever address the effects of that insecurity on children. And education, so critical to every child regardless of income, is being mostly ignored, except for the issue of college debt, something that occurs when children become adults.

Big numbers don’t tell the whole story of course. Anecdotal evidence of our, not just neglect, but abject militancy toward the needs of children is even more disturbing. But there are recent examples of adults taking actions to change policies and practices to address the needs of children, and those examples are growing and spreading.

Worst Of The Worst?

To see what may be the worst of the worst of how we are treating children, go to the state of Michigan.

According to the Casey foundation’s rankings, Michigan is not the worst state in terms of child well-being. That honor belongs to Mississippi. But it’s not great: number 32. And there are signs it may be rapidly going down hill.

The Great Lakes State, like so many others, has been dominated by conservative governance that’s taken a meat axe to government spending. Perhaps the most egregious example of government stinginess is found in the city of Flint, where efforts to “peel away money in the budget” led to the poisoning of the city’s water system, according to an account from content sharing site Upworthy.

A local mom was the first to sound the alarm, in November 2014, when her child became ill, and the attending pediatrician found alarming levels of lead in the child’s blood. The lead was traced to the city’s water supply. But in addressing the situation, government authorities dragged their feet for nearly a year until the evidence became overwhelming in a report documenting heightened lead levels in the blood of over 1,700 children. Now the state’s governor, Rick Snyder, has called out the National Guard to distribute safe drinking water, but great damage has been done.

Heightened lead levels aren’t good for adults, but they are especially damaging to children. As the Upworthy report explains, “Lead poisoning has disastrous long-term effects. Learning disabilities and other cognitive impairments are almost certain among a significant portion of the children poisoned, as lead poisoning affects brain volume, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and impulse control.”

But it’s important to note the poisoning of children in Flint is not an isolated example of bureaucratic bungling. It’s a logical consequence of a specific ideology. Circle of Blue, a nonprofit that monitors freshwater supplies around the world, explains “Flint’s crisis is the third time during the administration of Republican Governor Rick Snyder that decisions about water supply and water quality at the most senior levels of state government have put state residents in harm’s way.”

In each of those decisions, state officials, including the governor, put cost-savings above the well-being of citizens, especially children. Flint, the report contends, “had no water problem until the state governor, driven by ideological principles of reducing taxes and administrative costs, appointed an emergency manager who decided to save $5 million.”

Before you dismiss Flint’s water crisis as an outlier, consider also what is happening in the state’s public schools.

Making A Stand In Motor City

As a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds, Michigan is one among the majority of states in the country that has continued to cut education spending since the recession, despite growing populations of students and changing student demographics that make the job of educating children much more costly.

Often, the effects of these cuts are overlooked because of the decline in percentage of households with children of school age. But the effects are readily apparent to the adults who work in those schools, and public school teachers have become the canaries in the coalmine of social emotional conditions for the nation’s children.

In Detroit, school conditions have gotten so bad, teachers have staged sickouts that prompted the closing of over 60 schools. As the New York Times reports, the teachers are protesting, “unsafe, crumbling, vermin-infested, and inadequately staffed buildings.”

The sickouts got the mayor’s attention, and when he finally visited a school, “He saw a dead mouse, children wearing coats in cold classrooms, and a gym floor too warped for play,” according to the Associated Press.

“There’s no question about the legitimacy of the issues [the teachers are] raising,” he said.

Conservative Michigan lawmakers, true to form, have responded to the sickouts by devising ways to shut them down. One of the most vocal critics of the teachers, as education historian Diane Ravitch notes on her personal blog, is the very same person who made the decision to shut off safe drinking water in Flint.

Nevertheless, Detroit teachers are taking on the burden of speaking for the welfare of their students despite the wrath of lawmakers. They are doing so because they feel they have to. In an open letter to Detroit parents from one of the protesting teachers Sarah Jardine, she writes, “I apologize because I should have stood up. I kept quiet as they dismantled our schools … What makes me fighting mad is that your child, who I call ‘one of my kids’, is learning in an environment that is in total chaos.”

Standing Up For Students

If there’s a bright spot in all of this it is that teachers in many schools are taking action to alleviate the impact of our societal assault on school children, especially those who are low-income or marginalized because of their race or ethnicity.

There’s evidence more teachers are standing up in the face of declining school conditions and the effects increased economic insecurity is having on their students. Writing on his Facebook page, economist and former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says, “Teacher’s unions are justifiably demanding resources for schools and school systems that have been abandoned by politicians and by elites who send their kids to private schools and either don’t know what’s happening or don’t give a damn.”

In Chicago, teachers are prepared to strike this year unless the current administration of Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, and the state legislature take steps to alleviate worsening conditions in their schools, especially those schools that serve black and Latino students. As Sarah Jaffee reports for TruthOut, a principal demand for the striking teachers is for “wraparound services,” that include health and counseling support for students who are most affected by high-poverty and crime that afflict so many neighborhoods. The teachers’ fight also connects to the current protests over police violence against black youth and communities of color in the city.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, teachers are also considering striking for their students. In this case, their demands are for more support services to help them deal with student behavior problems that can often be traced to stress from difficult home life and poverty. “Teachers have been asking for more counselors, social workers, nurses and support staff,” according to a report from Sarah Lahm for In These Times, “and they want more time to work directly with students. If the St. Paul Public Schools will not agree to support this platform, as a behavior prevention approach, then the St. Paul Federation of Teachers will soon be ready to hit the picket line.”

These actions reflect the demands that striking teachers in Seattle were recently able to win in their successful action. As Jesse Hagopian explains for The Progressive, the interests of children drove the politics and helped the teachers win important concessions, including mandatory recess periods, 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.

Importantly, labor strikes aren’t the only actions teachers are taking to address the effects that rising economic insecurity is having on students. More school districts are responding to the voices of teachers and establishing community schools that include many of the “wraparound services” teachers have been advocating for in their labor actions. And in the schools themselves, many more students are now benefiting from restorative justice programs that address discipline issues through discussion, negotiation, and counseling rather than out-of-school suspensions.

But teachers can’t be the only ones speaking out for children, and they shouldn’t have to be. Who else will join them?