On January 27 at 7 p.m. (Central Time), Illinois Families for Public Schools and other groups will sponsor a Zoom meeting on the subject, “Confronting the Rise of School Board Disruptions.”

Throughout the country and in Illinois, we have seen the rise of well-funded disinformation campaigns targeting school boards and educators.

This event will cover: Who’s behind the disinformation campaign around masks/vaccines mandates, an erosion of LGBTQ+ rights and the way race is being taught in our schools? How can we band together to support our school boards and staff who are being threatened and to protect public education?

Hear from an excellent panel and connect with others around Illinois who are organizing in their communities to stand up for inclusion, safety, and teaching a full and accurate history in our schools that protects all students

Panelists include:
— Jennifer Berkshire, Co-Author “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door”
— State Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Former VP Policy for Erikson Institute and ISBE board secretary and member
— Nathaniel Rouse, Director of Equity, Race, and Cultural Diversity Initiatives, Barrington 220
— Julie Harris, Educator of 31 years Tinley Park CCD146

Hosted by Indivisible Illinois, Illinois Families for Public Schools, Indivisible Illinois Social Justice Alliance and more.

Jan 27, 2022 07:00 PM in Central Time (US and Canada)

Open the link to register and get the Zoom link.


North Carolina has been in the forefront of destructive education policies ever since the Tea Party won control of the state’s General Assembly (legislature) in 2010. Charters, vouchers, TFA, high-stakes testing, hostile indifference to teachers, etc.

But the rightwingers in NC wanted more. They wanted their own version of the Tennessee Achievement School District. They knew that Tennessee lawmakers had created a special district containing the state’s lowest-scoring schools; these schools would show dramatic improvement if handed over to charter operators.

The North Carolina legislators ignored the clear evidence that the Tennessee ASD was a failure, despite the state’s investment of $100 million from Race to the Top funding. Failure was no deterrent, no way to dissuade them from launching the magic elixir of privatization.

In 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly created its very own Achievement School District, which was soon renamed the Innovative School District. Now we know it too has failed. The General Assembly is defunding it.

The Innovative School District was supposed to contain five schools, but every time a school was designated, its district fought to keep the school. The ISD opened with only a single school, and that one school had a principal, a superintendent, and a charter management organization. An awful lot of administrators for one school.

Alex Granados wrote about the collapse of this bad idea in EdNC:

In an experiment, a hypothesis is tested. In the case of the Innovative School District(ISD), the hypothesis was that some of the state’s lowest-performing schools could be improved if they were grouped into one district, given charter school-like flexibility, and turned over to the management of alternative operators.

To judge by the biennium budget passed by the General Assembly in November 2021, North Carolina lawmakers must have concluded that the ISD experiment did not yield the result of improving schools, at least not in the way it was originally conceived. What other conclusion can be drawn from the fact that lawmakers put an end to the project in their two-year spending plan?

Background

The Achievement School District bill was passed during the 2016 General Assembly short session. At the heart of the legislation was the creation of a district that would eventually include five low-performing schools from around the state that could be turned over to charter school operators.

It was originally called the Achievement School District and its first superintendent, Eric Hall, said at the time that it was modeled after similar experiments from other states that had “mixed results.”

“We have an opportunity as a state to redefine what it means in North Carolina,” Hall told the State Board of Education in 2017. But that redefinition never quite came to be.

A single school

The initial plan was that all five schools in the ISD would be up and running by the 2018-19 school year. It is now the 2021-22 school year, and there is still only one school. That is thanks to, in large part, massive resistance from some of the districts approached by the state.

The single school that was taken over as part of the ISD was Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County. And it’s been a tough journey both for the school and for the district — since its inception, the ISD has had four superintendents and the school has had three principals.

Current ISD Superintendent Ron Hargrave told the State Board of Education in December 2021 about visiting a kindergarten class at Southside-Ashpole on his first day. A teacher said to him: “‘Well, you’ll be number four,’ and she was talking about the number of superintendents who’ve come through there,” he said.

Hargrave replied, “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you don’t need a number five, because I’m here to stay.”

But turnover hasn’t been the only issue.

The nonprofit charter organization that was running the operation was ultimately relieved of its responsibilities by the State Board of Education. You can read about the difficulties with that organization, Achievement for All Children (AAC), in N.C. Policy Watch here and here.

‘No common ground’

Did Southside-Ashpole improve? According to data, no.

Trip Stallings, whose team conducted the external evaluation of the ISD when he was with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, said that a single school’s performance can’t really tell us anything about how well the ISD concept might work as a multi-school turnaround program.

“Because they only had one school in three years, you can’t really use that experience to validate or disprove the ISD approach,” he said. But there are a number of issues evident from even the experience of a single school that may have weakened the ISD structurally, according to Stallings.

One issue was that the legislation that created the ISD assumed there would be a wide variety of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) vying to manage schools in the ISD. Instead, only three CMOs applied to manage Southside-Ashpole. The State Board of Education asked all three to resubmit their original proposals and, ultimately, the revised proposal from AAC was accepted.

“The real question is, ‘Why did other CMOs not apply?’” Stallings said.

Former ISD Superintendent Eric Hall presents to the State Board of Education Thursday, April 5, 2018. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Another problem, according to Stallings, was the disconnect among the operator, the State Board of Education, and the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) regarding how the ISD as a program should be implemented and managed.

“For example, none of the parties really reached agreement on the question of what this ‘charter-like flexibility’ means,” he said.

As a result, a superintendent, principal, and CMO leader all tried to assert separately how the single school in the district needed to operate. This led to confusion and dysfunction, he said.

Finally, Stallings said that the remote nature of the program was a “significant handicap.” DPI, AAC, and the school were all in separate locations and remote from each other not just geographically, but also culturally.

“They didn’t see many things in the same way,” he said. “For some issues, there was no common ground.”

According to the budget, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School will continue as part of the ISD until 2023-24 at the latest, when it will be returned to the Public Schools of Robeson County.

Craig Horn, a former Republican state representative from Union County, said this is terrible news. Not because he was a big fan of the ISD — he said he wasn’t — but because it is indicative of how the General Assembly operates.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, talking about the education portions of the budget at a 2017 press conference. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Horn, an influential legislator when it came to education, lost his seat when he ran for the state superintendent position and lost to Catherine Truitt in 2020. He was there for the inception of the ISD.

“I’m going to suggest that rather than sit down and work out the problems, it’s easier and faster to say, ‘Ok, we’re done. We’re not doing it,’” he said.

Horn had a lot of problems with the ISD program, but said that if it has failed, he hopes lawmakers have done their homework to understand why.

“If we can say that we did our homework, we actually talked to the people inside, we actually talked to parents and students, we actually made some adjustments and we’re still failing, OK, then we made an informed decision,” he said. “But my experience with the General Assembly is they don’t always make informed decisions.”

Preparing for transition

The State Board of Education heard from the current leaders of the ISD and Southside-Ashpole at the December 2021 meeting.

Derrick Jordan, associate superintendent of agency schools, told the Board that efforts to improve the school are still happening.

“There is absolutely still work to be done, but there is an unwavering commitment to improving outcomes for the students at Southside-Ashpole,” he said.

And Hargrave stressed to Board members that the students in that school are “full of potential.”

“It is a school full of children who desire to be loved and desire to be taught, and they have a hunger for learning,” he said.

Freddie Williamson, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, said the district is ready to have the school back and is already working with the school and the ISD to prepare for a “smooth, seamless transition.”

There isn’t yet a timeline for the transition, but when Southside-Ashpole does return back to the control of Robeson County schools, State Board of Education member Olivia Oxendine said she hopes it keeps innovation a priority. She said innovation takes a long time, and whatever the ISD, the new teachers, new principal, or the community have done, it should continue.

“Whatever is beginning to happen called innovation, let’s carry it forward,” she said.

Nothing on the record shows that there was either innovation or achievement at the one school in the experimental district. But whatever it is, says Ms. Oxendine, keep doing it, even though it yielded no improvement.

The full story of North Carolina’s failed experiment is fascinating. The bill to create the state’s Innovative School District was sponsored by Republican Rob Bryan. The money to promote the bill was supplied by an ultra-conservative businessman from Oregon named John Bryan (no relation to the legislator). After the bill passed, the state Board of Education selected Achievement for All Children (AAC) as the charter operator, although it had no experience turning around low-performing schools.

Here’s the context, which appeared in NC Policy Watch.

Mecklenburg County Republican Senator Rob Bryan sponsored the bill as a member of the House in 2016 that became law and created the ISD. That law specifies that the ISD can have up to five schools, selected from the lowest-performing in North Carolina.

Bryan argued at the time that the new district would provide much-needed reforms, but the following year, as Policy Watch reported, he received at least $5,000 as a “stipend” for his work with AAC.

Several other low-performing schools, including two in Durham, were targeted for state takeover in 2017, but resisted the move. Then-ISD Superintendent Eric Hall ended his pursuit of those schools.

That left Southside-Ashpole, which began operating as the state’s first and only school within the Innovative School District at the start of the 2018-19 school year. Southside-Ashpole has an enrollment of 270, 95% of whom are students of color: Black, Latinx and American Indian.

In its first year as an ISD school, there was a wholesale house cleaning at Southside-Ashpole: After Superintendent Allen abruptly left, the State Board of Education hired Ellerbe to replace her. School principal Bruce Major also suddenly resigned, and AAC then hired Bowen.

It remains unclear whether the changes were due to job performance.

Meanwhile, there has also been a major upheaval within AAC’s business partner, TeamCFA, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that provides financial, instructional and management support to more than a dozen schools in North Carolina and four in Arizona.

TeamCFA is AAC’s curriculum partner, according to the ISD website.

Tony Helton, one of the state’s most influential charter school leaders, resigned his $160,000-a-year post as southeastern regional director of TeamCFA last August. While holding that position, Helton also worked as chief operating office of AAC. He was replaced by Cotham.

TeamCFA was started by John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan), a retired Oregon businessman who has used his wealth to promote school choice causes.

John Bryan is also a major contributor to Republican lawmakers and was instrumental in helping to pass the North Carolina law that created the ISD. From 2013 to 2016, Rob Bryan’s campaign received more than $22,000 in contributions from John Bryan, state reports show. John Bryan also contributed to then-Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, NC House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Raleigh’s News & Observer reported in October that Bryan and the Challenge Foundation, which Bryan also formed, stopped funding TeamCFA. In his final founder’s letter, Bryan talked about passing on the responsibility to other private investors and philanthropists.

TeamCFA had received as much as 95% of its annual revenue from Bryan and the Challenge Foundation, the paper reported. TeamCFA also receives $510,000 annually from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The NC Republican leadership was heavily funded by John Bryan from Oregon. Bryan was the funder of TeamCFA. TeamCFA was the partner of the only charter operator that applied to manage the district that was created by legislation funded by John Bryan.

What happened to the 270 students in the one school in the Innovative school District? Well, they have had a constant turnover of principals and superintendents. They were Guinea pigs for legislators who don’t know them and apparently don’t care about them.

Arthur Camins, scientist and technologist, warns that public policy in both education and healthcare is deeply flawed and cannot be fixed with patches. No matter how many potholes are fixed, the underlying problems go untouched and unchanged.

Our flawed policy is the result of deeply ingrained flawed thinking.

The United States, he writes, is the victim of a combination of forty years of skepticism of government solutions and acceptance of “let’s be realistic about what we can accomplish” thinking.

For example, for decades scattershot treatments of outcomes have characterized bi-partisan education improvement efforts with little to nothing to show for it except undermined public education and stress. The driving causes of inequitable outcomes, systemic inequity, its enabler, racism, and resultant precarious lives remain rampant and unaddressed. 

Instead, the dominant education interventions have been to push or blame individuals. These include rewards and punishments for educators or students based on standardized test scores; rigid discipline regimes; and, more recently, a focus on developing grit to work through, put up with, or overcome rather than eliminate challenging social and economic conditions.

Equally, if not more, insidious is you-can’t-save-everyone solutions, such as escape hatches for some kids through charter schools and vouchers, most of which are no better than local public schools.  More broadly, the lack of universal health care and inequitable funding of schools through local real estate yield the same help-a-few result.

Open the link and read the rest.

This is a remarkable document in the New York Times. It details the planning and coordination for violent action that began as soon as the results of the 2020 were clear. The Oathkeepers, extremists who refused to accept Trump’s loss, started their efforts to stockpile weapons and convene in D.C. on January 6. Of course, other groups and unaffiliated individuals joined them.

This account directly contradicts the claims by Trumpers that Antifa or the FBI were behind the riots or that the insurrectionists were peaceful protestors exercising their First Amendment rights.

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian who teaches at Boston College. She writes a blog called “Letters from an American,” in which she brings historical perspective to current events. She posted this column yesterday about Joe Biden’s first year as President.

Joe Biden’s presidency is just over a year old.

Biden has embraced the old idea, established by the Democrats under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Republicans under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that in a democracy, the federal government has a responsibility to keep the playing field level for all. It must regulate business to maintain competition and prevent corporations from abusing their employees, protect civil rights, provide a basic social safety net, and promote infrastructure.

Our forty-sixth president came into office in the midst of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic had killed more than 407,000 Americans, and the previous president’s quest to radicalize voters in spring 2020 had led to angry mobs rejecting the preventive measures other countries took. The economy was bottoming out as the pandemic killed workers, discombobulated workplaces, and disrupted supply chains. And the previous president was so determined not to give up power that he had incited his followers to attack Congress and the U.S. Capitol during the formal ceremony acknowledging Biden’s victory.

Even after the horrors of that day, 147 members of the Republican Party doubled down on the lie that Trump had really won the election. And when the Democratic House impeached Trump for inciting the insurrection, ending our country’s 224-year tradition of a peaceful transition of power, Republican senators acquitted him.

Republican lawmakers’ support for the Big Lie indicated how they would approach Biden’s presidency. They stand diametrically opposed to Biden, rejecting Democrats’ vision of the federal government. They are eager to return power to the states to do as they will, recognizing that the end of federal regulation will give far more freedom to people of wealth and that the end of federal protection of civil rights will, in certain states, permit white evangelical Christians to reclaim the “traditional” society they crave.

Biden set out to use government to make people’s lives better and, apparently, believed that successful policies would bring enough Republicans behind his program to ease the country’s extreme partisanship.

He fought the pandemic by invoking the Defense Production Act, buying more vaccines, working with states to establish vaccine sites and transportation to them, and establishing vaccine centers in pharmacies across the country. Vaccinations took off, and he vowed to make sure that 70% of the U.S. adult population would have one vaccine shot and 160 million U.S. adults would be fully vaccinated by July 4th.

At the same time, Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to jump-start the economy by putting money into the pockets of ordinary Americans.The new law cut child poverty in half by putting $66 billion into 36 million households. It expanded access to the Affordable Care Act, enabling more than 4.6 million Americans who were not previously insured to get healthcare coverage and bringing the total covered to a record 13.6 million.

Money from those programs bolstered household savings and fired up consumer spending. By the end of the year, U.S. companies were showing 15% profit margins, higher than they have been since 1950. Companies reduced their debt, which translated to a strong stock market. In February, Biden’s first month in office, the jobless rate was 6.2%; by December it had dropped to 4.2%. This means that 4.1 million jobs were created in the Biden administration’s first year, more than were created in the 12 years of the Trump and George W. Bush administrations combined.

Then, in November, Congress passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that will repair bridges and roads and get broadband to places that still don’t have it.

U.S. economic output jumped more than 7% in the last three months of 2021. Overall growth for 2021 should be about 6%, and economists predict growth of around 4% in 2022—the highest numbers the U.S. has seen in decades, and higher than any other country in the world. Despite the increased spending, the federal budget deficit in the first quarter of fiscal year 2022 dropped 33% from that of 2021. The downside of this growth was inflation of up to 7%, but this is a global problem and exactly why it’s happening is unclear—increased spending has created pent-up demand, and prices have been unstable because of the pandemic.

Biden reoriented U.S. foreign policy to defend democracy. He immediately took steps to rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accords, and he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken worked hard to rebuild the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to replace our outdated focus on combating terrorism on the ground with combating it by defunding terrorists. Biden ended the unpopular 20-year war in Afghanistan and negotiated the exit of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, where we had been for more than 18 years. About 2500 U.S. personnel remain alongside their Iraqi counterparts to hold back remaining ISIS terrorists.

The end of those wars has also given Biden the room virtually to eliminate the U.S. use of drone strikes and airstrikes. In Trump’s first 11 months he authorized more than 1600 airstrikes; Biden has significantly tightened the process of authorization and has authorized 4.

Instead of focusing on soldiers, Biden dramatically increased the use of economic sanctions on international criminals and prosecutions for international criminal behavior to stop the flow of money to terrorists. Biden’s Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, also helped to hammer out an international minimum tax that will help to close foreign tax shelters.

Biden is turning to these financial tools and the strength of NATO to try to stop another Russian incursion into Ukraine. He has warned Russian president Vladimir Putin that military aggression into a sovereign country will lead to crippling economic backlash, and U.S. ally Germany has put off approval of the valuable Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline Russia has constructed to Europe, worth tens of billions of dollars.

By any historical measure, Biden’s first year has been a roaring success, proving that democracy can, in fact, provide better lives for its people and can protect the rule of law internationally. And yet Biden’s popularity hovers in the low 40s.

Biden’s worldview demands that government accomplish things; the Republicans simply have to say no. They have focused on stopping Biden and the success of his view of government, and because it is only the Democrats who are in the arena, as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, Democrats are bearing the weight of popular discontent.

When the withdrawal from Afghanistan initially produced chaos as the Afghan government collapsed, Republicans hammered on the idea that Biden—and by extension a Democratic government—was incompetent. His numbers began to plummet, and the subsequent success of the largest human airlift in history did not change that narrative.

If Afghanistan happened organically, criticism of government could also be manufactured. In July, as the vaccination program appeared to be meeting Biden’s goals, Republicans began to insist that government vaccine outreach was government tyranny. Vaccination rates began to drop off just as the contagious Delta variant began to rage. When Biden tried to address the falling vaccination rates by requiring that federal workers and contractors, health care workers, and workers at businesses with more than 100 employees be vaccinated or frequently tested, Republicans railed that he was destroying American freedom.

Their argument took hold: by early December, 40% of Republican adults were unvaccinated, compared with fewer than 10% of adult Democrats, making Republicans three times more likely than Democrats to die of Covid. Rather than ending and giving Biden a historical success, the pandemic has continued on, weakening the economy and sparking chaos over masks and school reopenings as Republicans radicalize. Just last week, a woman in Virginia threatened to come to her child’s school with “every single gun loaded and ready” if the school board required masks.

That radicalization, stoked by Republican leaders, is at the point of destroying, once and for all, the idea of a government that works for the people. Republican leaders have stood by as Trump and his lackeys goaded followers into believing that Democratic governance is illegitimate and that Democrats must be kept from power. Following a playbook Republicans have used since 1994, Trump and his loyalists insisted—and continue to insist—on ongoing “audits” of the 2020 vote, knowing that seeing such “investigations” in the news would convince many voters that there must be something there, just as the 2016 ruckus over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails convinced many Americans that she had done something illegal.

It has worked. Although there is zero evidence of significant voter fraud, so far, 19 Republican-dominated states have passed 33 laws to make it harder for Democrats to vote, or to turn over the counting of votes to partisan Republicans. When Democrats tried to stop such a takeover of our democracy, all 50 Republicans in the Senate opposed federal protection of the right to vote. (Two Democrats joined them in refusing to overrule the filibuster, thus dooming the law to fail.) Now Republicans in three states have proposed election police forces to stop what they continue to insist—without evidence—are voting crimes.

And so, at the end of Biden’s first year—a year that by any standard must be called a success—Republicans are at the verge of achieving, at least for now, the end of the liberal democracy Americans have enjoyed since FDR and the Democrats embraced it in the 1930s, instead eroding the federal government and turning power over to the states.

In a two-hour press conference at the end of his first year, Biden said he did not anticipate the degree of obstruction he would face, and he expressed regret that he hadn’t “been able to…get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country….” “Think about this,” he said, “What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that Senate Republicans will offer no legislative agenda before the 2022 elections and that he is “100 percent” focused “on stopping” Biden.

From the other side, Biden’s inaugural committee is celebrating the president’s first year in office with a video narrated by actor Tom Hanks in which ordinary Americans try to reclaim an older vision of an America in which we worked together for the good of all. They talk about how in the past year more than 200 million Americans have been vaccinated, how we have created more jobs in 2021 than in any year in the previous 80, how we lifted children out of poverty and are rebuilding roads and bridges, and how, historically, America is strong, courageous, resilient, and optimistic and can do anything, if only we will work together.

Notes:

https://www.cbo.gov/publication/57667

https://www.axios.com/biden-one-year-inaugural-committee-ad-3c7597b5-490c-4f23-b919-5b97e10785db.html

https://www.wabe.org/kemp-says-3b-budget-boost-will-bring-a-lot-of-good-things/

https://theweek.com/foreign-policy/1007579/biden-nearly-ended-the-drone-war-and-nobody-noticed

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2022/01/21/dozens-of-democrats-call-out-biden-over-drone-strikes-kill-civilians.html

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/26/biden-kadhimi-seal-agreement-to-end-us-combat-mission-in-iraq

https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/05/nord-stream-2-is-a-major-item-of-leverage-against-russia-ex-german-ambassador.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/01/07/republicans-big-lie-trump/

https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2021/1208/Why-GOP-is-stepping-up-fight-against-vaccine-mandates

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/joe-biden/mcconnell-says-he-s-100-percent-focused-stopping-biden-s-n1266443

https://www.axios.com/mcconnell-no-agenda-midterms-91c73112-0a2e-441b-b713-7e8aa2dad6bf.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/01/19/biden-asks-what-are-republicans-republicans-have-already-chosen-not-answer/

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-the-sorbonne-paris-france-citizenship-republic

Retired professor of political science Maurice Cunningham recently read an article about Randi Weingarten that quoted Kelli Rodrigues as leader of the National Parents Union, and presumably a spokesperson for American parents. Cunningham decided to inform Michelle Goldberg, the author of the article in the New York Times, that Ms. Rodrigues is not exactly a representative parent leader.

He wrote:

Dear Ms. Goldberg,

I read your story on AFT president Randi Weingarten with interest, especially the portion about National Parents Union. I have been researching NPU and similar organizations for the past six years.

Thus it was good to see you accurately characterize NPU “as funded by the pro-privatization Walton Family Foundation” but there is even more about the story of its president, Keri Rodrigues, than she or NPU lets on. So far as I know she did work for SEIU as a communications coordinator from 2008-2014 but since then she has worked for a succession of Walton-funded anti-union fronts: as Executive Vice President of Strategy and Communications of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) from Nov. 2014-2015, state director of Families for Excellent Schools Inc. in 2015-2016 (omitted from her Linkedin page), president of Massachusetts Parents United from Dec. 2016-present, president of Massachusetts Parents Action from May 2017-present, and president of NPU from March 2019-present. In a concept paper sent to the Walton Family Foundation in 2019, Ms. Rodrigues and her allies specifically cited as a reason for funding NPU that “The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force. We envision the National Parents Union as being able to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.”

I first became aware of Ms. Rodrigues in 2016 when I was following the dark money awash in the 2016 charter schools ballot initiative in Massachusetts. She was working for the IRS 501(c)(3) Families for Excellent Schools Inc. and I was exposing the millions in dark money flowing through the IRS 501(c)(4) Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy into the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee. After the 62-38% drubbing GSM received in that contest, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigated and ordered FESA to disclose its true donors, to shut down, and to pay the largest civil forfeiture in OCPF history. It also placed severe restrictions on the political activities of Families for Excellent Schools Inc., which was the largest donor to FES Advocacy.

One thing that interests me is what I like to call the “creation story” of privatization fronts. For instance in the Walton Family Foundation story you link to in your story, we see Ms. Rodrigues professes that “I started talking to other parents in my community at coffee shops and libraries and decided we were going to organize.” But the 2016 campaign ended in November, Ms. Rodrigues claims to have started Massachusetts Parents United a month later, and the Waltons poured in several hundred thousand dollars in 2017, mostly through Education Reform Now Inc. (the Walton-funded sister to DFER) as MPU secured its tax status. From 2018-2020, the Waltons put $1.85 million into MPU, with $450,000 of that apparently going to help start up NPU in 2020.

NPU has a similar “creation story”: two Latina moms start a National Parents Union. And then the Waltons jump in with hundreds of thousands of dollars, joined by foundations operating under the bequests of the Gates, Broads, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Schustermans, Michael Dell, Reed Hastings, John Arnold, and the Vela Education Fund, a joint venture of the Waltons and Charles Koch. Immediately the two moms hired international communications firm Mercury LLC and top Republican and Walton pollster Echelon Insights. It seems a bit suspicious.

So, in 2020 I examined the “parent” organizations that NPU seemed to be claiming as its members on Twitter (NPU has declined to provide me a member list and has never provided a list of member organizations on its web site). I collected seventy organizations or activists that seemed to be part of an organization. I was able to place 64 organizations into categories and found that many were charter school chains or other privatization organizations. I found only four I could categorize as parent organizations, including MPU and one in Minnesota that had organized at the same time as NPU. I’m not aware of any publicly available evidence that NPU represents parents at all. It represents the Waltons and their billionaire co-investors.

As Ms. Rodrigues’s Linkedin profile indicates, she has a B.S. in communications and that has been her role in professional life, not union organizing. Her career with the Waltons has been lucrative. NPU’s Form 990 tax return for 2020 shows that her reportable compensation from NPU in 2020 was $135,769. Reportable compensation from related organizations was $208,207, and estimated amount of other compensation from the organization and related organizations was $34,322. The related organizations are the Walton-funded Massachusetts Parents United and Massachusetts Parents Action. Total compensation across all related organizations for Ms. Rodrigues in 2020 was $378,298. The Form 990 also disclosed that Ms. Rodrigues and COO Tim Langan are engaged. Mr. Langan’s total compensation across related organizations was $248,479 in 2020. Combined total compensation for the two was $626,777.

You were correct to write “Beyond the immediate well-being of families and teachers, the future of public education as we know it is at stake.” Privatizers like the Waltons and their partners are using the Covid crisis as an opportunity to attack and undermine public education. For obvious reasons they can’t become the public face of that activity, so they underwrite Ms. Rodrigues and NPU to masquerade as parent representatives.

Sincerely,

Maurice T. Cunningham

After Cunningham wrote to The Times to complain about the megaphone for a front group for the Waltons, the Hechinger Report published a puff piece about the NPU, mentioning the Waltons but disassociating NPR from the Walton’s anti-public school, anti-union, pro-charter views. The Waltons don’t fund groups that don’t share their ideology.

Gary Rubinstein began his career as a Teach for America recruit in 1991 and got to know many of the key figures in the corporate reform movement. He is currently a career high school teacher of mathematics in a New York City public school. Over time, he became disillusioned with the phony promises of TFA and charter schools and became one of the most tenacious critics of their hypocrisy.

KIPP, he notes, is considered the gold standard of charter schools. The organization has about 250 charter schools across the nation. It benefited from being featured in the nefarious film “Waiting for ‘Superman'” as a school that was able to “save” kids who were allegedly trapped in failing public schools. The implication of the film was that charter schools had some magic knowledge that enabled them to transform children who had been faring poorly in school. Mostly, that claim is a hoax, but it is good marketing for recruitment of students.

In this post, he reports on the crisis of KIPP in Tennessee. KIPP had seven schools. But in 2020, two were closed because of low test scores and low growth scores. Now two more are on the chopping block due to poor performance.

He writes:

In the cities of Memphis and Nashville, TN there are a lot of charter schools fueled, in part, by the Race To The Top money they received while Teach For America alumni were in leadership positions at the Tennessee Education Department. By 2019, they had grown to seven KIPP schools in Tennessee. In 2020 the network announced that they were shutting down two of those seven schools. The headline from the Chalkbeat, TN article contains the quote from the network ‘‘We’ve been unable to fulfill our academic promise’. So as of 2020 they were down to five schools in Tennessee.

According to a new article in Chalkbeat, TN, this coming Tuesday, January 25th, the Shelby County school system will vote on whether or not to shut down two of the remaining KIPPs: KIPP Memphis Academy Middle School and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary.

Rubinstein researched the remaining five KIPP schools [including the two at risk of closure] in Tennessee and discovered that none of them is successful.

The fact that the schools are even at risk of getting shut down for poor performance definitely should convince anyone that the ‘Waiting For Superman’ narrative that if you give charters flexibility in exchange for accountability, they will outperform the ‘failing’ public schools. But there might be some people who say “There’s bound to be a few bad apples in any bunch so maybe these are just some outliers and the ‘average’ KIPP is still very good.’

To see if that was true in Tennessee I went to the state web portal and looked up the test scores and the growth scores for all five of the remaining KIPP schools there. What I found was that not only did those schools have very low test scores, but all of them had the lowest possible ‘growth’ score (a 1 out of 5). Now I know that sometimes this ‘growth’ score is not the most accurate calculation but if reformers are going to use them to label some public schools as failing, then they would have to label all the KIPPs in Tennessee as failing too.

The Chalkbeat article says:

Three-year TN Ready test averages from the 2016-17 to 2018-19 school years show only about 6% of KIPP Memphis Academy Middle students reached or approached mastery in math, according to district records. During the same time period, about 10% of students reached or approached mastery in English. 

At KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary, about 10% of students reached or approached mastery in English and 18% in math, during the same period.

The CEO of KIPP Memphis defends the low test scores and low growth scores by pointing to the students’ disadvantaged backgrounds.

Rubinstein points out the irony of a charter school using this excuse:

The response from KIPP comes from the CEO of KIPP Memphis schools, Antonio Burt. According to the article “Antonio Burt, CEO of KIPP Memphis Schools, said he’s not satisfied with the two schools’ academic performance, but said many KIPP students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and often face greater learning challenges.” This is striking to me. The whole narrative of charter schools was that unionized teachers believe ‘poverty is destiny’ and use the economic status of students as an ‘excuse’ for low expectations and for low performance but that charters are ‘no excuses’ and will certainly not say that the students underperformed because of these ‘greater learning challenges.’ But Antonio Burt is saying what he can since he has to give the school board some reason to vote to not close these two schools.

The article in Chalkbeat noted that some board members were inclined to give Antonio Burt more time because he “received national acclaim for his work turning two low-performing Memphis schools into models of student achievement.”

That line was an invitation to Rubinstein to discover Antonio Burt’s prowess as a turnaround specialist who had received “national acclaim for his work.”

Rubinstein goes to the record and checks the data for the schools that Burt led in Memphis. Both of them were and remain among the lowest performing schools in the state.

Gary traces Burt’s career path and can’t find any schools that have been turned around by Burt.

So I see Antonio Burt as someone who has spent 2 years at one school, 3 years at another, then a year and a half overseeing eight schools. He hasn’t turned around any of those schools in any kind of lasting way yet he is hailed as a turnaround guru who will likely use that inaccurate title as a way to save the two KIPP schools from being shut down because they now finally have an expert to improve them.

On Tuesday, January 25, the Shelby County School board will decide whether to close the two failing KIPP schools or to leave them open.

You may recall that charter schools are supposed to be more accountable than public schools. When public schools post low scores, they are closed. When charters fail, they too are supposed to close. Let’s see whether that happens in Memphis. Or are charter schools–especially KIPP charter schools–held to a different (and lower) standard than public schools?

The mainstream media loves to write negative stories about public schools. Here is a story featured in local news but mostly ignored by the national media.

The Society for Science and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals selected 40 high school seniors as finalists in their national science competition. Eighteen hundred students applied. Each of the finalists wins a prize of $25,000. The top ten winners will receive between $40,000 and $250,000.

The finalists will take part in a week-long competition from March 9-16, where they will undergo a rigorous judging process and compete for more than $1.8 million in awards. They will also interact with leading scientists and share their research during a virtual “Public Day” event on March 13.

Of the 40, nine went to elite private schools; three to charter schools; one was home-schooled. Twenty-seven are students in regular public schools. Seven are students at regular public high schools on Long Island in New York.

What is so impressive about the finalists is their topics, which display a remarkable range and depth of interests.

Here are a few project titles:

Project Title: Isolating and Characterizing Phosphorus-Solubilizing Bacteria from Rhizospheres of Native Plants Grown in Calcareous Soils and Sediments

Project Title: Evaluating Phragmites australis Wrack Accumulation in a Long Island Salt Marsh Ecosystem and Assessing Its Effect on Carbon Sequestration, the Nitrogen Cycle, and Sediment Biota

Project Title: Altered Development of Thymus in Tmem131Knockout Mouse Model of Down Syndrome

Project Title: Larvicidal “Trojan-Horse”: Experimentally Developing a Novel Low-Cost and Eco-Friendly Mosquito Vector Control Treatment

Project Title: Novel Fully MRI Compatible Nonmagnetic and Dielectric Pneumatic Servo Motor for MRI Guided Surgical Robotics

These are amazing students. Next time you hear a pundit ridiculing our schools and our teachers, think of these brilliant kids and their dedicated teachers. I feel better about our future after reading about them.

Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect reviews the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up!


“Appreciate the brilliance of the season’s most profound, category-busting movie.”

Don’t Look Up is described as a parody of Trumpism and climate denial. It is elegantly that. But more importantly, the movie is a dead-on satire of the interconnected debasement of America’s politics, pop culture, conventional media, social media, spectacle, tech and corporate elite—and of how the corruption of each element corrupts the other, feeding the general cynicism and the craving for a fascist savior, political or corporate.

Credit goes to the director, writers, and producers: Adam McKay, David Sirota, Kevin Messick, and Ron Suskind. The public seems to grasp what this movie is about more than many critics.

Don’t Look Up is the top Netflix hit, so no spoiler alert is needed: A graduate student (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers that a comet is headed directly for Earth, where it will wipe out human life. She and her professor (Leonardo DiCaprio) meet with the president (Meryl Streep), who is torn between denial and acting decisively to save the planet (Trump and vaccines?).

The president has a demented chief-of-staff son (the Trump kids). I am told that the opportunistic Streep character was intended as three parts Trump and one part the Clintons.

The president, after dithering, initially orders NASA to send a nuclear weapon to explode in space and deflect the comet. But here comes the best part of the movie.

A tech billionaire, played by Mark Rylance, realizes that the comet contains trillions of dollars’ worth of rare minerals. So he devises a rival mission, blessed by the president, to break the comet into bits that will fall into the ocean to be profitably harvested. The mission fails.

In a formidable cast, Rylance steals the show. The Rylance character is the CEO of BASH Cellular, a data-mining company that can read people’s thoughts and predict their futures.

Rylance was actually a late addition. At one point, DiCaprio was to play both the scientist and the billionaire, and the billionaire was a more conventional business thug. Rylance, soft-spoken and new-agey, has created a character who perfectly captures the creepy, messianic allure of Musk, Zuckerberg, Bezos et al., as well as their hypocrisy and willingness to sacrifice humanity.

As a Rylance obsessive, I have seen him, live, playing an astonishing range of roles from Richard III to a Minnesota ice fisherman, and this could be his most inventive and true creation of a character ever.

One of the movie’s many grace notes is the send-up of manic happy-news talk shows. Here, the co-hosts interview the scientists but want only an upbeat story. Even the good-guy scientist of the piece (DiCaprio) ends up corrupted, promoting the comet’s commercial potential and having a cheesy fling with the talk show co-host (Cate Blanchett), whose character is as cynical off camera as she is giddily upbeat on TV.

Those who have dismissed the movie as too much of a downer, or too obvious a parody of science denial, miss the point. Don’t Look Up is far richer as an excavation of the codependency of corporate and political fascism, enabled by the distraction of spectacle, social media, and tech.

The takeaway: If we are doomed, it is not mainly because of climate denial.
~ ROBERT KUTTNER

Experienced teacher Nancy Bailey opposes Michael Petrilli’s proposal to give NAEP tests to kindergartners. Petrilli, who is president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute made this proposal in Education Next.

Petrilli recognizes that the typical 5-year-old can’t read and probably can’t hold a pencil but thinks there is value in online visual tests. He argues that it’s a mistake to delay NAEP until 4th grade, because policymakers are “left in the dark” about what children know by age 5.

He writes:

Grades K–3 are arguably the most critical years of a child’s education, given what we know about the importance of early-childhood development and early elementary-school experiences. This is when children are building the foundational skills they’ll need in the years ahead. One report found that kids who don’t read on grade level by 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school later on. Why do we wait until after the most important instructional and developmental years to find out how students are faring?

Petrilli assumes that knowing test scores leads to solutions. I question that. We have been testing random samples of 4th and 8th graders (and sometimes seniors) since the early 1970s, and the information about test scores has not pointed to any solutions. After 50 years, we should know what needs to be done. We don’t, or at best, we disagree. Since 2010, test scores have been stubbornly flat. Does this mean that the Common Core and Race to the Top failed? Depends on whom you ask. It’s hard for me to see what educational purpose would be served by testing a random sample of kindergartners online.

Bailey doesn’t see what the purpose is. She points out that Petrilli was never a teacher of young children. He never was a teacher, period. He is an author and a think tank leader who champions conservative causes.

She writes:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) randomly assesses students across the country in math and reading in grades 4 and 8, and in civics and U.S. History in grade 8 and Long-Term Trend for age 9, but it doesn’t test kindergartners. Why should it? Why is the testing of kindergartners necessary? The answer is it isn’t.

Suppose we learn that 52% of kindergartners recognize the color red. Suppose we learn that 38% recognize a square. Suppose we learn that 63% recognize an elephant. So what? Why does any of this matter?

Bailey writes:

The best assessment of this age group is accomplished through observation, by well-prepared early childhood educators who understand the appropriate development of children this age, who can collect observational data through notes and checklists as children play and socialize with their peers.

Who needs the information that might be collected about a random sample of kindergarten children? What would they do with it?

It’s a puzzlement.