Massachusetts Charter School Backs Off Exclusionary Hair Policies — For Now

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 25, 2017.
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The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, a suburban Boston charter in Malden, Massachusetts, is under fire for its dress-code policy prohibiting hair extensions and afros, rules that critics say are racially discriminatory.

Despite protests from civil rights groups, the state’s charter school association, and even the Bay State’s Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, Mystic Valley—which voted Sunday to suspend its policies for the remainder of the academic year—defends its dress code as critical for promoting equity and student academic success.

The school’s dress code sparked national attention earlier this month when parents of two African-American students at the school (15-year-old twins Deanna and Mya Cook) said their daughters received multiple detentions for wearing their hair in braids. They were also both barred from after-school sports, and Mya was banned from the junior prom. Though black students have worn hair extensions before, parents say Mystic Valley started cracking down on them in April.

Other Mystic Valley parents told The Boston Globe that their black children also received punishments for how they wore their hair. One mother said her daughter received detention for wearing braids. Then, when her daughter refused to remove them, she was suspended. Another mother told the Globe that an administrator called in her daughter, and 20 other girls, and asked them if they wore “fake” hair. Ten of those girls received detentions.

The school’s policy bans “drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles” and hairstyles that might be “distracting” to others. One example of an “unnatural” hair style is “hair more than two inches in thickness or height.” Black parents have noted that the school has taken no disciplinary action against white students who color their hair.

Mystic Valley originally defended its policy as necessary to minimize fashion expenses for enrolled students. “The specific prohibition of hair extensions, which are expensive and could serve as a differentiating factor between students from dissimilar socioeconomic backgrounds, is consistent with our desire to create an educational environment, one that celebrates all that students have in common and minimizes material differences and distractions,” Alexander Dan, the school’s interim director, said in a statement.

But civil rights advocates representing the Cook girls say the school’s explanation makes little sense. In a May 22 letter, the advocates—including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the National Women’s Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League—wrote that “the assumption that wearing braids with extensions constitutes a marker of wealth is erroneous” because braids cost less than other hairstyles that are permissible under the school’s policy. Moreover, the civil rights groups note that Mystic Valley “imposes significant costs” on students who participate in athletic programs, potentially limiting those extracurricular activities only to students “who can pay to play.”

“The school charges kids to be in certain clubs, and you pay much more to be on an athletic team,” says Sarah Wunsch, the deputy legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, in an interview with The American Prospect. “So if they’re trying to even out any economic differences, it sure doesn’t look like it.”

The Boston Globe reported that braided styles using human or artificial hair can cost between $50 and $200 at Boston-area braiding salons. (Some individuals rely on family or friends to braid their hair at little to no charge.) The Cook girls have also worn chemically straightened hair styles; their parents said the price tag for both braids and straightened hair was about the same.

On May 15, the ACLU filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, saying that Mystic Valley’s hair policy “appears to be especially harmful to female students of color” and has been “enforced in a disparate manner against them.” This marks the second time the ACLU has filed a complaint against the charter school. In 2015, the civil liberties group contacted the state after Mystic Valley displayed signs that appeared to endorse a nearby Baptist church. The school quickly removed the signs.

Last Friday, even the head of the civil rights division in the state attorney general’s office informed the charter school that their hair and makeup policy “includes a number of prohibitions that are either unreasonably subjective or appear to effectively single out students of color.” The attorney general’s office is continuing to investigate the case, but called on Mystic Valley officials to “immediately cease enforcing or imposing discipline for violations” of their dress code as it pertains to hair extensions, afros, and shaved lines.

This past Sunday, the Mystic Valley board of trustees met privately to discuss the matter and ultimately voted to suspend the policies for the remainder of the school year. “The school will continue to work with the attorney general’s office to ensure that the uniform policy reflects our longstanding commitment to the rights of all our students,” said Dan, the school’s interim director. “Students who are either currently serving consequences or accruing them may immediately resume all before- and after-school activities.”

The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association praised the school officials’ decision but urged them to eliminate the policy altogether. “The Board took the right action to suspend its discriminatory policy, and now needs to rescind it permanently,” said Marc Kenen, the MCPSA’s executive director. “Charter schools aspire to develop cultural competence and achieve cultural proficiency. … Our students learn from each other’s differences.”

This week, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP LDF), the ACLU of Massachusetts, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice announced they would be representing the Cook family and exploring legal action against Mystic Valley.

The civil rights groups criticized the charter school for failing to indicate how it would deal with the past punishments students received for dress-code violations, including whether the school would expunge students’ records of suspensions and detentions. They point to data from the state education department that shows black Mystic Valley students are nearly three times more likely to be suspended than white students, and for longer periods of time. And, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education data, every girl suspended during the 2013–2014 school year was black.

In an interview with the Prospect, Rachel Kleinman, a senior counsel at NAACP LDF, said that the situation at Mystic Valley “goes way beyond just the braids ban” and reflects a national problem with aggressive disciplinary policies for minor infractions that disproportionally impact black students. While noting that laws vary from state to state, Kleinman says that “in general as we see a move towards so-called school choice, towards funding private schools and charter schools at the expense of traditional schools that are subject to greater accountability, we worry about [this] trend.”

Even though the school has suspended the policy, Mystic Valley officials have since doubled down on a defense of their dress code. In a May 21 letter to parents, the school claimed the code is “central to the success of our students” since it provides “commonality, structure, and equity to an ethnically and economically diverse student body while eliminating distractions caused by vast socio-economic differences and competition over fashion, style or materialism.” Mystic Valley officials also said they believe their dress code could withstand a legal challenge—though they do not wish to pursue one.

“I think they’re simply wrong about that,” says Wunsch of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in regards to Mystic Valley’s claim that their dress code is legally defensible.

Fixing Our Infrastructure? How About Schools?

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 23, 2017.
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Last year, amid the heated presidential primaries, national news outlets took a break from the contest to cover a public education issue that rarely gets attention. School teachers in Detroit, barred by state law from going on strike, staged a series of “sick outs” (where so many teachers call in sick that it forces the schools to shut down) to protest the condition of their dilapidated, underfunde­d schools. On one day in mid-January, 64 public schools were closed—more than half in the city—as teachers rallied together for more resources. From The New York Times and The Washington Post to CNN and Fox News, millions of Americans were confronted with jarring images of Detroit children wearing winter coats in class because their schools lacked functional heating systems, of severely damaged facilities, of mold and leaky ceilings, of roaches and mice crawling on the floors.

These problems extend far beyond Detroit. Public school facilities—mostly ignored in discussions of the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, ports, and highways—face an urgent infrastructure crisis of their own. Indeed, it has been getting worse for decades: In 1995 the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report estimating that $112 billion was needed to repair and modernize the nation’s school facilities, and that as many as 28 million students attended schools deemed unhealthy, uncomfortable, and unsafe. The problem was most acute for poor students and racial minorities. In 1997, President Bill Clinton declared, “We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down. With the student population at an all time high, and record numbers of school buildings falling into disrepair, this has now become a serious national concern.”

But little progress was made, and inequities between rich and poor school districts grew wider. By 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public school facilities a “D+” grade on its national report card. The group found that school construction had diminished to approximately half the level spent before the Great Recession, even as public school enrollment continued to grow. By one 2016 estimate, it would take $145 billion a year to properly repair and maintain the nation’s school buildings.

Now, a small group of legislators and political consultants—mostly hailing from Virginia—say they have a policy solution to upgrade America’s old school buildings, one that’s actually ripe for advancement under President Donald Trump. The proposal? Tweak the tax code so that old school buildings can access federal historic preservation tax credits—a financing tool the president himself took advantage of when he transformed the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., into a luxury Trump hotel.

Supporters of this approach estimate that between 15,000 and 20,000 school buildings—out of roughly 100,000 nationwide—would be eligible for the tax credit, and could therefore save school districts between 30 and 40 percent of their rehabilitation costs. The reason school districts haven’t taken advantage of this option, advocates say, is due to an arcane loophole in the tax code that prohibits historic credits from financing repairs unless the properties are transformed into something distinctly new. While this rule—dubbed “the prior use” rule—was originally created to prevent nonprofits from “double dipping” their tax savings, in effect, it means that rich businessmen can get help turning old federal buildings into luxury hotels, but cash-strapped communities can’t access the federal financing to modernize their crumbling schools.

DESPITE THE RULES PREVENTING school districts from accessing historic preservation tax credits to fund infrastructure upgrades, Virginia lawmakers have twice managed to convince the IRS to make exceptions—both times by making the case that a local public school would be transformed into a regional magnet school, something substantively different from what it once was. Advocates say that these successful examples of school renovation serve as proof that the historic tax credit approach could work to fix thousands of old school buildings across the country, if only the tax code were tweaked.

The Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, a regional magnet school located in Richmond, Virginia, is regularly ranked as one of the top public high schools in the United States. But when this magnet program was founded in 1991—then named the Governor’s School for Government and International Studies—it was housed on the second floor of another Richmond school, Thomas Jefferson High. Learning conditions were cramped, and the promising program could barely exist, let alone grow.

Bob Mooney, a Richmond entrepreneur, had a son enrolled in the program and teamed up with other parents to see if they could find a new facility for the magnet school. The group approached Tim Kaine, then Richmond’s mayor, who now serves as a U.S. senator.

The building Kaine and the parents identified as a potential new home for the magnet program had been abandoned for years. It was formerly the Maggie L. Walker High School—named for the first woman, and the first African American, to charter a U.S. bank. The art deco-style school had opened in the 1930s, and, as mandated by the state’s Jim Crow laws, exclusively served black students. Though it was later abandoned, the building was on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historical role educating black students during segregation.

“I was elected to the Richmond city council in 1994, that building was in my district, it was vacant, blighted, graffiti all over it—vandals had taken out the copper pipes,” recalls Senator Kaine. “It was also not perceived as being in a safe neighborhood, and it took me a long time to convince the 13 jurisdictions [that participate in the regional magnet school] that this was a good idea.”

But once Kaine persuaded all the localities to get behind moving the magnet program into the empty, old building, the next challenge was to fund its rehabilitation. Since the building was designated historic, federal historic tax credits seemed like a promising possibility, if only they could get around the “prior use” rule. What if lawyers could convince the IRS that a regional magnet school for gifted students, where at least 50 percent of students would come from outside of Richmond, was sufficiently “different” than the local public school it used to be?

The federal government bought the argument, and awarded the project historic rehabilitation tax credits for renovations, which began in August 1999. The combination of syndicated state and federal tax credits covered a third of the total $23 million investment; another third was picked up by the 13 jurisdictions that send students to the school, and the last third was paid for by private donations—a fundraising effort Bob Mooney spearheaded. Though the building had to be sold to private hands to access the tax credits, the school has since been sold back into the public sector.

Walking through Maggie L. Walker today, its historic charm and modernized feel is hard to ignore. Plaques of the various families, philanthropists and businesses that helped fund the school’s rehabilitation hang throughout the building. The new school is also touted as a model of successful community revitalization. Since its renovation, the surrounding Jackson Ward neighborhood has seen an increase in economic development and residential construction. “This school is still the best example of regional cooperation that we have in central Virginia,” Mooney told me, as we sat together in the building’s front office.

 

THE PERSON MOST RESPONSIBLE for promoting this tax-credit policy idea beyond the confines of Maggie L. Walker is Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic political strategist in Virginia, who has championed this proposal’s merits for more than a decade. You could even say he’s obsessed.

In the late 1980s, Goldman managed the winning gubernatorial campaign for Doug Wilder, the nation’s first African American governor, and remained a close Wilder adviser throughout the 1990s. In 2004, Wilder launched a campaign for mayor of Richmond, and after winning, Goldman came on to work for him, tasked with “shaking things up.”

Goldman says that’s when he noticed many Richmond schools were in bad shape, and wanted to see if there was a way to improve them. Wilder warned Goldman that refurbishing schools is very expensive, but encouraged him to explore the options. That’s when Goldman learned about the rehabilitation of Maggie L. Walker.

At the end of 2005, Goldman met with Tim Kaine, then Virginia’s governor-elect, to discuss what Kaine had done as mayor with the Walker school. Goldman encouraged Kaine to think about changing the federal tax code, so jurisdictions all over the U.S. could do what he’d been able to do as mayor. A true believer in the idea, Goldman spent the rest of the decade bringing more Virginia politicos on board—including Republican governor Bob McDonnell, former Republican governor George Allen, and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Political momentum for the idea picked up in 2010, when Rutgers University and the National Trust Community Investment Corporation published the first annual report on the economic impact of the federal historic tax credit, finding it led to significant positive benefits in income, tax revenue, and job creation. Given the unemployment and slow economic growth following the Great Recession, the tax-credit school infrastructure proposal started to attract more notice.

In 2011, Kaine (then in-between his terms as governor and senator), Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner, Representative Cantor and Governor McDonnell outlined their bipartisan support for the Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act, a congressional bill that would grant public schools access to the rehabilitation tax credits. It didn’t pass, and they tried again in 2012, this time getting an endorsement from the National Education Association, which called it “a common-sense approach to addressing some of our school modernization needs.”

But the legislation again went nowhere, and supporters wouldn’t try again for another half-decade.

“There has been kind of a logjam in Congress, and for years people have been saying that comprehensive tax reform is just around the corner,” says Kaine. “So long as that’s true, there’s been a reluctance to take up narrow fixes to the tax code. People say, ‘just keep it on the table and we’ll get to it eventually.’”

But Goldman felt frustrated that more Democrats weren’t getting on board with the tax credit idea, given their stated desires to improve public education. He felt liberals were stubbornly resisting it because tax credits are more generally favored by Republicans, and because the proposal wouldn’t solve all of the nation’s school infrastructure problems.

Now, with Trump in office, and discussions of tax reform and infrastructure spending back on the table, Goldman and his allies see a fresh opportunity to push the idea forward. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump declared in his first speech following the election. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”

A few weeks later, however, Trump said that America’s education system is “flush with cash.” Nevertheless, supporters got to work. In February, two rookie congressmen, Donald McEachin and Dwight Evans, co-sponsored a bill, the Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act of 2017, which was included in legislative package the executive committee of the Congressional Black Caucus handed to Trump in March. (Though Evans is based in Philadelphia and most of the proposal’s supporters have been Goldman’s connections in Virginia, Evans says he’s known Goldman since the mid 1980s, when he helped in Evans’s race for lieutenant governor.)

Also in March, Goldman, George Allen, and Mark Rozell, the dean of George Mason’s public policy school, argued in Politico that the IRS rule barring public schools from accessing the historic tax credits “strikes at the heart of Trump’s campaign message: Washington is rigged for the well-connected while ordinary Americans are left behind.” They pointed to the 2016 Republican Party platform, which pledged to “remove legal roadblocks to public-private partnership agreements…that bring outside investment to meet a community’s needs.” The Democrats’ platform, they noted, called for new investments in infrastructure, including public schools.

This confluence of support makes Kaine optimistic. “The Trump administration likes the idea of funding things with tax credits, and they really like public-private partnerships,” he says. “So this is a tax reform that fits in right in with the philosophy that they’re describing.”

Last week Kaine and Warner took the plunge and introduced the School Infrastructure Modernization Act, which would waive the ‘prior use’ rule for school renovation projects that use historic rehabilitation tax credits.

Goldman believes that Trump’s history of using the credits could make him more amenable to using them for schools, too. But John Leith-Tetrault, the chairman of the Historic Tax Credit coalition, isn’t so sure. “I don’t think that because Trump used the credit that he’s necessarily inclined to protect them,” he says, noting that the one-page tax reform outline the Trump administration released in April says the president would pay for a reduction in corporate taxes by getting rid of “special interest” tax preferences, which could include historic tax credits.

Margaret Parsons, a tax credit consultant who has worked with Goldman on this issue, agrees there’s a chance that advocates are “rearranging decks on the sinking Titanic,” given that the historic tax credit program could be eliminated altogether.

DESPITE THE ENTHUSIASM FROM Goldman and his allies, the historic rehabilitation tax credit proposal has garnered some criticism and skepticism.

For one thing, critics note, these tax credit deals are very complicated, and public school districts could face huge economic risks as they navigate such transactions. Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund—a national nonprofit that advocates for improved school facilities—says while the use of historic tax credits could be a genuinely useful tool for some districts with old building stock, there are real changes that would need to take place on the state and local level to make it a truly viable option for schools, beyond just tweaking the federal tax code.

“In order for a school district to get the benefit of the historic tax credit, it has to enter into a sale and then lease back agreement with a developer,” says Filardo. “Neither school districts, nor states, currently have the in-house expertise to enter into or manage these types of public-private partnerships.”

Under the terms of the tax code, the sale-leaseback agreement requires transferring the public school to a private entity for at least five years. Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization nonprofit, says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to give public schools over to private entities—“full stop.”

While the Maggie L. Walker school was sold back to the public sector after five years, critics note that there is no rule that says the private entity has to sell it back. Paul Goldman dismisses these concerns as “fake news” and says the private investors would have no interest in keeping the schools, and would very likely sell buildings back.

“People say, Paul, a lot of localities don’t know how to do this, they could get taken advantage of, but that’s a pretty low view of the locality,” he says. “They could hire an expert. It’s just the fear of change, and the resistance to doing something a different way.”

But another challenge that comes with using the tax-credit financing approach is that districts would still likely need to raise a significant amount of funds privately. “The PTAs can’t do this type of fundraising; you’d need to have people from the business community or from family foundations,” says Mooney, who helped raise $7 million for Maggie Walker. “We’re talking about contributions of $50,000, $100,000 up to $500,000. It’s a lot of money.”

Critics say that financing schools with tax-free municipal bonds, generally paid for over the course of 30 years, is a much safer way to finance school infrastructure. One critic called the historic tax-credit approach a “boutique fix.”

But supporters of the tax credit proposal generally waive off these concerns, accusing critics of letting perfect be the enemy of the good. “The will to help the non-white majority in public schools is key,” Goldman said.

ON MAY 17, ON THE 63RD anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, House Democrats unveiled a new comprehensive school infrastructure bill—the Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2017. The legislation, which combines a $50 billion grant program and a $50 billion tax credit bond program targeted at high-poverty schools, intentionally did not include anything about historic rehabilitation tax credits.

“The historic rehabilitation tax credit would not help all schools in need of repair—only those that are certified historic structures or were built before 1936,” says a Democratic aide involved in crafting the bill. “The purpose of the historic rehabilitation tax credit was not to ensure equity in school facilities, while that is the purpose of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act.”

Disagreements over the proper role for the federal government in fixing America’s public school infrastructure get at the heart of the debate.

When I asked Kaine if he supported the tax credit approach as a second-best option given the difficulty of directly appropriating funds, he said no, that he actually thinks it’s a very good approach for the federal government, since K-12 infrastructure has not been a federal priority in the past.

“If we were going to do something more robust at the federal level [for schools], it’d be a little non-traditional; there wouldn’t be much precedent for putting federal dollars into renovating K-12 facilities,” he says. “That’s a state and local responsibility. However the tax credit program already exists, so this could be a way to be consistent with earlier federal precedent. We could still be helpful but it would remain a local responsibility.”

Others argue that increasing the federal government’s role in directly helping districts meet the soaring costs of modernizing school buildings could go a long way towards helping schools, especially ones in districts that lack wealthy tax bases. Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund thinks districts should be able to leverage up to 10 percent of their Title I funds to help pay for capital expenses—right now, Title I funds can only go toward operating spending. She also thinks the federal government should consider contributing at least 10 percent toward districts’ capital budgets, just as it contributes 10 percent to districts’ operating budgets. Filardo notes that in the decade following the GAO’s 1995 report, despite the growth in the U.S. economy, the nation’s most disadvantaged students still received about half the funding for their school buildings ($4,800 per student) as their more affluent peers ($9,361 per student). The risk of leaving school facility repair and maintenance up to state and local communities, she says, only ensures that the widening inequality between rich and poor districts will continue apace.

For now, advocates might just try to push forward every idea they can. “Yes, the historic tax credit idea may not be a solution for every public school; in some districts a bond election is a better decision,” says Parsons. “But the idea that there could be an option for historic schools that is not on the table now is powerful.”

Bernie, the Billionaires, and the School Board

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 12, 2017.
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Just 20 percent of eligible Los Angeles voters turned out to the polls on March 7 to vote for their city’s next mayor and school board officials, and turnout is likely to be even lower for Tuesday’s school board runoffs. And yet, this race that barely anyone will vote in has turned into a high-stakes battleground, complete with record-setting amounts of political spending and bitter negative campaigning. It has pitted some of the richest men in American against none other than Bernie Sanders, in a brawl over the future of public education in the nation’s largest state.

Incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, backed by labor, is running against the education reformer Nicholas Melvoin; in another district, labor-backed Imelda Padilla is facing off against the charter-backed Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez in an open race.

Los Angeles is last of the big-city school districts to hold elections for local school board members—mayors in cities like Chicago and New York appoint their school boards, and Washington, D.C., dissolved its local school board altogether in 2007, giving education decision-making power to the mayoral-appointed schools chancellor.

Despite the current showdown, Los Angeles is hardly anti-reform. With 279 charter schools, Los Angeles has more charters than any other city in the nation. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), roughly 156,000 LA public school students—24 percent of total enrollment—attended charter schools during the 2015-16 school year. The second highest city on NAPCS’s list was New York, which enrolled 93,610 students in charters that year.

But the ambitions of national reformers still far exceed the district’s appetite for change, at least thus far.

Although the LA school board has approved most petitions for new charters and charter renewals, charter advocates say they feel the board’s support for opening new ones is waning.

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And in September of 2015 The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document from billionaire Eli Broad’s foundation, revealing plans to increase Los Angeles’s charter school market share to 50 percent over the next eight years. This transformation would require the creation of 260 new charters, at a cost of $490 million. The bombshell report sparked intense controversy.

By March of 2016, education reformers had toned down their public rhetoric and goals, emphasizing that they’d support expanding all types of high-quality schools, not just charters. The modified plan did little to tamp down tensions between charter supporters and opponents. A union-funded study released in May of 2016 reported that the city’s charter sector drains upwards of $500 million a year from the school district’s budget. The teachers union and its allies charged that unmitigated charter school growth “imperils the financial stability” of the district, and limits opportunities for those students who remain in traditional public schools.

Last month, in a 4-3 vote, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to endorse three controversial bills in the state legislature that would place more oversight and restrictions on charter schools. The California Charter Schools Association strongly opposed the bills, and both Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez said they would oppose the measures if elected. (Zimmer voted in favor of endorsing the bills, and Padilla declined to take a position.)

Money from outside the city and state has been pouring into the two races. The previous record in outside donations for school board elections had been $7.4 million in 2013. As of April 29, outside spending had already reached $11.3 million, according to the city’s ethics commission campaign finance data. As LA Weekly put it, “To say the 2017 Los Angeles election for school board is the most expensive such race in the history of the United States is an understatement: It is the most expensive by more than 50 percent.” (And this is all for a job that pays $45,000 a year.)

Nationally, charter advocates often justify their reliance on the deep pockets of billionaire supporters as necessary to compete with the spending of local teachers unions. But other sources place reform spending at least in parity with union spending. As EdSource, a nonprofit education news site focused on California recently reported, “In past years, the teachers union far outspent the [charter] association on campaign contributions. Not anymore.”

In the Los Angeles school board race, the charter advocates have outspent the unions by roughly a third, with significant money coming from billionaire-donors like Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Walmart heirs Alice and Jim Walton, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

And LA Weekly reports that $4.1 million has been spent on negative campaigning in the runoffs, compared to $1.1 million in the 2015 race, and under $1 million in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of the negative campaign financing has been directed by charter proponents against Zimmer.

The unprecedented escalation of the races has also attracted some high-profile, highly unusual endorsements from political leaders and celebrities.

“Billionaires should not make a profit off of public school children,” said Democratic senator Bernie Sanders in a statement earlier this month. “That’s why I’m supporting Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla for the Los Angeles School Board. They will fight against the Trump/DeVos agenda to destabilize and undermine public schools.”

Sanders’ endorsement—which links the education reform agenda of Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez to President Trump’s controversial education agenda—reflects a larger national strategy being pursued by advocates of traditional public education since Donald Trump was elected. It attempts to link charter advocates to a man Democrats despise. It also frames Tuesday’s choice as something larger than charter schools or traditional schools: an extension of a national debate about whether the public sector, including education, will be democratic and equitable, or privatized and outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Is it working? Time will tell, but Melvoin seems to be feeling the heat: in an article in LA School Report from March, he discussed pressure to dispel myths that he was a “Trump guy.”

Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez can claim support, however, from prominent Democratic charter backers. Both have received endorsements from Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under Barack Obama, while Fitzpatrick-Gonez formerly worked as an Obama administration education adviser.

Discrimination Is Not De Facto

Originally published in Slate on May 5, 2017.
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Do we know why racial segregation occurs? In 1973, the Supreme Court said no, and in doing so, dealt a crushing blow to the civil rights movement. In Milliken v. Bradley, the court ruled that the white suburbs of Detroit could not be included in Detroit’s school desegregation plan, because no real evidence existed to show that segregation in the region’s schools or neighborhoods was “in any significant measure caused by governmental activity.” The justices concluded black students were concentrated in Detroit because of “unknown and perhaps unknowable factors.”

De facto segregation, it came to be called, a name suggesting a natural racial geography, which policymakers discover rather than create. The question of segregation’s origins, it was implied, extended far beyond the mundanities of government and into the collective psyche of Americans. Understanding those origins required parsing the individual choices and prejudices of millions of citizens. This was a question for philosophers and sociologists, not for government officials.

Thirty-four years later, Milliken’s logic still had adherents on the court. In 2007, when rejecting school desegregation plans in Louisville and Seattle, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that discrimination “not traceable to [the government’s] own actions” requires no constitutional remedy.

An essential new book takes square aim at these decisions and the very notion of de facto segregation itself. In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute concludes that the court was wrong—and still is—when it described racial segregation as the product of private individual choices.

The Color of Law resurrects an older view that had proven instrumental in the movements of the 1960s: that American government has betrayed a commitment it made with the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, to ensure that black Americans could take their place as equal members in American society. The book describes the systematic violation of black Americans’ constitutional rights, through the aggressive enactment and enforcement of racially discriminatory policies. Rothstein notes that these facts were “knowable” all along; the Supreme Court even ignored evidence of government discrimination presented in Milliken’s lower court trial.

Rothstein persuasively debunks many contemporary myths about racial discrimination. He goes after, for instance, the resilient misconception that racial separation was only government policy in the Jim Crow South, and that black entrants into neighborhoods cause white homeowners’ property values to fall. In one powerful section on zoning policies, Rothstein traces how hazardous waste sites were concentrated in segregated black neighborhoods. The episode mirrors the displacement of black families by urban renewal and interstate highway construction in mid-20th century. Even though it has long been recognized that these policies were immensely destructive and racially targeted, hardly any compensatory assistance has ever been provided.

Rothstein’s arguments are framed in the language of the civil rights movement, once common but much rarer today. In that vein, he affirmatively argues for a return to the harder-edged moralistic terminology of decades past. He refuses to shy away from words like “ghettos” and “slums,” because, he says, no alternative comes close to showing how government action is implicated in their creation. Even more strikingly, he eschews the modern euphemism “people of color,” saying American segregation has been first and foremost directed at black families, something that shouldn’t be obscured.

Rothstein’s book comes at a turning point for civil rights. After decades of public skepticism for many of its signature solutions, like integrated schools and equal access to housing, many have started to question whether the way we talk about inequality and segregation has strayed off course.

In 2014, protests over police brutality erupted nationwide, and the Black Lives Matter movement grew as a major force in American politics. That same year Nikole Hannah-Jones published an award-winning series on school segregation and Ta-Nehisi Coates published his renowned Case for Reparations” cover piece raising questions of what, if anything, America owes its black citizens. In 2015, Hannah-Jones produced a much-discussed radio series on school segregation, which has helped restore the view, widely held until the 1980s, that segregation is perhaps the foundational flaw in American public schooling.

As the country began reckoning more openly with its history of racism and racial isolation, some began to wonder if the straightforward remedies backed by early civil rights activists—which had seemed blunt to modern policymakers—were actually more effective than previously realized. After all, the systemically discriminatory policies of the past were rarely subtle.

Policy developments also contributed to this momentum. In the summer of 2015 the Supreme Court issued an important ruling that the Fair Housing Act—one of the three major civil rights laws of the 1960s—forbade even unintentional discrimination, and the Obama administration implemented, after almost 50 years, rules requiring cities to affirmatively pursue racial integration. New research published in 2015 and 2016 also revealed that the original, 1960s campaigns for civil rights and racial integration were far more successful than many had believed them to be. For instance, in 2015, a team of Harvard economists published a blockbuster report that low-income children who moved to higher opportunity areas were significantly more likely to attend college, and earned far more as adults, than similar children who never moved.

Rothstein concludes by talking about history; specifically, how it’s taught. Looking at some of the most popular U.S. history textbooks in public schools, he highlights what little they have to say about segregation, especially in the North. This failure to teach children about their country’s history of discrimination, of redlining, of blockbusting, of income suppression leaves people comfortable to assume present inequality is the result of individual decisions and “unknown” factors, not government policy.

This is the view that Rothstein ultimately seeks to challenge. The segregation of and discrimination against black families is far more than the result of individual choices; after all, individual choices can be either supported or prohibited by government. “Under our constitutional system,” Rothstein writes, “government has not merely the option but the responsibility to resist racially discriminatory views, even when—especially when—a majority holds them.”

But since American schools don’t teach the true history of systemic racial segregation, Rothstein asks, “Is it any wonder [students] come to believe that African-Americans are only segregated because they don’t want to marry or because they prefer to live only among themselves?” Only when Americans learn a common—and accurate—history of our nation’s racial divisions, he contends, will we then be able to consider steps to fulfill our legal and moral obligations. For the rest of us, still trying to work past 40 years of misinformation, there might not be a better place to start than Rothstein’s book.

 

 

 

New Jersey Teacher Tenure Lawsuit Dismissed

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 5, 2017.
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Another legal effort to weaken teacher job protections through the courts has been dismissed, this time in the Garden State. On Wednesday afternoon, a New Jersey Superior Court judge tossed the latest case, ruling that the plaintiffs—six parents from Newark Public Schools—failed to prove that seniority-based layoffs harmed their students.

Partnership for Educational Justice (PEJ), a national education reform group that aims to challenge teacher job protections across the country, funded the New Jersey lawsuit. Originally filed in November, the case marked the third time PEJ has gone after tenure provisions. Their first case filed in New York in 2014, is currently before the state Supreme Court. In October, a Minnesota district judge dismissed PEJ’s second suit, filed there in 2016. That case has since been appealed.

A 2012 California lawsuit, the country’s first legal attempt to challenge teacher job protections, inspired PEJ’s litigation. Lawyers in that high-profile case, Vergara v. California, argued that the rules that help keep ineffective teachers in the classroom violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution. The problem, the attorneys argued, was even more serious given that poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to attend schools with bad teachers.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2014, finding that five long-standing teacher job 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.

However, in a unanimous 2016 decision, a three-judge panel on California’s Court of Appeals struck down the lower court ruling and the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

These decisions have not deterred PEJ leaders. But their other Vergara-style lawsuits have run into similar legal hurdles—namely, the plaintiffs have failed to prove that teacher tenure and seniority directly cause the problems that the plaintiffs say exist.

The California appeals court judges concluded that the plaintiffs “failed to establish that the challenged statutes violate equal protection, primarily because they did not show that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students.”

Likewise in Minnesota, the district judge said that the plaintiffs failed to establish that they had been harmed in any way by the statutes, but even if they had, “because Plaintiffs’ alleged harms are not fairly traceable to the teacher tenure and the continuing contract provisions they challenge, a decision by the Court to strike those laws would not redress the harms.”

In the New Jersey case, the judge said that she does not “see any link other than speculation and conjecture between the LIFO statute and the denial of a thorough and efficient education to these twelve children.”

It is not yet clear whether the Newark plaintiffs will appeal Wednesday’s decision. Naomi Nix, a journalist with the education news website, The 74, reported that a lawyer for the plaintiffs said they may appeal the dismissal or replead the case.

“We are very pleased that the judge saw through this transparent attempt to undermine New Jersey’s seniority statute by making false claims and denigrating Newark’s dedicated educators,” said New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) President Wendell Steinhauer, in a statement. The NJEA, along with the American Federation of Teachers, had filed a motion to dismiss the suit.

David Sciarra, the executive director of the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, a legal advocacy organization, told The American Prospect that Newark’s State Superintendent Chris Cerf supported the plaintiffs in the case, claiming that state law tied his hands when cutting the district’s budget. “This is a huge distraction,” Sciarra argues. “Newark students don’t need more layoffs. They need Mr. Cerf to stand up and call on Governor Chris Christie to increase state funding so Newark can hire back the hundreds of teachers and support staff lost over past five years.”

Q&A: The American Parent Trap

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 2, 2017
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Sarah LeVine and her husband Robert LeVine have spent decades traveling the world studying global parenting styles and surveying mothers and fathers. The Harvard anthropologists published their conclusions in Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax. The LeVines found that despite significant advancements in public health and Western medicine, American parents remain the most anxious moms and dads in the world, in part, because they tend to muddy the traditional family hierarchy. In a political climate where policymakers worry about the so-called “decline of the American family”—a deeper understanding of family relationships in other cultures can contribute valuable insights to this national conversation. Rachel Cohen spoke with Sarah LeVine about their research. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Let’s start with the title of your bookDo Parents Matter?

Sarah LeVine: Of course they do, but not as much as American educated parents seem to think they do. What particularly interested my husband and me, because we’ve worked in many places around the world, was the tremendous anxiety that new American parents have about babies, and even second-time American parents have. They seem to carry this conviction that there’s only one right way to do almost anything—whether it’s to sleep or not sleep with them, to breast feed them or not breast feed them, or feed them solids or not feed them solids, etc. I have done a great deal of work studying how people raise babies in different places, and the range of parenting behavior was just so tremendous, yet the children turned out just fine.

Why do you think American parents are more anxious?

One very important thing is that educated women in America tend to have babies awfully late—in their 30s, or even in their 40s. They often have had rather intense careers before they have children, and as a result, they have very high expectations of themselves for performance, which they then carry over to raising children. So they read tremendously, and there are masses of books of how to raise children—in my days, there was Dr. Spock and T. Berry Brazelton and that was about it—but now there are books on every possible aspect of raising children.

Another thing is people often have no support from their mothers because their mother might live very far away, and there aren’t other older people around. Maybe these new mothers have worked for 15 years and all of a sudden they have a child—they get out of the hospital and they’re home with this infant and they’re terrified because they don’t have any support.

Your book explores parenting practices that are extremely normal in other countries but that are stigmatized in America, such as sleeping with your baby.

Ninety percent of the children that are being born nowadays are born in non-Western countries, and in non-Western countries, the vast majority of people sleep with their babies. But even in Japan, which is an incredibly modern country, mothers sleep with their children, sometimes until they’re teenagers.

I worked in Mexico for many years—I was working with working class people and lower-middle class people, and my assistants were university educated young women—and everybody slept with their children. People would build houses with several bedrooms, and I discovered the bedrooms were used as storage space, because everyone was sleeping in the same room. Upper-class Mexicans were the only people who didn’t sleep with their children, but they had nannies and the nannies slept with the children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages sleeping with children, and you say they’ve been “dragging their feet” on this—refusing to look at cross-cultural studies. Why is this?

They think children sleep better, and, perhaps they do, but for the mother this definitely isn’t the case. The fact is if you sleep with your child, and most people in the non-Western world not only sleep with their children but nurse their children, it’s much easier to do if you’re in the same bed—because then you don’t even notice.

My husband was trained as a psychoanalyst and I was trained as a child therapist at the University of Chicago, and in those days, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was the Freudian idea that if you have children, they should never be exposed to their parents having intercourse, because that would be absolutely traumatic.

Once when I was working with some peasant communities in South America where everyone slept in the same room, I asked them, well what are you going to do about intercourse? They laughed at me and said “well, we have it!” If [American] parents are terribly anxious about it, because they’re familiar with the Freudian notion, then their children might very well get anxious too, because they would get the sense they were seeing something they shouldn’t be seeing. But other societies don’t feel that way—and people see sexual relations as absolutely natural. Moreover, in peasant societies, it’s almost sort of a duty because there’s a sense that you should have as many children as possible.

You’ve seen some things that really shocked youlike force-feeding. Globally, corporeal punishment is going down, out of a much broader sense that it’s bad for kids. How did your cultural and academic biases affect your work?  

Even though I can always speak the language of [the people] I was observing, and I would read whatever literature I could find, I was terribly prejudiced. I really was. That’s not just because I was a Westerner. It was because I had been trained at the University of Chicago that there were right ways and there were terrible ways of doing all kinds of things—because that’s what developmental psychology was like. So when I saw things that I had been trained to believe would be disastrous, it was shocking, even though I knew enough to know that perhaps every child in that culture was treated that way and I could see that older children and teenagers and young adults were warm, amusing, and competent.

For example, it used to be that if you were dealing with strange children in the U.S. who seemed to be on the autism spectrum, or sometimes they didn’t speak at all—in those days it was believed that cold and unyielding mothers produced those types of children. Of course, thank God, it’s now known that there are many factors that contribute to autism and Asperger’s. But the primary idea in the psychiatric profession was that these children are estranged because they had so-called “refrigerator mothers.”

I went to northern Nigeria to this very conservative Muslim society and I would see these mothers who absolutely never made eye contact with their children, never spoke to them. They nursed them and sometimes fed them when they got older, but they never spoke to them. I thought, my God these children are all going to end up on the spectrum. I knew why the mothers were behaving this way—it was a way of inculcating their moral values into their children. There’s a very strong value in most parts of Africa that children must respect their parents and parents must respect their children, and this necessitates degrees of distance.

However, it was quite different for those Nigerian children with their grandparents. While their mothers never spoke to them, those same children had a wonderful time with their grandparents who were very intimate with them. The point is, you can get affection and psychological nurturance from someone other than your mother, and one of the problems with American popular notions of parenting, which have been absolutely encouraged by the psychiatric and therapeutic community, is that the mother is the source of everything.

That was something that took me a long time to disabuse myself of, even though I myself was raised by a nanny and we all turned out pretty OK.

Other societies seem to have a much broader understanding of what a child needs in terms of love and support and family. American policymakers put so much stock into the traditional idea of a family headed by heterosexual, married parents. They even call them “intact families”and suggest any divergence from that arrangement could hurt a child’s chance for a successful life.

We need to recognize that what produces a well-adjusted child and a well-adjusted adult is not just growing up in a two-parent family. We don’t really know what it takes to produce a well-adjusted child, but one important thing is that someone loves them, and there is a whole host of people I know from my background where their nannies loved them, and their sisters loved them. There are perfectly obvious examples in plain sight nowadays of people not being raised in conventional families and they are outgoing and warm and sociable.

You explore how the government’s role in childrearing expanded after the Industrial Revolution. That is, adults were “infused with a concern for other people’s children” and reformers pushed governments to take on more responsibilities around education, work, and public health that before had been left to parents. The pendulum seems to be swinging in the other direction in the U.S., at least in terms of schooling. There is a growing school choice movement built around the idea of empowering parents who know what’s best for their kids.

The situation here in America is very different from northern Europe. Northern European countries are all fundamentally socialist, and even though the U.K. has a conservative government at the moment, the infrastructure of the state is the product of socialism and socialist ideas—which means the state has far more responsibility than is the case in the United States.

With the exception of the U.K., which has a long tradition of private schools, in continental Europe everyone goes to state schools—regardless of your social class. That’s because in Europe, schools are seen as the responsibility of the state to create citizens: It is simply a major focus of public education. In the U.S., there are many school districts that don’t even teach civics anymore, so this shift away from the general commons is less surprising.

We have some American schools structured on models of strict discipline. Some progressives worry these schools may harm students, emotionally or developmentally. What’s your view of that trend?

I haven’t any personal experience with these kinds of school in America. However I’ve spent a lot of time with strict schools in Africa and Haiti, where schools are models on old-fashioned British schools. I know so many adults who have come out of those systems: You listen to the teacher, and that’s it. It’s not the way progressive schools in the U.S. are structured where everything a child says is expected to be listened to and taken seriously.

I actually grew up in a school like this. Though we sort of complained, in middle and old age we realized how incredibly important the schools were in providing us the structure, which we can then rebel against later on. Although the discipline was a bit harsh, I think we all agree that we benefited from it. When everyone is focused on the same goals, and there is a peer group that you can relate to, especially if you come from chaotic homes, schools can provide children not just with a focus but with the tools to become self-respecting adults. It doesn’t suit all children, though.

Americans seem to want a much more egalitarian relationship with their children compared to other societies.

Parents in other countries have a much easier time raising children than Americans do, and that’s because in other societies there are clear distinctions between parents and children. Parents are responsible for the children, and there’s a clear hierarchy and everyone knows where they stand. In the U.S., parents want to be best friends with their children. But that can be confusing for children. It’s an illusion that children have the same power, they do not. The irony is that while things may be less egalitarian within the family in Europe, their larger societies are far more egalitarian.

The Untold History of Charter Schools

Originally published in Democracy Journal on April 27, 2017.
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Despite the controversy over their very existence, there isn’t much disagreement over how charter schools came to be. For over 25 years, charter supporters and opponents alike have settled on a straightforward creation story, one defined by a single irresistible irony: Charters were first and foremost the brainchild of teachers’ unions, the very same groups that would become the schools’ greatest foes.

The story goes something like this. In 1988, Albert Shanker, legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech at the National Press Club where he outlined his vision for a new kind of publicly funded, independently managed school. He called them “charters” and saw them as educational laboratories, where teachers could try out new pedagogical approaches. By empowering teachers to experiment with their craft, charters could serve as R&D spaces for new and better practices that could then be transferred back into traditional public schools. In a New York Times column published later that year, Shanker carried his ideas to the wider public.

Shanker said his piece, policymakers heard him and acted, and the rest—the explosion of charters, the debates over unionization and privatization, the constant experimentation with the form and structure of public schools—is history.

Today, this story has been weaponized by every side in the endless war over education reform. The Shanker speech, it turns out, is useful no matter where you stand on charter schools.

Many supporters use it to argue that charters are, ultimately, a progressive and student-friendly idea—but one abandoned by self-interested latter-day union leaders. Reform proponents like Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have defended the charter sector against union attacks by lifting up that Shanker “conceptualized” them. “Union leaders haven’t always been adamantly anti-charter,” Rees wrote last year in The Wall Street Journal. “[AFT President Randi] Weingarten’s former boss and mentor Al Shanker is actually credited with proposing charter schools.” “Here’s a fact,” wrote Laura Waters, a vocal charter advocate. “If Albert Shanker were alive today, he’d still be an education reformer and would support NJ’s efforts to expand school choice for poor urban students.” When a ballot measure to expand charter schools in Massachusetts struggled to find votes on the left, David Osborne, a centrist Democrat, penned a column to gin up progressive support. “Al Shanker gave a speech and wrote a column advocating charters,” Osborne said. “Needless to say, Shanker was no Republican.”

For their part, teacher unions and reform skeptics invoke the same origin story as evidence that they do support school choice and innovation, just teacher-led, unionized, mom-and-pop forms of it. They tell it as a story of an idea stolen and betrayed, drawing a contrast between good charters—those described by Shanker—and what the schools have become today. Supposedly, the creator of charters watched with horror as his idea was “hijacked” by conservatives, profiteers, and privatizers. As described in his biography, Tough Liberal, written by the Century Foundation’s senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg, Shanker “became quite exercised” by state laws written to allow for-profit corporations to enter the charter school sector. Shanker grew worried that charters might actually promote segregation, undermine public education, and be used as tools to destroy unions. By the mid-1990s, Kahlenberg writes, “Albert Shanker largely repudiated a major reform he had helped launch.”

AFT president Randi Weingarten likes to remind audiences that Shanker was one of the first proponents of charter schooling, but that unfortunately some “have shifted the intent of charters from incubating ideas and sharing successes to competing for market share and taxpayer dollars.” Unions are quick to point out that, in Shanker’s mind, charters would employ unionized teachers, would have union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.”

There’s only one problem with the idea that charters started with Shanker and his speech: It’s almost completely wrong.

Shanker didn’t invent the concept of charters. He wasn’t part of the long-running campaign to popularize them. His significant contribution was the term “charter school”—except he used it to describe a very different, loosely related idea.

Oh, and he didn’t invent that term, either.

The truth is that the modern fight over education reform has changed less than the people fighting would have us believe. Who invented charter schools? The same groups, it turns out, that are charters’ strongest backers today: business-oriented moderates and technocrats, focused on deregulation, disruption, and the hope of injecting free market dogmas into the public sector. Charters do have a founding father—but he’s a quintessentially neoliberal “policy entrepreneur” who has mostly kept his name out of the history books. The major principles undergirding charter schooling—choice, deregulation, and so-called accountability—had already attracted significant attention long before 1988, and proposals to break up the “monopoly” of school districts had been building for more than a decade. If Shanker helped usher some of these ideas into the limelight, the truth is that those ideas’ backers had many other roads into the inner circles of government—even if some of those roads had not yet been taken.

Progressives have always occupied an uneasy role in the charter movement—one that’s unlikely to get any easier so long as Donald Trump’s Administration remains the nation’s most powerful promoter of school choice. The untold history of charter schools shows why this is: Progressive reformers are stuck fighting against the tide in a campaign that has, from the start, looked at public institutions, labor, and government with a wary eye.

The real origin story of charters isn’t about unions gone astray or progressivism betrayed by reformers. It’s the story of the Third Way in public schools. And it begins, of all places, in Minnesota.

In the 1970s, deregulation was the name of the game. Efforts to deregulate major sectors of government took root under Ford and Carter, and continued to escalate throughout the 1980s under Reagan. From banking and energy to airlines and transportation, liberals and conservatives both worked to promote deregulatory initiatives spanning vast sectors of public policy.

Schools were not immune. Since at least the late 1970s, political leaders in Minnesota had been discussing ways to reduce direct public control of schools. A private school voucher bill died in the Minnesota legislature in 1977, and Minnesota’s Republican governor Al Quie, elected in 1979, was a vocal advocate for school choice.

Two prominent organizations were critical in advancing school deregulation in the state. One was the Minnesota Business Partnership, comprised of CEOs from the state’s largest private corporations; another was the Citizens League, a powerful, centrist Twin Cities policy group. When the League spoke, the legislature listened—and often enacted its proposals into law. In 1982 the Citizens League issued a report endorsing private school vouchers on the grounds that consumer choice could foster competition and improvement without increasing state spending, and backed a voucher bill in the legislature in 1983. The Business Partnership published its own report in 1984 calling for “profound structural change” in schooling, with recommendations for increased choice, deregulation, statewide testing, and accountability. The organized CEOs would play a major role throughout the 1980s lobbying for K-12 reform, as part of a broader agenda to limit taxes and state spending.

Efforts to tinker with public schooling took on greater urgency in 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, A Nation At Risk. This influential (though empirically flawed) document panicked political leaders across the country. Among other things, the report concluded that American public schools were failing—“eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity”—with ill-prepared teachers and low-quality standards. Its authors tied the country’s economy and national security to the supposedly poor performance of U.S. public schools, and Reagan capitalized on the alarm. His narrative fit snugly within the larger Cold War panic, and as in Minnesota, national business leaders were happy to promote this new movement.

School choice was not specifically mentioned in A Nation at Risk, though Governor Quie, who was then serving as a member on the National Commission, tried to get such recommendations included. But reformers didn’t have to wait long for a national endorsement. In 1986, the National Governors Association, chaired by Tennessee’s Republican governor Lamar Alexander, backed school choice in its Time for Results report.

Back in Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, a member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, was elected as governor for his second non-consecutive term in 1983. (He had first served from 1976-1979.) During the four years that Quie governed Minnesota, Perpich worked on a global business committee for a supercomputer firm, and returned to government deeply shaped by his corporate experience.

Ember Reichgott Junge, the state senator who would author Minnesota’s—and the nation’s—first charter school bill, described Perpich’s role bluntly: “According to the history books, Minnesota DFL governor Rudy Perpich had nothing to do with passage of chartering legislation. In reality, he had everything to do with it.”

Junge traces this history in Zero Chance of Passage, her first-person account of legislating charter schools, published in 2012. Junge says Perpich was greatly troubled by A Nation at Risk, and thought increasing competition among schools would be a constructive response. As such, in 1985, with Republicans in control of the legislature, Perpich recommended two school choice proposals: postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO), to allow high school juniors and seniors to attend nonsectarian public and private colleges, and open enrollment, to allow parents to send their children to schools anywhere in the state. PSEO passed in 1985, and open enrollment in 1987.

1987 was also the year that the Citizens League waded back into the subject, publishing a report calling for “cooperatively-managed schools”—where teachers could participate in the operational decisions of their workplace. The thinking was this could help drive more distinctive schools—because school choice would mean little without varied options to choose from. The Citizens League’s description of cooperatively managed schools is strikingly similar to modern-day charters. Teachers would be “held accountable” for student achievement, and the schools would “have flexibility to function differently from the schools we know today, from different uses of personnel and technology to different work hours.”

In the midst of this policy ferment came the famous—or infamous—1988 Al Shanker National Press Club speech. The AFT was in a precarious spot. Public support for organized labor was wavering. Ronald Reagan was still in office, and had earned a reputation as one of the most anti-union presidents in American history, in part by firing more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

Shanker thought part of the path toward saving public education was coopting the forces attacking it. He controversially endorsed aspects of A Nation at Risk, embracing its ideas about higher standards, teacher accountability, and “restructuring.” He wanted a seat at the reform table, and leaned into the idea of “professionalizing” teachers to bring his members along. Shanker felt educators needed to not be seen as obstructionist, and the years following A Nation at Risk marked a massive shift away from the blue-collar unionism that had previously defined the AFT. In 2011, Louise Sundin, who was president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers in 1984, said that Shanker’s agenda following A Nation at Risk “was a pretty screeching U-Turn” for the union, “and still is [today] a difficult one for a lot of our members and a lot of our leaders.”

When Shanker gave his charter speech, he fused his ideas about restructuring and teacher professionalization with the growing popularity of school choice. He got the idea (and the name “charter”) from a little-known educator in Massachusetts, Ray Budde, who proposed the idea of school boards issuing charters directly to teachers to create new departments or programs. Budde presented his ideas at an academic conference in 1974, but they received little notice. Budde decided to try republishing his ideas in book-form in the years following A Nation at Risk, and sent it around widely in early 1988. It landed, among other places, on Shanker’s desk.

As Kahlenberg notes in Tough Liberal, a focus on restructuring appealed to Shanker politically. Pressure had been mounting throughout the 1980s to lengthen the school day and school year, to vie with America’s competitors in other industrialized nations. But this idea was deeply unpopular with union members. “The re-structuring focus allowed Shanker to argue that a longer school day or school year was not worth the extra expense,” Kahlenberg writes. Charters offered Shanker a useful alternative.

Shanker wasn’t even the first noteworthy public figure to call for reorganizing public schools. In the late 1960s sociologist Kenneth Clark, whose work helped form the basis of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, advocated for alternative public school systems run by institutions ranging from universities to the Department of Defense.

And once Shanker put his ideas forward, many ascribed to him far more power to shape the charter movement than he ever had, or even tried to have. Shanker’s endorsement was certainly politically valuable to reformers, but most had long had their own agendas. Ultimately he was just one of many people clamoring to define what direction school reform should take.

In fact, if charter schools can be attributed to any single person, it’s certainly not Shanker, Budde, or even Clark. It’s Ted Kolderie, a Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” and one-time Citizen’s League director who spent much of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in the middle of discussions over school reform. His influence can be traced to almost every corner of the charter movement’s development, and unlike Shanker and the others, he remained dedicated to building and promoting the idea through decades of effort. Throughout the 1970s—through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO)—Kolderie’s group researched and advocated for different ways to provide government services, including education. As early as 1972 Citizens League published a report calling for “new arrangements”—namely with more choice and contracting. By 1981, Kolderie and a leader of the Minnesota Business Partnership launched Public School Incentives, a PSO successor focused exclusively on education.

One of Kolderie’s central ideas was to “end the exclusive franchise” of school districts providing public education. In several reports, he described the decline of public education as the direct consequence of public districts’ monopolistic power over schooling. His proposal: independent schools, accountable to parents through free market choice, and to the government through a set of contractual obligations. He specified that many different types of entities—universities, corporations, public school districts, nonprofits—should be able to manage these new schools, state law permitting.

This was a remarkably complete vision of the modern charter school, quirks and all.

So why do most people credit Albert Shanker with creating charters, and not Kolderie, who had been developing the concept for nearly two decades longer? One reason is because Kolderie liked it that way.

“To know Kolderie is to know someone of extraordinary vision, who often thinks light-years ahead, but still gently prods others along to where he wants them to go,” wrote Junge in Zero Chance of Passage. “Kolderie was a master at creating, refining, and redirecting ideas. He never would publicly ‘own’ any ideas, and ways to improve those ideas always presented themselves. He nurtured ideas and connected the dots for others.”

Kolderie seems to have understood that Shanker’s very different vision was a useful vehicle for his own ideas. In October 1988, the Minneapolis Foundation hosted its 14th annual Itasca Seminar, a summit for Twin Cities political and business leaders, and the year’s theme was public education. Shanker was invited to speak, and he took the opportunity to expound on charter schooling. His speech complemented the mix of school choice and independent school proposals that had been bouncing around Minnesota for quite some time.

Shanker wasn’t the only person to give a choice-oriented speech at that summit. Other speakers included Joe Nathan, a Twin Cities education reformer who personally worked with Lamar Alexander in the early 1980s to shape the school choice recommendations in the National Governors Association (NGA)’s Time For Results report. At the Itasca Seminar, Nathan would emphasize the need for greater school deregulation in exchange for “results.”

Two months later the Citizens League would issue yet another report, concluding with a strong and specific recommendation that the state legislature allow for the creation of “chartered” schools.

With Junge’s help, Minnesota would pass the nation’s first charter law three years later. Kolderie and Junge like to credit Shanker for helping to shape their ideas, but the final legislation appeared to be in response to the Citizen’s Leagues recommendations—and more than anything else, reflected Kolderie’s own vision of independent, contractually authorized schools.

In the end, Shanker’s comments on the law he was supposedly instrumental in creating were limited. Though Minnesota’s teachers unions fought the law’s passage, Shanker chose not to speak out during the legislative debates.

“I wish the architects of the bill had worked out the collective bargaining issues with the teachers unions,” Shanker told Kolderie, two months after it passed.

Although conservatives led the way in for pushing education reform in the 1980s, centrist liberals jumped on board in the early 1990s. In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as its chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie met PPI’s president in 1990, and was invited to write one of its first policy papers about school choice. Kolderie was happy to bring his ideas about “withdrawing the exclusive [monopoly]” of school districts to the Third Way. Bill Clinton embraced Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches that year, even though he knew it was vexing teachers unions. (“It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches,” Shanker would later complain.)

1990 was also when Wisconsin’s Republican governor Tommy Thompson signed the nation’s first private school voucher program, and when John Chubb and Terry Moe published Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, an influential Brookings Institution book that called for school deregulation, market competition, and parental choice.

The “New Democrats” saw charters as a way to seem proactive on education policy, offer an alternative to private school vouchers, and avoid catering to the “More Money Dem” crowd, as DLC’s co-founder, Will Marshall, put it. For liberals who sought to weaken their party’s relationships with “special interest groups” like teachers unions, charters were a boon.

At the DLC’s national convention in May of 1991, Bill Clinton and DLC delegates would endorse an education agenda that included, among other things, school choice, accountability, and Kolderie’s idea, which the DLC explained as “giving entities other than school districts” the chance to operate public schools. Even in this early stage, the agenda followed Kolderie’s market-oriented vision, not Shanker’s union-oriented one.

Democrats’ endorsement of charters did little to dampen conservative enthusiasm for the idea. Indeed, Kolderie continued to serve as a trusted education advisor for David Durenberger, Minnesota’s Republican senator, who became an early federal champion for charter schooling.

At its outset, the real power in the charter coalition was what might be termed the “technocratic centrists”: business leaders, moderate Republicans, and DLC members looking for Third Way solutions that couldn’t be labeled big-government liberalism. While charters have drawn praise from other quarters—for instance, some educators and progressive activists see them as tools for racial and economic justice—these groups have never formed the heart of charters’ power base.

It hasn’t always been easy to hold the bipartisan charter coalition together, and fairly stark philosophical divisions have been bubbling to the surface over the past few years concerning what the movement’s priorities should be going forward. The election of Donald Trump, and his appointment of GOP billionaire donor Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, has plunged the charter movement into an even deeper crisis of identity.

Progressive and centrist charter leaders have so far been trying to walk the line between pushing back on the President’s far-right politics and remaining reserved, lest useful opportunities for bipartisan cooperation arise. But grassroots pressure for more aggressive opposition has been mounting.

Other parts of the coalition are moving in the opposite direction. The stocks on for-profit charters have spiked significantly since the election, with industry leaders anticipating a friendly new political landscape for what some in the reform coalition see as low-quality schools. In New York City, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz has emerged, to the chagrin of many liberals, as one of Trump’s most prominent charter defenders. (Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors include major Trump donors such as John Paulson and Robert Mercer.)

Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have charters, educating nearly three million students. Whether charter supporters can maintain the movement’s bipartisan backing while receiving support from a deeply unpopular President who promises to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” remains an open, and dicey, question.

The mythological origin story of charter schools—the Shanker myth—has served an important role in keeping the charter coalition together. The idea that charters come from unions lends a certain weight-of-history inevitability to school reform. It suggests that everyone has agreed that change must come, and the only question is from who, and what it’ll look like in the end.

Besides, on some level, the dramatically compelling nature of the story—unions creating their own greatest antagonist—keeps people from digging deeper. As a writer, it’s easy to want to believe it. This author would know, having once subscribed to it herself.

But the Shanker tale may have also helped undermine progressive school choice advocates, who find themselves chasing a vision that has never played a major role in the inner circles of school reform. Most charters are more segregatedthan traditional public schools, are non-union, and when charter educators do mount union campaigns, they almost always face tremendous opposition. If the promise of unionized, integrated, teacher-centered charters has proven devilishly difficult to fulfill, it may be, in part, because the movement’s leaders never took it very seriously to begin with.

The Shanker myth also leaves those who support traditional public schooling, in its original form, stranded in a political no man’s land. And right now, those people are in the fight of their lives, looking for firmer footing. More broadly, the Democratic Party has grown wary of the Third Way policies of the 1990s, suspecting they provide little defense against a resurgent right. As the charter coalition enters a new, treacherous era, the consensus history of charter schools may at last meet some resistance.

The Hopes and Fears Around Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program

Originally published in CityLab on April 21, 2017.

When Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren asked Ben Carson what he would do as HUD secretary to address the condition of U.S. public housing, Carson enthusiastically singled out one program for praise—the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a five-year-old federal initiative that has gone largely under the radar. He said he’s “very encouraged” by RAD’s early results, and “looks forward to working with Congress to expand this worthy program.”

RAD works by transferring public housing units to the private sector, so that developers and housing authorities can tap into a broader range of subsidies and financing tools to rehab and manage the units. Given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and the billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs, supporters say RAD is the best available option to preserve the affordable units, lest they become too uninhabitable for anyone to live in at all.

Roughly 60,000 public housing units have been converted to project-based Section 8 rentals through RAD since its launch in 2012, and Congress has authorized 185,000 units to be converted in total. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to return to the private units if they want to, though housing advocates fear the RAD statute has loopholes that could prevent this goal from coming true.

It’s little surprise that RAD—a revenue-neutral program that leverages the private sector—might appeal to leaders like Carson. RAD has garnered strong bipartisan support among Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and many expect its congressional cap to be lifted altogether in the coming years, potentially setting the stage for a radical change to much of the nation’s public housing.

But there are housing advocates concerned about how fast RAD is moving, and they warn that oversight and transparency remain mixed at best. For some tenants, the conversions have been a nightmare.

Katrina Jones, a single mother of three, had been living in public housing for a decade when she learned that her subsidized building in Hopewell, Virginia, would be razed through RAD, and new affordable apartments would be built in its place. Jones, who has one daughter confined to a wheelchair, was thrilled by the prospect of long-overdue housing repairs and upgrades for her 1960s-era building.

However, according to HUD complaints filed in December, the Hopewell housing authority and the nonprofit RAD developer refused to make accommodations for Jones and her family, convincing her to take a tenant buy-out. At the time, Jones’ son was facing criminal charges (which were later dropped), and she needed money to pay his attorney fees. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave., half of which went towards paying attorney fees to defend her son against criminal charges that were later dropped. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave.

Jones now works at WalMart and pays $1,450 per month for an accessible unit in Chester, Virginia; her public housing rent had been $400 a month. “I’m living a whole new life right now where I’m struggling more every single day just to keep my current apartment,” she says. “These people don’t care what happens to you once you’re out.”

Jones is one of a dozen former tenants named in complaints recently filed by Virginia legal aid lawyers who say the Hopewell RAD conversions violated a wide range of federal laws and regulations—including unlawful threats of eviction and discrimination against families with children and the disabled. HUD is investigating the allegations, but tenant advocates say the problems documented in Hopewell reflect larger accountability issues related to the program.

It’s not just in Virginia. John Kelly, a 74-year-old tenant living in public housing in San Francisco, is currently under threat of eviction for not signing the lease of his building’s new RAD landlord, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Kelly, who has been reaching out to housing nonprofits and HUD for the past six months, says the lease he’s being asked to sign is “illegal, dishonest, unconscionable.”

Kelly describes himself as “not a big fan” of government, and he thinks private organizations could do a better job of managing his building than the San Francisco housing authority. But his experience dealing with RAD, he says, has been terrible.

Terry Bagby, a 58-year-old veteran who also lives in Kelly’s building, agrees it’s been extremely stressful. “A lot of our questions go unanswered by all these different agencies that come and have meetings with us,” he says. “I’m surprised I haven’t had another heart attack or stroke dealing with all this nonsense. I’d move out of this city in a heartbeat if I could.”

TNDC did not return multiple requests for comment, but Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Housing Rights Committee, says local groups have been working closely with the city to monitor RAD conversions. Some developers have been responsible, she says; with others it’s been more of a struggle.

“Tenants are distrustful, for real reasons,” says Sherburn-Zimmer, referring to the city’s history of displacement and eviction. “You definitely get some agencies who have young workers, new to town, who tell tenants everything is going to be great. Tenants aren’t stupid; they want everything in writing.”

Whether these are isolated incidents or signs that RAD portends greater risks for tenants in the future is not yet clear. The serious shortcomings of earlier housing programs like HOPE VI and Section 236 loom large. Both Bagby and Kelly expressed fears that their city’s commitment to low-income housing will eventually disappear.

Kim Rolla, a lawyer who helped file the Hopewell complaint, says she and her colleagues got a lot of pushback from other affordable housing advocates after contacting the media about HUD’s investigation. “It was the same week that the budget cuts were announced, and they said, ‘Why would you criticize this HUD program right now?’”

Jessica Casella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, says that Hopewell is the most egregious complaint she’s heard of, but her organization has documented many kinds of tenant RAD issues over the past few years. She also admits there are many places where nobody really knows how these conversions are going. “One of our major concerns is the level and quality of oversight by HUD,” says Casella. “I think HUD has put its emphasis on getting properties to closing, and much less effort in making sure that after deals are finalized, the transitions go smoothly.”

Transparency around RAD has also been a challenge for advocates, academics, and reporters. Rolla says she and her colleagues faced serious difficulty accessing basic information about the Hopewell RAD deal—and their request to have hundreds of dollars in FOIA fees waived was denied on the grounds that such disclosures were “not in the public interest.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees RAD, says his agency is trying to make RAD “the gold standard in terms of protections of residents,” noting that it has far more rules and regulations for tenant treatment than almost any other federal housing program. Davis says there’s also been a lot of work over the last 18 months to upgrade the procedures related to how HUD monitors properties post-conversion, including proactively reaching out to public housing authorities to ensure there are no issues.

“I think if there are any agencies out there meant to protect us, they’re not funded that well,” said Terry Bagby, wearily. “They probably don’t have a lot of people working on their staff, and are underpaid.”

Going forward, as HUD continues investigating Hopewell, advocates hope to make sure that the federal housing agency’s commitment to RAD oversight doesn’t waver.

How D.C. Became the Darling of Education Reform

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 19, 2017.
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When it comes to education reform, perhaps no city has inspired more controversy and acclaim over the last decade than Washington, D.C. Even today, uttering the name “Michelle Rhee”—the city’s first schools chancellor appointed in 2007 after a major shakeup in the district—still evokes heated reactions from local residents. Following the dissolution of the local school board and the centralization of education decision-making within the mayor’s office, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty commanded an unusual amount of power to change D.C.’s schools.

Over the past ten years, the policies undergirding the national education reform movement—offering more school choice, weakening teacher union power, and creating new accountability systems (with incentives like pay-for-performance and teacher evaluations based partly on student test scores)—have taken hold in the nation’s capital. Some see these moves as encouraging proof that education reform is working. Proponents point to positive benchmarks: District enrollment is growing; D.C. scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have improved (in some cases at a much faster rate than students in other large urban districts); and teachers who left the district after receiving low marks on D.C.’s new teacher evaluation system were replaced with higher-scoring teachers who boosted student achievement.

Research suggests that D.C. charter schools have made strides in student learning compared with the city’s traditional public schools, and the city’s overall test gains cannot be explained by demographic changes alone. In 2016, Jonathan Chait, a liberal writer for New York magazine (whose wife helped craft some of D.C.’s new policies and now works for a local charter school), declared, “The dramatic improvements registered in places like Washington show the revolutionary possibilities of education reform.”

For others, these gains have been overstated. Critics point to large racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, misleading claims made by the school district’s public relations department, uncritical press coverage, a precipitous decline in black educators, and funding that has been inequitably distributed to some of the city’s most impoverished schools.

“I know that too many of the successes boasted of by schools and by educators like me are little more than polite interpretations of the same data scores,” a D.C. charter teacher wrote recently. “Too much of what I see in my school today is exactly what I saw ten years ago.” After a decade working in D.C. schools, she is calling it quits.

Subsequent D.C. mayors (Vincent Gray, elected in 2011, and Muriel Bowser, elected in 2014) and schools chancellors (Kaya Henderson, appointed in late 2010, and Antwan Wilson, in late 2016) have largely continued to promote the school reforms launched by Fenty and Rhee. Though it’s been more than two months since Wilson took over as D.C.’s new schools chancellor, it is unclear how he will steer the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) between these competing narratives of success and hype. A better understanding of D.C. school reform, which was long heralded by the Obama administration as a national model, matters even more now that Donald Trump’s administration aims to expand school choice policies across the country—likely beginning with the nation’s capital.

 

THOUGH PEOPLE REMAIN starkly divided over education reform in D.C., the one thing both critics and supporters agree on is that the old way of evaluating teachers had to change. Removing bad teachers from the classroom had been too difficult. Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for the D.C. schools and a former DCPS parent, says it was well-known that some teachers shouldn’t have been there, but they were hard to fire.

“There was peak enrollment in the late 1960s, and after that [the district] just abandoned their gatekeeping test and started hiring anyone who was breathing so long as they had a degree,” Levy says. “My older daughter had one of those teachers, and she was unbelievably bad. So the district had an older workforce to whom no standards had been applied, and when enrollment started going down, and there were big layoffs in the 1980s, every elementary teacher with less than ten years in the system lost their jobs, and the older ones got to stay.”

“The union contract in D.C. was awful,” says Mark Simon, an Economic Policy Institute research associate and a former president of the Montgomery County (Maryland) teachers union. “It was an example of the kind of contract that existed in some school districts where the limitations placed on teachers’ time and the specificity of what administrators had to do [for] an evaluation [to] hold weight was so rigid that more often than not, teachers could not be evaluated out of the school system.” Simon added, “If a principal did not get the right documents filled out the right way on just the right line, then the whole thing was thrown out by an arbitrator.”

An American Prospect review of a 2006 D.C. teacher evaluation handbook corroborates these observations. One byzantine rule stipulated that to terminate an ineffective teacher by the end of the school year, the administrator had to make a decision no later than the first week of January. If the process began with less than 90 days remaining in the school year, “the educator must be granted permission to return to the same site the next school year” as the process continued.

Simon opposes D.C.’s new system, IMPACT, which ranks teachers as highly effective, effective, developing, minimally effective, or ineffective, arguing that it de-professionalizes teachers. He contrasts IMPACT with the system he helped pioneer in the 1990s as union president for Montgomery County, D.C.’s suburban neighbor. Simon wrote in 2012, “The focus of teacher evaluation in Montgomery County is professional growth—the nurturing of good teaching, not the sorting and ranking of the teacher workforce.” He added: “Although an evaluation system must be able to weed out people who never should have entered teaching, that objective only applies to a tiny percentage of the workforce and must not be the system’s main purpose. Good teachers are not found through some magical recruitment pipeline. They are made, over time.”

Simon says that in 2008 he approached Jason Kamras, the D.C. school official charged with developing a new teacher evaluation system, and suggested that the district craft a system similar to Montgomery County’s. “[Kamras] ran it up the food chain, said other people had suggested the same thing, but that the response was that it takes too long, costs too much, we’re not interested, we want to use a rubric to hire and fire,” says Simon.

There had been some innovative teacher evaluation models at the time—Toledo, Ohio, was experimenting with peer review and others were exploring so-called professional learning communities. Even though Simon was critical of IMPACT, he agreed that policymakers had not been focusing much on improving teacher quality through feedback and evaluation.

“I think the reformers are right that people hadn’t been paying enough attention to teacher evaluation, and in a lot of places the systems were pretty pro-forma,” says Jesse Rothstein, a University of California, Berkeley public policy and economics professor. “But there were places that were doing it better, and that typically involved things like mentor[ing] teachers and careful classroom observations.”

One reason D.C.’s education reforms attracted significant attention across the country was their timing: DCPS started using IMPACT to evaluate teachers during the 2009–2010 school year, just as the education reform organization The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report recommending that districts develop evaluation systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement.”

IMPACT and TNTP’s report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states and Washington D.C. revamped their teacher evaluation processes to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” from 2009 to 2013.

By January 2010, 40 states had applied for the first round of competitive Race to the Top grants. The first two winners, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded grants of $500 million and $100 million, respectively. Tennessee’s proposal notably included a teacher evaluation system that looked just like D.C.’s.

Since Tennessee won the first and biggest prize for a proposal modeled on IMPACT, D.C.’s program garnered even more notice. There was little research on its actual effectiveness, but many states nevertheless looked to D.C. as a leader to emulate. “All of these states were in the middle of a financial crisis, where their revenue declined dramatically, and to get this grant money they had to pretty quickly come up with new plans,” says Matt Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. “I certainly think there is a tendency, an understandable tendency, to look around and see what other people are doing who were successful winning funds.”

 

FOR YEARS, THE D.C. public schools have been known as factious battlegrounds for education reformers of all stripes; new plans and policies would be implemented every few years, only to have new leaders and competing agendas ushered in shortly afterward. The day before Rhee was appointed, The Washington Post traced this trajectory, noting: “The history of D.C. school reform is filled with fix-it plans hailed as silver bullets and would-be saviors who are celebrated before being banished. … Isolated gains achieved under one reform theory were tossed aside, lost or forgotten in the next. Some reforms that did have an impact went awry, accelerating inequality, distrust and decline.”

In 1989, a coalition of more than 60 business and community leaders published a report calling for sweeping changes to D.C. education, including closing and rehabilitating schools, lengthening the school day, and drafting new curriculum standards. “There have been countless studies, task forces, and five-year plans for the District’s schools, but few come close to the size and scope of this effort,” the Post reported at the time. The coalition spent six months and $500,000 on the effort, yet like those that came before it, their recommendations bore little fruit.

By 1996, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority issued another report declaring the city’s public schools to be in crisis, and called for urgent changes. By 2004, the Council of the Great City Schools, a national nonprofit, published its own report, noting that D.C. remained one of the lowest-performing urban school districts in the nation. They recommended a series of reforms that had been floated over the past five decades—new accountability systems for student achievement, more standardized curricula and instruction, and incentives to attract high-quality teachers to work in the most challenging schools.

Unlike other places, elected D.C. officials must compete with federal leaders for authority over the city’s public schools. Congress can overturn laws passed by the D.C. City Council, and the District’s two members of Congress cannot vote on legislation. The introduction of an elected school board in 1968 and the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973 were attempts to increase local political representation, but the school board and council lacked independent taxing authority. It was no small sacrifice for residents when city leaders voted to dissolve the school board in 2007—dismantling one of the city’s only elected bodies. But local officials felt drastic action was needed given DCPS’s poor outcomes.

Rhee’s tenure as chancellor was controversial, both locally and across the country. In addition to pushing forward a new teacher evaluation system, she fired hundreds of teachers, replaced principals, and closed schools. Her brash style of leadership frustrated even those who backed her policy ideas. Following Rhee’s resignation in 2010 after Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic mayoral primary, the new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, continued to promote her predecessor’s policies—albeit in a less polarizing way.

MEANWHILE, D.C.’S REFORMS continued to attract glowing praise. In 2013, The Washington Post editorial board concluded that there was “unassailable” evidence that the city’s reforms, based on “high standards, rigorous evaluation of teachers, an investment in pre-kindergarten and school choice” worked. In 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said D.C. was “by every measure the fastest-improving big city school district in the nation.” New America called D.C.’s teacher evaluation “as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation systems get.”

All the talk of success and failure led Steven Glazerman, a Mathematica Policy Research fellow, to coin a new phrase—“misNAEPery”—which describes how leaders and pundits wrongly attribute the rise and fall in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores to the success or failure of specific education policies. “D.C. [NAEP] scores [rose] faster than other cities—that part is basically true, but if you want to say it’s because of school reform, that’s a harder case to make,” says Glazerman. Alan Ginsburg, a retired 40-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Education, published a report in 2011 that found that D.C. NAEP scores were already steadily improving before Michelle Rhee took over in 2007, and that “the rates of D.C. score gains under Rhee were no better than the rates achieved under [the prior two superintendents].”

Another thorny issue is demographics: Some critics charge that any documented learning gains can be attributed to the increase in white, affluent students who now enroll in DCPS. Yet when controlling for demographics, about two-thirds of the city’s ten-year gains in math persist for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students. However, controlling for demographics does make the ten-year reading gains for eighth graders almost entirely disappear. In late February, Levy, the independent D.C. budget analyst, went before the city council to testify about the district’s low academic performance. She noted that the lowest achieving groups are black males, at-risk students, and special education students. Achievement gaps between white and black or Hispanic students have narrowed somewhat since 2003, but white proficiency rates still run about 65 percentage points above black proficiency rates, and 53 to 61 percentage points above Hispanic rates. Socioeconomic gaps have widened.

“We have an ever-worsening achievement gap in this city, that has been spun into the D.C. miracle,” says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Were a teacher to perform in this manner for their students, they’d have long since lost their jobs.”

Critics have raised other concerns about the way D.C school reform has been cast as an example of “clear progress.” School funding advocates have criticized DCPS for inequitably distributing financial resources to the neediest schools, and last September, the Washington City Paper published a cover story on Kaya Henderson’s failure to deliver on her five-year strategic plan. A new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project explores the city’s heavily segregated schools.

But if there’s one reform that supporters of D.C.’s school policies point to as evidence of success, it’s IMPACT. In 2013, two education economists published a working paper suggesting that D.C.’s teacher evaluation system induced teachers with low evaluation scores to voluntarily leave DCPS, and improved the performance of teachers who stayed. In 2016, the researchers published another working paper that found DCPS teacher turnover between 2011 and 2013 led to a net positive effect on student test scores—suggesting that turnover is not necessarily bad if low-performing teachers can be replaced with higher-quality ones.

These were encouraging results, but DCPS officials went on to exaggerate the findings. School administrators falsely said the research showed teachers and students improved because of IMPACT, and that IMPACT caused low-performing teachers to leave. The researchers had repeatedly emphasized that their work was not an evaluation of IMPACT, per se.

“DCPS has one of the best publicity operations I have ever seen,” says Levy. “I think, unfortunately, they go beyond spin, and into some areas of half-truths.”

DCPS was not alone in spinning the IMPACT studies. Supporters of VAM, a controversial statistical tool that uses student test scores to come up with estimates of teacher effectiveness, tried to frame the positive IMPACT studies as proof of VAM’s merit. “People looked at the study and concluded it must be the VAM-based firing that did it, and that’s not supported by the evidence,” says Jesse Rothstein, who has raised concerns about using VAM in teacher evaluations.

The real issue with attributing the researchers’ results to IMPACT is that there’s no proof that other new teacher evaluation systems wouldn’t have also worked. Dee and Wyckoff also caution that despite the positive results of their research, IMPACT might not work as a national model, given that D.C. is a particularly attractive location to live in (thus it has an unusually robust labor pool). The high salaries and bonuses DCPS teachers earn would likewise be difficult for many struggling school districts to adopt.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Dee adds that the leadership in D.C. was very strong and thoughtful, and that a system like IMPACT might not thrive under different political conditions. “When I present the IMPACT work, I say, yes, it does seem extremely promising but I worry it won’t be a proof point,” says Dee. “You had certain planets in alignment politically, and capable, entrepreneurial leadership.”

Indeed, one factor that worked in DCPS’s favor was that the 4,000-member Washington Teachers Union was significantly weakened, and unable to successfully fight against using test scores to evaluate teachers. The WTU has been under siege since the Rhee years, and teachers have been working under a contract that expired in 2012.

According to Davis, the union president, DCPS educators still strongly oppose the new evaluation system. “IMPACT does little to seed improvement in practice,” Davis says. “Our professionals don’t believe teaching every year should be a scene out of The Hunger Games, fighting for survival against what could best be considered arbitrary standards.” She adds, “WTU teachers believe that educators should have an evaluation system that focuses on supporting and assisting those who work in the classroom and holds the whole system accountable, not one that obsesses on points, ratings, and consequences solely for teachers.”

David Grosso, a city councilmember and the chairman of the education committee, tells me that while he respects the teachers union, when they “testify or complain or say things are awful, it’s hard to believe” based on his personal conversations with educators. “Nine out of ten teachers I speak to are pretty happy and feel like they’re making a difference,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, if you’re a teacher in the District of Columbia, you have the support that you need and when you are successful, you will get paid a lot of money and be treated with a lot of respect, and that’s just a reality.”

For what it’s worth, schools located in the poorest areas of the city have the smallest percentage of teachers rated “highly effective” under IMPACT. Teacher turnover districtwide also remains very high. Levy, the budget analyst, finds almost half of all newly hired teachers, whether experienced or new to the profession, leave the classroom within two years; and 75 percent leave within five years. There is similar turnover among principals: Levy finds most schools have had two or three principals in the last five years.

ONE REASON IT’S become so easy for advocates to spin the city’s school reforms is that despite DCPS’s claims of being “data-driven,” comprehensive, accessible data actually remains hard to come by. As a result, it is hard for researchers to get a sense of how specific policies are working, and for the public to hold school leaders accountable.

When D.C. passed its 2007 education reform law, one provision required the mayor to produce annual evaluations on new school reforms, such as academic achievement and personnel policies. The law also allowed the mayor to skip the annual reports and produce a five-year independent evaluation by September 2012. Fenty opted for the latter—but his two proposed evaluators, Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Kenneth Wong of Brown University, had both supported the DC mayoral school-takeover plan. Then-councilmember Vincent Gray objected to Fenty’s picks, arguing that they involved conflicts of interest.

Gray also objected to the mayor’s desire to have the $750,000 evaluation paid for by an entity known as the D.C. Public Education Fund, a private organization launched and run by a former Fenty aide, which solicits private-sector donations to support education reform. Gray believed that the evaluation should be publicly funded. Yet three years later, when Gray himself ran for mayor, his tune on rigorous evaluations changed. “Adrian Fenty refused to carry out the evaluation, and when Gray ran against Fenty, he also lost interest,” says Levy. “Gray’s attitude changed a lot when he became mayor.”

Levy thinks that incentives for oversight worsened after the switch to mayoral control. Before the change, the city council would sketch out the school district’s finances, but the body could not control how those funds were actually spent. This dynamic frustrated councilmembers who were often blamed for the public schools’ struggles, but had few tools to address the problems. This issue led the council to enact tougher oversight measures. “The public would come down and say, ‘You need to give us more money,’ and the city council wanted to justify not coming up with all of it,” Levy explains.

But after the move to mayoral control, DCPS failures were no longer pinned on the city council. “Now the mayor comes up with a budget number for the school system and that’s pretty much it,” says Levy, who thinks the city council is not interested in rocking the boat. “They too have gotten all this good publicity,” Levy says, in regards to the supposed successful turnaround of DCPS.

D.C. finally produced a publicly funded independent evaluation of its school reforms in 2015. The National Research Council, an organization chartered by Congress, conducted the review and found some promising evidence of improvements, but the evaluators identified many persistent disparities, and noted a lack of comprehensive, accessible data. They said they were often unable to obtain important information for their research effort, and recommended the creation of a data warehouse for ongoing, independent studies.

After the NRC issued its report, a group of education advocates and public policy researchers gathered in 2016 to discuss creating an independent think tank to evaluate D.C. education policies. Inspired by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has access to a broad range of Chicago Public School data, the D.C. group envisioned their think tank serving a similar function as the Congressional Budget Office.

Mathematica’s Glazerman agrees it has been difficult at times to obtain DCPS information to conduct research. “The researchers want to do research, they want access to data, and the people who control the data don’t want to give it up, except under tightly controlled circumstances,” he says. “Researchers need independence and access to data, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether the agency is going to look good—both in whether they undertake the study, and how they report results from their study.”

He thinks the idea of a publicly funded research organization akin to the CBO is a good one, but that it could be a heavy lift to get off the ground. It would take real leadership, and right now, the mayor and the city council have few incentives to poke holes in the narrative that D.C. school reform has been a tremendous success.

“We met for about six months and put together a proposal,” says Mark Simon, who was involved in the 2016 effort. “Initially we got good, positive encouragement from David Grosso, and he basically promised to put money in the budget, but when we got to the actual budget hearings we were iced out.”

The Prospect asked Grosso why he withdrew his support for the independent research organization. “I hadn’t heard that much about it, but I do support the idea for third-party analysis and review of what we’re doing in DCPS, but I was not convinced that what they were offering at the time was the best approach,” he said. “It seemed like it was a purely academic thing. There was a desire to do something similar to what was done in Chicago and, in the end, I decided I did not want to do that. I thought it would confuse governance in the city more than it would help.”

THIS PAST FEBRUARY, DCPS’s new schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, took over. Prior to coming to D.C., he spent two years as the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California and worked as a public school administrator in Denver. He also participated in a superintendent training academy funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which finances education reform efforts. “The candidate [Mayor Bowser] has selected appears by résumé and reputation to have the same kind of forward-thinking passion for excellence that has helped make D.C. schools the fastest-improving urban school district in the country,” The Washington Post editorial board said in November.

Wilson declined the Prospect’s request for an interview through DCPS press secretary Michelle Lerner. Lerner is a former communications manager for several reform-driven organizations, including the Fordham Institute and the advocacy group American Federation for Children, formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. secretary of education.

Looking to the future, Councilmember Grosso says D.C. will need to invest more heavily in wrap-around services for poor students, including basic health care, housing, and resources for coping with trauma. He says that he’s spoken with Antwon Wilson and that the new chancellor “absolutely understands” this.

The bipartisan political forces that shepherded D.C.’s education policies may shift in the coming years, as the election of Trump and the ascendance of the controversial DeVos threaten to fracture some of the Obama-era coalitions. New leadership, both in the district and the mayor’s office, could also portend greater changes for D.C. public education.

Though Glazerman is skeptical that a publicly funded research agency committed to robust, independent evaluations will be created, it is possible that Wilson may be more open to the idea, since his outsider status might shield him from the fallout from any negative findings—at least at the outset. Mary Levy also thinks the independent think tank idea could resurface, citing the new influx of upper-middle-class families who send their children to D.C. public schools.

“They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says. “These are city parents behaving like persistent suburban parents. So in the future, this idea may grow.”

Why D.C.’s First Charter Union Election Was Called Off

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 3, 2017.
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In February, I reported on the first public union campaign at a charter school in Washington, D.C. Teachers at Paul Public Charter School wanted to form their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Seventy-one percent of Paul’s staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked their administrators on February 22 to voluntarily recognize their union.

When the administration refused to do so, Paul teachers filed for an NLRB election—scheduled for Thursday, March 30. (In a statement, the charter’s management said, “We do not believe that a union is necessary at Paul PCS.”) But the day before the scheduled vote, a surprising thing happened. The AFT, not the charter school teachers, called it off.

David Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul told WAMU that their teacher organizing committee felt they had enough votes to win, and wanted to go ahead with their election, but “we did not have enough people who were willing to be public with their support to convince AFT that we were definitely going to win.”

While 58 of Paul’s 82 teachers, instructional aides, and counselors signed the initial union petition given to administrators in February, in the days leading up to the NLRB election just 33 people were willing to publicly commit to voting “yes” on March 30. Teachers on the organizing committee said that despite this, they were confident, based on private conversations with their colleagues, that they would still have a majority in support of the union when taken to a secret vote.

Experts who’ve studied NLRB elections have no such confidence, however. “If the teachers went forward, they would lose, absolutely,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. “If workers will not publicly say that they will vote for the union, that means they are voting no. That has been proven a hundred times over.”

If the staff’s support for the union has dwindled, that looks to be chiefly the result of management’s opposition. Since the time teachers went public with their union campaign, Paul’s administration engaged in what some teachers described as an aggressive, scorched-earth effort to dissuade teachers from voting to unionize.

The charter school maintains that it never pressured staff on how to vote, and that it “support[s] the right of all employees to participate in such [union] activity.”

But on March 15, Emily Farley, the high school dean of academics; Danielle Singh, the middle school principal; and Rosemarie Ragin, the director of student services, sent Paul staff the following letter:

Make no mistake, this election will have a lasting impact on you, your job, and the entire Paul community.

We are deeply concerned about what this election means to Paul’s staff and our Scholars. We do not believe that this union would be good for you or for our school, and believe the entire community—including teachers and staff—will be better served by continuing a collaborative, cooperative dialogue and problem solving process that does not include a third-party union. One of the advantages that draws both teachers and students to Paul is our ability to work directly and efficiently with our staff on a range of things that matter to all of us. This allows us to meet the needs of our students and families while engaging directly with teachers and staff to create the work environment you need to be successful. We readily agree that this is not always been a perfect process and that it can always be improved, but by voting for AFT in the election, you may be voting away your legal rights to deal directly with Paul and your supervisors on issues that will determine your pay, benefits and working conditions.

We also believe that our future success and security hinges on our ability to provide a high quality education to our Paul Scholars. This is why their families entrusted them to us. We do not believe that the involvement of AFT will help any of us educate our students.

This issue is about our commitment to each other. You will be asked to decide whether you want to continue to have a cooperative working relationship with the Paul administration, or whether you want an outside third party, AFT, to speak for you. Remember, AFT can only promise to do things; we have proven that the Paul community can deliver when we work together. Our proud history demonstrates that we do not need outsiders trying to get us to work against each other.

Over the next few weeks, we will try to provide you with the facts about AFT and the potential impact of unionization at our school. We believe that once you get all the facts you will see that unionization is not right for Paul staff or students, and you will vote “NO.”

And in an email sent to staff on March 20, Paul administrators told staff to “PROTECT YOUR PAYCHECK. VOTE NO ON MARCH 30TH.”

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Moreover, on March 27, three days before the vote, Tammy Wythe, the school’s director of talent, sent a letter to Paul staff saying the school would hold off on issuing employment contract information for the 2017–2018 school year until after the NLRB vote. The school had previously told staff that they would receive this information by the end of March—acknowledging that “this information allows all of us—teachers, staff, and school leaders to plan for the next year.” The AFT filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint in response, saying administrators crossed a line by withholding information about whether teachers would continue to have their jobs until after the vote. (Following the election’s cancellation, the union withdrew its ULP.)

Despite all of this, the teachers still wanted to move forward with their vote. An AFT spokesperson told POLITICO that Paul’s administrators “created a toxic environment so full of fear, harassment and intimidation that we felt a fair election would be impossible at this time.”

From the union’s perspective, the fact that more teachers no longer wanted to publicly declare that they would vote for a union meant that management’s aggressive tactics were working, and that they had lost a significant amount of support.

By cancelling the NLRB election, teachers are able to schedule a new one in six months. If they had held the election and lost, then staff would have to wait one year before filing again. More importantly, from the union’s perspective, if the teachers lose their union election, then management might take that as a mandate to do whatever they want over the next school year. But by canceling it, management will have to remember that a failure—union advocates would say, a continued failure—to satisfy teachers’ conditions could mean that the staff could file again quickly for a vote. In other words, the union says it can help keep the boss on their best behavior.

Bronfenbrenner says that based on her 25 years of labor research, the AFT was right to conclude that the vote would fail given the drop in public commitments to vote in favor. “The initial petition is not a measure of ‘yes’ votes—it’s a benchmark as to whether you should go forward to the next step,” she says. “And if you vote and lose, it’s much harder to win than if you withdraw and try again. If you vote and lose, then the employer can go after the pro-union teachers and reward the anti-union ones. If they withdraw, then the campaign can continue.”

Despite not getting to vote for a union, it appears the staff’s organizing effort already helped increase teacher voice somewhat within Paul Public Charter. Since the teachers went public with their campaign, Paul’s administration added teachers to both the charter’s CEO hiring committee and the high school’s principal hiring committee.

The optics of canceling a vote that teachers wanted to hold doesn’t look great for the AFT, given that union officials regularly make a point to say that workers should have the freedom to decide for themselves if they want to be represented by a union. Bronfenbrenner stresses, however, that a unionization campaign isn’t about voting, per se. “It’s about winning. And if they vote, they will lose—they will get slaughtered,” she says. “It’s not democracy to let them vote. What would be democratic is to let them build their union.”

One Paul teacher, who didn’t want to be specifically mentioned in this article, said the campaign’s stalwarts are likely to continue organizing with their colleagues, but that it’s unclear what shape those efforts will take, or if they’d consider working with the AFT in the future.