Education Opportunity Network

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“Choice” Has Become An Excuse For Charter And Voucher Schools To Discriminate

When prominent advocates for “school choice,” such as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, talk about how a market-based approach for education works, the very stories they might cite as successes actually reveal serious shortcomings of charter schools and vouchers, especially about how they can have detrimental effects on parents, children, and communities. Take, for example, the case of Krystl Newton.

When the private Christian school Newton’s daughter attended closed, she was able to find a charter school near their home in Wake County, North Carolina, that provided a school culture similar to the private academy, with strict discipline, high academic standards, and none of the “gang stuff” (her words) she heard plagued the public schools.

Her daughter thrived in the new charter, so when Newton’s younger son reached kindergarten age, she was pleased the charter would enroll him under their family-members-first policy.

But after his kindergarten year, when he was ready to move to first grade, there was a problem.

Early in the boy’s development, Newton had observed symptoms of what she came to believe was a developmental disability resembling Tourette’s Syndrome. Although an official diagnosis of the disorder couldn’t be made until the child turned eight, Newton had already consulted specialists and gone to the trouble of developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a document that is developed for each public school child who needs special supports due to a physical, mental, or emotional disability. Because her daughter also had a mild form of disability when she enrolled in the charter, Newton assumed the charter would be fully accepting and supportive of her son’s situation too.

But the charter administrators felt otherwise.

“They wouldn’t accept our information,” she told me in a phone conversation, referring to her son’s IEP and other documents advising how to conduct his education program. Instead, the charter administrators said they would rely on their own “team” to develop a plan for her son and would “let you know” what the school would choose to support.

The plan the charter school ultimately came up with had few of the supports her son would need, Newton believed. Also, the school offered no recourse or way for her to appeal their decision. “They really had no intention of accommodating my son’s needs,” she said.

Fortunately, during the summer when her son was between kindergarten and first grade, Newton learned of a nearby public school that had the supports her son needed—including visits from an occupational therapist and access to instruction in a smaller class size. By the time I spoke with her, her son was attending a public middle school and “thriving,” she said. The special education staff had “partnered with our family,” she told me. “It was a terrific move.”

The feel-good story school choice advocates would make of this outcome is that Newton and her children benefited from having a community where there were lots of school options, and the fact they ultimately found a place for her son in a public school, while her daughter eventually graduated from the charter, is proof a market-based system in which parents have to essentially “shop” for schools to find the “best fit” for each child is what works best.

But Julie Mead has a problem with that.

Does ‘All Children’ Mean All?

“When public funds are tied to programs, there’s an expectation that the programs are then accessible to the entire community,” she told me in a phone interview. In Newton’s case, although the charter her children attended received public funds from the state and was subject to federal laws that ensure students with disabilities have free appropriate public education, the charter school was in fact not accessible to all public school children simply by the way it tailored its program to exclude students with more severe disabilities.

Mead, a University of Wisconsin professor, recently co-authored with Suzanne Eckes a policy brief for the National Education Policy Center warning that redirecting public funds to charter schools and voucher programs to pay for private school tuition subsidizes discrimination with taxpayer money.

The brief points to numerous research reports and news accounts finding that private schools participating in voucher programs often deny access to students and families on the basis of religious or sexual identity, learning ability, or fluency in English. Studies also show charter schools often enroll racially and economically homogeneous student populations and tend to have fewer students with special needs.

The authors contend that expanding more charters and voucher programs increases discrimination in schools because federal laws don’t hold public, private, and charter schools to the same standards, state legislatures too often ignore discrimination in creating charter and voucher programs, and privately operated schools have a free hand to design programs to discourage—or even prevent—undesirable students from enrolling.

Charters on Murky Legal Ground

The authors find discrimination is more likely in voucher programs than in charters, because private schools aren’t subject to the same laws as public schools. However, they point out that because of recent court decisions, charters inhabit a murky legal ground where their status as public or private entities is not settled.

In the case of Newton’s son, federal law requires that the charter provide necessary services for his education, no matter how costly and regardless of whether the school had ever offered the services before his enrollment.

But as the NEPC report explains, charter schools have programming authority that allows them to “exclude some populations.” Charters are free to gear their instructional services to specific ethnic or racial student populations. Or, as in Newton’s case, charter school officials can assure parents that their school has the necessary services to provide for a specific disability, and if the parents, as Newton did, opt for a school with existing expertise instead of the charter, then, “in such cases,” the brief explains, “the [charter] school official would not have discriminated, but the result—a school that serves fewer students with disabilities—occurs just the same.”

No doubt, the practices of charter schools will continue to be matters for litigation. However, few parents have the time or wherewithal to take these cases to court, charter authorizers and state officials who oversee these schools have few incentives to enforce stricter non-discrimination guidelines, and the charter industry shrugs off the problem.

But the real value in the NEPC brief is how it takes on the argument made by school choice cheerleaders that evidence of discrimination and exclusion in the privately operated education sector doesn’t matter.

Choice to Discriminate

The brief looks back at DeVos’ contentious budget hearing in the House earlier this year when Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark asked her how a Department of Education under her leadership would respond to instances when schools receiving federal dollars were found to discriminate on the basis of race or sexual identity. In response, DeVos indicated her emphasis would be on states having “flexibility” and “parents making choices on behalf of their students.”

Since that hearing, DeVos has backtracked somewhat on allowing federal money to go to schools that discriminate against LGBT students, but on numerous occasions when she has been questioned about the problematic track record of school choice, her backstop argument has been that parental choice matters more than academic outcomes or social justice consequences, including increased inequality or discrimination.

Unfortunately, joining DeVos and school choice advocates in the Republican Party in their argument are a lot of Democrats. For instance, Peter Cunningham, communications director for former-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has suggested that fighting discrimination that causes racially segregated schools is “maybe … not worth it.”

In op-eds for prominent media outlets, Cunningham has declared that efforts to racially integrate schools have “hit a wall,” and because “ending poverty and integration are politically difficult and financially expensive goals,” the more important aim is to press for “needed reforms” in schools. At the very top of the “reforms” he advocates for are “the rights of parents and the best interests of children.” He declares, “No one can dispute the right of parents to choose their child’s school.”

While the primacy of parental choice might work well on a bumper sticker, Mead explains why this can create problems in a public education system that is supposed to serve the needs and interests of all students.

Understanding the Trade-Offs

“People need to understand what the trade-offs are between these choice options and parent and student rights,” Mead says.

Mead, who started her career as an educator of children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, says the popular view of “choice” espoused by many—that parent choice has primacy over issues of equity—reminds her of what happened after the U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board ruling that outlawed racially segregated public schools. In retaliation to the ruling, many states in the South set up segregated academies for white students and justified the schools with arguments for parent choice.

Arguments for the primacy of parent choice today are far more sophisticated, with proponents saying that parents who opt into charter and voucher schools that are racially or ethnically homogeneous are choosing “culturally affirming” schools for their children. School choice proponents decry non-discrimination laws as “one-size-fits-all” impositions on privately operated schools. And rearguard defenders of the accountability movement from the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama contend that as long as student scores on standardized tests improve, the widespread segregation proliferating in the privately operated education sector doesn’t matter.

Representatives of the charter industry generally fight every effort to ensure their schools don’t discriminate. In North Carolina, where Newton lives, a charter school advocate who appeared at a prominent forum on charters said it was “not fair” for charter schools to have the same percentages and severity of special education students that local public schools have.

The hands-off message the charter industry leaders convey to lawmakers, many of whom receive substantial campaign donations from the industry, is that any regulations with the objective of “protecting students and taxpayers” are “harmful constraints” on their schools. And policies governing their schools should “focus on what a charter school is achieving, not how it does the work.”

These arguments come dangerously close, says Mead, to “transferring guarantees that we should have in society to provide all students with access to education to a permission-based system where we grant permissions to violate guaranteed access.”

She concedes, “It’s certainly difficult to create systems that are non-discriminatory. But if you get a system that departs from those guarantees of access and excludes large parts of the public, it’s no longer politically defensible.”

Her concern is, “As we shift into systems of choice, then we’ll shift accountability from the collective to the individual. So at some point, it leads to a situation where parents who’ve been wronged in the system are told, ‘If you’re not happy then it’s your fault; you should have chosen better.’”

Who Gets to Choose?

No doubt, our public education system has struggled at fulfilling the promise to guarantee an education for every student. But during the previous century, a progressive movement in the country gradually opened the schoolhouse door to students of low-income and working-class families, girls and women, and students of all races, religions, languages, and abilities.

Yes, there are still great inequities in the system. But why would we introduce new agents that likely make inequities worse?

“We need to find ways to ensure equitable access,” says Mead. “I’m not ready to give up that goal.”

What she and co-author Eckes recommend is for Congress to amend federal anti-discrimination laws to ensure state voucher programs operate in non-discriminatory ways and for federal agencies to consider withholding tax-exempt status and other benefits from schools that don’t meet non-discrimination standards.

At the state level, legislatures should include explicit anti-discrimination language in their voucher laws to ensure that private schools participating in publicly funded voucher programs do not discriminate against students and staff. And state lawmakers should adopt or amend charter school laws to ensure that throughout the life of a charter school (from proposal to renewal) there is a regulatory function that ensures every charter is attracting and retaining reasonably heterogeneous student populations.

As for Newton, her experience with school choice has persuaded her to urge parents with special needs children to “give public schools a chance.” About charter schools, she explains that while these schools advertise themselves as schools of choice, the reality is “as much as you choose it, the school chooses you.”

(Originally published by Alternet.)

Reflecting On Six Years Of The Education Opportunity Network

A little more than six years ago, a group of public school advocates, political strategists, and progressive-minded educators from around the country met in an informal gathering in Washington, DC, to address the burning question of how to lead a resurgence in progressive values in education policy and politics.

At the time, Republican state governors and legislators were engaged in a withering assault on public schools to strip them of financial resources they needed to educate a population of students increasingly wracked by poverty, homelessness, and the traumas of widespread racism and economic inequity. A Democratic presidential administration led by Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was continuing its campaign to ratchet down more pressure on schools and teachers to conform to practices most educators objected to and increase standardized test scores or face punitive actions. Influential billionaires and private foundations were stoking the coffers of political candidates and think tanks to back charter schools and other market-based forms of competition to public schools. And education policy makers and influential media pundits seemed stuck in a consensus that the nation’s public schools had failed and bad teachers were the problem.

In the political arena, the progressive left had generally left the education battlefield to centrist Democrats and radical Republicans who more often than not agree on how schools should be governed. Public schools had virtually no prominent champions in the progressive faction on Capitol Hill, and progressive advocacy groups uniformly left education policy off their checklists of issues they cared about.

Faced with this bleak landscape, the informal group gathered in the Beltway decided to create the Education Opportunity Network to be a strategy and messaging center to bring education policy back to its progressive roots and urge progressive Democrats to add progressive education policy to their lists of issues they would advocate for.

Beginning with a bold “Education Declaration to Rebuild America,” EON set out a principled agenda based on the progressive ideals of public education as a primary vehicle to provide opportunities for individual advancement, promote social mobility, and share democratic values. The declared goal was to ensure all who envision a more just, progressive, and fair society joined in the fight for the public schools the nation deserves.

Today, after nearly 300 newsletters, more than 360 articles and blogposts, a subscriber base of 60,000 education advocates, nearly a thousand reader comments, thousands of social media followers, and with a media reach that includes prominent national outlets, EON finds itself in a transformed education policy landscape.

Teachers are engaged in massive protest actions to call attention to the lack of resources in schools and the needs for increased funding and relief from the obsession with standardized testing and harsh accountabilities. Grassroots advocacy by students, parents, and community organizers is starting to stymie the steady march of privatization in some communities and bring back democratic governance to school districts that had been deprived of voting rights for years. Prominent news outlets have gone from unfairly bashing classroom teachers to portraying their struggles with empathy. A new slate of Democratic governors has pledged support for traditional public schools and openly expressed skepticism of charter schools and other forms of privatization. And many of the progressive candidates who helped Democrats take back the US House of Representatives this fall vowed to support public schools rather than shutting them down and pledged to put the emphasis back on making neighborhood schools the best they can be rather than funding more alternatives that rarely live up to their promises.

With the holidays approaching, EON will take stock of this transformation and take an extended break to reflect on where this project has been and where it should go from here. Your input in the comment section is welcome, or please leave a comment on the EON Facebook page where today’s newsletter is posted. Here’s wishing you the best of the season and seeing you back here in the New Year.

Here’s Why Urban Communities Of Color Are Increasingly Rejecting Charter Schools

At a recent school board meeting in New Orleans, more than 100 parents swamped the hearing room, requiring dozens to have to stand. Many of the parents had filled out public comment cards so they would be allowed to address the board.

What most in the crowd came prepared to talk about were their concerns about recent recommendations by the superintendent to close five schools and transfer the students to other schools in the district. Their demand was for the elected board to take a more hands-on role in improving the schools instead of closing them down.

But when Ashana Bigard, a New Orleans public school parent and advocate, realized the board had altered the agenda, and limited parents’ comment time, she decided to speak out of turn.

“How is closing the schools helping our children?” she asked the board members. She pointed out that many of the children in the schools being closed are special needs students with serious, trauma-induced learning disabilities, and now these children are being uprooted and transferred to schools that lack expertise with these problems. “These children have been experimented on for too long,” she declared.

That’s when a district staff member intervened and escorted her out of the room.

A Demand for Real Democracy

Parents’ protesting a school closing is nothing new. But for parents to demand that their local board take more control of the school, and run it directly rather than closing it down, is a twist. That’s because this is New Orleans.

In the bizarre landscape of New Orleans schools, since they were taken over by the state and reorganized after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, all but two of the 79 schools are directed by charter management companies, privately owned contractors that receive taxpayer money to run the schools. The charter management firms have near-complete autonomy, and while the Orleans Parish School Board was recently given the power, by the state, to open and close charters, the day-to-day operations of the schools are still handled by the charters’ appointed boards, generally free from any demands from parents and voters.

It’s that arrangement that is at the heart of these parents’ complaints.

With the elected board’s powers being limited to decisions on opening and closing schools only, “Parents feel they have no voice in the system,” Bigard explains in a phone conversation, and charter operators have way too much power and autonomy to allow school conditions to worsen to the level that closure becomes the only option.

“We need to have our elected board hold charter schools more accountable” for their day-to-day operation, she says. That would mean having the elected board impose the demands of parents and voters on charter management companies and assert more authority on how charters are run.

A more assertive board, Bigard argues, could impose much-needed reforms on the charters rather than closing them down or handing the schools over to a different management company—that will likely do no better than the last one did.

“Parents want real voice and real democracy,” she says.

An American Tradition Undermined

What Bigard and other New Orleans parents are demanding has been the tradition in American communities, where local schools have long been governed by democratically elected boards.

But that American tradition has been undermined or overturned, especially in communities of color, where less democratic forms of governance have become widespread.

For decades, a wave of state takeovers of school districts overseeing tens of thousands of students has stripped elected school boards in these communities of their governing power and denied voters the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers have been happening almost exclusively in African American and Latinx school districts—many of the same communities that have experienced decades of economic decline, high unemployment, and underinvestment in schools.

What tends to accompany these state interventions are mass closing of public schools and the imposition of various forms of privately controlled school models, such as charter schools.

All About Politics, Not Education

Since 1989, there have been more than 100 takeovers of local school districts in the United States, according to Domingo Morel, author of the book Takeover: Race, Education and American Democracy.

In nearly 85 percent of these cases, the districts have been majority African American and Latinx. Also, black communities disproportionately experience the most punitive forms of takeovers, in which elected school boards are disbanded or turned into “advisory” boards, school superintendents previously hired by elected boards have been fired, or governing authority has been handed over to state-appointed managers or private management companies.

Although the takeovers are usually justified for academic reasons, Morel points to research showing takeovers generally do not have a significant effect on school improvement. Instead, what really motivates takeovers, according to Morel, is politics—especially the political undermining of black and brown governance of schools in urban communities.

Morel traces the rising popularity of takeovers to the 1970s and early 80s, when blacks in big cities across the country gained majorities on city councils and school boards. He argues that the power of the rising black electorate created political problems for conservative leaders in state government who did not want to see governance in large urban communities fall into the hands of local lawmakers who were from the opposition.

That political dynamic was at work especially in New Jersey, where, in 1988, state lawmakers passed the first law allowing the state board of education to take control of local school district governance. Two of the state’s largest school districts, Jersey City and Newark, were the first to draw the attention of Republican governors, and those two districts were taken over by the state in 1989 and 1995, respectively.

But while state takeovers have been mostly about politics, in more recent years, another factor strongly motivates these interventions: public school privatization.

A Push for Privatization

“State takeovers and the elimination of locally elected school boards grease the rails of privatization by charter school management groups,” Jitu Brown tells me.

Brown is the national director of Journey for Justice, an alliance of grassroots community-, youth-, and parent-led organizations in 24 cities that oppose privatizing schools and advocate for community-based alternatives instead.

In 2016, Brown and 11 other public school advocates in Chicago made headlines when they staged a hunger strike to protest the closing of Dyett High School. Their demand was to reopen the school as a full-service community school focused on a green energy curriculum. After 34 days of the strike, the district administration relented and reopened Dyett in 2016, as a school for the arts, after $14.6 million in refurbishing.

Brown attributes much of the growth of charter schools to the federal government, especially during the presidential administration of Barack Obama, whose Education Secretary Arne Duncan incentivized privatization through a School Improvement Grants program. The grants required struggling schools in the most vulnerable communities to undergo turnaround efforts that often included handing control of schools over to charter management firms or closing schools and reopening them as charters.

The Obama administration and Secretary Duncan also incentivized charter school expansions through the federal government’s Race to the Top program and through its charter school grant program.

At the same time the federal government was incentivizing charter school expansions, there was a powerful and well-financed movement to eliminate traditional urban school districts and their democratically elected school boards. Funded by right-wing political advocacy groups, influential private foundations, and tech moguls from Silicon Valley, the movement decried the “chaos” of democratically elected school boards and advocated instead for an “open market” where parents take their chances on loosely regulated charter schools.

The push for privatization has been particularly consequential in urban communities of color such as Newark, New Jersey. “Since 2008, the share of students who attend charters in Newark has nearly quadrupled—from 9 percent in 2008 to about 35 percent today,” Chalkbeat reports. “By 2023, that number could swell to 44 percent, according to one estimate, as the city’s charters continue to fill seats that were preapproved by the [former Republican Governor Chris] Christie administration.” About a quarter of the district’s budget—$237 million—goes to charter schools, up from $60 million ten years ago.

But state takeovers and the ushering in of charter management “never address the structural inequity in the system,” according to Brown. Regardless of the change in governance, urban schools for black and brown students continue to be plagued with large class sizes, punitive discipline codes, rotating faculties of inexperienced teachers, and curriculums void of advanced courses in world languages, art and music, and higher-level math and science.

With undemocratic governance, the inequity often worsens, Brown argues. Communities like Newark “have had the right to self-determination snatched from them,” he says. “If they don’t have the right to govern their own schools, then people who take the schools over operate the schools based on their opinions of people in the community,” rather than on the desires of parents and voters.

Fighting Back and Winning in New Jersey

However, there are recent signs these communities are fighting back and frequently winning to gradually claw back their local, democratic governance.

In New Orleans, the community had its first victory in July 2018 when Louisiana gave a locally elected school board power to open and close charters. In Philadelphia, 16 years of governance by a state-appointed commission ended in June 2018, and governance power transferred to a local school board appointed by the mayor. And more recently in New Jersey, three districts—Paterson, Newark, and Camden—voted for democratically elected boards and the power to hold local board members accountable at the ballot box.

State takeovers had ended in Newark and Paterson earlier this year, and Camden is still under state control, but when voters in these communities had the opportunity to decide whether they wanted schools to be run by an elected board or a board appointed by the mayor, they voted overwhelmingly for elected boards.

“To have a chance to regain an elected school board in these New Jersey communities and then see voters come out and actually vote for democracy is a testament to the work of grassroots advocacy groups in these communities,” says Brown, pointing to three Journey for Justice member groups—Camden Parent and Student Union, Parents Unified for Local School Education (Newark), and Paterson Education Organizing Committee. “These groups have achieved a strong victory against inequity and privatization,” he says.

“We have to get totally out from under state control,” says Ronsha Dickerson, a leader of the Camden group. “An elected board accountable to the voters will help us unpeel the corruption in the system.”

Addressing “corruption” was supposedly the reason to impose state intervention in Camden schools years ago. But according to Dickerson, as the state’s authority gradually grew in the city, and democratic control ebbed, the conditions in the schools worsened and corruption increased. Each time democracy declined—during mayoral control, under the watch of a state-appointed monitor, then with state takeover—board members and other officials were increasingly more apt to be chosen from a “political establishment,” she says, “all in the spirit of progressive education but really to benefit the establishment.”

The “establishment” Dickerson refers to has been closely aligned with an invasion of Renaissance Schools, a form of privatization in Camden that transfers administration of a public school to a charter management group or allows a charter firm to “co-locate” a school in an existing public-school campus.

After the state takeover, she says, “no one wanted to talk about Camden schools that were doing well before the takeover—even the ‘mom and pop’ [independent] charters that were doing well. No one wanted to talk about how to roll out what was working in these schools to the rest of the community. Instead, the only focus was bringing in more Renaissance Schools.”

The introduction and expansion of Renaissance Schools has deeply divided the community and has resulted in charges that these schools serve far fewer percentages of students who have learning disabilities or who don’t speak English well.

In Newark, state takeover also led to increased corruption according to Johnnie Lattner of Parents Unified for Local School Education. Similar to Camden, he believes the state-appointed board had become accustomed to selecting members who had links to charter schools.

Although he concedes the influence of the charter industry will likely still exist under an elected board, because of the “money and manpower” behind candidates backed by charter advocates, “Elections are the only way they’ll feel the pressure of parents and voters,” he says.

Changing the Conversation About Privatization

The successful efforts to take back local control and democratic governance of schools by grassroots groups like the ones in New Jersey have “changed the conversation about privatization,” according to Brown.

Of course, no one expects democratically elected school boards alone to fully address the challenges that schools in urban black and brown communities face. Research studies on the impact school boards have on student achievement are few and far between and often find the effects have more to do with how the board behaves rather than the process that created it.

But grassroots organizers fending off privatization and fighting for elected school boards understand a democratically elected board is just the beginning in winning back more parent and citizen voice in their districts. They believe their communities have more leverage when they at least have the opportunity to vote inattentive board members out.

“Was the elected school board in New Orleans before Katrina sometimes inattentive to the needs of parents?” asks Bigard. “Sure,” she says, but under state control, the appointed board wasn’t accountable either. Schools no longer had music and art classes and advanced courses in science and math. Charter schools didn’t follow the laws, especially for how to educate students with disabilities. And parents didn’t have anyone to call to complain to.

“At least now that we have a local board with some authority,” Bigard says, “people are more engaged and invested than I’ve ever seen. And we’re ready to demand board members listen to us and step into their power, or we’ll recall any who don’t.”

To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute.

Click here to read a selection of Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet, or here to access the complete text.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Photo Credit: Charles Edward Miller (www.cemillerphotography.com) / Flickr

The Teacher Walkouts Mattered In The Midterms

Even before the votes from the recent midterm elections were completely counted  – a process that took nearly two weeks in many races – numerous prominent news outlets were quick to report on the supposed failure of the “education wave,” those school teachers and other educators who ran for office up and down ballots across the country. One report that received particularly widespread circulation, by Associated Press, carried the headline “Tough lessons: Teachers fall short in midterm races.” Another for U.S. News & World Report said, “Poor Marks for Teachers in Midterms.” Clever, huh.

Indeed, numerous news outlets seemed eager to reinforce a narrative that despite an unprecedented number of teachers and public school advocates running for political office, “underwhelming voter interest in education” and a “red wall” of Republican opposition were just too much to overcome.

An exception to this shallow reporting was a piece by The Guardian that reported “teachers made huge gains in the midterm elections.”

But the article quotes union leaders in walkout states Oklahoma and Arizona, as well as president of national American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, even though unions did not lead the teacher walkouts.

To get a better sense of the real impact teacher walkouts had on the midterms, I called on frontline organizers and public-school advocates in states where there was substantial documentation that education would have a big impact on election results. What I found was overwhelming consensus that yes, teacher walkouts this spring had a significant impact on the midterm elections and will continue to reverberate in politics and policy making.

Inspiring Women to Run

In West Virginia, where teachers started the wave of walkouts that rippled across the country, “the teachers strike woke up countless women voters to both run for office and support other women doing the same,” says Gary Zuckett.

Zuckett is the Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, a grassroots progressive advocacy that canvassed and phone-banked to elect a slate of candidates who support public schools, environmental protections, affordable healthcare, and other progressive issues.

Zuckett believes the statewide teacher walkouts in the Mountain State inspired a group of first-time candidates, mostly women, to join with other progressive women incumbents to form a unified slate they call Mountain Mamas to press for their issues . Seven of these women candidates won their races, two of whom are women of color won.

Zuckett also attributes the defeats of two powerful Republican lawmakers – Robert Karnes, the vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee who lost in the primary, and Joe Statler, the vice chair in the House who lost in the general election – to their vocal opposition to the teacher walkouts.

Because of the teachers’ labor actions, “lawmakers no longer take elections for granted,” Zuckett says, “and our current governor has already floated the idea to bump teachers’ pay again in the next legislative session.”

Upsetting the Establishment

In Kentucky, the next state after West Virginia to experience teacher walkouts, “Republican incumbents got a lot of opposition they had never seen before, much of it coming from teachers who ran pro-public school campaigns,” Chris Brady tells me. Brady is a second term school board member in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, who has managed to defeat big-money candidates backed by conservative Republicans two elections in a row.

Brady points to the victory of special education teacher Tina Bojanowski, who unseated two-term Republican incumbent Phil Moffett, as a sign the teacher walkouts mattered in November. At least 10 current or former teachers who ran for office in 2018 won.

“The number of educators now elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives is 14. Half of them are Republicans and half are Democrats,” Gay Adelmann tells me. Adelmann is a public school parent in Louisville and current president of Save Our Schools Kentucky. She recently ran for state Senate in the Democratic Party, losing in the primary with 44 percent of the vote as a first-time candidate with little funding.

Grassroots public school activists animated by teacher walkouts earlier this year, “specifically targeted” legislators who voted against public schools, she tells me. While many of those incumbents won anyway, some prominent lawmakers fell, including the sitting House Majority Leader who lost in the Republican primary to a high school math teacher.

Overcoming Gerrymandered Districts

In Oklahoma, the next state to experience mass teacher walkouts, “this spring’s teacher uprising poured a Blue Wave directly into a glass half full for educators,” writes retired teacher John Thompson for The Progressive magazine.

“Though Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson’s loss to Republican newcomer Kevin Stitt prompted Oklahoma press to dub the November election a “disappointment” for teachers, the story is more complicated,” argues Thompson.

As evidence for the impact of the teacher walkouts, Thompson points to the big jump in the state legislature’s Education Caucus – “growing from nine members to 25 or 26 – and a “near-tripling of the caucus” if legislators who are former educators or who got their starts as education advocates are included in the count.

Thompson points to gerrymandered districts, “where it would seem impossible to elect a Democrat,” that swung blue due in part to education advocacy, including a “Republican stronghold in Oklahoma City,” where four progressive Democratic women won, including a surprising win for Democrat Kendra Horn over incumbent Republican and Steve Russell for a seat in the U.S. House.

“It’s clear that the teacher resistance contributed to a bipartisan sea change in Oklahoma governance, Thompson concludes.

Running Competitive Races

In Arizona, where teachers inspired by their colleagues in other red states walked out of school en masse, “the #RedforEd movement had an enormous impact on the elections,” says Beth Lewis.

Lewis helped form and currently leads Save Our School Arizona, a grassroots organization of teachers, parents, retired educators, and public-school advocates that successfully pushed a referendum onto the ballot, Proposition 305, that let Arizona voters decide the fate of a bill passed in the state legislature that would expand a school voucher program statewide. The defeat of Prop 305 in the November election was a huge win for public schools.

“Because of the grassroots organizing of teachers, parents, and citizens around the state,” says Lewis, “we defeated Proposition by 65 percent and elected Kathy Hoffman, a speech-language pathologist who walked out as part of the #RedforEd movement, to be our State Superintendent.”

While most educators who ran for office in the state lost, there were exceptions that can be credited to the success of teacher activism. In a huge upset, second-time Democratic candidate Jennifer Pawlik, a former elementary school teacher, prevailed in legislative district that had never gone blue, in its current configuration. She calls her victory a product of a “perfect storm” that included coalition-building in her district and the teach walkouts that called voters’ attention to the crisis in Arizona schools.

Many of the educators who lost came excruciatingly close, including Christine Marsh, the 2016 Arizona teacher of the year, who lost her race by only 267 votes. Marsh, a first-time candidate who lost to a well-established Republican incumbent in a district carried by Donald Trump in 2016, had little funding and admits, “It wasn’t easy, teaching full-time and running for office.”

Raising Education Issues Everywhere

What’s also under-appreciated about the impact of teacher walkouts in midterm elections is their influence in states that did not experience walkouts.

In Wisconsin, for instance, education was a top factor, second only to healthcare, in defeating [incumbent Republican Governor] Scott Walker,” says Robert Kraig. Kraig is Executive Director Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a grassroot organization that campaigned hard for Walker’s successful challenger, longtime state school superintendent Tony Evers who called out Walker for his horrible track record on funding education.

“The highly visible strikes emboldened educators and public-school supporters in a way that benefited candidates running on increasing investments in public schools,” says Kraig. The teacher uprisings “also took the issue away from Republicans” when Walker tried to run as an “education candidate” but couldn’t run away from the massive cuts he’d enacted to the system.

Overall, it’s very difficult if not impossible to calculate the real impact teacher activism had in the midterms – especially in states where teachers didn’t walk out – and reports on the power of teacher activism will rely mostly on anecdotes.

One quantitative measure that’s frequently mentioned is a tally of candidates currently employed as teachers from Education Week which shows that of the 177 who filed to run for state legislative seats, “only one-quarter of those ended up winning.”

While that certainly sounds like a poor record, what was the percent of wins for any other occupation running for office in the midterms? Further, when there is a surge of first-time candidates associated with an emerging, grassroots movement not funded by corporate PACs and powerful political groups, what would normally be considered a good showing?

To write off the impact of teachers and education advocates on elections with all-too-clever headlines is slipshod reporting that sells short not only the intelligence of voters but also the power of democracy.

 

What School Funding Advocates Should Learn From Midterm Elections

One of the big winners in the 2018 midterm elections you may not have heard about was education funding. Why this may be news to you is because much in the same way some observers incorrectly concluded the blue wave was merely a ripple, quick takes on last week’s results of important education-related ballot referendums have overlooked important lessons to learn about where and when increased funding for schools can win.

First, high-profile ballot initiatives to boost school funding statewide have always had mixed success. This year’s referendums were no exception.

The Winners

Voters in Georgia overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that allows school district within the same county to put sales and use tax increases for funding public schools on local election ballots.

Maryland’s voters nearly unanimously voted to dedicate from state video lotteries to education supplementary funding, potentially boosting school spending by $125 million in 2020, with an additional $500 million annually thereafter.

In New Jersey, voters passed a ballot referendum that raises $500 million in funding for school security. And a strong majority of Montana voters agreed to continue a mill levy that provides an estimated $19 million a year to the state’s university system.

The Losers

On the other hand, in Utah, a “ballot question” asking voters to approve a ten-cent tax increase on gas that would allowed more state funding to go to public schools was rejected by roughly two-thirds of the voters.

A Missouri initiative that would have allowed for a 2 percent tax on medical marijuana to go toward drug treatment, veteran services, and early childhood education lost.

And Colorado voters rejected an amendment that would have overridden constitutional restraints on state spending and provided $1.6 billion a year for school funding by creating a progressive income tax system that would raise taxes on those making more than $150,000 per year.

(An Oklahoma school funding initiative that failed at the ballot box really wasn’t a vote for increased funding, as it would have mostly just given school leaders permission to engage in a shell game with school funds.)

Local Success

Yet, while voters were often rejecting sweeping, statewide ballot measures, they were overwhelmingly approving increased school spending closer to home. In Florida, in large counties across the state, every proposed local education tax for funding education passed.

Similarly in Ohio, 69 percent of levy referendums to raise schools funding passed. In Wisconsin, 55 of 67 local initiatives to raise taxes for schools on ballots across the state were approved, potentially generating as much as $980 in new funding for schools.

In southeast Minnesota, nine of the 12 ballot referendums to generate more tax revenues for local schools were successful. including in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, where voters said yes to more than $1 billion for new construction, renovations, and technology improvements for schools. Indianapolis voters approved two ballot referendums increasing tax revenues for schools, extending a long winning streak for education-related ballot referendums across the state.

And Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed a $600 million levy for local schools.

A Pattern, Not a ‘Paradox’

The dichotomy of rejecting grand calls for school funding versus embracing measures closer to home was particularly jarring in Colorado, where voters rejected the statewide ballot initiative while “about two-thirds” of the local school tax measures across the state passed.

Education correspondent for the New York Times Dana Goldstein looks at this inconsistency between success for education funding in local elections while broader initiatives often fail, and she sees a “paradox.” She also observes that while most public opinion expresses support for increase school funding, voters frequently approve ballot measure that cap income tax or require hard-to-achieve two-thirds majorities for new taxes and fees, which make it “difficult to direct money to schools.”

But what would seem to be a contradiction is actually consistent with a pattern.

For years, surveys have found that while public attitudes about schools in general have continued to sour, local schools continue to be held in high favor. In the long-running public opinion survey conducted annually by PDK, “public school parents overwhelmingly believe the schools attended by their oldest children are worthy of A’s and B’s,” while only about 20 percent of parents give the same high ratings to the nation’s schools.

Many have speculated why this would be case – that local attitudes toward schools vary based on proximity – but the pattern nevertheless holds true to school funding initiatives too, and it would seem that advocates for increased school funding are bound to have more success if they aim initiatives at local levels.

When Going Local Won’t Work

Of course, relying on local taxes alone for increased school funding is an imperfect solution.

Economically disadvantaged communities are often unable to raise local taxes and desperately need the financial assistance of the state.

Also, rightwing political advocates and stingy business proponents have understood that voters are way more inclined to boost tax rates for local schools, for years, and have worked steadily in many states to cap or prevent local property, sales, or use taxes and severely limit local revenues for schools and other public services.

One of those states is Michigan, where the state limits annual property tax revenue growth to the rate of inflation and restricts annual property valuation increases after they’ve experienced a downturn due to an economic recession, natural disaster, or other calamity.

Michigan is also where voters just elected Democratic candidate for governor Gretchen Whitmer over her Republican opponent due in large part for her support for making greater investments in public schools. Down-ballot progressive challengers like Rashida Tlaib also won due in part to campaigning for increased funding for public schools.

All this suggests a way forward for school funding advocates in 2019 and 2020: Go local when you can, and when you can’t, get behind candidates who will champion your cause.

Education Issues in the Midwest May Have Saved the Democrats

Those who speculated that the Democrat’s prospects in the midterm elections would only happen if they won big in the Midwest were prescient. Indeed, it’s hard to make the argument that any semblance of a Democratic Party “wave” would have been possible without key wins in these states.

The need for Democrats to prevail in the Midwest was critical to the party’s success. Donald Trump won Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin in 2016 and came close in Minnesota. But a perhaps more important trend in these states had been the Republican dominance down ballot where Republicans controlled both chambers of state legislatures and governors and most of the U.S. House seats in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio.

In the 2018 midterm contests, that trend took a substantial turnaround. Of the 75 Republican Congressional Representative seats that were rated “vulnerable,” 28 flipped Democratic, so far, and 12 of those red-to-blue flips were in the Midwest – four in Pennsylvania; two each in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota; and one each in Kansas and Michigan – more than any other region. The Democratic Party held on to vulnerable Senate seats in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In state races, of the seven governors who flipped red to blue, four were in the Midwest – Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Democrats flipped the Minnesota House, broke a Republican super-majority in Michigan, and won a super-majority in Illinois.

The importance of Midwest races to the Democrats should also be appreciated because of what the winning campaigns were about, more often than not.

Democrats running for offices across the Midwestern states ran against “the Republican establishment rather than against Mr. Trump,” according to political analysts for the New York Times.

“Democrats in these states ran on health care, education, and other bread-and-butter issues,” writes Jennifer Rubin, a Republican political analyst for the Washington Post. Education was “the major theme,” writes Ruth Conniff for The Progressive – especially in Wisconsin races, but also throughout the region.

Indeed, up and down the ballots, especially in state contests, Democratic candidates emphasized increasing school funding and ending or at least providing greater government control of school privatization efforts, such charter schools and voucher programs that give families public funds to transfer children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer knocked off her Republican opponent for an open but previously Republican-held governor’s seat by campaigning on women’s reproductive health and investing in public infrastructure – especially in public education. She won the backing of the National Education Association by calling for greater investments in schools, ending for-profit charter schools, and enacting more accountability for nonprofit charters.

Down-ballot wins in the Mitten State included one of the country’s first two Muslim-Americans to serve in Congress, Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat elected in the 13th Congressional District around Detroit. Tlaib’s campaign pledged to “increase funding for public schools and to ensure charter schools are regulated and held accountable. Charter schools cannot be allowed to take money away from public schools while failing our kids.”

In Wisconsin, where voters rated education a top issue in the election – with 40 percent saying it’s a first or second priority, second only to the economy at 41 percent – longtime state school superintendent Tony Evers defeated two-term incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker. Evers drew a sharp contrast to Walker, who had made Wisconsin a national leader on cutting education funding. “Evers proposed increasing funding for schools by $1.4 billion over the next two years,” while Walker pledged increased support but left few details.

In Kansas, Democratic State Senator Laura Kelly defeated Secretary of State and Trump ally Kris Kobach for an open governor’s seat long held by Republican Sam Brownback, who had a disastrous legacy of crippling tax cuts that left schools so inadequately funded that the state Supreme Court sued state lawmakers. Kelly called for increasing spending on local schools, while Kobach maintained the state “couldn’t afford” to adequately fund schools.

Pennsylvania reelected Democratic Governor Tom Wolf who was swept into office by a wave of opposition to the previous governor’s massive budget cuts to public schools. In this year’s midterms, voters in state level races flipped a substantial number of seats in the State Senate and House from Republican to Democratic, although Republicans remain in the majority in both houses.

In Pennsylvania Congressional races, the red-to-blue trend was significantly more apparent, where Democrats split the 18 seats formerly dominated by Republicans. Among the victors in Pennsylvania U.S. House races were May Gay Scanlon who ran on “making education, and its funding, a national priority,” and Susan Wild whose campaign pledged to “keep public tax dollars in public schools. The myth that ‘school choice’ will be the tide that lifts all boats is much like the myth that tax cuts for the wealthy will ‘trickle down’ to the middle and lower class. Tax revenue should be invested in our public schools – especially those that are struggling.”

In Illinois, Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker defeated incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, in part, by drawing stark differences on education. While Rauner pledged to expand the state’s voucher program to $100 million tax credit scholarship “to a billion” dollars if he could, Pritzker said he’d curtail the program, which already diverts public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition for 5,600 students, and use that money instead for public education.

In Minnesota, voters elected Democratic candidate Tim Walz, to an open governor’s seat.. Walz, is a former public high school geography teacher and football coach, who during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives authored the Forever GI Bill to expand veterans’ education benefits and voted against a school voucher program the federal government funds in Washington, D.C..

While he made support for public schools a cornerstone of his campaign, his opponent Jeff Johnson insisted that what Minnesota families need is a voucher program like Michigan’s or Wisconsin’s that would direct public education funds to private schools. Walz pledged to block any proposed voucher programs.

Of course, Democrats had setbacks in the Midwest too, especially in Ohio where a strong candidate for governor lost to a vulnerable Republican.

But as Democrats now prepare for hopefully bigger wins in 2020, the party should take the valuable lessons learned from the Midwest midterms to heart.

(Photo credit: Amtrak)

The Education Wave That Began In West Virginia May Change Politics For The Nation

Whether Democrats take back the House in the midterm elections may come down to races like the one in West Virginia’s third Congressional District.

“Richard Ojeda has taken a district that Trump won by almost 50 points … and turned into a toss-up,” writes Bill Scher for Politico. The article includes Ojeda in a list of 15 candidates that will not only determine control of the House and Senate, but also signal “how the party tries to oust President Trump” in 2020.

“If Democrats want to reclaim white working-class Trump voters in West Virginia, Ojeda may be their best hope to do so,” writes Elia Nilsen for Vox, “His … challenge is to persuade the Trump-loving voters of his district to send him to Congress as a Democrat.”

But if races like the one in West Virginia’s third Congressional District determine the direction of politics in the country, the fight over education will have a lot to do with it.

‘The Political Face’ of the Education Wave

Ojeda (you pronounce the “j”), a much-tattooed Iraqi war veteran who appeared in Michael Moore’s recent documentary, state senator of the district that includes counties that sparked the statewide teacher strike earlier this year that shut down schools in all 55 counties. His prominent support of the teachers made him the “the political face” of the strike, reported the New York Times .

The teachers eventually forced the legislature to fix the state employee’s health-insurance plan, raise public workers’ salaries, halt an expansion of charter schools, kill a proposal to eliminate seniority, and scuttle a bill that would take away the rights of unions to deduct dues through paychecks. Their labor action is credited with inspiring teaches in nearby Kentucky – then, in turn, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina – to also walk out of schools to protest lack of education funding, poor teacher pay, and other grievances.

Scher and Nilsen note that Ojeda is running on a populist platform that mixes some of the proposals of Bernie Sanders – such as a public option and Medicare buy-in for health care and legalized medical marijuana – with some of the rhetoric of Donald Trump, including tirades against big business, Wall Street, and the loss of jobs in coal mining and manufacturing.

What Scher and Nilsen overlook completely, however, is the impact education has, not only on Ojeda’s race, but also on the potential redirection of the Democratic party.

‘Education Is a Major Factor’

“Education is a major factor in both our federal and state elections,” Gary Zuckett tells me in a phone conversation. As Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, Zuckett leads a grassroots progressive advocacy that is canvassing and phone-banking to elect a slate of like-minded candidates who support public schools, affordable housing, environmental protections, and universal access to affordable healthcare, among other issues.

“We’re out in places like Fayette County knocking doors in towns with only 200-300 people because they are the folks we need to bring over” to the Democratic party, Zuckett says.

Zuckett considers sending Ojeda to Congress “a major focus” of his organization’s advocacy. “He was one of the first state lawmakers to come out in support of the teacher walkouts,” Zuckett explains. The movement by and large started in Mingo, Wyoming, and Logan counties. Logan is wholly in Ojeda’s State Senate district (the seventh), and the other two are split down the middle with half in his territory. He was on the floor of the capitol broadcasting live videos telling teachers how Republican lawmakers were screwing them. He was the first to warn the West Virginia State Senate to pay attention to the teacher rebellion.

“Our other objectives are also to whittle away at the Republican majorities in both chambers of our state government and build momentum to electing a Democratic governor in 2020,” Zuckett tells me. Education has become a hot button in many of those state races as well.

Grassroots Momentum

Zukett sees much of the grassroots momentum for Democrats coming from the teachers’ walkouts because of “the sense of pride going back to our labor roots,” that includes historic railroad strikes and “mine wars.” West Virginians take a lot of pride that so many teachers in other states used the teachers’ action in their state as inspiration for their own school walkouts. he feels. “I loved seeing teachers in other states carrying signs that read, ‘Don’t make me go West Virginia on you.’ That people looked at West Virginia as a ‘if they can do it, we can do it’ model continues to inspire us.”

It should be noted that the impact of the teacher walkout is not just being felt in the Democratic party. Many of the West Virginia Republicans who opposed the teachers’ demands lost in their state primary elections. Republicans – including Ojeda’s opponent for the open seat, Republican State House member Carol Miller – credit themselves for having voted to pass the pay raise, but that came after fighting the pay raise all session, notes Zuckett, calling the supposed claims Republican make for raising teacher pay “revisionist history.”

“Our Republican governor has even announced, a month before the election, that he will seek an additional raise next session,” Zuckett explains, while, in the meantime doing nothing about the constantly increasing costs to teachers for their health insurance plan. “It’s a game of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he argues

A Crossover Issue

While Zuckett concedes healthcare is truly “the top issue” in this election, he explains how that issue easily crosses over to education as well because the teacher walkouts were just as much about healthcare as they were about teacher pay and school funding. Every year, public employees, including teachers, face higher health insurance premiums and copays in the state’s healthcare plan, while salaries remain essentially flat, when accounting for inflation.

Further, Medicaid expansion is a huge issue because one-tenth of the state’s population is covered by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which provides federal funding for the expansion. Battling the state’s horrendous opioid crisis – West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdoses in the nation – is another major healthcare-related issue.

Yet, even these issues cross over into education because teachers are often the first employees of the state to see firsthand how lack of medical care and the ravages of drug addiction affect children. Groups around the state that came together first because of education issues are now also organizing around economic, environmental, and social justice issues.

Another profound impact the teacher walkouts are having on West Virginia politics is the “heightened awareness among teachers about how the workings of state government, and their individual state representatives, directly affect their lives and livelihood,” says Zuckett. “Many of the throng of teachers who filled the capitol last year had never met as constituents with their lawmakers, and most got a quick civics lesson on political power.” That “lesson” was that, far too often, that power resided with corporations and big money interests rather than with voters.

Changing ‘The Old Rules of Politics’

Plus, the fact that teachers in West Virginia are overwhelmingly women, as they are everywhere, has resulted in many more teachers running for statehouse seats who were never in politics before, Zuckett notes.

“In this election the old rules of politics seem to be out the window,” says Zuckett. “I see more people getting fed up by the craziness coming out of Washington, DC and the indifference in our state legislature to the struggles of working people.”

Chances are, that if teachers are fed up, many more others are too.

(Photo credit:: Lily Altavena, Arizona Republic)

Education Matters More Than Trump to Wisconsin Voters

Local issues hold the key to many midterm elections, despite all the talk about how President Donald Trump is nationalizing these races and Democrats should follow his lead and do the same. It’s important to know that in many places, voters still care first about issues that affect them at home, more than the latest outrage coming from the White House.

One of those places is Wisconsin, where deep cuts to education by the incumbent Republican governor, Scott Walker, have put it at the top of many voters’ priorities.

Wisconsin, which went for Trump in 2016, has been under Republicans’ control in both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat and mostly sends Republicans to the U.S. House. If a “blue wave” is truly to take place in November, it will have to include Democratic victories in Wisconsin. And it will have to include a new direction for education in the state.

“Education is either the top one or two issue in this election,” says Matt Brusky, Deputy Director at Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Health care is Badger State residents’ other top priority, he adds.

Brusky should know. He and and other members of this progressive grassroots group, part of the People’s Action national network, have been going door to door across Wisconsin to canvass for candidates that support the group’s Rise Up platform, an eight-year plan to move the state towards guaranteed comprehensive healthcare, environmental safeguards, criminal justice reform, and equality of educational opportunity.

When I called Brusky, he was gassing up his rental car after knocking doors in Fountain City, where locals are struggling with a school consolidation due to lack of funding from the state. “Education is usually a top issue in the state because of what Walker has done to it,” he says. “Almost all candidates are running on it.”

“It is moving to see how education has become a headline issue for the election,” says Julie Underwood, a University of Wisconsin professor. “During the public hearings on the last budget, over 30 percent of the public comments had to do with public education, and there has been a focus on education issues in candidate forums and debates.”

‘An Arms Race Over Who Can Sound the Best’

The race between Walker, who was elected in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave that swept Wisconsin, and his opponent, long-time state schools chief Tony Evers, has become especially focused on education – “an arms race over who can sound the best,” says Robert Kraig, Citizen Action of Wisconsin’s Executive Director.

Under Walker’s leadership, the state has slashed education spending to levels below what they were in 2008 and redirected millions in education funds to private alternatives such as charter schools and voucher-funded private schools. Under his leadership, the state enacted Act 10 – a crackdown on teachers job protections’ and collective bargaining rights – which has resulted in widespread teacher shortages and inexperienced staff.

In contrast, Evers calls for a double-digit increase in school spending, a repeal of Act 10, limits on the state’s voucher programs, and increased financial transparency of private schools that receive voucher money.

Yet astonishingly, Walker claims he is the “education candidate” in the election, pointing to recent funding increases he signed, that despite their impressive sticker price, still provide less per pupil than in 2011, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

“Walker can try to pump up his education credentials, but the problem is he is a long-standing incumbent with a clear track record,” says Kraig, “The fact he has done a lot to try to change his education profile is evidence, given his campaign’s immense polling apparatus, the he must know the issue is causing people who voted for him in the past to vote against him this time.”

“Clearly Tony Evers has the best grasp on the issues,” says Underwood. “He has been a teacher, administrator, and state superintendent.  He understands that public education is the heart of a community and critical for our democracy. Although Scott Walker claims to be an education governor, public education has been greatly damaged during his term.”

‘Public Schools Under Attack’

In down-ballot races, education issues diverge somewhat, depending on community characteristics. “In the suburbs,” says Brusky, “most of the talk is about losing programs and the needs for holding local referendums” to shore up budgets. “Schools are getting crushed” In rural communities, he says, with many having to consolidate or close altogether.

The candidate who seems to have set the pace on education for other Democrats to follow is Marisabel Cabrera who ousted her incumbent opponent Josh Zepnick in a district on Milwaukee’s south side in the Democratic primary. She does not face a Republican opponent in November.

Cabrera is an unabashed advocate for public schools, saying, “We continue to see our public schools under attack, and it’s time to stand up and put an end to the takeovers, the cuts in funding, and the sale of public buildings to private interests.”

In interviews and candidate debates, Cabrera explicitly opposed school privatization, while Zepnik expressed support for voucher programs.

Another down-ballot candidate, Julie Henszey, running as a pro-education candidate in State Senate District 5, says, “Schools still face class sizes that are too large, special education programs that are underfunded, and a lack of investment in art, music, libraries, and physical fitness … The trend has been to siphon millions of dollars in public money over to private schools through less accountable, and less successful, voucher schemes.”

In addition to endorsing Evers, Cabrera and Henszey, Citizen Action of Wisconsin is also backing Jeff Smith, running for a state senate seat in the western part of the state that includes Eau Claire and many rural communities. Smith, who was elected to Wisconsin’s State Assembly in 2002 but was ousted in the 2010 Tea Party wave, got his start in politics as a public school parent activist, who served on a statewide education task force, then ran for office because he saw the need for funding schools.

Smith’s platform calls for raising education funding back to previous levels, ending the state’s “failed voucher school program,” expanding early childhood education programs, and mandating universal kindergarten.

Democrats Have the Education Advantage

None of this is to say Trump is not a factor in Wisconsin midterms, or that Democrats are unified on education.

While Kraig can’t personally attest to knowing many Wisconsin voters who voted for Trump and are now poised to vote Democratic, he hears secondhand accounts of voters flipping from Republican to Democrat and notices the enthusiastic reception Democratic candidates are getting in traditionally red parts of the state while rightwing campaign funders and groups, such as the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, are investing heavily in areas where their candidates have easily won in the past.

And Democratic candidates in the state often present a muddled message on education issues, says Kraig. For instance, when Republican candidates threaten to remove insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions from the Affordable Healthcare Act, Democrats tend to rally around in unified opposition.

“Threats to insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions are a political third rail,” Kraig argues, whereas, “we have not defined what a third rail would be in education.” While Democrats have created a clear idea of what a pro-healthcare candidate is, according to Kraig, “we haven’t created a clear perspective of what a pro-education Democrat is versus one who isn’t.”

Nevertheless, the impact education is having in Wisconsin’s midterm races appears straightforward, given the record Walker and his Republican allies have of enacting historic cuts and their antipathy for teachers, and Democrats are at least united in opposition to that and are using their opposition to their advantage.

Recent polls show the face-off between Evers and Walker is a toss-up, and Democrats could win two more seats this election, just a 12 percent change, to gain a Senate majority and have a chance to win 15 House seats, representing a 15 percent gain, to have a majority in that chamber.

(Photo credit: Sue Ruggles, LaborNotes)

Spring’s Teacher Walkouts Put Education On The Ballot In Fall Elections

This year’s Educator Spring that brought teachers into the streets in massive protests has resulted in hundreds of educators running for office in November midterm elections, thrust education issues into electoral contests between Democratic and Republican candidates up and down the ballot, and pushed education-related initiatives on ballots in 16 states, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. “From taxes to bonds, governance to vouchers, education is on the ballot this November,” says the analysis. “Voters should not miss the chance to make their voices heard.”

In states such as Arizona and Georgia where gubernatorial candidates are locked in tight races and Democrats are anticipating gains in state legislatures, state ballot measures could help provide the difference between victory and defeat.

At least one study on the impact of ballot initiatives on voter turnout has found in midterm elections they can increase turnout at 7 to 9 percent in initiative states compared to non-initiative states, while turnout in presidential elections tends to be 3 to 4.5 percent higher in initiative states than in non-initiative states. Ballot measures have the power to “transform low information midterm elections to high information elections,” according to the study, and the presence of “even one initiative ballot is sufficient” to boost turnout.

School Privatization at Stake in Arizona

In what is perhaps the most-heated ballot initiative contest, in Arizona, voters will decide whether a state school voucher program providing taxpayer money for families to pay for private school tuitions will be expanded.

The massive #RedForEd teacher walkout that occurred in the state this spring resulted in a grassroots campaign to place an Invest in Education income-tax measure on the November ballot. Having that measure in the election, with the referendum to expand vouchers, was expected to bring out pro-education voters. But now that the state Supreme Court has ruled to remove the income-tax measure from the ballot, its supporters can focus their wrath on the voucher issue.

Incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey has come out strongly in support of the school voucher plan while his opponent Democratic nominee David Garcia is urging voters to vote no on the measure.

The program currently provides some 23,000 qualifying families access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) that give them public education funds to spend as they please for education services. About 5,000 families currently participate in the program, mostly to enroll their learning-disabled students in private schools.

An analysis of the Arizona program mainly serves wealthy families leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts to attend racially and economically segregated private schools. A state auditor’s office identified more than $102,000 from the program being misspent in just a 5-month period, including parents who spent program monies after enrolling children in public school, parents who did not submit required quarterly expense reports, and parents who purchased prohibited items. The report recommends the state strengthen safeguards and enforcement measures rather than expanding the program.

Nevertheless, last year the state enacted a new law expanding the program from only students with disabilities or who are enrolled in underperforming schools to all 1.1 million public school students in the state.

A petition campaign waged by grassroots groups supporting public schools successfully challenged the law expanding the voucher program, gathering enough signatures to push the law onto a ballot referendum, called Proposition 305, where a no vote would prevent expansion.

A recent poll found that Prop 305 could pass, primarily due to voter confusion about the true nature of the initiative and a disinformation campaign about the initiative funded by the billionaire Koch brothers and the organization founded by education secretary Betsy DeVos. But grassroots efforts to defeat school privatization attempts have come from behind and won in the past despite the big money campaigns they fought against.

School Funding Needs ‘Yes’ Votes in Many States

In Georgia, Amendment 5  would amend the Georgia Constitution to authorize a school district or group of school districts within a county to call for a sales and use tax referendum to fund local schools. The state funds its schools less than it did in 2008 and ranks fourth behind Arizona, Alabama, and Idaho for making the deepest cuts, 16.5 percent, to education funding.

Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacy Abrams has campaigned for fully funding Georgia schools and strongly backs a yes vote on Amendment 5. Abrams, who, if elected, would be the first female African American governor in America, has also received endorsements from both state and national teachers’ associations.

Her Republican opponent Brian Kemp has said little about his plans for education except for a vague pledge to raise teacher pay. Recent polls find the difference in voter approval for each candidate is “razor thin,” and a ground swell for Amendment 5 could only help Abrams over the top.

In Colorado, another state that saw a mass teacher walkout in the spring, voters have a chance to vote for increasing public school funding with a yes vote on Amendment 73 that would give a $1.6 billion boost to school funding in a state that has chronically shortchanged schools and created massive teacher shortages due to underfunding.

A yes vote on Amendment 73 would increase state income taxes for people earning more than $150,000 per year and increase the state corporate tax rate to 6 percent. These changes are estimated to generate $1.6 billion in revenue for fiscal year (FY) 2019–2020, all of which would support school funding.

Amendment 73 opponents have falsely framed the initiative, calling it a “massive tax hike” mainly to feed administrative bloat in the system. But supporters of the amendment point out that should it pass, 92 percent of Colorado taxpayers will see no impact on their state tax bill and school boards of the state’s largest school districts have already pledged the increased funds would go to vital classroom needs, including raising teacher pay, reducing class sizes, providing more mental health services, and expanding pre-k programs.

Some school funding ballot initiatives are not what they seem, which is the case in Oklahoma, where State Question 801 proposes to let schools use property tax revenue for operations in addition to paying for buildings and maintenance.

Oklahoma is another state that saw massive teacher walkouts this year to protest low teacher pay and drastic cuts to education funding, and the ballot question is a response to the walkouts placed on the ballot by outgoing Republican Governor Mary Fallin as a way to deflect criticism of the state’s negligence in funding education.

The state’s education association has come out in opposition to State Question 801 because although it provides school districts with some added flexibility it does nothing to address the matter at hand – the state’s drastic underfunding of schools. “It is a shell game,” the director of National Education Association in Oklahoma tells a local news outlet, “another gimmick.”

Grassroots opposition to Question 801 may help feed the campaign for Democratic governor nominee Drew Edmondson who is facing off against Republican candidate Kevin Stitt in what has surprisingly become a red-hot race. Edmondson forcefully opposes Question 801, saying “it would lead to inequities in funding and provide the Legislature a ‘cop out’ for school funding needs,” while Stitt favors the measure.

Education-related ballot measures aren’t confined to states that experienced teacher walkouts. Other initiatives that put education funding on the ballot include an amendment for a gas tax to support schools in Utah and a referendum in Ohio to provide extra funding for school safety.

But the ballot initiatives, wherever they occur, observed a reporter for Politico, “reflect education-related fights smoldering around the country.”

During Kavanaugh Craziness, News About DeVos Gets Lost

While the serial outrages of the Trump administration continue to make headlines and whip up popular protests, there’s a danger that the more mundane activities of his cabinet officials and their underlings are being ignored.

Take US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for instance, whose nomination drew a history-making opposition and set off an avalanche of ridicule in social media and late-night comedy, but who now operates largely out of public view behind a security screen that is projected to cost the taxpayers nearly $8 million over the next year.

What’s largely being overlooked behind all the lurid headlines and endless insults are all the ways in which officials like DeVos are quietly at work continuing to use our tax money to advance a deeply troubling agenda.

Doing the Koch Brothers’ Bidding

In her latest low-profile appearance, DeVos and her high-priced security detail paid a friendly visit to Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas without telling local officials, the media, or any other public outlet. The purpose of her stopover was to meet with a select group of representatives of Youth Entrepreneurs, a Wichita-based non-profit group founded by Charles and Liz Koch.

Youth Entrepreneurs, according to an investigative report by the Huffington Post, provides high school curriculum designed to inculcate students in the blessings of unfettered capitalism and libertarian ideology. Among the teachings included in the program’s lesson plans and classroom materials are that “the minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Public assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty.

“Charles Koch had a hands-on role in the design of the high school curriculum,” the reporter reveals, based on leaked emails from a Google group left open to the public. “The goal … was to turn young people into ‘liberty-advancing agents’ before they went to college, where they might learn ‘harmful’ liberal ideas.”

While the purpose of DeVos’s trip to Youth Entrepreneurs remains unclear, it fits a pattern of DeVos using her visits to select education programs in order to feed her propaganda campaign for market-based education reform and privatizing public schools.

Selling the Education ‘Reform’ Lie

Another recent trip brought the DeVos caravan to New Orleans to drop in on two charter schools – nearly all taxpayer-supported schools in New Orleans are charter schools – and praise the district for being “a great example of what can be if people embrace change.”

The schools were carefully selected to build her narrative of market-based reform, the ideology that remade New Orleans schools after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

But as Louisiana-based public-school teacher Mercedes Schneider explains on her personal blog, the charter schools DeVos chose to visit are hardly representative of the conditions of New Orleans public schools under the reform regime.

First, both schools are among the few A-rated schools, based on state rankings, in a sea of D- and F-rated schools. Further, the two schools have much higher percentages of white students than is typical in a district that is overwhelmingly populated by black and brown students.

So what DeVos really illustrates by her visits to these New Orleans schools isn’t how reform produces what works but how reform creates “incredible racial inequity” Schneider correctly concludes.

Stoking the Charter School Industry

It’s important to note how the rhetoric DeVos employs in her propaganda campaign for market-based education reform gets reflected in the policy decisions made by her department.

As Politico reports, USDoE recently awarded $399 million in federal grants to expand and support charter schools across the country.

The grants, made through the Charter Schools Program, which has enjoyed a $40 million boost under the Trump administration, went to individual charter school operators and various state education agencies and nonprofit groups that either help secure funding for charters, push for their expansions, or advocate for the charter cause.

Even a cursory scan of some of the recipients warrants deeper scrutiny.

For instance, among three Alabama charter schools that received $1 million each in grant money, two have already been the subjects of multiple lawsuits.

Birmingham charter Legacy Prep – which recently changed its name, postponed its opening date, and has yet to find a building – just settled a messy court case with its founder – a Baptist church pastor – over who had authority over the school’s operations and whether the school’s governing board was properly constituted.

The court settlement follows closely after the Alabama Public Charter School Commission won its effort to overturn the Birmingham district school board’s original denial of the charter’s application. The district board had ruled last year that the school’s application did not meet the requirements of the district’s request for charter proposals.

So now, thanks to DeVos and her department, federal funds are going to a charter school under suspect leadership, with no building, that the district doesn’t want.

Similarly, another Alabama charter with a million dollar grant, University Charter School in Livingston, had to hurdle a lawsuit to open its doors.

In May, the county board that oversees the district filed suit to prohibit the charter’s authorizer from operating the school in a former high school that the district sold to the authorizer with the specific condition not to open a charter school in the building.

Here again, federal dollars are funding a charter startup in a local community that does not want it. So much for DeVos’s promises to curb the “overreach” of the federal government in education.

Supporting Rightwing Cronies

Another charter school grant winner on the list that deserves a closer look is the American Heritage Academy in Idaho.

The school’s founder Frank Vandersloot is a conservative billionaire, with a net worth of $1.9 billion, who was a finance co-chair of Mitt Romney’s 2012 failed presidential campaign and has given money to Florida Republican US Senator Marco Rubio, former Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, the Republican National Committee, and state Republican parties across the US, according to a report in Forbes.

Vandersloot made national headlines in 2015 when he sued Mother Jones magazine for defamation after the news outlet published an article detailing his efforts to oppose gay rights.

Vandersloot has hosted a closed door meeting with President Trump at the headquarters of his company, Melaleuca. The company – which sells diet, personal care, home cleaning, and cosmetic products  – has been compared to Amway, the mega-company DeVos is heiress to, in that it employs a multi-level marketing strategy.

Vandersloot and DeVos are, in fact, connected through their participation in a multi-level marketing trade group that has been active in promoting legislation that attempts to limit the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to investigate and prosecute multi-level marketing scam operations.

All the Things We Don’t Know

None of this is to consider whether Vandersloot’s charter school, or any of the other charter school grantees, may or may not be worthy institutions, but shouldn’t taxpayers know more about why the school deserves our money?

Should we know, for instance, why grant money will go to a North Carolina charter, the Charlotte Lab School, that touts racial diversity in its mission, yet has a student population that is two-thirds white in a district where only 30 percent of the students are white?

Should we know more about why a federal grant is going to a Kansas City charter school, Scuola Vita Nuova Charter School, that is located at an Italian Cultural Center and had to pay $30,000 to former principal who filed lawsuit claiming the school’s founder made her fire her same-sex partner who also worked at the school?

Because of DeVos’s general lack of transparency, what we’re left with, instead of answers, are more questions and a well-founded suspicion that her purpose in office is to purloin as much public money as she can into the hands of private interests while justifying it as a much-needed reform.

Perhaps if there’s a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives after the upcoming midterm elections, there will be inquiries to reveal the inner machinations of DeVos’s department. But in the meantime, she and her associates toil away behind a shroud of scary headlines, and that’s just the way they want it.

(Photo credit: Joshua Roberts / Reuters)