Don’t Trust Jeff Bezos’s Preschool Philanthropy Scheme

Originally published in In These Times on September 19, 2018.
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The CEO of Amazon and the world’s richest man declared this month that he’ll be wading into the waters of philanthropy. In a high-profile announcement, Jeff Bezos described his vision for a “Day One Fund”—a $2 billion investment in organizations that provide homelessness assistance, and a new network of nonprofit preschools in low-income communities. This charitable gift will amount to just 1.2 percent of his net worth.

Bezos joins fellow tech billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Reed Hastings in championing corporate-style reform of American education. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos said of his future preschool chain. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

Preschool is a particularly appealing area for those who like conceptualizing problems in terms of market potential. Several years ago, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate reported that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education yields savings “from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead.” University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman published research in 2009 finding high-quality preschool can yield a 7-to-10 percent annual return.

Preschool is also one of the most popular target-areas for champions of “Pay for Success”—a branch of so-called impact investing which took off under the Obama administration. Under Pay for Success, private funders front money for social programs, and the government pays the investors back with interest if certain predetermined goals are met. Chicago launched a Pay for Success preschool program in 2014, funded by Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation. These private groups aim to roughly double their investment over the next 18 years.

It’s not clear at this point how Bezos’s Day One Fund will be structured; whether it will be a traditional family foundation like the Gates Foundation, some sort of limited-liability company like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, or perhaps one of the increasingly controversial “donor-advised funds” that other tech titans have embraced. CNBC reports that between thirty to fifty percent of Bezos’s gift could be tax-deductible.

It’s also not clear why exactly he chose this month to announce his plans, but it’s possible that Bezos is trying to improve his image, which has taken a public beating over the past year. This past June, the Seattle City Council rolled back its so-called “Amazon tax” which councilmembers had passed unanimously four weeks earlier. The tax, meant to generate new revenue to address the region’s growing homeless crisis, would have required Amazon to pay about $12 million per year in new taxes. The company helped fund an aggressive, unpopular, and ultimately successful campaign to repeal it.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has also been targeting Bezos, specifically on the gulf between the CEO’s ever-increasing wealth and the low-wages of Amazon’s many thousands of employees, who rely on all sorts of government aid to supplement their income. This month, just days before Bezos made his philanthropic announcement, Sen. Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna introduced new federal legislation to force large companies to help shoulder the cost of social services for low-paid staff. More than anything, though, the bill is understood as a vehicle to spotlight the issue of inequality between rich owners and their workers. It’s unsubtly named the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, or “Stop BEZOS” for short.

While he’s offered little detail as to how he’d treat the educators in his forthcoming preschool network, Bezos’s other businesses offer some hints. The median compensation of Amazon’s more than 566,000 global employees at the end of 2017 was $28,446. Thousands of Amazon workers in Europe launched a strike this past summer to protest their working conditions, following an exposé of a journalist who had toiled undercover at an Amazon warehouse. Workers in Minnesota also demanded safer Amazon conditions this past summer, alleging dehydration, injuries and exhaustion on the job. A spokesperson for the company dismissed the employees’ complaints, calling theirs a “positive and accommodating” workplace.

The national median income for preschool teachers in 2016 was $28,570. While a growing number of education policy experts have called for increasing salaries as a way to attract and retain better teaching talent, there’s no guarantee that Bezos’s “customer” focused-model will prioritize competitive wages.

And to put Bezos’s gift in perspective, Head Start, the federal government’s high-quality early-childhood education program which serves nearly one million low-income children every year, runs on a strained budget of more than $9 billion annually. Bezos’s Day One Fund, meanwhile, is $2 billion, to be divided amongst both pre-K and homelessness.

Let’s be clear about the scale of the problem. In 2016, just 42 percent of 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in preschool programs, and these figures were not measurably different from the percentages enrolled in 2000. Demand for early childhood education far exceeds existing capacity in this country, and the cost to change that will require significantly more than what Bezos has so far offered to contribute.

The world’s richest man may sincerely view his new philanthropic project as a way to positively impact the world, but what we know is that Bezos has built up his company and personal fortune by aggressively avoiding taxes for years. In 2017 alone, Amazon paid literally nothing in federal income tax, while reporting $5.6 billion in U.S. profits.

Instead of creating his own new private network, which might run in direct competition with Head Start and other existing state programs, Bezos could help the government expand its proven models: A combination of higher taxes and philanthropy could help early childhood educators cover the cost of school supplies, help program providers extend their school days, construct and refurbish school buildings, supplement teacher salaries, and improve teacher training programs. There are even Montessori-inspired Head Start programs, the progressive pedagogical model Bezos seems most interested in expanding on his own.

Giving more kids access to good schools can be an uncomfortable thing to criticize. But we have to be able to recognize when something even seemingly generous is nowhere near enough. Last year Bezos said he wants his philanthropy to help “people in the here and now.” This month he said he wants to ensure our great-grandchildren have “lives better than ours.” Whether he means it or not, it’s on all of us to push for more.

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Conservatives Work to Undermine Oklahoma Teachers’ Raises After Walkout

Originally published in Rewire News on May 7, 2018.
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When Oklahoma educators headed back to school in mid-April after their historic nine-day walkout, they did so with mixed feelings. They hadn’t won all of their key legislative demands, but they didn’t return empty handed either: Teachers won salary increases of roughly $6,100 each, and raises of $1,250 for school support staff. The pay increases, set to take effect on August 1 would be paid for by new taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel, and oil and gas production. “We achieved something that we all thought might be impossible,” declared Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) when she signed the tax legislation into law.

But some conservative activists are saying, “not so fast.”

Members of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, an anti-tax group, filed paperwork last week to get a veto referendum on the November ballot. The group has until July 18th to collect about 41,000 signatures. The new taxes to fund the salary increases are scheduled to go into effect on July 1, but there’s debate over whether those would need to be put on hold if activists collect enough ballot signatures before that date.

A representative from Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite did not return Rewire.News‘ request for comment, but a member of the group, Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, told Oklahoma’s local NBC affiliate that they “believe very much that teachers need a pay raise” and that her group’s ballot initiative is “not personal.” Vuillemont-Smith argued that legislators should conduct statewide audits to eliminate waste from agency budgets before raising taxes.

Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, told Rewire.News there’d be “no way” the referendum would pass if it were voted on today. “There’s zero chance, I’d put big money on that,” he said. But Allen acknowledged that “a lot of things could happen between now and November” as anti-tax groups start raising money and doing advertising. “It’s a shame that we have to spend some of our attention and resources on defeating this when we want to defeat those representatives who don’t lift a finger to help education,” he said.

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the largest teacher union in the state, is also gearing up to fight the ballot initiative.

Lawyers for the union believe the salary increases are locked in, and the veto referendum addresses only a funding mechanism for those raises. But a provision in the teacher pay bill stipulates it will not become law unless items from the tax increase bill are enacted.

“There are probably going to be conflicting views on this,” an OEA attorney told the Associated Press. “At the end of the day we’ll need some determination, from either the courts or the attorney general.”

Educators did manage to stave off a separate challenge last week, defeating what some public education advocates were calling a Republican “revenge bill.”

Taking aim at a bill designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ (R-Cordell) introduced a last-minute amendment to prevent school districts from automatically deducting union dues from teacher paychecks. Educators instead would need to make other arrangements to handle membership payments. Russ’s amendment would have also mandated that a majority of educators in each school district vote every five years on whether they want to keep their collective bargaining unit; if a majority did not vote in favor, the school district would be stripped of union representation.

Doug Folks, a spokesperson for OEA, told Rewire.News that teachers, police officers, firefighters, and state employees inundated legislators’ phone systems and “in about 18 hours, we were able to get enough promises of no votes that the [amendment] was never heard.” The bill, SB 1150, was approved by lawmakers without the anti-union provisions. It now awaits the governor’s approval.

It wasn’t the first time state Rep. Russ has introduced legislative language like that and union leaders say they would not be surprised if he tries again in the future. “He’s just union-busting,” said Allen. “Plain and simple.”

Rep. Russ did not return Rewire.News’ request for comment, but he told NewsOk that he was looking out to protect teacher fairness.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, told Rewire.News he did view Russ’s amendment as strike retribution on the part of the GOP leadership.

“Those of my colleagues in the legislature who are frustrated with teachers and other education advocates are showing their true colors,” he said. “They’re saying they are frustrated with the ‘tactics’ of the teachers and the unions, but in reality I think they’re pretty sore from being exposed. For years, legislators have been able to go home to their constituents and claim they’re all for education. But teachers across the state learned that their legislators talk about better schools out of one side of their mouth and then advocate for tax cuts out of the other. We can’t fund core services like education while we cut, cut, cut.”

Teacher Unrest Spreads to Oklahoma

Originally published in The Intercept on March 6, 2018.
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Last summer Teresa Dank, a third-grade teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, gained national attention after she began panhandling to raise money for her classroom. Like many other teachers in a state with some of the lowest education spending in the country, Dank was at her wit’s end. Her frustration came to a head two weeks ago, following yet another failed legislative attempt to increase teacher pay. And so she started an online petition, asking for signatures from those who would support a walkout by teachers. Soon another Oklahoma teacher named Alberto Morejon launched a Facebook group to mobilize fellow educators for a walkout, quickly drawing tens of thousands of members.

The increasing momentum for a strike in Oklahoma comes as a strike by West Virginia teachers entered its ninth consecutive school day on Tuesday. State lawmakers, hoping to bring the strike to an end, reached a deal on Tuesday morning to raise all state employee salaries by 5 percent. Oklahoma’s 42,000 teachers make even less than their West Virginian counterparts; in 2016, the average Oklahoma teacher earned $45,276, a salary lower than that of teachers in every state except Mississippi. With no pay increases for Sooner State teachers in a decade, educators have been leaving for greener pastures, moving to neighboring states like Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas. Last May, Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, announced that he would be moving to Texas for more financial stability.

As it so often goes, when times are tough for teachers, times are also tough for students. Per-pupil spending in Oklahoma stands at $8,075, among the lowest in the country and lower than all of Oklahoma’s neighboring states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts Oklahoma’s cuts to general education funding since the recession as the highest in the nation, with 28 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding cut over the last decade. Things have gotten so bad that nearly 100 school districts across the state hold classes just four days a week to save money.

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Strikes by Oklahoma school employees are technically illegal, but educators have found a legal work-around. If school districts shut down, then that’s a work stoppage that doesn’t involve teachers walking off the job. Many superintendents across the state have already come out in support of closing down schools if the teachers decide to move forward with their strike.

Teachers point to a four-day strike from nearly three decades ago, when more than half of Oklahoma educators stayed home from school. This successful 1990 protest prompted the legislature to raise teacher pay, institute class-size limits, and expand kindergarten offerings.

“Nothing else has worked over the last two to three years, so at this point teachers, parents, and community members are desperate for a solution,” said Amber England, a longtime Oklahoma education advocate. “This is what they’re thinking is the last resort. They don’t want to do it, but they really don’t feel like they have any other option.”

Why Aren’t Teachers Getting a Raise?

Educators were optimistic that things were going to change in 2016. The Republican-controlled legislature promised it’d pass a teacher pay increase, but in the end they failed to get anything done. Later that same year, a high-profile ballot initiative went before voters to increase the state sales tax by 1 percent, to give all teachers a $5,000 pay increase.

But that measure also ended up failing miserably, garnering just over 40 percent of the vote. Republicans in the state opposed taxes going up, and many Democrats also opposed the measure because a sales tax would have hit the poor the hardest.

In 2017, the legislature promised yet again to pass a teacher pay raise, adjourning in the end with nothing to show for it. A measure to raise teacher and state employee salaries funded by a tax on cigarettes, motor vehicle fuel, and beer failed 54-44 in October.

“Time after time, there’s just been terrible cuts, broken promises, and no legislative action or leadership,” England told The Intercept.

Just like in Kansas, Oklahoma’s leaders have been slashing taxes, finding that this then leaves them with less money to fund basic government services.

Aside from reducing income taxes for its wealthiest citizens in 2013, Oklahoma legislators voted in 2014 to extend major oil industry tax cuts that were set to expire in 2015. The drilling tax, known as the “gross production tax,” or GPT, had been set at 7 percent in the 1970s, but in the early 1990s, when horizontal drilling first came on the scene, the then-Democratic controlled legislature reduced it down to 1 percent, to help encourage experimentation with the new technology.

Mickey Thompson, who worked as the president of Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association between 1991 and 2005, told The Intercept that the GPT reduction was important back then because horizontal drilling was “really new, untested, unproven, and expensive.” Thompson helped push for the tax reduction in the ’90s, but today has become one of the state’s most vocal advocates for raising it back up to 7 percent, because, he said, by now everyone knows that horizontal drilling easily pays for itself. “These cuts were never supposed to be permanent,” Thompson said.

The GPT was supposed to return back to 7 percent in 2015, but Republicans instead made the tax cuts permanent at 2 percent, a notably lower rate than other oil-producing states.

The Step Up Plan

Following all the legislative failures and the ballot measure failure, a group of influential business leaders in Oklahoma got together in December to formulate a last-ditch effort to push something through. The elite bipartisan coalition, dubbed Step Up Oklahoma, unveiled their proposals in January, advocating modest revenue hikes on GPT, motor fuel, cigarettes, and eliminating a few income tax deductions. Hailed as a grand compromise, the Step Up plan would have generated enough revenue to give all teachers a $5,000 pay raise. All five of Oklahoma’s former living governors endorsed the plan, as did the state’s teachers union 

But when legislators voted on the package in mid-February, it too failed, with 17 Democrats and 18 Republicans voting against the measure. Some Republicans argued this was Oklahoma’s last real shot at reaching a compromise this year, but other Democrats said they don’t buy that this is the best deal they could reach.

Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, was among those who voted against the Step Up plan.

“There was a hell of a lot of pressure on us to pass it, and I’ve gotten a lot of shit for voting no, but this package was pretty flawed from the start,” he told The Intercept. Bennett noted that aside from teacher pay increases, the Step Up deal contained a number of regressive taxes and pushed only for doubling the GPT up to 4 percent.

In October, a new nonprofit, Restore Oklahoma Now, formed to push for a 2018 ballot measure that would hike the GPT back up to 7 percent and direct the majority of new revenue to schools and teachers. That effort is being led by Thompson, the former OIPA president.

“We felt we needed to get GPT to at least 5 percent,” Bennett explained. “We were being dictated to by this private business owner group, and as long as that 7 percent ballot initiative is looming, we think we will have more opportunities to push for alternatives.”

England, who had been helping the Oklahoma Education Association mobilize support for the Step Up plan, emphasized that it’s been increasingly difficult to reach any sort of bipartisan agreement. “Compromise is not the politically correct position anymore,” she told The Intercept.

Strike As a Last Resort

For many teachers, the legislature’s failure to pass the Step Up plan was the last straw. Dank launched her petition a week after the failed vote, capitalizing on the frustration of thousands of teachers whose classrooms have been underfunded for far too long.

Different dates are floating around for a potential strike. One scenario is to strike on April 2, the same time that students are scheduled to take their mandatory standardized tests. Failing to take those tests could mean Oklahoma sacrifices millions of dollars in federal funds. Organizers are calling this the “nuclear option.” Another possibility is to shut down schools the week following spring break, which would be the week before standardized testing. The Oklahoma Education Association plans to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon to unveil a “detailed revenue package and a statewide closure strategy.” NewsOK, a local news outlet, reported that nearly 80 percent of respondents to an online survey administered by the Oklahoma Educators Association voiced support for school closures to force lawmakers to increase educational investments.

Thompson, the leader behind the GPT ballot initiative, worries a teacher walkout will damage public support for educators in the state. “I think a majority of teachers understand what we’re trying to do [with our initiative], but their morale is very low, and they are beyond frustrated,” he said. He acknowledges, though, that his concerns “are falling on deaf ears” and that “teachers are ready to try anything.”

For his part, Thompson thinks the ballot initiative he’s leading stands a better shot at passage than the failed 2016 penny tax. “Teachers have gone two more years without a pay raise, and the public has been talking about it for all this time now,” he said. “There is just more public support for a teacher raise than two years ago.”

Thompson also thinks the fact that his proposed ballot initiative would raise revenue without raising taxes on everyone else will help secure its passage. “Conservatives don’t want to raise state sales tax, liberals don’t want a regressive tax, but our deal is not a sales tax — it’s a tax on the oil and gas industry, trying to take away their sweetheart deal that was passed 20 years ago,” he said.

Their ballot initiative isn’t a done deal yet, though; they haven’t even begun collecting the necessary 123,000 signatures. Last week, they defended their ballot initiative at Oklahoma’s Supreme Court, and now they’re waiting for the court’s approval to move forward.

“The court can take as long as they please to give us a decision on whether we’re valid or whether we’re kicked to the curb,” Thompson explained. “We’re not officially a ballot initiative until we get their approval, but we’re feeling confident.”

Democrats remain convinced that all the mounting pressure will create more opportunities for lawmakers to push forward alternative revenue packages this legislative season. Bennett said the threat of a 7 percent GPT ballot initiative, a statewide teacher walkout, and a potential blue wave for Democrats across the country in November, will help keep pressure up in the legislature.

“The Step Up coalition made people feel like their deal was the last shot, but it’s not,” he said. “What they did do was engage a lot of people, and now a lot more are really frustrated and are paying attention.”

Q&A: Getting Millennials Off That Treadmill

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 6, 2017.
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How are millennials stereotyped as lazy, despite being a highly efficient and productive generation? Why are millennials characterized as spoiled and entitled, yet just 6 percent of us expect to one day receive Social Security benefits like those enjoyed by current retirees? In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennialswriter Malcolm Harris explores these and other questions—unpacking the precarity, the economic pressures, and the contradictions surrounding those born between 1980 and 2000. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Let’s talk a little about “human capital.” What does that mean?

Malcolm Harris: Generally speaking, human capital is the skills, abilities, talents, accomplishments, and resumes that go with you when you work. It refers to the relationship between workers and owners. What some people get wrong is thinking that we own our human capital, and that we can sell it. That’s not true. We don’t own ours, and nobody is legally allowed to own human capital—[i.e. slaves]—anymore.

You say that kids today take fewer risks, and it’s partly a result of parents adopting a “risk elimination” approach to childrearing.

Through various means, we’re forcing or compelling kids to take fewer risks. Children are living increasingly conservative lives, especially compared to the immediately preceding generations. And some people talk about it like millennials are wusses, scaredy-cats, we need our mommies—stuff like that—but that’s all irrelevant because children do not raise themselves or define the world in which they come to be. In other words, we have to look for the sources of that risk-averse behavior with practices elsewhere.

I think we can find them in this idea of human capital and treating young people like appreciating assets—which gets you into the realm of risk management. In this economy, the competition has grown steeper, and the consequences of error have grown higher. The ability of people to accept risk has gone down—so you have all these risk-elimination strategies for parenting, which is very hard to live with.

Tell me about the story of Danny Dunn, and why you think it’s relevant for our time.

Danny Dunn was this children’s story I read when I was a kid that I found on my parents’ shelf. It was written in the 1950s, and it’s about this boy whose mom is a housekeeper for a scientist. Danny is always getting into the scientist’s things, and one day gets a hold of this computer. Now this was a ‘50s-era computer, so really a prototype, a slow machine. You could ask it questions and it could be programmed to tell you answers. Danny finds this and decides he’s going to use this machine to do his homework faster, so that he and his friends can get out of school more quickly.

Some other teachers find out and tell Danny that he can’t do that—that it’s cheating. Danny says, no, everyone can use technology, and I’m just using it to lighten my workload. What’s wrong, Danny asked, with doing my work faster with tools?

And this reflects a larger social tension at the time and over the second half of the 20th century: whether workers would get the benefits of technology or if owners would. Would productivity-enhancing tools result in people working fewer hours a day and getting more leisure time, or would people work not just as hard, but harder with this technology integrated into their lives?

What we see in Danny Dunn is that he ends up getting more homework as a result of his computer, and ultimately does more work than he had in the first place. In our modern economy, there’s this idea that if people work hard and get more education, use the available tools and technology we have, build more human capital then they’ll be better off. But we actually see that most people aren’t better off at all.

You explore the idea that more and more skills-training has become the burden or responsibility of the job applicant, rather than of employers who could train workers on the job.

It’s all about saving costs. It’s obscene that a company as rich as Google complains about a lack of skilled workers and that they want someone else—whether it’s a charity, or a 501(c)(3), or the government—to teach people how to do the work Google needs, and to pay for that training. Google should be paying for it, and the idea that this isn’t the response every single time someone says “skills gap” is wild. We should be saying, no, we won’t re-engineer the entire public education system for your benefit, and we’re not going to waste our kids’ time teaching them things they’re likely never going to use.

Wouldn’t the counter-argument to that be that we’re not really doing this for the companies’ sake, but for the students’? So they can earn decent livings?

But we know that when everyone does this, the aggregate effect is that wages go down. But that’s what companies want: They want it to be cheaper to pay for coders and workers with digital skills. If governments really wanted to help kids succeed in the labor market, the best correlate with high pay is union membership. Teach kids how to collectively bargain and join a union in schools. If schools wanted kids to get good jobs, strong jobs, no matter where they end up, they would teach them how to stand up for themselves and others on the job market. But we don’t have any classes on that. We have “here’s how you can get ahead by getting skills.”

On a related note, as you look at how barriers to enter various professional fields have changedyou talk specifically about music artists, comedians, and actors. Can you say a bit about this?

It’s sort of like the homework machine example with Danny Dunn. It used to be that you could get together with your friends and make music. And if you found somewhere with lots of space, and a sound-system, you could perform with other people. That’s what you could do as an individual. Now you have to do literally everything—produce your music, promote your music, release your music. You can do it, you have all the tools, and there’s nothing that’s stopping you from making the next big hit. But with that ability comes the responsibility, and people will start shouldering more and more of those tasks. So if I want to be a musician, I can’t just say I don’t want to do that graphic design for my album because I’m practicing my music. No, you have to go design your album, or find someone who can do it for you. You can no longer say, well the record label will take care of it down the line. The label won’t even look at you unless you have that done already. And this functions across the entertainment industry and beyond.

You note that no longer will attending a good school and landing a good job necessarily lead to ample leisure time. You say, “for young people who are working hard to put themselves on the successful side, they’re setting themselves up for more of the same. This road is no mountain climb: It’s a treadmill.” I related to that passage, though it certainly feels bleak.

It is bleak but I am actually optimistic. I just think optimism has to be realistic. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the jobs of the ‘50s and to that split of the national GDP between labor and capital. People who think that we can aren’t really looking at the facts or the numbers, they’re just sort of hoping. And that’s not being optimistic, that’s wishful thinking, naiveté, or delusion. Optimism is looking at the world, and at America, and seeing that history isn’t over. History is still going on, and this social system—with all its implications—is not the be-all-end-all of life on this planet. There are other ways in which we might be able to organize ourselves. That is my optimism, though I don’t think change will come in a nice, clean, or easy way.

You also say that millennials enter the labor force “structurally, legally, emotionally, culturally, and intellectually dissuaded” from collectively organizing as workers. Yet polls show that millennials are pretty supportive of unions. Is this a contradiction?

No, because we’re not stupid. Our cohort is starting to develop a political consciousness and it’s a pretty radical one compared to anything we’ve seen. Bernie Sanders got more young people’s votes in the primary than Clinton and Trump combined. We’re starting to develop this collective political consciousness, but at the same time, we’re still stuck in systems that demand individual competition from us in ways that we know are not in our collective interest. If you’re competing all the time, the implications are that you enter into this arm’s race situation, a death spiral, where kids are competing over everything constantly and never getting a chance to relax. We know this isn’t good for us, this system isn’t working for us. But in terms of power, there’s not a lot of choice right now.

What should parents or schools be doing differently?

I don’t think I have a lot of great advice for parents or schools. The problem is we have our policies and society built around everyone trying to get the most for their own child as opposed to thinking about everyone’s children. It’s the same with schools—everyone’s success is someone else’s failure. But this is a collective action problem; it’s not something we can solve by changing the behavior of individual parents or schools.

That said, teachers don’t have to give these standardized tests. The official union position is that these high-stakes tests are bad, yet teachers have been crucial in administering them.

What about kids? Can they be doing anything differently?

I focus on kids’ labor in the book. I think kids could be organizing for student power, organizing for less work, to work less hard. We tend to demonize that desire or interest but it’s in every worker’s interest to work less hard.

What is your ultimate hope for the book?

I hope it gives people, young people in particular, a frame for their experience and for the changes they see in the world. I hope it might be useful for thinking about American society and their lives in a different context, maybe one they haven’t heard before.

The longer we keep debating things like avocado toast, asking if young people are spoiled, the longer we talk about those things, the more we ignore things that are actually true—based in fact, evidence, and data.

Will America’s Schools Ever Be Desegregated?

Originally published in Pacific Standard on December 5, 2017, co-authored with Will Stancil.
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Only a few years ago, school desegregation was a topic confined to history books—a tumultuous chapter of the civil rights era, starting with Brown v. Board of Education and ending, ignominiously, with the backlash of white parents in the 1980s and ’90s. But over the past three years, thanks to the renewed efforts of advocates and researchers, a surprising resurgence has taken shape. Authors and activists are once again highlighting America’s failure to successfully integrate its schools as a root cause of educational inequality and a driving force behind the nation’s persistent racial divides.

As concerns over unresolved segregation have picked up steam, so too has recognition of the hard practical obstacles to educational integration. Is desegregation a feasible goal? Even some self-described integrationists voice skepticism—potentially slowing, or even derailing, momentum for integrated schools. History threatens to repeat itself, with frustrated advocates accepting segregation as inevitable and refocusing, as many did in the ’90s, only on providing better education in racially isolated environments. But this would be a mistake.

No obstacle to school desegregation is greater, or has been more frequently cited, than racially divided housing patterns. The basic issue is simple: Segregated neighborhoods tend to produce segregated schools. If most of a school district’s population is black or Hispanic, most of its schools probably will be too.

This relationship between school and housing segregation has long been the bugbear of integration efforts, though for slightly different reasons than today. During the 1970s, when courts across the country tried to dismantle segregated districts, education officials pointed to housing patterns as a reason they couldn’t be held legally responsible for the demographics of their schools. The Supreme Court agreed, in part. It called school segregation that arose out of living patterns “de facto segregation,” and argued that it represented private activity that shouldn’t be corrected by government action. The role of the courts, it said, was to eliminate the effects of officially sanctioned discrimination, not to engage in racial balancing for its own sake.

But recent work has helped expose the government’s pivotal (and heretofore frequently overlooked) role in the creation of housing segregation. In 2014, as part of an explosive Atlantic cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates traced how the government redlined black neighborhoods and denied their inhabitants good mortgages, trapping residents in place. This year, Richard Rothstein followed up on Coates’ work with The Color of Law, a book that takes aim at the myth that racialized living patterns are the result of individual choices. Instead, he shows, they are mainly the product of government policies developed to maintain the racial character of neighborhoods.

With these developments have come a subtle shift: Where housing segregation was once cited as a legal defense excusing districts from the obligation to integrate, it is now raised as a practical obstacle that makes integration impossible. Skeptics say that, until cities address their legacy of discriminatory housing, little can be done to ameliorate school segregation. This argument was notably deployed last spring, when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio suggested his options were limited on school integration, given that “we cannot change the basic reality of housing” across the city.

Undoubtedly, segregated housing complicates school integration. But residential patterns can’t become a scapegoat for racially divided education either.

For decades, school districts have exploited arguments about housing to attack court-enforced desegregation plans. Critics still maintain that any form of proactive school integration will result in white flight, intensified housing segregation, and, ultimately, greater racial isolation in schools.

Experience shows, however, that segregated neighborhoods are not inherent barriers to integrated education. Following a 1996 state supreme court decision, the racially fragmented region of Hartford, Connecticut, established a school desegregation program by funding the creation of diverse magnet schools in Hartford and expanding an interdistrict choice program in the suburbs. Today nearly half of all Hartford public school students attend integrated schools, and parents are clamoring for more.

There is no secret method of school integration that works best. Magnet schools, careful boundary drawing, even the much-maligned practice of busing students to integrated schools instead of just the closest—all seem to work under the right conditions. New York City just announced it will be launching its first-ever district-wide integration plan, using “controlled choice“—a model used in cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Champaign, Illinois, that balances racial diversity with parental preference. Families rank their top school choices and the district assigns students to schools taking those considerations into account, but also considers the demographics of each school.

And, besides, neighborhood diversity alone will not always guarantee that schools integrate. In the absence of proactive desegregation plans, it isn’t unusual to find diverse communities served by segregated schools.

Consider the school districts surrounding Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several of the city’s major first-ring suburbs have experienced a rapid demographic transition over the past few decades as the region’s non-white population has quickly grown. Over 30 years, these cities—formerly monolithically white—have become highly diverse.

But change in the cities’ schools has outpaced change in their neighborhoods, and tipped into the realm of outright segregation. In 2010, for example, 50 percent of residents in the large suburb of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, were white, but only 26 percent of the students in its schools were white. In nearby Richfield, which is served by a citywide school district, the mismatch was even greater: The city was 63 percent white while its schools were 32 percent white.

Despite the diversity of the areas they serve, districts like Richfield’s and Brooklyn Park’s are caught in a trap: There’s little to prevent white parents, skittish about the effects of integration, from finding alternatives to their neighborhood school. In Minnesota, that means parents can always place their kids in a charter school, or move their child to a neighboring district under the state’s broad open enrollment rules.

There’s an essential lesson in the plight of these districts. Regardless of whether housing is integrated or otherwise, successful school desegregation requires a plan strong enough to discourage boundary trolling by parents. Indeed, the thing that unites the nation’s best school integration plans is a broad scope. Plans that extend across entire metropolitan regions can coordinate the activities of many different districts and prevent any area as acting as a haven for white flight.

There is no more compelling example of such a plan than Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville region implemented a city-county school desegregation plan following a court-order in the ’70s. Students still travel between the city proper and its suburbs to attend integrated schools with carefully drawn attendance boundaries. The system has maintained relative demographic balance for decades, even in the absence of quotas.

Of course, the road has been bumpy at times. Desegregation efforts in Louisville faced initial resistance. This is typical: Parents are deeply sensitive to changes in school policy, and adding race to the mix rarely calms things down. Very few cities, districts, or regions have attempted desegregation without some form of parental protest.

But what divides efforts that succeed from those that have failed often isn’t the presence or absence of resistance, but authorities’ patience in overcoming it. Popular dissent over desegregation, it turns out, doesn’t last forever. If changes look inevitable—and can’t be easily escaped by moving to the next town over or enrolling in a different school—parents generally come to accept them. This is what happened in Louisville: resistance gave way to acceptance and even vocal support. The district’s commitment to desegregation has survived multiple attempts to dismantle it—at the Supreme Court in 2006, and just this year in the state legislature. The plan’s resilience exists in large part because it has been embraced by the region’s parents and leaders, most of whom now believe that integration redounds to their benefit.

If anything, research suggests leaders aren’t worrying enough about effects in the other direction: Segregated schools creating segregated cities.

Last year, University of Southern California sociologist Ann Owens published a study examining census data from 100 major metropolitan areas across the United States. She found that large national increases in neighborhood segregation by income—20 percent from 1990 to 2010—were caused almost entirely by families with children, those seeking “good” school districts. Other studies have shown neighborhoods in cities with metropolitan-wide school integration plans are markedly less likely to become segregated over time. (Notably, Louisville’s rate of housing segregation fell more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

Not that the impact of schools on housing is any great mystery: Ask any real estate agent. It’s no coincidence that real estate services like Zillow or Redfin prominently feature metrics of school quality on their house listings—a legal gray area, since realtor discussion of neighborhood demographics is banned by the Fair Housing Act.

Even the Supreme Court’s desegregation cases, which often treated housing patterns as a fact of nature, conceded that the construction of segregated schools “may well promote segregated residential patterns which … further lock the school system into the mold of separation of the races.”

In other words, regions that wait for diversity in neighborhoods to create diversity in schools may quickly find themselves with little of either.

As the Education Department Strips Away Civil Rights Protections, New Coalition Aims to Fight for Students

Originally published in The Intercept on November 10, 2017.
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The Department of Education has become a civil rights nightmare. During her Senate confirmation hearing, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos admitted she didn’t know that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was federal law and suggested perhaps states should decide how to educate students with disabilities. A month later, the Trump administration rescinded protections that allowed transgender students to use whichever bathroom they felt most comfortable in; while DeVos reportedly objected at first, she ultimately green-lit the move. By June, the Education Department had announced it would be scaling back on civil rights investigations and proposed cutting more than 40 positions from its Office for Civil Rights.

Since then, the Education Department has decided to postpone protections for student loan borrowers and withdraw Obama-era protections for survivors of campus sexual assault. When a reporter explicitly asked DeVos if she would support increasing federal funding for IDEA, she wouldn’t say yes.

All this and more has prompted the start of a new coalition – the Education Civil Rights Alliance – to pool time, skills, and resources to defend students’ civil rights. It launched last week, and members say they’re aiming to fill a void the Trump administration has helped create.

ECRA is comprised of national legal and education groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Disability Rights Network, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

ECRA members emphasize they have never seen an Education Department disregard civil rights in this way. Speaking on a panel last week at the National Press Club, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said even when her union has had disagreements with Republican and Democratic administrations, they’ve “always been able to count on the Education Department’s Civil Rights Office.”

These concerns were elevated further last month when the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services sent out a newsletter announcing it had eliminated 72 special education guidance documents related to IDEA enforcement. The department gave no explanation beyond saying the documents were “outdated, unnecessary or ineffective.”

Advocates felt confused and blindsided. After further investigation, they discovered the Education Department had quietly scrapped the documents over two weeks earlier. Parents of students with disabilities took to social media in protest – the hashtag #ThisIsMyChild became their rallying cry.

Several days later, the Education Department released a revised list of the rescinded documents, including brief explanations for why each one was cut. Some were scrapped because of updated versions also on the books, others because they had been applicable to programs that no longer exist. A spokesperson for the department stressed that “there are absolutely no policy implications” to their actions, and that students with disabilities would not be affected.

But parents and advocates for students with disabilities are not convinced.

Amy Woolard, an attorney and policy coordinator for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, told The Intercept that for families and students with disabilities, advocating for rights under IDEA means “near-constant vigilance” throughout a student’s school career.

“Guidance may not have the force of law, but it’s certainly a critical advocacy tool and helps states and families steer a very large ship in a consistently choppy sea,” said Woolard. “To revoke dozens of guidance documents so quickly and without much notice — even if outdated or redundant, as the department claims — is going to create a great deal of uncertainty and concern, both for states and for a community that has only had the protections of IDEA itself for a few decades.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Liz King, education policy director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “We do not believe that the decision to rescind the guidance was in response to confusion in the field.”

The Education Department did not return multiple requests for comment on whether it acted in response to complaints or requests from the public.

Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national group that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities, told The Intercept that while her organization’s initial analysis indicates students will not be impacted by the department’s rescinded documents, it is disappointed by the way the Education Department made its announcement, which led to real chaos for many people.

“We know this is just the first step in the process, yet we continue to lack any information from the department on next steps, so it’s premature to know what the full impact will be or if substantive feedback provided by stakeholders will be considered,” said Marshall.  “Suffice it to say, we remain very concerned.”

Some national Democratic leaders spoke out against the department’s move.

“There isn’t a basic protection for students that Secretary DeVos hasn’t tried to undermine, and I fear this issue will be no different,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., in a statement to The Intercept. “[She] is turning the Department of Education into some far-right experiment that does the bidding of special interests in Washington.”

Kamala Harris, a senator from California and potential 2020 presidential candidate, took to Twitter to blast the Education Department’s actions.

 

Going forward, the new Education Civil Rights Alliance says it will focus on protecting students – especially students with disabilities, students dealing with sexual assault, and transgender, immigrant, and Muslim students. The alliance says it is hearing lots of anecdotal reports about increases in school bullying and harassment and wants to help push for better data collection on these trends.

“What we’re hoping is by putting all this power together, we’re going to make sure that we have the biggest bang for the buck,” said Miriam Rollin, ECRA director.

Rollin told the Intercept that the new coalition has not yet talked to the Education Department, but “they’re hopefully on notice now.” The Education Department did not return multiple requests for comment on the ECRA or its own commitment to upholding civil rights law.

The Obama administration regularly consulted with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said King, the group’s education policy director, but Trump’s Education Department has rarely ever contacted them for feedback. “Their work has not been sufficiently transparent, it has not been guided by a commitment to protecting students from discrimination, and it has been reckless and irresponsible,” she said.

In October, the White House announced its nomination of Kenneth L. Marcus to lead the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, replacing Candice Jackson, who has served as acting assistant secretary since April. Marcus worked as the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for four years under George W. Bush and before that, worked in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Many civil rights groups are waiting to cast judgment on Marcus. “He’s familiar with the law, with the work, so hopefully the Senate will fully explore how he intends to fulfill his duties,” said Rollin.

But, as The Intercept previously reported, Marcus has a history of campaigning for laws to punish people who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which encourages economic pressure against Israel for its violation of Palestinian human rights. Advocates worry that if Marcus is confirmed, he will push for similar measures in his new role, silencing pro-Palestinian voices. That would have a chilling effect on free speech — yet another attack on students’ civil rights.

Life Lessons From A Charter School Founder

Originally published in The New Republic on November 9, 2017.
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Picking up a copy of The Education of Eva Moskowitz, you might expect a bildungsroman. You might expect to learn what really motivates the founder of Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter school network. What experiences formed her? What led to her conviction that public education demands radical change?

For over a decade, Moskowitz has led a well-publicized campaign to disrupt—or dismantle—public education. The first Success Academy charter school opened in 2006, with 165 kids in Harlem. Today the network operates 46 charters across the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, with 15,500 public school students, 93 percent of whom are black and Latino. Known for its “high expectations” and strict disciplinary practices, the academic outcomes of Success Academy students have indeed been remarkable. In 2017, among those eligible to take state standardized tests, 95 percent scored proficiently in math, and 84 percent scored proficiently in language arts. The comparable figures for New York City Public Schools were 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Success Academy has earned a mythic reputation in the nation’s education reform movement. It’s proof, reformers say, that low-income, minority children can perform just as well as white, affluent, suburban kids. “Success Academy’s closest peers are the state’s richest school districts like Jericho, Syosset and Scarsdale,” their website proclaims. Critics, in turn, say that Success Academy’s academic outcomes need to be regarded skeptically: The network’s “high expectations” can prevent certain students from enrolling and can push out weaker students who have enrolled. Success Academy schools also have high suspension rates, and, when children leave, they have refused to backfill open seats. All of this, critics say, can help build a test-taking population that may be less representative than the network purports.

By 2024, Moskowitz aims to operate 100 such schools. Not only has the network’s expansion been inextricably bound up in Moskowitz’s rising profile, but her hard-driving style has become emblematic of the city’s—and the nation’s—school reform movement. What shaped this vision?

Moskowitz’s memoir certainly includes some biographical details—we learn about her grandparents and parents, how she fell in love with her husband, her struggles initially to conceive (she’s now the mother of three children). We learn where Moskowitz went to school, her brief stints in academia and documentary filmmaking, her six years on the New York city council. But these personal asides, which seem largely calculated for humanizing effect, don’t shed much light on Moskowitz’s ideas or goals. Because while Moskowitz evidently set out to tell a personal story, the book quickly and primarily becomes a vehicle for its author to relitigate battles with her enemies—namely teacher unions, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the media.


Moskowitz has, she claims, never gotten a fair hearing in the press. “Rule number one of journalism,” she says, “is that trying to get in between a journalist and a story he wants to tell is like trying to stop a herd of stampeding cattle.” From the start to end of her book, she attacks the media, describing reporters as irresponsible, unprofessional, and out of control. She calls out individual journalists, such as John Merrow—PBS’s education correspondent for over four decades—and Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News. The hostility in her critiques is sometimes startling, but what’s really notable is how Moskowitz swings between insults and praise, sometimes in the same paragraph. At one point, she calls Gonzalez “monomaniacal,” and “smart and industrious,” before lamenting a “sad waste of his talents” all in the space of four sentences.

Do most journalists lie? Not exactly, she admits—but they leave out critical context, and spin facts into preconceived, negative narratives. Moskowitz thinks that the New York Times’s education reporter, Kate Taylor, and her editors—Amy Virshup and Wendell Jamieson—publish critical stories about Success Academy “because they just [don’t] understand the need for it given their backgrounds.” Moskowitz suggests the Times writers may have blind spots, given their prestigious educational credentials. (Moskowitz doesn’t explain how she—a graduate of New York City’s most selective public high school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University—has overcome the same blindspots herself.)

Moskowitz comes across most sympathetic when describing how upsetting it feels to be misrepresented. She thinks she is “relentlessly vilified” by the press and her political foes. A New York Times article from 2004 outlined her “aggressive, confrontational style” and said her “ambitions exceed her political skills.” In a 2005 editorial, the Times described her as a “smart and driven … expert on education issues” but noted that her “abrasive” attitude made her ill-suited for the political seat she was campaigning for. The gendered overtones of the headlines are clear enough. “Some believed I favored conflict because it would advance my political career,” she writes, in reference to her Success Academy notoriety. “My detractors claimed that my every action was in service of a Machiavellian plot to become mayor.”

However, Moskowitz doesn’t hold back from relentlessly vilifying her own political opponents—which are many. She paints New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a duplicitous operator, who helps unions mainly to advance his own career. She suggests the NAACP battles with her schools because it receives teacher union money and has many unionized teacher members. Moskowitz even describes American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as “aggressive,” echoing the criticisms that, when lobbed at her, she found unfair.

And for all the education reform rhetoric around trusting and empowering families, Moskowitz depicts parents who protest her plans as having been “shamelessly exploited” and “manipulated” by teacher unions and union-backed groups. (“I think parents are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” she said in an interview about school choice earlier this year.) Moskowitz struggles even to offer compliments without punching at the opposition. “She wasn’t a big fan of charter schools,” she writes of the New York assembly’s education committee chair. “But, unlike some of our opponents, she had common sense and a good heart.”


And yet there’s a distinct sense throughout the book that these are yesterday’s battles. Reading the memoir, one gets the impression that its author longs for the heyday of Obama’s early presidency, when more Democratic politicians tiptoed around Wall Street investors, when Joel Klein ran New York City’s education department, when Waiting for Superman was making a splash.

Moskowitz’s treatment of economic disparities is illustrative. In her memoir she urges the public to approach the income inequality issue “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection”—a warning to not bite the hand that feeds you, lest Wall Street titans decide to pick up and leave New York. She scolds Bill de Blasio’s “class-warfare rhetoric” as “imprudent and dangerous.”

When it comes to education, she defends her school’s regular use of suspensions—saying they’re equivalent to home time-outs, and help foster safety, community values, and norms. This perspective, too, has fallen out of fashion in recent years. Other statescities, and even some charter networks have worked to reduce reliance on exclusionary school discipline, policies which disproportionately impact poor, black, and Latino students. Moskowitz also dismisses the idea that governments need to spend more on public education, saying “it’s not even clear it would help anyway.” (There’s strong evidence that it does.) Indeed, the biggest barrier to educational success, she tells readers over and over, is not our president, or racial segregation, or the inequitable distribution of resources. No, for Moskowitz the cause has been long clear: It’s teacher unions and their stifling contracts.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Eva Moskowitz does not think very highly of most teachers. Overhauling work rules and job protections for school employees, Moskowitz stresses, is the most critical factor needed to foster academic excellence. She chastises educators for their low expectations and low effort in the classroom. “Most teachers in America could dramatically improve their teaching if they just made every second count,” she writes. She dismisses criticisms that her staff is overworked, even though her own employees responded to a Success Academy-commissioned survey by saying they lacked work-life balance. “[N]obody at Success worked as hard as big-firm lawyers or investment bankers,” Moskowitz asserts. Teaching in her schools, she admits, “wasn’t a nine-to-five,” but she argues “we were seeking to revolutionize urban education and revolutions don’t lend themselves to forty-hour workweeks.” (Leaked documents from Success Academy’s leadership reveal that other senior officials have felt deeply stressed about the network’s high staff turnover, and ambivalent about their CEO’s rapid expansion plans.)

Though charter teachers around the country have started organizing unions for a greater say over their working conditions, Eva Moskowitz does not hide her animus towards the idea. She makes clear that if an educator objects to Success Academy’s pedagogical style, it’s time for them to find a new place to work. “No matter how good a teacher is, if that teacher won’t play as part of the team, you’re better off without her,” she writes.

This “my way or the highway” attitude isn’t reserved exclusively for teachers, either. “Parents who don’t like Success should find a school they do like,” she says. “For someone to enroll their child at Success and insist we change our model is like a person walking into a pizzeria and demanding sushi. If you want sushi, go to a sushi restaurant!” But the analogy doesn’t work. Public schools are democratic institutions where community input is supposed to be valued. Moreover, the whole idea behind the school choice movement is that low-income parents lack quality school options. If they don’t like their local charter, where, exactly, should they turn? It’s a particularly worrying stance since Moskowitz doesn’t treat Success Academy as a bespoke option for a handful of children, but rather sees such schools as the future of urban education.


The last twelve months have proved especially challenging for Moskowitz. Following the 2016 presidential election, she emerged as a prominent ally of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos. Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors have also included Trump donors like John Paulson and Robert Mercer. Moskowitz’s refusal to condemn the administration—even as other education reform leaders were speaking out in protest—cost her greatly within the school reform movement. By August, the president of Democrats for Education Reform—a vocal Trump critic—had resigned from Success Academy’s board. Success’s board chair, billionaire investor Daniel Loeb, was also quoted that month saying that a black state senator who supported teacher unions had “done more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood.” The timing couldn’t have been worse: Loeb’s comments surfaced just days before the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

After Charlottesville, Moskowitz finally took steps to distance herself from the president. She also publicly criticized Daniel Loeb’s remarks, though defended his right to remain as board chair. That same month Education Next, an education policy journal, released its eleventh annual public opinion poll, finding a dramatic 12-percentage-point drop in support for charter schools between spring 2016 and spring 2017. Support among black and Hispanic respondents also fell 9 and 5 percentage points, respectively. A week later Gallup reported diminishing enthusiasm for charters among Democrats, at 48 percent, down from 61 percent five years earlier.

All this chaos notwithstanding, President Trump, Betsy DeVos and the charter movement’s wavering public support are not subjects explored in The Education of Eva Moskowitz. And in the end, that’s Eva Moskowitz as she wants to be seen: as the center of a story that’s about her victories, and her enemies. When she’s the sole author of that story she can render her cause uncomplicated and unimpeachable. Out in the real world, things are looking more complicated all the time.

Steve Bannon Tried to Recruit Teachers Union to Trump’s Agenda While in White House

Originally published in The Intercept with Ryan Grim on November 1, 2017.
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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met one-on-one with then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon back in March, following the announcement of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts and plan to craft a $1 trillion infrastructure package. The Intercept learned of the meeting, which has not been previously reported, independent of Weingarten or Bannon. It was instigated through a mutual friend and appeared to be part of Bannon’s effort to realign the parties, according to Weingarten.

“Look, I will meet with virtually anyone to make our case, and particularly in that moment, I was very, very concerned about the budget that would decimate public education,” Weingarten said. “I wanted it to be a real meeting, I didn’t want it to be a photo-op, so I insisted that the meeting didn’t happen at the White House.”

Weingarten didn’t take notes at the meeting, which was held at a Washington restaurant, but told The Intercept she and Bannon talked about “education, infrastructure, immigrants, bigotry and hate, budget cuts … [and] about a lot of different things.”

She came away a bit shook. “I came out of that conversation saying that this was a formidable adversary,” she said.

He was looking, Weingarten said, for some common ground that could assist him in realigning the two parties, his long-term goal in politics.“I think he sees the world as working people versus elites. And on some level, he’s thought about educators as working-class folks. But what he doesn’t do is think about the other side of educators, as people who fiercely believe in equality and inclusion. It isn’t an either/or philosophy. The [Martin Luther] King philosophy of jobs and justice is not the Bannon philosophy, let’s put it that way,” she said. “He’s trying to figure out where the friction is, and how to change the alignment. I think that’s really what he was trying to do.”

Hearing Bannon attack elites, including the types of hedge fund Democrats who fund the charter school movement, in the same way she would, was surreal. “He hates crony capitalism,” Weingarten said. “The same kinds of things [we say], you could hear out of his mouth, and that’s why it’s so — you sit there in a surreal way, saying, ‘How can you sit right next to all these elites?’”

Since the election, Weingarten has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders within Democratic circles to resist Trump’s agenda – regularly speaking out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, deportation threats, budget cuts, and attacks on the Affordable Care Act. She was one of the first Hillary Clinton allies to endorse the Bernie Sanders-backed Keith Ellison in his race for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Less than two weeks after the election, Weingarten and Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center sent an open letter to the president-elect, signed by 100 other organizations, calling on him to forcefully denounce hate. “While you spoke against bullying, intimidation and hate crimes in your ‘60 Minutes’ interview, the appointment of ‘alt-right’ hero Steve Bannon as your chief strategist — which has been cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, the American Renaissance and other white supremacist groups — sends the exact opposite message,” they wrote.

Bannon’s embrace of the “alt-right” movement has at once propelled his rise and put a ceiling on it. It took him from obscurity to the White House and now to the head of a rebel conservative movement. But his ability to realign the parties is hampered by those more noxious elements of his coalition. It was reportedly Bannon, for instance, who urged Trump to not condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, even after one of them allegedly killed a counterprotester with his car. That makes Bannon’s hunt for allies among labor unions and within the black and brown working class that much harder.

“This is one smart guy,” Weingarten said, “but I was pretty clear with him about my criticism of the white nationalism philosophy.” For Weingarten, who is Jewish and a lesbian, Bannon’s “alt-right” politics are more than an abstract threat. Indeed, in a typical White House, a labor leader would not ask to have a meeting outside the White House and then say nothing about it for six months.

In August, just days before he was fired (or resigned) from Trump’s administration, Bannon called Robert Kuttner, co-editor of liberal magazine American Prospect, to talk about a range of issues, including trade and identity politics. Kuttner published a summary of their conversation, remarking that he left “with a sense both of [Bannon’s] savvy and his recklessness.”

Weingarten came away with the same impression: “Let me say it this way: Kuttner’s download about their meeting was not surprising to me in the least.”

At the time of the meeting, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the federal education budget by 13.5 percent, a figure that would amount to more than $9 billion in cuts. The White House also proposedcutting Medicaid by $800 billion, threatening school districts with fundingthey use to provide health and special education services.

“I saw that meeting as my doing my job of trying to find a way to convey, in any way I could, that the public and even his voters had fierce opposition to the education cuts,” she said, adding that she told Bannon their polling showed half of Trump’s voters opposed his cuts.

Bannon, meanwhile, was working hard to build a coalition to push through an infrastructure deal, as well as drive a wedge through organized labor’s longstanding support for the Democratic Party. In January, just three days after Trump’s inauguration, Trump invited five union leaders to the White House to discuss trade and infrastructure spending. Earlier that same day, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in an executive order that drew praise from the union leaders he was hosting. Both Teamsters President Jim Hoffa and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who were not at the meeting, also released statements applauding Trump’s move.

The AFT is a key affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country, and the White House may have recognized that Weingarten could present problems for their economic agenda. On March 13, three days before the administration’s proposed budget cuts were announced, Axios published a piece describing how the teachers union leader could complicate Trump’s infrastructure plans, because the AFT has sizable pension investments wrapped up in private equity, and the White House was hoping to leverage private equity to help fund the infrastructure package. “Weingarten doesn’t control the pension money but she’s got a substantial bully pulpit,” the Axios article said, adding that she “also holds a lot of political sway at the local and state levels, which matters because more infrastructure spending is currently financed via the municipal bond market.”

The AFT was the first labor union to endorse Clinton in the 2016 election, months earlier than other unions, including the National Education Association. The AFT represents 1.7 million teachers, paraprofessionals, higher education faculty, and health care workers, among others.

Weingarten said she ultimately viewed the encounter as an opportunity to make her case for public education. “If you are the president of the union and you’re fighting fiercely to get budget restorations and to not have a dismantlement of public education or of higher education and the administration asks to – or it’s made clear to you that they want to meet – you meet,” she said. “You don’t not meet. You meet.”

In addition to the open letter sent to the Trump in November 2016, Weingarten sent another letter to the White House — which has not been previously reported — this past July. In it, she emphatically lays out the AFT’s concerns about how the president’s budget plans would impact schools, writing that she hopes Trump “can find time to discuss these issues” with her, as well as ways to strengthen public education.

Weingarten told The Intercept this meeting with Trump has not happened. Bannon declined to comment on the meeting.

Atlantic Story Postscript

Originally published in Medium on October 13, 2017.
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On September 26th I published a story in The Atlantic that has garnered a number of interesting reactions. It has also sparked some confusion.

My piece, entitled “Why Education is Not The Key to a Good Income” looks at a body of evidence that suggests educational attainment is not the main factor influencing intergenerational mobility — a child’s likelihood that they will one day outearn their parents.

Some readers responded by worrying that I was saying schools don’t matter.

Or more conspiratorially, that I’m working to reduce accountability for schools and, ultimately, reduce funding for education.

Many of these responses, I will note, have focused heavily on the title of the piece and much less on the body. (As is standard journalistic practice, I did not write the title; however, I do believe a fair reading of it captures the thrust of my argument.)

The latest critique came Friday, from Mike Petrelli, the president of the Fordham Institute, a center-right education think tank.

He calls my piece misleading, again focusing on the title. “How can she write ‘education isn’t the key to a good income’ when reams of research show that it still is?”

Despite various insinuations about the piece, I see no reason to be coy about the argument I was making and its implications. So let me spell those things out clearly.

  1. Education is important. Schools matter. I would never say otherwise. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about public schooling, and reporting on how best to achieve its potential and promise.
  2. Jesse Rothstein, whose new study was featured in my piece (among other studies), also does not say schools are unimportant. He does not argue that we should stop investing in schools or in school improvement.
  3. There are critical differences between the aggregate effect of education versus the individual effect. Jesse’s study, and my piece, were both focused on the aggregate effect. That’s the correct context for the headline.
  4. On an individual level, education is typically quite important to earning a good income. Well-paid lawyers went to college and to law school. Wall Streeters are overwhelmingly college educated, often with MBAs or other graduate credentials. Doctors attend college and medical school, and so on.
  5. But education, in and of itself, does not create jobs with good incomes. It’s conceivable that improving schools would, through second-order effects, create jobs. But the evidence suggests that it does not, or hasn’t yet. And if the supply doesn’t change, then the aggregate effect of academically superior schools on income mobility will be negligible. I recommend Matt Bruenig’s great post on this issue.

For policymakers, this is a critical distinction. Imagine there’s a good job with two applicants John Smith and Jane Doe. He gets it, and she doesn’t.

Improving Jane’s school academically might ensure that she gets the job instead. And then if you improve John’s school some more, maybe he’s the stronger candidate again. But no matter how much you improve his school or hers, you can’t give them both that same job. The effect on overall income mobility is zero. For policymakers, opportunity is just as scarce either way. If they’re trying to make everyone better off economically — and we mostly assume they are — this isn’t a great way to do it.

This aggregate v. individual effect distinction is important to the piece.

For instance, Rothstein is quoted as saying “We cannot educate people out of this problem.” He’s referring to aggregate inequality and mobility, not saying that, in the job market, an individual who attends a good school won’t outcompete someone who didn’t. Another economist, Marie Connolly, is quoted as saying “Education is just not a big part of the story. You can see a little role for school quality but the structure of the labor market seems to be a much bigger driver.” She’s referring to aggregate levels of intergenerational mobility across Canada.

If you’re an individual looking for a leg up over the competition, by all means, go to a good school if you can. But if we want to reduce overall levels of poverty in the U.S, we’re going to need to look beyond education.

Teacher Tests Test Teachers

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 18, 2017.
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The Houston teachers union scored a legal victory in May when a federal judge found that the Houston school district’s system of evaluating teachers could violate due process rights. The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM), a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating a teacher’s effectiveness based on their students’ standardized test scores.

United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have “no meaningful way to ensure” that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are “subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.” More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it “flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination ‘in sufficient detail to enable [the teacher] to show any error that may exist.’”

It’s unclear whether the Houston school district will now negotiate a settlement with the teachers union or end up back in court, but either way, the decision comes at a significant time for the test-based accountability movement, which has faced a number of legal and political challenges over the past several years. The outcomes of the court battles have so far been a mixed bag: Teachers challenging VAM have scored some wins, lost other big cases, and a few major suits are still pending. Outside the courtroom, states have begun implementing the new federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—which imposes far less pressure on the states to use VAM or similar measures than what they faced during the Obama administration.

Donald Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos has also signaled she’s less interested in using test scores to define school performance. (“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are,” she said in March, in response to a question about measuring school success. “But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”) Considering all this, some experts have gone so far as to say that regardless of what ends up happening in the judicial system, the political momentum for using test-based accountability measures is all but over.

 

THE MOVEMENT FOR teacher accountability isn’t much older than many schoolchildren. In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread “institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.” TNTP reported that less than one percent of teachers in their study received “unsatisfactory” performance reviews, with most teachers receiving ratings of “good” or “great.” TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement”—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests.

The 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 and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 43 states revamped their teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” by 2013, up from just 15 states in 2009.

Many of these policies had the effect of shifting accountability systems away from the school level (where it was emphasized under No Child Left Behind) to the teacher level. Advocates for this shift cited research showing the importance of teacher quality, though critics argued that measuring student growth at the school level was a fairer and more reliable way to use the statistical tools. Not surprisingly, teachers overwhelmingly opposed the shift. A 2014 Gallup poll found that nearly nine in ten teachers felt linking teacher evaluations to student test scores was unfair, and 78 percent felt that all the testing was taking too much time away from teaching.

By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.

Not only does ESSA reduce standardized testing, it also voids some of the Obama-era waivers that incentivized states to adopt test-based teacher evaluations. In 2016, pro-test education reformers were also frustrated to learn that despite the widespread implementation of new evaluation systems under Obama’s tenure, the overwhelming majority of teachers were still receiving high ratings. Reformers had hoped these measures would help identify “ineffective” teachers and lead swiftly to their removal, in addition to rewarding “effective” teachers with new incentives. They held up Washington, D.C.’s reforms as a successful model to emulate, though it’s become clear that the nation’s capital is something of an outlier.

Even before the testing wave had begun to recede, though, some experts had been warning of the legal risks associated with VAM and similar statistical tools. In 2012, education law professors Preston Green and Joseph Oluwole, and education finance professor Bruce Baker, published an article outlining specific legal and policy problems with VAM and teacher evaluations, focusing on due process challenges, equal protection challenges, and disparate impact firings.

Major litigation against VAM quickly followed. Unions brought lawsuits arguing that the measures were arbitrary and capricious, that they unfairly penalized teachers who taught more disadvantaged students, and that they were being inappropriately used to measure things they were not designed for.

The lawsuits have partly been fueled by debates within the academic community over whether it’s even scientifically valid to use these measures to evaluate teachers. These debates have not been settled. Some researchers say the statistical growth measures fail to adequately control for all the disadvantages students face outside their classrooms, meaning evaluative scores may be less “objective” than some supporters claim. Other researchers found evidence that the same teachers could receive different value-added scores depending on what types of tests their students took, and others found that scores could vary significantly from year to year for no discernable reason. A complicating factor for VAM supporters has been that even when high-quality research studies showed that VAM could be theoretically used in ways that reduce some critics’ concerns, many states implemented their test-based systems in ways that ignored these recommended practices.

ONE LESSON THAT TEACHERS and their unions have learned over the past several years is that the courts are unlikely to overturn school district policy, even when they agree it’s unfair. If a teacher sues on the basis that a policy unconstitutionally denies them “substantive due process” or equal protection, a judge will consider their complaint under what’s known as a “rational basis analysis,” meaning the judge will look to see if the policy can be shown to have any kind of rational relation to a legitimate government issue. If it can, even if only vaguely, the courts are unlikely to intervene.

“These testing cases are always hard for teachers to win,” says Preston Green, an education law professor at the University of Connecticut. “A ‘rational basis analysis’ is a low bar for the government to satisfy, and a very hard one for plaintiffs to overcome.”

Take this major VAM case in Florida: In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach. For example, one plaintiff was a first-grade teacher evaluated based on the third-grade test scores of students she herself never taught. Another was a high school math teacher who mostly taught juniors and seniors, but had her VAM score calculated on the basis of freshman and sophomore reading scores. Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights.

But in 2014, a federal district judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. “Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to [teachers in non-tested subjects], let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system,” the judge wrote. “This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.” A federal appeals court upheld the ruling in 2015.

More failed legal challenges against value-added measures took place in Tennessee. In 2014, two of the state’s teachers, Mark Taylor and Lisa Trout, filed federal lawsuits, later consolidated, arguing they were unfairly denied performance bonuses because so few of their students took the tests used to generate their VAM score. In Taylor’s case, for example, just 22 of his 142 students took the exams that formed the basis of his VAM score. Trout and Taylor argued the measures were arbitrary and irrational, and violated their due process and equal protection rights.

But in 2016, a federal judge from the U.S. District Court in Knoxville dismissed their case. Though the judge recognized the legitimacy of the plaintiffs’ concerns, saying the teachers’ criticisms “are not unfounded,” he cited the Florida precedent, and concluded that it would be up to the Tennessee legislature to make any changes to the system, as it “survives minimal constitutional scrutiny.”

Still, there have been some wins. In addition to the recent legal victory in Houston, last year a Long Island fourth grade teacher named Sheri Lederman won her lawsuit against New York state officials, with a judge concluding that her VAM score for the 2013–2014 school year was indeed arbitrary and capricious and needed to be vacated. During the 2012–2013 school year, Lederman scored 14 points out of 20, the next year she scored 1 out of 20 (considered “ineffective”), and during the 2014–2015 school year she scored 11 out of 20. “It’s the variability and volatility of this model that makes it so arbitrary,” Lederman told The Wall Street Journal.“There’s no reason to suggest that my performance with my children has varied that much year to year.”

Another major suit is playing out in New Mexico. The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the state’s VAM system in February 2015, arguing that it violates state law and is arbitrary and capricious in design. A state judge issued a temporary injunction in December 2015, blocking New Mexico from using its VAM measures for high-stakes personnel decisions until a later trial could be held. (That trial is scheduled for October.) Notably, the judge said that while value-added modeling can generally be sound, it’s not clear how much New Mexico’s system conforms to those best practices, given that the inner workings of the model “are not easily understood, translated, or made accessible.”

“Courts aren’t really good at parsing statistical details, but if they see something is a blunt instrument, and that information is unstable and unreliable, those are concepts judges can understand,” says Rutgers education finance professor Bruce Baker. “And if it’s being used in an arbitrary way, in a way that requires a precision that can’t be achieved, judges can look at that and say, ‘Well, I can understand those due process issues.’”

AFT president Randi Weingarten told The American Prospect that in addition to working on the legal and legislative fronts to “defeat VAM,” the AFT is fighting for more constructive evaluation systems that actually help teachers improve their practices.

“VAM is an unjust, unreliable, and unconstitutional method of evaluating teachers in America’s classrooms, and the AFT and our affiliates are leading—and winning—the fight against these systems,” she says. “We are heartened by recent court victories in which judges agree with us that VAM does not work for students, teachers, or schools as an evaluation tool.”

OUTSIDE OF COURT BATTLES, one clear sign of how the political winds have shifted is the rhetoric of education reformers. Just a few years ago, prominent leaders were calling to publish teachers’ VAM scores, so that parents and taxpayers could better hold public school teachers accountable.

“Parents and community members have the right to know how their districts, schools, principals, and teachers are doing,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010. “It’s up to local communities to set the context for these courageous conversations but silence is not an option.”

Duncan’s comments came a few months after the Los Angeles Timescontroversially published the value-added scores for Los Angeles teachers, and posted names of individual teachers rated as effective or ineffective on their website. The New York City Department of Education wanted to follow suit, insisting that doing so was in the public interest. “These are public schools and public dollars,” said a spokeswoman for New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at the time.

Not all education reformers supported publishing VAM scores. Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, spoke out against it. “I just thought it was an absolutely shameful practice,” she told me. “If VAM were 100 percent accurate I would still have a problem with it—but it’s not, there are a lot of false positives and false negatives.” Bill Gates also published New York Times op-ed urging against disclosing the scores. “At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper,” he wrote.

And while New York did end up publishing teachers’ scores, along with other states like Ohio and Florida, you don’t hear VAM supporters championing such disclosures anymore. (Even Arne Duncan walked back his initial support.) One reason for the retreat is that making the scores available enabled the public to see how biased and error-prone they could be.

“After New York did it, people started realizing it was not a great thing to do,” says Baker. “Researchers reanalyzed the LA Times data and came up with different results, and I analyzed the NYC data, and even though NYC uses a pretty rich value-added model that controls for lots of stuff, eliminating much of the bias, that means you’re left with relatively noisy estimates, that jump around a lot from year to year.”

On top of growing doubts about how states are using VAM, some academics have even begun to challenge the idea that boosted test scores are a reliable proxy for improved life outcomes. This position is most prominently espoused by Jay Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who has argued the evidence for a correlation between test scores and life prospects is weak, especially with regards to high-stakes testing.

In an interview with the Prospect, Greene also said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen,” he says. “Their fantasy is an undemocratic fantasy, that benign dictators will scientifically design the correct evaluation, impose it on an unwilling workforce and population, and then it will stay forever. They always end up sounding a little bit like the ‘communism has never been tried’ argument. You know, once we get the details right, everyone will see how good it is.” Still, Greene thinks that even though reformers have not succeeded in really transforming teacher evaluations, they have effectively narrowed public discourse around education, defining “achievement” down to mean, merely, gains in reading and math scores.

“If you tell me that Chicago public schools are producing greater gainsamong disadvantaged students than other disadvantaged students across Illinois, it might be that Chicago students have figured out how to focus more narrowly on tests,” he says. “I don’t even know if the information we’re getting now [from tests] is a proxy for school quality anymore, or if it’s gaming.”

 

WHILE THE FUTURE of using value-added measures in teacher evaluations is unclear, some researchers have been advocating alternative ideas. One would be to use the statistical growth measures as a diagnostic tool, a preliminary screening test to help identify which districts, schools, and classrooms warrant closer attention. The idea would be to think of using VAM like a doctor who diagnostically screens for major diseases. If patients fail the screening test, they are given another, more careful measure. “As in medicine, a value-added score, combined with some additional information, should lead us to trigger classroom observations to identify truly low-performing teachers and to provide feedback,” Doug Harris, a Tulane education economist, wrote in 2012. Bruce Baker and Preston Green have also voiced support for this idea. Some reformers oppose this, saying that using it merely as a diagnostic tool would “water down the metric.”

In an interview, Harris told me that he’d rather see teacher evaluations be based on peers and experts observing teacher practice and coming to a professional judgment. He says he hopes the backlash against VAM will at least motivate people to think more seriously about alternative ways to evaluate teachers.

Though some are worried the country will move entirely away from holding schools and teachers accountable for student test scores—and thereby hurt academic opportunities for historically underserved students—Baker thinks we’ll see continue to see more incremental shifts in test-based accountability over the next few years. But some states, he says, will shift to growth measures that are no better than what states were already using.

Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says she’s inclined to be a pessimist, and the pessimist in her doesn’t see much progress happening on the test-based evaluation front over the next few years. “But then again,” she says, “the winds change pretty quickly.”