Charter school advocates can learn a lot from their bruising loss in Massachusetts

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They went to war in Massachusetts over charter schools. On one side was Great Schools Massachusetts, a school reform outfit decidedly in favor of charters.

Opposing them, public worker unions and their grantees.

At issue was a ballot initiative that would have lifted the state’s cap on charter schools, allowing the state board of education to approve up to 12 more charters per year.

The battle was noisy and costly, and in the end, charter proponents lost big. They’ll now enter a dispiriting period of reflection where the main questions will be “what went wrong?” or some attempt at finding next steps.

They should read “What Went Down In Massachusetts,” a recent blog post by Massachusetts-based education blogger Jennifer “Edushyster” Berkshire. Her forensics, though lopsided unfairly to the side those who fought the ballot initiative, are agile and smart. Yes, she is an anti-reform operative for teachers’ unions, but sometimes it pays to read your opponent’s mail.

As an outsider I can’t improve on her deft analysis, or approach her level of striking detail. Still, there is something unsaid about the moral undercurrent moving beneath her account, and about three important arguments she makes to answer for why the Massachusetts pro-charter school campaign went bust.

Searching for, but not finding, a message

It’s cold comfort now, but the truth is it’s hard talking to the public about complex policy proposals. It’s expensive, bedeviling work that is tough under the best circumstances, but that work is uphill in a partisan theater like Massachusetts where their states’ education system leads the country (including their charter schools). Votes there are preconditioned to be smug about their need for improvement, and unmoved by the idea that unique populations – like the urban black poor – have not fared as well in America’s illusory Bay State public schooling approximation of Finland.

Going into the campaign pro-charter advocates had one stealthy weapon in their arsenal. Charter schools in the areas of Massachusetts that charters would have grown – areas where there are waiting lists for access to charter schools – are breaking barriers for kids who need it badly.

Marcus Winters, an associate professor of curriculum and teaching at Boston University,  writes “convincing evidence that students attending charters in the state’s urban areas—the areas where Question 2 would allow for greater expansion—are making enormous gains relative to how they would have performed in local traditional public schools.”

That success notwithstanding, Berkshire says there is one simple message charter advocates found impossible to mount, one that acted as a firewall between voters and their good sense.

She says charter advocates were “never able to counter the single argument that most resonated with voters against charter schools: they take money away from public schools and the kids who attend them.”

She’s right in one way. Telling people they have something to lose, and that there is an enemy trying to take it from them, is the easiest way to abbreviate public thinking.

You can turn people against same-sex marriage by calling it an attack on traditional marriage. Likewise, you can turn the fight for high-quality charter schools into an assault on traditional notions of public education.

Opponents of charter school expansion in Massachusetts couldn’t win on facts. They had to dislocate the truth and reframe “equity” in a way that created fear so powerful as to trump compassion for marginalized children well-served by charter schools.

Out of it a new form of relativist liberal emerged, I’ll call them neoprogressives, those who show all the self-interest of any conservative, while shielding themselves with the slippery veneer of liberalism.

All these “rich, entitled assholes”

Berkshire asks “Do you know why hating on the Yankees is such a popular pastime in Massachusetts?”

It’s because the Yankees are seen as “rich, entitled assholes from New York.”

The Great Schools Now campaign received funding from people who are rich. According to Berkshire, they might be classified as “assholes.”

As a disclaimer, my work is funded by wealthy people, one of which Berkshire guns for, Michael Bloomberg. I’ve never met him, so I’m ill-qualified to assess his temperament. The closest I’ve come to him was an event in 2012 (see his remarks here) he co-hosted with George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. They brought together a national network of people working on black male achievement issues including gaps in educational attainment, criminal justice, mentorship, and social programs. Bloomberg and Soros committed $30 million each to addressing the various social obstacles that challenge black and brown boys and men.

I left feeling impressed that there were wealthy people in the world who valued the service and advocacy work done by nonprofits like mine, enough to gift us with the desperately needed resources we need to do the work.

It’s interesting that Berkshire makes the billionaire-outsider argument to frame Bloomberg’s motives for supporting Great Schools Now. It’s the same argument made by the beverage industry against him in response to his $18 million worth of support for a California tax on sugary beverages. In that case Big Soda reframed it as a “grocery tax” that would hurt hard working families and small businesses (complete with a $10 million counter-campaign with black and brown faces who, presumably, would be hurt by a one-cent tax on bottled diabetes inducing poison).

I wish Berkshire were more forensic about the money trail flowing from a wide spectrum of wealthy people and well-heeled foundations through a social justice conglomerate funding teachers’ unions and their well-cultivated group of strategic allies. She should unburden herself from a truth that would make her writing more honest, including the fact that her husband, Russ Davis, who leads Jobs With Justice, an organizational member of the Massachusetts coalition that fought against Great Schools Now, benefits directly from the generosity of the wealthy people just as reform advocates do.

Jobs With Justice isn’t self-financing, in fact, they have been funded by Soros who is white, rich, and has an address in Bedford Hills, New York.

Given that fact, it’s in our favor, Berkshire’s and mine, to thank our financial supporters for their gifts, rather than play class warfare guilt-by-association games and call them assholes.

Truth be told, having Davis, Berkshire, and leaders like the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten conspire with suburban neoprogressives to recast school funding as an entitlement for unionized school districts rather than an allocation for the intellectual development of each child; and doing so on behalf of middle-class people who don’t live in the cities where they work or teach (and certainly are not putting their own kids in the worst schools that trap the urban poor); that might be the very definition of rich, entitled, assholery.

We allow them that deceit at our own peril.

You can’t win a war with an Air Force alone

Finally, there is this thing about fighting air wars against ground troops.

Berkshire says “[i]n the end, charter advocates couldn’t marshal a parent army,” she hits on an inescapable problem. Unions have armies and they know how to use them. The troops in Massachusetts extended “well beyond the teachers’ unions that funded it.” They included “all kinds of unions, as well as social justice and civil rights groups, who fanned out across the state every weekend.”

By election day, their network of canvassers had made contact with more than 1.5 million voters and lied to every one of them.

It took unions decades to develop their ground game, and education reformers will never have the advantage of a deeply self-interested public workforce who commit themselves to countless off-the-clock labor hours.

Still, they need something more than fight for air supremacy. They can’t only drop leaflets from the sky and hope to change minds, because each time union soldiers will be there to intercept those leaflets before they even hit the ground.

Reform needs other armed forces who can win in the thickets, in the grass, and at the roots.

That doesn’t happen haphazardly or on the cheap, but it will be even more necessary as charter school opponents attempt to replicate their Massachusetts victory in other states.

Indeed, if you can defeat charter school expansion in a part of the country that has the very best charter schools, imagine what you can do elsewhere.

Education reformers should reflect deeply on their loss in Massachusetts, but they should do so with equal parts sobriety and reason, and without falling into emotion, blame, or despair.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and, as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton can tell you, there is a little known third category.


The education wars are making refugees out of poor families

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When elephants jostle, what gets hurt is the grass

– African Proverb


When I speak to small groups of low-income black parents about education in different cities I have an uncomfortable message to deliver: when it comes to getting a child an education you are on your own. Neither liberals, nor conservatives, nor the black middle-class is coming to emancipate you from the grotesquely inadequate and intrinsically racist educational systems that bind you and your children to bleak economic and social futures.

You have one option, fight like hell for them.

While the Left, Right, and Center bicker like spiteful divorcees about what is best for the invisible poor children they seem to hold in moral contempt, their opposing arguments work well together to create a mutually beneficial stasis. They are two wings of one bird flying constantly against the winds of justice, mostly into a thick forest of scandalously ideological self-interest.

This past week brought two useful examples.

Noted conservative Walter E. Williams writing about Detroit’s atomizing public schools accuses the “teaching establishment” of making too much about the local district’s fiscal chaos.

Detroit is the site of a lawsuit aiming to secure a constitutional right to literacy. Plaintiffs argue there must be adequate funding to achieve something so fundamental as reading proficiency for the most disadvantaged students. Williams’ response is to say low-literacy is not a byproduct of inadequate school funding, but a problem exaggerated by bad kids who attack teachers physically. He argues Detroit Public Schools is in the top 6% of Michigan schools when it comes to per-pupil expenditures, so “Discrimination in school expenditures cannot explain poor educational outcomes for black students in Detroit or anywhere else in the nation.”

The real problem that Williams says is “routinely ignored” is that the majority of students in these schools have known someone who has been “killed, disabled or wounded by gun violence.” That may or may not be connected to another problem revealed in an article he links to by the American Psychological Association: 80 percent of teachers say they have been victimized by students during the previous school year.

Your kids are superpredators. Money to fully-fund schools is not the issue.

Taking the left flank, Mercedes Schneider, a blogging Ph.d and student of Diane Ravitch’s school of internet polemics slices at the same apple with a different knife. She beefs with with parents fighting for access to high-quality charter schools in Massachusetts. That state’s Superior Court recently concluded there is no constitutional right to school choice, even when low-income students are trapped in schools with inferior results and there is a demand for more charter schools that produce far better results.

Scheider, a district teacher from Louisiana, says the most important consideration is keeping the bodies of students in school districts regardless of it that results in diminished minds and the reproduction of social stratification between classes and races. Money, not people, is what matters most. When parents are given the option to take their children – and their per-pupil revenue – to other schools, they often do so. Schnieder is transparent about why a parents’ right to access better performing charter schools is a bad idea when she says “spending more money on charter schools leaves less money for districts.”

Your kids are dollars, not citizens. How will the middle-class survive if parents are free to make decisions for themselves about where their children attend school? Even if we don’t engineer the system to keep them in undesirable places, can they be trusted to do so?

In California, Minnesota, and New York there have been legal challenges attempting to establish a constitutional right to a quality teacher. Those cases have been widely panned as being union-busting cases funded by wealthy people to attack the middle-class. Missing from that critique is even a velutinous touch on the claims of the plaintiffs – parents and students – or the research indicating that children of color in poor schools are shortchanged by low-quality teachers and the shabby instruction that comes with them.

On paper Williams and Schneider couldn’t be more different. One is conservative, one liberal. One for choice and school reform, without funding reform; the other in favor of one-best-system for all, even when all only means white kids with two Starbucks customers for parents.

But they both agree the Constitution affords parents few rights when trapped in racialized, under-funded, poorly performing school districts.

They are correct.

Any underclass parent that has fought with schools about their students’ Individual Education Plan, Title 1 funding, resources for schools zoned into down-market parts of a district, the distribution of quality teachers, or curriculum that tells our kids all the wrong things about themselves must know they have few rights.

In 2005 a group organized by long-time civil rights activist Bob Moses organized an inter-generational group of authors to write a book called “Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools.” It falls short of presenting a real plan for obtaining the rights parents need to get their students a quality education, but its strength is creating the aspiration that there should be those rights. The current system – the one where children are enrolled in “public” schools by their address – ties the right to an education to family income. That buys some families school choice and broader options, while leaving others to contend with limited options.

Almost no one is ready to upset that scheme.

On one side there are people like Williams who will say money doesn’t matter even as Detroit children have their bright lights blighted by schools infested with rats, decaying ceilings, and water unfit to drink. On the other side people like Schneider say the only thing that matters is money, and kids equal money, so they should not have access to schools that would be clearly better for them.

So, to be clear, you have no right to school buildings that look fit for white kids. No right to quality teachers. No right to choose the schools that receive your child’s per-pupil allocation.

Poor people, you’re on your own. Never stop fighting.

No one should stand between parents, students, and great schools

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Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has heard it all before: charter schools are not truly “public” and their very existence is a threat to traditional schools run by districts. Even now, after being out of America’s top education job, he is still hearing that message.

His recent stop at Smith College in Massachusetts became another protest opportunity for union-backed activists fighting a minor holy war against a ballot question that would allow the state to approve up to 12 more charter schools. Those schools would open in Massachusetts’ lowest performing school districts, but resistance is coming from suburban areas that would remain untouched if the ballot measure succeeds.

Outside Duncan’s event, Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, raised questions about charter schools. “[p]ublic funds going into private hands does not make (charter schools) public…There’s no democratic oversight — local school committees (and) town councils… have no say on whether a charter school can open in their community, and there’s no local accountability for what happens in the school.”

That defies reason. Charter schools are public because the law says they are public, and those schools are accountable to select authorizers overseen by the state.

Here’s what the Massachusetts’ Department of Education says about charter schools: “Authorized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Education Reform Act of 1993, charter schools are independent public schools that operate under five year charters granted by the Commonwealth’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Charter schools are usually proposed by teachers, school leaders, parents, non-profit organizations, or other members of the community.”

That seems pretty public to me.

So why are teachers’ unions and the upscale parents in suburbs that support them at odds with their own democratically governed state.

The politics of privilege.

Let’s be real: teachers’ unions seek to define schools as “public” only when they are under the control of local school boards because it serves the agenda of public workers, not the public at large. School board members are elected in low-turnout elections powered by the very public employees they are supposed to govern and negotiate with about money, expectations, and goals.

When Monsanto loads up the Environmental Protection Agency with its agents we cry foul. When public workers hire their own bosses by dominating election processes, overriding the individual voices of families and parents at the bottom of America’s social hierarchy, we call it democracy.

Why fight opportunity for the least of them?

Duncan is spot on when asked about the “tension” between supporters of charter schools and those fighting them. He says “I’m absolutely in support of high-performing charter schools….I think we need to replicate and learn from them … I think this tension is about adults, not kids. We need to make sure every kid has a chance to be successful.”

So we have to wonder why the “Save Our Schools” types bird-dog reformers like Duncan, but sit mum on questions about serious inefficiencies, classrooms, schools, and districts? Who are these people standing with mostly white public worker unions defending a system fully yoked with indefensible outcomes?

Searching pictures of their rallies and media appearances I feel safe drawing on some generalizations. They are mostly left-wing liberals (who think they’re progressives, but aren’t) and middle-class families with advantaged children who are fawned over by education officials. From their view the system is basically good. All it needs is more money. That’s why they say “save our schools” instead of “save our kids.”

Their schools are doing their bidding with their kids.

This is not to say there aren’t some black “leaders” ignoring the high support for charter schools among black families. Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson laments the budgetary impact on traditional district schools that happens when parents exercise choice and send their kids to schools outside of their districts. But, in a story that has become all too typical of middle class people who aspire to raise themselves in the ranks of politics, he benefited from school choice. Though he grew up in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Roxbury, his parents bypassed local schools for the better ones in another district.

We call that talking out the side of your neck.

And, yes, there are community-based groups supporting anti-charter campaigns too. But on closer inspection, most of them are grantees of either big labor or wealthy white “progressives.” That’s an odd reality given how many of these groups would have you believe the fight for school reform is one that pits a power mad oligarchy against the little people (who are only defended by the altruism of union bosses). Buyer beware on that bit of marketing.

Like most people pushing for new schools and better educational options, I often faced the tired claim that I’m driven by money from reformers. Does that mean charter opponents hold the moral high ground when it comes to motives? Hardly. No one in these fights should assume priestly purity when it comes to money. Both the labor groups and the “grassroots” organizations railing against independently run public schools have taken money from white billionaires (George Soros, hello!). At the same time they seem to have mastered the art of speaking with the devil’s forked tongue, railing against capitalism while sucking from its teat.

The bottom line is our children deserve better schools. Charter schools are often a lifeline for parents who feel trapped the way Jackson’s parents presumably did. No one should stand between parents and schools they want. We should all fight those who defend a system that isn’t working for students and families in poverty. Hard stop.

While no one has devised a kind of school that always gets it right, it should be clear to us that the single-minded fight to limit independent public schools – in this case, charter schools – couldn’t be more wrong.

Boston City Councilor Bought and Sold, Kids Be Damned

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Boston City Councilor, Tito Jackson

Boston City Councilor, Tito Jackson (Photo credit: Boston Herald)

There is something insidious about Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson growing up in Roxbury, being afforded the unique privilege of attending Brookline schools, and now leading the charge against school choice for families in the very same neighborhoods he is supposed to represent.

Jackson wants to be Mayor. I’m pretty sure that’s not a secret. And he has strategically embedded himself in the blood sport of education politics, working alongside union backed organizations, encouraging students to walk out of school to attend city council meetings, and now championing a resolution to keep the current charter cap and vote no on Question 2. It’s hard to find him anywhere without a giant “Vote No” sign nearby.

Tito’s repeated comments about charter schools demonstrate that he is either totally misinformed as to how the schools work or, the more likely scenario, that he has sold his soul to special interests because winning elections is more important to him than ensuring that the children in his district have the educational opportunities that he did.

One has to ask, how can Tito even be serious with his rhetoric? How can he look at the Boston Public Schools budget that rose every year from $737M in 2011 to over $1 BILLION today and still spread the lie that giving parents quality choices siphons money from the traditional system?  Perhaps his mistakes in budgeting are explained  by a Boston Globe analysis that Tito only appeared for slightly more than a quarter of hearings for the Ways and Means Committee.

No Choice for You

Tito Jackson’s family exercised school choice. And no one begrudges Tito for the excellent education he received in Brookline.

We do, however, take issue with his hypocrisy. He has become a poster child for the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do” and sadly, his constituents, both parents and children, are the victims of his double standard.

Black and Latino parents overwhelmingly support school choice both nationally and locally. A national 2015 survey conducted by the Black Alliance for Educational Options shows that 70 percent of black voters support having more educational options in their communities. Recent polling of Boston parents finds that 75 percent of them support lifting the charter cap with support highest among Black and Latino parents. Tito Jackson is an elected official in the black community. But he isn’t listening.

When we see reading and math score declines in both 4th and 8th grades in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we know that change is needed.  And when we see 70% support for more parent choice options such high-quality traditional public, public charter and scholarship programs, it’s a strong indicator that Black voters know what they want for their children and are engaged in the education reform process.               -BAEO Director of Policy and Research Tiffany Forrester

The Real Subscription to Poverty

Before voting to give himself a $20,000 raise, City Councilor Tito Jackson lamented his current salary of $87,500 and said public service should not be a “subscription to poverty. (Boston Globe, October 8, 2014)

Meanwhile, Tito Jackson is known for working hard to vote in raises for himself and his fellow councilors. He is so disconnected from reality that he fails to realize that denying kids educational opportunities is the real subscription to poverty.

Without a strong educational foundation like Tito got in Brookline, children in his community can only dream of making $87,000 a year; from the floor of Boston’s City Council chambers, Tito argued that salary constituted poverty, for him.

The reality for Tito’s constituents in Roxbury is much different – the federal poverty line is $24,000 for a family of four.  Can he really argue that a household with three times the income and three less people is equally impoverished?

Tito Jackson has lost his way. Let’s not let him take our kids with him.

Propaganda and Politics on the First Day of School

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When I think of being ready for day one of a school year, tables of political buttons and campaign propaganda isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But in Newton, Massachusetts this year, that’s what returning teachers found in their midst as they reunited after the summer. And there is something very wrong with that.

Newton has high quality schools. Many children living just miles away can’t say the same. Newton recently built a $197.5 million high school. No one else in the state can say the same. And yet, despite the absolute privilege that exists in Newton where the average home price is $910,000, the powers that be (at least the union ones), think getting pumped up to block poor kids from accessing quality schools is a noble way to spend their first day back at school.

And according to their Twitter page, the Save Our Public Schools folks think this is just great. Something to show off with pride.

It made me want to throw up.

But Newton isn’t alone. In Walpole, teachers were forced to spend a half hour of their first day back listening to union reps talk about how important a No vote is on Question 2 (and it’s likely this happened in districts all across the Baystate.) Walpole is also an expensive town that is unlikely to ever be impacted by Question 2 because they, like Newton, are nowhere near reaching the cap. The vast majority of children and families directly impacted by the charter cap could never afford to buy a house in Walpole. Or in Newton.

The level of disregard for other people’s children is truly indefensible. It’s as though the guarantee of safe quality schools that teachers and families in these towns already enjoy isn’t enough. Now they are expected (and in some cases eager) to turn their attention and energy to fighting against poor kids getting an education that’s comparable to what their own children and students already take for granted.

Oh, and did I mention that these communities are not in compliance with affordable housing mandates either? Perhaps they would be but as is always the case, the residents don’t want affordable housing to come to their community and so they fight it at every turn. Boston Magazine described it this way in Newton:

Well-heeled progressives champion liberal ideals, ­including housing the homeless. Just don’t try it in their neighborhood.

So if the union leaders and reps have their way, low income children won’t be able to attend quality schools anywhere. Turns out that any reputation these premier zip codes, especially Newton, have for being “enclaves of progressivism” is more about what they say than what they do.

I get that the collective bargaining agreement guarantees the union a half hour to meet with their members. But that doesn’t erase the absolute ‘ick factor’ of teachers spending their first day back in a school building focused on how to keep poor kids, mostly of color, out of high performing schools.

During my teaching days, I expressed displeasure with the union from time to time over seniority based layoffs and work rules that were bad for kids. But this? This would have had me apoplectic. It’s already bad enough that the fate of children in Dorchester, Mattapan, Lawrence, and Holyoke will come down to whether or not white suburbanites check yes or no on their ballot in November. But to know that information – well, misinformation actually – is being disseminated during the work day on school property is really just too much to take.