‘Tired of being unsupported and messed with’: Teachers stage a bold protest that scores national attention

Don’t call what Kentucky teachers just did a “wildcat” labor action, at least not when you’re speaking with Tim Hall. Hall, a classroom teacher at Shawnee High School in Louisville, answered my phone call as he was driving to the state capitol in Frankfort to protest the latest slate of education-related bills being considered in … Continue reading “‘Tired of being unsupported and messed with’: Teachers stage a bold protest that scores national attention”

Don’t call what Kentucky teachers just did a “wildcat” labor action, at least not when you’re speaking with Tim Hall. Hall, a classroom teacher at Shawnee High School in Louisville, answered my phone call as he was driving to the state capitol in Frankfort to protest the latest slate of education-related bills being considered in the legislature. He and hundreds of other teachers in Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district that includes Louisville, called in sick, prompting the district to close schools for over 100,000 students.

Hundreds of those teachers joined Hall at the state capitol. It was the third time in a week and the second day in a row that enough JCPS teachers called out sick to trigger a full district shutdown. The sick-out spread to four other districts that also had to close. But neither the state teachers’ union nor the local union for Jefferson County had anything to do with organizing the action. In fact, union leaders urged teachers to show up for work, preferring instead to have districts send small teams of teachers to lobby state lawmakers.

Yet Hall bristled at using “wildcat” to describe what JCPS teachers were doing. “I don’t like that word,” he said. “I think our concerns are reflective of teachers not only in JCPS but also across the state.”

The Kentucky teachers’ actions are the latest in what has become a wave of teachers using their collective power to influence legislation in state governments, but the sick-out in Kentucky is also a sign of how teacher protests are evolving.

Teachers who once saw labor actions as effective tactical responses to attacks on their financial well-being are now understanding that their labor power is part of a broader strategy to even the playing field in a political landscape that is increasingly unequal. And there’s strong evidence they’re having an impact.

Teacher Strikes Are Evolving

The teachers, joined by parents and other public education activists, organized the sick-out action on social media sites including the Facebook page for JCPS Leads, which Hall helps facilitate. Teachers went back to work at one point, but then extended their protest to a fourth, fifth, and then a sixth day to ensure controversial bills were killed in the legislature.

The roots of this year’s labor action are in last year’s statewide strike when teachers closed schools across the Bluegrass State to protest a new pension bill that would have put retirement earnings for new teachers at greater risk and shortchanged retirees and senior teachers. This year’s sick-out is different.

First, teachers have a much broader array of targets for their protests. “We want a whole package of bills voted down,” Hall explained.

Once again, a threat to teachers’ pensions, House Bill 525, has stirred the teachers’ ire because it would reduce the participation of educators on the state employee pension board. But two other bills go beyond wage-and-benefits grievances: House Bill 205 that would establish a statewide school voucher program giving tax breaks to those who donate to private school scholarships for special-needs and low-income students, and Senate Bill 250 that would take school principal hiring decisions away from local, site-based committees, which include teachers, and give the district superintendent sole responsibility for the hiring process—the bill applies to JCPS only.

Hall sees all three bills as attacks on democracy. “They’re about taking away our ability to collaborate on how our schools operate,” he said. By removing educators from the pension board, ramping up a statewide voucher program, and undermining teachers’ influence on principal hiring, teachers are being pushed further out to the periphery of decision making, he explained, and in turn, are less able to make their voices heard as advocates for their schools and their students.

Also, there’s a good reason why Jefferson County teachers are taking it upon themselves to lead the labor action and go it alone in speaking out for their colleagues elsewhere in the state. Not only is JCPS the only district affected by the bill to change principal hiring; JCPS is also the only district currently under threat of state takeover. Proponents of charter schools and vouchers are generally seen as the most ardent backers of the takeover effort. And Hall and other teachers see all three bills as efforts to further undermine their participation in governance of their schools and usher in more state control and privatization of schools.

A Movement About Democracy

In taking their demands beyond economic grievances to include issues of governance and local community voice, the Kentucky teachers are joining a strong new trend in the teacher movement.

When West Virginia teachers walked off the job last year and started what’s become known as RedForEd, they generally made wages and benefits the core of their grievances. But in their labor action this year, West Virginia teachers expanded their protests to include issues with privatization, specifically, to fight new legislation that would take public money from traditional districts and use it for charter schools and for private and religious school tuition.

Also this year, teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, made opposition to the unchecked growth of charter schools and their lack of transparency and accountability a centerpiece of the unions’ demands.

Education journalists and “experts” have noticed this trend and described it as mostly a battle over funding for public schools vs. charter schools, voucher programs, and other forms of privatization. But that misses the broader argument teachers make that all education mandates that stem from top-down authority and big money interests are meant to rob teachers of having a voice in how schools are governed.

Teachers are making RedForEd a fight not just for funding but also for political power.

Teacher Strikes Work

There’s evidence that the teachers’ change in strategy will work.

Last year’s RedForEd protests clearly affected state legislation where the protests occurred. According to a new analysis, in four states where teachers walked off the job, state legislatures responded by increasing baseline state funding for schools by 3-19 percent.

This year, teacher strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland led to calls from local governments for moratoriums on new charters and increased regulation of the industry. In response, California state lawmakers acted with “lightning speed” to enact new laws that require more transparency in charter school operations.

How successful were the Kentucky teachers? As of this writing, on the final day of the legislative session, two of the three bills teachers targeted in their protests appear to be dead—the bill restructuring the state pension board and the bill creating a statewide school voucher program. The bill targeting the principal hiring process in JCPS appears to have passed in both chambers and will likely be signed by Governor Matt Bevin.

Two out of three is not a bad batting average in a “red state” where Republicans hold a trifecta of strong majorities in both branches of the state legislature and the governor’s seat. And should the dead bills come back to life, Hall assures me, or similar bills spring up, teachers will return to the capitol.

“We’re tired of being unsupported and messed with,” he said. “Teachers want to have fair ways for us to ensure the public education system continues to provide access to well-supported schools for all kids.”

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 Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

(Photo credit: United Teachers of Los Angeles on Twitter)

West Virginia Teachers’ Rapid Strike Victory Shows Why Progressives Must Join Fight Against Privatization

West Virginia’s most recent statewide teacher walkout came and went so quickly there was too little time and attention to comprehend and appreciate the impact the teachers’ actions will likely have long-term on changing the narrative of the teacher movement and how politically progressive advocates and candidates relate to it. In the very first day … Continue reading “West Virginia Teachers’ Rapid Strike Victory Shows Why Progressives Must Join Fight Against Privatization”

West Virginia’s most recent statewide teacher walkout came and went so quickly there was too little time and attention to comprehend and appreciate the impact the teachers’ actions will likely have long-term on changing the narrative of the teacher movement and how politically progressive advocates and candidates relate to it.

In the very first day of the strike, teachers squelched new state legislation they objected to and then held out an additional day to ensure it would die. The day after schools reopened, the teachers got what they wanted—a “clean” bill increasing teacher pay five percent.

But, unlike their largely successful labor action from last year, this time the teachers weren’t making pocketbook issues the focal points of their demands. Instead, it was all about stopping school privatization through charter schools and a new voucher program. The point of the strike was to oppose a Senate bill that included bringing charters and a voucher program to the state even though the measure included the pay raise teachers wanted. Teachers accompanied their protests in the capitol building with chants of “Hey-hey, ho-ho, charter schools have got to go.”

This was a huge gamble for the teachers, not only because they risked a confrontation with the wealthy establishment that backs charters and vouchers but also because they could alienate the coalition of progressive activists who had supported teachers in the past but had never forcefully opposed charter schools.

Teachers Take a Risk

“There had been no widespread debate on charter schools in West Virginia until now,” Gary Zuckett tells me. Zuckett and the West Virginia Citizen Action Group (WVCAG) for which he serves as executive director gladly joined with other social, economic, and environmental justice movements across the state last year to back West Virginia teachers in their demands for a pay raise and a fix to the state’s broken public employee health program. But neither WVCAG nor the groups’ national affiliate People’s Action had ever before made opposition to school privatization a major policy point.

“It’s true—at the national level, progressives don’t talk a lot about K-12 and charter schools,” says Ryan Frankenberry, executive director of the West Virginia Working Families Party, a hyper-local political party that backs candidates largely for their stances on social, economic, and environmental values and their opposition to big money in politics.

So it was never a sure thing should West Virginia teachers make their stand on opposition to charters that the progressive coalition that backed last year’s strike would have their backs.

Clarifying the Politics of Privatization

When teachers began walking off the job across the country last year, their demands were similar to those that progressive policy activists have long supported, such as workers’ rights, higher wages, and better funding for public services like education.

But for years, the politics of school privatization efforts have been confusing. Charters and school voucher programs have been falsely framed as a civil rights cause. Former President Barack Obama gave charter schools a big boost in his administration’s Race to the Top program. Popular Democratic politicians like New Jersey U.S. senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker have strongly backed voucher programs and taken campaign donations from the charter school industry. Progressive leaders like Vermont U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have been vague on their views about charters. And progressive advocacy groups have either generally supported charters or declined to take a position.

But in this year’s walkouts, teachers have raised the stakes in challenging progressives to come down firmly on their side to oppose further expansion of privatization efforts.

Teacher Strikes Change Minds

Beginning with the strike in Los Angeles, teachers began adding opposition to charter schools to their other demands and making a case that these taxpayer-funded, privately operated schools are harmful to public schools.

“The flavor of the teacher strikes has changed,” writes Education Week reporter Madeline Will. “Unlike last year, when teachers across the country shared a similar narrative of crumbling classrooms and stagnant paychecks, the strike demands now are far-reaching. Now, teachers are pushing back against education-reform policies, like charter schools … There’s no clearer evidence of the shift in teacher activism than in West Virginia.”

In the Mountain State, progressives shifted into the anti-privatization column “because of these strikes,” says Frankenberry. “Teachers were able to convince people that resisting charters and vouchers was about fighting for the future of public schools.”

Progressive organizers in the state also can’t deny what they see and hear about the conditions in their public schools and how they’d be affected by the introduction of charters.

“Teachers already know their schools are strapped for cash,” says Zuckett. “The state is already losing its population of school-aged children,” he notes, adding that the school where his wife works as a counselor lost 10 percent of its students this year alone. “Any loss of resources is going to hurt our schools.”

Strikes Spread to Oakland

As soon as the walkout in West Virginia resolved, a teacher strike in Oakland, California, quickly flamed up.

That strike resembles the strike in Los Angeles in which teachers demanded better pay, smaller class sizes, more nurses, counselors and other support staff, as well as an end to the spread of charter schools. But the negative impact of charter schools is likely even worse in Oakland, where the charters enroll 30 percent of the students in the district and siphon over $57 million from the public schools. To further accommodate the charters, the district has announced plans to close 24 public schools.

As of this writing, Oakland teachers are still on strike, declaring in their latest press release, “When 19 out of every 20 teachers… [are] walking the picket line joined by parents, when our rallies attract thousands, when 97 percent of our students stay home—it’s clear that this community wants what [the teachers’ union] demands.”

As the opposition to charters surges to the front of teacher strikes in Oakland, a new bill swiftly moving through the state legislature, with the strong backing of Governor Gavin Newsom, will tighten oversight of charter schools and demand more financial transparency of them.

The growing opposition to charters spurred by teacher strikes has the charter industry worried. As Politico reports, the success teachers have had in “blaming charter schools for squeezing traditional schools … has raised alarm among charter school backers … who see it as unfair to blame the charter sector for financial woes.”

The growing conflict and sharply contrasting points of view will likely pressure political candidates and progressive activists on the left to take sides.

‘The Fight Is On’

Democrats in West Virginia are “absolutely solidified against charters,” says Frankenberry. “Even more solidified on this than they are on gun control.”

He concedes, however, there are still unresolved issues in how progressives will coalesce on charters elsewhere. His progressive colleagues in states with lots of charters still feel an urge to not totally reject charters because parents whose children attend the schools are often from marginalized communities. And teachers who work in charters are potential targets for labor unions who want to organize the workers.

But he finds in places such as West Virginia, and neighboring Virginia and Kentucky, where there are very few or no charters, opposition to the schools is about saving public education. Opponents are quick to point to high-profile charter school scandals in Ohio and Pennsylvania as examples of what would befall their states. “It’s been 20 years of experimenting,” he says, “and experiments often fail.”

Frankenberry’s hope is that the solidarity shown by progressive opposition to school privatization in West Virginia can rub off on his colleagues in states where charters are more abundant. “We’re showing that we’re not going to accept these schools,” he says. “Maybe the progressive organizers in places where they already have them can get inspiration from us to rein charters in.”

Zuckett foresees opposition to charter schools and voucher programs continuing to be more of a point of contention that progressives will push in their policy positions, and not just in West Virginia. “The fight is on,” he says. “Shame on us if it isn’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.

(Photo credit: Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

[Originally published at Salon.]

Denver Teachers’ Strike Was a Rejection of Education ‘Reform’

A Denver Public Schools teacher pay stub from 2016 shows the complexity of teacher salaries in the district. “I definitely drank the education reform kool-aid,” recalls Alex Nelson, a Denver teacher who, along with over 5,300 fellow teachers and school support staff, walked off the job earlier this month in a four-day strike that resulted … Continue reading “Denver Teachers’ Strike Was a Rejection of Education ‘Reform’”

A Denver Public Schools teacher pay stub from 2016 shows the complexity of teacher salaries in the district.

“I definitely drank the education reform kool-aid,” recalls Alex Nelson, a Denver teacher who, along with over 5,300 fellow teachers and school support staff, walked off the job earlier this month in a four-day strike that resulted in the teachers having most of their demands met.

Now in his sixth year at Denver Public Schools, Nelson is at Bryant-Webster Elementary where he teaches Math, Science, and Spanish to third- and fourth-grade students. “I was convinced education was failing and needed reform,” he recalls about his early years in the profession.

Back then, Denver schools were still basking in the glow of favorable national media coverage received during the leadership of superintendent, and now current U.S. Senator and expected presidential candidate, Michael Bennet. Under Bennet’s direction from 2005-2009, Denver adopted a package of policies and programs favored by bipartisan education reformers, including measuring school and teacher performance by student test scores, closing low-performing schools, and opening competitive charter schools. After Bennett’s tenure, district leadership transitioned to protege Tom Boasberg who just finished a ten-year term in office maintaining most of the same policies Bennet started.

Denver’s approach to school governance has been much-ballyhooed by politically centrist advocates like David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute, the Clinton-era “ideas shop” that has been pushing the privatization of public services for more than thirty years. Beltway-based think tanks, on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, hail Denver as a model to “transform” the education of low-performing students. And the Brookings Institution named Denver the second-best of the nation’s 100-plus largest school districts.

“The popular narrative of the time was about ‘reform.’” says Nelson. “And we were sold the notion that a new system of teacher compensation and other reforms were going to bring about a new era of better education for low-income kids and higher pay for teachers. It was going to be a breakthrough.”

The compensation system Nelson refers to is called ProComp, which linked teacher pay in part to student test scores and gave bonuses for things such as working in a high-poverty school or a hard-to-fill position. This year, one of the principal demands of the striking teachers was to scrap the system or at least drastically change it to resemble more of a traditional pay schedule where teachers can expect raises based on advanced degrees, additional responsibilities, and longevity.

ProComp is a creation of the education reform ideology which believes that the reason low-income students struggle in schools is because teachers aren’t sufficiently financially incentivized to boost student test scores. Also, schools with large percentages of low-income students tend to have less experienced teachers who turn over more often, and financial incentives might correct for that inequity.

Under ProComp, teachers got a bonus when their evaluations rate them “effective.” There were also schoolwide bonuses, bonuses for “exceeding expectations,” and other hurdles. (In 2015, the individual performance bonuses were modified so that only teachers in schools with the most struggling students could receive bonuses based on individual performance evaluations.)

But the experiences of Denver teachers show that the goals of basing teacher pay on student test scores and rewarding teachers for accepting challenging assignments are at odds with the reality teachers experience in their day-to-day work.

Nelson, who like most other Denver teachers initially agreed to ProComp, now recalls he started to feel like something was wrong when he was teaching at a “tough school,” which was rated “ineffective” based on the test scores of the students, who were mostly low-income, non-white children. He noticed that his colleagues who taught in wealthier schools that were rated “effective” got bigger bonuses. “If you taught at a tough school, you were incentivized to leave it,” he says.

The district set aside money to give additional bonuses to teachers in “highest priority” schools, “but no one understands the metrics for determining the highest priority schools,” Nelson says. There are only thirty schools with this rating, and should the school improve enough to come off the list, it’s not clear what happens to the bonus money.

Also, Nelson says the compensation formula changed over time with fewer hoops and less money. “The salary schedule is not transparent to the typical teacher,” he says.

The result of this convoluted pay structure is that pay levels change so dramatically from month to month that, “when you go to get a loan, it’s hard to tell a bank what your base salary is,” he says.

Due in part to the salary structure, and combined with the rising cost of living in a gentrifying city, teacher turnover rates in the district ballooned to well over 20 percent, with half of new teachers leaving the district within three years beginning in 2012. Teacher turnover rates were highest in schools where students had the greatest needs. Nelson recalls that in his first two years of teaching at that “tough school,” half of the staff turned over each year.

The attrition rate has recently declined somewhat, according to Nelson. “But it’s still too high,” he says. Consequently, schools resemble a “training ground for new teachers before they decide to go elsewhere.”

District officials point to increasing proficiency rates on student standardized tests as proof reforms are working, but community advocates charge that district assessments of school performance levels are inflated, and Denver continues to have one of the worst achievement gaps between white and non-white students in the country.

Research studies on the effects of Denver’s teacher salary system have found mixed results at best, both on its overall effects on student achievement levels as measured by test scores, and on teacher attrition rates.

In their strike negotiations, Denver teachers argued successfully for base-pay increases, a more predictable salary schedule and to eliminate almost all pay-for-performance bonuses. And they compromised to accept the district’s proposal of a $3,000 annual bonus for working in hard-to-staff schools. They also won a demand to get a research study to examine the causes of teacher turnover in the district’s poorest schools. The agreement is expected to be ratified by a vote of the rank-and-file teachers.

“A 20 percent teacher turnover rate is not what’s best for kids,” Nelson says. He and his colleagues say smaller class sizes and more mental and physical health supports for students would go further than any monetary bonus to serve the interests of students and keep their teachers in the classroom.

To Nelson and his fellow teachers, for far too long, Denver has felt “like a lab for education reform, experimenting with a district that will rubber stamp anything presented to them by reform advocates.” They want the experiments to end.

{Originally published at The Progressive.]

LA Teachers Make The Case That Charter Schools Are An Existential Threat To Public Education

“Isn’t it reasonable to have some regulations on charters?” asked Ingrid King, a kindergarten and dual language teacher at Latona Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles. She and two of her colleagues spoke to me from the picket lines during the recently resolved teacher strike in her city. When she and over 30,000 teachers and … Continue reading “LA Teachers Make The Case That Charter Schools Are An Existential Threat To Public Education”

“Isn’t it reasonable to have some regulations on charters?” asked Ingrid King, a kindergarten and dual language teacher at Latona Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles. She and two of her colleagues spoke to me from the picket lines during the recently resolved teacher strike in her city. When she and over 30,000 teachers and school personnel walked off the job, it closed the nation’s second-largest school system of nearly a half-million students for six days and filled the streets with huge protests.

The strike ended when the district conceded to give teachers a 6 percent pay raise, limit class sizes, reduce the number of student assessments by half, and hire full-time nurses for every school, a librarian for every middle and high school, and enough counselors to provide one for every 500 students.

But the concessions teachers won that will likely have the most impact outside of LA are related to charter schools. The teachers forced the district leader to present to the school board a resolution calling on the state to cap the number of charter schools, and the teachers made the district give their union increased oversight of charter co-locations — a practice that allows charter operations to take possession of a portion of an existing public school campus.

Los Angeles Unified has 277 charter schools, the largest number of charter schools of any school district in the nation. The schools serve nearly 119,000 students, nearly one in five students. The vast majority of charters are staffed by non-union teachers. (Teachers at a chain of unionized charter schools in the city that joined district teachers on the strike are still on strike.) So the quick takefrom some is the teachers’ union made curbs on charter schools part of their demands because these schools are a threat to the union’s power.

But when you talk to teachers, that’s not what they say. They tell you they want to curb charter school growth, not because it threatens their union, but because charters threaten the very survival of public schools.

Teachers see an existential threat

Latona teachers I spoke with described competition from surrounding charter schools as an existential threat to their school and an undermining influence on the public system.

“Charter schools are popping up everywhere and siphoning money and taking away students from our public school,” said King.

“I’ve had a lot of friends teach at charters,” said Linda Butala, an English language and Title I coordinator. “These schools often mean well. But charters have become another level of haves and have-nots in our system.”

The “haves” these teachers referred to are the “more savvy” parents who take advantage of what many charters offer, including smaller class sizes and newer resources and technology.

The disparity is especially acute when the charter is co-located on the same campus as an existing public school. Traci Rustin, a second-grade teacher, recalled that at a previous school where she worked, the charter co-located on the campus “had much fewer teachers and students of color.” The charter students had more abundant and newer technology, the school lunches were more nutritious, and the classroom supplies were up-to-date. And when students returned to the public school when the charter “didn’t work out,” the new technology and resources, along with the funding that had left her school, didn’t transfer back.

“In neighborhoods that are more racially homogeneous,” explained Rustin, “you see more well-abled children in the charter. You see a two-tier system going on.”

“Charter schools are set up to target certain populations of students and aren’t even set up to meet the needs of some students,” said King. And some parents who can’t meet the expectations set down by the charters know they shouldn’t bother trying to enroll their children in charters. Meanwhile, her school has to serve all students and parents and gets the families and children the charters aren’t interested in serving. “This leads to a more segregated system.”

Butala, who also previously worked at a school with a co-located charter, recalled when the charter moved in, her school immediately had to devise ways to place students in more crowded classrooms and share common areas — such as the playground and cafeteria. But it was never clear to her what the charter was being asked to share with her school. She watched the new charter lure students away from her school, often to see them return months later after the funding was lost.

She claimed her school’s test scores were better than the charter’s, but advocates for the charter were adept at convincing parents “the charter was better.”

Charters take their toll

Latona is experiencing a similar fate. The school doesn’t have to deal with a co-located charter, but competition from surrounding charters has taken a toll on the school.

The school’s student enrollment is virtually all Hispanic, with a quarter of the students being English language learners, and 90.6 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Yet, despite this challenging student population, the school significantly outperforms the state on academic measures of English language arts and mathematics and has been steadily improving, boosting proficiency levels by 12 points in ELA and nearly 19 points in math on the most recent assessments.

Nevertheless, Latona’s student enrollment has long been in decline, according to state data. In the 2017-18 school year, the school enrolled 170 students. Five years ago, it was 267; ten years ago, it was 336, and the student body was more racially diverse.

The enrollment declines have resulted in the school having to let go support staff, such as counselors and nurses, who are essential to the health and well-being of the students.

“I see more kids with social-emotional needs we simply are unable to meet,” said Butala. “If the child isn’t okay socially and emotionally, then we can’t be the best teachers we can be. But too often, we’re called upon not just to be teachers but to be parents and psychologists. We’re having to wear too many hats.”

“Maybe if we had the resources and staff we need, we wouldn’t see so many parents transferring their students to charters,” Rustin conjectured.

“Past the tipping point”

The argument Latona teachers make is not lost on parents, many of whom supported the teacher demands and joined them on the picket lines because they see how their schools are being slowly depleted of funding and resources due to charter school expansions.

“We’re past the tipping point on charters in Los Angeles,” Julian Vasquez Heilig told me in a phone interview. Heilig is a professor at California State University, Sacramento and the author of numerous studies on the impacts of accountability-based and market-based education reforms.

Heilig is not doctrinairely opposed to charter schools, as some proponents of charter schools accuse their critics of being. On the contrary, he formerly worked as an instructor in a charter school, was a charter school parent and donor, and at one point served as a charter board member.

“But the situation has changed,” he stated.

The “situation” he referred to is the long-held claim that charter schools, by their very nature, are a positive force in the public school system. The preferred narrative is that charter schools are just another form of “public” school, that competition from charters makes public schools up their game, and when “parents vote with their feet” and choose to transfer their children to charters, money that “follows the child” out of the public school has no negative effects on the remaining students because the school can adapt to a lower student head count.

Heilig and other charter school critics argue that theory of charter schools in no way resembles the realities of charters on the ground. And striking teachers in Los Angeles have opened people’s eyes to that reality.

“Now that class sizes and lack of resources and school support staff have grown intolerable in Los Angeles public schools, teachers are bringing the public’s attention to the reality of what charters have helped create,” Heilig explained.

“Five years ago, we weren’t talking about the financial impact of charter schools. Meanwhile, poor performing charters have been allowed to proliferate in the state,” and the public is largely unaware of the negative impact this has on the public education system. Until now.

The bad math of charter schools

Truth is, the financials of charter schools have never added up.

A 2017 report authored by Gordon Lafer, a political economist and an associate professor at the University of Oregon, looked at the spread of charter schools in California and found “hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year without any meaningful strategy.”

Because charter operators often get permission to set up new schools wherever they want, “far too much of this public funding is spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space,” Lafer concluded.

While public school districts can’t build new schools unless increases in enrollment or an influx of school-aged children demands them, charter schools can make the case based on subjective arguments having nothing to do with numbers, and when local school boards deny charter applicants, charter operators can appeal to the county or state board that, more often than not, overrules the local board.

As a result, the report found, “nearly 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students.”

Los Angeles is the poster person of having too many schools chasing after too few students.

District enrollment peaked in 2004 at just under 750,000 and has been dropping ever since, not just due to the growth of charters. A combination of factors — including declining birth rates, population flight to the suburbs, the exorbitant cost of child care, and skyrocketing housing prices that discourage young couples from having children — has led to a steep decline in the population of school-aged children in the district.

Another flaw of charter school financials is that they add layers of administrative and infrastructure costs that public schools are expected to pay for, even though public school budgets are already under stress, and government leaders are unwilling to provide new funding.

“Charters contribute to the funding problems because we’re paying for two school systems,” argued Heilig: the local public one and the privately run charter ones operating like parallel districts to the local schools, with their own duplicative layers of administrative staff and infrastructure. “There’s an incredible amount of waste and inefficiency” in this arrangement.

“Changing our minds about charters”

“Charter proponents aren’t acknowledging these problems,” Heilig said.

Indeed, after news of the LA strike resolution spread, proponents of charter schools and choice responded angrily to limits put on charters.

Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told the New York Times that placing a cap on the growth of charter schools is a constraint “we cannot stand for.” And U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an ardent fan of the charter industry, declared teachers’ unions were “the only thing standing in the way” of the spread of school choice.

But the stark contrast of the rhetoric from charter school hardliners to the reasonable requests of Los Angeles teachers, like Ingrid King, changes a conversation that has long been one-sided and clouded in lofty claims about charters.

“The strike has made me consider how charter school expansion is harming the city,” wrotecharter school teacher Riley McDonald Vaca in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times after seeing how the strike played out.

“As more money is invested in new ideas and new campuses, fewer resources and students are left for the many great programs still trying to gain their footing in our current district and charter schools,” she stated. “I believe in my charter school, but I don’t believe that the charter industry’s mission to increase its share of the educational marketplace in Los Angeles can solve the problems we all face educating children.”

“These issues with charters are coming from the bottom-up,” said Heilig. “Legislators are starting to take notice, and so has the public. We’re clearly changing our minds about charters.”

(Photo credit: Bill Raden, Capital & Main.)

{Originally published at Salon.]

“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 … Continue reading ““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 … Continue reading “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 … Continue reading “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 … Continue reading “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 … Continue reading “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 … Continue reading “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)