School Insecurity

Originally published in Democracy Journal on December 11, 2019.
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In September, in a small school district located in the Missouri Ozarks, computer printers started mysteriously shooting out ransom letters. The pages instructed their recipients to send an email in exchange for a code, which would then show that hackers had taken control of their files. The district would have to pay up, the hackers said, to get the data back.

That same month, a small school district located in the Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania was hit by a different ransomware attack, forcing schools to close and the district’s 3,000 computers to shut down.

The damage from these attacks turned out to be relatively limited, but it came on the heels of bigger cybersecurity breaches this past summer, like when computers in the Syracuse City School District—one of the largest in New York—were also crippled from a ransomware attack. The school district was locked out of its own computer system, and ended up paying the hackers a $50,000 insurance premium to get back in. The same month, Louisiana’s Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency after a malware virus attacked several schools, knocking out their computers. This declaration enabled the state to pool experts and resources from the Louisiana National Guard and the Louisiana State Police, among others.

Cybersecurity attacks on schools are new, coming with increasing aggression and frequency, and schools’ ability to withstand them varies dramatically across the country. Sometimes it’s criminals looking to make easy cash or simply inspire fear—capitalizing on schools’ lack of sophisticated defenses. Sometimes it’s members of a school community carrying or causing the data breaches themselves.

The risks presented are not just mild inconveniences. Recognizing schools’ dependence on computers and Internet access, administrators have grown acutely aware that their institutions are now extremely vulnerable to lengthy closures, crippled operations, and costly litigation. According to the K12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, U.S. schools reported 122 cybersecurity incidents in 2018, resulting in the theft of millions of taxpayer dollars, stolen identities, tax fraud, and altered school records. Experts believe this figure significantly understates the real number of attacks, as many incidents are not even reported publicly.

“Is it as bad as it sounds?” said Lee McKnight, a cybersecurity expert and professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. “It’s worse. It’s a complete mess, and anyone in IT who hasn’t been hit is not sleeping well because they know there’s a target on their backs.”

While the available data is not great, experts know the problems have grown even more severe in the last twelve months. Doug Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, and author of the K12 Cybersecurity Resource Center report, told me when I spoke to him in September that he’s already tracked more than twice as many incidents this year as compared to 2018, with a particular increase in third-party vendor breaches and a spike in ransomware attacks.

When it comes to the risk of a mass shooting in school, politicians and the media have been known to greatly exaggerate the chances of future attacks. Despite the wall-to-wall panicked coverage, particularly following the horrific Parkland, Florida massacre in 2018, a study released this year from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found multiple-victim school shootings are still extremely rare events, accounting for less than 2 percent of all youth homicides in the country.

But that’s not the case with school cybersecurity attacks.

Amelia Vance, director of the Education Privacy Project at the Future of Privacy Forum, a D.C.-based think tank, agrees the “risk is definitely not exaggerated.”

Vance started working on student privacy issues about six years ago, and says she observed a real shift in the school cybersecurity conversation around fall 2017, when rural school districts in Iowa, Montana, Texas, and Alabama were all attacked by an international cyberhacking organization called The Dark Overlord. A few months earlier The Dark Overlord earned national attention for releasing forthcoming episodes of “Orange Is The New Black,” a popular Netflix show, after Netflix refused to pay their ransom demand. The Dark Overlord took to Twitter after this incident to suggest other television networks would face similar fates. “Oh, what fun we’re all going to have,” it wrote.

By autumn, the international cybercriminals had moved on to public schools. Parents in the Johnston Community School District in Iowa suddenly began receiving threatening text messages, sent by the hackers who had stolen student data. Examples of texts included “I’m going to kill some kids at your son’s high school” and “Your child is still so innocent. Don’t have anyone look outside.” Other texts sent to the parents went further, citing their children by name and school.

Nobody knew who was behind this harassment at first, and the Johnston school district shut down the following day. One day after that The Dark Overlord claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter, and dumped student names, addresses, and telephone numbers online so as to make it easy for “any child predator to easily acquire new targets,” they claimed. The data had been compromised by a third-party vendor that worked with the school district.

Around the same time in Montana, more than 30 schools in the Columbia Falls School District closed after data was stolen, with parents again receiving graphic threats on their phones. The hackers demanded $150,000 in bitcoin in a seven-page ransom letter, and told a local reporter that they attacked the school district to rouse fear and make the government look bad. “The quaint, small, backwoods region of the US like yours is prime hunting grounds,” The Dark Overlord said. “This incident is the last thing you will expect to happen here.”

Their motivation for this particular attack appeared, in part, to be an effort to punish the FBI. “We’re escalating the intensity of our strategy in response to the FBI’s persistence in persuading clients away from us,” a Dark Overlord hacker told the Daily Beast at the time.

Like in physical kidnappings, the FBI discourages schools and other institutions from paying ransom in response to cyberattacks, noting it’s no guarantee an organization will even get its data back, and it can embolden other criminals to target more places. But sometimes school districts feel they have no choice but to pay up in order to resume operations.

Levin of EdTech Strategies has worked in education technology for upwards of the last 25 years, doing jobs like helping connect schools to the Internet, developing digital textbooks and tests, and serving as executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, which represents technologists working in state education agencies. “Cybersecurity never came up,” says Levin. “in the 1990s and 2000s, not at all.”

“I used to talk to superintendents and they’d say, ‘All we have is student names and email addresses, and how children scored on this quiz, nobody cares about that information,’” added Vance.

“They’d think because they didn’t have credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, nobody would try and steal it. That attitude has changed dramatically.”

Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a national nonprofit that represents technology leaders working in U.S. public schools, agrees. “We’ve administered a national survey to district technology leaders for the last seven years and cybersecurity was never on the list of top priorities,” he tells me. “About three years ago it became a number 3 priority, last year it became number 2 priority, and this year it was the number one stated priority.” For people in charge of technology in schools, Krueger stressed, “Cybersecurity has become front and center, and is no longer seen as something we should maybe do, but something we have to address.”

Levin started noticing more local news stories about school cyberattacks near the end of 2016—stories like hackers posing as superintendents and sending phishing emails to business office staff. The fake superintendents would claim there had been an emergency and that they needed to be sent a PDF of all the school employees’ W-2s as fast as possible.

Levin grew more curious, and soon he realized there was no comprehensive data available on how common these attacks actually were. He started to compile the incidents he could find in the news and other public sources, and today he manages an interactive map of nearly 700 reported cybersecurity-related incidents dating back to January 2016.

While international cybercriminals tend to generate headlines, unknown actors cyberhacking for malicious purposes actually comprised just about a quarter of all the data breaches Levin tracked. By contrast, in 2018, he found that just over half of all digital data breach incidents in public schools were directly carried out or caused by members of staff or students in the affected schools.

“Mostly when staff are involved it’s because they made a mistake, but occasionally it’s because they have an axe to grind, like sometimes you have disgruntled employees who were fired so they release or take data they shouldn’t,” he says. “Sometimes you have more sophisticated hacking from students, who break in to access, review or change student records.”

Levin thinks what he has tracked is much lower than the actual number. Local news coverage has declined dramatically, and even if school districts report an incident to a state agency, that doesn’t mean that incident is ever reported publicly. In North Carolina, for example, Levin noticed that the state’s Department of Justice had released a report on 2017 data breaches and its figure was ten times greater than what he had counted in the news. But when Levin’s colleague filed a Freedom of Information Request to learn about the other incidents, they were largely stonewalled.

In the last two years, Illinois, Texas, and Missouri have passed laws requiring states to notify parents if there has been a school data breach, but most states don’t have such disclosure mandates.

Despite a growing recognition that cybersecurity is a real issue, addressing cybersecurity concerns is not so easy—particularly for strapped, small school districts.

“If you look at this issue over time, hospitals were getting hit by ransomware several years ago,” said McKnight of Syracuse University. “You don’t hear about that so much anymore. You know who has money to improve their security systems and has the funds to hire and train staff? Hospitals.”

Schools, by contrast, are typically much more constrained in how they can afford to respond. This basic reality is also what makes schools such easy targets for hackers looking to make a quick buck, even if schools may be less likely to have the kind of credit card information that cybercriminals typically go for. “School districts are often a city’s largest employer, and many times they lack technical expertise while managing a lot of staff and data,” said Krueger. “In a lot of ways schools are just low-hanging fruit,” adds Vance.

The challenges are particularly acute for smaller districts, most of which lack the funds to hire an individual or a team of experts dedicated to cybersecurity. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts serve fewer than 2,500 students.

Another challenge is simply getting tiny, rural districts to accept that they, too, could be attacked. “Why this little school in Akron, Ohio?” asked Kelly Kendrick, the technology director for the Coventry Local School District, after its schools closed in May due to a malware virus. “It has really opened my eyes to how data of any kind is marketable, sellable.”

This realization Kendrick describes is key, Vance agrees. Yes, a criminal might not be able to run off with your bank account information if they hack a school district server, but “a lot of information is private because we don’t want our neighbors to know it,” she said. “Like maybe I don’t want my friends to know that I have trouble reading, or back in the second grade I slapped someone.”

Could part of the problem be that schools just have too much data? Is our data-driven policy culture leaving schools overly and unduly exposed?

It’s certainly true that schools, under real pressure to be innovative and forward-thinking, often adopt new education technology tools that some families fear are too invasive, or too vulnerable to hacking. For example, some schools use e-Hallpass, which digitally tracks student visits to the bathroom, the nurse’s office, and elsewhere. The company emphasizes that it is a more sanitary and efficient way to administer hall passes, that it is committed to student privacy and does not use GPS or other locating tracking services. But those assurances haven’t put everyone at ease.

Some parents have been organizing across the country to stop states from sharing personal student data with for-profit data-mining vendors. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy was founded in 2014 by two parents in New York and Colorado, and advocates have since written letters to Congress to strengthen federal student privacy rights, disseminated resources to parents, and developed student privacy principles for schools, education agencies, and third-party vendors.

Yet while student privacy concerns around ed tech tools add more complexity to the cybersecurity situation, experts say they are overlapping but distinct issues. Even with strong student privacy laws and enforcement, and even if schools cut down or eliminated the use of apps that store chat logs and other student data, school districts would still have serious cybersecurity concerns to deal with.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of collecting too much information,” says Eva Vincze, a faculty member in the cybersecurity and police and security studies programs at George Washington University. “It really just goes back to that issue of people thinking we’re not big enough for anyone to care about us, because we’re small.”

That’s not to say there aren’t safer measures schools can take with the data they collect. Cybersecurity experts like McKnight say there should be basic “cyber hygiene” such as data backups and storing information on cloud servers.

“Data collection is important, but schools should only be collecting the information that they need to answer particular questions, and some of that is mandated by federal law,” says Vance. “Basically schools should figure out what data is so sensitive that they shouldn’t have it at all, figure out at what point data should be deleted, and figure out who in a district should have access to what information.”

Another challenge is figuring out how to get the right advice. It’s not easy for districts to attract and retain skilled cybersecurity experts, since those professionals can usually earn much more money out in the private sector. “It’s not unusual for technology leaders to cut their teeth in education and then go get a better paying job elsewhere,” said Levin.

And even if all districts did somehow find the funds to hire cybersecurity experts at top dollar, there aren’t actually enough trained people in the country to take those jobs on. “We’ll never have a Chief Technology Officer for every school district, the private sector can’t even do it,” said Levin. “It will have to be some sort of coordinated response, sort of like what Louisiana did this summer but not as an emergency.”

“Not every district needs a cybersecurity expert,” Vance agrees. “What is needed is useful resources and templates and almost like plug-and-play supports that outside organizations and the government can provide.”

Lan Jenson, CEO of Adaptable Security, a nonprofit, is trying to be part of that plug-and-play vision. She founded her organization in 2017 with the goal of helping governments, schools, and small businesses navigate cyber-threats without breaking the bank. Unlike the school IT specialist who then goes to work for the private sector, Jenson started her career handling cybersecurity for a well-heeled financial institution.

“But financial companies have major resources, and governments and small businesses and schools are left behind,” she explained. So Jenson and a group of similarly motivated experts started Adaptable Security with the hope of providing assistance to more vulnerable institutions. “A lot of these leaders have some money, but they don’t have so much money, and they are trying to figure out what it would look like if we pool our resources,” she said. “They are willing to do something bigger, something shareable, and even though they may have that vision, everyone is so busy and wears multiple hats, so they don’t have anyone to be the coordinator. We’re trying to be that.”

So far Adaptable Security is working with 12 counties and a few core cities in the Bay Area, and Jenson hopes to scale the public-private model up nationally if it proves effective. In early October, her group sponsored the second annual Cybersecurity Symposium for Smart Cities, a free-to-attend, volunteer-led conference hosted in San Jose for school districts, small businesses, nonprofits, and local governments. Last year 250 people turned out, and this year more than 500 did—reflecting the growing awareness and concern.

McKnight of Syracuse University thinks public-private partnerships are the best way to move forward, especially since federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security are not the most popular with all communities across the country.

“We need more federal investment, but in partnership with nonprofits,” he said. “This is a democracy issue, a civil society issue. Things have to change because there’s no way every little school district will be able to do it on their own, and there’s no way to channel help from the federal level directly down everywhere—you need some new pluralistic entities to come in the middle.”

And there has been recent movement on the federal level. In the fall of 2018, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called on the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the more than 50 New York school districts that were hit that year with a type of cyberattack known as Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS). These attacks caused Internet outages within schools by overloading the systems with traffic, though no information was actually released.

In June, House lawmakers passed a bill—the Department of Homeland Security Cyber Incident Response Teams Act—to establish a permanent team of security specialists that agencies could call on when their technology gets hacked. A Senate version was approved in late September. Senator Schumer, who backed the bill, also recently called on the FBI to help school districts and local governments better respond to attacks. “It’s time to hit ‘control-alt-delete’ on ransomware and take a megabyte out of hackers,” he said in a particularly corny statement.

Also in September, the Consortium for School Networking submitted public comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requesting a change to the Schools and Libraries Program, more commonly known as E-Rate. At nearly $4 billion annually, E-Rate is the biggest federal subsidy program to help public schools and libraries manage the cost of connecting to the Internet. But cybersecurity is not among the list of eligible E-Rate discounted services, and the Consortium for School Networking argues that the requirements and limitations of E-Rate heavily influence how schools then deploy basic cybersecurity tools.

The organization told the FCC that while the federal government should not be expected to cover all aspects of cybersecurity, “several simple changes to the E-Rate program would have a very profound impact on the ability of school systems to protect and defend their networks and systems from cyberattacks.” For example, the Consortium for School Networking requested an expansion in the range of firewall services that can be reimbursed through E-Rate. Right now schools can reimburse for “basic firewall” services, but that category excludes a number of features typically found under the banner of “standard firewall” services—like anti-virus and malware protection, and data loss prevention.

As school districts move forward, leaders will have to be on guard for security grifters who are looking to sell expensive, ineffective products that capitalize on communities’ growing fears.

“There will always be markets for that, and there are always security services out there to scare you or just to convince you to buy things,” says Vincze of George Washington University.

“My fear is that without real leadership support, without IT staff with capacity, these security tools will probably not be put to their best use, and will be expensive,” says Levin.

While cybersecurity experts have been stressing that the problems are serious and demand action to mitigate risk and damage—at the end of the day, they say, no school should expect to be completely risk-free.

“Bad things happen,” says Vance. “We need to be humble. If Target and Wal-mart and big credit card companies can be hacked, so can a school district.”

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.”

How D.C. Became the Darling of Education Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy DeVos Alarms Special Education Advocates, Parents

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 18, 2017.
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At an hour when most parents were headed home for the evening, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos sat down to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The unusual evening hearing raised a number of red flags before it even began: Five Republicans on the committee together had received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the billionaire Republican donor and her family, and the Office of Government and Ethics still had not signed off on DeVos’s financial disclosures.

So perhaps it was not surprising that the roughly three-hour hearing included several bizarre episodes. DeVos cited grizzly bears as a justification for states determining whether firearms should be allowed in schools. The nominee also insisted that student debt rose 980 percent since 2008, when it only rose 124 percent. But the most shocking moment unfolded when DeVos admitted “she may have been confused” about the 42-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), one of the nation’s most fundamental civil rights laws.

Enacted in 1975, IDEA provides nearly seven million children in the U.S. with special education services. Special education oversight is one of the most significant responsibilities of the education department that DeVos has been nominated to lead. “The fact that she doesn’t understand the basics about federal education law is just appalling,” says Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), a national organization that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities. “It was pretty clear to us that she is not, and never has been, an advocate for students with disabilities.”

“Even around vouchers, which she supposedly does have a lot of experience with, she just talked about them writ large, as if they could solve every family’s dilemma,” Marshall adds. “She gave no indication that she understands that students with disabilities very often have to give up their legal and civil rights to use vouchers.”

One of DeVos’s most stunning blunders came when she challenged the very notion of federal disability mandates, suggesting that it’s best for individual states to decide how to educate students with special needs. “That would turn back the clock by 40 years,” Marshall says. “IDEA was passed out of the recognition that students with disabilities are a group that requires greater protections. If states want to receive those federal funds, then they have to accept higher responsibilities, and provide those necessary supports.”

Thena Robinson Mock, director of the Opportunity to Learn Program at Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, says that an education secretary nominee who does not understand how IDEA benefits children of color is especially alarming. “If we know nothing else about the school-to-prison pipeline, we know that black and brown students with disabilities are the most vulnerable to punitive discipline policies that push them out of school and into the criminal-justice system,” she says. “These students still need the protections of IDEA because they are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, more likely to be referred to law enforcement and more likely to be arrested in school.”

Parents of students with disabilities also had strong reservations about DeVos’s performance, saying that her lack of rudimentary knowledge and experience should disqualify her from the position.

Dustin Park, who lives in Tennessee with his six-year-old diagnosed with Downs syndrome, told The American Prospect that DeVos’s testimony troubled him. “At best, she doesn’t know about the laws protecting students with disabilities, and at worst she doesn’t care,” he says. Park has been organizing and educating other parents about state and federal special education laws and noted that the Supreme Court heard a case just last week that will have massive implications for students with disabilities across the United States.

David Perry, a parent living in Chicago with a disabled child could not understand why a nominee did not have a good answer for such a softball question. “It’s either ignorance, or arrogance, or apathy,” he says. “Either way, I’m even more concerned about her nomination.”

Edward Fuller, a Penn State University education policy professor, told The American Prospect about his experience living in Texas, where his daughter, Jade, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and ADHD, had been routinely denied special education services. In 2016, The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas had arbitrarily decided that only a certain percentage of students would get special education, while denying thousands of other children their lawful services. The newspaper’s investigation has since prompted federal intervention.

“The debacle in Texas is a perfect example of what could happen if states are allowed control over special education and are allowed to interpret the laws around IDEA from their own perspective,” says Fuller. “States can adopt policies that leave huge swaths of kids without access to a free and appropriate education [and] many southern states would adopt the same strategy as Texas in order to reduce education spending.”

Tom Wellborn, a south Jersey parent of two children with special needs, says he can’t imagine how miserably his kids would be doing without the techniques they’ve learned from specialists in their schools. “DeVos is obviously unqualified; painfully so,” he says. Citing the grizzly bear comment, Wellborn says he can’t even fathom “whether she’s serious or thinks we’re all idiots.”

Freshman Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, and a parent of a son with cerebral palsy, challenged DeVos last night on the federal disability statute. In a statement provided to The American Prospect, Hassan said, “The fact that a nominee to lead the Department of Education seemed unfamiliar with the federal law to protect students with disabilities—a law that she would have a major responsibility in enforcing—is unacceptable. I will review Mrs. DeVos’s written responses but at this point she has done nothing to convince me that she’s a suitable choice to serve as secretary of education.”

Education Reformers Reflect at 25

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 29th, 2016.
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It’s been a quarter-century since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota, prompting many self-proclaimed reformers to step back and reflect on their movement’s progress. Charters educated 2.5 million students this past year, in 6,700 schools across 43 states. Programs enabling students to attend private schools with vouchers are expanding. And in February, Teach for America celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a summit in Washington, D.C.—noting that of their 50,000 teachers and alumni, 40,000 are still under 40.

But challenges loom for the movement—politically and philosophically. Some tensions can be chalked up to growing pains: a nationwide bipartisan coalition is bound to disagree at times, and certainly policy implementation can be far more contentious than passing legislation. Transforming the public education system, reformers have found, turns out to be hard, messy work.

But the problems run deeper than that. Internally, two main camps of reformers—market-driven advocates and accountability hawks—have been butting heads increasingly over goals and political priorities. For a long time, these two groups seemed to be one and the same—“choice and accountability” have always been buzzwords for the movement. But over time, the divisions between Team Choice and Team Accountability have grown more apparent. Today, some veteran choice advocates, those who have been pushing market-driven reforms for the last 25 years, have expressed feelings of being hemmed in, and in some cases crowded out, by others who are demanding formal checks and balances.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, is one such frustrated choice advocate. “Reformers have become our own worst enemy,” she declared at an event at the National Press Club earlier this month. Her group organized the event to release its new manifesto, outlining challenges Allen sees within education reform, and steps allies must take to get their movement back on track. “If we’re to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts to drive change have hit a wall,” she said. In Allen’s view, reformers saw more progress during their first nine years, than over the last 16.

Her manifesto cites a declining interest in Teach for America, decreasing enthusiasm for the education technology sector, and slower overall charter school growth. She says that officials who authorize charters have grown too overbearing, stifling flexibility and innovation. And she calls on the reform movement to get back on offense—to focus on “opportunity and upward mobility”—so they can begin rebuilding momentum.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus at the right-of-center Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank, tells me he thinks Allen is correct to note that reformers have not looked ahead to the future enough. He worries that the current partisanship in the country threatens to splinter the reform coalition. But he says he thinks certain gains and accomplishments—like judging schools on whether students are learning, improved graduation rates, better tests, and more rigorous standards—are ones to be proud of. “She doesn’t really give them enough credit,” he says.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, tells me that while he felt many of Allen’s observations were accurate, the overall tone of her manifesto was too cynical and pessimistic. “In the places where we have a lot of charter schools, they won’t disappear,” he says. “The fight now is how many more are there going to be, and what are the regulations around them going to look like.”

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Some groups, like the Center for Education Reform, remain committed to the idea that parents should be able to choose the schools they think best meets the needs of their child. While all reformers still generally use this type of rhetoric, many have actually moved away from the more corporate “parents as customers” language that leaders like Allen still regularly employ. From the perspective of the Center for Education Reform, if a parent is satisfied with a school, then that is reason enough to assume it’s successful and working. If enough parents want to leave a school, and have the freedom to do so, the thinking goes, then bad schools will be inevitably shut down, just as bad businesses close if they can’t sustain demand for their products.

In her manifesto, Allen says that while charter authorizers have a role to play in terms of opening schools, it should be parental choice that determines whether or not schools close. “No accrediting agency has more of an incentive to keep kids out of bad schools than mothers and fathers,” she writes.

“Well, we just fundamentally disagree with that,” Richmond tells me.

Chester E. Finn Jr. says he’s also less willing to leave school accountability up to parents, and believes student outcomes have to be part of the conversation. “Jeanne is a little more willing to settle for a market test, and I want something else besides that. I’m also pretty fussy about achievement.”

Nowhere is this divide more evident than within the ongoing debates surrounding virtual charter schools, which more than 180,000 students attend full-time in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Last fall, multiple research studies found that virtual charter schools yield significantly worse academic results than traditional public schools. Building on those findings, this month, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (Richmond’s group), and 50Can, an education reform advocacy group, jointly released a report with recommendations for states to hold virtual charters more accountable for student performance. “It is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children and that solely relying on self-selection in the enrollment process isn’t working,” their report said.

As Matt Barnum, an education policy writer for The 74 observed, that reform groups opted to say ‘self-selection’ –rather than “choice”—highlights some of the tensions of this particular moment. For so long, reform advocates argued that schools should be measured on the basis of whether parents choose them. (Or “self-select” them.) But now more groups are saying that perhaps unfettered choice is not the best policy after all.

“What most of the folks in the charter world realized after ten years was that having an unfettered market produced some great schools, but also a lot of bad ones,” Richmond says. He notes that groups like the Walton Family Foundation used to be very generous in terms of who they would fund. “There was a period of time where it was as if almost anyone who wanted to open a charter school could get a grant of $100,000 from the Waltons. It ran like that for a number of years, until eventually they looked at the results and decided this wasn’t working.”

“As supportive as I am about entrepreneurialism and private sector engagement,” says Finn, “there’s also been a lot of greedy behavior—a lot of ‘to the heck with the kids’—and we reformers didn’t really pay enough attention to that.”

The Center for Education Reform issued a statement sharply critical of the three groups’ report, saying it “exemplifies precisely why the education reform movement is at risk—its conclusions endanger the ideals of opportunity and innovation that are so desperately needed in education today.” At the National Press Club, Allen went further, saying there’s been a “death march” around research studies, with too many reports and academics critiquing various aspects of reform, which then inhibits a culture of risk and innovation.

Efforts to transform public education aren’t going away, but what shape they will take going forward remains unclear. A growing number of people, including both school choice advocates and education reform opponents, say there’s little evidence that standardized test score gains in math and reading lead to improved long-term life outcomes. This has further fueled debates over how students should be tested, and how schools should be held accountable for test scores. There are also growing disputes among reformers over the role of for-profit companies, and what type of regulation and accountability a choice-based system really needs.

“I don’t feel that charters are going to go away, but I do believe they will become so hamstrung they will become like the traditional school system,” said Donald Hense, the founder of one of D.C.’s largest charter networks, at the National Press Club earlier this month. Richmond tells me that while he whole-heartedly agrees some authorizers have gone too far in regulating charter schools, many don’t go far enough.

In late May, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, penned a provocative post warning of a narrowing space for conservatives within education reform; its “increasingly aggressive” social justice rhetoric, he said, has served to marginalize Republicans and conservative ideas. A fellow conservative, Fredrick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, followed up, lamenting what he described as growing “groupthink” within the movement. “It has undermined the healthy competition of ideas,” Hess said. “It has weakened the ability to sustain bipartisan cooperation. It has rendered the space less hospitable to young minds who may not share the current orthodoxy.” These and other critiques have sparked a flurry of internal discussion and debate about the future of the coalition—a fairly healthy conversation as reformers work to grow a more diverse movement, but one that has also left people divided over just how existential these problems really are.

As education policy devolves back to the states, as it’s set to do through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in December, we’re likely to see much more school variation across states and communities. Teacher unions and market-driven reformers have cheered these developments, but many civil rights groupsand accountability hawks worry about what a decreased federal role will mean for struggling students. As reformers continue to mobilize, so do their critics. The discussion around school integration has grown louder over the past two years, and more community advocates are exploring models like full-service community schools as ways to boost student success.

Needless to say, the next quarter-century will require close attention.

 

Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 10th, 2016.
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In a new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, Teachers College, Columbia University historian Ansley Erickson explores the legal and political battles surrounding the desegregation of public schools in Nashville. By 1990, almost no school within Nashville’s metropolitan school district had high concentrations of black or white students—making it one of the most successful examples of desegregation in the 20th century. However, since being released from court-ordered busing in the mid-1990s, schools have quickly resegregated, concentrations of poverty have intensified, and academic scores for black students in Nashville have suffered.

Erickson shows that desegregation was not all rainbows and butterflies, and it often created new challenges that families were forced to wrestle with. She also shows how school segregation had been no accident. Rather, it was a result of deliberate choices made by politicians, parents, real estate developers, urban planners, and school administrators—ranging from funneling subsidies to build schools in suburban areas, to privileging white families when making zoning and student assignment decisions.

And yet for all the challenges that desegregation entailed, Erickson also lets us hear the voices and positive experiences of students who went through desegregation—voices that were routinely ignored during the heated debates of the 20th century.

The point of recognizing the flaws within one of desegregation’s best-case scenarios is not, she says, to conclude that it’s ultimately a fruitless project. Rather, it serves as a guide for those who might want to figure out how to start anew. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that while desegregation challenged some inequalities, it also “remade” inequality in new forms. Are all inequalities equal, so to speak? Can we evaluate the challenges and still decide whether the needle moved overall in one direction or another in terms of progress?

Ansley Erickson: I think that desegregation absolutely was necessary, and I think that busing for desegregation was, in sum, a positive—and in some ways ambitious—effort to counteract persistent segregation. We can recognize that even as we notice desegregation’s limits and problems. I say this not only because of the stories that students who experienced desegregation tell, and not only because of the positive test score impact. It’s also because busing made segregation a problem within local political landscapes and put questions about historic inequality in front of people to grapple with.

RC: In the conclusion of your book you say that desegregation, mandated by a Supreme Court that recognized schooling’s crucial function in our democracy, has rarely been shaped by, or measured for, its potential impact on the making of democratic citizens. If it were to be, what could that look like?

AE: In Carla Shedd’s new book, Unequal City, she explores how students who attend segregated schools versus more diverse ones perceive inequality. She finds that those in more highly segregated schools have a less developed sense of inequality—they are less informed about it because they have less to compare their own experience to.

Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense. Work like Shedd’s points to how segregation can get in the way of that understanding.

Today, economic goals and justifications for schooling seem to be valued over all others. Nashville has invested very heavily in career and technical education. Its big comprehensive high schools have been redesigned as career academies, targeting jobs like being a pharmacist or working in hospitality. The goal is to help prepare kids for jobs, to sustain local businesses. At the same time, Nashville is a place that doesn’t have a local living wage, has a skyrocketing cost of living, an affordable housing crisis. Schools are clearly focused on helping to make students workers. But what is their responsibility in making citizens who can address big and pressing questions, including about the economy and about work? What’s a reasonable and just compensation for a person’s labor? What are workers’ basic rights? To me, helping kids be ready to participate in those debates matters just as much as helping students earn a certification in a certain vocational skill area.

RC: You wrote a lot about how “growth agendas” helped fuel inequality and new kinds of segregation. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it worked?

AE: This question connects to the themes we were just discussing. History can help bring some nuance to today’s often oversimplified rhetoric about how education and economic growth relate. It’s been popular recently to talk about schools as providing skills that leverage economic growth. But links between education and economic growth have worked in other ways, too.

In Nashville, in the name of economic growth, big urban renewal and public housing construction projects sharpened segregation in housing and in schooling. In the name of increasing property values, suburban developers appealed for segregated schooling by class as well as by race. And in the name of economic growth, schools focused on vocational education—often furthering segregation inside schools even as buses transported students for desegregation.

RC: While combining city and suburbs into one school district is not without its challenges—the dilution of black voting power was one you explored in the context of Nashville—do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

AE: Nashville would not have had extensive statistical desegregation without consolidation. Nashville was highly residentially segregated and the old city boundary was quite small, like many U.S. cities. By the time busing began, the people living in the old city boundary were predominately African American. Had desegregation taken place only within the old city boundaries, the district would have had a much less diverse pool of students to draw on and a less diversified tax base. Having a consolidated city-county school district didn’t prevent “white flight,” but it did slow it and make it more onerous. But consolidation did not ensure equal treatment for all parts of the metropolis, either.

RC: In your book you show how back in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some black communities felt as if advocacy for integration suggested that students of color are inferior and need to be around white kids in order to succeed. We see similar concerns today. Integration carries many important social and civic benefits for all students, but in modern education policy discussions the impact on student test scores gets the most attention—and that significant positive impact is by and large just for students of color. Though the test score gains are huge, could a narrow focus on student achievement dilute political support for integration?

AE: I think about this a lot, as I consider how history might inform today’s nascent conversation about segregation and desegregation. Other scholars have shown striking test-score improvements from desegregation. But if your ultimate goal is test score parity, then there will always be multiple ways to get there. If the goal is also preparing citizens for a diverse democracy, it’s harder for me to see how that happens without some measure of desegregation.

RC: You note that when it came to busing, residents decried state intervention as government overreach, an illegal intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to the state playing a heavy role in facilitating economic growth, they welcomed the government’s help. Did you find there were people back in Nashville who were pointing out this contradiction?

AE: I didn’t find anyone who was pointing it out then. Then, as now, many people did not perceive how government action was shaping their lives, especially white suburbanites’ lives, in ways that benefited them but that they did not see. People wanted to draw sharp boundaries between what was public and private. White homeowners in particular liked to talk about their housing decisions as private choices they made within a free market. What they didn’t recognize was how enabled they were by their government-backed mortgage, their low-gas-tax subsidized commutes on new highways. Public policy supported what they wanted to cast as a private choice. When asked to recognize the segregation in their cities and schools, they wanted to call it “de facto segregation”—as if it had roots only in private action. But in fact, many layers of state action and policy were involved as well. There wasn’t a coherent small-government conservatism then. Like today, the question is what people thought government power should be used for.

RC: You explored school closures and the loss of black teaching jobs as a result of desegregation. Today we see similar trends, with schools closings, charter school expansions, and the increase in non-union jobs targeted to a whiter, and shorter-term teaching force. What, if any, historical lessons can we glean?

AE: There’s a lot of good scholarship on the history of desegregation and job loss—particularly by Michael Fultz and Adam Fairclough. I didn’t make that a huge focus in my book, but there is an important broader question here about how we think about education. Schools often account for around half of municipal budgets; they are huge municipal expenditures, and they do represent a big source of employment. Historically this employment has been an important step towards middle class existence for lots of American communities. Women of Irish, Italian, Jewish descent moved into the middle class by becoming schoolteachers in the early- and mid-20th century. Similarly, African American educators have attained, or preserved, middle class status through education jobs for a long time. Somehow we have been unable to find a way to talk about the teaching profession recognizing that it is both labor and employment that matters for communities and a crucial factor in students’ lives.

Can Charlotte-Mecklenburg Desegregate its Schools … Again?

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 18th, 2016.
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It was not so long ago that Charlotte, North Carolina, was widely considered “the city that made desegregation work.” The Queen City first pioneered busing to desegregate schools in 1969, and when the Supreme Court upheld that strategy as a legal remedy for school segregation two years later in its landmark Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling, districts across the South began busing students as well.

In the past 15 years, however, Charlotte has seen a rapid resurgence in segregated schooling. Following a late 1990s decision that said court-mandated integration was no longer necessary, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) grew quickly divided by race and class, and the economic isolation continues to intensify with each passing year. Though CMS is still considered a relatively high-performing school system, a closer look at the data reveals deeply unequal outcomes among the district’s 164 schools.

For more than a decade, local residents ignored the demographic shifts taking place within CMS. Political leaders, as well, seemed to just have no energy left to expend on school diversity following their highly publicized school segregation lawsuits. Yet now, due to a district policy that requires school board members to revisit student assignments every six years, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community finds itself facing a rather unusual opportunity. Wary of litigation, but troubled by the damning diversity data, Charlotte leaders have been working cautiously over the past year to see if there might be any popular support for breaking up pockets of poverty within CMS.

Their timing may be just right. In addition to sobering statistics on school segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, new research out of Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley found that Charlotte ranks dead last in the nation in terms of upward mobility, and that racial segregation and school quality are two main culprits behind this. Moreover, after years of lackluster results from other school turnaround efforts, resistance to shuffling students as a way to improve school quality is softening.

The political momentum in favor of school segregation in Charlotte is fairly new, but so is the backlash against it. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has seen a 15-year population surge, predominately in the county’s northern and southern regions. Many of the county’s newcomers missed Charlotte’s desegregation history, and see no real reason to bring it back. They moved into their communities, they say, largely for the schools. As more leaders explore how CMS might revamp student assignment, a growing number of parents have begun to raise objections—warning officials that they would not hesitate to send their children to private schools, or to the state’s notably segregated charter sector, if they had to.

Last summer, when it became clear that the CMS school board was thinking of revisiting student assignment, a group of pro-integration community members began organizing in support of the idea. And so back in July, OneMeck was born—a grassroots coalition of residents committed to making Charlotte-Mecklenburg a place where diverse individuals live, work, and attend school together. Through public forums, social media, and one-on-one conversations, OneMeck advocates began to make their case.

“We spent a few months figuring out what we were for and how we would structure ourselves, and we’re still evolving even now,” says Carol Sawyer, a co-founder of OneMeck. “But we have no intention of becoming a 501c(3); we really value our nimbleness and our ability to advocate as a community organization.”

Students also got involved. Through the organization Students for Education Reform, (SFER), CMS students began to strategize how they could best interject their personal experiences into an increasingly heated public debate over school segregation.

“Even though school board members said they wanted to hear from students, they weren’t actually invited to the table in any of these conversations,” says Kayla Romero, a former CMS teacher and current North Carolina SFER program coordinator. “This issue is going to directly impact students, they are the ones currently in the system, but people were not seeking their opinions out or intentionally bringing them to the table.”

OneMeck supporters say they are not advocating for any one specific policy, and that they believe there are a number of steps CMS could take to reduce racial and economic segregation. They are encouraging the school board to hire a national consultant who could come in and study the school district, and make recommendations on how to best legally, and strategically, diversify CMS schools.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2015, the public discussion in Charlotte revolved largely around issues of race and desegregation. But beginning in 2016, suburban families started to ramp up their efforts to shift the narrative. In February, hundreds of parents joined two new groups—CMS Families United for Neighborhood Schools and CMS Families for Close to Home Schools and Magnet Expansionwhich sought to reframe the conversation around the importance of neighborhood schools, and to express collective opposition to what they called “forced busing.” Some even began to sell T-shirts that read “#Close-To-Home-Schools #NOforcedbusing.”

Christiane Gibbons, a co-founder of the CMS Families United For Neighborhood Schools, (now renamed CMS Families for Public Education) says when she first learned that the school board was rethinking student assignments in early February, she felt compelled to alert local parents to the dangers of forced busing. I asked her if forced busing was on the table at this time. “Who knows?” she responded. “But it seemed like, for a lot of people, an option for alleviating pockets of poverty is to bus in and bus out.”

Advocates of diverse schools point out that CMS actually buses students more now than the district ever did at the height of desegregation. The CMS school board chairperson, Mary McCray, has also stressed that student assignments would be based on choice, and not on forced busing. Since 20,000 students already attend magnet schools throughout the district, integration advocates say figuring out how to improve and expand those models is one choice-based option CMS could consider.

“In some high-wealth suburban neighborhoods there’s been claims that OneMeck is pushing ‘forced busing,’ but that’s been sort of dog whistle politics,” says Sawyer. “We’ve never said anything like that, and neither has any board members. It’s a pure fabrication.”

Whatever the case, many parents began pressing the school board and other local political leaders to commit to “home school guarantees”—promises that no matter what else changes with student assignment, children could still attend the neighborhood schools that their parents have expected them to enroll in. In three towns north of Charlotte—Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson—political leaders passed resolutions affirming that they want every student guaranteed a spot within their neighborhood school. In two towns south of Charlotte—Matthews and Mint Hill—the mayors even floated the idea of splitting off from CMS if the school board goes forward with revamping student assignments.

“That’s not a realistic threat,” says Sawyer. “Though it makes good copy.”

Aside from discussions that smaller suburban towns may secede from the district, leaders take far more seriously the threat that parents may send their children to private schools or charter schools if their traditional public schools no longer seem desirable. Last year, researchers at Duke University published a study suggesting that white parents in North Carolina were already using charters as a way to avoid racially integrated public schools.

On the nine-person CMS school board, Rhonda Lennon, who represents northern Mecklenburg County, has been the fiercest critic of redrawing lines; for months she has emphasized that families would certainly leave CMS if the board interferes with student assignment, and that she might open her own charter school, if parents in her community lost their home school guarantee.

“I think it’s a valid fear that parents have; I don’t think this is ‘chicken little’,” says Amy Hawn Nelson, an educational researcher at UNC Charlotte. “When you look at the aggregate school level performance data in some high poverty racially segregated schools, it can look frightening. Every parent wants the best school for their child, and for parents that have a choice, they are going to choose a school that is high-performing.”

At the end of January, the school board released an online survey inviting parents, CMS staff members, and other Mecklenburg County residents to share their thoughts and opinions on student assignments. Board members said they would use the results—which were published in a 241-page report—to guide their decisions. The online survey, which ran from January 29 until February 22, garnered more than 27,000 responses.

In addition to the survey, the CMS school board voted in late February on a set of six goals to consider when re-evaluating student assignment. These included providing choice and equitable access to “varied and viable” programmatic options; maximizing efficiency in the use of school facilities, transportation, and other resources to reduce overcrowding; and reducing the number of schools with high concentrations of poor and high-needs children.

CMS has since put out a request for a proposal for a national consultant to help the district develop a plan. The consultant would consider, among other things, the board’s approved goals and the results of the countywide survey. CMS plans to make a hire sometime this month.

Some parents say the board is getting this all wrong, and that focusing on student assignments is a distraction from the district’s real problems. “What’s really disheartening about all this is that people are making it about ‘us versus them’ and about race and desegregation, but it’s not,” says Gibbons. She thinks there should be greater focus on improving individual schools, through strategies like increasing parent involvement and expanding after school programming. Gibbons says she does not see changing student demographics as a way to improve schools.

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, CMS, along with local philanthropic and business communities in Charlotte launched Project LIFT—a five-year public-private partnership to boost academic achievement. The program selected nine low-performing Charlotte schools and infused them with an additional $55 million in private investment. Three years into the experiment, however, researchers have found only modest and mixed evidence of academic improvement.

“I think Project LIFT is a school reform effort to make segregation work, and it hasn’t,” says Sawyer, of OneMeck.

Gibbons disagrees. “I think it’s a great turnaround program, I think it’s obviously beneficial,” she says. “It was the first time they did it so it may need tweaks, I don’t know enough about the actual numbers, but I think those types of turnaround programs are what is going to really benefit the under-performing schools.”

Some of the SFER students that Kayla Romero works with attend Project LIFT schools. “When people say ‘oh we just need more money,’ it’s been helpful to use Project LIFT as an example,” she says. Though spending more money has undoubtedly helped in some ways—such as providing students with better technology, and enabling administrators to employ more strategic staffing—Romero says students recognize that it hasn’t been enough.

The disagreements taking place in Charlotte mirror those playing out in districts all over the country. How much does money matter? Can segregated schools be equal? How should we factor in school choice? How should we define diversity?

Proponents of desegregating Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools point to a significant body of research that says diverse schools provide better social and academic education for all children. OneMeck launched the #DiversityWorks campaign, where organizers asked CMS residents to submit videos explaining how they have benefited from attending diverse schools. They also point to research on economic opportunity that came out of Harvard and Berkeley last year, which found Mecklenburg County is the worst big county for escaping poverty after Baltimore; in 2013 the researchers ranked Charlotte as 50th out of 50 big cities for economic mobility.

Still, some CMS residents balk at OneMeck’s fervent advocacy. In Charlotte Observer op-ed, Jeremy Stephenson, who previously ran for school board, protested that those who push to use student assignment to break up concentrations of poverty “accept as gospel” that this will raise the achievement of all students. “They accept this diversity panacea as both empirical truth and an article of faith,” he writes, alleging that academia is “merging into advocacy” as it did with tobacco-funded cancer research. Stephenson argued that panel discussions “feature no diversity of thought; support for neighborhood schools is cast as xenophobic; and so postured, any questioning is heretical.”

Despite Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s historical legacy of school desegregation, hardly anyone describes that history as central to the conversations taking place today. Sandra Conway, an education consultant who has been working in conjunction with OneMeck, says she and her allies hope to mobilize Charlotte-Mecklenburg around a new, shared commitment to diverse schools.

“We’ve just really been trying to get people together to think about what kind of city we want to be,” says Conway. “We’ve grown so dramatically, we’re a Technicolor city, we’re a Southern city, and race is at play. But we need to have a new vision going forward, and if you don’t understand your history, and you don’t understand the data—that’s a problem. So we’ve just been working hard for over a year to get that out there.”

James Ford, awarded the 2014-2015 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, was a black CMS graduate during desegregation. As an educator today, Ford has been sharing his story to help raise support for reviewing student assignment. “As America becomes more brown, the question is not just whether or not we want integrated schools, but do we want to live in an integrated society? Are we an inclusive or exclusive community?” he wrote in Charlotte Magazine. “The answer depends on how we see ourselves.”

“I think for many kids growing up in Charlotte, segregation has just been the norm,” says Romero. “Some of them could live in this city for their whole lives and never come across white kids. However, some of their parents have had those experiences and do speak out about being part of the integration movement and the opportunities it created for them.”

The school board plans to continue reviewing student assignments throughout most of 2016, and any approved changes it makes would take effect no sooner than the 2017-2018 school year.

Tensions are high, but some school diversity advocates predict that the political landscape will calm down if and when a consultant presents the community with a real plan. “In the absence of a plan, you’ll have all sorts of fear mongering,” one activist confided. “It doesn’t matter how much we say that’s not the case, that there won’t be forced busing—until a plan is presented, people will continue to freak out.”

Even opponents of reassigning students have acknowledged that some of the current CMS boundaries are a bit peculiarly drawn. An article published in The Charlotte Agenda looked at various “gerrymandered” maps and found that it would be relatively easy to increase student diversity in schools without resorting to miles and miles of extra busing. Gibbons acknowledged “there are definitely some lines that don’t make sense” on the maps.

“OneMeck is feeling pretty energized,” says Sawyer. “We realize that we are facing tremendous fear, but we’re trying to show that we can make all our schools better for all our kids.”

Why DeRay Mckesson’s Mayoral Candidacy Will Be Defined Far More By Education than Policing

Originally published in Slate on February 12th, 2016.
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N
ews of mayoral runs usually don’t merit the attention that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson got when he announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s top job last week. His campaign had leaked the story to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian in advance, and within 24 hours, he had already crowd-funded $40,000.

National publications began speculating how Mckesson’s candidacy would elevate police reform onto Baltimore’s political agenda, the implication being that it wasn’t already a top priority in the race. It absolutely is: Nearly 10 months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and after one of the most crime-ridden years Baltimore’s seen in decades, few topics are more prominent. So what, exactly, will Mckesson bring to the election?

Mckesson joins 12 other Democrats competing in April’s primary, the winner of which will almost certainly go on to win in November. But though Mckesson’s large Twitter following may be eager to see how he’ll carry his national Black Lives Matter work into Charm City, I suspect they’ll be in for a surprise. What’s going to distinguish Mckesson probably won’t be policing and criminal justice at all—it’ll be education.

Nationally, school reform is an issue that confounds political partisans, opening fault lines among progressive allies and uniting constituencies that typically never agree. Reform is even more complicated in Baltimore; the city stands as a distinctively unusual landscape for education politics next to other, similar urban centers.

Already, Mckesson has signaled that he plans to campaign on education, which isn’t surprising since that’s where the 30-year-old cut his professional teeth. After graduating college, he spent two years teaching sixth graders in Brooklyn followed by several stints with education nonprofits, reform organizations, and administrative district jobs. But Mckesson brings to the race some national baggage, which he’ll have to confront as he tries to make his case to Baltimore voters. Specifically, residents have already raised questions about his ties to national reform groups like TNTP and Teach for America, as well as his enthusiastic support for charter schools.

So far, Mckesson has largely dismissed these concerns. He’s reminded the public that he’s spent several years working with the Baltimore school district as an administrator focused on staffing personnel. Still, he’ll have to reckon with local education politics that have changed substantially since he left his job back in 2013.

For example, a few months ago a coalition of charter operators filed a lawsuit against the school district over funding—a highly controversial move that’s divided Baltimore public school families. The city is also in the midst of closing down more than two-dozen schools, and the next mayor will need to determine what becomes of the vacant buildings. Will they be sold off? Will they be leased to charter schools? Will they be repurposed into some other civic entity? These decisions are sure to intensify an already-fraught K-12 landscape.

The main thing to grasp about Baltimore’s education environment is that it’s pretty unique. All charter teachers are unionized, unlike most charter employees in other states. Moreover, Maryland charter schools—which are predominately mom-and-pop institutions, not larger charter-school chains—are subject to more oversight and regulation than charters elsewhere. While reformers say they’d like to see Maryland charters freed from these legal constraints, supporters of the status quo say that tougher oversight explains why Maryland charter schools have never wrought the kind of fraud, mismanagement, and abuse found in other jurisdictions.

What Mckesson will soon have to decide is whether he is committed to keeping Baltimore’s charter sector as is—with unionized teachers, a close relationship to the school district, and substantial oversight—or join the coalition of charter operators and national education reform groups that seek to significantly revamp chartering in Maryland. That decision may also force him to choose between competing groups that may try to back him. Some national charter networks have expressed disinterest in setting up shop in Baltimore, namely because they don’t want to work within the school district and employ unionized teachers. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a D.C.-based organization, consistently ranks Maryland as the worst charter school state in the country, largely for these same reasons.

Yet within Baltimore, both traditional teachers and charter teachers alike strongly support Maryland’s charter law—and rallied together last year to protest reformers’ attempts to change it. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, hired lobbyists to push for loosening Maryland’s regulations. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the fight is expected to resurface again soon.

On Friday, Mckesson released his education campaign platform—a substantive list of proposals ranging from expanding early childhood education to strengthening college and career readiness programs. He calls for increasing the school district’s transparency (a common theme among all the candidates) and more equitable state financing. He notably doesn’t mention anything about unions or charter schools, but Mckesson won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate for long.

When news broke that Mckesson would be running, some Baltimore activists, particularly those who have been fighting for police reform, protested on Twitter—a surprise to some outside the city, given his national stature within Black Lives Matter. Among other things, locals argue that Mckesson lacks sufficient relationships with the communities he now seeks to lead.

In many ways, their critiques mirror those that veteran public school educators level at Teach for America—that outside young teachers without roots in the cities they work in displace those who have more of a right, and need, to be there. And despite Mckesson’s early campaign efforts to brand himself as a “son of Baltimore,” some local activists have said they’ve rarely seen him fighting alongside them in the causes they’ve been invested in for years, like building independent black institutions and weakening the Maryland police union. (Mckesson defended himself against these charges, saying “there are many ways to engage in the work.”)

A few weeks ago, 11 Democratic candidates gathered together for a mayoral forum to discuss their political vision for Baltimore. One audience member asked the candidates, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” Answers varied somewhat, but all in all, they were broadly similar. The candidates spoke of strengthening civilian review boards, getting body cameras on all police, transforming the way Baltimore recruits and trains officers, establishing more transparent accountability systems, pushing for more police to formally live within the city, mandating cultural diversity training and regular psychiatric evaluations, and calling for convictions for those who break the rules.

In other words, Mckesson is entering a crowded field of candidates who likely share many of his police reform policy goals. Some hope that Mckesson’s candidacy will encourage others to articulate even sharper campaign proposals. Perhaps, and that would be a good thing. But it was already an issue that no candidate was really ignoring—and certainly one that no future mayor can expect to avoid.

So despite to Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.

On the state of school integration discussions

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 11, 2016.
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Yesterday the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), hosted a panel discussion on school and housing segregation. Featuring Kimberly Goyette, a sociologist at Temple University, Amy Ellen Schwartz, an economist at NYU, Amy Stuart Wells, a sociologist at Columbia, and Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former New York Times education columnist—the four speakers explored how best to provide children and families with opportunity.

The panel came on the heels of a few recent school integration developments. First, the Obama administration just released its 2017 budget, calling for $120 million to fund voluntary socioeconomic integration of schools. (Though largely symbolic,national advocates were enthusiastic, as it would more than double current levels of federal funding.) Second, the Century Foundation just released two new reports showing that the number of school districts and charter schools embracing voluntary integration has more than doubled in the past decade. (It’s still a small percentage, though.) And lastly, historian Matthew Delmont has just written a provocative book, Why Busing Failed, which challenges mainstream assumptions about “forced busing” as a tool for desegregation.

Yet despite increased attention, it’s evident that the school integration conversation suffers from a few problems. In many respects, people are talking past one another, disagree on basic terms and definitions, and have strongly different ideas about what the problems even are, let alone what the optimal policy solutions should be.

Are integrated schools something everyone should have, or should we just design “diverse schools” for parents and families who actively seek that? Are we pushing for integration because there’s a particular moral imperative, or has research demonstrated it improves student academic achievement? Are schools with high concentrations of racial minorities considered segregated if families choose to send their children to them? How should we be thinking about the rise of largely white charter schools? Do we talk about racism? Socioeconomic status? The Constitution?

On the panel, Richard Rothstein argued that the country has a long way to go in terms of fulfilling its constitutional obligation to desegregate schools—and that the first step must involve launching a national education campaign so that the public, and progressives in particular, can better understand their history. He called de facto segregation “a national myth”—one that allows Americans to sleep easy in the face of illegal discrimination.

“We have to get serious about desegregating the country, and I don’t just mean desegregating low-income families,” he said. “I mean lower-middle class areas too. We need a fundamental rethinking about our priorities.” Rothstein walked through the history of government-sponsored housing segregation, specifically looking at Ferguson, Missouri, which he’s also written about at length for The American Prospect.

Others were less impressed with his vision. Amy Ellen Schwartz quickly dismissed Rothstein’s ideas, and went on to list various strategies that advocates can employ right now to meet kids where they are. She touted school choice and expanding summer youth employment programs, and in general “strengthening all neighborhoods.” She didn’t spend much time exploring how past efforts at revitalizing poor black communities have worked out, however.

Amy Stuart Wells, a co-author of one of the Century Foundation’s recent reports, noted that one reason to be optimistic is that millennials have more racially tolerant attitudes. Several audience members I spoke with following the event expressed similar hopes. But according to the data, this doesn’t really seem to be true.

And even if it were true, even if surveys did show that millennials have less racist attitudes than previous generations, it’s likely that school segregation would still persist. Parents rely on racial composition as a signaling tool—those schools with higher concentrations of racial minorities tend to have fewer resources and suffer from more difficult challenges, like concentrated poverty. If parents want to provide their kid with the most opportunity, as most parents do, then even a white family fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement would be unlikely to send their child to a school in the ghetto, if they can avoid it. This is why, as Kimberly Goyette suggested, it’s hard to have integrated schools without integrated neighborhoods.

It’s a great thing to see a renewed national discussion around school integration. In a recent interview, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan admitted he would “give himself a low grade” on school desegregation, and said the country “can and should do more” on that front. Duncan’s successor, John King, has also signaled that he plans to prioritize racial and economic integration more on the federal level. “Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children—black or white, rich or poor—is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools,” King said in a speech last month.

It’ll be interesting to see where this all leads. A few weeks ago I reported on a groundbreaking lawsuit in Minnesota—where lawyers are suing the state for allowing segregated schools to proliferate in the Twin Cities. It’s a controversial case, and one that specifically threatens the existence of publicly funded charter schools that cater to high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. It has divided the civil rights community, and sparked debates about segregated schooling in the 21st century, particularly within the era of school choice.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our neighborhoods and schools are still deeply segregated; we rarely stop to talk about them, save for widely publicized crises, like the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray or the water scandal in Flint, Michigan. So bring on the debates, the reports, the panels, and the national discussion. These are all long, long overdue.

School Desegregation Lawsuit Threatens Charters

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 26, 2015.
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Alex Cruz-Guzman, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, lives in a poor, minority neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Determined to provide his five children with a quality education, he and his wife were able to send their two oldest daughters—who are now in college—to desegregated St. Paul schools. But it’s become more difficult to find such schools in St. Paul today, and the Cruz-Guzmans were told they would likely be unable to send their three younger children to integrated institutions, even when they offered to transport their kids themselves.

So Cruz-Guzman became a plaintiff in a lawsuit—one that may shape the future of American education. Filed against the state of Minnesota by two veteran civil rights attorneys, Daniel Shulman and his son John Shulman, the suit accuses the state of allowing schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students to proliferate. A 2015 Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis found that elementary school students in the Twin Cities attend more racially segregated schools than they have in a generation. Children who attend such schools, the lawyers argue, achieve far less than their peers in integrated institutions. The lawyers also say that the growth of charter schools, which are even more racially segregated than traditional public schools, have exacerbated these trends.

The Shulmans are seeking a metro-wide integration plan to satisfy what they argue is the state’s constitutional obligation to prevent segregated schooling. They cite the state constitution’s education clause, equal protection clause, due process clause, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act to make their case.

Not everyone agrees that this kind of integration is legally necessary or the best way to meet children’s needs. Some see the suit as a threat to parents’ right to choose the schools that would best serve their children. This is particularly true for parents of color, who sometimes send their children to charters in the hopes of avoiding what they see as hostile traditional schools.

John Cairns, one of the most experienced charter school attorneys in the nation, is working against the lawsuit. “If the state is going to do anything, then they’d have to attack parental choice,” says Cairns. “While the plaintiffs are inexplicit about what their remedy would be, in our view, they’re explicit that their remedy would address charter school enrollments. The only way they could do that is to have some conclusion that parental choice is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Shulman sees in this argument an echo of Plessy v. Ferguson. He thinks charter school advocates are arguing, in effect, that separate schools can be equal. “We don’t think that’s true or the law. If they follow the law, they’ll say separate is not equal, and not equal is inadequate,” he says. “All the data will support that … test scores, graduation
rates. School segregation is a national tragedy and disgrace.”


It’s fitting that this fight would take
 place in Minnesota
, which is both the birthplace of the charter school movement, and a longtime champion of civil rights.

Minneapolis enacted the nation’s first fair housing and fair employment ordinances, and Minnesota passed one of the first state laws banning housing discrimination. In 1948, it was an impassioned speech to the Democratic National Convention by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey that led the Democratic Party to pass its first civil rights platform plank. In the early 1970s, under a court order, Minneapolis moved to integrate its public schools. This prompted the state to issue desegregation rules applicable to schools across the state. By the early 1990s, Minneapolis and St. Paul had not a single racially segregated school, and the Twin Cities metropolitan area was one of the most desegregated regions in the United States.

“We had no segregated schools because we had strong civil rights laws and we enforced them,” says Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the director of its Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.

Today, the educational landscape looks quite different. While the number of people of color living in the Twin Cities metropolitan region—defined as Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding suburbs—has increased considerably over the past two decades, integration advocates say that demographic shifts alone are insufficient to explain the growth of segregated schooling in Minnesota.

And grown it has. Since 2000, the number of elementary schools in St. Paul educating more than 90 percent students of color grew from 2 to 18, while the overall percentage of students of color in the district rose only 11 percent. Similar shifts occurred in Minneapolis. In 1995, the Minneapolis School District was 63 percent nonwhite, but had only two elementary schools that were 90 percent segregated. Today the district has 13 such elementary schools, and 26 percent of district students attend schools with over 90 percent students of color.

MPS SPPS demograpic change chart FIXED.png

The demographics of the 164 charter schools in Minnesota—which roughly 50,000 students attend—have also impelled the state to argue, for the first time, that charters should no longer be exempt from state integration laws. (An administrative judge will rule on this separate dispute in late February.)

The resegregation of the region’s schools, critics say, was the product not just of demographic change but also of conservative pressure in the 1990s to weaken desegregation mandates, coupled with the rise of a charter sector that targeted specific races and ethnicities, thereby accelerating the isolation of poor and minority students. The growth of charter schools, they add, also created new opportunities for white children to congregate in separate schools. Charters attended by predominately white students grew by 40 percent between the 2007-08 school year and the 2012-13 one. Researchers found that more than half of these white charters are located in attendance zones with racially diverse traditional schools.

Opponents of the state’s proposal, and of the Shulmans’ lawsuit, argue that their proponents—state officials, Myron Orfield, and his allies—misapply the label of  “segregation” when talking about charter schools. “I find it offensive and insulting to compare parents of color making choices to send their kids to schools that are better addressing the academic needs of their kids with segregation, a system that was set up by white supremacists decades ago to force students of color to inferior schools,” testified Alberto Monserrate, the first Latino ever elected to the Minneapolis School Board, in early January.

Whether or not one thinks these schools should be considered segregated, the rise of schools with high concentrations of racial minorities—both in traditional schools and in charters—means an increase in the number of schools serving high concentrations of poor students. Researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity find the poverty rate at Twin Cities minority-segregated schools to be two-and-a-half times greater than the poverty rate at integrated schools, and five times greater than the poverty rate at predominantly white schools. They also find that math and reading test scores for black students at highly segregated schools are lower than test scores for black students at less segregated schools. Suspension rates, too, are substantially higher in racially segregated elementary schools than in less segregated ones.

IMO.png

“Yes, there’s a difference between segregation that’s imposed by the state versus segregation that is through choice, the first is worse than the second,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a longtime researcher of school integration. “However, the negative effects of concentrated poverty obtain even when concentrated poverty is a matter of constrained choice.”

 

This is not Daniel Shulman’s first time filing a school segregation lawsuit against the state. In 1995, Shulman sued Minnesota, arguing that segregated schools in the Twin Cities metropolitan area violated both the state and federal constitutions. The case settled five years later, and as part of the settlement, Minnesota established a voluntary integration program between Minneapolis and ten neighboring suburban districts. Most participants were poor minority students who enrolled in predominately white suburban schools.

“But the segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul is worse today than when I started the first case 20 years ago,” says Shulman. “That’s why I brought the case again, and I’m sorry I waited this long to do it.”

Shulman’s legal strategy rests on a theory that, at this point, is still very much untested. In the past few decades, it’s become increasingly difficult for civil rights advocates to win federal school desegregation lawsuits. Following the 1978 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley, courts began to draw sharper distinctions between de jure and de facto segregation; the Supreme Court said unless it could be shown that a district deliberately sought to discriminate against students by race, it could not be held responsible for school segregation.

“Federal desegregation rulings are about racial discrimination, which looks at intent to discriminate,” says Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who studies education law and policy. “Since the 1980s and 1990s, it’s become more and more difficult to prove intent, which means more and more districts have been released from their desegregation obligations.”

By suing the state, rather than the federal government, the Shulmans aim to bypass all those sticky questions about intent. “What they’re saying is that the actual existence of segregated schools creates an educational harm, and the state ought to correct that harm, regardless of why it came about,” explains Black.

Their strategy has been tried once before, in a 1989 Connecticut lawsuit known as Sheff v. O’Neill. The plaintiffs argued their constitutional rights were violated because the concentration of African-American students in a particular district was a violation of the state’s right to equal education.

The case made its way up to the state Supreme Court, and in 1996, the justices ruled that Connecticut had an affirmative obligation to provide its students with equal educational opportunity. This constitutional right, they concluded, necessitated providing students with integrated educations, and so the state moved to establish an array of voluntary integration options.

Though Sheff is not controlling law in Minnesota, it is expected that Minnesota judges would consider it if they adjudicate the Shulmans’ suit. “I think the more courts that say an idea is a good one, the more likely it is that courts that follow after them will agree,” says Black, pointing to school funding lawsuits as an example. However, Sheff was notably litigated before the rise of charter schools.

In 1993, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled that all students are guaranteed a fundamental right to an adequate education. In their new suit, the Shulmans seek to argue that no education could possibly satisfy the state’s adequacy requirement given the highly segregated environments.

Lawsuit opponents argue that “adequacy” should be measured not by the composition of student bodies, but by demonstrated achievement. “What we’re saying is the first thing to look at is whether kids are learning, not who is sitting in the classroom,” says Cairns, the attorney representing the charters. “And once you establish that kids are learning, then that’s the measure of an effective and adequate education.”

Derek Black says most states do consider achievement “outputs” when determining whether students are receiving adequate educations. Such outputs could be scores on standardized tests, graduation rates, or college readiness measures. Though variance exists from state to state, Black says most courts would look at both outputs and inputs. “The question would be whether the failure to provide certain inputs is the cause of an inadequate education, as measured by various outputs,” he says. If Minnesota’s judiciary takes up this groundbreaking case, they will have to decide whether racially and economically integrated schools are necessary inputs.

“I think there’s an increasing recognition that equal education is the constitutional responsibility of state governments, and therefore [states] have to promote policies to avoid racial and economic segregation,” says Phil Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and a leader in the National Coalition on School Diversity. Tegeler hopes lawyers in other states will follow the Shulmans’ lead. “We really need to see more creative, affirmative litigation,” he says.

“This is huge, you could potentially have 50 state lawsuits on this issue,” says Kahlenberg.

Opponents of the lawsuit, and of the state’s plan to include charters under statewide integration rules, say that there’s been a fundamental misinterpretation of what segregation is. They deny that charter schools targeting specific races or ethnicities are illegal or unjust. Rather, they say, these schools provide students with “culturally affirming” environments in which to learn.

Bill Wilson founded one such “culturally affirming” charter in St. Paul—known as Higher Ground Academy. Though Higher Ground’s student body is more than 90 percent East African immigrant and low-income, it’s one of the highest performing schools in the region. Advocates say the school’s success is due to its unique, and culturally sensitive education strategies. “I know people who brought this lawsuit against the state use the word ‘desegregation’ but let’s find the intentional action,” Wilson says. “I won’t call this segregation, I won’t call it racial isolation, because it’s not true.”

“It’s a false analysis that’s being applied to culturally specific charter schools, that tends to consider those schools to be segregated,” testified Nakima Levy-Pounds, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter. “That flies in the face of civil rights history and also the fact that we have historically black colleges and universities around the country that are specifically designed to affirm, enrich, and enhance the educational experiences of African-Americans who we know have faced historical discrimination throughout our time in this country.”

Darrick Hamilton, an urban policy professor at The New School, says his research suggests there certainly could be instances where predominately black schools may be better learning environments for black students. Quoting W.E.B. Du Bois, he says, “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.”

Even among those in the Twin Cities who advocate for integration, the civil rights community remains torn over how to think about charter schools.While the St. Paul NAACP welcomes the Shulmans’ new lawsuit, for example, its leaders have not taken a position on their charter school argument, or on whether charters should be exempt from statewide integration laws.

“It’s hard enough to get a broad coalition of people to say we want to integrate the schools, and when you add the charter school issue, the politics just become much more challenging,” says one Twin Cities civil rights leader. “There are definitely some advocates who say we should focus on desegregating the traditional schools, and if the districts can get their act together then demand for charters will [naturally] go down, because parents will trust that traditional schools can take care of their kids.”

But researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity say that segregated charter schools perform even worse than segregated traditional schools. With the exception of a few high performing networks—including Bill Wilson’s Higher Ground Academy—they find that most charter schools that serve high concentrations of impoverished racial minorities produce poorer academic results than traditional schools, even after controlling for variables like poverty and race. The Minnesota Star Tribune also found that slightly more than half of all students in Minnesota charter schools were proficient in reading, compared to 72 percent in traditional public schools.

Defenders of “culturally-affirming” institutions don’t spend much time talking about white charter schools. Yet white charters are on the rise.

“One of the problems with allowing culturally-focused schools to become single-race enclaves is that, once you create a legal justification for these schools, it becomes very difficult to prevent white parents from adopting the same language to create white segregation,” says Will Stancil, an attorney with the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. “Integration isn’t about exposing kids to some magic aura of whiteness, it’s about the importance of universal inclusion in education: providing all children full access to the teaching, resources, and networks that the most privileged kids currently have.”

IMO Charters.png

Those who do support including charters in the lawsuit and under statewide integration rules point to a “Dear Colleague” letter that former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent around in 2014. Duncan’s federal guidance said charters must be included in court-mandated or state-administered desegregation plans.

“You just can’t exempt charter schools from the basic civil rights laws of the state, they’re supposed to be publicly funded public schools, and they should be subject to the same civil rights requirements as other public schools,” says Phil Tegeler. Myron Orfield says Minnesota is the only state that he knows of that explicitly exempts charters from its civil rights laws.

The rhetoric surrounding these legal battles will likely grow even more charged in the coming weeks and months. By the end of February an administrative law judge should make her final decision on whether charters will be exempt from statewide integration rules. However, if the Shulmans ultimately win their lawsuit, some say this could render any charter school exemptions moot.

“I think ultimately the lawsuit could trump the rule,” says Derek Black. “It could require the state to do a whole variety of things.

Daniel Shulman isn’t worried about what the judge will decide with regards to charters and the state rule. “It would be nice if there were a rule that effectively desegregated Minnesota’s schools—that’s one way the state could begin to remedy the result of its past constitutional violations,” he says. “But this rule is not going to effect the lawsuit.”

The state of Minnesota has filed to dismiss Shulman’s lawsuit, and a judge will consider this motion in a hearing in April. (A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education told The American Prospect that they cannot comment on the case, but is “committed to helping every student achieve academic success.”) If the case is not thrown out—and it can be appealed, if it is—then the trial will likely be scheduled for late 2017.

“I know for a lot of leaders it’s convenient to not do anything or to not talk about these issues, but for the children who are kept separate, it’s wrong,” says Cruz-Guzman. “We feel we’re doing the right thing by bringing the lawsuit.”

Minnesota is not the first state to wrestle with the challenges of balancing school choice and desegregation. And it surely won’t be the last. Cairns, who serves on a litigation panel for the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys, says that he and his colleagues recognize the “wide-ranging implications” of this case. Though it’s not a federal suit, Cairns believes its outcome will be “hugely important to provide direction” to the rest of the country.