A few months back, Whitney Tilson invited me to participate in an exchange of views. Whitney is a hedge fund manager and the founder of Democrats for Education Reform, a group of hedge fund managers who support charter schools and high-stakes testing. I gladly accepted his invitation. Our exchanges were posted, unfiltered, on his blog and this one. (See here and here and here.) After the three exchanges, I decided it was time for me to ask questions, so I sent him the piece below. I thought it would be the first of another three or four exchanges. Unfortunately, Whitney has been very busy and has not had time to write his response or continue the dialogue. I asked for and received his permission to post my statement/questions. He promised to answer at some point in the future.
I have enjoyed our exchanges, and I thank you for initiating this dialogue. It shows you are willing to listen, and that is a very important trait in our democracy. There are too many echo chambers, where people hear only what they already agree with. That doesn’t advance knowledge or understanding. I am reminded of something that Robert Hutchins said many years ago. He said you always have to keep listening to people you disagree with, because they might be right. So I will listen to you, and I hope you will listen to me.
I have a series of questions for you. We will likely have to cover these issues in several posts.
The topics are
1) The nomenclature of the reform movement you lead;
2) privatization (charters and vouchers);
3) high-stakes testing;
4) merit pay;
5) teacher evaluation;
6) Teach for America (you were there at the creation);
7) the future of the teaching profession;
8) the political goals of groups like Democrats for Education Reform, which you helped to found;
9) the long-term aspirations of the movement you lead.
First, let’s talk about nomenclature. Your side calls itself the “reform movement,” because you want to shake up and disrupt public education. People who believe in the importance of free and universal public education, like me, don’t think you are reformers. You don’t “reform” an institution by tearing it apart. Reform requires steady, persistent work, and it can be done best by those with knowledge of the institution they are changing. There have been education reformers numerous times in the history of American education. They always wanted to make the public schools better. They wanted better-educated teachers, higher salaries for teachers, more funding for schools, more equitable funding for schools, desegregation of schools, higher standards, better curricula, etc. Now, for the first time in the history of American education, we have a group of people who call themselves reformers but seek to replace public schools with school choice via privately managed charters and vouchers that may be used for religious schools. Unlike past reformers, this movement wants to replace public schools, not improve them. This is in reality a privatization movement, not a reform movement.
Speaking for the many educators and parents I know, we think that you are disrupters who are ill-informed about the challenges facing teachers and public schools. We think you are wrong to say that public schools are failing. In fact, as I showed in my last book, Reign of Error, students in public schools today have the highest test scores, the highest graduation rates, and the lowest dropout rates ever recorded. This is true for white students, black students, Hispanic students, and Asian students. This steady and incremental progress came to a halt in 2015, as shown in the latest national and state reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). After forty years of steady progress, the gains of American students came to a halt. This occurred after more than a dozen years of high-stakes testing.
We do not contend that all is well in public schools. We are well aware of the re-segregation of American education. We are aware of the low educational achievement of many students in poverty and students of color. Your side attributes poor test performance to bad schools and bad teachers. My side says that standardized test scores accurately measure family income and education, not students’ potential to make a contribution to society. The bell curve never closes; that is its design. Currently, half the children in our schools live in low-income homes, and nearly a quarter live in poverty. That affects their test scores. It is hard to concentrate on one’s studies when you have a toothache, when you are hungry, when your vision is poor, when you are homeless.
Your side has chosen to create escape hatches (charter schools) for the lucky few. Our side says it is dangerous to undermine a nation’s public education system by skimming away the best students in the poorest communities and draining resources from public schools to finance charters. What we urge is a comprehensive approach, one that does not privilege the few at the expense of the many and that does not destroy public education, which is a basic democratic institution. We can’t understand why your side is so antagonistic to public schools and so unwilling to help them. After all, that’s where most of the children of America are.
We think your ideas are doing enormous damage to public schools, to children, and to teachers. So we tend not to call you reformers, but to find a qualifying adjective or to play on the word.
This is what critics call your side: Some call you “deformers.” Some call you Rheeformers, recalling the tenure of Michelle Rhee as the leading spokesperson for your policies. Some call you “reformsters,” to differentiate you from real reformers who want to improve the conditions of teaching and learning in public schools for all students.
I prefer to use the term “corporate reformers” because it conveys your side’s belief in practices borrowed from the business world: incentive pay; reliance on Big Data for decisions; accountability measures attached to test scores: punishment for low test scores and rewards for higher test scores. Educators tend to value experience, whereas your side puts little stock in it. Educators typically are okay with unions, whereas your side thinks that unions are passe, dysfunctional, self-seeking, greedy, and resistant to change.
This is a long explanation of why we resist calling you “reformers.” I don’t expect you will agree with our nomenclature, but do you think the reasoning of your critics is off base? Do you have a plan to improve public schools or do you want to keep closing them and replacing them with privately managed schools?
Second, I agree that the struggle to improve education for all children is “the civil rights issue of our time.” But I don’t agree that the way to improve education for all is to promote school choice. I am old enough to remember when the cry for school choice was voiced by hardline segregationists. Men like George Wallace of Alabama and other racists across the South saw school choice as the answer to the Brown decision of 1954. School choice was the best way to entrench segregation. They enacted school choice policies, but the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly struck them down. The racist leaders knew that school choice would enable white students to stay in all-white schools, and they expected that Southern blacks would be too intimidated to leave all-black schools.
As to test scores, it is well documented that charters on average do not perform differently from public schools. Some have very high scores, some have very low scores, and most are about average. The exception is virtual charter schools, which have a terrible record and provide a poor quality of education.
It is well documented, including a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, that charters enroll significantly smaller proportions of students with special needs. When I looked at enrollments in Boston charters, I noticed that English language learners were underrepresented. Some Boston charters had no English language learners at all, even though their numbers in the public schools were high. When I looked at the data for charters in the South Bronx, I saw that they had half as many of the kids with special needs and half as many ELLs as the local public schools.
How will charters improve education for all children, not just for a select few? Should charters be allowed to enroll the children they choose and to avoid the children who might pull down their test scores?
The charter industry introduced the concept of for-profit schools funded by taxpayers. Some charter operators have become multimillionaires by the real estate deals they engineer while opening charters. Do you approve of for-profit charters? Eighty percent of the charters in Michigan operate for profit. Taxpayers assume that they are paying for teachers’ salaries, facilities, supplies, and other things that directly affect children; they don’t know they are paying off investors and shareholders.
Are you aware of the Gulen charter chain? This is a chain that is either the largest or second largest in the nation, tied or just behind KIPP. The Gulen chain is operated by Turkish nationals associated with the imam Fethullah Gulen, who lives in seclusion in the Poconos. Its schools have different names in different states, but all of them have boards dominated by Turkish men and a staff comprised largely of Turkish teachers. No other nation allows Turkish schools to receive public funding. Do you think it is appropriate for schools operated by foreign nationals to receive public funds and to replace community public schools? Since one of the fundamental responsibilities of public schools is to teach citizenship, can we expect that of schools whose board and staff are not Americans?
There are now towns and cities where public education is nearing bankruptcy in large part because charter schools drain their resources and trap them in a downward spiral. As they lose students and funding to charters, the public schools must fire teachers and cut programs. Some districts are teetering close to bankruptcy. Philadelphia has stripped its public schools of almost every amenity, even basic necessities. Erie, Pennsylvania, is imposing draconian cuts and may close all of its high schools, due to the loss of funding to charter schools; it is also cutting the arts and sports and other programs. Do you think this is a good or bad development?
Let’s turn to vouchers. I don’t know where you stand on vouchers. I used to think that charters were a firewall against vouchers, but I now see that charters pave the way for all kinds of school choice. Once parents begin to think as consumers, not citizens, then there is no limit to what they choose. Back when I was a conservative, I assumed that parents would always make the best choices for their children. I didn’t realize then that parents could be easily duped by propaganda, advertising, and slick marketing.
Despite the propaganda from the Friedman Foundation and ALEC, vouchers have not improved education or offered consistently better choices anywhere. The best private schools do not take vouchers, because they are not large enough to cover tuition. The schools that want vouchers tend to be poorly staffed religious schools that need more students. In many states, these religious schools teach creationism and teach other subjects from a Biblical perspective. I believe that parents have the right to make that choice, so long as they pay for it themselves. I don’t think that students who attend Fundamentalist or Evangelical schools receive an education that prepares them for the 21st century. Do you?
Before closing out the subject of privatization, let’s turn to Milwaukee. That city has had charters and vouchers since 1990. The voucher program expanded in 1998 after the courts approved it. By now, Milwaukee should have the best schools in the nation. But it doesn’t. While studies disagree, the best they can say is that the charters and voucher schools are no worse than the public schools. But on the National Assessment of Education Progress, Milwaukee is one of the lowest-performing urban districts in the nation, barely outperforming Detroit. And Governor Scott Walker wants to “help” by increasing the number of charters and vouchers, on the way to eliminating public education in Milwaukee.
Do you think that the corporate reform movement will help public education, which enrolls about 85-90% of all school-age children? If you think it will, please explain how and give examples. I think it is worth mentioning that more than 90% of charters and all voucher schools are non-union. Is it the intent of your movement to eliminate teachers’ unions altogether?
Thank you for listening and responding.