Last May, Ruth Conniff, editor of “The Progressive,” joined a group of other women on a tour of voucher schools in Milwaukee. The others included another journalist, a state legislator, and Milwaukee grandmothers Gail Hicks and Marva Herndon.

“Herndon and Hicks formed a group called Women Committed to an Informed Community, also known as the “mad grandmas,” to bring attention to the voucher schools popping up all over the largely African American north side of Milwaukee in strip malls, rundown office buildings, old car dealerships, and abandoned factories.”

What they saw should chill the ardor of the most doctrinaire followers of Milton Friedman. Vouchers began in Milwaukee nearly 25 years ago based on the claim that they would save poor black children from “failing” public schools. Today, Milwaukee should be a national symbol of the failure of vouchers. Yet state after state is endorsing vouchers, egged on by the Friedman Foundation and rightwing think tanks.

Let’s be clear. Vouchers, charters, and choice have failed the children of Milwaukee. The city ranks near the bottom of all cities tested by the federal NAEP, barely ahead of Detroit. Black children in Milwaukee score behind their peers in most other cities and states. Study after study shows they don’t get better test scores than their peers in public schools.

“”We are talking about the schools that fall under the category of LifeSkills Academy,” says Hicks, referring to a Milwaukee voucher school that made headlines last year when the couple that owned it fled to Florida, taking with them millions in state education funds and leaving sixty-six students suddenly stranded, with no school.

“Many of the schools Herndon and Hicks are concerned about are religious. But “we are not talking about schools associated with long-established churches,” Hicks says.

“In racially divided Milwaukee, most of the mainline parochial schools that take voucher students are run by Catholic and Protestant churches on the largely Hispanic south side, Herndon explains.

“On the north side, it’s just loaded with fly-by-night, hole-in-the-wall schools, gas station schools,” Herndon says.

…….

“The $6,442 per pupil in public funds attached to vouchers is more than the cost of tuition at many parochial schools. That, along with start-up funds for new voucher schools, creates a powerful incentive for cash-strapped parochial schools and unscrupulous, fly-by-night operators alike. As a result, parents in voucher districts have been inundated with marketing calls, flyers, and advertisements at taxpayer expense urging them to send their kids to private school for free.

“Nowhere is the problem with turning public schools over to private business more evident than in Milwaukee, the birthplace of school choice.

“Academy of Excellence” is spelled out in snap-on plastic letters above a phone number on a temporary-looking sign on West North Avenue.

“A teacher stands in the doorway of a rundown office building with peeling orange paint on cinderblock walls, watching children jump rope in the parking lot between rows of cars. A few little girls crouch on the sidewalk, drawing with chalk.

“Pastor George Claudio of the StraightWay Vineyard Christian Fellowship greets us inside.

“He has been serving as principal here since September, although he has no background in education, he explains.

“I’m not a trained principal, so my approach has been more of a business and leadership approach,” he says. “I don’t know much about academics, so I’m on a crash course, relying on the teachers in the building.

“Everybody here is way below the poverty level,” he adds, as we peer into a classroom where four-year-old kindergarteners are lying down for a nap on the dirty indoor/outdoor carpeting. A teacher snaps out the lights.

“Despite the dirty carpet and peeling walls, and a first-floor bathroom with no toilet paper, no paper towels, and heavy scribbling in the stalls and over the sink, Pastor Claudio is proud of how much better things look here since school started in September, after a major cleanup. Last fall, he tells us, the lights didn’t work.

“This building has flipped through several voucher schools. The last resident was BEAM Academy, an Edison charter school. “Edison” plastic tags still adorn some of the classroom doors. Another Academy of Excellence school, on the south side, is in even worse shape, the pastor tells us.

“There are three Academy of Excellence schools in Milwaukee, run by the Association of Vineyard Churches, a conservative, evangelical sect.

“Every morning, Pastor Claudio leads the school in a daily devotional.

“We use the Bob Jones University curriculum,” he says.

……………

The pastor says that two-thirds of the students probably would benefit from special education, but the school has no trained special education staff. Indeed, teachers in voucher schools don’t need teaching certification. Instead of special education, the children get tutors–college kids and volunteers from the church. In the middle school science class, a sign on the wall says, “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth—Genesis 1:1″ a poster in the hallway says: “God can see your heart and he knows that it is wicked.”

The school will double in size this fall when it enrolls 200 students from Myanmar who don’t speak English.

………………

Conniff concludes:

“The latest battle of the mad grandmas is against new laws that would force the sale of public school buildings to private school operators.

“The public schools are just being raped,” says Hicks. “A lot of schools no longer have gym, no longer have art, language, higher math. Schools don’t have the money because they’re sticking money in charter schools and vouchers, which are businesses.”

“In Milwaukee, eighth graders are attending what purports to be a public school to study science and learn creationism.

“Third graders are absorbing a strange home brew of art, finance, and bible passages.

“Immigrant children straight from refugee camps in Myanmar are landing in a school that looks like a refugee center, to be immersed in English and a harsh religious ideology that teaches them that their hearts are wicked.

“All of this is supported by the public with tax dollars.

“It looks like the end of society.”

Ruth Conniff’s reporting is persuasive evidence that the once strong belief in separation of church and state was sensible protection for the common school system. Now that the wall of separation has been penetrated, all manner of Bible schools are getting public dollars. Does anyone believe that the children of Milwaukee are better served in these schools than in the public schools? And what remains of public education when children are withdrawn to attend voucher schools and charter schools?

Can anyone honestly say that the children in these publicly-supported voucher schools are getting a good education that prepares them for college and careers in the 21st century?

This is the best story yet on the Texas story today, in which Judge John Dietz said that the current funding system was inequitable. Of course, his decision will be appealed as some folks would rather not pay more money to educate the children of Texas. The story appears in the Texas Tribune.

Here is a great quote from the decision and the article:

“As he presented his ruling, Dietz discussed what he called the “civic, altruistic and economic” reasons for supporting public education.

“We realize that others provided for us when we were children. We realize that children are without means to secure their education. Just as others provided for us when we were in school, now is the time when we provide for others,” he said, going on to describe the societal benefits of a well-educated population: lower crime rates, fewer people who need public assistance and a greater state income.”

State Commissioner of Education Michael Williams issued a statement I response to court ruling that held state funding inadequate and unconstitutional. Be it noted that Commissioner Williams is not an educator. He is an ally of the Bush family, a real good tie in Texas. In his last post he regulated the oil and gas industry.

TEA News Releases Online Aug. 28, 2014

Statement of Commissioner Michael Williams regarding ruling in school finance case

AUSTIN – Commissioner of Education Michael Williams issued the following statement regarding today’s ruling in the school finance case:

“Today’s decision is just a first step on a very familiar path for school finance litigation in Texas. Regardless of the ruling at the district court level, all sides have known this is an issue that will again be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court. Texas is committed to finding solutions to educate every student in every classroom. However, it should be our state leaders making those decisions, not a single judge. Any revisions to our school finance system must be made by members of the Texas Legislature. The Texas Education Agency will continue carrying out its responsibilities in providing funding for our public schools based on the current system and ultimately the legislative decisions made at the end of this legal process.”

http://www.tea.state.tx.us/news_release.aspx?id=25769815887

Here is a good article explaining Judge John Dietz’s decision that school funding in Texas violates the state constitution.

“State District Judge John Dietz decided in favor of the more than 600 school districts who sued the state. They argued the Legislature has consistently underfunded schools while imposing new and expensive academic requirements for students.

“In his ruling, the judge also pointed to inequities in the system that leave some lower-wealth school districts with far less money to spend on their pupils than their wealthier counterparts across the state.

“The court finds that the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren,” Dietz wrote in his 21-page final judgment in the case.

“The court enjoins further funding under the system until the constitutional infirmities are corrected.”

“Dietz also said lawmakers erred by sharply limiting the taxing ability of school districts, which amounts to an illegal statewide property tax.

“Schools will not be immediately affected, as Dietz put the ruling on hold until July 1. The decision is expected to be appealed directly to the Texas Supreme Court, which last ruled on school finance in the fall of 2005. That order forced the state to revamp its method of funding education so that it was less reliant on local property taxes.

“If the high court affirms Dietz’ new ruling, it would force the Legislature back to the drawing board. That would probably not occur until after the upcoming legislative session in January.

“The judge originally found the funding system unconstitutional in February of 2013 after a 12-week trial pitting the state against school districts – including dozens from North Texas. But he withheld his final decision in the case after legislative leaders indicated they would address the issues raised by Dietz during their 2013 session.

“Lawmakers did increase school funding by $3.4 billion in the current biennium. However, that did not make up for the $5.4 billion that was cut in 2011 to offset a severe shortfall in state revenue. Lawmakers also dropped 10 of the 15 high school tests that were slated to be required for graduation.

“Additional hearings were held by Dietz earlier this year to decide whether the actions of the Legislature would temper his earlier decision.

“They didn’t.

“In his original ruling, the judge suggested it could take an extra $2,000 per child to meet all state standards – a total price tag of $10 billion to $11 billion a year.

“Education costs money, but ignorance costs more money,” he summed up. “It is the people of Texas who must set the standards, make sacrifices and give direction to their leaders about what kind of education system they want. The longer we wait, the worse it gets.”

Judge John Dietz ruled that the state of Texas is failing to provide adequate funding to its public schools and is violating the state constitution. He also ruled that school choice and vouchers are not a substitute for needed funding.

The Legislature cut school spending by $5.3 Billion in 2011 and never restored the cuts after the economy recovered.

Jason Stanford is a journalist in Austin, Texas, who follows the testing wars with keen interest, probably because he has children in school.

Having followed the blowback in Texas, where parents and educators together convinced the legislature that their zeal for testing was unreasonable, Stanford decided that standardized testing is not a good way to hold schools accountable. Actually, he says it is a lousy way because the tests don’t measure what we think they measure.

He writes:

“We’ve been using bubble tests to hold schools and students accountable for a long time, mostly without anyone asking tough questions about whether the scores were valid measures. Controversy over student testing was slow to develop and then mostly concerned the number of tests and the harsh consequences. We never asked whether the thermometer really measured the temperature, even though our education system is based upon the validity of these tests.”

He refers to “value-added measurement” as junk science. It is easy to parody as “Orwell-Meets-Kafka,” especially when the government does absurd things like ranking teachers by the scores of children they never taught.

This was the key point for him: “What really seemed to shake things up was an April report by the American Statistical Association, which said that because VAMs were based only on standardized tests they were 10 pounds of hooey in a 5-pound bag. And if you’re inclined to want the details, here’s the phrase that pays: “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1 to 14 percent of the variability in test scores.”

And that led him to ask: “If teachers only account for 1 to 14 percent of the change in test scores, then what does the other 86 percent measure?”

“And if we don’t know what it means, why are we holding schools, students, and teachers accountable to it?”

Jeannie Kaplan, a former member of the Denver Board of Education, has written about the poor results of a decade of corporate reform. Here she explains the word “chutzpah” to define the desperate efforts of school officials and “reformers” to convert poor results into good news.

She writes:

“At noon Thursday, August 14, 2014 the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) released Colorado’s 2014 standardized tests results, TCAPs, (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program) at its monthly meeting. Shortly after the release, “reform” State Board Member Elaine Gantz Berman spoke and said what has turned out to be one of the most honest assessments of the latest results. “Not acceptable….To see this kind of flat result is more than troubling. It’s like, ‘Where do we go from here?’

“Since the release of the results, the spin from Denver Public Schools and its friends has been dizzying. Their defense of the failing status quo has given new meaning to the Yiddish word “chutzpah.” A few examples: recognition that new strategies are needed to change the trajectory of the District but offering no concrete details of what that would look like; slight recognition that professional educators do make a difference when it comes to teaching children but continuing to hire short term teachers at the expense of teaching professionals; no recognition or admittance that a business model is not transferable to education. No attempts have been made to answer Ms. Berman’s question. Instead the status quo has chosen to defend the ten year performance with confusing, misleading and manipulated data.

“THE SPIN

“Six emails from the Superintendent, 2 articles and one editorial in the Denver Post, a Board of Education work session featuring a 67 page PowerPoint presentation with more charts, graphs, acronyms, and meaningless analysis than one thought possible. And Thursday, August 21 at noon an email from the favorite national organization of “reformers.” DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), makes its way into computer inboxes. The email’s subject, “Denver Plan 2020 Fights for Great Schools in Every Neighborhood,”praises the new Denver Plan and closely mimicks two of the six emails the superintendent has sent this week. The email’s author: Jennifer Walmer, former chief of staff for the Denver Public Schools, current state director of Colorado DFER. Could it be that the Denver Public Schools District is so worried about its lack of progress and its failing education “reform” that it has to inundate the public with reams of insignificant and deceptive information? Unfortunately, I was correct when I wrote in my post of last week, growth is pretty much all the District will talk about. The state losses of 1% in each of the three subjects have translated into disingenuous DPS growth scores.”

She then summarizes “the flood of writing that has occurred after the release of the pathetic data…”

Daniele Dreilinger of the Times-Picayune reports that charter schools in Néw Orleans are ill-prepared by large numbers of new students from Central America, and the students and their families are confused by the city’s choice system.

One school saw its Spanish-speaking enrollment jump from 10 to 53 in one year, 20% of its students. “That’s a gargantuan challenge for a small school that six weeks ago didn’t have instruction materials in Spanish or a full-time English as a Second Language teacher.”

“Immigrant students are also arriving in a system under fire. VAYLA last year filed a federal civil rights complaint describing deep gaps in schools’ abilities to serve Spanish-speaking families. In one school, a 5-year-old said she had to translate for her parents at report card meetings because there was no staff member to do so, the complaint said.”

The problems are exacerbated by the city’s Balkanized school “system.” Nearby parishes with central offices and zoned schools are handling the problems of new immigrants with better planning and coordination of services for the students.

Since most of the schools in Néw Orleans are independent charters, no one has an accurate count on the number of new students from Central America.

“The rapid rise of students needing help learning English this is fall means they are spreading to many more schools, observers said. Lacking official numbers from the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune contacted officials representing more than 60 of the city’s 83 schools to inquire about their enrollment.”

“Part of the reason why some schools are particularly saddled by a large number of new English-learner students, while others get a few, is the New Orleans enrollment system. The “school choice” process is complex and challenging even for families that speak English and have months to decide. Recently-arrived immigrants had neither.”

As late enrollees, the students had to go wherever seats were available. Assignments “were made regardless of whether the schools had teachers and resources available to handle ESL students.”

The downside of NOLA’s almost-all-charter system is that there is no central office to plan or coordinate the response to changing conditions. Every charter is on its own, and every student is also.

Earlier today I posted about a letter that went viral. Its authorship was attributed to two different people. A reader, Mary Ginley, says she wrote the letter in 1999:

“I wrote the original letter in 1999 and it was published in the East Longmedow Town Reminder in Maasachusetts. I was active in the anti-MCAS movement at the time.”

In an in-depth article that appears in the journal “In These Times,” journalist George Joseph describes a campaign by business leaders to take advantage of an obscure provision in state law and use it to turn Dallas into a “home rule” district. This would be a prelude to turning Dallas into an all-charter district.

The business community already controls the school board. The campaign for “home rule” has the support of mostly unnamed funders, except for billionaire John Arnold, who lives in Houston, not Dallas. Arnold has causes about which he is passionate: public sector pensions (he is against them), charter schools (he is for them) and Teach for America (Joseph says he has given TFA more than $20 million). Arnold supports the leading advocacy group for “home rule,” which is ironically called SOPS–Support Our Public Schools.

Why the heavy-duty campaign for charter schools in Dallas? Joseph speculates that at bottom the campaign is about gentrification and real estate. The home-rule plan is not supported by Dallas’s black and Hispanic population. In a recent school board race, an opponent of home rule won overwhelmingly.

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