Congress Frees Public Schools From Federal Test & Punish – Where’s the Catch?

Trump+Selection+Education+Secretary+Betsy+kBaA0SDAd_tx

Let’s say you were kidnapped and kept in a small basement room where you were routinely beaten and starved.

Then after years of this treatment, your captors brought in a massage table and offered you a filet mignon after your spa treatment.

You’d be more than a little bit confused.

That’s the position of parents, students and teachers today.

After almost two decades of punishing public schools and their students for low test scores, Congress suddenly decides to step back and leave it to the states!?

Until now the federal government had mandated increasing high stakes standardized tests and forcing schools that don’t meet a certain threshold to be stripped of their school boards, turned into charters or simply closed. Until now, the federal government coerced states to enact every fly-by-night corporate education reform from Common Core to Teach for America to evaluating teachers based on student test scores.

But now the feds are just walking away!?

First, in 2015 lawmakers passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a reauthorization of federal K-12 education policy that (depending on how you interpret it) limited federal power over public schools. However, the Obama administration offered guidelines that put much of that federal power back in place.

Now both the House and Senate have voted to repeal those Obama administration guidelines in favor of… well… some other interpretation.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee and one of the architects of the ESSA, says states can just follow what’s written in the law. But this is a 1,061 page document full of legalese, meandering bipartisan compromises and – frankly – contradictory language. Even the most simple legislation needs interpretation, and in this case it needs extensive interpretation.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to offer her take on what all this means by Monday. So buckle up for that one. I’m sure the nation’s Grizzlies are so upset they can barely finish their picnic baskets.

As for the rest of us, it’s hard to know what this all will mean.

Alexander offered a detailed explanation that anyone interested in this issue should read.

I’m no fan of the Senator’s. I think he’s a blatant opportunist, an unapologetic partisan and out to protect only one person – numero uno.

But he makes some excellent points about federal overreach in the Department of Education under the previous two administrations.

Moreover, unlike DeVos, the supremely unqualified Education Secretary he helped ram through Congress over bipartisan objections, he knows something about schools. He was Secretary of Education, himself, from 1991-93 under President George H. W. Bush.

First, the ESSA still mandates annual testing. Even without the Obama guidelines, students will still be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Second, Alexander says the law still requires each state to hold its public schools accountable. Each state must submit a plan detailing how it intends to do that by September of 2017. There is plenty of latitude on exactly how states will do this, but whatever they decide, this new accountability system must be implemented by next school year (2017-2018).

Moreover, he says, states have to identify and provide support to at least the lowest performing 5% of their schools. This must be done by the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.

They also must use academic and English language proficiency indicators in their accountability systems. Which indicators? Standardized testing? Maybe – maybe not.

Many accountability provisions, such as the requirement that educators measure reading scores, math scores, and graduation rates, are specifically mentioned in the ESSA.

Still, many questions remain.

For instance: if the Department of Education isn’t allowed to tell states what to do, how is it supposed to help them comply with the law?

Alexander cites “Non-regulatory guidance; Dear Colleague letters; Frequently-Asked-Questions documents; Webinars, phone calls, and in-person conferences.”

Alexander stresses that repealing the Obama regulations does not open to door for the Department of Education to mandate a nationwide school voucher plan – unfortunately.

He writes, “A school choice program cannot be unilaterally created by the Department of Education. Only Congress could create a voucher program, and, unfortunately, Congress has rejected doing that.”

However, the Trump administration and DeVos have already made their intentions known about school vouchers. They intend to use Title I dollars – money usually earmarked for the most impoverished students – as federal bribes to enact vouchers. It’s basically the same thing Obama did with Race to the Top – promising federal money to states if their schools do what the feds want them to do.

For all his talk about states rights, Alexander appears to have no problems with this same kind of Obama-style coercion.

But he does appear to be correct about the transfer of power.

Apparently, the states really will regain control over their public schools.

This could be a very positive thing. And it’s not the only one.

In addition to repealing Obama’s accountability regulations, Congress scrapped Obama’s teacher preparation rules.

This change was less controversial. Eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting to repeal the teacher preparation regulations. By comparison, no Democrats voted to dismantle the accountability rules and one Republican joined them in opposition.

The teacher preparation rules were released in October after years of delay.

The main point of contention was the requirement that states develop a rating system aimed at evaluating the success of their teacher preparation programs. This would have included how programs’ teachers perform based on a measure of student academic achievement. Though the final version gained some flexibility with how to determine student academic success beyond just test scores, it remained a hot mess.

Any programs that didn’t perform well on the state’s rating system would have lost access to federal grants aimed at supporting teachers who work in high-need certification areas and in low-income schools (or TEACH grants). In effect, it would have pushed for a new generation of teachers dedicated to test prep and Common Core.

And these repeals of Obama regulations – these seeming improvements just waiting for Donald Trump’s signature – are brought to us by the same people who support removing protections for trans students. These are the same legislators who gave us an unexperienced mega-donor as Education Secretary.

Frankly, I’m having trouble believing it.

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Perhaps the standardized testing industry has consolidated so much support at the various Republican controlled state legislatures that it no longer needs support in Washington. Perhaps our ridiculously gerrymandered state legislative districts will make any resistance even more difficult. Perhaps a completely toothless Department of Education will embolden the most racist state legislators to dramatically increase segregation and civil rights abuses for the poor and minorities.

Or perhaps Republicans actually got one right?

Koch Bros Funded Publication Criticizes – ME – on School Choice!

who-me2

You know you’ve made it when the Koch Brothers are funding a critique of your work.

Most of the time I just toil in obscurity.

I sit behind my computer furiously pounding away at the keys sending my little blog entries out onto the Interwebs never expecting much of a reply.

Sure I get fervent wishes for my death.

And the occasional racist diatribe that only tangentially has anything to do with what I wrote.

But a response from a conservative Web magazine funded by the world’s most famous billionaire brothers!?

I guess this is what the big time feels like!

The article appeared in The Federalist, an Internet publication mostly known for anti-LGBT diatribes and climate change denial. But I had the audacity to write something called “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice.”

I had to be taken down.

And they had just the person to do it – far right religious author Mary C. Tillotson.

You may remember her from such hard hitting pieces as “How Praying a Novena Helped Me Process This Election,” “Sometimes, Holiness is Boring,” and “Why It’s Idiotic to Blame Christians for the Orlando Attack.”
This week her article is called “Top 10 Reasons HuffPo Doesn’t Get School Choice.”

Which is kinda’ wrong from the get-go.

Yes, I published my article in the Huffington Post, but it is not exactly indicative of the editorial slant of that publication. Sure, HuffPo leans left, but it routinely published articles that are extremely favorable to school choice. Heck! Michelle Rhee is a freakin’ contributor!

So I don’t think it’s fair to blame HuffPo for my ideas on school choice. A better title might have been “Top 10 Reasons Singer Doesn’t Get School Choice,” but who the Heck is Singer and why should anyone care!?

Then she gives a quick summary of how my whole piece is just plain wrong: “Steven Singer of The Huffington Post would have you believe that when parents have more choices, they have fewer choices.”

That’s like writing “Steven Singer of Consumer Reports would have you believe buying a used car means you may not be able to get anywhere.”

I stand by that statement. They’re both scams, Mary. The perpetrators of school choice want to convince you to choose a school that gives you fewer choices than public schools do. Just like a used car salesmen may try to convince you to buy a clunker that won’t get you from point A to B.

Claim 1: ‘Voucher programs almost never provide students with full tuition.’

She says I’m wrong because I’m right. She basically admits most vouchers won’t pay the full tuition but that it’s still a help.

Okay. But parents have already paid for a full K-12 public school education that they will not have to supplement at all. That’s a much better value.

Moreover, Mary, you pretend that the cost of the voucher is going to pay for at least 2/3 of private school tuition. This isn’t true. Most of Donald Trump’s kids went to the Hill School in Pennsylvania for more than $55,000 a year. A thousand or two isn’t going to help much.

But Mary disagrees. Most rich folks aren’t eligible for voucher programs, she says, so the hyper elite academies are off the table.

It’s true that most vouchers are given to poor students, but that’s only temporary. The goal is to increase them to middle and upper class students. It’s the first thing they do after initially limiting vouchers to the poor. And she knows this. She’s read Milton Friedman, the conservative nutjob who thought up this scheme to destroy public schools. “The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system…” he said. How? “Privately conducted schools… can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools and mixed schools,” Friedman wrote.

What a brave new world you’re defending, Mary!

Claim 2: Choice schools don’t have to accept everyone.

She writes, “Singer would have you believe that charter schools and private schools receiving voucher money are cherry-picking the best students to stoke their egos and stats. This isn’t true, and even if it were, it would still provide more choices.”

Um. Okay. So you admit this could be true but it doesn’t matter. Choice is all that matters. Very telling.

Then she goes on to talk about schools that actually do pick their own students, and she argues that it’s okay.

It’s not, Mary. Schools that accept tax dollars should have to accept all students. Otherwise, you’re just guessing that somewhere out there is a school for all kids, but you’re doing nothing to ensure this is true.

Children and families from places destroyed by vouchers and underfunding of public schools such as Detroit have been complaining of this very thing. They go from school to school never able to find one that meets their needs. It’s not that this is a failure of the system either – this IS the system working properly! This IS school choice – a system that only ensures choice but never quality or excellence. It is predicated on the semi-religious belief that the market will take care of everything.

It doesn’t. Ask Dannah Wilson about it.

Claim 3: Charter schools are notorious for kicking out hard-to-teach students.

She acknowledges the point and then changes the subject. She says there are great charters out there like KIPP. Yes, KIPP – a system that does exactly what I just said it does! Look at the huge numbers of students KIPP schools kick out. Look at the very few who make it to graduation. This is a terrible model for your school. I guess Mary lives in a universe of alternative facts where terrible equals great.

I’m kind of embarrassed for you. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Claim 4: Choice schools actually give parents less choice than traditional public schools.

Mary says that every parent should have the right to vote with their feet? Why? I’m not sure. Maybe this explains her position:

“Singer writes, “If you don’t like what your public school is doing, you can organize, vote for new leadership or even take a leadership role, yourself.” But seriously, who has time for that? Some people, yes, but not the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet. It’s a lot easier—and a lot faster, which matters in the life of a child—to enroll a child in a different school than to slog through the political process.”

So it’s a lot easier to have fewer options? Mary, you just argued AGAINST choice. You just said choice is too much work. No one has time for choice? Make up your mind.

That is ridiculous. But moreover it’s untrue. Do you really believe parents have the time to go shopping for new schools every week? That single mom doesn’t have time to go to board meetings but she has the time to enter these charter school lotteries and hope her kids get in? And if they don’t, she has time to trudge across town to another school and when it closes suddenly, she has time to start the process all over again? And again? THIS is the time saving process!? When she could actually be building something as part of her community?

Claim 5: Charter schools don’t perform better than traditional public schools.

She just says both can be good or bad. This sidesteps exactly how bad charter schools can be. Charter operators can take all the money and run. Charters can close without warning. Cyber charters have been found to actually provide less education in math and reading than not going to school at all.

Traditional public schools can struggle, and when they do it’s almost always because they’re underfunded. Yet, they NEVER provide an education that is as bad as the worst charter schools. And most traditional public schools do the best they can with what they have. The problem is strategic disinvestment. We could make almost every traditional public school excellent if we just funded them fairly. But unfortunately billionaires like the Kochs are paying for people like Mary to convince us otherwise.

Claim 6: Charters and vouchers increase segregation.

She basically offers a defense of white parents who want their kids schooled separately from black ones. That’s just choice, baby, and choice is always good.
No, it’s not. We’ve seen that it is better for everyone if children are educated with diverse people. It helps them understand people unlike themselves. It builds a more tolerant and just America.

Yes, our traditional public schools have become more segregated because of the way district lines are drawn. But that doesn’t mean we should double down on segregation. It means we should fight to reverse it.

Then she tells a fairytale about Obama attacking choice schools in Louisiana. He CREATED that system! He was a booster of the all-charter system! He was not an enemy of school choice. Corporate Democrats are not the enemy of school choice! They love it! They are the allies of your own corporate masters, Mary. Do some research.

Claim 7: Charter and voucher schools take away funding from traditional schools.

She basically agrees with me and then says public schools should find a way to deal with it. That’s what private schools do.

But public schools can’t operate like private schools and they shouldn’t for many of the reasons already enumerated here. They accept everyone. They don’t intentionally segregate. Etc.

Moreover, instability is a terrible basis for a school. You want to ensure it will be there for children when they need it. You don’t want schools competing with each other for resources like businesses. Most businesses fail. You don’t want that for schools. You need them to succeed. That means artificially ensuring their success with a steady, reliable stream of funding just like you give to the military. You wouldn’t suggest the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines compete for funding. Why do that to our public schools?

Claim 8: Funding a variety of schools would be wasteful and expensive.

She says I’m thinking “bureaucratically, considering ‘school systems’ instead of the actual children who are the reason schools exist in the first place.”

Uh, these systems serve children. You need to be able to run them FOR THOSE STUDENTS.

Claim 9: School choice distracts from the real problems: poverty and funding equity.

She agrees that poverty is important. Then she pulls the old “throwing money at problems is a terrible idea” card. Public schools just need to find ways to cut costs. They spend too much. Blah, blah, blah.

She ignores the facts. Public schools spend dramatically different sums on students depending on whether they’re rich or poor. We need equitable school funding. That means spending more on poor children and not complaining about “throwing money” at the problem. No one complains about that at the rich schools where they spend so much more than the poor schools. No one calls it “throwing money” when it’s your own child. That’s “investing in children.” It’s only when it’s THOSE kids that it’s “throwing money” at the problem. It betrays a class conscious prejudice against the poor and – most likely – children of color.

She then goes on to complain about the increase in administrative costs at public schools. This is laughable! Charter schools spend so much more on administrative costs than traditional public schools! A study by Michigan State University and the University of Utah found that charter schools spend on average $774 more per student on administration and $1,140 less on instruction than do traditional public schools.

And then she talks about student achievement not increasing at public schools. Actually, it depends on how you measure it. Standardized testing is a poor measure of achievement. And when you adjust for poverty, our schools are some of the best in the world.

Claim 10: School choice is supported by billionaires, not the grassroots.

Here she just talks about all the events planned during school choice week.

Mary, these are attended by private and parochial schools during the school day. The staff is literally paid to be there. The school children are literally forced to be there because their schools are closed and they are bused in to these events.

That’s not grassroots. That’s the definition of astroturf.

Do some people support school choice? Yes. Less than 10 percent of America’s students attend these schools. But the overwhelming majority of Americans support public schools.

Mary goes on about all the people applying for vouchers but she ignores a much more pertinent fact. Whenever school vouchers have been put to a referendum, voters have always turned it down. This despite who-knows-how-many-millions of dollars in advertising and propaganda to influence voters to support it!

No matter what the position, you can find someone to support it. But the majority of school choice proponents are billionaires and corporatists trying to fool regular people into doing what’s not it their own best interests.

Just ask your editors at the Federalist, Mary. You and your article are a case in point.

But thank you so much for critiquing my article. I’m just a public school teacher. I so rarely get corporate employees writing responses to my work.

Frankly, I didn’t find your piece very convincing, but what do I know? I’m a union thug with an advanced degree, a masters and a national certification. I don’t represent Trump’s America like you do.

I just represent the majority who may one day wake up and take it all back.

Republicans Suggest Federal Role in Education Be Limited to Bribery

imrs

Hey! Let’s repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965!

Let’s hobble the Department of Education!

Let’s make the federal role just handing out bundles of cash to private and parochial schools!

That’s apparently how you improve public education. You make it private.

And you completely eliminate any protections for students’ civil rights.

THIS is the brave new world of Trumpian education policy. It’s called HR 610 and was introduced by Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa.

You may Remember King. He introduced an amendment in the U.S. House that would have prevented Harriet Tubman from replacing President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Sure she was an abolitionist, women’s suffragist and hero who rescued scores of black people from slavery in the Underground Railroad. Why would we want her to replace a former slave trader and architect of the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears!?

His new piece of wonderful legislation – not at all written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – would turn the U.S. Department of Education into merely an authorizer of block grants to qualified states to participate in a nationwide voucher program.

The department would give out money to local districts to give to parents to home school or send their children to private schools.

In effect, the federal government would become a booster for private and parochial schools. Uncle Sam would be offering free cash to private interests, corporations, entrepreneurs and business people if they can just convince parents to choose them over the public school system.

Which brings up the question – what about that public school system? Would it still receive the federal help it currently does? Would there still be Title I Grants to schools serving impoverished students? What would happen to Pell Grants? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?

These are questions that have not fully been answered. It’s possible some of these services could fall back on other governmental departments as they did before the creation of the Department of Education in 1980. However, more likely this would be a redistribution of billions of dollars that used to go to public schools now going to private hands.

Moreover, abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.

Oh! And the bill also would reduce nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts.

I’m not kidding.

King apparently is troubled that kids are eating too many fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and drinking low-fat or fat free milk. He is against reducing salt, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals. And he doesn’t think children’s nutritional needs should be met within their caloric requirements.

I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that these regulations were proposed by the Obama administration. It has nothing to do with undoing legislation from our first black President. It’s all about the children.

King’s bill, HR 610, is not to be confused with a similar bill by Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie that would simply dismantle the Department of Education in one year.

Massie, who introduced his one page, one sentence bill on the same day DeVos was confirmed, is a Tea Party Republican Libertarian. He supports disbanding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and allowing guns at the nation’s schools.

He is a hardcore Trump believer. During the election cycle after revelations about the candidate’s admitted sexual molestation of women surfaced, Massie famously said, “Trump is better than 90 percent of the congressmen I serve with.”

His bill, HR 899, reads in total:

“The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

As crazy as it sounds, Massie’s motivations are comprehensible. He wants to return complete control of education to the states.

It must be admitted that the Department of Education has overstepped the bounds of its authority during the last two administrations. When it was formed three decades ago, it was supposed to be a tool to support public schools, ensure student’s rights weren’t being violated and giving a boost to the poor. However, President George W. Bush made it all about standardized testing and giving slush money to charter schools. Obama was supposed to right these wrongs but, being a corporate Democrat, he only increased and administered them more efficiently.

The Department of Education is a tool, and like any tool, it can be misused. That doesn’t mean it should be disbanded. Republicans wouldn’t ban all guns because of instances of gun violence. Why disband the Department of Education because administrations of both parties misused it? Put it in check with proper regulations…

Oops. I think I’ve lost them.

Anyway, despite Massie’s slavish devotion for all things Trump, the President appears to be siding with King.

Trump and his mega-donor Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, have already shown their commitment to King’s voucher legislation.

On Tuesday, they invited ten parents and teachers to Washington, D.C., to talk about their education agenda.

Who did they invite? One was a public school teacher. One was a public school principal for a building specializing in special education. One was a public school parent who also had children in private school.  The rest were homeschoolers, charter school parents or private school representatives.

So 70-80% of the people they invited were not associated with public schools. The Trump administration has made it clear that they are not interested in serving public school students. They are primarily concerned with children going to private and parochial schools who currently make up less than 10 percent of the country’s students.

During the meeting, Trump even praised a “Nevada charter school” that he had visited.  This school is a religious school where students pledged allegiance to the Bible for the former Reality TV star. (Don’t believe me? Watch the video by clicking here.) Like many private or parochial schools, the one Trump praised is notorious for regularly excluding students with disabilities.

The Trump administration is apparently not very concerned with special education students. DeVos refused to commit herself to defending these students during her confirmation hearing (and still was confirmed by Republican legislators!). Moreover, one of the first things the Department did after DeVos took over was to shut down its Webpage for students with disabilities and direct users to another page with fewer resources.

Currently, Republicans control both houses of Congress. They could easily ram through this legislation and Trump would almost certainly sign it. Moreover, there are numerous corporate Democrats like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey who may be overjoyed that the ideology they have pushed for their entire careers have finally been proposed by Trump.

The only thing standing in the way of this wrecking ball bill is parents and teachers.

We flooded our lawmakers phones, emails and town halls during the DeVos confirmation. We demanded a qualified candidate with a commitment to public education. But because she and her family have paid more than $200 million to these same GOP lawmakers, they voted for her anyway.

Will they continue to override their constituents? Only time will tell.

As the Trump administration continues to unravel and public support plummets for him and his corporate agenda, resistance will become more politically possible.

All we can do is keep up the pressure. Keep calling. Keep emailing. Keep showing up at lawmakers offices. Keep marching in the streets.

Eventually, these people will have to listen to us – or else we’ll stop them at the voting booth.

But will public schools last that long?


You can email your U.S. Representative about HR 610 by clicking HERE.

Randi and Lily, For the Good of Our Unions, Please Step Down. You Are a Distraction

28f329e0b3df889bf4067c6e4c6beee2

Dear Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia:

Unions are facing hard times.

We are under attack by the new fascist wing of the Republican party.

So-called “right to work” laws are being drafted at the national level to strip us of our rights and transform us into the factory slaves of The Gilded Age. New court challenges at the state and federal level could make it next to impossible to collect dues without allowing countless free riders. And in the mass media criticism of teacher tenure is mounting despite widespread ignorance of what it even means.

More than ever we need to be united in our efforts to fight the forces of regression and tyranny. We need each other to protect our public schools and our students from those who would do them harm. But the biggest obstacle to doing that isn’t Donald Trump. Nor is it Mike Pence, Steve Bannon or even Betsy DeVos.

It is you. Both of you.

Frankly, as Presidents of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), you have become a distraction.

When DeVos was blocked by protesters from entering a Washington, D.C., school this week, Randi actually took her side. She tweeted:

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-23-12-pm

“Just heard a protester blocked & almost knocked Secy @BetsyDeVos down at Jefferson.We don’t condone such acts.We want her to go to pub schls.”

How dare you dictate to protesters what “we” want!?

This action may not have been something you, personally, condone. But DeVos just got away with purchasing her position as U.S. Secretary of Education. She and her billionaire family paid off mostly Republican lawmakers to the tune of $200 million allowing her to become the titular head of our nation’s public schools. This despite having never attended a public school, refusing to protect special education students, refusing to hold charter and voucher schools to the same standards, even refusing to keep guns out of our children’s classrooms! Well, Betsy, your money may buy you the title, but it buys you zero respect!

Randi, your statement just goes to show how tone deaf you and Lily are to the spirit of the rank and file.

We are not somewhat distressed at what is happening to our schools and our profession. We are enraged! We are taking to the streets! We are occupying our lawmakers offices and marching through community thoroughfares! And we aren’t throwing shade on other protesters behind the safety of Twitter.

For many of us, you both represent everything wrong with unionism. We are a people powered movement. We get our strength from the grassroots up, but you both try to rule from the top down.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the early endorsements by both unions of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Neither one of you made an honest effort to gauge member opinions on these endorsements before going ahead. You thought you knew better. You pushed through these endorsements despite a strong vein of support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders was much more in-line with our needs and values. And he had much more support among progressives and independents. He had a much better chance of winning! Meanwhile, Clinton was just another neoliberal in a long line of neoliberals like President Barack Obama who would offer us only the back of their hands.

You wanted a seat at the table, and you didn’t mind how much it would cost the rest of us.

Lily, when you took the reins of the NEA in 2014, you famously said “We are what Democracy looks like.” I was never more proud of my union than at that moment. But that pride has turned to ashes in my mouth.

Many of us will never forgive either of you for the results of this election. We blame you for Trump.

Had you not dictated to us that we must support Clinton, had you supported a candidate with a real chance of wining, there is little doubt that we could have defeated the clown currently in the Oval Office. Moreover, under a President Sanders we would have had a real chance at a progressive future that benefits everyone – $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, sanctuary cities, justice reforms, fair trade, free college tuition.

Trump did not win alone. Unwittingly, you were his biggest supporters. It was your hubris – along with that of corporate Democrats deaf to the voices of their base – that gave us these next four years. And none of you have learned your lesson.

Lily, your three-year term is up this year. Randi, your two-year term is up in summer 2018.

We can wait you out if we must. But do what’s best for the people you claim to represent. Step down now.

Otherwise, you can look for opposition in our Representative Assemblies.

Let me be clear. I don’t think either of you have broken any by-laws. I don’t think there is evidence for impeachment (if our by-laws even allow it). But members could easily make a motion from the floor for a vote of no confidence.

Support may already be mounting for such positions at the Region level. It could go to the State House of Delegates as a New Business Item and get a majority vote from the floor. Or perhaps at our next Representative Assembly, someone will just make a motion.

I don’t know if it would pass. But I know that this division among us is holding us back from being the force we can be. I know that it has stopped many of us from talking about how we fight external forces, because we are instead focused on enemies from within.

We want to transform our unions. We no longer want to focus solely on collective bargaining. We want to focus on social justice and the needs of our students and communities. To be sure, our labor rights are essential to this fight, but they cannot be everything nor can we be willing to give up on the needs of our students if the powers that be will only leave our salaries and benefits intact.

We want a union that is more at home in the streets than in the boardroom. We want leaders who mobilize us to fight not tell us what to think. We need leaders that listen to us – not the other way around.

As a classroom teacher and education activist, I make this request in no official capacity for any of the various groups to which I belong. I ask as merely another member of the NEA. I have no affiliation with the AFT.

Moreover, I have nothing personal against either of you. We met briefly at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago two years ago. You were both congenial and inspiring. It may not seem like it now, but I hold tremendous respect for both of you. I think in your own ways you have accomplished much that benefits our members.

But the time has come to step down. You believe in accountability. Hold yourselves accountable.

Put the strength of our unions first. Let it no longer be about you. Let it be about us.

Here’s hoping you’ll do the right thing.

Yours,

Steven Singer

NEA and PSEA member

P.S. – If any NEA or AFT member reads this open letter and agrees with the sentiments expressed here, please add your name and union affiliation in a comment on my blog.

Farcical Senate Closer to Selling Education Secretary Position to Highest Bidder

636203281251576440-gty-631920418

 

Unqualified billionaire Betsy DeVos is one step closer to becoming our next Education Secretary.

 

In one of the most embarrassing displays of subservience, once-respected Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) pushed the nomination through committee this afternoon despite numerous objections from Democrats.

 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted along party lines 12-11 to bring DeVos before the full Senate. A final vote has not yet been scheduled.

 

DeVos has next to zero experience with public schools. She never attended one. Her children never attended one. She never taught in one. Nor does she even have a degree in education.

 

 

Her entire experience is bribing policymakers to enact Common Core, push school choice measures and reduce transparency at charter schools – measures that have gutted public schools in her home state of Michigan.

 

At her confirmation hearing two weeks ago, DeVos’ ignorance of even the most basic education knowledge was laughably on display.

She wouldn’t commit to protecting students with special needs.

She wouldn’t commit to keeping guns out of school campuses.

She wouldn’t commit to holding charter and voucher schools to the same standards as traditional public schools.

She didn’t know the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was a federal law.

And she couldn’t explain the difference between proficiency and growth, two of the most common academic terms.

DeVos entire qualifications are that, along with her family, she has donated around $200 million to mostly Republican lawmakers.

That includes direct donations to at least five members of the HELP Committee:

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) – $70,200

Sen. Tim Scott (R–SC) – $49,200

Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) – $48,600

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) – $43,200

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – $43,200

If you add in PACS funded by DeVos and family, the number jumps to 10 members of the committee including Sen. Alexander, himself.

Senators have been bombarded by calls from constituents not to confirm DeVos, but greenbacks apparently talk much louder than our fragile excuse-for-a-Democracy.

However, two GOP members of the committee said that their votes today do not necessarily guarantee support on the final vote.

Sen. Susan Collins, (R-ME) and Sen. Murkowski said they were approving DeVos out of deference to Donald Trump. In effect, the President can nominate whomever he likes, and the Senate should vote on it.

Both Collins and Murkowski said they’re still concerned about DeVos’ seeming lack of commitment to enforce laws protecting disabled students and other policies.

 

“I would advise she not yet count on my vote,” Murkowski said.

 

The Senate, just like the HELP Committee, is controlled by Republicans. DeVos is only another party line vote away from becoming Secretary of Education.

 

It is a position that she has apparently already bought and paid for.

 

Along with her deep ignorance and antipathy toward public schools, Democrats object to DeVos’ financial entanglements. She has already agreed to divest herself from more than 100 investments at the urging of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics. However, it is difficult to gauge how deeply she is committed to enterprises that could benefit her financially through her position, if confirmed. It is hard to imagine any other candidate for the position with as many ties to for-profit enterprises potentially biasing decisions that should be made for the benefit of the nation’s children and not personal gain.

 

Meanwhile, the ranking Democrat in the HELP committee, Sen. Patty Murray, (D-WA), claims that DeVos may have plagiarized her written answers to questions asked by her committee.

 

DeVos seems to have nearly quoted a Justice Department press release, a magazine article, federal statutes, and Education Department materials without attribution, seemingly passing them off as her own responses, Murray said.

These are mistakes that would earn a public school student a failing grade. Apparently standards are much lower for government office.

Teachers must have advanced degrees just to preside over a classroom. DeVos will be presiding over the nations schools.

It is next to impossible to claim that her nomination is moving forward based on merit.

Our children will be left vulnerable to the whims of a woman who has no idea what she’s doing and has demonstrated a desire to destroy their schools.

If Republicans (and Democrats) have any spine at all, the time has come to show it. Or else just take your dirty money and shut up.

U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

surprised-kid-investor-050213

Everyone knows U.S. public schools are failing.

Just like everyone knows you should never wake sleepwalkers, bulls hate red and Napoleon was short.

Wrong on all counts. Waking sleepwalkers will cause them no harm – in fact, they’re more likely to harm themselves while sleepwalking. Bulls are colorblind; they’re attracted to movement. And Napoleon was 5’7”, which was above average height for Frenchman during his lifetime.

So why do we believe that American public schools are doing such a terrible job?

Because far right policymakers have convinced us all that it’s true.

It’s not.

Let me repeat that in no uncertain terms – America’s public schools are NOT failing. They are among the best in the world. Really!

Here’s why: the United States educates everyone. Most other countries do not.

We have made a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home. Heck! We even provide education to children who are here illegally.

That can’t be said of many countries with which we’re often compared – especially countries comparable to the U.S. in size or diversity. So from the get-go, we have an advantage over most of the world.

We define education differently. Though our laws are woefully backward, in practice we look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some.

But that’s not all! We also provide some of the highest quality education you can get in the world! We teach more, help more, achieve more and yet we are criticized more than any system in any country in the world.

TEST SCORES

Critics argue that our scores on international tests don’t justify such a claim. But they’re wrong before you even look at the numbers. They’re comparing apples to pears. You simply can’t compare the United States to countries that leave hundreds of thousands of rural and poor children without any education whatsoever. The Bates Motel may have the softest pillows in town, but it’s immediately disqualified because of the high chance of being murdered in the shower.

No school system of this size anywhere in the world exceeds the United States in providing free access to education for everyone. And that, alone, makes us one of the best.

It doesn’t mean our system is problem free. There are plenty of ways we could improve. We’re still incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas are often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students don’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students. But at least at the very outset what we’re trying to do is better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu.

However, for some people, this will not be enough. They’ll say that despite our high ideals, the quality of what we actually provide our students is low. After all, those international test scores are so low.

First point: it depends on the scores you’re looking at. American elementary and middle school students have improved on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995. They are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something rarely mentioned on the nightly news).

Even on the PISA test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in about 60 countries, US children are far from the bottom of the scale. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’ve always been in the middle for all the decades since they’ve been making these comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

IDEALS AND POVERTY

To some this just demonstrates that our schools have always been mediocre. But again you’re overlooking the consequences of our ideals.

The broader the spectrum of children who take a test, the lower the average score will be. In other words, if only your top students take the test, your average score will be very high. If only your top and middle students take the test, your average score will still be quite high. But if ALL of your students take the test, your average score will be lower.

Now add in poverty. Living in poverty reduces your access to health care, books, early childhood education and many other factors that increase learning throughout your life. Children from poor families are already more than a year behind those of rich parents on the first day of kindergarten. If you only test the wealthiest students, the average test score will probably be quite high. The average score will drop dramatically if you test all of your students.

That’s why many of these countries where the poorest children do not have access to education have higher test scores than the United States. You’re not comparing equals. The United States has the highest child poverty rate in the Western World. And we don’t hide them away. We include them on our tests. That has a major impact on our scores. But talking heads on TV almost always ignore it. They pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s the only way they can use these test scores to “prove” to a gullible audience that America’s schools are failing.

But if you fairly compare education systems and factor in the equal access we provide for all children to an education, our system comes out way on top. We have one of the best systems in the world.

But wait! There’s more!

SPECIAL EDUCATION

Not only does the United States serve all children regardless of academic achievement or poverty. We also serve far more students with disabilities.

Why are there so many special education children in the USA? Because we have a higher standard of living.

A standard pregnancy lasts about 280 days or 40 weeks. However, some mothers give birth to children after only 28 weeks. Two decades ago, these babies would not have survived. Today, they often do. Five years later that child will enter kindergarten and our school system will be responsible for teaching that student to read, write and learn math. In other countries, premature babies have a much lower chance of survival. They don’t survive to become the special education population. So things as diverse as the live-birth rate actually affect average test scores.

Another counterintuitive factor is the suicide rate. In many countries where pressure to perform at the highest levels on standardized tests is extreme, many children are actually driven to suicide. This is especially true in numerous Asian countries with a record of high scores on these international tests. So a higher suicide rate actually increases test scores.

Would you say this makes other countries superior to the United States? Heck no! In fact, just the opposite. I certainly wouldn’t wish more underperforming U.S. students were ending their lives so we could do better on international tests. Nor would I wish that more premature babies died to improve our international standing.

We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some countries these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.

In every public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they are there benefiting from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our non-special education students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.

Of course, most of our special education students are also included in our test scores. Yes, other countries that ignore these children and exclude them from testing get higher scores. But so what? Do you mean to tell me this makes them better? No, it makes them worse.

In many ways, we are the gold standard, not them. They should be emulating us, not the other way around. They should be jealous of the way we prize each other’s humanity. We shouldn’t be salivating at test scores achieved through shunning certain students in favor of others.

CURRICULUM AND STRATIFICATION

But it’s not just who we teach, it’s also what we teach.

Compared to many other countries, U.S. school curriculum is often much wider and varied. Countries that focus only on testing often leave out sciences, arts, literature and humanities.

Unfortunately, the push from policymakers even in the U.S. has been to narrow curriculum to imitate some of the worst practices of our competitors. But in many districts we still strive to create well-rounded graduates and not just good test-takers.

The bottom line: the curriculum at most American schools is more inclusive than that found internationally. We even include societal issues like alcohol and drug abuse prevention, stress reduction and relaxation, and physical fitness programs.

In addition we don’t stratify our children based on academic ability to nearly the same degree as many international schools. We don’t weed out our worst students through middle and high school until only our most capable are left in 12th grade. Nor is college only open to our best and brightest. We make a much greater effort than many other countries to keep this option open to as many students as possible regardless of whether they can afford it or not. The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. Meanwhile, Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, and for the first time minority students are catching up with their white counterparts.

It’s not easy. But it’s something we’re committed to as a nation. And that’s not true around the world.

SIZE MATTERS

Finally, there’s the issue of size. The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 324,450,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools.

It’s much easier to educate fewer children. Even excellent education systems would struggle with our sheer numbers. Small systems often outshine bigger ones. For instance, I might be able to make dinner for my immediate family, but I’d find it much more challenging to prepare a meal for a banquet hall of hundreds. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether smaller nations could handle educating a population as big and diverse as ours without collapsing.

By any fair measure, America’s public education system is simply stunning. But the media perpetuates the myth that we’re failing.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND THE MEDIA

After decades of hearing these falsehoods, the American public is strikingly divided. On a 2011 Gallup poll, parents were asked their opinion of their local school and the public was asked its opinion of schools in general. The results are enlightening. Parents who gave their local school an A grade were at the highest percentage ever (37%) whereas only 1% of respondents rated the nations schools that way. Why the difference? Respondents said it was mostly because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.

Why is education reporting so biased? Part of it is monetary. Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks. And who do you think owns the shrinking media conglomerates? That’s right, many of these same corporations.

But even when journalists want to be fair, it’s difficult for them to get the inside story of how our public schools work. They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Of course there would be a disconnect!

So we’re left with a public education system that should be the envy of the world being portrayed as a loser.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As ever, far right politicians on both sides of the aisle, whether they be Democratic Neoliberals or Republican Tea Partiers, are using falsehoods about our public schools to sell an alternative. They say our public schools are beyond saving and that we need to privatize. They call it school choice but it’s really just an attempt to destroy the system that has so much going for it.

We should strengthen public education not undermine it. We should roll up our sleeves and fix the real problems we have, not invent fake ones.

People act as if “alternative facts” were invented by the Trump administration. Our policymakers have been using them for decades in a libelous and dishonest campaign against our public schools.

They are some of the best in the world – if only people knew it.

Kids Deserve a Quality Education – not the PURSUIT of a Quality Education

dannahwilson2-678x381

On Tuesday, Dannah Wilson, a 17-year-old student in Detroit came to Washington, D.C., with a message for Betsy DeVos, the current nominee for Education Secretary.

She said:

“My four siblings and I have attended 22 schools in search of satisfaction. … A satisfaction that our eyes haven’t seen. A satisfaction that our hearts can only hope for. A satisfaction that has been stolen from me for way too long because of the naive and narrow policies pushed by Betsy DeVos. That Detroit students are denied daily due to the privately institutional lies by Betsy DeVos and her duplicates.”

After three hours of confirmation hearings, DeVos was nowhere to be seen.

Running on only 3 hours of sleep and after waiting for 7 hours to speak with DeVos, Wilson spoke, instead, to people who would listen – a gathering of members of the AFL-CIO.

Her powerful statement was recorded by the members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and posted to their Facebook page where it has gone viral.

As with anything involving unions, skeptics will dismiss the whole thing as a publicity stunt. That the AFT decided to add an annoying musical score to the video will only heighten that skepticism.

However, there is one thing that can’t be denied – Wilson’s sincerity. Her eyes tear up and her voice chokes as she tries to get the words out. You may discount her as a talented actress, but she rings true to me.

Moreover, speaking out in this way is decidedly against her own self interest. She attends Cornerstone Leadership and Business High School, a Detroit private school with a $5,000 annual tuition. Expanding voucher programs likely would reduce the cost of attending her school.

But no. Wilson is firmly against DeVos, who has spent $200 million or more pushing lawmakers in Michigan and throughout the nation to enact vouchers and reduce charter school regulations.

What struck me most was her story of searching for a quality school and being unable to find one.

Corporate school reformers aren’t pushing for quality schools. They’re pushing for choice.

It’s the difference between a right and a freedom.

The Declaration of Independence famously defines “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as “inalienable rights.” As such, it guarantees “Life” and “Liberty” outright, but as to “Happiness” we are only guaranteed “the pursuit” of it.

(Today we recognize certain limitation on both Life and Liberty, but even at its inception, the framers limited our right to Happiness as merely the freedom with which to pursue it.)

There is a similar limitation being made with regard to school choice.

Supporters want students to be able to pick between public and private schools. But that doesn’t mean they have to do anything about ensuring any of these schools actually do a good job at helping kids learn.

It’s a subtle point but one that’s often overlooked.

Parents and children want a quality education. They don’t want choice unless it will lead to that quality education.

If we only guarantee choice, we aren’t giving parents and children what they want and need. In fact, we’re ignoring them in favor of those who would benefit from mere choice – charter and private school operators.

Parents don’t want to have to search through dozens of schools to find one that will actually teach their children. Nor would transferring from school-to-school in a desperate attempt to find one of quality be beneficial to students. No, parents want whichever school their children attend to be excellent.

And once we see that, we see Wilson’s point.

There is no federal right to an education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students with disabilities are provided a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE), but that’s as far as the federal government goes. As it stands, it only applies to certain children who qualify, and even then it is under constant legal challenge and review.

Traditionally the responsibility has fallen to the states through interpretation of the 10th and 14th amendments. Likewise, most states explicitly guarantee an education as part of their individual state constitutions. However, issues of fairness, quality and equity are constantly in doubt.

It’s hard to underestimate how backwards the US is in this regard. According to the Constitute Project, 174 countries include a right to education in their Constitutions – nearly every one included in the available global record. A child’s right to an education is included in international laws like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The latter agreement, the most widely accepted human rights treaty in history, has been ratified by every member of the United Nations except Somalia and the United States.

Policymakers love to demean the US education system in relation to international test scores. It should be noted that almost all of the countries our students are being compared to guarantee their children’s right to be educated.

Instead, we’re trying to avoid any national responsibility. States are trying to limit their responsibility. And school choice legislation is attempting to throw it all on parents without giving them any tools except guaranteed options.

The real issue at the heart of this debate is the value of private vs public systems. Choice advocates say only privatized schools will provide the best schools, but this is demonstrably false.

Many of our public schools are excellent. You’ll find them especially in richer neighborhoods where they spend more per pupil than poorer districts with less local tax revenue to draw upon. Imagine if we committed to fairly funding them all. Imagine if we committed to bringing all of them up to that same standard.

School choice is a shell game meant to district you from this point. If the goal is providing all children with an equal, free, and adequate education, the policies of someone like Betsy DeVos take us in the wrong direction.

They will only lead us to more tears from brave children like Wilson who have to travel far from their homes to confront uncaring would-be Education Secretaries.