Archives for category: Texas

Candace Valenzuela is one of the most inspiring candidates in the current election cycle. She won her primary in Texas on Tuesday.

Please watch her campaign commercial, in which she describes her difficult childhood, when she was homeless. What saved her was that she always had a “home” at school, where her teachers encouraged her. She went on to finish high school and college, to run for and win a seat on the local school board, and is now likely to become the first Afro-Latina in Congress if she wins in November.

If she makes it, she and Jamaal Bowman will be powerful and well-informed voices for public schools in Congress.

Claudia MacMillan is the director of the Cowan Center for Education at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

I met her several years ago when I was invited to speak at the Institute. At that time, Claudia allowed me to sit in on seminars where public school teachers were discussing the Iliad, Shakespeare, and other great classics. I met with school superintendents from Dallas and the surrounding region. I also met Louise Cowan, the scholar who had inspired the work of the Institute (she called me (“an education warrior”).

I invited Claudia to share with you what the Institute is doing now. I was astonished to find this wonderful oasis of learning and knowledge in Dallas. May it grow and prosper!

Learning to Love the World

Claudia MacMillan

“You are the guardians of culture,” my teacher said in a melodious voice to a small auditorium filled with teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. That was 1989. I was among those school teachers, and Dr. Louise Cowan’s words, her vision, changed the course of my life.

​I would not bother sharing this anecdote or the words that follow if my experience had been an isolated one, or if I were the only one whose life had been transformed by this educational philosophy of generosity, openness, intellectual integrity, and communal grace. But for forty years at the Dallas Institute, the hearts and minds of primary and secondary educators have been lifted up and treasured, and I believe that this message of love and hope needs to be in the world.

​In 2004, I had the privilege of assuming responsibility for the programs that changed me in what is now the Dallas Institute’s Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education™. Since coming, I and others have spent our time and energy trying to shape and share this ennobling vision that the Drs. Cowan conceived and taught. Their aspiration was that every child in America receive a liberal education of the quality that only privileged students in the nation’s highest-tiered private schools typically receive.

​The Cowans created a work at the Dallas Institute designed to foster this sea change. And in the public schools of Fort Worth, Texas, a bold educational experiment that is modeled on their philosophy—on their love of learning, of teachers, and of human life—is currently underway.

​In three public schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District, students are enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes. The results have been impressive and hopeful. In the first year of classes (2018-2019), at the high school where all students are enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes, teachers, administrators, parents, and the students themselves saw and felt the impact of this unique experience and the quality of community that it seemed to inspire.

​Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes were piloted in three 8th grade classes in this same year in one Fort Worth middle school. Students with all ranges of abilities were invited to join the class. The only prerequisite was that they be willing to do the work.

The Cowan Academy® in the Humanities Educational Model

I should begin with a nod to what drives public school education. So for those who consider standardized test scores important, although little test prep was introduced into these classes, in both original Fort Worth schools, scores the first year (2018-2019) were outstanding. The 8th grade averages in every category in reading and social studies were above the rest of the campus and above the district averages. Some of the strongest gains were for “English Language Learner” students. Regarding the benchmark tests given in December 2019, one middle school student reported, “Everything we read in this class is so much harder than those test passages, so the test was so much easier than it seemed before.” In the high school, where every student is enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes, the 9th grade English I scores ranked the school among the top in the state of Texas, and this in its first year of operation. In the category of “closing the achievement gap,” their English I scores earned them a 100%, tying for third in the state! Granted, this is the new magnet school in the district, but the district has wisely required the school to represent the district demographically, and in addition, the school has very generous entrance requirements. So although it is a magnet school, students with a wide range of abilities are enrolled.

​There are a few critical standards worked into this educational model designed to help it to succeed.

1. In order to learn to read by writing—a luxury that most public school students are not given—Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students must receive their own personal copies of the books (not the textbooks) so that they can read with pen in hand. Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes are very low-tech, teaching students, rather, to engage with the texts and with one another in conversation daily. The Fort Worth ISD has been wonderfully generous in providing books for each Cowan Academy® student.

2. In addition, Cowan Academy® teachers who teach history and English must not have more than 75 students a year so that they can tutor and mentor their students like their peers in a private school. However, this usually works out easily for those who are teaching a Cowan Center™ humanities course. Technically, they are teaching 75 English students and 75 history students. Their total is 150 students like many of their colleagues in the district.

3. Perhaps the most important feature of a Cowan Academy® or a Cowan School® (another trademarked educational model certified by the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center™) is that the principals who lead both educational models have the exact same certification “training” requirements as their teachers so that they can foster the community of the school in this human vision and support the vision of liberal learning overall. The educational vision that gives shape to this work is vastly different from what the bureaucracy knows or provides. And this is not a “do as I say” kind of “training.” It is a “do as I do” vision.

​Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students have largely responded with pride about their achievement. They have even sensed the importance of community that this philosophy seeks to foster. After their first year in a Cowan Academy® class, 8th graders like Eduardo stated, “Thanks to humanities, writing essays is easy, and I am not afraid to talk out loud in front of my speech class.” Madison explained, “This class gives me an advantage for my future. I have learned to see many different perspectives,” while Ke’Onna observed, “we work hard, but the class is getting us ready for high school.” According to the Cowans’ vision, non-competition and community are daily fostered in each class, making a burgeoning human community one of the most common features in a Cowan Academy® class that is observed both by students and by the grown-ups in their lives. As Fernando stated, “I feel a part of a large community in this class.” His classmate, Uriel, proudly claimed, “Humanities makes me feel like I’m part of something so important.”

Cowan Center® Humanities Curricula

Next month, the Cowan Center™ will begin its third year of Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes in three Fort Worth ISD schools and will be serving students in grades 6-11. All three campuses have chosen to use the trademarked Cowan Center™ curricula. These daily syllabi are modeled on an integrated history/English curriculum used with great success for more than twenty-five years in a private school in Dallas. Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students in the Upper School level, grades 6-12, write and present original speeches to sharpen their powers of persuasion and their public speaking skills. They read aloud daily. They study grammar and rhetoric, write often in journals and frequently compose and revise formal essays on literature, history, and philosophy. They participate in formal small-group seminars that are guided by their own text-based questions or responses. They memorize and recite at least five lyric poems each year. Students do art projects and presentations based on ideas or images from the readings that have captured their imaginations. In addition, students at each level view, sketch, and study the form and meaning of art, architecture, and monuments from around the world. In each grade, then, Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students are tenderly taught to read, write, listen, think, and speak at a high level of sophistication about ideas and situations that have challenged and inspired humanity in every age.

​At each grade level, Cowan Academy® in the Humanities curricula are organized historically around the epoch studied in that year. Freshman Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students study world history and geography from prehistory through the early modern period launched by Machiavelli’s thought. Titles here include The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, the Odyssey, Plato’s Apology, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, One Thousand and One Nights, The West African Mwindo Epic, Dante’s (entire) Divine Comedy, and Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly. Connections and comparisons are steadily considered among themes and cultures throughout the year. Apparently startled by the continuity, one 9th grade Cowan Academy® in the Humanities student asked her teacher in the second half of the year, “Are we ever going to stop talking about The Epic of Gilgamesh?” The answer is no, and why would we want to?

​An example of the continuity of the curriculum is found in the way in which freshmen are guided to treat primary documents. Throughout the year, as they read passages from The Code of Hammurabi, the 10 Commandments, Confucius’ Analects, Laozi’s Way of the Dao, The Code of Justinian, the “Beatitudes,” the Tang Code of China, Shotoku’s Constitution, the Magna Carta, Luther’s 95 Theses, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, the class compares the new code or set of laws to preceeding ones to consider what the new codes reveal about the people who wrote them. Ninth grade student also read primary texts to trace the historical development of the three “Abrahamic” religions— Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim—to help lay the foundations for a better understanding of the complex relationship that exits among these traditions even to this day. Lyric poetry by Rumi, Petrarch, and Shakespeare complement one another and deepen in the daily reading of lyric poetry in every class. For their end-of-year speech, each freshman choses an image or idea and traces it through the major historical epochs in at least three different cultures.

​Carrying forward both the content and the modes from their freshman year, sophomore Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students build on this, picking up world history and geography in the early 17th century to study through our time. After Don Quixote, students study literary works such as Hamlet, Candide, Frankenstein, Hard Times, Bartleby the Scrivener, Notes from the Underground, Heart of Darkness, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, making additional connections to the history and the readings from the 9th grade class. The epic creation story theme continues here from the freshman year with the study of the Popol Vuh. From John Donne to Newton, from Kant to Kobayashi’s haiku, from Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft to Frederick Douglass, from Marx to Mill, from T.S. Eliot to the Harlem Renaissance, from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Churchill’s and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, from James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, lyric poetry, political documents, and philosophical works are considered from within the frames of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the age of industrialization and the Romantics, and up into modern times. The sophomore end-of-year speech requires students to reach back into the freshman curriculum to trace the idea or image from ancient times to modern day.
​On the high school campus, the original Cowan Academy® students are now going into their junior year, a landmark being initiated with Moby-Dick for their Summer Reading. This level of expectation is not new. Students are assigned Volume I of Don Quixote for Summer Reading going into their sophomore year. But these students going in their third year of Cowan Academy® classes are beginning “The American Experience and the World™” with a broad yet deep foundation from reading, discussing, and writing about world history and geography, as well as about literature, philosophy, political philosophy, religion, and art history from around the world. The junior course is framed by Moby-Dick and Invisible Man, epics whose themes and images will allow students to recall, discuss, and write about works studied in both the freshman and sophomore Cowan Academy® classes. Among the authors studied here are Walt Whitman, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, DuBois, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Elie Weisel, Zora Neale Hurston, Frost, Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Toni Morrison, O’Connor, Neruda, Baldwin, César Chávez, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Lorca, Faulkner, Borges, Cortázar, Paz, Momaday, Barack Obama, and Jumpa Lahiri. In addition to nonfiction essays and speeches, in each of the four parts of the curriculum, political documents include rulings from important cases from the Supreme Court of the United States to help students understand how the political, cultural, social, and spiritual landscape of America has been created and sustained.

​Middle school Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes are conducted using the same integration of modes and disciplines as their high school counterparts, with a daily dose of in-class poetry memorization celebrating joyful recitations and readings. On one of the two middle school campuses, all the 6th graders will be enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes beginning in August and the comprehensive Cowan Academy® classes will roll up with the students each year in this neighborhood school.

​In the 6th grade “World Myths: Mappings and Meanings™” course, students review the basics of grammar, of language and form in writing, in speaking, as well as practice active listening and reading deeply by annotating texts. Rather than history, the focus here is on learning world geography and on reading broadly from around the world novels, short stories, and folk tales. A steady diet of beautiful images of the world in power point presentations and beautiful picture books about creation myths from Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning and D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths fill students’ hearts and minds with the wonder and complexity of the planet and the human condition. The end-of-year assignment in this grade is an original short story about a child from another culture that includes a focus in the plot on a significant geographical feature from that particular region.

​In the 7th grade “Texas Myths™” course, students study the history and epic spirit of Texas, its glories and its blunders. A book of Texas Indian myths and selections from J. Frank Dobie’s Texas Tales provide a touchstone throughout the year. These works are deepened by the study of significant historical documents and with novels such as Juneteenth, Old Yeller, Summer of the Mariposas, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Enfolding the idea of Texas in its mythic terms is the study of Virgil’s Aeneid, which these students read in class in its entirety. This ancient poem evokes a timeless landscape from which to consider Texas’ (six!) foundings, the struggles and the achievements thereof. Historical figures in Texas are compared to Aeneas and to other major figures in the poem through formal essays, speeches, and journals. The 7th grade end-of-year assignment is an original “tall tale,” Texas-style, to present to the class.

​In the 8th grade “American Myths™” course, students study American history from Jamestown to Reconstruction, with an emphasis on primary historical documents and nonfiction writers such as John Smith, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Olaudah Equiano, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, Douglass, Harriot Jacobs, and Abraham Lincoln. Lyric poetry and short stories bathe the year, including authors such Native American poets, Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, Jonathan Edwards, Jupiter Hammon, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Walt Whitman. The final assignment for these students is to write and present a formal speech considering the difference between “freedom” and “liberty.” Students must use primary sources that go back to the original colonies and that include the voices of at least three different peoples from the diverse American “myths.”

The Cowan Vision of Liberal Learning for All​

Out of the depths of the pandemic lockdown this spring, messages of inspiration and hope issued from Cowan Academy® students, galvanizing our commitment to the work in Fort Worth and to the splendid teachers and principals who guide it. Missives such as Carlos’, a 7th grader who explained, “Humanities has not only been a class to learn history but a life lesson in itself. I think it is very safe to say that this is a great class that not only one school district needs but the whole country needs in every single school.” A 9th grade student remarked to her teacher, “As the year progressed, I started to view humanities as my little opportunity to really understand the world. I had assignments and lessons that didn’t teach me how to read or annotate for a grade, but to look deeper into the ancient worlds to understand what life meant for anyone at any point in time. I was starting to learn how to read for the experience. The experience to live someone else’s life, and to know what it meant for them to be human.” And an 8th grade Cowan Academy® student sagely observed, “Through our class I have learned that we have a great life because others went through difficult things before us.”

​There are many, many more such comments from our Cowan Academy® students, and we are grateful for every one. They are proof, to me, that the Cowans were correct in their estimation of human possibility and in their confidence that liberal learning truly does set one’s heart and mind free.

​I could go on in great detail about the Cowans’ philosophy of liberal learning. They were profound intellectuals and thinkers, and their vision is what I am privileged to consider and apply every day. But in closing, I would simply like to point out what I believe to be most essential to their vision—what they contributed to the tradition of liberal learning. Their most concrete contributions are Donald Cowan’s—a physicist—emphasis on the purpose of a liberal education—-to cultivate a “poetic imagination” first through the proper study of literature.

The other indispensable feature of their mark on the tradition is the loose yet sturdy frame of Louise Cowan’s literary genre theory in which she teaches how to read for understanding, for broadening one’s views and ideas about life. But just as important as their rigorous academic theories are their insights into the impact of what Donald Cowan calls the “spirit of liberal learning.” They believed that the effect of liberal learning is to help enable a person to achieve the true form of his or her life. They taught the unpopular reality that the deepest understanding almost always comes from the greatest struggle. They taught that true learning always begins with submission. They believed in the power of the well-educated imagination, in society and in one’s life. And they believed that wisdom was connected to mystery and beauty along with the search for meaning and truth. Most importantly, to me, what distinguishes their vision of education from cynical educational and social theories is that they believed that an education better fits a person to be in the world, particularly to be in a democracy where a liberally educated citizenry is critical.

And even though they were constantly elevating their sights to transcendent ideals—such as myth and meaning—in order to couch their understanding, I have never known people so deeply in love with people, in love with the frail and glorious human condition. It was this that motivated them, this love that guided their educational dreams and ambitions, and because of this great gift, love and hope motivate and fuel every aspect of the Cowan Center™ work. Because although the Cowans believed that there was something beyond this world, beyond this life, they also believed that until we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” to quote Hamlet, “earth’s the right place for love,” as Frost’s narrator claims. An education, they taught us, should not only prepare us to make our way through the world in work and in society. At its foundation, an education—like the one we strive daily to provide our precious Cowan Academy® students—should prepare our hearts and minds not only to see and judge clearly, an education should prepare us to live open to wonder, and ultimately, to love this world.

Two states—Texas and Florida—are moving forward to open their schools for five-day, in-person instruction, even though the rate of coronavirus infections in both states is rising.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has demanded that schools across the nation restart and become fully operational, although she has no power to force schools to reopen when local officials believe it is unwise and unsafe. She and Trump are trying to force schools to open as if there were no pandemic and no risks to students and staff. They think that opening schools will be good for the economy and help his re-election. It’s hard to see how it will help his standing in the polls if the pandemic continues to spread and claims more victims.

DeVos made a point of praising Florida Commissioner Richard Corcoran (former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives who has no background or qualifications in education and has expressed his desire to totally voucherize every school in the state) for ordering every school to reopen fully in mid-August.

As reported in Education Week, Corcoran left a loophole:

Corcoran’s Monday order says that, when they reopen in August, “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” But those decisions are “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health” and other state orders.

Calling on schools to open “at least five days per week for all students” seems to eliminate the possibility of hybrid remote learning plans that have been among the most popular models for districts around the country. While the Trump administration has not clarified what exactly it expects from schools, DeVos has criticized hybrid plans as inadequate.

The school boards in Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade have announced that they will seek exemptions and continue remote or hybrid programs rather than reopen fully.

Texas has been promoting reopening, but local boards and teachers in hard-hit areas of the state are resisting.

The Trump administration has been citing the American Academy of Pediatrics as its justification for forcing schools to open, but AAP President Sally Goza pushed back and said that schools should not reopen without the financial resources to do so safely.

She told NPR that the AAP does not support rigid state mandates:

“We will be sticking to what our guidelines say —that if it does not look safe in your community to open schools, that we need to really have that looked at. We also need to make sure that schools have the needed resources to reopen safely so that a lack of funding is not a reason to keep students home, which we’re hearing in a lot of communities—to do what we’re asking people to do to make schools safe is not really financially feasible in some of these communities.”

It is with great sadness that I inform you that our dear friend Bonnie Lesley, leader of Texas Kids Can’t Wait, died of pneumonia.

She was a champion for children, and we will miss her friendship and her guidance. She was beloved by everyone who had the good fortune to know her.

Her son Bruce posted this notice today on Facebook:

Our family is devastated and heartbroken that my mother, Bonnie Lesley, who has loved, inspired, and impacted the lives of so many, has passed away this morning from complications related to pneumonia in Waco, Texas.

Our family is immensely grateful for all the love, support, prayers, and best wishes her various communities have provided to her, us, and to each other through this terribly difficult time.

My mother loved you all (“y’all” from our Texas friends). Her boundless love for family, students, colleagues, neighbors, and those dedicated to improving the lives of others is so apparent in the outpouring support she received in return.

Although not normally one who liked people reading to her, she loved to hear each and every post that I read to her via texts, email, Facebook, and Caring Bridge. She was so pleased to hear the kind words she got from people all over this country. It give her some much needed peace and happiness through this crisis.

We are going to have a graveside burial service for her in Her hometown of Hedley, Texas, this coming Friday. More information on this is forthcoming as arrangements are finalized. In lieu of flowers, we would ask that people consider donating to the The Network for Public Education Action, Planned Parenthood, or the Alzheimer’s Association.

Recognizing this will be very difficult if not impossible for people to attend, we are planning an on-line “Celebration of Bonnie’s Life” in the coming weeks. We will let people know when and how to participate in the near future.

Thanks again to all of you for your love, kindness, and support of my mother and our Thanks again to all of you for your love, kindness, and support of my mother and our family.

-Bruce Lesley

I share this quote (slightly modified) that my Mom loves from Gabriela Mistral:

“Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his or her bones are formed, his or her mind developed. To them, we cannot say tomorrow, their name is today.”

The IDEA charter chain has ambitious plans to expand, with the help of more than $200 million from Betsy DeVos’s charter slush fund (also known as the federal Charter Schools Program, which was created to help start-ups, not to expand corporate empires).

The IDEA profile is a business model, not a public school model. It pushes into new markets aggressively and spends lavishly on executive perks, like leasing a private jet, first class travel, self-dealing, and season tickets for sports events. And paying huge salaries to leaders. Betsy DeVos loves the model, but it didn’t play well to the public.

When the news broke about its free-spending ways, public reaction was swift and negative.

The chain, which currently operates 92 charters and is set to expand in Houston and elsewhere, funded by taxpayers with a mission of “disrupting” and replacing public schools, was co-founded by Tom Torkelsen and JoAnn Gama.

The board rewarded them handsomely. In 2018-19: Torkelsen was paid $817,395, CFO Wyatt Truscheit received $507,887, Gama collected $482,930 for Gama, and six others earned at least $250,000. When Torkelsen recently stepped down as CEO, he was promised severance pay of $900,000. Not exactly the kinds of salaries paid in the public sector. IDEA gets high test scores the usual charter way: by recruiting the students it wants and setting standards high enough to push out those it doesn’t want.

The Houston Chronicle wrote:
When the leaders of IDEA Public Schools gathered last December to vote on an eight-year lease for a private jet, the charter network’s then-board chair, David Guerra, thought of the nearly $15-million deal in business terms.

As president and CEO of International Bank of Commerce, Guerra and his team had used six corporate jets to grow the multibillion-dollar company’s business beyond its Laredo-area headquarters. The same premise would hold true for IDEA, he reasoned, as the charter school network based in the Rio Grande Valley rapidly expanded across Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

“We cannot fulfill our commitment to such a large geographic area without having this type of transportation,” the retired banking chief told IDEA’s governing board in December.

IDEA board members unanimously approved the lease, but reversed the decision two weeks later after charter school opponents and some of the network’s supporters denounced the aircraft as an irresponsible extravagance.

The episode triggered a wave of headlines, oversight changes and soul-searching at the state’s largest charter school, which now is grappling with how to maintain its corporate-like culture while abiding by some more-traditional expectations about how public school districts should be run, IDEA leaders said last week…

Beyond the charter jet lease, IDEA has drawn scrutiny in the past several months for multiple financial practices: spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on tickets and luxury boxes at San Antonio’s AT&T Center; making business deals with members of IDEA’s leadership and their relatives; and reaching a separation agreement with co-founder and CEO Tom Torkelson that will net him $900,000 following his resignation in May.

IDEA officials do not appear to have violated any laws, and the charter’s leaders have defended each practice at various points.

Still, IDEA’s governing board announced several reforms last month. They include banning private air travel, curbing executive benefits, ending business deals with leaders and family members, and requiring additional spending approvals from the governing board and chief financial officer.

“We don’t want to have execution that’s just like a traditional school district, because we want to have innovation and take some risks and be more aggressive,” IDEA Board Chair Al Lopez said. “But after 20 years of policies and practices helped us get to the point we’re at, we felt like we were at an inflection point.”

The stakes are high not just for IDEA, but the entire charter school movement.

Advocates for traditional public schools have seized on IDEA’s spending as an example of lax oversight of charters, which largely are funded by taxpayers. Texas American Federation of Teachers leaders blasted IDEA officials for the jet lease, accusing them of “flying adults around the state” instead of directly funding classroom programs. State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, deemed IDEA’s practices “nonsense” that “absolutely underscores the problem…”

“IDEA has operated outside the public eye with little transparency while still receiving taxpayer dollars — and it shows,” said Patti Everitt, an education policy and research consultant who monitors Texas charter school operations. “IDEA can’t have it both ways…”

The charter’s leaders credit IDEA’s success, in part, to a culture that borrows from the business, nonprofit and higher education worlds. The organization employs a regimented, highly centralized model that emphasizes student and employee performance data.

Critics, however, argue the network indirectly screens out children with greater academic and behavioral needs by emphasizing advanced-level courses, inflating the organization’s results. As an example, they note IDEA’s enrollment of students with disabilities totaled 5.4 percent in 2018-19, compared to 9.6 percent in other Texas public schools.

Still, IDEA schools remain in high demand, helping fuel the network’s ambitious approach to expansion. IDEA added more more students in the past five years than any other Texas charter operators, and it plans to hit 100,000 students across the southern United States by 2022-23.

Andrea Gabor is a friend and a wise writer about education.

She sent the following appeal:

Dear Friends,

First and foremost, I hope this note finds you safe and healthy.

As many of you know, I was supposed to lead another student, political-reporting trip this spring, this time to the Texas border; Covid19 foiled our travel plans and, instead, my students produced a fabulous pack of articles on life and politics on the Texas border amid the pandemic, reporting remotely from NYC. (I’ve included a link below.) Among other things, my students found that gerrymandering and voter suppression have turned Texas into one of the nation’s leading “no-vote” states.

During this time of national crisis, changing leadership in Washington alone is not enough. Fixing our political system requires change at every level of government, especially state government. Given what I learned about Texas as a result of my students’ reporting, I’ve decided to support the vigorous grassroots efforts to flip the Texas State House and hope you will help.

Please join me in supporting Elizabeth Beck for Texas State House District 97.

Elizabeth is a mother, veteran, and lawyer, who is running to represent Tarrant County, near Fort Worth. Her roots in the area go all the way to elementary school. She remains an active member of the local community, serving on boards for Congregation Beth-El and Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Fort Worth. She works to get women elected across the state through organizations like Annie’s List, and regularly lends her time to voter protection efforts for local, state, and national elections.

Join us and Elizabeth via Zoom on Wednesday, June 24, from 5:30 to 6:30 PM (EDT)

Elizabeth will be joined by two exciting special guests to share what is at stake in these elections:
· Beto O’Rourke, former United States Representative (TX-16)
· Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, NY4US alum and Member of the Texas House of Representatives (TX-102)

Click here to donate and RSVP. The first $15,000 we raise will be matched by supporters on the ground in Fort Worth! Those who donate will receive a link to join the video call.

Even if you cannot attend, please consider donating to help support Elizabeth and give her the resources she needs to spread her message and reach voters.

FYI, here’s a link to my students’ fabulous Border package: https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/border2020/

Thanks,

Andrea

Andrea Gabor
Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism
Baruch College/CUNY
After the Education Wars (The New Press, June 2018)
http://www.andreagabor.com
917 685 7666

Parent advocates in Dallas are concerned about the fiscal impact of new charter schools at a time when the budget of the public schools are stretched thin.

Lori Kirkpatrick wrote here about the dangers of introducing new and unwanted charters.

Public education advocates don’t understand how it makes sense to introduce new charters when existing public schools are in fiscal trouble.

They expressed concern that all available state funds should be focused on helping existing district and charter schools meet the challenges of COVID-19, not on opening new charter schools. Public funds for education should be targeted where they are needed the most.

Trustee Joyce Foreman stated, “DISD is experiencing unbudgeted and unanticipated costs to ensure that DISD students have equal access to technology for virtual learning, and meals for continued health and wellness. This is not the time for reduced resources to our public school district that serves the vast majority of students who also have the greatest needs.”

Advocates also raised specific issues about the proposed new campuses including:

Waxahachie Faith Family Academy (FFA) – an alternative education accountability campus (AEA) with significantly lower accountability standards than most Dallas ISD schools and the district. For example, 4th graders at FFA scored significantly lower that 4th grade students at a Dallas Elementary school that is only 2.2 miles (4 minutes) from the FFA campus but has similar student demographics:

– 27% on state tests for reading (23 points lower) and 26% for math (32 points lower) than the Dallas ISD elementary school.

Uplift Education Wisdom Prep – the proposed Uplift campuses would result in an estimated revenue loss of up to $100 million to Dallas ISD over 10 years, using projected estimates of full enrollment.

Both proposed charter campuses are located in close proximity to academically acceptable Dallas ISD schools. The new FFA site at 200 W. Wheatland Road is located only 2.1 miles (5 minutes) from DISD’s academically acceptable David W. Carter High School (C rated). The expansion of Uplift Wisdom Prep at 301 W. Camp Wisdom Road is located 1.4 miles (< 5 minutes) from B rated DISD campus Umphrey Lee Elementary School, 0.4 miles (1 minute) from DISD’s Terry Elementary School (C rated), and 2.7 miles from DISD’s David W. Carter High School. Wisdom Prep is C rated and was Improvement Required the prior year under the name Pinnacle.

These new campuses are proposed through the charter amendment process which allows an existing charter to open a new campus anywhere in Texas once they meet certain TEA requirements. The approval is at the sole discretion of the TEA Commissioner of Education. There is no public notice about the amendment requests to open new campuses, and little opportunity for public input. Most parents and community members are unaware that these charters are proposed to open new campuses in their neighborhoods.

Foreman stated, “This lack of public notice and input in the charter expansion process goes against our need for more not less transparency in how decisions are made about the use of public funds. Parents spoke out against the FFA expansion in 2018 – and they are still against any such expansions.”

Lori Kirkpatrick issued the following alert for parent advocates for public schools in Dallas:

CHARTER ACTION ALERT: DALLAS

QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS: NEW CHARTER CAMPUS – WAXAHACHIE FAITH FAMILY ACADEMY

Waxahachie Faith Family Academy (FFA) has asked the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for approval to open a new charter campus in Dallas at 200 W. Wheatland Road to serve grades 9 – 12. FFA currently operates charter campuses in Dallas (Oak Cliff) and Ellis counties.

Please send an email to Mike Morath, Commissioner of Education, if you are concerned about the expansion of Faith Family Academy in Dallas. If possible, please post this information on social media to inform other parents and community members. The TEA decision had not been made as of May 5, 2020, but it is expected soon, so please act now.(mike.morath@tea.texas.gov)

Here are critical concerns about Waxahachie Faith Family Academy:

• All available state funds should be used to help existing public schools respond to the on-going challenges of COVID-19. Districts are facing unbudgeted and unanticipated expenses needed to support students and their families. In this dire budget situation, we should focus state funds where they are needed most.

• The proposed Waxahachie FFA campus will be located in close proximity to a Dallas ISD High School rated academically acceptable. The new FFA site at 200 W. Wheatland Road is located only 2.1 miles (5-minute drive) from DISD’s David W. Carter High School which is rated academically acceptable for the last three years.

• Waxahachie FFA does not inform parents on its website that it is evaluated under alternative education accountability (AEA) provisions. Campuses and districts registered under AEA provisions meet significantly lower accountability standards than most Dallas ISD schools and the district. Yet FFA does not include this critical information on its website to fully inform parents about FFA’s accountability standards. In fact, FFA states that: “Faith Family Academy is an A-rated district by the Texas Education Agency – higher than every public school district in our service area!”

• Waxahachie Faith Family Academy does not budget to adequately meet critical needs of its students. FFA spends zero dollars on guidance and counseling services, compared to a per student expenditure of $436 by Dallas ISD for counseling. Students in grades 9 – 12 especially require counseling services to help them with class schedules, academic advising, and college access.

• Waxahachie Faith Family Academy spends less on instruction and more on administration. FFA is an alternative education accountability school with lower accountability standards than most Dallas ISD schools and serves students at risk of dropping out. Yet, it spends $563 less per student on instruction than Dallas ISD schools, and more than double per student on general administration expenses.

• Waxahachie underserves students with special needs, enrolling only 5.7 percent compared to the state average of 9.6 percent. It’s a serious concern that a charter school should be allowed to expand unless it serves close to the state average of students with special needs. In addition, Waxahachie’s 2019 Special Education Determination Status is “Needs Intervention” which raises additional concerns about the services it delivers to this student population.

Dr. Theresa Trevino, a public school parent in Austin, wrote to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to complain about the insertion of a BASIS charter school into a community where the school is neither wanted nor needed. BASIS is owned by a couple who pay themselves $10 million a year. Their charter schools require students to pass multiple AP exams, which effectively winnows out low-performing students, who no longer bother to apply. Most of their charters are in Arizona, where they are celebrated for their high scores. Their high scores are achieved by excluding students who might get low scores.

See the letters here and here.

 

Three whistleblowers in the U.S. Department of Education filed complaints that Betsy DeVos overruled internal reviews to award $72 million to the IDEA charter chain.

This is not the way federal grants are supposed to work. Funds are supposed to be awarded based on peer reviews and staff reviews, not awarded as plums by political appointees. This is political interference at the highest level. This award should be revoked.

I have often referred to the $440 million federal Charter Schools Program as DeVos’s private slush fund, and this grant proves that my hunch was right.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post:

A U.S. congressman is demanding answers from the U.S. Education Department, alleging department employees complained to his office about political interference in the awarding of a multimillion-dollar federal grant to the controversial IDEA charter school network.


Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) sent a letter to the department Monday asking for details and records related to the awarding of the grant.

In an interview, Pocan said “three whistleblowers” told his office that professional staff evaluating applications for 2020 grants from the federal Charter School Program had rejected IDEA for new funding, deeming the network “high risk” because of how IDEA leaders previously spent federal funds.


But according to these whistleblowers, Pocan said, professional staff was overruled by political appointees who ordered the funding be awarded to IDEA. The identities of the whistleblowers were not revealed to The Post, nor were the names of the political appointees.


The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.


IDEA, a Texas-based charter school network with nearly 100 campuses in Texas and Louisiana serving nearly 53,000 students, said in a statement:
”Peer reviewers from education and other fields evaluate grant applications independently from Department of Education staff. In three of the last four Charter Schools Program competitions, spanning two administrations and including the most recent round of grants, the independent reviewers who evaluated applications gave IDEA Public Schools the highest scores of any applicant in the country. (In 2017, IDEA received the second-highest score.) All of the outside reviewers’ scores and comments are public on the Department’s website, and we encourage anyone doubting the strength of IDEA’s applications and our 20-year track record with students to read those reviews.”


Earlier this month, the Education Department announced it was awarding millions of dollars in new grants to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. IDEA was the top recipient, receiving $72 million over five years.

IDEA had previously received more than $200 million in funding over the past decade through the program.



But the network has been dogged by controversy. This month, IDEA chief executive Tom Torkelson resigned after publicly apologizing for “really dumb and unhelpful” plans that included leasing a private jet for millions of dollars and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on San Antonio Spurs tickets.

The Texas Monitor reported last month that Torkelson had flown on a private jet to Tampa to meet with DeVos to discuss “education philanthropy,” records show. The Monitor reported he was the only passenger on a jet that can hold nine people.


Last November, the Education Department’s inspector general criticized IDEA in an audit of data IDEA included in annual performance reviews it submitted to the federal government, required as part of the grants received from the federal Charter Schools Program.
The inspector general concluded that IDEA Public Schools “did not provide complete and accurate information” for all performance measures on annual performance reports over three years and did not report any information for 84 percent of the performance measures on which it was required to report over two years.

Still, IDEA had certified its annual performance reports were “true, complete and accurate.”
The audit also found IDEA “did not always spend grant funds in accordance with federal cost principles and its approved grant applications.”
IDEA acknowledged some of the findings, took issue with others, and agreed with all the recommendations from the inspector general to improve internal procedures.


That inspector general report, together with the suggestion that political appointees pushed through more grant money, should spark an even deeper inspection of IDEA, Pocan said in an interview.
“There needs to be an investigation,” Pocan said. “This would be completely improper to take a program that has to have inspector general reports and a lot of media attention about bad decisions they’ve made, and then to get a grant that wasn’t approved by the professional staff and instead given for political reasons.”

William Gumbert relies on data from the Texas State Education Departmentvto demonstrate they the state’s woefully underfunded public schools outperform the well-funded overhyped charter schools.

The real puzzle in Texas and elsewhere is why billionaires and financiers continue to fund failure.

See the analysis here.