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Teachers Join Progressives As Partners “In A Revolution”

Conservatives may believe they accomplished what they’ve endeavored to do for decades with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v AFSCME, which undermined the ability of public-sector unions to raise funds from workers, but they may have also unintentionally unified progressive Democrats with teachers’ unions as never before to form a more powerful grassroots movement.

That unification is certainly the image conveyed by the annual conventions of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that both took place in July. Union leaders at both events made strong speeches denouncing President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, vowing to thrive despite Janus, and pledging to harness the energy of the #RedForEd movement that sent teachers out into the streets to protest in state after state across the nation this spring.

The unions also hailed the unprecedented number of teachers running for elected office this November, including a former national teacher of the year.

Partners in a Revolution

At the AFT meeting, the two former rivals for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – joined union President Randi Weingarten on stage – although not together. All three hailed teachers as partners in a “revolution.”

Clinton, in her speech, placed the union firmly in an “unprecedented outpouring of grassroots activism” for the broad progressive agenda for affordable healthcare, immigrant and refugee students, LGBT rights, and gun safety measures. With a reference to the “wrongly decided” Janus decision, Clinton declared, “Teachers’ unions aren’t going anywhere.”

In his address to the AFT, Sanders placed teachers in the “political revolution” that served as the theme of his political campaign. He called the Janus decision “disastrous” but said it may have “unintended consequences” and become “a big surprise … that helps us rebuild the trade union movement in America.”

Backlash to Janus

Indeed, political and labor journalists have reported that an anti-union decision for Janus could throw employment policies into chaos by opening a Pandora’s box of countersuits from labor groups and a ratcheting up of labor militancy.

Already, there are signs of a powerful union counteroffensive to the Janus decision.

In New York, teachers are going door to door to encourage “fee-payers,” those teachers and school staff who had declined to join the union but were still obligated to pay union fees pre-Janus, to pledge to “recommit” to the union. The campaign thus far has resulted in the American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliates obtaining recommitment pledges from some 500,000 members in 18 states over the past five months, according to the New York Times.

In California, “unions have been preparing for Janus for several years,” reports Capital & Main. Prior to the court’s decision, teachers’ union members voted in favor of raising dues, and the unions conducted outreach to fee-payers to cut their numbers in half.

Public sector unions are engaged in a “Conversations and Cards” campaign to get fee-payers to sign recommitments, an effort modeled after a successful campaign by the United Domestic Workers of America health care workers.

Organized labor’s response to Janus “might represent a paradigm shift that could transform public-sector organizing,” says the C&M reporter. “California has already erupted in a virtual fever of union organizing and membership-building unseen since the public-sector labor movement’s formative heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s.”

“We’ve already had close to 100 percent of our members recommit,” says the president of the Boston teachers’ union. The Illinois state teachers’ union claims to have recommitment cards from 90 percent of its members, the Minnesota teachers union claims to have gotten its number of fee-payers down to only 5 percent of members, and the Pennsylvania teachers union reports its number of recommitments is 30 percent so far.

In legislative action, labor organizing has helped push through new measures in state legislatures to protect unions, including bills in California that improve union access and communications to employees, a Maryland bill requiring new teachers to meet with a union representative, a New Jersey bill that gives unions a broad range of new protections, and in New York a new bill expressly written to counter the Janus ruling and an executive order from the governor to protect public unions from union opt-out campaigns.

‘A Crisis for America’

Conservatives of course are not resting on their laurels after Janus.

As The New York Times reports, The Mackinac Center – a Michigan-based rightwing advocacy group funded by an array of conservative foundations, including those linked to the Koch Brothers and the DeVos and Bradley families – “is planning to spend $10 million this year and $40 million to $50 million over the next two or three years on a ‘national awareness campaign’” to convince current union fee-payers and members to opt out of their unions

The organization’s “My Pay, My Say” campaign funds a national call center, with round-the-clock 20 paid staff, canvasses, and literature campaigns across the country.

Mackinac’s pressure campaign is linked to an even broader effort by the State Policy Network – another rightwing creation of state-based advocacy groups funded by the same web of extremist billionaires – “to persuade public-sector trade union members to tear up their membership cards and stop paying dues,” The Guardian reports.

“The secret push, the group hopes, could cost unions up to a fifth of their 7 million members, lead to the loss of millions of dollars in income and undermine a cornerstone of US progressive politics,” says the reporter.

The unions’ strong counteroffensive to the post- Janus campaigns by conservatives may have been expected, but the full-throated support from Democrats that teachers’ unions are getting was never a sure thing and may be yet another consequence of Janus that conservatives may not have not considered.

Indeed, conservatives may have convinced Democrats that teachers are front-and-center in the fight for the party to regain its representation in government.

In her address to the AFT, Clinton told teachers, “Every American has a stake in what you do … whether they realize it or not.” She implored teachers to reach out to others in the progressive movement and convince them that unions aren’t just about helping workers but uplifting communities.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who also spoke at the AFT event, declared, “This is a time of crisis, and a crisis for America’s teachers is a crisis for America.” In her powerful rallying cry, she implored teachers to join other progressives in “raising our voices for democracy” and “organize like we’ve never organized before.”

(Photo credit: American Federation of Teachers, Facebook.)

Kavanaugh Would Advance Betsy DeVos’s Religious Agenda For Schools

Immediately after Betsy DeVos took over as US Secretary of Education, numerous education policy experts expressed doubts she’d have much success in enacting her well-documented agenda to impose her brand of Christian religion on public schools and direct more public money to private religious schools. President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, however, is yet another indicator that DeVos’s detractors were wrong, as he would surely support a legal pathway to what DeVos wants.

“In private practice, Kavanaugh backed the government when it sought to support religious interests and challenged schools when they attempted to exclude religious groups,” the Washington Post reports, citing his defense of student-led prayers at high school football games and a religious school club from being barred by school administrators.

In tracing a potential legal pathway from taxpayer money for school prayer and religious clubs to “more sweeping voucher programs,” the Post reporter points to a narrow ruling from the court last year, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, that said denying a church-affiliated preschool from receiving a general public benefit, in this case funding for playground resurfacing, violates constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion.

But Kavanaugh’s support of the DeVos agenda for school vouchers and religious education goes way beyond that narrow ruling, and it relies on a bizarre, but long-held view of conservative jurists.

Kavanaugh’s Ties to Voucher Proponents

As the son of a public-school teacher and a volunteer tutor of students in Washington, DC, the Kavanaugh narrative may come across as friendly to public schools, but Kavanaugh was raised in elite private schools and has nothing in his record that would indicate a strong support for public education.

His history of legally undermining the separation of church and state is a fact not in dispute. In his work with the Federalist Society – the rightwing project that has largely engineered today’s high court and compiled the list of potential nominees for Trump – Kavanaugh has led its “School Choice Practice Group” and “Religious Liberties Group.” These groups help the Federalist Society craft its legal arguments on the unconstitutionality of excluding religious options from school choice programs.

Among the primary targets for these groups is to repeal amendments in 39 state constitutions that prohibit direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation. This argument already has the Supreme Court’s partial consent, given its ruling last year that ordered a New Mexico Supreme Court to reconsider a decision barring religious schools from a state textbook lending program.

Kavanaugh also has a history of supporting school vouchers that allow parents to use public taxdollars to pay tuition for private, religious schools. In 2000, he represented then Florida Governor Jeb Bush to push through the state’s first school voucher program, which was eventually struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in a 2006 decision.

But just as Kavanaugh and his conservative colleagues were being stymied in state courts, they were blazing a legal pathway for federal support of school vouchers.

Religious Is ‘Secular’

In an appearance on CNN in 2000, Politico reports, Kavanaugh “predicted … that school vouchers would one day be upheld by the Court.”

His comment was in reference to a Supreme Court ruling that year, Mitchell v. Helms, which challenged a federal program that provided all schools, both public and private, with instructional materials and equipment, including computers and film projectors. The split decision to uphold the program was extremely narrow, with some judges tipping the scale in favor deciding that the federal government can provide secular aid to any institution as long as the aid was used strictly for secular activities – presumably, using computers, even when they are helping to operate a religious program, and running film projectors, even when they are showing religious movies.

Defining education-related activities as essentially “secular” provided conservative jurists a huge loophole to use in later rulings to advance religion in public education.

Another narrow decision by the Court in 2002, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, upheld an Ohio program that gave school vouchers to low-income families even if they used the vouchers to send their children to private, religious schools. In that ruling, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that in this instance government support for private religious schools was “religiously neutral” because the program was based on the economic means of the student and on the geographic location of the family. The fact vouchers were restricted to low-income children in the district made them “secular.”

“The Ohio [voucher] program is entirely neutral with respect to religion,” Rehnquist argued. “It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”

While Rehnquist was arguing that private funding for religious schools could be religiously neutral and subject to private choice, he was also asserting in other cases that institutional support for religious advocacy in public schools was also a private, neutral activity and thus allowable under the Constitution.

Education Is ‘Neutral’

in a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Kavanaugh praises Rehnquist’s reasoning.

Among the cases where Kavanaugh took Rehnquist’s side, Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, court majorities ruled there was clear evidence that when the assets and staff of a school are behind organized prayer activities, then schools are overstepping their boundaries and using public funds to promote religion. Rehnquist sided with the dissent in each case, according to Kavanaugh, arguing against a “strict wall of separation between church and state” and against court precedents that “cordon off public schools from state-sponsored religious prayer.”

Kavanaugh praises Rehnquist for having “had much more success in ensuring that religious schools and religious institutions could participate as equals in society and in state benefits programs, receiving funding or benefits from the state so long as the funding was pursuant to a neutral program.”

Kavanaugh’s argument that religious expression in education settings is somehow neutral occurs again in in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute last year. According to a report by the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Kavanaugh argued that “’religious schools and religious institutions’ should be able to ‘receiv[e] funding or benefits from the state so long as the funding [i]s pursuant to a neutral program that, among other things, include[s] religious and nonreligious institutions alike.’”

Given this line of reasoning, Kavanaugh might agree that a program funding textbooks in schools would be “neutral,” even if the textbooks used in the religious schools taught a version of history that says “the majority of slave holders treated their slaves well” or a version of science that says humans and dinosaurs lived together.

What DeVos Wants

Certainly, the fundamental principle that public money should not be used to advocate religious beliefs in a public school is already at risk.

There are voucher programs in 15 states and the District of Columbia that allow parents to use taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private, religious schools, according to a report by the Network for Public Education. Other states have created school tax credit programs and education savings account programs that are voucher-like but set up differently to deliberately get around the issue of state funding going directly to religious schools.

Each of those programs has been approved along very narrow lines either on the basis of what is allowed in state constitutions, or similar to legal precedent established by the Supreme Court.

But the slippery slope conservatives have been plotting for decades leads inexorably to what Secretary DeVos wants.

In her advocacy for education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom,” DeVos envisions a greater presence for religion – the Christian religion – in public schools.

In her advocacy for school vouchers, DeVos compares education to a consumer good – a commodity that is neutral – and a matter determined strictly by “parent choice” and not public governance, even when the public has to pay for it.

Should Kavanaugh be confirmed, which is what is expected, DeVos is far more apt to have a Supreme Court that agrees with her.

(Photo credit: Concit,

After An ‘Educator Spring,’ Teachers Storm Elections

Progressives are seeing the stunning upset victory by first-time congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s over a prominent incumbent candidate in New York as a sign of a wave of change coming in the midterm elections, but a perhaps bigger, clearer sign of change is the groundswell of educators entering political contests.

As an outcome of the wave of teacher walkouts and protests that swept through West Virginia, Oklahoma, and elsewhere – a chain of events increasingly referred to as an “Educator Spring” – “angry educators are flooding down-ballot races,” Politico reports.

The numbers are staggering, with nearly 300 candidates coming from just the American Federation of Teachers union alone. Many of them are winning, and not just in the Democratic party.

By taking their cause to the streets and then to the ballot box, teachers have made education a top election issue – not just in states, like North Carolina, where walkouts occurred – but also in states, like Florida, where they didn’t.

It’s an electoral phenomenon that is little understood, much less reported on.

An Angry Wave of Teachers

The specific issues teachers call attention to vary from state to state, district to district, and even school to school.

In West Virginia, poor teacher pay and the state’s dysfunctional employee health insurance program brought teachers to the state capital. In Kentucky, the triggers were unpopular revisions to public employee pensions and the general lack of funding. In Arizona, teachers objected to years of under-funding while the state splurged on school vouchers and charter schools. In Oklahoma, teachers protested against low pay and the lack of a permanent way to increase school funding.

In North Carolina, the list of teacher grievances was long and varied – from unmanageable class sizes to inadequate funding to stressed out work schedules. But for the vast majority of teachers I spoke to at the rally in Raleigh, the economic trigger was the lack of funding across the board. Many believed fixing the funding was the top priority from which so many other issues could then be resolved.

The teachers’ actions brought to light to many who weren’t aware that education funding has not recovered from the Great Recession, and the majority of states fund schools less now than they did in 2008, and teacher salaries have been mostly flat or down since the 1990s.

But there was also a larger context that brought teachers out into the streets.

The Roots of Discontent

“Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized,” writes education reporter Michelle McNeil for Education Week.

Similarly, education journalist and author of The Teacher Wars Dana Goldstein notes that education matters that were once considered settled among policy wonks and Beltway think tanks are now points of strong contention. Her conclusion was that these differences represent a “deep divide” on school reform.

However, the comments from McNeil and Goldstein aren’t from this year. They’re from 2013.

Indeed, this year’s teacher actions arose from a deep well of long simmering discontent in the education community.

This was summed up best by North Carolina teacher Courtney Brown who told me teachers were out en masse because, “We hope people listen to us.”

It’s no secret that recent education policies from federal and state levels are generally mandated without the input of educators, especially rank and file teachers. Neither No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top had strong support of on-the-ground educators, and most policies in politically conservative states either disregard teachers or are downright hostile to them.

The latest example of the disconnect between education policy and the daily realities of teachers’ lives was made evident in reports of the failure of yet another “education reform.”

Recalling Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union declaring “bad teachers” as “the problem” behind stagnant learning outcomes, Matt Barnum reports that the idea of designing teacher evaluation systems to reward or penalize teachers based on how their students performed on standardized tests became all the rage after years of advocacy for these systems by rightwing think tanks and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Experienced educators warned this idea was completely unworkable and based on “junk science.” “Now,” Barnum reports, “new research … finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.”

The billion dollar effort, with $575 million coming from Gates, was not only “wasteful” but “damaging,” Bloomberg reports.

Well, DUH, teachers everywhere are saying.

‘Stop. Help. I Can’t Deal with This.’

This disconnect between what a teacher’s-eye view of education sees and what policy makers decide is not new.

In 2015, during a hearing by the Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions on the subject of “Fixing No Child Left Behind,” Rhode Island’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse observed, “My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contracts and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal, state, and local level. And the other is a world of school principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

Whitehouse urged his colleagues, “We have to be very careful that the people who we really trust to do education – the people who are in the classroom – are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this.’”

In calling attention to their lousy pay and lack of job security; the aging, dilapidated buildings they work in; the crumbling, the outdated textbooks they give to students; the lack of basic supplies they must buy with their own money; the scarcity of school support staff including counselors, nurses, and librarians; the competition from charter schools and vouchers that siphon funding out of the system, and an education agenda that values testing students over educating them, teachers are pointing to the overwhelming reality on the ground that public schools and the basic right to an education are increasingly imperiled.

If political leaders don’t care about that, then it looks like there are teachers who will run against them and maybe kick their butts out of office.

(Photo credit: Flikr Creative Commons)


Charter School Chain Poised To Profit Off Children Separated From Parents At The Border

Separating refugee and immigrant children from their parents at the border isn’t just a cruel injustice to the families affected; it’s also good business, and the latest enterprise wanting in on the action is a Texas-based charter school chain connected to the operator of detention centers reaping the biggest share of federal government contracts.

As the Washington Post originally reported, deep in its account of conditions at a border detention facility for children operated by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, IRS forms from 2016-17 that show compensation of $1.48 million to the organization’s CEO Juan Sanchez were filed by “a related organization, an Austin charter school Sanchez founded.”

Wiley blogger Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana public school teacher, picked up the scent and reports Southwest Key indeed operates a charter business called East Austin College Prep which shares the same Austin street address. Other “related organizations” appearing on the same 2016-17 IRS filings include Southwest Key Maintenance, which received $113,000 for “janitorial services,” and Cafe Del Sol, which received $336,000 for “food services.” The school paid Southwest Key Programs, $1.14 million for “administration and rent.”

All four entities, the school and its related “independent contractors,” share the same street address.

“Sanchez sits on the charter school board as its secretary,” Schneider writes, and Southwest Key’s VP, Alexia Rodriguez, is board chair.

It’s a cozy relationship among an operator of youth detention centers receiving federal funds and grants, “public” charter schools funded by Texas taxpayers, a “nonprofit” organization providing a lease agreement and administration services to the charters, and for-profit entities servicing the schools. And the fact the schools, which overwhelmingly enroll Hispanic students, are connected to a booming business separating Hispanic students from their parents and detaining them in facilities at the border raises legitimate questions and concerns of whether a new “prison-to-school pipeline” is just another way for private entrepreneurs to exploit vulnerable children.

A Booming Business in Children

Keep in mind, Southwest Key is the biggest player in the growing business of immigrant and refugee family detention. “Southwest Key has 26 shelters in Texas, Arizona, and California, housing more than 5,100 immigrant minors. That’s about half of the total population in the custody of Health and Human Services,” NPR reports. “Its federal contracts now tally more than $400 million annually.”

President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for refugee and migrant families coming to the border has severely strained Southwest Key’s facilities – at the Brownsville shelter in a former Walmart super store, the Post story says, sleeping quarters built to accommodate four beds have been expanded to five, and a rigid round-the-clock schedule for managing the influx of children leaves little time for recreation and education.

Former employees, NPR reports, have spoken of “prison”-like conditions inside the shelters, and experts have warned of the psychologically damaging impact that the austere treatment in these facilities can have on traumatized children.

“Texas regulators found more than 150 violations at more than a dozen shelters run by Southwest Key in the last two years,” Dallas News reports, citing violations of employee “judgment,” poor management of medicines and cleaning supplies, and failure to run background checks on some staff members.

Numerous national outlets recently reported a Honduran teenager housed at Southwest Key’s Brownsville facility walked out of the building and was never found. He is reported to be in Mexico and headed back to Honduras, but no one seems to know for sure.

Nevertheless, Southwest Key has asked state regulators for permission to house more children. From its base of 16 shelters in five Texas counties, Southwest Key is also trying to open another facility in Houston, says the Dallas News reporter. “but the city’s mayor is fighting against turning a warehouse into a temporary shelter.”

A Charter Windfall

Southwest Key is also expanding its charter school business too, and the detention center enterprises is poised to work hand in hand with its expanding school network.

Southwest Key’s two campuses in Austin, East Austin College Prep Academy and East Austin College Prep At MLK, have earned praise for educating low-income, mostly Hispanic students who have a high-propensity of dropping out; although, the schools have yet to record an official four-year graduation rate, and students perform well below state averages on college readiness exams such as SAT, ACT, AP, and International Baccalaureate.

The charter operation, which recently rebranded under management of Promesa Public Schools, is approved to expand to new campuses for the fall semester of 2018 in Corpus Christi and Brownsville, where Southwest operates four immigrant shelters including Case Padre, the detention center in the old Walmart store.

According to Dallas News, leaders from Promesa and Southwest Key have approached officials, who oversee education of school aged children in Brownsville and the surrounding county, with a proposal to use the new Brownsville charter school’s resources and new campus “to serve about 1,000 kids being housed in the nonprofit’s shelters.”

The reporter, Eva-Marie Ayala, notes that federal law requires that contracted care providers for detained refugee and immigrant children “conduct an educational assessment” of young detainees and provide education services to address their needs. Ayala also notes that Promesa’s Austin schools enrolled about 630 students in the past school year which netted the organization about $6 million from the state. “That equates to about $9,500 a student,” Ayala calculates, so adding a thousand news students for the new Brownsville campus might yield $9.5 million for Promesa, using her reckoning.

Southwest Key is also in discussions with the Brownsville school district to “partner” on educating the detained children, but any way you divvy up the total population of detained children among the school district and Promesa, it’s a windfall to Southwest Key.

A ‘Prison-to-School Pipeline’?

For its part, representatives of Southwest Key and its CEO Suarez have strongly defended its facilities, arguing that what the nonprofit provides is significantly more humane than what other detention facilities provide, although of late, the organization has not been responding to reporters’ requests for comments, and its website has gone dark.

Local public school advocates in Corpus Christi have staged protests of the new Promesa campus opening in their community, accusing Southwest Key of “profiting off the backs of immigrant children.” And an Austin-based advocacy group for Latin American citizens is urging that state, county, and city governments boycott Southwest Key.

“is Southwest Key acting compassionately, or is it complicit in a controversial policy?” the NPR reporter asks. “Is it protecting kids or profiting off them?” To those questions, we should add, “Is it providing education to these children or using them to grow its charter school business?”

Advocates for incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated youth have long talked of the need for a “prison-to-school pipeline” for acclimating children and teens from detention centers to mainstream education and a better future. The term is a play on words from the better-known school-to-prison pipeline that refers to the frequent practice of schools, especially charter schools, to use harsh discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, to push out low-income students of color into the criminal justice system.

In developing its collaboration of charter schools with migrant children detention centers, Southwest Key seems to be perverting the idea of an authentic prison-to-school pipeline designed to rescue children from deep injustices and harm. Instead of behaving as a public institution operating altruistically for the benefit of these vulnerable and traumatized children, Southwest Key is following in the pathway of an opportunistic industry.

(Photo credit: Texas ACLU

New Report Reveals Which States Are Abandoning Public Schools

Having a democratically governed local school, accessible to all students and fully accountable to the public for how its spends taxpayer money, has been a given for most American families since segregated schools were outlawed, but a new report finds most states have been abandoning the traditional public system in favor of schools that are privately operated, less accessible to all children, and less accountable to taxpayers and democratic governance.

The report contends the shift in emphasis from public schools to privately managed alternatives is not only an attack on public education, but also an attack on equal opportunity and civil rights.

“We’re spending billions on privatized alternatives to public schools and as a result leaving school children increasingly exposed to civil rights abuse and taxpayers increasingly at risk of being ripped off,” says Diane Ravitch, the founder and president of the Network for Public Education., which along with the Schott Foundation for Public Education, is responsible for the report.

“Our democracy requires that every child has access to a free, public school system,” says Schott president and CEO John H. Jackson. “Any effort to privatize local systems not only threatens millions of students opportunity to learn and to succeed but ultimately threatens our democracy.”

[Disclosure, Schott is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network and the People’s Action Institute.]

The report, “Grading The States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools,” which evaluated the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia on the extent to which states are shifting public dollars to private alternatives including charter schools and private schools, found only five states – Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia – received A ratings.

Many states with very large public school systems – including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina – were graded F. Seventeen states in total received an F rating.

There are 22 states with grades between a C and a B+, and six states and the District of Columbia received a grade of D or D+.

The report is the first in-depth nonpartisan report card to include these state-by-state measurements of the consequences of shifting public funds from the traditional school system to charter schools and private schools receiving money through taxpayer supported vouchers programs, education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships. The consequences the report considers include how well states protect student civil rights of students and guard taxpayers from fraud and the misuse of public funds.

The laws and regulations of each state were graded according to five key criteria based on objective, measurable factors:

  • 1) Types and extent of school privatization;
  • 2) Civil rights protections for students in voucher and charter programs;
  • 3) Accountability, regulations and oversight;
  • 4) Transparency of voucher and charter programs; and
  • 5) Other factors related to charter school accountability.

Based on these criteria, the report teased out details of state law that many would find troubling.

For instance, of the 15 states that have traditional school voucher programs, seven of them fail to require background checks for teachers and employees in voucher receiving schools. Thirteen of those states don’t require the voucher receiving schools to have open meetings or other forms of public transparency.

Of the 6 states with Education Savings Account programs, four fail to require state testing of students participating in the program or require prior public school enrollment for students receiving ESAs. This lets families who can already afford private education continue on the taxpayer’s dime.

Of the 44 states and District of Columbia with charter laws, 28 states and the District of Columbia don’t require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools, 38 states and the District of Columbia have no provisions regulating the spending and funding for education services, 23 states and the District of Columbia fail to protect students against religious discrimination, and 18 states have programs that fail to mandate services for students with disabilities.

The report concludes, ” Instead of diverting resources, we should invest in public schools to make them better for all students.” It recommends a moratorium on all voucher programs with an immediate phase out that does not displace children presently in the voucher system. Regarding charter schools, the report supports the NAACP’s recent call for a moratorium on new charter schools and urges states to pass laws and regulations ensuring that all students attending charters have equal opportunity and rights, that the schools are fully transparent and accountable to the taxpayers who fund them, and the corruption associated with the sector is weeded out.

Congress Stages A Sell-Job On Charter Schools And Ignores Complaints Of Black Parent

One of the more disturbing aspects of the push to create more charter schools was on full display during a Congressional hearing this week when charter proponents stacked the agenda with biased testimony and completely ignored the lone witness who could attest firsthand to the real impact these schools have on communities of color.

The lone dissenting voice in the battery of speakers lined up to give glowing praise to these privately operated but publicly funded schools was Jonathon Phillip Clark, an Iraq War veteran and black Detroit parent with seven children in the public-school system. Clark is also an assistant director at Mission City, a nonprofit organization in Detroit that provides mentoring and tutoring throughout the school year and an arts camp during the summer, and he serves on the board of an organization called 482Forward, a group of parents and students that advocates for a high-quality, equitable education for Detroit children.

Unlike most of the participants in this hearing – members of the House Education and Workforce Committee, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Nina Rees, CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers President Greg Richmond, and Harvard Professor Martin West – only Clark spoke from experience of having children educated in charter schools and a neighborhood affected by free-market “school choice” competition posed by these schools.

Yet his remarks were mostly ignored.

‘An Education Desert’ Caused by Charters

Specifically, Clark described his community as an “education desert” ravaged by Michigan’s policy of school choice, where charter schools open and close seemingly at random, and public schools are shuttered because of the uncertainties created by charter school competition.

A charter school his daughter attended made promises of academic courses and school programs it later dropped. The school, Yes Academy, had five principals in three years. An audit of the school reveled it could not account for $300,000 of Title I funds – money from the federal government for educating low-income students. To evade accountability, the school switched to a different management firm run by the same person. The second firm eventually closed the school a week before classes were to start, leaving students and families in the lurch.

The charter’s board ignored parents when they complained, and the authorizer, located in Lansing, 350 miles away, had no personal experiences with the families attending the school and cared little about their complaints. When parents looked for other school “options” for their children, they realized changing schools would mean massively altering their lives and their children’s education and circle of friends.

Clark explained that his story is not an isolated example. Two of his other daughters have had similar experiences with charters and so have many other families he knows in Detroit.

Not Just in Detroit

Indeed, numerous press reports and research studies have shown Michigan’s system of charter schools and free-market education competition has had a devastating effect on the state’s academic standing, and in communities of color, high-quality schools have become even more scarce and racial inequality has worsened.

Beyond Michigan, charter schools and school choice competition have had similarly negative effects – spreading education malfeasance in nearly every state, committing financial fraud and waste, and exacerbating inequality, while they extract millions of taxpayer dollars from the public school system.

Clark urged the members of the House in attendance to be “vigilant” in their scrutiny of the charter school sector. “I would not wish Michigan charter policies on the nation,” he concluded.

Yet, what transpired during the rest of the committee hearing was less than vigilant scrutiny.

A Sell Job

The hearing, given the grandiose title “The Power of Charter Schools: Promoting Opportunity for America’s Students,” was a sell-job for charters from the beginning. The official press release from the committee did not even mention Clark’s name nor that anyone at the hearing would balance this examination of the “value of charter schools.”

The remaining witnesses – Rees, Richmond, and West – repeated familiar industry talking points about the schools being “public … open to all … and accountable.” Cherry picking primarily from studies published by one source – the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), whose reports of positive charter effects on student achievement are frequently exaggerated – the pro-charter trio spoke glowingly of how charter schools’ are closing achievement gaps, spreading innovation, and satisfying parents, while public schools are “stagnating.”

Regarding federal governance and oversight of charters, the general consensus was the was little needed because most matters regarding how charters are conceived and operated are “up to the states” and should remain that way. That’s not to say there weren’t requests to the committee members for more federal money, particularly for building new charter facilities.

Exemplars that Aren’t Exemplary

As proof of the wonderful things charters are doing, Rees spotlighted Dream Charter School in Harlem, NYC as an exemplary program typical of charters, but it’s not at all clear this school is in any way like most charters.

The school is a “one-off,” independent charter that’s benefitted from large grants and donations, including a $32 million grant from the city and start-up money from the Walton Family Foundation of the Walmart family. The abnormally high teacher turnover rate – more than double of the city’s schools – would seem to be something that would invite more scrutiny than praise.

Richmond’s praise for Indiana’s system for overseeing charter school authorizers seemed odd given the recent controversy over the state’s sub-par online charter and the fact nearly half of Indiana’s charters are failing or doing poorly. The top charter authorizer in the state, Ball State University, oversees mostly “D” and “F” rated schools, based on Indiana’s school rating system, that have had years of declining performance.

As evidence that charter authorizers are accountable to the public, Richmond repeated the statistic that 90 percent of authorizers are public school districts, which could be a very misleading statistic if there are lots of districts with authorizing status but actually have no or very few operational charter schools.

Snubbing the Witness

The Republicans on the House Committee virtually snubbed Clark, directing their questions to the pro-charter witnesses, often to field softball questions or confirm their windy pronouncements about the superiority of charter schools.

The one Republican exception was Tim Walberg of Michigan who told Clark he had “visited” the charter school Clark described and had “concerns.” But then Walberg pivoted to a positive description of a Michigan charter he had also visited. The school he mentioned, Island City Academy, is located in a small town, and it enrolls students who are mostly white (89 percent) and low percent with learning disabilities – nothing like Clark’s situation at all.

Committee members from the Democratic side were much more willing to engage with what Clark told them and to ask follow-up questions, but none openly questioned their own party’s role in expanding charters.

This is not to say that weren’t tough questions and critical comments about charter schools from Democrats. Representative Bobby Scott from Virginia, the ranking committee member was particularly sharp edged in calling out the role charter schools have had in increasing racial segregation in schools, a well-researched outcome the pro-charter witnesses deflected by pointing to statistics that charters enroll much higher percentages of black and brown students.

Rees claimed that many charters are making racial diversity a feature of their programs, yet a recent study that went searching for charters that are “diverse by design” found a grand total of 2.19 percent of all charters.

Policy without People

In her bizarre concluding remarks, Rep Virginia Foxx (NC) used her background as a child who overcame the challenges of growing up in an impoverished community in rural North Carolina by having access to a high-quality public school to praise charter schools – which did not even exist during her childhood.

Dismissing, as mere anecdote, the firsthand experience that Clark brought to this hearing has become routine in education policy circles in Washington, DC, where think tanks and officials often operate at the 30,000-foot level to determine how our system of education should run.

This is not to say there aren’t exceptionally good charter schools doing great things for their students. After all, there are lots of public schools doing great things too.

But public policy makers need to listen to their constituents rather than the well-oiled machinery of wealthy industries and factions. Until they do, we won’t get charter school policy, or charter schools, our students and communities deserve.

(Photo credit: d_gilette/flickr)

Charter School Industry’s Stunning Loss in California Primaries

In reviewing the losers in this week’s primary elections in eight states, one shouldn’t overlook the charter school industry, which took a drubbing in the California governor’s race where its preferred candidate former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa drew a very disappointing 13 percent of the vote.

“Villaraigosa didn’t even get support from voters in demographics you’d expect he’d get,” says Meghan Choi in a phone call, referring to Villaraigosa’s poor showing in heavily influenced Latino Los Angeles County. Choi is director of Ground Game LA, an affiliate group of People’s Action that does micro-level organizing on economic and social justice issues.

“Villaraigosa burned too many bridges in the education community,” Choi says, especially in black and brown communities in Los Angeles where he tried to privatize the schools with charter management groups during his tenure as mayor. She notes that many of the wealthy people that helped him in that effort contributed to his losing campaign for governor.

Big Money Loses in California

In the California’s quirky primary system, only the top two vote-getters could advance to the general, regardless of political party. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, finished a distant third to first place winner and fellow Democrat former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome and little-known Republican second-place finisher John Cox.

At the outset of the campaign, Villaraigosa had been nearly tied with Newsome at the top of the polls in January at 21 percent versus 23 percent, respectively. Then in April and May, the charter-school industry began pouring millions of dollars into the race to back Villaraigosa.

The charter school industry’s state advocacy group, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, created Families and Teachers for Villaraigosa to take in huge sums of money from “wealthy contributors,” EdSource reports. This independent expenditure committee helped raise $22.5 million in less than two months, which mainly went toward television and radio ads to support Villaraigosa and attack Newsome.

Among the donors to the pro-Villaraigosa committee were Netflix founder Reed Hastings, who contributed $7 million; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $3.5 million; and Bill Oberndorf who gave $3.75 million.

Hastings is a pro-voucher and pro-charter billionaire who has called for an end to democratically elected school boards. He founded and profits from the Rocketship chain of charter schools where students spend most of their day at computers being drilled for standardized tests. Oberndorf is a Republican and an ally of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Of course, Newsome has his campaign sources too, with contributions coming principally from labor groups. But in contrast to Villaraigosa, Newsome’s independent expenditure committees raised only $7.2 million while most of his funds were raised through direct contributions.

High Stakes for Charters

It’s important to understand what the charter industry believes was at stake in getting Villaraigosa elected.

California’s current Governor, Jerry Brown has been an invaluable backstop for the charter industry, who has defended charters from a state legislature that is increasingly skeptical of the academic performance and business ethics of these schools.

Brown’s support for charters is ideological, and deeply personal. Since he founded two charters in Oakland as mayor of that city, he continues to steer large donations to those schools despite their lackluster academic performance and significantly higher costs of operations.

But while Brown’s perception of charter schools has stayed firmly stuck in his past, California voters have begun to turn on the industry, based on disturbing evidence of its negative impact on the state’s education landscape.

A series of reports have found charter schools in the Golden State have wasted, lost, or confiscated millions of public tax dollars, much of it through fraud and double-dealing in the largely unregulated sector. A litany of negative news reports about charter schools continues to reveal routine practices that violate state and federal laws, produce poor academic results, and subject public money to fraud and conflicts of interest. And communities are beset with the adverse consequences of charters opening and closing whenever and wherever they want.

As awareness of the negative realities of charter schools spread, state lawmakers introduced into legislation efforts to bring more public oversight to the sector. Yet, every time state legislators have passed efforts to eliminate for-profit charter schools and bring all charters into line with open meetings, conflict of interest, and other laws, Brown has blocked them.

Clearly, charter operatives believed Villaraigosa would maintain the status quo. Yet even as billionaire money from the charter industry filled the Villaraigosa campaign’s coffers, his polling numbers steadily sank.

Dodging a Death Knell

“A Villaraigosa victory would have been a total death knell to public education in California,” says Choi.

She believes the state is situated in a history of education reform doctrine that’s made the state a “testing ground of privatized education.”

Indeed, large school districts in the state are financially on the brink due to the negative impact of charter schools.

With a Newsome victory generally assured in November, unless an unforeseen disaster arises, opposition to charter privatization of California public schools moves on to making sure this former San Francisco mayor keeps his promise to rein in the charter industry.

(photo credit: Captain Leadbottom/Flickr Creative Commons)

New Charter School Plan Should Alarm the Nation

Charter schools already have a segregation problem. But a new law about to pass in North Carolina would direct even more taxpayer money into funding charter schools that by design, if not by intent, lead to more racial segregation of school children.

This is not only an alarming development in the Old South, where schools made substantial progress on integration since the landmark Brown v. Board Supreme Court case made racially separate schools illegal in 1954.

It’s also a wakeup call to the nation on how a campaign to re-segregate public schools is being carried out in the name of “school choice” and “local control.”

A ‘Design for Segregation’

The bill, House Bill 514, would allow suburban communities outside Charlotte to create and fund their own charter schools.

This is “a design for racial and economic segregation,” writes former NC Teacher of the Year James Ford. “The result of this will ultimately amount to systemic racism.”

The origin of the bill goes back at least two years when the mayor and town board of Matthews, NC, began devising ways to sever ties with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, which merges their schools with those in the city and surrounding county.

At public meetings, Matthews town officials and the State Representative for the community talked openly of creating a task force to explore a separate suburban school district and separating with CMS over issues with “trust,” student assignments, and “bussing.”

“It’s within the authority of the [state] General Assembly to do it,” one official is quoted, citing a previous attempt in 2005 that “went nowhere.”

Somewhere between then and now, the plan for separating from CMS evolved into the idea for Matthews and nearby Mint Hill to create their own charter schools. Currently in North Carolina, charter schools – privately operated schools given taxpayer funds, with fewer operational restrictions than public schools – are authorized, approved, and funded by the state.

By the time HB 514 emerged, Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey had dropped his idea of separating from the district altogether, and instead argued community-based charters would address a need for more “seats” in his community, where there are “excellent schools,” but “too few” of them.

The bill, he said, is about “local control” and giving parents more “options.”

Yet while the language for rationalizing this bill may have evolved into something more palatable, Ford is correct about its “design.” Based on both the historical context of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and the nature of the current unregulated charter school industry, this new bill opens a new pathway to increased school segregation that other states may decide to follow.

A Return to Segregation

Nearly all school districts in the Tar Heel state are “merged districts,” in which inner-city schools share the same district with schools in outlying suburban and rural areas, a configuration that dates back to Reconstruction.

After the Brown ruling, as well as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which held busing was an appropriate way to integrate schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg became, by the 1980s, one of the most racially integrated school districts in America. Such efforts have led to long-term benefits for Black Americans, including greater income, better health outcomes, and lower incarceration rates.

Since then, rulings by more conservative courts overturning previous legal precedent and a state General Assembly dominated by Republicans have done much to resegregate CMS and other NC school districts. House Bill 514 would surely add to the racial imbalances in schools.

Students who live in Matthews, which is 82 percent white, now have opportunities, either by assignment or by choice, to attend schools in nearby neighborhoods where student populations are anywhere between one third to over one-half Black or Hispanic. The student population of CMS overall is just 28 percent white.

Were Matthews students to attend a charter school in their own neighborhood, the likelihood of that school being mostly white (85 – 90 percent) would increase significantly.

The Segregating Impact of Charters

“Charter schools are among the nation’s most segregated [schools],” a recent analysis by the Associated Press found. AP’s findings align with previous studies that have found that charter schools and other forms of school choice are exacerbating existing patterns of segregation.

In North Carolina, there’s little doubt parents use charters to segregate.

North Carolina charter schools are significantly more segregated, with students who are wealthier and whiter than those at public schools in the state. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or school meals, which significantly reduces their appeal to low-income parents. Also, laws governing charter schools in the state dropped the previous requirement for the schools to serve a diverse student population.

In North Carolina, “at traditional public schools,” a recent study found, “only about 30 percent of students attend schools that are ‘highly segregated’ (schools that are more than 80 percent or less than 20 percent white). At charter schools, more than two-thirds attend schools that are highly segregated.”

The impact charters have on segregating students by race and income is especially acute in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. According to a recent study, the growth of charter schools in the district led to more proficient white and Asian students leaving the public schools, while affluent parents used the threat of escape to charters as a way to coerce local officials to redraw student assignment boundaries to reduce racial integration and ensure white parents could send their children to schools in their neighborhoods.

Enacting HB 514 provides white parents with just another mechanism to use charters for what they have become a tool for: separating the races.

A Dangerous New Funding Provision

Backers of HB 514 had conceived a way to use charter schools to legalize racially segregating students, but they still needed a way to fund new community-based charters in the suburbs.

Ironically, CMS alerted NC lawmakers to this problem. A report, funded by the district, warned that in North Carolina “it is against the law for towns to go into debt to pay for schools, so if a town wants to purchase land for a charter school, the town would have to pay in full up front. The report also found that the towns could not use any state funds to build a charter school and can’t raise property taxes for a school without a public referendum.”

During meetings closed to the public and hidden from Democratic state lawmakers, Republican legislators found a way around the funding problem that allows cities across the state, not just Matthews and Mint Hill, to use locally-raised tax money for public schools, including charter schools.

This funding provision “opens the door for districts and charter schools to ask municipal governments to pony up for anything from school resource officers to custodians to teacher pay supplements,” a former state legislator is quoted in an NC news outlet.

So while HB 514 may be confined to just the suburbs of Charlotte, it provides an opening for charters throughout the state to demand funds from local districts and redirect more taxpayer money from public schools to privately controlled “options” that can further segregate schools.

A Dangerous New Pathway to More Inequality

North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has expressed “concerns” about HB 514, but should he decide to veto the budget bill, which the new law is attached to as an amendment, his veto would likely be overridden, as Republicans currently command supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Already, other suburban communities around Charlotte have asked for the same sort of option Matthews and Mint Hill want to have to create their own segregated school system via community owned and operated charter schools.

Proponents of school choice and charter schools often justify increased racial segregation their preferred schools cause  by arguing that parent choice is what matters most.

But the legacy of the Brown ruling is that separate schools will never be equal. What North Carolina is doing defies that truth and opens a dangerous new pathway for other states to create more education inequality.

Will Teacher Uprisings Change Democrats?

Anyone wondering whether teacher uprisings this spring will influence party politics and elections in November should look at what’s happened in this year’s primaries so far.

Most prominent among primary contests involving education issues was an improbable win in Kentucky, where a first-time candidate, math teacher R. Travis Brenda, knocked off the state’s House Republican Majority Leader Jonathan Shell.

Brenda had joined with his colleagues earlier this year in staging sickouts that closed schools across the state to protest Kentucky lawmakers’ handling of state public employee pensions and inadequate school funding. Shell “was part of the legislature’s Republican leadership team that crafted and passed pension, tax, and budget bills,” a Louisville news outlet reports.

Elsewhere in the state, of the 16 Kentucky teachers involved in primary contests, seven were victorious and will join with other teacher-candidates who ran unopposed to field 32 candidates in total in November. Nearly all are Democrats.

“The thing to watch is whether this is the start of something broader,” says NPR’s Domenico Montanaro in reporting about Kentucky’s primary races.

Changing on Education

It’s going to be hard to tell where and if teacher uprisings will change electoral politics, especially in states where uprisings have yet to take place. But there are clear signs the dynamics of education politics are changing in the Democratic party, and those changes are taking place at the very same time progressive populist candidates are surging in Democratic primaries across the country. These insurgencies could result not only in a new Democratic party, but also a new vision for education policy in the party.

One of the clearest signs of the changing education politics in the Democratic party was when the Colorado branch of the party told an influential pressure group of charter school proponents, called Democrats for Education Reform, to stop using the word “Democrats” in its name.

The state party approved an amendment to its 2018 platform opposing any attempts to segregate Colorado schools or make public schools private institutions or “private corporations.”

This schism between defenders of the public-school system within the Democratic party and those in the party who don’t care if more school funding is siphoned to privately operated management businesses is becoming more obvious in primary electoral contests.

In Pennsylvania, two longshot candidates for the State House, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who knocked off establishment incumbents in the primaries, based their platforms on a range of progressive issues including opposing “charter schools as a form of ‘privatization’ that drained public resources.”

Their opponents, the brothers Paul and Dom Costa, had both recently voted against legislation to prevent online charters from exploiting failing students and against a bill that would make all charters more accountable for how they spend public funds.

Another Pennsylvania House upset winner in the Democratic primary, Elizabeth Fiedler, campaigned for “a moratorium on new charters and cyber-charters until their effectiveness and long-term costs are evaluated and they are held to the same standards as traditional public schools.” Her party establishment-endorsed opponent, Jonathan Rowan, never made his views on charter schools a prominent message in his campaign.

In Nebraska, Kara Eastman’s surprising defeat of former Rep. Brad Ashford has been heralded as a sign of progressives making inroads into the Democratic party establishment and a worrying sign among Beltway Democrats of a surging left within the party.

Here again, the upstart Eastman called for continued investment in public schools and public-school educators and resistance to those “who advertise the benefits of expanding charter schools.” Her establishment opponent left the issue of charter schools unaddressed.

Wooing Teachers

This is not to say opposition to charter schools has become a progressive rallying cry, in the way that Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and other issues already have.

In Idaho, for instance, Paulette Jordan’s win is being cast as a progressive plus in a deep red state, where her Democratic party primary contest could have gone to the more mainstream candidate.

Yet Jordan called charter schools “necessary,” while her opponent argued charters “have not lived up to their promise, they have been copycats of one another and they are a great deconsolidation of our school system, competing with traditional schools for funding… The best choice is the traditional public schools.”

Nevertheless, grassroots uprisings created by organized teachers are wooing more Democrats to support public schools. This is a noteworthy trend.

A Cool Embrace

For years, Democrats have not only been cool to embrace organized teachers; they’ve often been downright antagonistic. A sure sign that this relationship may be changing surfaced recently in North Carolina where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper joined teachers in the capital who had walked off the job and closed schools across the state to protest their poor pay and lack of resources in schools due to years of funding cuts.

Seeing an NC governor, of any party, standing with organized teachers during a strike action is unprecedented. The Tar Heel state is one of the most anti-labor states in the nation, not just because of recent Republican majorities in the legislature, but also because the state has been historically resistant to labor organizing regardless of which party is in control.

Cooper has also not always sided with workers. Yet, no former Democratic governor in recent memory – including education champion Jim Hunt – would have locked arms with organized teachers in union to close schools. The fact Cooper did sends an important message about where the Democratic party may be heading.

A Better Deal?

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., Democratic party leaders are pivoting from teacher walkouts across the nation to call for giving states and school districts $50 billion over a decade to fund teacher raises by canceling the recent tax cut for top 1 percent of earners.

The Democrats’ plan, called A Better Deal for Teachers and Students, calls for another $50 billion fund to pay for new school infrastructure.

During the unveiling of the plan, union presidents Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers joined Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the podium.

The scene prompted longtime Washington Post education journalist Valerie Strauss to recall when Barack Obama was president, his education secretary, Arne Duncan, was so unpopular that the NEA called for his resignation.

So given that Democrats, under a Trump administration, have little chance of pushing their proposal through, she questions whether this an example of the party making “nice with the leaders of teachers’ union.”

Whether Strauss’s skepticism is warranted or not, political dynamics in the Democratic party are clearly changing, and teacher uprisings are adding to the volatility of the mix.

If the Democratic wave that’s anticipated for November “won’t crest without progressive insurgents,” as some have observed, then maybe it also won’t crest without a change in how the party addresses education.

NC Teachers Rally To Make Lawmakers Listen To Them

Teachers in North Carolina made a huge statement this week when they shut down schools in at least 42 districts and thronged the state capital in an all-day march and rally that drew an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people – way more than the 15,000 the state teachers’ association, that organized the event, promised.

While their list of grievances was long and varied – from unmanageable class sizes to inadequate funding to stressed out work schedules – there was one theme that recurred when asked to explain what they hoped to accomplish.

“We hope our state legislators listen to us,” said Courtney Brown, a teacher at River Bend Elementary School in Wake County. “They need to understand there’s a problem, and things need to change.”

The “problem” teachers want to call attention to takes on many forms in their schools, depending on where the teachers work.

The Problems Only Teachers See

“We’re here today to bring lawmakers’ attention to what’s hurting children in our classrooms,” said Kathleen Van Kuren, a 29-year teacher veteran from Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex, also in Wake County. “While [lawmakers] underfunded resources for our students, cut resource personnel [such as reading assistants and special education teachers], and taken away longevity pay and other salary incentives for teachers, they’ve put more emphasis on charter schools and vouchers,” she said.

Other Wake County teachers offered a long list of complaints, including the loss of reading support teachers and outdated text books. “They tell us to let the kids use their own devices [smart phones or tablets], but in my school there are lots of children too poor to own their own device.”

“This is not about our salaries,” another Wake teacher told me. “Increasing our salary is on the bottom of my list.”

“There’s no funding for pencils, paper, or art supplies in my classroom,” said Jennifer Miske, a teacher at Rogers-Herr Middle School. “I’m always spending my own money for these things.” Tar Heel teachers typically spend $500 – $1,000 of their own money for classroom supplies their students need.

Her Durham County colleagues complained of out-of-date textbooks and aging, dirty school buildings that are no longer welcoming, or even safe, for children. “Sure, we could use a pay raise,” one said, “but our students come first.”

A group of teachers from Buncombe County and Asheville City schools, in the western part of the state, also talked of crumbling textbooks – the history books teach that Bill Clinton is president. State funding for textbooks has been slashed for the past four years.

Over-testing of students is also an issue for these teachers, especially in the elementary grades where third-graders are made to take as many as 17 assessments throughout the schoolyear.

A group of teachers from Orange County talked about, not only the inadequacy of school funding, but the inequity too. “I’ve taught in two districts,” one said, “one where there were no supplies, no technology for kids, and roach-infested, disgusting buildings, and one where we had what we needed for students. That’s not fair to kids.”

With exam season under say, these teachers also complained about the battery of required standardized tests their student have to take. “At least three of my students cry every day,” one teacher stated. As a special education teacher, she is assigned students who are most apt to struggle on the exams, yet she is evaluated based in part on how her students perform on the tests. “It’s demoralizing to the kids because they feel like failures. And It’s unfair to me.”

“The teachers at my school are the hardest working I’ve ever seen, but they’re too stressed out,” said Swansboro Middle School teacher Kim Caister, a veteran who has “taught all over the world.” She described harsh working conditions – including long hours, inadequate support personnel, and outdated, inadequate instructional materials and school facilities – that negatively affect teachers, which in turn, impact students.

Her Onslow County colleagues also complained about state lawmakers taking away long-term contracts [commonly called tenure] and the salary supplement teachers get for earning their Masters’ Degree. These incentives were taken away by the state legislature in 2014. The teachers pointed out that losing these incentives has made it more attractive for teachers to seek work in Virginia, which drains their schools of the most capable and qualified teachers.

“We need more and better staffing, like nurses, counselors, and other support personnel,” a group of Chatham County teachers said. (Many teachers preferred to speak in solidarity with their colleagues rather than have their names reported.) “We need to have our teacher assistants back.” State funding for teacher assistants was cut in 2008 and has not been fully restored since.

But in reporting about the teacher action in North Carolina, and elsewhere, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the flurry of specific issues with salaries, and pensions, and per-pupil expenditures, and forget what teachers say matters most: to “listen to us.”

What Teachers Want Most

“We’re here to open up a dialogue people haven’t been wanting to have,” Molly Wright, told me. Wright, a teacher at Millbrook High School, also in Wake County, is a second-generation teacher whose mother, a teacher in Forsyth County schools, accompanied her to the march. Wright explained, with a group of teachers around her nodding in approval, that nothing about what teachers were saying at the rally was new. What was new was that teachers had finally decided to go to drastic measures to make themselves heard.

“We had to close schools and disrupt people’s lives for them to pay attention,” she said. “We’re hoping to take the momentum we’re building here today and carry it over the summer and into November.”

Why does it take shutting down thousands of schools and inconveniencing millions of families to get political leaders’ attention? What is this “dialogue people haven’t been wanting to have”?

The gap between what goes on in schools and what gets decided in state capitals and Washington, DC has gotten way too wide.

For years, it’s been too easy for politicians to ignore teachers because teachers, by the very nature of their work, are discouraged from expressing their anger and sticking up for themselves.

Political leaders instead have relied on a very vocal and powerful faction of elite voices who created an education policy dialgue floating in a bubble far above the real lives of teachers. Instead of talking about what students need, they’ve focused on making teachers more “accountable.” Instead of emphasizing funding, they’ve called for “reform.”

The truth is people who’ve been deciding education policy have forgotten we live in a democracy. Teachers in North Carolina, and elsewhere, are reminding us of that.

Using the hashtags #Rally4Respect and “ItsPersonal, NC teachers were determined to raise the message that their voices need to be heard.

Many of the grievances they brought to the rally have been years in the making, a group of teachers from Gaston, Alamance, and Orange counties told me. But they’ve never believed they’ve had much power to change their circumstances. Until now.

“I’ve been teaching for 19 years,” one said, “and today feels, for the first time, like we have some power.”