Archives for category: Democrats for Education Reform

On September 28, Eva Moskowitz closed her Success Academy charter schools for the day so her students, teachers, and families could attend a political rally. Alan Singer wonders why this is permitted? The students, the staff, and families are used as pawns to advance Moskowitz’s political goals. Certainly, the children don’t need more charters. They already attend one. They can’t attend two or three. Eva is using them for her own benefit.

Who pays the bills? Families for Excellent schools. They are not the families of the students. They are billionaires and hedge fund managers whose excellent schools are private and have a tuition of $50,000 or more. You surely won’t see them hanging out with the children at these political rallies.

Face it: the kids are pawns being cynically used to advance adult interests.

Why is it legal?

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.

Hi, Whitney,

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.

Diane Ravitch

This post was written in 2014, but it remains relevant today. DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) raises large sums of money from hedge fund managers to promote charter schools. The free market has been very good to hedge fund managers, and they think that public schools should compete in a free market too. They are not in the game to make money, but to promote their ideology of free-market competition. DFER and its related organizations, like Education Reform Now, and Families for Excellent Schools, are spending millions of dollars in places as far-flung as Denver and Massachusetts. It may be confusing to the public to see “Democrats” promoting school choice and accountability, since these have always been Republican ideas for school reform. But, it made no sense to create a group called Republicans for Education Reform because Republicans don’t need to be convinced to private public schools.

Leonie Haimson, parent advocate (and a member of the board of the Network for Public Education), asks:

How did this happen? How did our electeds of both parties enable corporate interests to hijack our public schools?

Her answer:

A small band of Wall St. billionaires decided to convert the Democratic party to the Republican party, at least on education — and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams – or our worst nightmares. And now we have electeds of both parties who are intent on helping them engineer a hostile takeover of our public schools, which has nothing to do with parent choice but the choice of these plutocrats.

What can you do about it?

Contact the Network for Public Education and find out how you can become active in your local or state organization that supports public schools and opposes privatization.

If you live in Massachusetts, join parents and educators who are fighting Question 2, which would allow unlimited expansion of charters to replace public schools.

Get involved.

Education Week posted an article, like many others, on the growing African American opposition to the expansion of charter schools.

This was in response to resolutions passed by the NAACP annual convention (not yet ratified by the national board, which must be subject to heavy lobbying by Gates and other funders) and by the Movement for Black Lives (a consortium of 50 black organizations including Black Lives Matter).

The resolutions acknowledged that schooling in black communities is being taken over by outside entrepreneurs, and black parents have no voice when this happens. It is a bit like Walmart moving into your town and killing off all the mom-and-pop stores, then hiring mom and pop as greeters in a massive chain operation, which might abandon the community if sales are not sufficiently brisk.

All such stories about this development have two go-to sources to contradict the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives: Howard Fuller of Black Alliance for Educational Options and Shaver Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform.

Neither is a grassroots black organization.

Howard Fuller is black, but his organization has been bankrolled by white rightwing philanthropies since its inception in 2000. Its biggest funders are the Walton Foundation, the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee (huge supporters of vouchers), the John M. Olin Foundation (now defunct), and the Gates Foundation.

Shavar Jeffries is black, but DFER is an organization that represents white hedge fund managers, including billionaires, who are contemptuous of public schools and eager to privatize them.

Nonetheless, it is heartening to see that truly grassroots groups like the NAACP and many of its chapters (including the New England chapter, which opposes Question 2 to expand charters in Massachusetts) are speaking up and opposing privatization of public schools.

This is a striking story about a group called Democrats for Education Reform, known as DFER. It was created in 2005 by hedge fund managers Whitney Tilson and John Petry. They held their first meeting in a plush apartment in New York City owned by another hedge fund manager, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV. Their speaker that evening was a brilliant young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. In the past 11 years, they have funneled millions of dollars into state and local elections to elect candidates who support charter schools. They endorse Republicans and Democrats alike, so long as they support charter schools.

In New York State, they have supported Republican control of the State Senate and Governor Cuomo, as well as any Democrat who is charter friendly. Now comes news that DFER has decided to spend serious money to flip control of the State Senate to Democrats this fall. This is a strategic effort to hedge their bets, in case the Democrats sweep the state in 2016. DFER can’t risk losing control of the Senate. They know the Republicans will support school choice without their money.

Chris Bragg of the Albany Times-Union has the story.

Supporters of charter schools have had no stauncher ally in Albany than state Senate Republicans.
So why is a prominent national charter group saying it will spend money this year to try to flip the chamber to Democrats — many of whom were elected with the strong support of teachers unions, charters’ frequent nemeses?

“We understand the dynamic and the shift in the state Senate,” Nicole Brisbane, the New York director of Democrats for Education Reform, said in an interview last week. “We’re playing a long game.”

As the demographics of New York shift more and more toward Democrats — and Republicans continue to hang on to their Senate majority by a thread — there’s a growing sense that charter supporters need to “cultivate change in the hearts and minds” of the Democratic conference, Brisbane said.

DFER recently created an independent expenditure committee, called Moving New York Families Forward, that can raise and spend unlimited amounts. The charter backers will support pro-charter Senate Democrats in some general election races against Republicans this year, Brisbane said.

Informed of DFER’s strategy, other charter supporters reacted with skepticism and surprise.

“The expectation that State Senate Democrats will have goodwill towards education reform priorities is misplaced,” said one person heavily involved in education reform politics and policy.

“The only thing that will get accomplished is angering DFER’s true allies, Senate Republicans.”
As indicated by the group’s title, Democrats for Education Reform backs Democratic candidates across the country.

But in New York, that’s largely meant backing charter-supporting Democrats in primaries, not going after Republicans in general elections. And it doesn’t appear that any charter group has ever openly stated an intention to flip the Senate to Democratic control.

In 2010, DFER and its deep-pocketed donors — a number of whom have made hedge-fund fortunes — were heavily involved in backing challengers in New York City to three Democratic senators aligned with the teachers unions. All the charter-backing candidates lost soundly. After the election, the United Federation of Teachers issued a report calling the group “a letterhead stacked with super-rich backers.”

Now the union and DFER are putatively on the same side of the Senate

Brisbane said it was too early in the fundraising process to say how much would be spent. And she declined to say which districts the group will target in the general election, which means it’s not clear how much vulnerable Republicans would be impacted. (DFER is also set to back two New York City Assembly Democrats who are supportive of charters.)

Brisbane acknowledged that many members of the Senate Democratic conference don’t currently support her group’s stands — such as expanding the numbers of charter schools — but wants to make sure “more and more of them are championing our issues.” That list also includes increasing accountability through testing, another point of contention with the teachers union, and “Raise the Age” legislation increasing the age of criminal responsibility.
The Republican majority currently depends on the support of a Brooklyn Democrat, Simcha Felder, who conferences with them. And in a presidential election year, Democrats are likely to pick up seats in November, although they will still need to woo the five-member Independent Democratic Conference to join them to have a majority.

DFER’s new strategy “gives them protection for their agenda if the Senate goes Democratic without their help,” said Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and frequent critic of the charter movement. “If they get their favored candidates elected, then it doesn’t matter who controls the State Senate.”

Leadership of DFER has also shifted: Shavar Jeffries, who in 2014 lost a high-profile race for mayor of Newark, N.J., with the strong backing of charter supporters, became the group’s national president a year ago.

In recent election cycles, the New York State United Teachers union has spent millions to attain Democratic control of the Senate. NYSUT has endorsed mostly Democrats in swing districts this year. But with the fate of the Senate uncertain, NYSUT is also hedging its bets and supporting a Republican incumbent for a competitive Hudson Valley seat, while giving maximum $109,000 contributions to each side of the Senate battle.

Another pro-charter group, New Yorkers For a Balanced Albany, spent millions to help Senate Republicans in 2014 and again spent heavily to help Republican Senate candidate Chris McGrath in a May special election on Long Island; that race was narrowly won by Democrat Todd Kaminsky.

StudentsFirstNY, another New York City-based pro-charter group, runs that campaign group.
Brisbane, the New York director of DFER, insisted that some deep-pocketed donors supporting StudentsFirstNY — and Republican control of the Senate — would also give to her group backing Democratic control.
According to campaign finance records, there has been some overlap in the past between the groups’ donors.
For instance, DFER’s federal political action committee took a donation in 2015 from hedge fund magnate Daniel Loeb, who also gave $100,000 in June to the StudentsFirstNY campaign group. The executive director for StudentsFirst also gave last year to DFER.

A spokesman for StudentsFirst declined comment on DFER’s support of a Democratic Senate takeover.
Despite the fact that many Senate Republicans do not have many charter schools in their districts — the schools are concentrated in New York City — the conference has been a staunch supporter of their major financial backers. In the final hours of this year’s legislative session, for instance, the Republican-controlled Senate demanded a number of concessions for charter schools in exchange for granting New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a one-year extension of mayoral control of city schools.

An open question in this year’s Senate races is the degree to which Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a charter supporter who has received major support from DFER donors — will act to help his fellow Democrats win the Senate. Critics of Cuomo say he has given them lukewarm support in past election cycles in order to maintain his close working relationship with the Senate GOP.

Brisbane said her group’s support of Democrats should not be read as an indication of Cuomo’s own intentions.
“We are supporters of the governor and of Democrats who support this issue,” she said, “but have not coordinated with him on this push.”

Most people who are active in school board elections never heard of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), know nothing of the duplicity of Stand for Children, and are unaware of the privatization agenda of corporate reformers.

This article by Justin Miller in the American Prospect seeks to demystify the strange confluence between hedge fund managers and the charter school movement.

Miller tells the story of the transformation of school board elections, once a sleepy affair, now attracting large sums of money from out of district and out of state organizations. The key organization in the race to control local school boards is Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), the hedge fund managers’ group.

He gives illustration of how they operate by focusing on school board elections in Indianapolis, and to a lesser extent, Minneapolis and Denver.

Flying under the radar, DFER bundled money to put their allies in charge.

The list of original funders is chock-full of Wall Street A-listers. There was Joel Greenblatt, head of Gotham Asset Management and author of the seminal high-finance book You Can Be a Stock Market Genius. There were Charles Ledley and James Mai of Cornwall Capital, perhaps most well known for betting big against the subprime-mortgage market, which was depicted in the book-turned-blockbuster The Big Short. There was David Einhorn, head of Greenlight Capital, who has drawn scrutiny on more than one occasion for financial wrongdoing.

Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in. [Whitney] Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”

Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions. DFER was instrumental in convincing Obama to appoint charter-friendly Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education, and it spent a lot of time and money lobbying the administration to pursue reformist education policies like Race to the Top and Common Core. Tied to Obama’s coattails, DFER was now one of the most influential political players in the ascendant education-reform movement.

Who is involved in DFER? Miller answers:

The list of original funders is chock-full of Wall Street A-listers. There was Joel Greenblatt, head of Gotham Asset Management and author of the seminal high-finance book You Can Be a Stock Market Genius. There were Charles Ledley and James Mai of Cornwall Capital, perhaps most well known for betting big against the subprime-mortgage market, which was depicted in the book-turned-blockbuster The Big Short. There was David Einhorn, head of Greenlight Capital, who has drawn scrutiny on more than one occasion for financial wrongdoing.

Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in. Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”

Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions. DFER was instrumental in convincing Obama to appoint charter-friendly Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education, and it spent a lot of time and money lobbying the administration to pursue reformist education policies like Race to the Top and Common Core. Tied to Obama’s coattails, DFER was now one of the most influential political players in the ascendant education-reform movement.

It is important for reports like Miller’s story to be circulated widely, among school board members across the nation. They need to understand where the “dark money” is coming from. They need to know why a race that once could be self-financed now requires large sums of money. They need to know who DFER is, who Stand for Children is, and know that their agenda is privatization of public schools. As the recent election in Nashville showed, outside money poured in but it was not enough to defeat the candidates who were fighting to improve the public schools, not to replace them. Since the “reformers” always fly under a false flag, promising to improve public schools and to save children from “failing schools,” democracy requires that voters know who they are and what they seek.

Jeff Bryant writes for the Educational Opportunity Network, where he describes here the new uprising against privately managed charter schools. He says that local grassroots groups and voters are rebelling against the influence of billionaires and hedge fund managers who fund the charter schools.

He offers examples of this uprising:

*the recent decision by the NAACP annual conference to call for a moratorium on new charter schools;

*the endorsement of the NAACP decision by the Movement for Black Lives, a group affiliated with Black Lives Matter;

*the support of the moratorium by Journey for Justice, an organization of civil rights activists;

*the resounding defeat of the charter school candidates in Nashville.

Jeff says that the response of the charter industry has been either outrage or silence:

The way pro-charter advocates have responded to these…events is telling.

Regarding the civil rights groups’ calls for a charter moratorium, the pro-charter response has been a hissy-fit driven by fiery rhetoric and few facts.

Shaffar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, a Washington D.C. based charter advocacy financed by hedge funds, issued a statement declaring the NAACP resolution a “disservice to communities of color.”

In a nationally televised newscast, Steve Perry, founder and operator of a charter school chain, lashed out at Hilary Shelton, the bureau director of the Washington, DC, chapter of the NAACP, for being a sell out to the teachers’ unions and for abandoning children of color.

The contention that the NAACP has sold out to teachers’ unions holds little water since that organization has been a recipient of generous donations from pro-charter advocates as well. And any argument that curbing charters is a de facto blow to black and brown school kids is more a rhetorical trope than a factual counter to the evidence NAACP cites, showing where charters undermine communities of color.

Regarding the defeat of big money-backed pro-charter candidates in Nashville, the usual outlets for charter industry advocacy – Democrats for Education Reform and the media outlets Education Post and The 74 – have been totally silent.

These responses are telling because the charter industry has heretofore been such masterful communicators.

Advocates for these schools have long understood most people don’t understand what the schools are. Even when presidential candidates in the recent Democratic Party primary ventured to express an opinion about charters, they horribly botched it.

So for years, the powerful charter school industry has been filling the void of understanding about charters with clever language meant to define what these schools are and what their purpose is.

The schools, we’ve been told, are “public,” even though they really aren’t. They’re supposed to outperform traditional public schools, but that turns out not to be true either. Even when the charter industry has tried to cut the data even finer to prove some charters outperform public schools, the claims turn out to be grossly over-stated.

We’ve also been told charter schools are a “civil rights cause.” Now it turns out that’s not quite the case either.

As the public comes to realize who is behind charter schools and that they will diminish the funding of neighborhood public schools, the charter narrative loses its luster.

The next big trial of the phony “charter narrative” will be in Massachusetts this November, where billionaires and conservative Republicans are behind an effort to expand the number of charters allowed—twelve a year for every year into the future. And they are selling their proposal by claiming it is intended to “improve public education” and pretending that privately managed charters are “public schools.” Will the people of Massachusetts fall for it?

John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, writes here about the conflict between Democrats for Education Reform and educators and how it might affect the next administration. It is to be expected that the misnamed DFER would achieve its policy goals in a Trump administration: charters, school choice, the elimination of teacher tenure and unions. But what about in a Clinton administration? Why should an anti-teacher, anti-public school group have a “seat at the table”?

Teachers and our unions are uniquely poised to help unite the Democratic Party. Not only do educators celebrate the difference of opinions, but it’s our job to do so in a respectful manner. Our professional practice embodies the need to listen, to disagree agreeably and, often, help synthesize seemingly incompatible perspectives. Not only do we model the sharing of ideas in the classroom, our edu-political practice illustrates the type of democratic principles known as the “loyal opposition.” Teachers and our unions defend our profession and promote the welfare of our students by treating our opponents as opponents, not enemies.

My students were more socially conservative than I was. They were aware that I was a former ACLU/OK board member and a pro-choice lobbyist, but they knew that all of their opinions, values, and judgments would be treated with equal respect. They also knew how much I preferred addressing persons who disagreed with me on abortion with the term, “pro-life,” not “anti-choice.” Teaching our Government class with an open door produced a bonus. Students, patrons, or other visitors continually joined our debates. Often, parents would send their children back to school with their counter-arguments about politics, culture, and history. One junior brought his pastor to class to present an alternative worldview, and he concluded with the words, “We can count the seeds in an apple, but not the apples in a seed.”

The metaphor speaks to the Democratic Party Convention. We can count Bernie’s delegates, but we can’t even guess as to the number of future voters and activists unleashed by “the Bern.” In the meantime, we should unite behind Hillary.

And, that brings us to the second contribution that teachers, our professional organizations, and our representatives can make. Where would public education be if we embodied the ethos of “my way or the highway?” Unlike those with more money and power, we need to be trustworthy participants in the team effort to advance equity and justice. Educators know that losses are a part of the game. Even so, teachers have participated in some of America’s greatest victories; we were loyal members of the coalitions that carved out civil rights breakthroughs, that established a social safety net, and expanded economic opportunity.

As I often explained to my students, politics is a contact sport. Elbows are thrown but taking out your opponent’s knees is never appropriate. This is especially pertinent to contemporary school reform. Although this is heresy to top-down reformers, teachers know that in our world, we win some and we lose some. Our political defeats may be bitter, but they sure don’t sting as much as the all-to-frequent losses of our students. And that brings us to the coverage of Democrat for Education Reform’s (DFER’s) – or should I say “FER’s” – troubles.

When they were racking up political victory after political victory, DFER celebrated as if defeating adults was their true purpose. Alexander Russo explains how DFER benefitted from the Obama administration’s $5 billion Race to the Top and millions of dollars from Rupert Murdoch and the Walton Family Foundation. DFER donated to the pro-Scott Walker American Federation of Children, and distanced itself from Wisconsin workers when Walker attacked public sector workers’ bargaining rights. DFER remained true to its commitment to high stakes testing and to anti-union hedge fund managers, but ducked the opportunity to address the school to prison pipeline. The former DFER executive director, Joe Williams, acknowledges the mistake of pushing teacher evaluations at the same time as Common Core. He notes the resulting political turmoil, but not the mess that those inherently contradictory policies created inside schools. Neither Russo nor any of his sources try to document the idea that the DFER agenda improved schools.

Russo cites the judgment of liberal reformers that DFER was completely on board with the corporate reform wish list, but not so much with the Democrats’ agenda. Andre Perry also notes that “DFER and other education reform groups have grown comfortable working with Republican leadership – in many cases they’ve thrived,” and adds that perhaps the reform movement should go by the name For Education Reform. Perry opposes the way that DFER/FER criticizes the Democratic base “which is especially problematic in an election in which worker rights are in focus.” He explains that Democrats aren’t buying DFER’s “selling [of] school choice as justice.” The amended party platform “was a political victory for those who repudiated the brand of reform that DFER promotes.” Reformers should have accepted their loss as “a result of real political work, and as “changes designed to get Hillary Clinton elected.”

Democratic political infighting over education pulls the rug out from under black families

Perry’s account should be read along with the Hechinger Report’s Emanuel Felton, who explains how reform effected teachers and political reality in Philadelphia.

He reminds us:

Over the course of President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, a coalition formed among his administration, governors, many of whom are Republican, and big city education reformers. Together, they doubled down on former Republican President George W. Bush’s education policies, pledging to turn around long-struggling urban school districts like Philadelphia’s by holding schools accountable for their students’ test scores. If results didn’t improve, officials could tap federal funds for turning around schools, to either close a school or transform it into a privately operated, publicly funded charter school, the vast majority of which employ non-unionized staff.

Of course, student performance didn’t improve. On the whole, decades of improvements in NAEP scores slowed with NCLB, and stopped around 2008. Felton writes:

Over the last decade and a half, the union — which represents the city’s public school teachers, nurses, counselors and support staff — has been nearly halved, its ranks shrinking from 21,000 to 11,000. Come election time, that means 10,000 fewer members to go door to door campaigning, 10,000 fewer people paying union dues to finance political ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.

I just wish he’d explained how the knee-capping of educators also undermined other progressive coalitions and the battle for justice in other sectors of society. I also wished he’d recalled the damage done to students. To name just one example, the conservative reform Governor Tom Corbett cut the Philadelphia school budget by $700 million.

It might be different if reformers like DFER had a record of improving public schools. Take a look at the issues that (publicly) outrage corporate reformers, however, and they all come back to two demands that are based on faith in their hypotheses, not evidence. Reformers insist that high stakes testing must be used to sanction individuals and systems, and on the mass charterization of schools. Test-driven accountability has demonstrably failed but bubble-in scores are the metrics that keep score as charter management organizations spearhead school closures, thus breaking union power. Test scores also fuel the Billionaires Boys Club’s high-dollar, anti-teacher, anti-public school public relations campaign and, less publicly, they are seen as necessary to encourage for-profit education start-ups. In other words, all roads lead back to the insistence that the punitive is nonnegotiable.

If Democrats who remain true to output-driven reform weren’t so committed to punishments, as well as rewards, they could go along with a 2-1/2 month pre-election moratorium on attacking fellow Democrats. They could temporarily stop slandering those who disagree with them, and focus on win-win policies such as early childhood education, wraparound services for traumatized kids, fighting chronic absenteeism, restorative justice, high school graduation, reducing the college debts, and making higher education affordable. They could also help us advocate for a $15 dollar minimum wage, the end of mass incarceration, and the refusal of the conservative allies to accept Obamacare.

Assuming that Hillary Clinton is elected, teachers will regain our seat at the table. We don’t expect the Billionaires Boys Club to offer us theirs. They aren’t likely to bend on their bottom line – the punishment of individuals and of the losers in their market-driven world. But, after a few months of swallowing their words rather than insulting and slandering teachers, perhaps they could rethink the politics of personal demonization. Okay, that’s not likely to happen. Educators still need to continue to make our case, as we make it clear that our profession won’t endure another eight years of being scapegoated by Democrats.

Julian Vasquez Heilig reports on his blog Cloaking Inequity that the National NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on charters.

Read the text of the resolution.

Delegates to the 2016 national convention of the NAACP in Cincinnati passed a resolution expressing their concern about the lack of public governance, the targeting of low-income communities of color, increased segregation, and harsh disciplinary policies associated with charter schools.

Do you think that the Walton family, ALEC, the hedge fund managers, Scott Walker, Pat McCrory, and every other Republican governor will stop claiming the mantle of the civil rights movement, now that their favorite “reform” policy has been denounced by the real civil rights movement?

One of the most powerful players in the corporate reform movement is Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which represents the hedge fund managers who are eager to expand privately managed charters with public dollars.

Experienced journalist Alexander Russo writes here in the publication of the conservative American Enterprise Institute about the travails of DFER. From the outside, it appears that DFER is powerful for two reasons: its money (which seems to be endless) and its closeness to the Obama administration. President Obama took his cues from DFER, not the teachers’ unions. But Russo says that DFER is losing its grip and its sense of possibility. If it appears to be aimless and dispirited, it is.

The two issues that it fought for–charters and teacher evaluation by test scores–have not been the big successes that the hedge fund guys expected. Obama is leaving, and there is no certainty that Hillary will be as congenial as he was. She has a debt to the teachers’ unions, and Obama had none. On issue after issue, there have been no results–not for the agenda of privatizing the schools, nor for the fantasy of booting out all those “bad teachers.”

Money was never lacking, and the vision has all but disappeared. DFER exists because it continues to raise money, not because there is a groundswell of support for privatization and firing teachers based on test scores.

DFER’s long-time executive director Joe Williams has left to work for the Walton family.

Meanwhile, DFER’s real opposition is not the teachers’ unions but the parents and educators who are fighting back on their own dime. The grassroots opponents of corporate reform don’t have the money that DFER has, but they have passion, commitment, and the support of classroom teachers and scholars who oppose DFER’s goals. No one pays them. They (we) will outlast DFER because DFER will grow tired, tired of losing Friedrichs, tired of losing Vergara, tired of reading about the Opt Out movement, tired of being thrashed by bloggers like Mercedes Schneider and Peter Greene, tired of being vilified for their selfless investment in “reform,” tired of getting no returns on their investment.

The tortoise and the hare. Rabbit stew, anyone?