I backed Clinton when it wasn’t cool, now I want her to get real about education

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I went on record as a Hillary Clinton supporter before it was the easiest thing to do. Now I hope that Hillary will return the favor when it comes to standing firm on her support for high standards in education and school choice.

Back in March of this year it looked like Bernie Sanders had a reasonable shot at being the Democratic nominee. It wasn’t at all clear that the Republicans would nominate Donald Trump, so it was still conceivable that independents and some Democrats might cross over to vote for their candidate. So, when the reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times stood by the entrance to the Clinton rally looking for a quote, folks were dodging him.

When I saw that, I knew that somebody other than the elected officials and party bosses needed to step up. In some small way, this political titan needed an everyday citizen to go to bat for her. So I did what I knew was right. I stepped up and did my best to argue that Hillary Clinton was not just the party’s choice, but also the people’s choice.

A few months later, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech to the National Education Association (the nation’s second largest teachers union) in which she took great pains to distance herself from President Obama’s legacy of support for high standards, teacher accountability and school options. Soon after that, Clinton’s platform committee met in Florida and turned the party’s policy agenda sharply against high standards and weakened long-standing support of public school choice—even where public charter schools are concerned.

chrishillaryI’ve been around politics and elections for a majority of my life, so I get it. The teachers unions are important members of the Democrat’s winning coalition in the upcoming national elections. Nobody wants them upset. They give money, they mobilize volunteers and they talk to millions of parents across the country on a very regular basis. People in communities often turn to teachers for input and guidance. It won’t be easy for Hillary Clinton to stand firm on these issues.

But that is what attracted me to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the first place. Because this is a party that stands for people when they can’t stand up for themselves. Because the Democratic Party platform is home to progressive policies that cast aside traditional ways of doing things when those traditions run their course and start hurting people.

Because President Obama used his policies, his appointments and bully pulpit to promote innovation and progress in education. Because when it comes to education, the students—especially low-income students in under-resourced communities like the one where I grew up on Chicago’s West Side—are those people who can’t stand up for themselves.

Because we know that spending more money on education isn’t the only answer. It is often a copout—the United States already spends significantly more on education than many other OECD countries.

Because the Democrats do the right thing. And because the Clintons are Democratic royalty.

When I look back on it, I realize that these values—the ones I learned growing up in community organizing and Democratic politics in Chicago—are what motivated me to step up to that reporter at the Hillary Clinton rally back in March when everybody else was playing it safe.

I was just being a good Democrat.

I hope that in the final stretch of the presidential election, Hillary Clinton will tap into her Democratic roots. I hope she will be inspired by the same Democratic values that inspired her to give her life to fighting for the little guy, the same values that inspired this community organizer on the south side of Chicago to want her as the next president of the United States.

When she does tap into those values, she will defy the party platform and acknowledge that student assessment, teacher evaluation, instructional innovation and parental choice are all necessary components of the change we need to ensure that every child in America has access to the high-quality education they deserve. And she won’t back down.
For the sake of struggling children and families across the nation, I hope that Hillary will make the same choice I did that day at the rally: to be a good Democrat. It got her a good quote out of me that day, but it will get us something far more consequential, a brighter American future.

Chris Butler is a father in Chicago. This post was republished from his blog, Chicago Unheard.

Hillary Clinton is probably best on education, and that’s pretty damn sad

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History was made tonight as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be selected by a major political party as their candidate for U.S. president.

This is a moment, in my mind, equal to the time we discovered America would have a truly viable black candidate nearly eight years ago when Barack Obama was nominated. If Ms. Clinton wins in November it won’t only be another huge milestone, it just might save the world from a Donald Trump administration, and teetering toward end times.

That’s the good news. Now the bad.

Clinton has the best education plan of the leading candidates, and it’s terrible. Yes, I believe as president she will do many good things for people of color, LGBTQ families, women, and the economy. But one group will continue hurting: marginalized students.

The Clinton K-12 education plan only skirts the edges of what we really need.

Alyson Klein at Education Week is gently calling out Clinton has for her opaque K-12 education policy that supports early childhood education at the beginning of your child’s K-12 education, and free (or affordable) college at the end of it.

What happens in the 12 years between when your child sits in ineffective classrooms is your problem.

Once a fighter for accountability, interventions, and results, Klein says in 2016 the Clinton campaign is pushing a not-so-new idea called TLC, which reportedly stands for “Teaching, Learning, and Community.”

Such is the problematic nature of political campaigns, especially in a system where powerful interest groups can holler with money, lobbyists, and foot soldiers over the objections of individual voters, drowning out our calls for changes to systems that harm us.

In this case the powerful interests are teachers’ unions. At my most polite time of day I’ll tell you those groups are to education policy what Chevron is to environmental policy.

The effects of their influence are clear:

Clinton was once an accountability hawk, a supporter of student testing in grades 3-8 as specified in No Child Left Behind, but Clinton 2.0 is a defender against “overtesting” who now says testing should be used only to improve instruction and schools, not to hold the system accountable for better outcomes.

That’s like saying police body cameras should be used only for officers to become less brutal, not to address them when they hurt people.

Once a charter school promoter, Clinton has hardened on those schools and pivoted to “community schools,” a feelgood concept of schools that focuses more on social programs than teaching kids.

Clinton of old said “Charter schools can play a significant part in revitalizing and strengthening schools by offering greater flexibility from bureaucratic rules, so that parents, teachers, and the community can design and run their own schools, and focus on setting goals and getting results. Many of these schools are meeting the needs of students who had trouble succeeding in more traditional public schools.”

More recently she suggested, as the unions have told her, that charter schools don’t take the most needy students. In fact, charter school students are more likely than district schools to enroll black, brown, and poor students.

In the 1990s she favored no-excuses schools, saying “I have advocated for highly structured inner city schools. I have advocated uniforms for kids in inner city schools. I have advocated that we have to help structure people’s environments who come from unstructured, disorganized, dysfunctional family settings.”

That would sound awfully paternalistic today. Now she’s for re-birthing welfare as we once knew it before her husband ended it as we knew it.

She was once pro-choice in education, saying “I believe strongly in a parent’s right to choose the best education for his/her child. We have a proud tradition of parochial and private education in America.”

No longer.

To be fair, she still – quietly – supports the Common Core State Standards that governors across states implemented to give the public an honest comparison of how prepared students are for college or good jobs. And, she still supports a role for the federal government to oversee the accountability systems developed by states under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But, in exchange for union support she’s offered the single worst trading chip. She promises to be a president that will keep her peering eyes and meddling hands out of their classrooms. She will assume that all teachers are good (despite the best research on the matter).

She will place more focus on reducing child hunger, poverty, childcare, preschool, and repairing school buildings. She will give away hearing aids and wheelchairs to kids that need them. Teachers will get paid more (during her husband’s time as governor of Arkansas teachers got “the highest increase of any state in the country), and have more resources – including college loan forgiveness after 10 years of service. No longer will teachers be forced by some invisible hand of government to “teach to the test” (I smell an applause line).

A president Clinton will stop asking so much of teachers, like, demanding they be effective.

Given all we know, this is a bum deal. Public education happens between a teacher and student, in a classroom, over time. That is the point of sale, and the point of sale is broken for millions of kids. No credible person would propose ignoring teaching, teacher quality, and accountability for results as measured by student progress.

Strike that. No humane or caring person would do so. Only a political animal would be so nearsighted.

Here’s my challenge to you dear reader: I propose a drinking game that even people in recovery can play.

Watch the video below and take a swig of the most potent alcohol you can find every time Clinton mentions a policy proposal that will hold states and school districts accountable for the single most important school-based contributor to student achievement (teachers).

I bet you dollars to donuts at the end of this speech, and the end of this game, you will still be remarkably sober, and American children in the worst schools still won’t have the quality teachers they so desperately deserve and need.

Klein’s article provides a very useful tool to compare Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the issue of education. See it for yourself here.

Progressives shouldn’t talk so lovingly about the history of public education

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As discussed in a recent Citizen Ed column, American public schools were built from the late 1800s through early 1900s on a foundation of racism. During this period, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants used political muscle to create segregated, compulsory local schools. In these factory-style schools, kids were processed according to race, class, and intended societal role. Although the system was built during Jim Crow, it appeared first in the North, championed by Progressives who believed in racial eugenics. Two white Protestant lobbies, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Education Association, backed the system’s national expansion. This period of time was the first and largest part of what commentator Diane Ravitch has called “the geographically based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years.”   

Sixty years ago, we could have shed this racist legacy. In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision launched the civil rights movement by declaring that “segregation with the sanction of law” was impermissibly “denoting the inferiority” of black students.

Briefly, our nation seemed to be on the brink of empowering black families to attend any schools they wished. On September 24, 1957, President Eisenhower deployed federal troops to protect the ability of the Little Rock Nine to attend classes in a previously all-white public school.  The logical extension of this approach would have been to require all education dollars to pass through the oversight of black families as vouchers to attend schools of their choice. Additionally, our nation could have prohibited “zip code laws” that blocked students from attending schools in different neighborhoods. If backed by prohibitions on race-based admissions criteria, black parents would have had economic power vis-à-vis local schools, and legal power vis-à-vis private schools and wealthy public schools.  

Sadly, this liberty-enhancing choice was never taken.  Instead, as has been well documented in housing markets of the same period, power brokers adopted progressive rhetoric to undercut actual choice by black families. As described by Brooklyn-based black activist Viola Plummer at a Black History Month event last year, “Somehow, Brown’s very fundamental and basic demand for equality was calculatedly translated in a U.S. Supreme Court hoodwink as ‘integration,’ after which we witnessed our children … bused to white neighborhoods, isolated and alone in hostile and dangerous territories.” The idea of integration and busing created the notion that all blacks needed to succeed was physical proximity to white students.  Even that was short-lived: a mere 20 years after Brown, the Supreme Court clarified that even segregation was permissible so long as there was no proof it had been “deliberate.”   

In addition to shutting down individual black choices, political leaders even went so far as to prevent black communities from exerting group control in districts where they held a local majority. This struggle took place decisively in Brooklyn from 1965 through 1968, involving a set of facts that resonate today, almost 50 years later.  In that case, the African-American Teachers Association (“ATA”, originally founded as the Negro Teachers Association) worked with black parents to seek changes in how local schools educated black students. The ATA had support from many black and Puerto Rican teachers, as well as many white teachers of black children, within the larger citywide United Federation of Teachers (or “UFT,” which then as now was the mostly-white teachers’ union of New York City.) The ATA sought to eliminate a “disruptive child clause” in the union contract, which the ATA claimed was used by white teachers to disproportionately punish and segregate black students. The ATA also sought to incentivize or compel experienced teachers to work in low-income schools. Eventually, the local school board with ATA support dismissed a number of white teachers and administrators.  In response, the UFT used its massive political muscle, including citywide strikes that disrupted classes for roughly two months. During the strikes, pro-ATA protesters were charged with “harassing” the UFT strikers; several of the protesters later counter-sued claiming that law enforcement had been discriminatory and excessive. In November 1968, the strikes ended with a state takeover of the local school district; the state Education Commissioner reinstated all of the dismissed teachers and transferred the locally appointed principals.  The force of the strikes, and the reaction, intentionally set a national precedent against local black control.

Reviewing these events from the perspective of America’s long-term racial history, it’s hard to miss the disturbing parallels. The specifics changed, from “slavery is good for blacks” prior to the Civil War, to “white owners are merely holding black sharecroppers’ income” during the Jim Crow era, to “blacks cannot be trusted with either vouchers or with control of local schools.” The parallels, however, included white control of financial resources that should have been controlled by black families; freedom of choice for black families subjugated to the economic interests of whites; and a rationale that invoked vague notions of the dangerous consequences of black agency.

Roughly thirty years after Brown, and fifteen years after the Brooklyn strike, the state of American education was reviewed in a 1983 report from the United States Department of Education.  This report, called A Nation at Risk, concluded: “functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.” Numerous contemporary reports from the time showed that black, Hispanic, and Native American students continued to fail in traditional public schools.  The only surprise was that white liberals expressed surprise. As a left-of-center author recently noted, this “classic white liberal” approach of allowed whites “to feel compassionate and superior at the same time,” without having to actual give quality choices to black families.

When Jesse Jackson speaks, whose voice are we hearing?

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Several clues Jesse Jackson’s Chicago Sun Times piece was ghostwritten by a for-profit union communications consultant

Jesse Jackson’s recent opinion piece in the Chicago Sun Times sounds like a case of awkward ventriloquy by Jeff Bryant, a union funded, for-profit communications consultant working for teachers’ unions and ultra-wealthy political agenda setters. 

I can’t say for sure there is a link between Jackson and Bryant, but there is one simple connection. Bryant is a Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, a center-left political organizing group co-directed by Robert Borosage who was a senior policy advisor for Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.

Following the money has turned into a familiar sport where many of us who write for a living speculate about which deep pockets are funding the contrasting ideological articles scattered throughout a brave new world of ethically pliable media.

Though I’ve written many late nights since 1998 for free, last year I made myself a target for conjecture when I joined Education Post, a nonprofit, pro-reform communications group.

My favorite part of the gig is learning about the educational breakthroughs dedicated people are having with children in poverty. My least favorite part is the tired rejoinder that says I do this because billionaires pay me to do it.

The suspicion isn’t without good reason. Opportunistic people see education politics can be a good hustle. Writers are paid by funders dedicated to school reform policies, some by organized groups dedicated to stopping reform initiatives, and a new breed of mercenaries paid by both teams to write incoherent middle of the road pieces that satisfy neither master.

It’s with that jaded lens that I read the Jackson piece and quickly assumed it might have been written by Bryant.

What’s my evidence? Let’s unpack it together.

First, Rev. Jackson says:

Across the country, parents have been in revolt against high-stakes standardized testing, with kids tested over and over again while creativity is cut out of classroom curricula. Parents — particularly in targeted urban schools from Chicago to Boston — are also marching against the forced closing of neighborhood schools, displacing kids and shutting down needed neighborhood centers. Now there is more and more evidence that the parents have it right — and the deep-pocket “reformers” are simply wrong.

What is Jackson’s “evidence” that “deep pocket” “reformers” are out of touch with American parents?

First, the Obama Administration — which has pushed high-stakes testing as central to its education agenda — announced that kids were being tested too often, with too much school time devoted to preparing for and taking required tests. In what a writer for the New Yorker described as a major “mea culpa,” the administration now recommends that standardized testing be limited to 2 percent of class time. 

That’s an interesting point, but I liked it better when Jeff Bryant wrote it in a blog post on October 30, 2015:

The change in rhetoric is “a mea culpa,” writes Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker, “an acknowledgement by the administration that its own policies cultivated the ‘drill and kill’ test prep that has come to characterize many classrooms in the past several years.”

Jackson’s “evidence” continues:

Second, a report by the Center for Media and Democracy on charter schools — the centerpiece of the so-called reformers’ agenda — reports that some $3.7 billion in federal money has been larded onto charter schools in the past two decades with virtually no accountability.

Again, that point was made in a blog post on October 21, 2015. Bryant points to the same union-funded report:

That’s the principal finding of a new report published by the Center for Media and Democracy, which looked for information about how much tax money coming from the federal government’s Charter School Program (CSP) goes to charters and how that money is spent and found that information is often “severely lacking.”

And, in the same post:

Very little is known about how these schools have spent over $3.7 billion the federal government has [been] used to fuel expansion of the charter industry since 1995.

The good Reverend goes on:

The reality, as National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has pointed out, is that the nations that have outperformed the U.S. in recent years don’t do the things that the deep-pockets reformers have been touting. They don’t terrorize teachers; they train, respect and pay them.

This is a good time to point out Jeff Bryant is the owner of Creative Direct Marketing, a for-profit communications shop, and the NEA is one of his big clients.

Finally, here is the biggest greasy thumbprint connecting Bryant to Jackson’s godawful talking-point heavy political advertisement against “private” charter schools, “high-stakes” testing, and virtually anything that that makes changes teachers’ unions oppose:

As Jeff Bryant of the Education Opportunity Network writes, parents are driving an “education spring,” revolting against an elite reform agenda that is driving away good teachers, undermining public schools, and draining funds and fun from our public schools. Parents are right to keep the pressure on.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. A ghost writer would never quote themselves. Perhaps. Yet, Bryant seems like a chronic offender of promoting his own work, and quoting his clientele without adequate disclaimers.

It isn’t clear how much he earns from from the NEA, but it likely pays well to sprinkle their talking points across AlterNet, Common Dreams, Salon, The Progressive, and in mainstream publications when ghostwriting. Bryant earned at least $1,153,675 just from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development alone. That group boasts 125,000 members, including superintendents, teachers, principals, and college professors.

Public records show Bryant earned over an estimated $260,000, just in 2013.

According to a report by the union funded Economic Policy Institute, that price point places him closer to the the so-called 1% than regular people. In North Carolina where Bryant lives the bottom 99% average only $40,429.

Bryant is balling with brass ones.

For his part, Jesse Jackson ain’t slouching either. He has an estimated net worth of $10 million, and he commands a $75,000 speaking fee in addition to chartered jet flights, hotels, and meals. Fighting for rights is good work if you can get it.

In Jackson’s residential state of Illinois, the bottom 99% earn $46,080. The median household income for Chicago families is $47, 270.

Today a whopping 84% of Chicago Public School students qualify for free and reduced meals.

Without good schools, a solid education, a college degree or career preparation, the majority of children in urban schools will never see a life as good as Jackson’s or Bryant’s.

I don’t expect Bryant to be a champion for urban black children, but I expect more from Jackson. As a child I was inspired by his “I am somebody, I can achieve” commercials on television. In high school I was blessed to see him give what stands as the single best speech I’ve ever seen in person. In both cases he roused pride and a sense of invincibility in me.

Have we come to a time when $75,000 paydays, private jets, and fancy meals serve as mind erasers for “civil rights” icons? Do they now believe the best we can do is assign poor kids to schools with low expectations while the middle class send their kids to better alternatives?

Should our “leaders” really lock arms in solidarity with people who would rather see our schools as a jobs program rather than institutions of learning?

Should we really be expected to go on hunger strikes to keep failing schools that harm our kids open for business?

The problem with our public schools is not that there are people with deep pockets who want to reform them. The problem is that too many of these schools desperately need reforming in the first place.

That’s a truth that won’t be written by white hands writing for black faces. I can’t be sure that Bryant wrote this oped for Jackson. I’m just saying if he didn’t, Jackson owes him royalties.