Q&A: Pulling Back the Curtain on Education Philanthropy

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 21, 2016.

Private foundations give millions of dollars to public education every year, but these powerful institutions typically operate behind a curtain of secrecy. In a new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, University of Michigan public policy professor Megan Tompkins-Stange sheds new light on the role philanthropy plays in public education, particularly in the arena of charter schools and other market-based reforms. 

Tompkins-Stange spent five years conducting confidential interviews with foundation insiders at the Ford Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Analyzing their diverse, and sometimes competing, approaches to grant-giving, she raises important questions about the influence that philanthropic interests wield in American education and public life. This is an edited transcript of that interview.

Rachel Cohen: You chose to dive into a controversial topic—education reform. What kind of feedback has your book received?

Megan Tompkins-Stange: Honestly I was really scared building up to the book’s release date, especially since I am a junior scholar. For months I was like, what am I doing? Why did I decide to do this? I was terrified. But honestly, most of the response to the book has been really supportive and positive, including from the foundations. I still haven’t heard anything from the Broad Foundation, but I’ve also heard from retired teachers, and people who experienced some of the politics first-hand.

One major critique I’ve received is that I’m not vocal enough about whether philanthropic giving is good or bad. But I did this intentionally—I wanted it to be accepted as an academic and empirical book, as opposed to a piece of advocacy. I’ve taken a more critical stance in the press though, I’m now more comfortable to do so.

Your book talks about the secrecy of foundations. Can you say more?

Foundations are private nonprofit corporations. There’s very little they have to do in order to be accountable to the public. They publish their tax forms, they have their 990s. They’ve established some professional norms over the past 50 years, so many will publish their grants in a database, or put out annual reports. That’s more just good practice, though. Foundations don’t have boards that are democratically accountable, and they are very private by nature of their organizational form. They don’t have to talk to anyone.

Of course, the argument that comes up again and again is, well is that a good thing? That’s a debate that’s gone on for many years. My position is that foundations need to be much more legally accountable. They have enough power in the public realm that they need to be held to some accountability procedures beyond the ones they institute on their own. That could be a formal mechanism, or creating space for people to weigh in on efforts they’re pushing that will impact the public at large. They could have boards with some kind of public member component, or make some investments subject to an external review.

People often lump the Gates and Broad Foundations together, but you explore some differences between these two education reform-friendly foundations.

Eli Broad is the only person to have founded two Fortune 500 companies, and part of his theory of change is about getting the right people into the right positions. So Broad focuses on pipelines: training superintendents, creating leadership positions for individuals to then shape school districts. He very intentionally talks about “venture philanthropy” and having “dramatic results” and creating “transformative breakthroughs.” The Broad Foundation moves unapologetically with urgency; that is their core value.

Gates is a little more skittish about where the public stands on them, they’re more careful. They have legions of lawyers who work to make sure their advocacy doesn’t cross any line. The Gates Foundation also has a sense of urgency, but they’ve always been a bit more cautious. Some people say this may be due to some things Microsoft went through with antitrust—Bill Gates has always just been much more public and attracts more criticism and critique than Eli Broad.

Many supporters of the Common Core insist that the standards originated from the states, not the federal government. Your book recounts the many ways in which they were actually pushed forward by the Gates Foundation, on both the state and the federal level.

Gates was very much about building up the power at the state and local level, and then bringing in the federal government. That was their strategy, and the main way they did that was by getting all the governors on board in ’08 and ’09. Gates made huge grants to The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association designed to build political will.

The grants were basically for instituting standards, educating the public, and research. It was all very above-board, but they really played that convener role to get everyone on the same page. Their strategy was to give money to elites to move the effort efficiently and quickly.

HistPhil, a blog about the history of philanthropy, hosts debates about what’s changed in the modern landscape of philanthropic giving. Your book describes some shifts in education philanthropy over the past few decades. What do you think has changed?

HistPhil is such a valuable website, I really appreciate the role that they’ve taken in advancing the conversation and bringing it back to history. There’s a tendency in political discussions about philanthropy to argue that today is the biggest it’s ever been. The truth is that foundations have been really powerful for more than a century; if you look back at some of the press from the 1920s and 1930s, there are very similar arguments being made about the influence of the Rockefellers.

All that’s old is new again. I think that what’s changed is that people today are more concerned about the size of foundations. It’s the first time in many decades we’ve seen foundations that are in excess of a billion dollars, and the growth of their assets has also grown significantly. The presence of market-based values and the influences of neoliberalism over the past 30 years is a big deal, too. People tend to get hyperbolic because there are wealthy people in tech and business who are more assertive in ways that foundations haven’t been in the past.

Your book suggests “evidenced-based” policies are often far less rigorous, and far more political, than their proponents suggest.

Right, what is evidence? I’m working on a book proposal now with [political scientist] Sarah Reckhow about teacher quality debates. We look at the new industry of advocacy research, and its influence on policy discussions. So many ideological arguments have the veneer of neutrality confirmed by the label “evidenced-based.”

We’re in the midst of a presidential election that actually has a significant focus on philanthropy. Both Clinton and Trump have foundations, and particularly the Clinton Foundation’s influence is regularly in the media. Do you see this having any import for the education philanthropy conversation?

It’s an interesting question because the broad public doesn’t really know what a foundation is, or what it does. Clinton’s foundation doesn’t make that many grants, it’s more like brokering and convening. I teach a class on philanthropy and I start by asking my class “what is the foundation you most admire?” Students will say things like the Salvation Army. Most people really conflate foundations and public charities, and there’s not a real understanding of who gives the money and who does the work on the ground. There’s a real lack of knowledge about what power these different groups have, which also carries implications for our democracy.

The national conversation around inequality has grown far more pronounced. Has this impacted the public’s focus on philanthropy?

That was fascinating for me. Literally I kept having to add things to the book as we were going to press. ESSA passed, Bernie Sanders became a real viable candidate. I think people are starting to realize that philanthropy is inextricably linked to an unequal society. You can’t have philanthropy without having some people who have a lot more than others.



How Cops Have Turned Baltimore into a Surveillance State

Originally published in VICE on September 13, 2016.

Somehow, the policing nightmare in Baltimore keeps getting worse.

In July, charges were dropped against all the officers responsible for 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death, a massive defeat for police accountability in a city crying out for it. Just weeks later, the feds released a scathing report finding Baltimore cops engaged in systematic racism and callousness towards victims of sexual assault. And perhaps most spectacular of all, a magazine story late last month revealed cops have been running a secret aerial surveillance program in city skies.

All of which is to say that just as cynical and frustrated residents began to plot the long road to reform in a city wracked by gun violence and shady policing, experts and reform advocates now find themselves at a loss to explain how one city is wrapped up in just about every kind of police excess there is.

The aerial surveillance program consists chiefly of flying planes over 8,000 feet in the air and gathering video footage across a roughly 30 square mile radius, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The program was funded secretly by Texas billionaires, Laura and John Arnold, who say they are looking to support new tools that can help police departments more effectively solve crime. The planes have flown about 300 hours in Baltimore since January.

For its part, the police department denies that officers have done anything wrong, or that the planes even amount to a form of surveillance. TJ Smith, media relations chief for the Baltimore Police Department, told VICE the aerial program “doesn’t infringe on privacy rights” because it captures images available in public spaces. “We do not feel like citizen’s rights were violated because they weren’t,” he said. “This phase is a trial run to see if this is technology would be useful in the city of Baltimore. We are constantly searching for creative ways to solve crime in a city that saw 344 murders in 2015.”

An evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, also funded by the Arnolds, is expected to come out later this month.

Meanwhile, last week, in the final days available for public comment on the feds’ scathing appraisal of Baltimore cops—the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings hosted a town hall for residents to share their thoughts on police reform. Michael Wood, a former city cop turned reform activist, attended, and while he expected racism to be at the top of the list, the surveillance bombshell was clearly overwhelming residents, too.

“I haven’t spoken to a person who isn’t furious,” Wood told VICE of revelations about the program.

Remarkably, the mayor and the city council were both unaware of the surveillance experiment’s very existence, namely because it was funded secretly through a local foundation. The foundation’s leadership have claimed they did not realize what the Arnolds’ money was going towards, and in a statement, Laura Gamble, board chair, and Thomas Wilcox, the foundation’s president and CEO, said they have “learned valuable lessons from this experience.”

Baltimore public defenders were also kept in the dark, and argue that police and prosecutors’ failure to disclose—in court documents—when video footage came from aerial surveillance is a serious problem. Defenders have called for a suspension of the program.

Meanwhile, state and local politicians are looking at legislative responses to the city’s latest police scandal. At the next session, Curt Anderson, the head of Baltimore’s delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, is considering introducing surveillance regulations that would apply to all Maryland police departments. He told the Baltimore Sun that lawmakers need to figure out “how and where [footage] would be used, where you keep the information, how much it would cost to store that information, and how much it would cost someone if they made a request for that information.” On the local level, the ACLU of Maryland plans to craft legislation for someone on the Baltimore City Council to sponsor, which would limit the scope of police surveillance and/or increase the level of civilian oversight.

Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California Davis who specializes in policing and technology, told me that while police secrecy is nothing new, the kind of dragnet surveillance that Baltimore has engaged in—where officers aren’t necessarily looking for one particular person, or conducting a specific investigation—raises serious political issues. “You need to balance some legitimate police needs with the idea that police may just have too much information on innocent people,” Joh said. “And that’s a real struggle for people in a democracy to figure out. Police can go as far as they want, but what do communities want?”

Baltimore police officials maintain the aerial surveillance program is just an extension of CitiWatch, its street-level closed circuit television system. But according to Anne McKenna, a visiting law professor at Penn State University and a national expert on technology and surveillance, the “breadth and scope” of Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program raises new questions that are nowhere near settled in case law. And when you take the department’s reported aggregation of social media posts, overlay it with aerial surveillance and closed circuit TV footage, “Well, you’ve really created Big Brother,” McKenna said.

But Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, actually sees the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, who took over not long after Gray’s death, as someone who genuinely understands the importance of reform. Which makes the surveillance revelations all the more surprising. “It seemed completely contradictory to the actions we’ve seen Commissioner Davis take,” Huffman told VICE.

Baltimore, of course, is continuing to struggle with gun violence—the Sun reports there have been 215 homicides already this year, and the police’s clearance rate for solving murder cases has tended to be dreadfully low. But the connection between aerial oversight and catching violent criminals isn’t always so clean-cut.

“I think what is alarming—and I think it’s fair to say uniquely alarming about what we’ve seen going on in Baltimore—is there’s been a massive investment of resources to monitor speech and protest,” said Lee Rowland, the Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Exercising your First Amendment right is not probable cause, it’s not reason for suspicion. That the police would be directing their investigative resources to fly over protests or spend their days on Facebook looking for speech when there’s been no complaint or evidence of a crime, that is a use of power we should call out as wrong.”

Challenges remain for Baltimore residents, as the deadline for a consent decree with the Department of Justice draws near and opposition from the police union looms large. But most glaring of all to some observers is the fact that the police department continues to argue that tracking social media and conducting aerial surveillance shouldn’t even bother people.

“The community’s reaction to the surveillance helps to underscore just how fractured the relationship is, just how deep the distrust, the resentment, the suspicions run,” said Huffman. “The community is in a position where transparency is the order of the day.”

What The Texas Ruling Means for Fair Housing

Originally published in Next City on September 9, 2016.

Fair housing advocates scored a major victory in 2015 when the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “disparate impact” standard, a legal theory that says individuals can allege housing discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act without having to prove that someone intentionally sought to discriminate. The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Dallas-based nonprofit, had argued in court that the Texas Department of Housing awarded its low-income housing tax credits in a way that perpetuated segregation, concentrating affordable housing in black neighborhoods with high poverty.

Lost amid the excitement of the nation’s highest court reiterating the aims of the Fair Housing Act, a law passed in 1968 that bars housing discrimination and requires recipients of federal funds to promote housing integration, was that ICP’s original case got sent back to a lower court for review. Two weeks ago, a district judge in Texas issued a new ruling for this case, finding that ICP failed to prove housing discrimination under the disparate impact theory. Their case has been dismissed, and they have not yet decided if they’ll appeal.

Fair housing disparate impact cases are fairly rare, and also hard to win. Stacy Seicshnaydre, a professor at Tulane University Law School, has analyzed the history of disparate impact claims brought under the Fair Housing Act. She found that plaintiffs were successful in only 20 percent of their cases on appeal, a notably low rate.

Seicshnaydre says that disparate impact cases under the Fair Housing Act are just generally more expensive and difficult, compared to other kinds of suits. They tend to require more outside expertise, for example, since one has to include a statistical analysis demonstrating there have been disparities.

“A Supreme Court decision eliminating the disparate impact theory would have been a huge setback,” says Seicshnaydre. “The fact that the district court decided the ICP didn’t prove its case is disappointing, but it doesn’t have the same impact that a Supreme Court decision would have had. Disparate impact theory is still recognized as a good theory, so I think that’s still an incredibly favorable result for the fair housing movement.”

Indeed, the past year and a half has brought about a host of additional gains for integration advocates. Just before the Supreme Court released its decision in 2015, Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz released a study illustrating the connections between one’s geography and economic mobility. The researchers analyzed which counties were the worst for facilitating upward mobility, demonstrating how opportunity is significantly impacted by where a person grows up. Research released this spring by Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, found additional evidence to support the idea that moving poor children into higher-opportunity neighborhoods carries long-term benefits for them as adults.

The federal government has also stepped up its efforts to promote fair housing. Following the Supreme Court decision, HUD released a new federal rule to provide communities with the supports they need to meet their fair housing obligations. They have since pushed for historic fair housing settlements in places like Maryland and Minnesota, emphasizing the need to affirmatively integrate housing under the Fair Housing Act.

“These efforts and events are having an impact. They’re encouraging, and sometimes forcing, communities to grapple with difficult, entrenched issues that were decades in the making,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Much more scrutiny is being given to where and how affordable housing is developed.”

There have also been notable improvements in Texas since ICP first brought its original suit. The state agency revised its process for allocating housing tax credits, now offering greater rewards to developers seeking to build in higher-income areas. Some recalcitrant towns have presented challenges, but in Dallas, a housing committee on the city council has been working on a plan to expand affordable housing units throughout the city, as part of a major effort to write the city’s first-ever housing policy. The Dallas Morning News editorial board recently praised these efforts to create more mixed-income neighborhoods, saying this carries “the potential to make Dallas a more equitable city for all of its residents.” The committee’s proposals should head to the full city council as soon as next month.

Ultimately, to achieve fair housing, Yentel says we’ll need greater investment in programs like the National Housing Trust Fund and Section 8 vouchers, in order to expand access to affordable housing, while also revitalizing distressed areas. “Realizing fair housing means providing low-income people with genuine choices about where to live,” she says. “And that requires that we work towards making every community one of opportunity.”

The National Labor Relations Board Says Charter School Teachers Are Private Employees

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 8, 2016

The National Labor Relations Board issued a pair of decisions in late August, which ruled that teachers at charter schools are private employees, therefore falling under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. The cases centered on two schools with teachers vying for union representation: PA Virtual Charter School, a statewide cyber charter in Pennsylvania, and Hyde Leadership Charter School, located in Brooklyn. In both cases, the NLRB concluded that the charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB determined that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, as governments provide the funding but do not originate or control the schools.

For Donna Novicki, a seventh grade science teacher at PA Virtual, the NLRB’s decision signaled that her long wait for a union had finally neared its end. Novicki and her colleagues voted to unionize in March of 2015, but her school challenged the NLRB’s jurisdiction, and the case has been under the board’s review ever since. The votes, which were impounded after PA Virtual challenged the election, were finally counted yesterday, and the teachers voted for unionization by a 57-to-15 margin.

Novicki has been teaching for 17 years, in both charters and traditional brick-and-mortar schools. This marks her 12th year at PA Virtual. “The teachers at PA Virtual are an amazingly dedicated force,” she says. “But we work longer hours, we work more days, we carry greater student case-loads, and after all that, we get paid less than our traditional counterparts. We’re hoping for a union to better meet that compromise with the end goal of greater student success.”

The NLRB’s decisions came amidst fierce ongoing debates over whether charters are truly public schools, or tools to privatize education. Unions and charter critics say charters are happy to be “public” when it affords them state and federal dollars, but claim they are private when seeking to hide from public oversight, or to opt out of rules applicable to those in the public sector. Advocates defend charters as public schools, saying they are open to all students, free to attend, and funded by taxpayers.

To understand the significance of these recent NLRB decisions, one has to go back a few years.

In 2010, charter teachers at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy (CMSA) filed for union representation with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. CMSA responded by saying its teachers fell under the purview of the NLRB, because their school was a privately incorporated nonprofit, governed by a corporate board. While the regional NLRB director initially dismissed CSMA’s challenge, the national labor board agreed to review the case. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the most prominent national charter advocacy organization, filed an amicus brief in support of CSMA’s position, arguing that “charter schools are intended to be and usually are run by corporate entities that are administered independently from the state and local governments in which they operate.”

In a 1971 Supreme Court case, NLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, the justices deemed Hawkins County a “political subdivision”—and therefore public—by looking to see if it was created directly by the state, or administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate. The NLRB applied this same “Hawkins test” to the CMSA charter, and concluded in 2012 that CMSA was not a political subdivision, and thus private. While advocates sometimes say that charters’ public nature is evidenced in part by their need to comply with various laws and regulations enacted by public officials, the NLRB concluded that most government contractors are “subject to exacting oversight in the form of statutes, regulations, and agreements.”

Since 2012, the landscape has remained fairly murky for charter teachers looking to organize; charter operators have challenged the jurisdiction of both public labor boards and the NLRB, depending on which their staff is petitioning for the right to unionize.

In April 2014, teachers at the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School—a different, but similarly named virtual charter—voted for union representation. (This school has gained notoriety because its founder and former CEO was accused and finally pleaded guilty to $8 million in tax fraud.) While Pennsylvania Cyber challenged its staff’s attempt to unionize with the NLRB, the regional director dismissed management’s challenge, citing the 2012 CMSA case as precedent.

Two months later, though, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, saying that President Obama’s recess appointments of three members of the NLRB were unconstitutional. This ruling called into question hundreds of decisions the labor board had recently made, including their 2012 decision related to charter school employees.

A year later, when Novicki and her PA Virtual colleagues voted for union representation, the NLRB decided not to dismiss the employer’s challenge, as it had dismissed the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School’s challenge in 2014. In New York City, another charter case was also being reviewed; this time the teachers had tried to unionize with New York’s public labor board, and their employer, Hyde Leadership Charter School, argued that the teachers should be covered under private labor law instead. With the board’s ruling in CMSA undercut by the Court’s decision in Noel Canning, the board was returning to the question of the status of charter schools.

“The NLRB really took its time on Hyde,” says Shaun Richman, a campaign consultant who writes on labor issues, and the director of the AFT’s charter organizing program from 2010-2015. “I think that’s because the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy precedent was vulnerable to procedural challenges and they wanted to be very clear about how they are going to rule on most charter cases. As an organizer that clarity is helpful.”

The New York teachers union fought against classifying educators as private employees, but as organizing charter schools continues to grow as a priority, the NLRB’s recent decisions offer unions some advantages. In recent years, states with anti-union Republican legislators, like Wisconsin, have significantly weakened the power of public-sector workers to collectively bargain. Under federal labor law, as long as a Democrat remains in the White House, a teacher’s right to organize is more likely to be protected.

Richman says he loves the recent NLRB decisions because they force people to ask tough questions. “Charter schools were designed to be public but at a very fundamental level they are not public,” he says. “There are very critical errors in the way the laws are designed. They decided to make these things be nonprofit corporations, and almost all the problems with charter schools flow from that essential, unnecessary decision. You want a school with autonomy over its pedagogy and hiring? There’s no reason to make it a separate corporation.”

Going forward, challenges to charter unions are likely to be resolved faster for two reasons: There are now additional NLRB precedents, meaning there is less ambiguity as to how charter teachers should be classified. (Employers can still challenge the NLRB’s jurisdiction at any point during the election process, but there’s a greater likelihood that their claims will now be dismissed.) And in April of 2015, the NLRB adopted new rules to expedite the time it takes to hold an election, while also reducing the number of ways an employer could challenge a union effort. Teachers at both Hyde and PA Virtual had voted for union representation prior to these rules going into effect, but teachers seeking unionization in future campaigns may look forward to having an easier time of it.

The Afrocentric Education Crisis

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 2nd, 2016.

Growing up in the 1960s, Bernida Thompson always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Attending high school and college during the civil-rights movement and the Black Power days, she says her dream was to work some day at an African-centered school. “A school for black children to learn who they are, where they are, what they must to do liberate themselves and their people to be successful in the world,” she explains.

After graduating college and getting a master’s, she taught in public and Catholic schools for a decade, all the while developing her own curriculum for the school she dreamed of one day opening. That day came in 1977, when Thompson became the founding principal of Roots Activity Learning Center—a private school in Washington, D.C., designed to “serve the specific needs of children of African heritage.” She served as its principal from 1977 to 1999.

Such schools began cropping up in black communities around the country, but their birthplace is widely recognized to be Washington, D.C. The first full-time independent African school—Ujamaa—opened up in 1968, founded by one of the organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a graduate of Howard Law School. Four Howard student activists founded NationHouse in 1974. And three years later came Roots.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but those working within the field say African-centered schools peaked at around 400 in 1999, and have been on the decline ever since. When charter schools first emerged in the 1990s, some private school leaders decided to convert their African-centered institutions into charters, sacrificing their independent status in exchange for the increased financial stability that comes from receiving state and federal dollars.

Today, however, many Afrocentric charter schools are being shut down for poor academic performance and financial mismanagement.

“The [charter] rules and regulations get worse and worse every year,” says Thompson, who opened up an Afrocentric charter in 1999—Roots Public Charter School—but didn’t close down her private school, as many others did. “First they lead you on and tell you can just do your thing. But that was a come-on, and every year they’ve got more bureaucratic red tape.”

The remaining Afrocentric private schools have also suffered, as families left for less expensive charters. While Roots Activity Learning Center offered schooling from infancy up until the eighth grade, and always had a waiting list, Thompson says enrollment demand has dropped significantly over the past decade. It has become so difficult to attract students that this past school year Roots Activity Learning Center had fewer than ten students of elementary age, forcing the school to announce that it will provide only preschool education.

Conditions are similarly stressful for the Afrocentric public charter schools that still exist, which now face steep competition from all the other charter networks families can choose from. Two years ago, Roots Public Charter School had to shut down three grades due to decreased enrollment demand, switching from a K-8 school to a K-5 school. “When you haven’t had choices all your life and all of a sudden you have 85 different choices, you walk away from your culture and heritage,” Thompson says of the families that aren’t choosing her school.


Credit: Rachel M. Cohen


WHILE THE RISE OF charter schools may once have seemed a blessing to champions of Afrocentric education, it has brought with it a host of problems. Public charters’ emphasis on standardized testing has jeopardized the standing and existence of numerous Afrocentric schools. A number of non-Afrocentric large charter chains have also taken to defending their overwhelmingly black schools as “culturally affirming” and “ethnocentric” even though their curricula aren’t Afrocentric at all. In these schools, their critics allege, “culturally affirming” is really just a cover for segregation.

Afrocentric education is not just about teaching African American history and culture, but also about centering the school’s pedagogy and curriculum on what its advocates term the values and traditions of African people. It was created, Molefi Asante, chair of Temple University’s African American Studies department, tells me, to challenge the “Eurocentric” hegemony of American public education. (Afrocentricity, Asante’s 1980 volume, is widely regarded as the bible of the Afrocentric school movement; Thompson says everyone on staff at her schools read his work.)

“The African American child must not be renters of Eurocentric information, they must be owners,” Asante says. “They have to be owners of math, owners of language arts, owners of geography.” When teaching biology, for instance, an Afrocentric school would want to connect it to Ernest Just, a pioneering black biologist who recognized the role of the cell surface in the development of organisms. “This way, the children immediately feels kinship to the subject, the child is not outside biology, biology becomes part of the child’s experience,” Asante says.

In his view, the cost of not centering Africa for an African American student is great. “If we don’t, then our children don’t have the kind of aspiration, the kind of attention and discipline that is necessary for them to advance in society,” Asante tells me. “They will learn, because children are bright, but they will not have the kind of attachment to a subject that is necessary.”

“People want to know why the children are so angry in the streets of D.C.—well, they don’t know who they are!” says Thompson. “They don’t know the power within their genes! They don’t understand that they are the chosen people; they don’t understand that, they don’t know that. They are in poverty, their parents don’t know that, and they need schools to help them know that.”

Thompson says her two schools—both the private school and the public charter—are committed to Afrocentricity, a model, she believes, that instills confidence and resilience.

ALTHOUGH MANY AFROCENTRIC private schools transitioned into charters, Afrocentric school leaders have had shaky relationships with leaders in the so-called education reform movement, particularly those who are dogged about test-based accountability.

“In my frame of reference, educational reform is taking children of African heritage and teaching them who they are, where they are, and what they must do to liberate themselves and their people,” says Thompson. “But education reform to the status quo is totally bogus. They want everyone to take the same tests, and hold them to the same set of standards—like the Common Core standards—and want to measure everyone by the same yardsticks. That’s ridiculous.”

Many Afrocentric school leaders have grown increasingly frustrated by the expectations that they will meet certain annual student achievement benchmarks; they say these demands encroach on the autonomy they were promised originally by the charter movement, and that their curricular creativity and freedom is inhibited.

Earlier this year, five scholars published a research study looking at Afrocentric charter school student performance based on statewide standardized tests. The researchers found that only 34 percent of those schools identified for the study achieved or exceeded statewide standards. They concluded that increased attention to testing is “paramount to greater acceptance and public legitimacy” of Afrocentric charters.

Indeed, low-test scores have led to the closure of many Afrocentric charter schools across the country. Imani Education Circle Charter School, one of the oldest charters in Philadelphia, closed permanently in June, after local officials revoked its charter for poor academic and financial performance. Imani joins other Philadelphia Afrocentric charters that have had their doors shut in recent years.

Last November the Chicago Board of Education voted to close Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, an Afrocentric charter, citing not only its significantly low national test scores, but also scores well below the city median. Supporters of Barbara A. Sizemore mounted a public campaign to fight its closure, pointing to, among other things, the emotional and cultural value it provides for its students. While the Illinois State Charter School Commission decided to keep Barbara A. Sizemore open, overriding the Chicago Board of Education, the experience highlighted the school’s precarious situation.


Martell L. Teasley, one of the researchers involved in the study on Afrocentric charters, told The New York Times that these schools generally cannot compete politically and financially with large charter networks, and “they’re more demonized” because they’re black. When school boards are looking to make budget cuts, he said, African-centered schools with low-test scores appear to be soft targets. Defenders of Imani Education Circle Charter School argued that their test scores were comparable to other charters that weren’t slated for closure, and were better than some district schools.

“[The charter authorizing officials] seem to be aiming at all the independent [charter] schools they can pick on,” a member of Imani’s board told The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a nonprofit news site. He said officials never target the large charter networks like KIPP, Mastery, and Universal for closure, despite Imani having higher test scores than some of these schools.

The Kamit Institute for Magnificent Achievers, a D.C.-based Afrocentric charter, was slated for closure in 2010, with the D.C. Public Charter School Board citing its low test scores, high truancy rate, governance shortcomings, and other issues. In 2008, only 10 percent of its students were scoring proficiently in math, and only 22 percent scored proficiently in reading.

The school fought to reverse the authorizer’s decision, but the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the closure in 2012.

“We all fought that closure, but we don’t have the power, and as time went on things just got more and more bureaucratic,” recalls Thompson. “Grassroots people, people within the community, regular folk like me, we all fought against closing Kamit. I live right down the street from my school. I live right in the trenches. I don’t live off in Capitol Hill somewhere or out in Maryland.” Despite protest, officials said they needed higher results in order to justify reauthorizing Kamit’s charter. Such fights, and frustrations, reflect the growing tensions between choice and accountability within the education reform movement.

Other Afrocentric charters, like the Aisha Shule/W.E.B. DuBois Preparatory Academy in Detroit, and Wakisha Charter Schoolin Philadelphia, were recently closed in the middle of the school year—unusually blunt and disruptive moves for their students.


Credit: Rachel M. Cohen

THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION around school integration has grown more pronounced over the last two years, after a long stretch of relative silence. This has, in turn, placed more pressure on the charter sector to defend their school models, which researchers find to be “more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”

As many Afrocentric charter schools have closed down, other charter operators have begun to adopt some of their rhetoric in order to justify their own overwhelmingly black and brown student compositions. They protest characterizing their schools-of-choice as segregated—rather, they say, their schools provide “culturally affirming” and “ethnocentric” environments in which racial minorities can learn.

Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, and a vocal critic of charter schools, says calling schools that are all black “culturally affirming” or “culturally specific” is just “the new flavor for rotten segregated schools” and an effort to circumvent civil rights laws.

Asante says he does not think much of schools that call themselves “culturally specific” yet lack a formal ethnocentric pedagogical method. “Afrocentricity is something that’s disciplined, it’s scientific, you have to do it that way or otherwise everything is Afrocentric simply because it’s black,” he says. Large charter networks are “fooling the community with their rhetoric,” adds Thompson. As she sees it, a school shouldn’t be considered “culturally specific” merely because it creates a space for black students to learn together.

Thompson and Asante, however, both agree that Afrocentric schools should not be considered segregated.

“There’s a difference between segregation and unity of a cultural group; they’re not the same thing at all,” says Thompson. “Segregation is having the power and the resources and refusing to give them to a group of people, or isolating them somewhere.”

Tommie Shelby, a Harvard professor of African and African American studies, says he’s not sure framing the ethnocentric schools in terms of segregation is helpful. “I can imagine that some advocates see themselves as just trying to do the best that they can for black students in a context of serious injustice, and they think—correctly—that we’re living in a time where deep social and economic inequalities make it very difficult for disadvantaged black people to have a fair shot in life,” he says. “That said, from the standpoint of the state, or from the judiciary, that’s not a position they can necessarily take.”

AFROCENTRIC SCHOOLING HASN’T always been concentrated in private schools and charters. In several cities across the country—particularly between the late 1980s and the late 1990s—school districts actually moved to implement Afrocentric curricula on a broader scale, often at the behest of local activists and black parents.

In addition to helping many private schools and charters sharpen their Afrocentric curriculum over the years, Asante has also worked as a consultant with traditional public schools to help them incorporate Afrocentricity into their classrooms.

The first city to draft Afrocentric curricula and implement it district-wide was Portland, Oregon, in 1987. Other cities, including Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., later adopted some of Portland’s materials for their own schools.

But as sociologist Amy Binder details in her book, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentricism and Creationism in American Public Schools, all these efforts eventually fizzled out or were abandoned by the end of the 20th century due to political pressure, leadership change, or some combination of the two.

One educator who worked in Atlanta during the period when its school district experimented with Afrocentric curricula was Meira Levinson, now a political philosopher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “The only required district-wide professional development that every teacher had to undergo back then was African and African American infusion into the curriculum,” she recalls.

Levinson, who taught middle school, said Afrocentricism was incorporated into every class throughout her school. The students studied the French Cameroon in their French class, and wrote essays about W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington in history class. In that sense, she notes, the presence of Afrocentric charter schools isn’t entirely novel in the American public school system.

What is new, Levinson worries, is that we may be entering a time when racial segregation is championed, rather than lamented. “I would not be opposed to schools that [incorporated] special things for their unique populations,” Levinson says, citing schools like those in the Twin Cities which cater predominately to Somali students. “If you’re going to be segregated anyway, then you should find ways to actually make use of it, and offer a better and culturally responsive education. If all of Detroit is going to be black, and if many schools in Chicago are going to be all black, then let’s at least make them the best schools we can.”

What’s problematic, she says, is when schools say they’re more “culturally responsive” not because they are adhering to a specific pedagogical program like Afrocentricism, but because they exclusively teach students who grew up in similar households.

“I do worry about the fact that racial segregation is being treated as a virtue rather than a vice,” Levinson says. “KIPP and Uncommon [another charter network] are going around celebrating serving this particular population. They are not sorry they are segregated, and that really worries me because I think that’s quite different from the [traditional] school districts. I worry about the way in which we are reverting to this idea that kids should be educated separately.”

For Levinson, integrated public schools are still the ideal. “The dilemma is if we celebrate segregated schools too much then we may forget that there is something better we can be striving for.”

Gender Wage Gap Raises the Stakes for the American Economy

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 11, 2016.

Full-time female workers across the country still earn just 79 cents for every dollar men earn, and the gap widens further for women of color. A new report on the gender wage gap by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, shines a light on why these disparities persist and what policies would most effectively eliminate them.

Though encouraging women to pursue careers in fields like science and engineering carries intrinsic importance, the authors say closing existing gaps within occupations would actually eliminate 68 percent of the gender wage gap. That means figuring out why waiters earn more than waitresses with similar work experience and education could go a long way towards ending gender wage disparities.

The massive increase of women working outside the home has been one of the greatest economic shifts of the 20th century. In 1950, roughly 34 percent of women aged 16 and older were in the labor force. That figure rose to nearly 45 percent in 1970 and peaked at 60 percent in 1999. This influx of female workers produced nearly a fifth of real GDP growth in the 1970s and ’80s.

But over the last 15 years, women’s labor force participation has dropped to 57 percent, at a time when most other OECD countries saw increases. This decrease can be partly explained by the failure of the United States to implement policies that would make it easier for women to balance work and family responsibilities—which still fall disproportionately on female shoulders.

Some pundits dismiss the idea that discrimination leads to a gender wage gap, insisting that discrepancies in pay are just the natural result of women choosing to work in certain fields. “Critics will say well if we just led a herculean effort and transported women into jobs that men have, then that would close the gender wage gap,” says Jessica Scheider, one of the co-authors of the Economic Policy Institute report. “The reality is that if you were to do that, it wouldn’t actually get you as far as these critics think it would.”

The gender pay gap is not just limited to low-wage professions, and the Economic Policy Institute authors argue that “women cannot educate themselves out” of these disparities. In fact, the gender wage gap is actually largest for highly-educated women working in white-collar jobs. In one study, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin found that while men and women earned similar salaries right after graduating from University of Chicago’s business school, a decade later the women with MBAs earned just 57 percent of what their male peers made.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has been speaking out on the campaign trail about her plans to boost the economy with higher female employment and more family-friendly labor policies. One item on Clinton’s economic agenda involves tackling wage discrimination. “If you believe that your working mother, wife, sister, or daughter deserves equal pay, join us,” Clinton declared at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Clinton also proposes raising the minimum wage, ending the “tipped” minimum wage, establishing paid sick leave, affordable child care, and promoting pay transparency legislation to narrow the gender wage gap.

In a recent Vox feature, journalist Sarah Kliff notes that Harvard’s Goldin tends to be skeptical of policies like paid maternity leave that aim to close the gender wage gap. “Well-intentioned policies backfire 98 percent of the time,” Goldin said. For example, in certain professions, taking paid leave could disrupt a woman’s career trajectory and lead to lower wages.

Yet Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute, who also worked on the gender wage gap report, says that federal and state policies are important, in part because they can change perceptions. “I think often times government policies can help, just like executive orders aimed at federal contractors can help,” says Gould. “If you can set an example for sectors that are disproportionately affected by federal contractors, then those things might begin to be expected in non-federal contractor sectors. It’s similar to how unions can set standards in non-unionized sectors. If it’s a benefit that is recognized and appreciated by workers, then other workers can demand for that as well.”

Today if a two-parent household has to decide which parent will take the unpaid family leave to care for their newborn, usually the mother decides to take it, since she likely earns less money than her husband. However, by leaving the workforce, the woman’s career could take a hit, which perpetuates the gender wage gap.

Eileen Applebaum, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, finds encouraging evidence that California’s paid family leave policy, launched in 2004, changed these gender dynamics. The state agency that administers paid leave found that the percentage of men who took leave increased from 17 percent in the program’s first year to 30 percent today.

The increase in the percentage of men taking parental leave enabled more women to decrease the amount of time they took off: The percentage of California women who took paid leave dropped from 83 percent in 2004, to 70 percent today.

“In 2010, when [labor sociologist] Ruth Milkman and I were field interviewing employers, we came across a company that just had its first baby shower for a male employee—and was very proud of it,” Applebaum tells The American Prospect. “The HR manager at another company told us that in her view, men at her company did not view the [unpaid] Family and Medical Leave Act as applying to them. But once the leaves were paid leaves, they felt comfortable taking them.”

Gould of the Economic Policy Institute agrees. “For all of these policies, men stand to gain as well,” she says. It’s also about making it more palatable for men to take time off.”

Clinton talks often about universal child care and early childhood education, which would provide not only benefits for young children, but also to working families, particularly working mothers. The Economic Policy Institute says an investment that caps child-care expenditures at 10 percent of a family’s income, another Clinton proposal, could increase overall women’s labor force participation and boost GDP by roughly $210 billion.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has offered very few policy ideas about women’s economic security, and the ones he has proposed have been vague and contradictory. Though at the Republican National Convention, his daughter Ivanka Trump said her father would support equal pay for women and push for affordable, accessible child care, policy experts say Trump’s proposed child-care plan is highly regressive and would provide little economic relief to struggling families.

Addressing the gender wage gap and other barriers women face in the workplace will require a mix of tools, policies, and cultural shifts. Gould notes that if congressional gridlock continues, many changes may need to take place at the state level. “So much of these problems are cultural, but if you create the right financial incentives, then you’ll change people’s minds,” she says.

Black Organizations Say No — or at Least, Slow Down — to Charter Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 8th, 2016.

At its national convention in July, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the nation’s premier civil-rights organizations, passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools. The resolution said, among other things, that charters have contributed to segregation, have used disproportionately high levels of punitive and exclusionary discipline, and pledged that the NAACP will seek to promote stronger investigative bodies to oversee charter school fraud, corruption, and waste. The resolution will not become official policy until the NAACP’s national board convenes later this fall, but it builds on previous resolutions passed in 2010 and 2014 that were also critical of charter schools.

A coalition of more than 50 black-led organizations known as the Movement for Black Lives—aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement—also released a wide-ranging policy platform last week outlining a collective political agenda that the groups had been hammering out since more than 1,000 activists and organizers gathered in Cleveland last summer.

Though their platform focuses on issues ranging from prisons and police to economic justice, a considerable portion is focused on education. In addition to calls for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a fully-funded education, the Movement for Black Lives demands a moratorium on charter schools, an end to school closures, and an end to “market reformer” programs like Teach for America.

The new calls for national charter moratoriums from both the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives highlights the growing divides among civil-rights organizations and people of color over support for the so-called education reform agenda.

Jonathan Stith, the national coordinator for the Alliance for Educational Justice, a network of 30 youth-led groups across the country, co-authored the Movement for Black Lives’ education proposals. I asked him how their coalition arrived at their position on education reform as they were crafting their policy language, given that many black families support school choice.

“We definitely hear that, and that’s part of the reason why our platform calls for community control,” he says. “I think what you hear from those groups [that support charters] is that they feel that they want some level of control and influence over public education, and we by no means seek to deny that.” Specifically, the platform calls for things like democratically elected school boards and ending state takeovers.

“We recognize that for families, the first priority is to find the best educational opportunity for their children, and some families feel that charter schools provide that,” Stith says. “But we feel that is a false choice; charter schools are used to pull funding from other schools, they destabilize traditional public schools, and ultimately lead to their closures.” He adds that there is a growing number of black families in charter schools who have had bad experiences, and have been pushed out with few rights and protections. “For us, the ideal that we’re seeking is community control and an end to privatization,” Stith says.

Last week, Roland Martin’s talk show, NewsOne Now, featured a debate on the NAACP’s resolution that included Hilary Shelton, the bureau director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the NAACP; Dr. Steve Perry, the founder of the Capital Preparatory charter schools; and Shavar Jeffries, the president of the Democrats for Education Reform. All four men in the conversation were black.

“[The NAACP] couldn’t be more out of touch if they ran full speed in the other direction,” Perry said, arguing that many local NAACP chapters remain strong advocates for charter schooling.

“Charter schools have proven themselves throughout this country to change the lives of children of color,” added Jeffries. “In many of our cities, they are beacons of hope.”

Shelton defended the NAACP’s resolution, and stressed that his organization was not calling for an elimination of charter schools—just to halt the opening of new ones until a closer look could be taken at their impact and whether they abide by civil-rights laws. A new report released this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates found that more than 250 charter schools in California discriminate in their admissions policies.

The NAACP’s new resolution calls out charter schools for having “contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.” The Movement for Black Lives policy platform makes two references to Brown v. Board of Education, but notably does not mention segregation or integration.

Hiram Rivera, the executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, another co-author of the Movement for Black Lives education platform, told The American Prospect that segregation did come up in discussions over the past year as the coalition groups hashed out their platform language, but that “folks had different opinions” on the value of school diversity, so they decided to focus on “the root causes” that lead to school segregation. Rivera added that there wasn’t a broad enough consensus on school integration, as opposed to issues like inadequate school funding.

“We did discuss it and I think where we landed was to call for a new set of strategies and tactics to reach the end of Brown, which we believe is the fulfillment of our human rights in education,” says Stith.

Some Teach for America alumni have risen to prominence within the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years, among them DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, who helped organize protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed in 2014. Teach for America has also been highly supportive of the movement, though it declined to comment on the new Movement for Black Lives policy platform.

Some have asked whether the education policies put forth by the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives were influenced by financial support from teachers unions. At the bottom of the Movement for Black Lives platform page, under a “resources” subsection, there was a link to demands made by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a network of ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

“This is more proof that the NAACP has been mortgaged by the teachers union and they keep paying y’all to say what they want to say,” Dr. Steve Perry told Hilary Shelton on NewsOne.

Activists have pushed back on this narrative. “The union wasn’t at the table, and my response to that accusation is that it is used to discredit and minimize the voice of the actual impacted communities,” says Stith. “Everything we put forth comes from our young people—black, Latino—who don’t need to be paid by the union to tell you what is wrong. Often I think people devalue the intelligence, the commitment, and the brilliance that exists inside of our community by always saying it’s the union paying us to say it.”

These debates among black organizations and civil-rights group are unlikely to end soon, and they raise charged questions about who speaks for whom, especially around matters of racial justice. School choice advocates point to research studies that suggest black students perform better in charter schools than in traditional public schools, and to surveys showing support among black families for school choice. But a host of other black-led groups and civil-rights organizations have repeatedly raised concerns with education reform over the years, pointing to things like disproportionate suspension rates for black charter students, the impact of school closures in black communities, and the growing financial distress of traditional public schools.

If the NAACP national board approves the new charter resolution, then local chapters will be expected to adopt the new policies—including the moratorium on creating new charters. It’s unclear at this point whether this would prompt pushback from any local chapters.

Hiram Rivera says that groups, organizations, and citizens can “take pieces of [the Movement for Black Lives platform], those pieces that speak most to them” to begin conversations with policy-makers, elected officials, and decision-makers. Groups like the Philadelphia Student Union, he adds, will continue to keep doing the work they’ve been doing for 20 years. “But now it’s all in an official document, and hopefully this document will allow others to see what we’re working on, use it, and get involved.”

Q&A: The Economic Consequences of Denying Teachers Tenure

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 4, 2016.
Political and legal battles surrounding teacher tenure and seniority have been raging in California over the past couple of years. In 2014, in Vergara v. California, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that a variety of teacher job protections worked together to violate students’ constitutional right to an equal education. This past spring, in a 3–0 decision, the California Court of Appeals threw this ruling out. The American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen interviewed Jesse Rothstein, the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor and a current public policy and economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who testified during the Vergara trials in defense of California’s teacher tenure and seniority statutes. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Your research suggests that even if we got rid of teacher tenure, principals still wouldn’t fire many teachers. Why?

Jesse Rothstein: It’s basically because in most cases, there’s just not actually a long list of people lining up to take the jobs; there’s a shortage of qualified teachers to hire. If you deny tenure to someone, that creates a new job opening. But if you’re not confident you’ll be able to fill it with someone else, that doesn’t make you any better off. Lots of schools recognize it makes more sense to keep the teacher employed, and incentivize them with tenure.

It’s all about tradeoffs. If you get rid of tenure and start laying off lots of teachers, and you don’t do something else to make the job more attractive, then you won’t get enough teachers. I’ve studied this, and it’s basically economics 101. There is evidence that you get more people interested in teaching when the job is better, and there is evidence that firing teachers reduces the attractiveness of the job.

One of the central debates in California is how long the probationary period should be before teachers can be eligible for tenure. Reformers want to lengthen the process, and you’ve argued that two years is long enough to make that call.

Suppose you go to a new restaurant the first week it opens up and it’s terrible. It’s possible you just got a bad draw. But you don’t really need to go five more times. If it’s bad enough the first time, you just don’t go again. Sometimes you need to go one more time if it’s an okay restaurant, and you’re not sure if it’s just above the line, or just below it. And for those cases, there’s some value in waiting longer.

During the Vergara trial there was a debate over what would happen if we lengthened the probationary period, and whether principals would wait until the end of the clock to fire a bad teacher, or if they would they fire a lot of bad teachers at the end of their first year. I argued that it was unreasonable to expect the principals to make the firing decisions before they had to. It’s a lot harder to say, “I’m confident this teacher wouldn’t work out” than it is to say, “Well let’s just give it a little more time.”

So you’re saying that if we lengthen the probationary period to five years, there’s a greater chance a principal wouldn’t fire a bad teacher until year five?

If you think, as I do, that the principals will wait until the end, until a decision is forced on them, then a longer clock means you get more accurate decisions, but the bad teachers are kept around longer. So you have to weigh those two things. And what I found is you don’t get much or any benefit from lengthening the clock unless you’re planning on firing lots and lots of teachers—around 40 percent. If you’re planning on only firing the bottom 10 percent or 15 percent of teachers, though, you’re better off doing that quickly even though sometimes you may fire a teacher in the bottom 30 percent, rather than the bottom 5 percent. You won’t have as much information to be quite as accurate, but you’ll usually be right, and you’ll get the bad teachers out faster.

Aren’t most teachers pretty bad their first year? Are we denying them a fair shot if we make tenure decisions so soon?

Even if they’re struggling, you can usually tell if things will turn out to be okay. There is quite a bit of evidence for someone to look at. That’s why the novice teachers who will eventually turn out to be good are better, on average, during their first year than the novice ones who will be bad.

These debates over firing bad teachers often ignore all the teachers who voluntarily leave the profession. Teaching is a hard job, and if someone is bad at it, very often they aren’t trying to stay in the classroom.

Yes, teachers who leave on their own, or are counseled out, are downplayed. Part of that is because we don’t have very good data on them. Most people don’t tend to write on their exit forms the reason why they are leaving.

Value-added models (VAM) played a significant role in the Vergara trial. You’ve done a lot of research on these tools. Can you explain what they are?

[The] value-added model is a statistical tool that tries to use student test scores to come up with estimates of teacher effectiveness. The idea is that if we define teacher effectiveness as the impact that teachers have on student test scores, then we can use statistics to try to then tell us which teachers are good and bad.

VAM played an odd role in the trial. The plaintiffs were arguing that now, with VAM, we have these new reliable measures of teacher effectiveness, so we should use them much more aggressively, and we should throw out the job statutes. It was a little weird that the judge took it all at face value in his decision.

When did VAM become popular?

I would say it became a big deal late in the [George W.] Bush administration. That’s partly because we had new databases that we hadn’t had previously, so it was possible to estimate on a large scale. It was also partly because computers had gotten better. And then VAM got a huge push from the Obama administration.

It’s very controversial and I’ve argued that one of the flaws of it is that even though VAM shows the average growth of a teacher’s student, that’s not the same thing as showing a teacher’s effect, because teachers teach very different groups of students.

If I’m a teacher who is known to be really good with students with attention-deficit disorder, and all those kids get put in my class, they don’t, on average, gain as much as other students, and I look less effective. But that might be because I was systematically given the kids who wouldn’t gain very much.

So you’re skeptical of VAM.

I think the metrics are not as good as the plaintiffs made them out to be. There are bias issues, among others. One big issue is that evaluating teachers based on value-added encourages teachers to teach to the state test.

During the Vergara trials you testified against some of Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s VAM research, and the two of you have been going back and forth ever since. Can you describe what you two are arguing about?

Raj’s testimony at the trial was very focused on his work regarding teacher VAM. After the trial, I really dug in to understand his work, and I probed into some of his assumptions, and found that they didn’t really hold up. So while he was arguing that VAM showed unbiased results, and VAM results tell you a lot about a teacher’s long-term outcomes, I concluded that what his approach really showed was that value-added scores are moderately biased, and that they don’t really tell us one way or another about a teacher’s long-term outcomes.

So I published a paper responding to Chetty’s work, and he responded to my paper saying it didn’t hold up. I then published another paper, saying his critiques didn’t hold water, and he’s due to respond. So it’s still ongoing.

Could VAM be improved?

It may be that there is a way to use VAM to make a better system than we have now, but we haven’t yet figured out how to do that. Our first attempts have been trying to use them in not very intelligent ways.

What’s wrong with the way we evaluate teachers now?

We haven’t taken very seriously the need to evaluate teachers, and we have probably not taken seriously enough the importance of good school management. Principals are often just appointed among the teacher corps, and not given much training. They’re put in the job, and left to sink or swim. There is a good argument that we’ve got to take that job more seriously, and a big part of that job is evaluating, mentoring, and helping teachers get better. And in a lot of places, we haven’t taken the tenure decision very seriously; we just don’t do careful assessments.

In general I felt the Vergara plaintiffs were blaming the statutes for the fact that the schools themselves were not well managed.

You’ve made the argument that these teacher job protection debates have to be considered in terms of tradeoffs. Can you say more?

In general I don’t think people have confronted these tradeoffs around making quick decisions versus more accurate decisions, around layoffs and the value of job security, and building a stronger school.

This is particularly true with teacher salaries. The way teacher salaries are currently structured is that we don’t pay new teachers very much and we make up for that by having a fair amount of wage growth over the course of a career. I think there are good reasons for that, and it helps people stay in the job for longer. But you can only do that if you can make a commitment to people that they’ll have their job for years. They will accept years of low pay in exchange for higher pay down the line. Experienced teachers are better, on average, but they’re also more expensive.

If I’m a new teacher and I’m being underpaid, and I can’t count on that being made up to me later, it’s less likely I will accept that bargain. So there are tradeoffs to having less job security.

It’s been two years since the Vergara trial. Do you think anything’s changed?

I guess in general there’s been a little bit of a political walk-back from the push for VAM. And this retreat is not necessarily tied to the research evidence; sometimes these things just happen. But I’m not sure the trial court opinion would have come out the same if it were held today.

California’s Ed Reform Wars

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 2nd, 2016.

This past April, the California Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the controversial Vergara v. California decision, in which a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that five longstanding teacher protections—including a two-year probationary period for new teachers and a layoff system based on how many years one’s been teaching—violated students’ constitutional right to an equal education. The lower court judge had argued that these labor protections make it harder to fire bad teachers, and bad teachers significantly undermine a child’s education. In a 3-0 decision, the appellate judges concluded that the labor protections themselves are not responsible for harming students, even if school administrators sometimes implement them injudiciously.

Students Matter, a nonprofit backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch that’s representing the Vergara plaintiffs, has filed an appeal to California’s Supreme Court. Their supporters argue that children pay the price for such job protections as teacher tenure and seniority. They also point to research that suggests making it easier to fire teachers has positive effects on student achievement. Critics counter that the real problems students face—particularly low-income students of color—are not teacher job protections, but their under-resourced, highly segregated schools that fail to attract and retain high-quality educators. At a time when states like California face real teacher shortages, they say, the focus on firing teachers is misplaced at best.

Since the lower court’s Vergara ruling two years ago, similar suits challenging teacher job protections have been filed in New York and Minnesota.

While David Welch and his allies remain committed to waging legal battles against tenure, seniority, and other job protections, they are also pushing for statutory changes via the California legislature. Following the original Vergara decision, Republican lawmakers introduced a package of three bills to extend the time it would take a teacher to earn tenure, to repeal the “last-in, first-out” statute that makes layoff decisions based on seniority, and to establish an annual teacher evaluation system. These bills, however, got nowhere in the Democratic-controlled statehouse.

“I think the Vergara decision helped increase public demand for improvements in our education system, but I always think it’s better when we can make policy changes through the legislature rather than the court system,” says Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, the Republican who sponsored the teacher evaluation bill.

Back during the original Vergara trial, unions and some education experts also argued against making policy changes through the courts. A spokesperson for the California Teachers Association told The Wall Street Journal that legislators were already looking at ways to amend the contested laws, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that extending the time it takes to get tenure in California is a legitimate idea, but that such changes should be done through the political process, not the judiciary.

Today, however, local unions are fighting back against attempts to change employment laws through the legislature. California is one of just five states that grants teachers tenure after two years—32 states require a three-year probationary period, and nine states require four or five years. And, as critics are quick to point out, the reality is that California administrators must file paperwork for tenure status after a teacher has been working for just 15 to 18 months if they’re to meet state deadlines. Even those who are very supportive of teacher tenure feel lengthening the amount of time it takes to earn it makes sense. Before granting genuine job security, they say, make sure it’s for an individual you’d really want in front of students for the long haul.

But the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have both strongly opposed bills aimed at modifying tenure, even legislation from which their adversaries have withdrawn support. While the final outcome of the Vergara case remains to be seen, the unions’ firm stance against reform could help prompt tenure opponents to mount an initiative campaign—a routine occurrence in California politics. That may not bode well for the unions: A 2015 poll of registered California voters found that most respondents think teachers in their state receive tenure too quickly, and that seniority should count less during the layoff process. If changes to tenure and seniority were to come before the voters, there are decent odds that such a measure would pass.

The concept of teacher tenure in American public education, as Dana Goldstein documents in her book The Teacher Wars, was an idea originally imported from Germany. Progressive-era reformers saw that giving teachers more job security was often a good way to incentivize people to join the low-paid profession. Tenure also made it harder to fire teachers, which consequently made it more difficult for the urban political machines that then dominated cities to dole out teaching jobs as political favors.

Though teachers unions have existed in the U.S. for a long time, the idea of collective bargaining didn’t take off until the second half of the 20th century, as membership in teachers unions grew, and public sector unionism gained strength more broadly. The first teachers union to win collective bargaining rights was New York City’s United Federation of Teachers in 1963, and by the end of the 1970s, after a series of labor strikes across the country, 72 percent of public school teachers were covered under collective bargaining agreements.

As a result, teacher tenure in unionized school districts means being covered under a “just cause” provision in a collective bargaining agreement. In a non-unionized workplace, employees can be fired simply because an employer doesn’t like them. The added job security that comes with tenure means that a boss would need to legally demonstrate that firing their employee was justified—that there is “just cause” for the worker’s termination. Tenured employees also have the right to contest their firing.

Tenure critics rightly note that in many school districts, the process an administrator has to go through in order to dismiss a teacher for cause ends up being so lengthy and expensive that it can feel nearly impossible. In many cases, it’s easier, and a lot cheaper, to keep an ineffective teacher employed, rather than jump through the legal hoops to remove them. In New York City, officials who make failed attempts to terminate teachers often end up just issuing fines.

Union contracts generally distinguish between two kinds of dismissals. The first is termination for cause; for example, an administrator should be able to fire you if you’re an ineffective teacher or if you sexually harass a student. The second type of dismissal is through a layoff due to an economic circumstance—generally, cuts to school district budgets during recessions.

Many teacher tenure critics also want to end the process of “seniority”—which requires that districts make layoff decisions based on the number of years a teacher has been working. Opponents of these “last-in, first-out” statutes say that high-quality young teachers are penalized under this system, since their few years in the profession makes them more likely to be canned, regardless of their job performance. This also disproportionately hurts students in high-poverty schools, critics say, because young teachers are generally assigned to those schools.

Some states, including many that are substantially unionized, have already explicitly banned seniority when making layoff decisions, and others require teacher job performance to be the primary factor considered. Ten states—including New York and California—however, still require that the number of years a teacher has taught be a partial, or the primary factor for districts when making layoff decisions.

Defenders of seniority say that if you want to fire someone for poor performance, then do it for cause, not disguised through the layoff process. In effect, tenure and seniority work together to give employers the flexibility to lay people off when economic circumstances require it, but in a way that protects teachers from being arbitrarily targeted, or targeted because they were paid more than more junior faculty. Seniority-patterned layoffs exist specifically to protect the “just cause” rights.

“Until very recently, these rules were fairly uncontroversial,” says Leo Casey, the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “They prevented older, more expensive teachers from being discriminated against during lean economic times, and administrators often appreciated the simplicity of ‘last-in, first-out’, especially because there was no consensus on how to best evaluate teachers’ performance.”

In February, before the Vergara appeals court decision came down, California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a Democrat, introduced a bill aimed at finding some legislative common ground for the various employment statutes being challenged in court. While the three bills sponsored by Republicans in 2015 got nowhere, some believed an effort led by a Democrat might get more traction. Both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have donated to Bonilla’s campaigns.

Bonilla proposed, among other things, giving principals the option of waiting until a teacher’s third or fourth year to grant tenure, and placing poorly performing teachers in a program that would provide increased professional support. If the ineffective teacher received another low performance rating after a year in this program, Bonilla’s legislation would enable schools to fire the teacher through an expedited process. The LA Times editorial board said her bill would make the rules “more reasonable and practical, while preventing capricious or vindictive firings of teachers by school administrators.” Education reformers initially took no position on her bill, but following April’s Vergara appeals decision, Students Matter, the group that brought the case, decided to back it.

However, Bonilla still lacked support from school administrators and teachers unions, and the California Teachers Association was urging its members to fight her bill. EdSource, a nonprofit news site focused on education in California, reported that the union posted an “action alert” for teachers to call their lawmakers, labeling the proposed legislation “an all-out assault” by “corporate millionaires and special interests.”

In June, Bonilla introduced an amended version of her bill, one that would require new teachers to work for three years before becoming eligible for tenure. Her bill no longer included provisions to create a new teacher evaluation system, to require teachers with poor performance reviews to be laid off before those with less seniority, and to remove many of the dismissal rules that administrators found frustrating. In an interview with The American Prospect, Bonilla explained that she needed to narrow her legislation’s scope because that’s what the Senate Education Committee requested. “They are looking for policy change, but my original bill was too wide-ranging,” she says.

Despite being significantly watered-down, the bill was still opposed by the unions, while the education reform groups that originally offered support came out in strong opposition, too. However, the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association now came forward with endorsements of the amended legislation.

“In my opinion, I really needed administrators’ support. That’s why we took LIFO [last-in, first-out] completely out and worked with the superintendents and the school board association to craft a version they could back. They’re part of the education community, they really understand what needed to be changed,” says Bonilla. The Association of California School Administrators is listed as one of Bonilla’s top campaign contributors.

Students Matter called the amended bill “a bad deal for California students” and urged members of the California legislature to reject it.

“The reform groups wanted everything, and some wanted everything but only if it was written exactly by them,” says Bonilla. “They didn’t want to come on board if it didn’t come out of their house.” She says Students Matter, and another reform-oriented group, Teach Plus, withdrew their support when her legislation no longer addressed seniority.

“If I had to choose who I was going to go with, I’d choose the administrators, the people actually running the schools. That was my priority in terms of really getting sound policy,” says Bonilla.

The California Teachers Association called upon its members to organize against the amended bill, saying it would take rights away from educators, and negatively impact students.

On June 29, the California Senate Education Committee held a hearing,ultimately rejecting Bonilla’s amended bill. Just two of the committee’s nine senators voted in favor—and both are terming out in November. (Five opposed it, and two others didn’t vote.)

“I do feel that at least having the hearing on the bill, which went on for about an hour and a half, was really important,” says Bonilla, who is also leaving office in November. “I felt it was important, as a Democrat, that I stand up and say, we as legislators have an obligation to our constituencies to find a solution and not pretend that the status quo is alright, just because the union says it is.”

One senator to vote in favor of Bonilla’s bill was Carol Liu, the chairwoman of the education committee. Liu told Bonilla that she could amend her bill further over the July recess period if she wanted to try and get more support. Bonilla took Liu up on this and submitted a new version that does not extend the time it takes a new teacher to earn tenure. All Bonilla’s latest version does now is grant school districts the authority to negotiate an alternative dismissal process with their local bargaining units, if they so choose. Right now, under California state law, local bargaining units are prohibited from negotiating the terms of their dismissal process. In 2014, the teachers union in San Jose tried to do this, and asked the California state board of education for a waiver so they could extend their probationary period to three years. But the state board denied the San Jose school district and its union their request. (The California Teachers Association argued that such changes should only come from the state legislature, not through waivers.) Bonilla’s twice-watered-down bill, then, would make such a change.

As of August 1st, it was still unclear whether Bonilla’s new bill would receive a waiver and come up for a re-vote. The American Prospect was unsuccessful in getting an interview with the California Teachers Association, despite repeated attempts over several weeks.

I asked Josh Petchalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, why his union opposed Bonilla’s amended bill in June. Wasn’t a one-year extension of the probationary period a fairly good compromise?

Petchalt, though, does not think the tenure law needs to be changed, and believes changing it would not solve the underlying issue of how tenure is assessed. “I think all the commotion about making it three years or five years really misses the point about what it means to have a rigorous procedure for evaluating teachers,” says Petchalt, who taught high school for more than two decades. “I don’t think it takes very long to decide if an adult should be working with kids. I think it happens relatively quickly if that person is being observed on a regular basis by properly trained administrators who know what they’re doing.”

Some leading academics share Petchalt’s assessment. During the Vergara trials, Jesse Rothstein, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, testified that two years was long enough for principals and school administrators to determine whether or not to award tenure. He cited his own research, which suggests that granting tenure earlier, rather than later, is better for students. Rothstein also argued in favor of using seniority to handle layoffs, which he says is a less costly, subjective, and controversial method than using annual performance evaluations.

If Bonilla’s revised-again bill, which has been stripped of its probation provision, comes up for a revote, she says she really hopes there will be “three courageous legislators” who will vote for its passage. “Allowing a union to bargain locally is not an anti-union position,” Bonilla says.

If her amended bill does not pass, or even if it does, the education reformers may seek to place an initiative on the 2018 ballot. Bonilla says she’s heard that there already been some money raised to start that effort.

If such a measure is placed before voters, I asked Petchalt, wouldn’t it look bad to oppose a bill that wouldn’t end seniority, wouldn’t end tenure—just merely extend the probationary period to three years, which is how long it takes in most states anyway?

“I don’t doubt that the optics are not great, but our members spend a career in the classroom, they are committed to public education, to children, and so it’s not good enough to say well there’s an element of goodness in this specific bill if the overall effect would make things worse,” he says. Petchalt points to the Vergara trial, and the broader political effort to weaken teachers unions and collective bargaining. At a time when public sector workers are under attack, when public education is under attack, he says, his union feels compelled to fight back against “a broad narrative.”

“The teachers union supported No Child Left Behind and it got them nowhere,” Petchalt adds. “And they supported [NCLB] for exactly what you’re saying, they didn’t want to be seen as folding their arms and being opposed to everything. [Some union leaders] said if we support [NCLB], then they’ll stop their attacks. But it furthered the attacks, creating a dynamic that resulted in very bad things happening.”

Petchalt is probably right to suspect that even if his union and the CTA backed Bonilla’s bill, even if union leaders agreed to change the probationary period to three years, education reformers would be unlikely to stop fighting for more concessions. In Pennsylvania, where teachers are eligible for tenure after three years, reformers are pushing to extend it to five years, insisting that three years is too short. In this political climate, unions have decided that ceding no ground and putting forth alternatives is preferable to compromising and hoping the disputes get resolved.

Whether this is the most strategically savvy move, though, is unclear. A survey released in 2012 of 10,000 educators found that, on average, teachers felt it was reasonable to work 5.4 years before being evaluated for tenure. Another survey released in 2015, sponsored by the pro-reform group Teach Plus, found that 65 percent of California teachers think that a probationary period between three and five years makes sense for administrators making tenure decisions.

“In California, when legislators can’t come up with a solution, it ends up going on the ballot,” says Bonilla, who worries about lawmakers abdicating their responsibilities, and the electorate voting on issues they’re not well informed about. “We as legislators have to be the ones to demand that the reformers and the centrally-controlled unions be reasonable. There is no one else who is going to do it.”

Education Reform Democrats Look Ahead to Life After Obama

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 26, 2016.
Lately on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has been talking about how she wants to end the “so-called education wars.” The Democratic presidential nominee wants to see the factionalism among education groups end and instead see new coalitions form to advance policies on which all can agree. Clinton took this message on the road to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers conferences earlier this month, and her campaign proffered another education olive branch to the Democrats for Education Reform on Monday in downtown Philadelphia.

Virtually every speaker lauded President Obama’s education legacy, highlighting his support for charter schools and test-based accountability at the organization’s day-long Democratic National Convention forum. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, said he recognized that many have been feeling anxious and unsure about whether Obama’s successor will be as friendly toward their political agenda as he was.

Ann O’Leary, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, assured the school choice–supporting audience that the Democratic presidential nominee and the reformers have a “shared vision.” She said that Clinton touted “great charter schools” at both of those recent teacher union conferences. But Clinton notably did not lavish praise on charter schools when she appeared before the American Federation of Teachers last week in Minneapolis. After denouncing for-profit charters and vouchers, she said simply, “where there are public charter schools, we will learn from them.”

Kira Orange Jones, the executive director for Teach for America’s greater New Orleans region, said that she’s “profoundly concerned” that the Democratic Party may divert its attention away from protecting the rights of all children, especially the most disenfranchised. “That’s our party, that’s why I’m a Democrat,” she said.

Meanwhile, school integration also prompted a vigorous discussion among attendees. Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, made an impassioned case for a deeper focus on integration. “We cannot turn our backs on Brown [v. Board of Education],” she said. “And, yes, I do think [Democrats for Education Reform] stands to play an important role in moving that project forward.”

Others made the case for successful segregated charter schools, and questioned whether a real political will exists to pursue new desegregation efforts. Surprisingly, attendees had very little to say about Clinton’s Democratic vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, or his wife, Anne Holton. Holton, who recently stepped down as Virginia’s education secretary, was a strong supporter of school integration and had opposed the further expansion of charter schools. Her father, former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton, a Republican, championed school desegregation during his time in office in the early 1970s.

Though the forum focused on the future of the Democratic Party’s educational agenda, teachers unions, a core constituency within the party, received little attention. “Unions don’t get all the seats at the table,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokesperson who now heads a communications firm working toweaken teacher tenure and other job protections.

Tafshier Cosby-Thomas, a Newark parent who came down to Philadelphia for the discussions, told The American Prospect that she believed that teachers unions in Newark are “very territorial” and don’t want to collaborate. “They don’t want to even find out about what’s happening in the charter schools,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re unwilling or if traditionally they’re standoffish.”

While education reformers were clearly throwing their political weight behind Hillary Clinton—organizers passed out pins with Clinton’s picture on them to all the attendees—some audience members were still “feeling the Bern.” Kean University student Yasmine Veale, a member of the New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options told the Prospect that she’s been considering becoming an independent in the next election cycle. “I’d like to see Democrats become more progressive, and not stay in the center,” she said. Like many millennial women, Veale backed Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary.

“I’m glad that some of what Bernie wanted made its way into the party platform,” she said. “But I’d still really like to see free education for all. It’s crazy that I have to work three jobs … and I’m still going to have a whole bunch of debt.”

Joy Russell, a Washington parent who serves on the advisory board of the Democrats for Education Reform’s D.C. chapter, told the Prospect that she feels confident Hillary Clinton will continue to push for the education policies that Obama has backed, but that overall, “politics have been getting in the way” of ensuring high-quality education for all kids.