Trump’s Education Pick is All about Free Market Parochial Education

Colin Powell Academy in Detroit, Michigan, one of the many schools abandoned since 2009

New Orleans    Doing a little research and realizing that Betsy DeVos, the Michigan-based Republican fundraiser, who is now in line to head the Department of Education, had never attended a public school but only religiously oriented institutions straight through college, made me raise my eyebrows a bit. Reading that in her push towards the disastrous charter-izing of the public school system in recent years in Detroit that she had never actually bothered to meet with any of the stakeholders in education there or visit a public school and interact with teachers, parents, or students, was even more disconcerting. She is not an educational advocate and activist, as she has been billed, but a stone cold ideologue without an iota of concern or compassion for the consequences of her ideology.

I guess the good news is that the federal budget only contributes 8% of the total education budget with 92% coming from local and state sources, so there is at least some limit to the damage she can do. Sadly, that’s small comfort.

I’m not a fan of charter schools and the privatization of public schools. I see enough of it in New Orleans, which now leads the country in the percentage of charter operated schools and is approaching 100% saturation. No small amount of my alienation has been based on their lack of accountability and transparency. In New Orleans we are gradually moving the schools back under the local control of a school board, though elite interests are attempting to extend their sway by dominating the contributions for candidates friendly to their interests, we at least now have a fighting chance at drawing the line and holding feet to the fire.

All reports indicate that DeVos would have none of that in Detroit, and strong armed the state legislature, controlled by Republicans, to prevent any bill from passage that would create any mechanism that hold charter schools accountable even on basic standards of education and fiscal integrity. She adamantly wanted absolutely no controls on the charters. The commission she opposed was even stacked with equal representation from charter and non-charter school leaders, moderated by an education expert, and backed by the twenty largest and best charter operations in Detroit. Not good enough for her. She wanted nothing. Period. The situation is so bad that most of the big charter operators have avoided opening in Detroit and even the Walton Foundation, the biggest moneybag supporter of school charters and privatization, has withdrawn from Detroit because the situation is indefensible. Her view seems to have been little more than laissez-faire, let the buyer beware, and unhappy parents can walk their children out of the schools with their feet.

New national studies, that were possible only because Common Core required at least some standard, national tests, seem to have established that for lower income schools and children the single thing making the most difference is increasing school expenditures. How does a DeVos, who wants to implement expensive vouchers to allow her favored private and parochial schools to flourish while draining taxpayer support for public schools, implement a program that applies that finding? In fact, for an ideologue whose main program is a free-market education, will she allow any standards for our education system at all in the United States?

Everyone understands that we need better schools. The rich ideologues like DeVos seem more committed to chaos, charters, church schools, and a separate but unequal system rather than education at all. The coming years seem destined to teach hard and tragic lessons to the country while committing countless crimes against the nation’s children.


Hard to Win Back Hijacked Schools


New Orleans    One of the ongoing crises of the 21st century thus far has been the struggle to control schools with all sides of this massive political and cultural war pretending and presuming that they are best capable of speaking for children. Schools have been batted about like ping pongs. Some school districts have been taken over by city mayors, Chicago being the best example, and others by the state in Michigan, Arkansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, and elsewhere empowered by the Bush passage of No Child Left Behind. The so-called “charter school” movement has controversially allowed public schools to be run by private companies, some for-profit and some nonprofit, in many districts around the country with various degrees of accountability and a contentious argument over the results. Foundations from Gates to Walmart to Eli Broad and others have put their beaks deeply into the mess funding pilots, lawsuits, and various initiatives to unwind the role of teacher unions. The short conclusion of years of these struggles is undoubtedly that no one has really won, few are happy, and it’s still “god save the child.”

One thing that should be clear though is that two things speak to the foundation blocks of almost everyone’s view of America: free public education and direct election of local officials. The “privatization” of many public schools through the charter “movement” challenges the guarantee of education and the accountability of elections of public officials empowered to hold charters accountable, since they create in often mysterious and opaque ways, a separate governance structure at arms’ length from the voters and taxpayers, more often than not populated by the appointment of friends and family of principals and charter operators. Even more unsettling is the loss of local democratic control of schools when the state takes over a system. Lawsuits are still raging in Little Rock after the state was prodded to take over their system despite the fact that only a couple of schools were failing. Detroit school parents and the district are suing the State of Michigan for mismanaging the system and starving it of resources under its management. The Supreme Court in Kansas has been at loggerheads with the state legislature and governor there for starving the school system of resources.

Then there’s New Orleans, the largest charter pilot in the country in the wake of the state seizure of schools after Katrina from the local school board. Now ten years later with a new Democratic governor in office supported by the teachers’ union, married to a teacher, and not a fan of charter schools and appalled by the poor success rate of the voucher program, there have finally be a flurry of different bills that would return all the schools to the taxpayers and voters of New Orleans. That should be good news, but in these days and times, it’s not so easy to claw back schools once they have been hijacked and pirated away. Close inspection of many of the bills, supposedly returning the schools, finds numerous escape clauses and buried mechanisms seeking to allow many of the charters to ostensibly be part of the school district and under the fiscal and political control of the elected school board, while continuing to be totally unaccountable. The bill being reported as closest to passage trickles the schools back almost on a trial basis with ten the first year and then more over several years until they are all returned to local control.

At the hearing a spokesperson for one of the larger charters, Firstline, wanted to make sure they could go back to state control if somehow “things didn’t work out.” The unbridled arrogance of entitlement and contempt for the democratic process of local school control and the property tax dollars of local citizens that pay the bills won’t be so quickly ended given the fact that the tug of war on even our most basic principles is still raging. Where people simply ought to be ashamed of themselves, they have ridden the high horse so far and long over the last ten years that they have lost sight of any solid ground where they might have stood. Meanwhile politicians, currying contributions and favor, join in the conspiracy to coopt the process without a shed of embarrassment either.


Are “Gifted” Classes a Discriminatory Gift Themselves?

gifted_kidsNew Orleans   The financial crisis gripping the state government of Louisiana due to the oil pricing collapse and the ideological bondage of former Governor Bobby Jindal to the worst of Republican “no tax/ small government” philosophy, has forced an interesting conflict over the funding of special gifted programs in New Orleans schools. The few lucky schools that received the premium funding are now facing reductions that would equalize the support for the gifted with other special education programs desperately needing the money for the severely impaired. Don’t stop reading just because that seems more than fair on the face of it. Several of the schools are suing at the supposed injustice of the new equalization formula which is widely supported by what would seem to be almost everyone including both district superintendents, the charter school association, and virtually all of the school principals, but two of the more favored schools through the old formula are suing with the implicit support of the other two school beneficiaries.

You might ask why these “gifted” schools and programs are so often on both edges of the sword, lavishly favored by state legislators historically, and roundly isolated from their peers as blindly entitled and by critics as flatly discriminatory.

An interesting piece by Professor Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan in The New York Times detailed an program developed by the school district in Broward County, Florida which directly addressed the problem of why gifted programs were always so skewed racially to favor white and Asian students even when the population of the districts was overwhelmingly African-American. Broward introduced “a universal screening program, requiring that all second graders take a short nonverbal test, with high scorers referred for I.Q. testing.” Professor Dynarski reports that the number of Hispanic and African-American children tabbed as gifted tripled. The numbers were still surprisingly low it seems to me, 6% for Hispanics and 3% for African-Americans, but progress is progress.

And, what was the previous system in Broward that this referral process replaced? It was the same system that exists virtually everywhere: recommendations from parents and teachers. Parents of course are inveterate cheerleaders and rightly so, but that’s if they even know there is such a program, and it has benefits, which the vast majority of black and Hispanic parents may not realize. Sadly, Broward ran out of money for the district-wide screening system, and the numbers predictably fell to what they had been previously. When they tried to reboot with a modified program the results have not been as outstanding. 8% of whites qualify for gifted which is now twice the rate for Hispanics and four times the rates for African-Americans. There are also loopholes allowing parents to independently pay for I.Q. tests to qualify their children at $1000 a pop.

The role of parents as elite, entitled, and invariably white is a sore rubbing raw this discontent in many public school districts largely abandoned by just that demographic as they helicopter in and out of the districts to cherry pick special programs while others without a choice are forced, regular or special, to simply take what’s on offer. The circle closes where it starts. More funding is triggered by clearer and more active voices in legislators’ ears that primes disproportionate cash into gifted programs, and the programs are resisted in the trenches for the same reasons of entitlement, elitism, and discrimination hovering around such schools.

The irony, other researchers have found, is that since gifted programs use the same teachers and curriculum as the rest of the district, there is little difference in educational achievement for the gifted, but because the numbers are so low overall, the rest of the students who populate the classes to fill the room with the gifted, make huge progress in both performance and self-esteem.

Makes you want to weep doesn’t it?


Walker Lawsuit is a New Tool in Overturning School Takeovers


Walker’s exhibits also include photos illustrating the poor condition of schools in distress, such as Cloverdale, (above) compared with the sparkling majority-white Roberts Elementary in northwest Little Rock (below), which Newton is demanding be served by a new middle school as well.

Walker's exhibits also include photos illustrating the poor condition of schools in distress, such as Cloverdale, (above) compared with the sparkling majority-white Roberts Elementary in northwest Little Rock, which Newton is demanding be served by a new middle school as well.

Little Rock    John Walker is the dean of civil rights lawyers in Arkansas. He sued to desegregate the Little Rock and Pulaski County School Districts and many more and kept them in court for decades. He’s still practicing and on top of that is now an elected member of the legislature in Arkansas. When the powers-that-be decided to take over the Little Rock School District even though breaking their rules and state guidelines using as the rational that a mere six of the 48 schools in the district were nonperforming, they must have known this was coming, but if they did they were either arrogant, stupid, or both. Walker and the band of dug-in progressives in Arkansas weren’t going to take this usurpation lightly and now the fur is flying and perhaps there is a nationally applicable new tool being forged: Walker’s lawsuit pointedly proves the entire takeover is simply about racial discrimination or re-segregation using charters, if you will.

The heart of the lawsuit is Walker’s contention that after decades of achieving a unitary school district for white and black students, the takeover is simply an effort to turn back the clock. His complaint charges:

This is an action to secure a remedy for the subjecting of black students enrolled in the Little Rock School District [LRSD] to intentional racial discrimination, in the period after courts held that the LRSD had achieved unitary status. This action also seeks a remedy for the state’s takeover of the LRSD and the ouster of the democratically elected LRSD Board of School Directors. Plaintiffs allege that these actions violated the United States Constitution [denial of freedom of speech, prohibited racial discrimination, conspiracy to violate rights, badge of slavery, and denial of due process of law].

Add to that, as an organizer with the former Arkansas ACORN told me in the parking lot, the lawsuit lays bare “the whole power structure of the state” and allows their own dirty work to be fully exposed in this matter. When Walker filed his suit for parents of district children and un-democratically deposed school board members, he included a number of exhibits obtained under the Freedom of Information Act which included emails and various machinations behind the scene to engineer the takeover. Max Brantley, a columnist for the weekly Arkansas Times, details clearly the fingerprints around the neck of the school district by the big whoops:

The [exhibit] is from e-mails in the account of state Board of Education member Jay Barth, a Hendrix professor and Times columnist, who was lobbied by neighbor and friend Marla Johnson, the Aristotle executive who led the Chamber’s takeover team. Though he ultimately voted against the takeover, Barth had some sympathy to the cause and laid out some points of concern in correspondence with Johnson. In these notes, Johnson reveals now-departed Superintendent Dexter Suggs’ apparent willingness to let distressed schools become charter schools, but the school district would continue responsibility for cafeteria and transportation, quite a benefit if an outside charter management group came in.

He suggested a scenario by which he possibly could support takeover. It prompted the response … from Marla Johnson. In her note, Hussman is Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has been a constant critic of the district editorially and has had news columns heavily influenced by his school “reform” ideas. Gary Newton is the leader of two nonprofit organizations, Arkansas Learns and Arkansans for Education for Reform, funded primarily by Walton Family Foundation money. They pay Newton a combined $150,000 and pay tens of thousands more to political consultants who lobby for the Walton agenda at the legislature and elsewhere. Newton is a strident critic of the school district; has helped organize a predominantly white charter middle school in Chenal Valley that skims Little Rock students, and … on Twitter raised the question of adequate legal representation for families in majority white Northwest Little Rock who want a new middle and high school because they don’t want to attend the existing (majority black) schools elsewhere in the city….

The e-mails also include the one … from Michael Pakko an economist at UALR. His note indicates he produced statistics helpful to the takeover movement (in this case about potential reshaping of districts in the county) with guidance from U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Little Rock Republican. (UALR has since announced it would be home to expanded eStem charter school operation that could ultimately take 5,000 students out of the Little Rock School District.) It is addressed to Jay Chesshir, director of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

We all know deep in our hearts that this is what is happening in these school takeovers and suspect race is the crux of it. Rarely, do we get to see so clearly behind the closed doors. This lawsuit and the fight in Little Rock may make it harder for the dismantlers to succeed in the future around the country. It’s worth watching closely.


Please enjoy Neil Young’s Crime in the City.  Thanks to KABF.


Charter School Takeover Success Myth Shattered

charter-schoolNew Orleans    Call it what you may, charterization, privatization, or whatever the opposition of business and other elites to the public education system in the United States has gotten the kind of superficial analysis normally reserved for fashion trends and fall season television shows. The basic analysis is contentious and conducted at the high decibels of yelling voices arguing either that public schools suck, teachers are worthless and greedy, unions are obstacles, or on the other side that schools are suffering from inadequate funding, poor physical plants, and systemic racism that is abandoning many urban districts.

All of which made it a relief to finally see a sober, factual analysis of the largest charter school system experiment in the country that New Orleans has been subjected to in the wake of the post-Katrina takeover of the schools by Andrea Gabor, a professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York published in the New York Times.

Looking at the Recovery School District, as the charter takeover schools were called, Gabor finds that this so-called experiment has meant that the “reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.” Plain English: the charters only look good because they have been allowed to “cook the books.” Gabor quotes one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city saying, “There were pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain” including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.” This is the inevitable result of a system designed to teach to the test to survive. If you aren’t willing or able to educate the children, then get rid of them so that they don’t count against you in the scoring.

What’s going on? Gabor documents the following:

· After schools are taken over by charters, less than a third of the students in the previous school are enrolling.
· “In the decentralized charter system, no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids,” meaning dropout rates are unreliable. An outside agency using Census Data from 2013, “found that over 26000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as ‘disconnected,’ because neither working or in school.”
· Takeover schools that were rated “F” as falling once charterized become “T” for turnaround, and thus are not counted as “failing,” “nor would 16 “D” schools. In fact “40 percent of RSD schools were graded ‘D,’ ‘T’ or ‘F’” in 2013-14.
· Most of charter performance have been “doled out selectively, mostly to pro-charter researchers, and much of the research has been flawed.” She cites a humiliating incident last year when the Cowen Institute had to retract a study claiming that “most New Orleans charters were posting higher-than-expected graduation rates and test scores.” Cowen had been the former head of Tulane University and unabashedly a charter cheerleader, including putting a million of Tulane’s money in a post-Katrina charter that would give preference to the children of professors and employees.
· A Stanford University center claimed progress with a flawed methodology that compared charter school performance to a supposed “twin,” even though there are no non-charter schools in New Orleans now.
· African-American educators argue that “the charter movement won’t have ‘any type of long-term sustainability’ without meaningful participation from the black community,” which in New Orleans is 60% of the city.

It goes on and on, but Gabor’s bottom line is worth remembering:

“For outsiders, the biggest lesson in New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for most students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils”

In a city like New Orleans and many other urban districts throughout the country, the public school system is populated with “disadvantaged pupils” and minorities. Time to stop proselytizing and start educating.


Union Leaders Concerned about Schools, Wages, and Medical Debt



Little Rock    When the forty leaders at the 34th Annual Local 100 Leadership Conference, held this year in Little Rock, were asked how many  of them were carrying medical debt, more than half of the hands in the  room went up.  When asked how many had family, friends, or neighbors  dealing with the burden of medical debt, all of the hands went up!  No  surprise that there was enthusiasm for Local 100’s twin initiatives of establishing citizen wealth centers and launching a campaign in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas around hospital accountability to provide  charity care and financial assistance.

Citizen Wealth workshop

Citizen Wealth workshop

There were some interesting surprises though.   In a plenary discussion of  the union’s partnerships and initiatives in campaigning for living wages  for state workers, school workers, and all of our workers with different  strategies, mentioning that many of the union’s struggles were with charter schools triggered an impromptu discussion and deep criticism of  charter schools from leaders throughout our geography.  Many repeated the promises that had led them to enroll their children in charters in their search for the best for their kids, but it was almost tragic to listen to the profound disappointment they felt with the results. In one case the lost year seemed a setback in math and science that had led a promising child to remedial work in a community college now.  In another case, fleeing the charter disaster meant two months out of school waiting for a place to open back up in a former school. The disillusionment with young, inexperienced teachers and a constant churning of the staff was also acute.  Many of Local 100’s leaders had drunk the Kool-Aid and were now spitting it up, which augurs poorly for the future of charters.




The discussion got back eventually to the recent victory in Houston  Independent Schools where on a 6-1 vote we won a starting wage of $10 per hour for all employees. The union is now targeting a special effort for the cafeteria workers to increase hours, since even with the raise, they are not getting enough hours to equal a living wage.In Arkansas we have identified 900 state workers under $10 and are making headway there.  Neil Sealy, the executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, joined the discussion with us as a partner along with KABF radio on this campaign.  He reported on ACORN’s victory for Pine Bluff city and contract workers where wages are over $12 now thanks to a city referendum several years ago.  Dallas indicated that they had identified 1000 workers making less than $13 per hour in the schools there that they are targeting.

President Henrietta Collins

President Henrietta Collins

Before the end of the meeting there was a union wide commitment to see if the new NLRB rules on quicker elections will make a difference.  Nursing home workers in Arkansas seem to be stirring, and the union is looking at whether this might be a good test.

Anytime a meeting ends with a dinner that includes catfish fried in front of us, tender beef brisket, and homemade peach cobbler, you know you are in Arkansas and you know it was a good meeting!

Leadership Conference Participants

Leadership Conference Participants