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

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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.

Did AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

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I have nothing against Hillary Clinton.

Heck! I might even vote for her in the coming Presidential race. Maybe…

But the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsement of the former First Lady is strange in many ways.

First, it’s awfully early. The initial Democratic primaries aren’t scheduled for half a year yet – February of 2016 to be exact. And the general election isn’t until Nov. 8, 2016 – more than a year away.

Second, the manner in which this endorsement was reached is somewhat mysterious.

This much seems certain:

1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.

2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

4) NOW the interviews are scheduled to be released to the public.

This is a perplexing timetable. Why would the AFT endorse BEFORE releasing the interviews? Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?

Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?

According to the AFT press release, they were:

The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.

Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.

So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.

But did they really?

Clinton may be the Democratic frontrunner, but she isn’t a favorite for a lot of teachers. Chiefly this is because her education positions are not that great. Sure, she’s better than every Republican running so far. But she has stiff competition in the Democratic field – especially from Sanders.

If Clinton had come out against Common Core, standardized testing and using student test scores to evaluate teachers effectiveness, I wouldn’t question the AFT’s endorsement at all. But she has been rather supportive of these issues – just like our current President, Barack Obama.

Teachers are fed up with Obama’s education policies. Why would they overwhelmingly endorse someone for President who seems bound and determined to continue them?

So I hope I’ll be excused if I ask for a bit more proof than a press release.

Where exactly are the polls, surveys, etc. that show the Clinton support AFT leadership claims?

For instance, which polls produced which results? The press release says AFT members prefer Clinton 3-1. But even if Clinton came out on top consistently, surely the results weren’t identical on every poll. Maybe she got 75% on one and 65% on another.

The AFT hasn’t released everything, but the organization’s website gives us a memo about ONE of these phone surveys. This national survey of membership planning to vote in Democratic primaries found 67% picked Clinton. However, only 1,150 members participated! That’s a far cry from the more than 1 million cited in the press release.

Moreover, there is no mention of what questions were asked. For instance, there is a world of difference between “Who would make the best President?” and “Who is most electable?” Is it possible there was selection bias present in the questions used to make this determination?

But that’s only one survey. Where is the rest of the data? Where is the raw information from this survey? Where is the data from all these other outreach attempts and on-line activities? How many took phone surveys? How many took on-line surveys? And what were the results in each case?

If union members really did endorse Clinton, that’s fine. But many of us would like to see the proof.

I’m not a member of the AFT, but I’m on the mailing list. I never received any survey.

A lot of my friends are AFT members, but none of them recall any survey.

As a member of numerous education and teaching groups, I know of no one else who admits to being polled either. In fact, I haven’t been able to find ANYONE who was polled on this issue!

I admit that’s not exactly scientific. But that’s why I want to see the data! Blind me with science, AFT!

I believe in teachers. I believe in Unions. I believe in Democracy.

Please release the raw data, AFT, so I can believe in this endorsement, too.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.