Archives for category: Disruption

Maurice Cunningham is a political scientist with a deep interest in how Dark Money influences education policy. His motto is: “Dark Money never sleeps.” He is a master at following the money. He customarily blogs at a website called MassPoliticsProfs, but was kind enough to send me this post first.

He writes here about the groups pushing the attacks on critical race theory:

The Corporate Critical Race Theory Attack: Chaos is the Product

“The backlash” begins an opinion piece in Newsweek by Parents Defending Education outreach director Erika Sanzi, and these may be the most accurate two words published by those who are attacking “wokeness,” gender studies, and Critical Race Theory. The sad fact is that white backlash has a proven record of effectiveness in American politics and it is once again being employed in the service of right wing corporate interests. The end product desired has less to do with CRT than with spreading disruption, fear, and chaos across America’s most important democratic public institution, schools.

According to the Washington Post, as of June 24 CRT (a theory developed in law schools and not well known among most Americans) has exploded on Fox News. The term was heard on Fox only 132 times in 2020 but has been mentioned 1,860 times this year, escalating month by month. The narrative is that grassroots parents groups have discovered the threat CRT poses to their children in schools and have arisen organically across the country to form local parent groups, a movement noticed and captured by websites and the powerful Fox News. The truth is that of an oligarch-funded and coordinated campaign using time tested techniques.

Follow the Money

Over the past five years I’ve been following “education reform” groups created by billionaire investors with names like Families for Excellent Schools, Massachusetts Parents United, and National Parents Union which have presented diversity as their public face while attacking teachers. So when I saw the launch of Parents Defending Education on March 30 I took note because it follows a different path: white backlash aimed more at school boards, superintendents, and principals. The first thing to do when evaluating these groups is always, follow the money.

But as the financial backers of groups like PDE well know, public disclosure of funders will only come about nearly two years down the road, if then, in publicly available Form 990 tax returns for organizations with Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3)status as charitable organizations. PDE president Nicole Neily has refused to disclose the organization’s donors when asked by media outlets. It’s not just that she won’t. She can’t. Disclosure would likely reveal ties to radical right funders tied into the Koch network and similar underwriters. We know this thanks to work done by PRWatch and from Sourcewatch at the Center for Media and Democracy. They show that Neily is a political operative at Koch network funded operations like the Independent Women’s Forum, Franklin Center, and Speech First.

The Speech First association is instructive. Neily is founding president of that non-profit as well. Sourcewatch has identified some of its funders as the Bader Family Foundation for $30,000, Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund: $500,250, Judicial Education Project for $1,000,000, and National Philanthropic Trust: $500,000. The real check writers will probably never become known. Form 990s show that Neily is the sole employee, earning $161,000 in 2018 and $150,000 in 2019. Speech First brings lawsuits against universities for policies touching on race. For this, it paid the law firm Consovoy McMullen $950,000 in 2018, and to get the word out paid the Republican communications firm Creative Response Concepts $106,000. Boiled down, Speech First is a pass through that allows wealthy conservative donors to remain hidden while paying Consovoy McMullen to attack universities.

And who represents Parents Defending Education? Why, Consovoy McMullen. William Consovoy also represents Donald Trump and clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas. The firm is conservative legal royalty. PDE did not hire it after an especially successful bake sale.

Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, and Moms for Liberty

PDE launched its well-developed website featuring pages with links to its allies, most of which were branches of groups called No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty. According to NBC, No Left Turn in Education was launched in 2020 when a parent from a Philadelphia suburb became enraged at her children’s school for teaching concepts of racism after the police murder of George Floyd. Elana Yaron Fishbein then sprang into action to attack wokeness and founded NLTE. In September she appeared on Fox’s Tucker Carlson program and the next day the group’s Facebook increased from about 200 followers to over 30,000 and there are now 30 chapters in 23 states.

But when I looked at local NLTE chapters’ Facebook pages linked to through the PDE site in April, I found sparse membership: Alabama, 7; Arkansas, 3; Delaware, 6; Iowa, 2; Idaho, 4; Indiana, 8; Michigan (Betsy DeVos home state), 13; Mississippi, 3; Montana, 2; North Dakota, 2; Massachusetts, 17; Hawaii, 1. All of the NLTE Facebook pages featured the same banner, a montage of diverse teens against a background of school lockers, each student smiling and engaged, not a pimple on their perfect teenage faces; probably models, most certainly not local students. As for Moms for Liberty, it too had sparse membership in its affiliates: Arizona, 17; Wright Co, Minnesota, 8; Corpus Christi Nueces, Texas, 70. Moms for Liberty’s creation story is similar to others in the anti-public education universe: “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” The story goes that two parents became upset with their local schools and started up a parents group. It happens. It’s a lot more unusual for the two grassroots moms to then book former Fox host Megyn Kelly for a fundraiser with tickets running from General Admission of $50 up to Presenting Sponsor for $20,000 with perks including a photo with Ms. Kelly and corporate logo on print and online marketing materials.

From Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty and on to groups like National Parents Union, the creation stories are similar. A handful of disgruntled moms talk over their frustrations, determine to start their moms or parents group to seek change, and then in pour the millions of dollars; contracts are quickly signed with nationally recognized public relations firms and pollsters (one newly birthed charter school-tied group in Rhode Island immediately hired a Biden pollster); the head mom is booked on Fox or featured in national media outlets. Conservative outlets like The Federalist, Washington Times, Campus Fix, and most importantly Fox News amplify the misleading message.

How to Attack Educators in a Few Easy Steps

The tactics for going after K-12 educators did not spring up anew but have been adapted from successful attacks on college and university professors. Isaac Kamola has explained this in an important article titled Dear Administrators: To Protect Your Faculty from Right-Wing Attacks, Follow the Money. Kamola finds that groups like Campus Reform and Campus Fix, which pay conservative students as “reporters” to whistleblow on their professors, are funded by wealthy right wingers including Koch who wish to gain leverage over what is taught and researched at America’s universities. These attacks follow a common script. Something a professor says or writes in research, a lecture, or even on social media is grabbed and most often taken out of context; there is never an engagement with the actual intellectual product. (In Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, Anne Nelson shows that Campus Reform is tied into right wing clearing house organizations the Leadership Institute and Council for National Policy). The targets are often scholars of color, especially women, and their work focuses on race or inquiries into capitalism. The out of context remarks are then percolated through a right wing ecosystem which includes web sites funded by the same network and all the way up to Fox News. Results can be stark. After Campus Reform did a story on a speech by Princeton University professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor the piece was picked up by Fox; threats against Professor Taylor were so virulent she cancelled talks in Seattle and San Diego. After Campus Reform misrepresented remarks by Trinity College professor Johnny Williams the campus had to be shut down due to threats and Williams was unfairly placed on leave. So the radical right knows how to generate chaos. Parents Defending Education has refined the play book further.

PDE relies upon two modes of attack on schools (which may include charter as well as public schools). The first, often well covered in the media and with appearances on Fox, is individuals who inundate school districts with public records requests. The second involves anonymous attacks on school personnel, concealment guaranteed by guidance offered by PDE to assure their agents remain hidden.

NBC News reported on one now famous Fox-supported attack by an individual wielding public law requests. A Maine parent named Shawn McBreairty was disgruntled with his local schools and joined No Left Turn in Education. He has filed over 50 public records law request with his Maine school district, tying up education professionals serving the public for his individual crusade. In South Kingstown, RI a parent whose child is enrolled but not yet attending kindergarten in the town filed 200 public records law requests “seeking copies of middle and high school curricula, lists of all books related to gender available in the library and 10 years’ worth of harassment complaints and emails.” The district estimated it would take 300 hours to fulfill the request. Local officials were undoubtedly right in assessing the attack as an effort to disrupt public education and attack a public good. The Rhode Island parent was rewarded with an appearance on Fox. When districts try to resist the onslaught of requests, corporate spokespersons like PDE’s Sanzi are ready with pro-wrestling sincerity to whine—to Fox News—about the people’s right to know. These groups weaponize the very openness of government to undermine government.

In a forthcoming work, Kamola and co-author Ralph Wilson show how groups like Speech First use discovery in lawsuits to create a “nightmare for administrators and their general counsel.” PDE and allies are now using public records lawsnationwide to achieve the same goal against public school districts.

While the public records requests are designedly onerous and discouraging, at least educators can tell where the attacks are coming from. The second tactic promoted by PDE is much worse, to encourage anonymous attacks against educators.

Take a recent example involving the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. This was an anonymous complaint forwarded by PDE grumbling that Wellesley had violated civil rights laws by providing affinity rooms for students to process their emotions after anti-Asian attacks across the nation. Ms. Neily confessed she has no idea who submitted it to PDE or if anyone in Wellesley agrees with the complaint. This is a baked in design by PDE as we see from examining the operation’s website page that teaches How to Create “Woke At” Pages. It provides detailed instructions for how to set up “an anonymous, safe Instagram page.” First set up a Gmail account “that can’t be tied to you.” Gmail is recommended because the site creator will also need to set up “an anonymous Google Form . . . which allows you to receive anonymous tips” that shields the informant’s identity, even from the Woke At administrator. At all times “we recommend erring on the side of secrecy.”

The Woke At instructions encourage PDE’s local spies to check out social media pages of educators which may reveal woke attitudes. The Understanding Woke Jargon page catalogs terms like “social justice” or “antiracism” the group finds offensive. Questions to Ask School Officials offers gotcha questions that can be asked of woke school officials “with cameras rolling.”

Why the advice to always act with hidden identities? Because of the terrifying disposition of those “woke activists” who talk about “inclusion, equity, justice” but are really “divisive, toxic, and extreme.” PDE is one education organization that was absent on the day irony was taught, for it insists on secrecy while pretending it promotes transparency. Concealment is especially important “given how angry and retaliatory many woke activists get when criticized.” PDE understands that much of its audience consumes a heavy diet of Fox News. Research by Jeffrey M. Berry, James M. Glaser, and Deborah J. Schildkraut shows Fox’s “underlying strategy is to anger viewers by stoking their resentment of racial and ethnic minority groups” and building fear. For instance, after the images of George Floyd’s murder, which initially shocked even Sean Hannity, Fox repeatedly showed video of “rioting and looting by protestors, relying on film showing fires burning and Blacks running out of looted stores with stolen merchandise in their arms.” These images were repeatedly shown well beyond the first week, after which there was little new such behavior to report upon. But the coverage stokes ideas of lawlessness and fear.

Whether by an avalanche of public records requests or generating negative coverage from anonymous tipsters, PDE and its allies are in business to create disruption and chaos in public education.

Getting Results

As Kamola has shown with his work detailing the corporate backed assault on higher education, these tactics often work. They are now working at the K-12 level. Public records requests have tied up school boards and administrators. NBC reports that Washoe County, Nevada halted in person school board meetings “after residents filled a large auditorium and lobbed insults and threats of violence during the public comment portion.” When open meetings later convened in a smaller venue, many residents waited long hours in the hot sun to make their comments against CRT and anti-discrimination policies—including quite a fewwho do not even have students in the system. “During the most recent meeting, which lasted 11 hours, speakers railed at school board members, calling them Marxists, racists, Nazis and child abusers, among other epithets.” In Rockwood Illinois, the St. Louis Post dispatch reported, teachers called upon the school board and superintendent to protect them against “personal attacks and outright threats of violence.” In Camas, Washington, the state’s 2020 teacher of the year thanked the school board and administrators for defending her efforts to promote inclusion and access after some residents “railed against the school district’s ‘woke’ agenda, COVID-19 mask mandates, remote learning and racial justice and equity programs.”

After all, as No Left Turn Maine’s Shawn McBreairty said in an email to NBC News, “This is a war with the left, and in war, tactics and strategy can become blurry.”

As the corporate agitators behind all this understand, they are making public service exhausting and distasteful, a campaign to drive good community members away from serving. This isn’t an unfortunate byproduct. We’ve seen it at the university level. It’s intentional.

The Rise of the Right Wing Moms

In announcing PDE’s complaint against the Columbus, Ohio public schools for its willingness to address racism in the wake of the police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, Ms. Neily acknowledged that no Columbus parent had complained, but that PDE was just a concerned group of parents. “We just all work from home,” Neily told the Columbus Post-Dispatch. “We’re all working moms.”

That sounds cozy and homey but Neily is a well-compensated veteran of numerous right wing organizations, including not only Speech First but the Cato Institute. Sourcewatch reports that “Nicole Neily has worked for many Koch-affiliated groups.” Ms. Sanzi has worked for billionaire funded school privatization groups, also bringing home a hefty paycheck. According to research from Mercedes Schneider the Education Post, an online publication originally funded by Eli Broad, paid Sanzi $121,000 in 2016 and $131,000 in 2017. She is also a “senior visiting fellow” at the Fordham Institute.

This is another area where patterns are not immediately visible but things become more clear years down the road when Form 990s become available. What we see is that following the emergence of these organizations with their tales of concerned moms banding together is that the moms are actually political operatives or communications professionals being well paid. Take for example Keri Rodrigues, “mom-in-chief” of the Walton backed Massachusetts Parents United. One of the several creation stories is that Ms. Rodrigues (always identified as a former union organizer) and a few other mothers gathered in their local library and decided to start a parents group. Actually, Ms. Rodrigues had been state director for Families for Excellent Schools, which ran a losing ballot campaign to increase charter schools in Massachusetts in 2016. She is also a communications professional, having been a radio host. MPU and an affiliate paid Ms. Rodrigues over $388,000 in 2017-2018. But the mom-in-chief story has had some penetration.

When the CDC announced reopening guidelines for schools in May 2021 Ms. Rodrigues, now also of Walton and Koch backed National Parents Union, appeared on Fox News to accuse teachers unions of undue influence. The host accused “teachers unions of basically writing the guidelines” a claim that Ms. Rodrigues enthusiastically agreed with. There was no basis for that claim other than that the unions, like over fifty other advocacy groups, had offered comments to the CDC. But it was blown up by Republican senators from a letter provided by a Republican dark money group. And then on to Fox and the eagerMs. Rodrigues.

Thus we shouldn’t be too surprised by a recent Media Matters study that showed that a number of the concerned parents featured on Fox News criticizing CRT are actually Republican political operatives. Quisha King, an African American woman billed by Fox News as an “everyday American” who is “Northeast Florida co-chair of Moms for Liberty” and “mom of two daughters” is also a GOP political consultant who worked for the Republican National Committee in 2020. Though Fox News billed Ms. Neily as a parent fighting against CRT in schools, Media Matters added that she “has spent her entire career working in and for libertarian and conservative political advocacy organizations and think tanks . . . .” PDE senior fellow Elizabeth Schultz was noted by Fox’s Dana Perino as a former Fairfax County, Virginia school board member. But she is also a former Trump appointee to the Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos. Before being defeated for re-election to the school board Schultz was known for opposing “‘expanding the school system’s sex-education curriculum to include lessons on gender identity and transgender issues’ and supporting armed teachers in classrooms.”

Charles Koch’s Pincer Movement

Far right groups like Parents Defending Education are new born but billionaire funded corporate education reform groups like Massachusetts Parents United and National Parents Union have been around a bit longer. Families for Excellent Schools was successful in New York until its 2016 Massachusetts charter school campaign was badly beaten, its dark money donors were ordered to be disclosed by the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and its CEO was fired after #MeToo allegations surfaced. These groups often present themselves as leaning liberal, non-partisan but vaguely Democratic, featuring spokespersons who are women of color, and advocating for their privatization policies as being pro-civil rights. National Parents Union even released a statement defending Critical Race Theory on May 21, but it seems to have dropped the topic since. Why then would Charles Koch, a likely source of support for the right wing groups, also be funding National Parents Union?

But he is, through his Charles Koch Institute, which is partnered with the Walton Family Foundation in a joint venture called the Vela Education Fund. Vela dropped $700,000 on NPU to promote home schooling. NPU then spread Vela funds around in grants for home schooling. As Casey Parks explained in The New Yorker these foundations “advocate ‘school choice’—rerouting money and families away from traditional public schools through such means as charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, and vouchers, which allow public-education dollars to be put toward private-school tuition.” NPU had been launched by the Walton Family Foundation to help in the Waltons quest to undermine teachers unions. Recognizing the opportunity presented by closed schools Vela formed and wrote the $700,000 check even though NPUhad been in business only a few months. Vela has pursued other such opportunities including funding the far right Home School Legal Defense Association.

Coincidentally or not in 2017 the civil rights-proclaiming Ms. Rodrigues and the radical right Ms. Sanzi were partners in another venture named Planet Mom, which featured a podcast and proposed radio show. In her paid position at Education Post Ms. Sanzi wrote of Ms. Rodrigues “I consider her a partner in this work. And a friend.” It’s a small planet, after all.

The point is not Critical Race Theory, or charter schools, virtual schools, or home schools. The point is to undermine public education, keep taxes low, spread doubt of the efficacy of public goods, and demolish institutions like unions and local school communities that make demands on the Waltons and Kochs of the nation. It is, as Nancy MacLean has said, to put democracy in chains. Diverse-presenting National Parents Union and white backlash Parents Defending Education serve the same cause.

Whither We Are Tending and What to Do About It

I hope my colleagues in academia continue to speak out about the intellectual contributions of Critical Race Theory and the fine efforts of K-12 educators to provide the kind of schooling all our students need—open and honest about the nation’s race and history and our ongoing challenges, including corporate promoted white backlash.

On the other hand, don’t expect any engagement from Nicole Neily or the anti-CRT bard Christopher Rufo, who has helped spike this ridiculous campaign. In a triumphant appearance at the Claremont Institute, Rufo described his annoyance at scholars trying to bait him into a discussion of what CRT really means and proclaimed “I don’t give a shit about this stuff.” (Nine minute mark)

As Isaac Kamola has urged, start with follow the money and pursue that relentlessly. There’s a reason groups like PDE and NPU can’t come clean about their funding sources and amounts and that reason is that they know the public is suspicious of the Kochs and Waltons of the world and what’s more, the public and America’s billionaires are on a different page on policy issues.

These are corporate generated right wing attacks. Say it. Name names.

Come awake to the threat. Recognize what this is and that isn’t just about wokeness or even education but something else Koch and the Waltons can’t say out loud: to destroy the capacity of people to coalesce together and fight for a better life for themselves, a project that offends oligarchs ideologically and threatens their power and pocketbooks. They focus on educationbecause schools have been a fertile locale for white backlash but also a source of great progress, because teachers unions are a barrier to them, and because local community organizations defy them.

That means that teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, principals, lunch workers, school bus drivers, custodians, business, parents and students—everyone who serves their local school community—have to recognize that they need to fight together against this assault. In other words, join together to take action—exactly what the Waltons, Kochs, and other radical right billionaires fear.

And stand up for a real education for all our children, not the white(wash) backlash being promoted by phony AstroTurf fronts like Parents Defending Education. Remember, fronts are fronting for someone and in this case, fronting for radical right billionaires.

Money never sleeps. Follow the money.

Maurice T. Cunningham is recently retired as an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a union member. He is the author of the book Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, forthcoming in 2022.

Denis Smith went to graduate school in West Virginia and served as an elementary and middle school principal, director of curriculum, and director of federal programs in the suburban school system adjacent to the state capital. He subsequently moved to Ohio, where he was in charge of overseeing the state’s burgeoning and scandal-ridden charter sector. He wrote a warning to West Virginia, published in the state’s major newspaper, about its new charter law and what is likely to happen. It won’t be pretty.

He said that charters will not be accountable. They will divert money from the state’s public schools, while doing whatever it takes (campaign contributions?) to avoid academic and financial accountability.

He pointed out that the people of West Virginia will lose local control of their schools, as national charter chains move in.

Consider the irony that the leader of the founding coalition of the proposed West Virginia Academy is a professor of accounting. But then we should also know that, when it comes to all things related to charter school accounting and accountability, nothing adds up. Add to that the fact that these schools are free from many sections of state law, including school boards that are directly elected by the public. For example, in Ohio, where I live, charter schools are exempt from 140 sections of the state code.

Keep in mind that charter boards are hand-picked, selected by the companies that manage the school, where school governance by design is not accountable to the voters…

As a former resident of West Virginia and a school administrator in West Virginia and Ohio, it is my hope that the citizens of the Mountain State might learn from the mistakes of Ohio, which bears the distinction of having a refuse pile containing the wreckage of nearly 300 closed charter schools, some of which received funding but never opened, emitting a rancid, overpowering odor, a byproduct of bad public policy.

And speaking about waste, Ohio has spent more than $4 billion on the charter school experiment so far, an exercise that is hell-bent on using public funds for private purposes while skirting transparency and accountability requirements.

Smith asks the people of the state:

Are West Virginians, exploited for generations by energy companies, in favor of selling off their public schools?

Nancy Bailey writes here about the growing influence and persistence of the billionaire-funded groups that want to privatize our nation’s public schools.

Despite the substantial research that shows the ineffectiveness of free market school choice, the school choice in undeterred. As Bailey shows, “reformers” (disrupters) have become influential voices in the Biden administration and have created new groups to press their agenda of privatizing public schools. The new dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education is a free market “reformer.”

Despite the persistent failure of the “reformers’” strategies, they press on, attacking public schools, supporting state takeovers, fighting to expand charters and vouchers. The billionaires continue to pour millions into their hobby, which is chicken feed to them.

This is an important article. Please read it.

Tom Ultican tells the sad story of the Johns Hopkins University Education Policy Institute, which was once known for unbiased scholarship.

As he recounts the politicization of the Institute, he explains the upside of joining forces with privatizers, disrupters, standardized testing zealots, allies of Relay “Graduate School” of Education and the charter industry. The Institute is now the recipient of millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation, Charles Koch, the Walton family, and other very rich luminaries of the philanthropic world.

In one of JHU’s consequential reports, it was commissioned to study the high-poverty Providence, RI, school district. Only weeks later, they turned in a gloomy assessment that set the stage for a state takeover. Then-Governor Gina Raimondo hired ex-TFA Angelica Infante-Greene, who never been a principal or a superintendent, as State Commissioner of Education. She, in turn, hired a new superintendent and deputy superintendent for Providence, who were both fired after the deputy was caught forcibly massaging boys’ toes.

Infante-Greene has now been inducted into Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change (which had previously designated by Chiefs as a future leader.)

Is it worth mentioning that the outcomes of state takeovers have been dismal?

Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat reports on a research study that concluded that most state takeovers of low-performing districts were unsuccessful. Local school boards, it was believed, must be the cause of low test scores because they lacked oversight.

The study was written by Beth E. Schueler and Joshua Bleiberg and released by the Annenberg Insttitute.

State officials have taken for granted that the state education department knows better than local school boards how to run school districts. Yet, as the study shows, most have either made no difference or failed. In most cases, the districts that were “taken over” consisted of mostly black and brown children, whose communities lose a democratic institution and as well as a route to political power.

Barnum writes:

Now, a new national study casts significant doubt on the idea that states, at least, are better positioned to run schools than locally elected officials. Overall, researchers found little evidence that districts see test scores rise as a result of being taken over. If anything, state control had slightly negative effects on students.

Frankly, it was always a silly idea to think that state education departments were staffed by top-flight educators. They are working in schools and districts. Most people who work in state education departments (and the U.S. Department of Education) are administrators and bureaucrats, not educators.

Barnum goes on to summarize the study:

The paper is the most comprehensive accounting to date of a strategy that has appealed to policymakers in many states but also brought fierce blowback. The study doesn’t suggest that takeovers never succeed on academic grounds — there are clearexamples where they have.

But the successes appear to be more exception than rule, and the uneven academic results bring into sharp relief the costs of state takeover: the loss of democratic institutions, disproportionately in Black communities.

“These policies are very harmful to communities in terms of their political power,” said Domingo Morel, a Rutgers University political scientist who has studied and criticized state takeovers. “And then what the state says is going to improve — this research shows it’s not doing that either.”

The new study focuses on the 35 school districts from across the country that were taken over by states between 2011 and 2016. These takeovers often happened in small cities and the vast majority of affected students were Black or Hispanic and from low-income families…

To find out what happened next, Schueler and coauthor Joshua Bleiberg of Brown University used national test score data to compare districts that were taken over to seemingly similar districts in the same state that retained local control.

In the first few years of the takeover, the schools generally saw dips in English test scores. By year four, there was no effect one way or the other. In math, there were no clear effects at all.“The punchline is, we really don’t see evidence that takeover is benefitting student outcomes, at least in the short term,” said Schueler.

Many states, Barnum reports, have cooled on the idea of state takeovers, although there are two big exceptions: Providence, Rhode Island, which has already fired its new superintendent because his deputy had a bad habit of massaging boys’ feet without their permission. And Texas is eager to take control of the Houston Independent School District because it has one high school with very low scores, and a disproportionately high number of students needing special education and living in poverty. The students in both districts are majority black and brown.

Way back in 2004, Chicago’s then-superintendent Arne Duncan announced a bold initiative that he called “Renaissance 2010.” He closed 80 public schools and opened 100 charter schools. He implemented a disruptive strategy called “turnaround,” in which schools were closed and handed over to charter operators, most or all of the teachers fired. When he was appointed Secretary of Education by President Obama, the president saluted him for his courage in closing down “failing” schools. Not long after, some of the turnaround schools failed and were closed.

And now the Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously to put an end to the turnaround strategy. “Reform,” as defined by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, has failed.

Chalkbeat reports:

Chicago’s Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to end its largest school turnaround program and phase 31 campuses managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership back into the district fold across the next three years. 

The district will continue to pay the nonprofit organization to manage a key teacher residency program at a cost of $9.6 million over the next three years. 

Before voting to curtail the group’s school oversight after 15 years, board members said the recommendation illustrated a broader philosophical shift in Chicago toward sending new resources to neighborhood schools and their existing staffs as opposed to strategies like “turnarounds” that relied on disrupting practice by requiring school staffs to reapply for their jobs. 

“Turnaound is a relic of a previous era of school reform,” said Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and member of the school board.

Board members acknowledged the symbolism of the vote, which came in the same meeting as a discussion over the potentially negative enrollment impact of relocating a charter high school campus (the relocation was not recommended by district leadership).

Interesting turn of phrase: “Turnaround is a relic of a previous era of school reform.” Professor Todd-Breland is correct,

The Bush-Obama-Trump disruptive “reforms” failed. They are relics. It’s past time to invest in improving our public schools, where most students are enrolled, and supporting our teachers.

Three scholars have recently published a very informative book about the history of education in New Orleans. The authors tell this story by scrutinizing one very important elementary school in the city, the one that was first to be desegregated with one black student in 1960. The book is titled William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans (Peter Lang). The authors are Connie L. Schaffer, Meg White, and Martha Graham Viator.

This is the school that enrolled 6-year-old Ruby Bridges in November 1960. Her entry to the school each day, a tiny little girl accompanied by federal agents, was met with howling, angry white parents. Her admission to an all-white school in New Orleans was a landmark in the fight to implement the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. It was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in a famous painting called The Problem We All Live With.

The authors set the stage for their history by pointing out that the Reconstruction-era constitution of Louisiana forbade racially segregated schools. In the early 1870s, about one-third of the public schools in New Orleans were racially integrated. Some schools had racially integrated teaching staffs. School board members were both white and black. When Reconstruction ended, rigid racial segregation and white supremacy were restored.

The William Frantz Public School opened in 1938 as a school for white children. It occupied almost a full city block.It was one of the few schools built during the Depression. It was built to accommodate 570 children. The authors demonstrate the vast inequality between white schools and black schools. Not far away was a school for black children of elementary age. Not only were black schools overcrowded, but black neighborhoods had problems with poorly maintained sewers, streets, sidewalks, gas and water lines, and structurally unsound buildings. Black schools were dilapidated, students shared desks, and class sizes were often in excess of 60 children to one teacher. Black students had fewer instructional hours than white students, due to overcrowding. White teachers were paid more than black teachers.

Black citizens of New Orleans were outraged by these conditions but they were politically powerless. The white power structure did not care about the education of black children.

Then came the Brown decision of 1954, which declared the policy of “separate but equal” to be unjust. The federal courts moved slowly to implement desegregation, but eventually they began to enforce it. The federal district judge who took charge of desegregation in New Orleans was J. Shelley Wright, a graduate of the city’s white schools. He determined to implement the Brown decision, despite the opposition of the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor, and prominent white citizens of the city, as well as White Citizens Councils.

In 1958, the Louisiana legislature passed several measures to weaken desegregation efforts including laws allowing the governor to close any school that desegregated, providing state funds to any students seeking to leave the traditional public schools, and granting the state sweeping power to control all schools.

Their well-written history brings the reader to the present, to the all-charter model that privatizers hold up as an exemplar for every urban district troubled by low test scores and white flight.

The section of the book that I found most interesting was their detailed account of the white reaction to the prospect of school integration, despite the fact that the black students who applied to attend white schools were carefully screened for their academic potential and their behavior. Ruby Bridges was the one and only student chosen to start desegregation. Crowds gathered every morning to spit and scream. They harassed not only Ruby, with her federal protection, but any white student who dared to enter the school. Their blockade eventually forced whites to abandon the William Franz Public School. A few persisted, but little Ruby never met them. She was assigned to a classroom with no other students and one teacher.

The whites who tried to stay in the school were subject to threats of violence. Some lost their jobs, as did Ruby’s father. They feared for their lives. The hatred for blacks by whites was explosive. The portrayal of malignant racism is searing.

A relatively small number of whites tried to calm the situation. One such group was called Save Our Schools. They reached out to the white parents of the school, trying to bring peace and reconciliation.

In perhaps the most disturbing response to an SOS mailing, a WFPS parent who had received a letter from SOS returned the letter smeared with feces. A handwritten comment on the letter stated the parent would rather have ignorant children then to send them to a “nigger school.”

The mob won. By the middle of the school year, fewer than 10 white students remained in the school, and they too needed protection. By 1993, not one white student attended the school.

As the tumult continued after Ruby’s admission, prominent whites funded private schools so that white students could escape the specter of desegregation. The Legislature passed laws to support the resistance to desegregation and to give vouchers to whites fleeing the public schools and to underwrite the private academies where racist white students enrolled.

When the battle over desegregation began, New Orleans schools enrolled a white majority. Racism led to white flight, and before long the school district was overwhelmingly black, as was the city.

The authors detail the problems of the district. Not only was it segregated and underfunded, but its leadership was unstable. The management was frequently incompetent and corrupt. Its accounting department was a mess. So was Human Resources. Teachers were not paid on time. The management was woeful. The state wanted to take control of the district before Hurricane Katrina. Three months before the disastrous hurricane, the state leaned on the district to hire a corporate restructuring firm at a cost of $16.8 million.

In June, the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board signed an agreement relinquishing the management of the district’s multi-million dollar operating budget to the state. As a result, the district entered into negotiations with a New York turnaround management corporation, Alvarez and Marsal, to oversee its finances. In the contract, the board not only surrendered financial control, it also granted the firm authority to hire and fire employees.

Alvarez & Marsal put one of its senior partners, Bill Roberti, in charge of the district. Before joining the management consultants, Roberti had run the clothing store Brooks Brothers. A&M had previously received $5 million for a year of controlling the St. Louis school district, which was not “turned around,” and collected $15 million for reorganizing New York City’s school bus routes, with poor results (some children were stranded for long periods of time, waiting for buses on the coldest day of the year).


Before the hurricane, the state created the Recovery School District (in 2003) to take control of failing schools. In 2004, it passed Act 9, which allowed the state to take over schools with an academic score of 60 or less and hand them over to charter operators. After the hurricane, the Legislature passed Act 35, which changed the criteria for takeover and paved the way for the Recovery School District to take charge of most of the city’s public schools. Parents got “choice,” but the new charter schools created their own admissions policies, and most did the choosing.

Prior to Act 35, schools with School Performance Scores below 60 were considered to be in academic crisis. Act 35 raised the threshold score to 87.5, virtually ensuring every school in Orleans Parish would be deemed in academic crisis, and therefore, eligible for takeover by the Recovery District…Act 35 achieved what Governor Davis, Leander Perez, and segregationists failed to do in 1960. Act 35, for all intents and purposes, allowed the State of Louisiana to seize control of the Orleans Parish school district…The takeover of the failing schools within Orleans Parish made the Recovery District the largest school district in the State of Louisiana. Had the threshold for the School Performance Score not been raised in Act 35, the Recovery District would have taken over only 13 schools and had a much reduced presence and influence in public education in New Orleans.

After the hurricane, district officials and Alvarez & Marsal issued a diktat permanently terminating the jobs and benefits of more than 7,500 teachers and other staff.

Sixteen years since Hurricane Katrina and the privatization of public schools in New Orleans, the debate about the consequences continues, as it surely will for many more years.

For those interested in New Orleans, I recommend this book, along with Raynard Sanders’ The Coup d’Etat of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System, Kristen Buras’ Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. For a favorable view of the charter takeover, read Douglas Harris’s Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education.



Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, which is part of the City University of New York. Gabor has written insightful articles about education in the New York Times and at Bloomberg.com. She is the author of After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Education Reform.

The following is a summary of a chapter in her forthcoming book, MEDIA CAPTURE: HOW MONEY, DIGITAL PLATFORMS, AND GOVERNMENTS CONTROL THE NEWS, which will be published by Columbia University Press in June. She prepared this excerpt for this blog.

She writes:

For the past twenty years, American K-12 education has been on the receiving end of Big Philanthropy’s efforts to reengineer public schools based on free-market ideas, with foundation-funded private operators taking over large swaths of school districts in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Between 2000 and 2005 alone, three foundations—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—quadrupled their spending on K–12 education to $400 million. By 2010, the top 15 foundations had spent $844 million on public education.

Moreover, these Big Philanthropies coordinated their spending, investing in what Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Johns Hopkins’s Steven Teles call “jurisdictional challengers”—efforts aimed atupending traditional educational institutions, in particular public schools and school boards. Instead, the foundations funded a range of private and public institutions, including charter-management organizations and alternative teacher-development institutions such as Teach for America, as well as school-board candidates who would back the philanthropists’ reform agenda and help break the “monopoly” of public-school districts.

Diane Ravitch and a slew of other academics, bloggers and writers have documented the growing influence of Big Philanthropy and its convergence with federal education policies, especially under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, creating what the political scientist Sarah Reckhow calls “a perfect storm.”

As part of its soup-to-nuts strategy designed to maximize the impact of its gifts and expand its influence, Big Philanthropy has expanded its reach to universities, think tanks, government institutions, and the news media.

My chapter, “Media Capture and the Corporate Education-Reform Philanthropies,” in Media Capture, explores the efforts of the Big Philanthropy to shape public opinion by ratcheting up its spending on advocacy and, in particular, by investing in local news organizations. The philanthropies have supported education coverage at a range of mainstream publications—investments that often helped promote the foundations’ education-reform agenda. In addition, they have founded publications specifically dedicated to selling their market-oriented approach to education.

For the news media, battered by internet companies such as Craigslist and Facebook, which have siphoned off advertising revenue, funding from philanthropies comes at an opportune time. Nor can private foundations be faulted for supporting the news media, especially given the rise of “alternative facts” and demagoguery during the Trump era. Foundation funding has long been important to a range of respected news organizations such as The New York Times and National Public Radio, as well as established education publications, such as Education Week.This is not to say that this funding has unleashed a spate of pro-reform coverage. Indeed, I have published essays critical of the education-reform philanthropies in many foundation-funded publications. However, logic suggests that publications desirous of repeat tranches of funding will at least moderate their critical coverage.

What is particularly troubling are the large contributions to local news organizations—many of them earmarked specifically for education coverage—by foundations that explicitly support the takeover of local schools and districts by private operators. My chapter explores how philanthropic support of news organizations—including new publications founded and run by education-reform advocates—is aimed at creating a receptive audience for the foundations’ education-reform agenda.

The Gates Foundation’s effort to influence local and national policy via the news media is a case in point.

The Gates Foundation alone devoted $1 billion in the decade from 2000 to 2010 to so-called policy and advocacy, a tenth of the foundation’s $3 billion-a-year spending, according to an investigation by The Seattle Times.

Although much of that money went to analyze policy questions—such as the efficacy of vaccine-funding strategies—“the ‘advocacy’ side of the equation is essentially public relations: an attempt to influence decision-makers and sway public opinion.”

In 2011, The Seattle Times published an exhaustive article about its leading hometown philanthropic organization and asked: “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?” (At the time, the Gates Foundation also was bankrolling a slew of education policies, including the common core, and building political support for “one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.”)

The Seattle Times showed how the Gates Foundation funding goes far beyond providing general support for cash-strapped news organizations:

“To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.”

Indeed, Gates usually “stipulates” that its funding be used for reporting on issues the philanthropy supports—whether curing diseases such as HIV or improving U.S. education. And although Gates does not appear to dictate specific stories, the Seattle Times noted: “Few of the news organizations that get Gates money have produced any critical coverage of foundation programs.”

The Seattle Times story was written before the newspaper accepted a $530,000 grant, in 2013, the bulk of it from the Gates Foundation, to launch the Education Lab. The paper described the venture as “a partnership between The Seattle Times and Solutions Journalism Network” that will explore “promising programs and innovations inside early-education programs, K–12 schools and colleges that are addressing some of the biggest challenges facing public education.” The Gates Foundation contributed $450,000, with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funding the rest.

In a blog post, the newspaper addressed the potential conflict of interest posed by the grant: “The Seattle Times would neither seek nor accept a grant that did not give us full editorial control over what is published. Generally, when a grant is made, there is agreement on a specific project or a broad area of reporting it will support.” The newspaper earmarked its funding for so-called “solutions journalism.”

It may be laudable for a publication to focus on “solutions” to societal problems. But almost by definition, a mission that effectively targets “success stories” diminishes journalism’s vital watchdog role.

Then too, Gates’s influence extends well beyond Seattle. The Associated Press documented the Gates foundation’s soup-to-nuts effort, in 2015, to influence education policy in Tennessee.

“In Tennessee, a Gates-funded advocacy group had a say in the state’s new education plan, with its leader sitting on an important advising committee. A media outlet given money by Gates to cover the new law then published a story about research funded by Gates. And many Gates-funded groups have become the de facto experts who lead the conversation in local communities. Gates also dedicated millions of dollars to protect Common Core as the new law unfolded.”

Meanwhile, the same year in Los Angeles, fellow philanthropist,Eli Broad, identified Gates as a key potential investor in his $490 million plan to dramatically grow the city’s charter-school sector. The plan included a six-year $21.4 million “investment” in “organizing and advocacy,” including “engaging the media”and “strategic messaging.” (The charter-expansion plan itself followed an $800,000 investment by a Broad-led group of philanthropists to fund an initiative at The Los Angeles Times to expand the paper’s coverage of K–12 education.) In 2016, Gates invested close to $25 million in Broad’s charter-expansion plan.

The Gates Foundation also served as a junior partner in one of the most audacious, coordinated efforts by Big Philanthropy to influence coverage of the education-reform story—the establishment, in 2015, of The 74 Million, which has become the house organ of the education-reform movement. The 74 has been a reliable voice in favor of the charter-school movement, and against teachers’ unions. In 2016, it published The Founders, a hagiography of the education-reform movement. And it has served as a Greek chorus of praise for the education reforms in New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter district, while ignoring the experiment’s considerable failings.

Key contributors to the publication, which boasts a $4 million-annual budget, were the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Soon after it’s founding, The 74 acquired a local education publication, the L.A. School Report, which itself had been heavily funded by Broad. In 2016, Gatescontributed, albeit a relatively modest $26,000, to The 74.

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Peter Greene is well-known as a blogger, a teacher, a columnist for Forbes, and a humorist. He taught in the public schools of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years. He wrote this article at my request.

He wrote:

I believe in public education.

I believe in the promise that every child should have a free quality education. And not by going out to shop for it, to hunt it down like looking for deals on a toaster or a used car, nor to travel far from home to find it, nor to have to beg and apply and hope that the school will accept them, but to have it delivered to them in their own community without exception.

Not that we’ve always hit the bullseye in this country. Our system of tying school financing to housing leaves much to be desired. The same forces of racism and economic inequity that twist and turn our society as a whole also leave their mark on our education system. Those forces include the rise of “I’ve got mine, Jack” culture in which folks don’t want to have to worry about what anyone else needs.

We’re living through a time of unprecedented assault on public education. Members of the data cult, free market advocates, social engineers, profiteers and privatizers (some sincere in their concern, and some motivated by base opportunism) are looking for ways to dismantle the system, disenfranchise parents and taxpayers, and to “liberate” billions and billions of taxpayer dollars. Their ranks are filled with education amateurs who don’t really know what the heck they’re talking about. 

What none of these disruptors promise is an education system that delivers a quality education to every single child in the country. Nor do they promise accountability to the taxpayers who fund the system, nor a system that is owned and operated by the citizens of the community. 

Only public education has those goals as its North Star.

I devoted my professional life to public education because I believe in it. I believe in the goals and promise of public education. I believe that every child in this country deserves a chance to learn, to grow, to discover and become their best selves, to learn what it means to be more fully human in the world (a whole host of things beyond the measure of a bad standardized test). I believe in a system that brings trained, qualified professionals into every community, for every child. 

We will always struggle with challenges. What is required for a quality education? How can each child’s individual needs best be mt? What makes a good teacher? But as long as our North Star is the promise of public education, and not a higher test score or a better ROI, we can navigate those difficult discussions. And we can navigate them in a thousand different ways, as individual communities work out the local education system that best suits them.

That’s the other beautiful part of our public education system—it’s not actually one education system, but thousands and thousands of local individual systems set in every kind of community imaginable. All the variety present in America is there in our schools as well. It is a big, beautiful, sprawling, messy monument to our highest aspiration, our dream that every child can grow and rise because we all, together, work to lift every child up. 

So I believe in the promise of public education. May we continue to sail toward that North Star.

John Thompson is an historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. He wrote this piece for the blog at my request.

In 2006, our John Marshall High School was enduring the worst of the five months-long, extreme meltdowns I witnessed in 18 years with the Oklahoma City Public Schools. Many days, I’d see the anarchy and the blood-splattered halls, and ask if I was dreaming. One thing that kept me sane was the discovery of education blogs, above all Deborah Meier’s and Diane Ravitch’s conversations in Bridging Differences. In a prescient example of the wisdom which grew out of their “animated conversation,” they agreed:

That a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education–its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires–must be openly debated and continuously re-examined.

As Oklahoma City pulled out of the crack and gang crisis in the early 1990s, I saw a pattern that persisted for two decades – and which became more tragic during the third decade when I was a part-time teacher and an education writer. Each year, our school would make incremental improvements. Then, the district would bow to pressure and implement disastrous policies that would wipe out those gains – or worse. It would mandate policies that Ravitch later dubbed “corporate school reform.” Administrators who publicly endorsed policies where segregation by choice was combined with data-driven decision-making would often tell me off-the-record in the parking lot, that they knew the reforms would backfire. But they had no alternative.

During the first years after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, local and state leaders often had some success in minimizing the damage done by school “choice” and in “monkey wrenching” the push towards high stakes testing. But, as in the rest of the nation, that resistance angered market-driven reformers who then pushed for harsher, more punitive policies. As opposed to Meier’s and Ravitch’s counsel, they believed that it was essential to remove balances of power, so they could force everyone to “be on the same page.”

One of the worst examples was requiring benchmark testing to be graded; that absurd policy drove John Marshall’s dropout rates for 9th and 10th graders through the roof. Then, the poorest halves of our high school and its middle school feeder were combined into a new school characterized by extreme, concentrated poverty. When a new data-driven staffing model was implemented, a deputy superintendent privately acknowledged that these two, intertwined “reforms” could be disastrous but said that the only thing I could do was lobby the state legislature for more support.

Back then, partially because of my success in conversing with conservative legislators, I naively believed that I could communicate with neoliberal output-driven, competition-driven reformers and the non-educators who conducted their research. But I eventually had to admit that Meier and Ravitch were correct when writing:  

Almost all the usual intervening mediators–parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations–have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style “reform.”   …

This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, “apolitical” scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.

Not understanding how single-minded “venture philanthropists” were in using “disruptive innovation” to drive top down “transformational change,” I didn’t understand why they would be so adamant about ignoring educators and social scientists, who continually reexamined their hypotheses and complicated analyses. (Falsifiable hypotheses! Who needs falsifiable hypotheses?, was the reformers’ response. We’ll just run more controls on our statistical models.)

When practitioners and researchers tried to explain the interconnected challenges faced in high-poverty schools, these true believers in “the Market” dismissed our advice as “Excuses,” and “Low Expectations.” Reformers instead gambled that they could find individual levers, like data to engineer a “better teacher,” who could turn schools around.

That is why edu-philanthropists sought to use the stress of competition to overcome the stress of generational poverty and trauma, and segregation by choice to overcome the legacies of de jure and de facto segregation. They seemed to deny that the trade-offs that Meier and Ravitch acknowledged even existed.  Reformers thus ramped up high-stakes testing to force compliance; in doing so, they ensured that soulless worksheet-driven instruction would result in in-one-year-out-the-other educational malpractice which often would push the most disadvantaged schools over a tipping point.  

Then – and now – if I could get data-driven, competition-driven reformers to listen to one thing, I would try to explain why their misunderstandings about generational poverty led to hurried doomed-to-fail micromanaging. I’d try to tell them the story of our run-of-the-mill inner city school, a place with tragic failures as well as great strengths, that corporate school reform turned into the lowest-performing secondary  school in the state, where meaningful teaching and learning was replaced with nonstop remediation.

Our Marshall H.S. had survived “White flight,” and the crack and gangs crisis of the 1980s. It had working class and a few middle class students, as well as students from situational and generational poverty. It had a significant number of students who were seriously emotionally disturbed and/or burdened by multiple traumatic experiences, now known as Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs). Back then, however, we also had numerous students with reading and math learning disabilities, who often became student leaders. Despite confidentiality laws, it was easy to identify many of the students on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) on the first day of class. They disproportionately sat on the front row, with carefully prepared notebooks, ready to “work smart” and succeed.    

By 2005, however, school choice had produced an exodus of the top teachers and students (including special education students who were not wrestling with behavioral or emotional disturbances.) Our highest challenge neighborhood was known as the “New Hood,” the home of families that had been driven out of the “Old Hood” by urban renewal. The Old Hood had endured plenty of racism and economic oppression, but it was a community full of African-American churches and home-grown institutions that had resisted Jim Crow.

The New Hood combined concentrated generational poverty, with families disrupted by multiple traumas, in a neighborhood lacking social capital. For example, when campaigning for Jesse Jackson, I learned that we didn’t try to canvass the New Hood because the high incarceration rate resulted in so few eligible voters.  Even so, when I canvassed the neighborhood for Barack Obama, I conversed with parents and learned that the majority of its students officially or unofficially transferred to schools in the 20+ districts across the metropolitan area.    

Because it is so much harder to improve education “outcomes” in schools serving the highest challenge neighborhoods, our low test scores led to more worksheet-driven mandates. This increased official and under-the-table transfers out of our poorest neighborhoods by families who could find legal or other ways of getting their children into the best schools that they could get to.

After NCLB, it was the highest challenge neighborhoods in the eastern half of our school’s area which first lost their recesses, art and music classes, and extracurricular activities, as drill-and-kill instruction failed to increase test scores. When the school board chairman visited my class and was thrilled by the standing room only audience, each student told him something about their elementary school. Virtually everyone who attended schools in the western half of our feeder area had positive things to report. The majority of those who came from the poorer eastern neighborhoods had horror stories to tell. Those from the New Hood were especially angry about being “robbed” of an education by nonstop test prep.    

The tipping point was crossed in 2006 when school staffing was driven by a primitive statistical model that could not distinguish between low income students and children of situational poverty, receiving Free and Reduced Lunch, as opposed to children from extreme poverty, who had endured multiple traumas. Because of the additional costs of providing services for the most seriously emotionally disturbed students, teachers in “regular” classrooms were assigned up to 250 students.  So, I had classes such as the one with 60 students where many students on the west side of the room had had family members killed or wounded by family members of classmates on the other side of the room.

Within a couple of years, even after the staffing formula had been worked out, segregation by choice created classes of 35 or more, with more than 40% being on IEPs or English Language Learners, with a majority carrying a felony rap (whatever that meant in a state with the world’s highest incarceration rate); and where two students had recently witnessed the murder of a parent, and two others watched the murder/suicide of their parents; during a year when our kids buried an unprecedented number of family members.

As I have explained, these doomed-to-fail, test-driven, competition-driven policies were pushed by corporate school reformers who knew little or nothing about the nuances of poverty and the legacies of segregation. They ignored the cognitive science which explained why their test-driven approach would drive holistic teaching and learning out of the classroom. 

As we deal with the legacies of today’s COVID pandemic, I hope we can learn from the history of my school and so many others. Maybe we can agree with Meier and Ravitch that “democracy cannot long be sustained” without public – not market-driven education. If nothing else, let’s agree that our democracy requires adults to listen to each other, as well as to students.