Sunday, December 3, 2023

ICYMI: Bonus Week Edition (12/3)

Every so often, Thanksgiving comes so early that we get what amounts to an extra week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. An excellent opportunity to get some additional procrastination in, if that's your thing.

In the meantime, here's some reading from the week. Share the stuff that strikes you as important.

Texas teachers are struggling financially. The school voucher war killed a salary raise. Texas teachers are struggling financially. The school voucher war killed a salary raise.

It's great that Texas legislators killed--repeatedly--the voucher proposal in that state. But Governor Abbott and his crew were holding teacher wage increases hostage, and now they are collateral damage.

Reasons Children Have Reading Problems that Corporate Reformers Don’t Talk About

Nancy Bailey takes a look at some of the destructive policies that reformsters aren't rushing to fix.

Jose Luis Vilson doesn't write often enough these days, but he's a busy man. Here he explains what the conversations about reading keep missing.

Teachers say they can't live and work in Florida anymore

"Our job description is to instruct children and make sure that they're learning in a safe and comfortable environment, which is becoming increasingly difficult for no reason." By Nancy Guan for WUSF

A right wing publisher really wants to push aside Scholastic in the school book fair biz. Turns out the publisher will go to extraordinary lengths to do it. Amazing story from Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby at Popular Information.

The Bogus Historians Who Teach Evangelicals They Live in a Theocracy

An excerpt from Tim Alberta's upcoming book about the Christian right, examining the issues they raise from an evangelical's point of view.

Ryan Walters continues efforts to join fight against AG's lawsuit over Catholic charter school approval

Colleen Wilkson for Fox25 looks at Ryan Walters's continued attempts to back the religious charter school proposed in Oklahoma.

Kentucky reaches a new low in white Christian nationalism

Teri Carter offers a first hand account of what happened when a Kentucky preacher told his followers to get to a school board meeting because the school had turned a young girl gay.

Pennridge School Board Bickering Comes To An End As Republicans Exit The Board

The conservatives of this Pennsylvania school board were ousted, so as expected, Jordan Adams and his one-man dewokifying consulting firm are out of work. 

Expect Georgia lawmakers to push school vouchers again with fake sympathy for the poor

Veteran journalist Jay Bookman has a pretty clear understanding of what school vouchers are about, and he lays it out clearly in this op-ed for the Georgia Recorder.

'Conservative education revolution': Tennessee leaders push statewide school vouchers

Tennessee wants to join the universal voucher crew. This report by Emily West and Chris Davis for NewsChannel 5 sums up the issues pretty clearly. 

Knoxville legislative and school board officials divided on school vouchers

A GOP rep speaks out against vouchers-- because they might fund some of that there Islamic education.

The Looming Danger to Rural Schools

Jess Piper on how the threat of growing privatization poses a major threat to the health and future of rural schools.

Snowplow Parents Are Ruining Online Grading

At the New York Times, Jessica Grose explains how the advent of online grading has turned into a nightmare for some teachers and families.

PROOF POINTS: The myth of the quick learner

Jill Barshay at Hechinger Report looks at a study that suggests that there's no such thing as a fast learner. Bad news for the "we'll recover from Learning Loss with accelerated learning" crowd.

California's new anti-fraud charter school task force will convene for the first time in San Diego Monday

California suffered charter school fraud (the infamous A3 case) so huge that they now have a task force set up to avoid a repeat. Kristen Taketa at the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

PENAmerica has one more scary story from St. Mary's, Kansas.

Colorado conservatives call for law enforcement action to ban books

In El Paso County, Republicans (and a local pastor) are calling for the law enforcement to remove some books and arrest some folks. Kyle Clark reports for 9News.

Jan Resseger looks at the Robert Samuels essay about being censored, and examines the question of who really gets hurt when books are banned.

For Republican Governors, Civics Is the Latest Education Battleground

Dana Goldstein at New York Times with latest developments in the drive for conservative attempted indoctrination of students.

There's another "study" out showing that charter schools are awesome. Except, as Thomas Ultican explains, it doesn't really show any such thing. 

Dark Headspace—and Teaching

Nancy Flanagan walks us through a brief history of manufactured education crises. 

Paul Thomas looks at how journalism has this tendency to lose the truth of the science when turning it into something that sells a story. 

In Forbes this week, I look back at that long-ago time that school choice promised accountability, and the many ways that promise has been broken.

And you're invited to join me on substack, where you are connected to everything I crank out, regardless of where. It's free and easy.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Is Cardona Getting Off Easy

Rick Hess is still bothered by the double standard he sees in Secretary of Education coverage, arguing that "Media Should Stop Giving Secretary of Education Cardona a Free Pass" noting that the non-coverage of Cardona's various fumbles stands in stark contrast to the constant pillorying to which Betsy DeVos was subjected.

The double-standard is striking. Just a few years ago, when Betsy DeVos was Secretary of Education, the smallest of missteps (real or imagined) yielded overwrought coverage at these same outlets.

Hess has argued before that DeVos got a raw deal, and I wrote a long response to that. Heck, I wrote a lot about DeVos, partly because I find her kind of fascinating--we're the same age, and for someone who has spent most of his life in churchworld, she is a recognizable type. DeVos was worked over by the mainstream media in ways that weren't particularly accurate or fair; in particular, the use of her as a comic punchline painting her as a dope were unfair. 

It did not help that she was uniformly terrible at articulating her ideas. From her terrible confirmation hearing appearance to her terrible 60 Minutes interview to her various terrible Congressional hearing appearances, DeVos showed that thirty years of practicing checkbook politics really doesn't prepare you to make your case to people who are not either already in agreement with you or hope to be beholden to you. She was the queen of the non-answer, which added to the myth of her dopiness. I've argued before that the real explanation is some combination of her checkbook advocacy past and her conservative Christianist faith. She was also a good soldier for Trump, and spent some time looking at the underside of his bus.

But let's face it. Far fewer people were interested in understanding DeVos when it was easier to just hate her.

Hess wants to argue that she was a mostly-unknown outside-the-box candidate that was held to a double standard; he suggested that Miguel Cardona was not being held accountable for Connecticut schools in the same way DeVos was blamed for Michigan and Detroit's schools. But there is no double standard there. Cardona has barely been in office a year. Hess argues that DeVos never held a position of authority in Michigan, but that's disingenuous--DeVos spent decades using her fortune to bend Michigan lawmakers to her will. Remember this classic DeVos quote on her family's political spending:

I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

Betsy DeVos deserves plenty of blame for her failed experiments in Michigan. But as Secretary of Education, she was largely ineffective. Yes, given her disdain for everything that she was set in charge of, DeVos did remarkably little real damage during her tenure; her ineffectiveness mitigated her worse instincts. But she came to the job brandishing an axe and a flamethrower, and people inside the education bubble reacted accordingly.

Miguel Cardona came to DC brandishing nothing in particular. He entered the office with lukewarm reactions from all sides of education debates. Hess points out that DeVos was met with "blistering attacks before she'd said a word," but of course DeVos had said plenty already as a private citizen with a deep disrespect for the institution she was being put in charge of. Cardona came to office with an unspectacular career working in the trenches. 

Cardona's department has announced various initiatives that are mostly--well, I called one a "bold bowl of oatmeal," a program so lacking luster that I wrote about it in April and then again in November because in the interim I had pretty much forgotten all about it. When it came to a "major speech" about the teacher exodus, I had this to say:

But teachers are kind of up against it at the moment, and a nothingburger of "We're going to do some more supportive stuff kind of like we've been doing all along, only maybe with more money"-- It's nice that Cardona notices and makes some of the right noises, but the plan doesn't really rise to the level of specific, concrete actions that can help.

Oatmeal. Nothingburger. Bureaucratic argle bargle. Sticking to the neo-lib party line on testing. The occasional really bad tweet. And the hook that Hess hangs his piece on--Cardona's bungling of a Ronald Reagan sort-of-quote. And Hess has a further list of missteps that he wants publicly assigned to Cardona's feet.

While in office, Cardona has aggressively carried the water for the administration’s unconstitutional $500 billion student loan “forgiveness” scheme, approached that same scheme in a shambolic manner that the Government Accounting Office found rife with possibilities for fraud, been notably quiescent as $200 billion in federal pandemic aid failed to deliver any obvious benefits, mounted an assault on charter schools, mutely watched as chronic absenteeism has skyrocketed, and repeatedly stonewalled Congressional efforts to provide appropriate oversight.

I'm not sure Cardona has ever "aggressively" done anything. The "assault" on charter schools was simply putting some basic accountability rules in place (and I suspect that those rules have not actually impeded the flow of federal tax dollars to charter operators). The stonewall complaint is more about the loan forgiveness that conservatives really hate. Hess also nods elsewhere to low test scores for history and civics happening on Cardona's watch, and it's true that Cardona's response was more oatmeal

Has Cardona coverage been both less frequent and more gentle than what DeVos received? I have no doubts. Right-tilted media has tried to gin up some panic over his far left inclinations, but to little effect. And Cardona is never going to win that sector over-- he will always be either to ineffective or overstepping his boundaries. The far right has been clear that they want the entire department gone, so Cardona has to know that nothing he does will meet with their approval.

It may be that Cardona's secret super power is that he's a kind of boring bureaucratic functionary. I think it's more likely that the Department of Education in particular and education in general has never drawn much attention or interest from news organizations, where education coverage is both slim and also a stepping stone to a "real" beat. When education manages to penetrate the larger culture, it's for seemingly random inaccurate details. Betsy DeVos and her guns for bears are of a piece with jokes about Common Core math or, from decades earlier, jokes about New Math--neither entirely fair nor exactly accurate. People and media don't pay attention to education unless there's some special show going on to attract their attention (much to the frustration of many of us writing about education). DeVos provided a show. Cardona does not. DeVos was loud and threatening. Cardona is not.

Cardona is not a great Secretary of Education (I'm not sure there has ever been or will ever be one). But his bold oatmeal is never going to prompt the same sort of reaction as Betsy DeVos and her flamethrower. Nor do I think there's any reason to wish that he got as much unfair and inaccurate coverage as she did. I'd be happy to see him draw more scrutiny, and draw it for matters of substance rather than dopey quotes. I'd also be happy to see some of my hair grow back. But I'm not going to hold my breath for either. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Semi-Annual Attempt To Legalize Religious Discrimination

My U.S. Representative, used car dealer and insurrection apologist Mike Kelly, announced this week that he and Senator Tim Scott (who's now got some extra time on his hands) have introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act. What's that about? Here's the description:
This legislation protects child welfare providers from being discriminated against for acting in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs and prohibits federal, state and local government agencies that receive federal adoption assistance funding from discriminating against child welfare service providers based on the providers’ unwillingness to take action contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.

In other words, if you are a religious agency that handles adoptions or foster care placements, the feds should not pick on you just because you refuse to deal LGBTQ children or parents.  

The legislators backing this frame it as the mean federal government picking on "faith-based organizations" and thereby depriving children in need, somehow depriving them of loving homes. "President Biden has discriminated against these faith-based providers," says Kelly, "because of their deeply held religious beliefs." And discrimination is bad, unless you're discriminating against LGBTQ persons. Then it's a religious necessity. 

I don't know who they blamed for this anti-religion discrimination when the same bill was proposed in 2017 under then-President Trump. Ditto when Kelly proposed it in 2019l surely he didn't declare the bill was necessary because of Dear Leader. Scott and Kelly also sponsored the same bill in 2021, decrying the religious discrimination as an "attack on the First Amendment." 

The bill appears semi-annually, like a insomniac locust, draws a bunch of religious oppression rhetoric, and then is quietly retired. 

The rationale is a familiar one at this point--some folks just can't properly and fully exercise their christianish faith unless they are free to discriminate against certain people of whom they disapprove. This always strikes me as a bizarre notion. If you think you can't fully and effectively follow and glorify Jesus unless you are able to treat some people badly, I have to believe that you are doing Christianity wrong. 

Perhaps the only point here is to be able to issue some press releases so that you can earn some points from the evangelical right. The whole business strikes me as an exercise in bad legislating and bad religion. Whatever it is, it certainly is no way to look out for children.

Universal Vouchers Unmask True Goals

The voucher pitch, in state after state, has been that poor, low-resource families need taxpayer-funded education vouchers in order to escape "failing" public schools. Privatizers have been selling the failing public school narrative since the Reagan administration engineered their first big piece of marketing-- A Nation at Risk

At the last Network for Public Education conference, I had the chance to hear James Harvey, the guy who was in the room where it happened, talk about how attempts at moderation and actual fact-based items were brushed aside; it's impossible to take the finished product seriously as anything other than a propaganda tool. 

But it did the job. It helped set the stage for high stakes testing, which policy makers understood was necessary as a tool to root out all the bad schools and bad teachers, which in turn got us to No Child Left Behind, a policy that guaranteed that by 2014 all schools would be either failing or cheating (or, I suppose, miraculous in getting all students to score above average on the Big Standardized Test).

Once the alarms were ringing, the pressure could be increased for a means of "escaping" these terrible public schools. Help the many public schools that were under-resourced and struggling? No, the line there was "we already spend money on those schools and they are still struggling. Better we should rescue at least a few students from them."

First, charters, because vouchers were still a bridge too far. And then vouchers (under various assumed names), expressly to save the struggling poor from their failing public schools. And now, at last, universal vouchers--vouchers for one and all, no matter how poor their family or how high their public school's test scores.

In Florida and Arizona and Arkansas and the rest, the story is the same. Universal vouchers don't help more poor families. How could they, since making vouchers universal means raising or removing the income cap for families? Raising an income cap from $65K to $125K does not include more poor people (a thing I can't believe I have to actually point out, but here we are). 

Nor does making vouchers universal make private school admissions universal. Private schools can still accept or reject anyone they wish for any reason they want to concoct. In fact, most voucher laws now require the state to keep hands off. And we're seeing private school raise tuitions as more taxpayer-funded vouchers become available. All of which helps insure that none of Those Peoples' Children will have any more access to upscale exclusive private schools than they ever could. Let them take their piddly little voucher and go set up a microschool

Making vouchers universal doesn't extend any of the promises made originally for vouchers. It doesn't reach more people in need, and it doesn't extend the reach of quality education. What it does is provide a subsidy for people already in the private school system and through them, subsidies for schools that largely prefer to put forth a religious curriculum that public schools rightly eschew (mostly). Of course we're finding in universal voucher states like Arkansas that the vast majority of taxpayer-funded vouchers are being used by students who are already in private school.

My usual caveat--at every stage of this, you will find people who sincerely believe in the correctness of their policy preferences. But there is a through line for all this composed of folks whose primary interest is the Friedmanesque dream of a nation in which government has nothing to do with education.
Making vouchers universal doesn't increase the amount of high quality education nor access to it. It only increases the taxpayer dollars to used subsidize the Right Students in learning the Right Things. 

I disagree with people who complain, "I pay my taxes. Why should I have to pay for a public education system and the private tuition for my child? Why should I pay for education twice?" I disagree with them, but they are at least making an honest argument instead of trying to hide behind poor children and a manufactured crisis. But for universal vouchers, there's not much of an argument to make other than "I want my favorite private school to get a bunch of free taxpayer money, with no government oversight or taxpayer accountability." 

That's not much of a winning argument. There's a reason that polls from choicer advocates ask questions like "Do you think a child should be able to attend the school of their choice for free" and not "Would you like your tax dollars for education not to fund your public school, but instead go to subsidize tuition for a family that makes twice what you do so that their child can attend a private religious school that would never accept any of your children as students?"

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

AR: Are Vouchers Rescuing Anyone?

Arkansas's Governor Sanders made it a top priority to ram through a package of Florida-style education privatization law when she took office, and the legislature obliged, with the passage of the LEARNS Act last year. It was followed by a lawsuit intended to roll back some of the law. Now the state has released a report on the ESA super-voucher that was part of the law, and the lawyer attached to the lawsuit sums it up pretty well
“This program was passed and sold to the public, and sold to legislators, as a way to help poor students trapped in failing public schools, but in fact, that’s not at all what happened,” Attorney Ali Noland said.

What does the report tell us?

The Education Freedom Accounts (because nobody wants to call vouchers "vouchers") were used by 4,785+ students at $6,672 a pop. 94 schools participated. 59% of those students were located in the Little Rock area, with another 19% in the northwest corner of the state. 

And here's the part that Noland spotted:

5% of the students who used the taxpayer-funded vouchers actually left a public school. 5%. Five percent (just making sure you know this was not one of my usual typos). All the other 95% were either first-time kindergartners or already enrolled in private school. 

What else? 38% of voucher users are in ten of the voucher-accepting schools. Of those top ten, nine are explicitly religious schools. The usual religious restrictions apply. Some examples.

Little Rock Christian Academy is the biggest school on the list, with 1,665 enrolled, of whom 324 voucher students. In its Christian Community Statement, it says:

As a religious organization, the LRCA Christian community views trustee, employee, student, parent, and family lifestyle choices and conduct to be a reflection of religious beliefs and Christian commitment. LRCA will exercise its prerogative as a religious organization to neither commence nor continue an appointment, employment, admission, enrollment, or other category of LRCA Christian community relationship if it is believed by LRCA that so doing will cause confusion about, conflict with, or compromise of the LRCA Christian community’s mission to provide a distinctly Christian education from a Christ-centered worldview.

At the Central Arkansas Christian School, the secondary school application includes a survey that asks if the student has ever been in trouble with the law, has Attention Deficit Disorder "or any other learning issues, or if they are or have been married or pregnant. Shiloh Christian School promises instruction by "born-again Christian teachers in an environment where God and His Word are the highest authority."

That's just the top three participants. Also worth noting that while the first two are located in Little Rock, which is almost 50% Black, the depicted students are almost entirely white. Of the 94 participating schools, 65 are clearly religious schools (one Islamic, the rest Christian). Unsurprising, as Arkansas's Department of Education has been actively promoting private Christian schools

While service providers can also participate, it appears that so far that group0 is just three uniform supply companies and Staples. Money from the voucher system has been spent almost entirely on tuition, with a tiny amount for uniforms and "required academic expenses." Out of the $7,077,597 handed out in the first quart, $176,853 went to ClassWallet for managing the money. Arkansas set up an ESA style voucher that allows for all manner of spending, but so far it's behaving like a traditional voucher that is used for tuition.

So is this voucher set-up rescuing poor students from failing schools? Clearly not. But it is throwing a whole bunch of money at private religious schools and affluent families. And advocates are anticipating they'll be throwing more and more in the years ahead. 

More Voucher-Fueled Price Hikes

A new piece in The Hechinger Report shows that Arizona is one more state where universal vouchers have been followed by private school tuition increases.

Iowa has already demonstrated this phenomenon, with Catholic schools in Des Moines, Dubuque and Cedar Rapids raising tuition costs anywhere from 7% to 40%. Taxpayer-funded vouchers have been a big windfall for Catholic schools there and elsewhere. 

Neal Morton, writing for Hechinger, finds the same thing happening in Arizona, with new universal vouchers being followed by private school price hikes of thousands of dollars. 

Voucher fans can't be surprised by this. After all, voucher supporters have a huge overlap with people who argue that college and university tuition costs have grown so massively precisely because students can get all that free federal money, and if government stopped subsidizing tuition costs, those costs would go down. Whyever have we not heard from those same folks with the same complaint about subsidizing K-12 tuition costs. 

It's not just that the vouchers allow private schools to get a little fatter. 

Raising tuition prices insures that the Those People still won't be able to afford the top private schools, that the high-status schools can still make sure that all the Right People have access. In Iowa, some of those Catholic schools only raised tuition for non-Catholic students.

Vouchers aren't going to let any poor families get their children into one of those high-toned private schools, but they will give a nice taxpayer-funded subsidy to the affluent. Morton reports that some private school parents are being nudged to go get that voucher to help cover the increased tuition costs. As Morton quotes:

[S]aid Nik Nartowicz, state policy counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a legal advocacy group. “This doesn’t help low-income families.”

Slowly but surely, vouchers bring us full circle. Free marketeers argue that the market will correct itself, and that the "forced funding of government schools" provides less freedom than what they propose. It's a puzzler-- the free market education system that sorts students out according to what they can afford is somehow supposed to fix the free market system of housing that sorts students into districts according to what their parents can afford. The injection of government subsidies into the college marketplace has caused distortions and inflation and that's bad, but injecting government subsidies into the K-12 marketplace would be a good thing.

A cynic might conclude that what voucher supporters want is a system with multiple tiers based on wealth and religion, but without any government oversight or accountability--just the role of reverse Robin Hood, taking money from everyone and giving it to the wealthy. 

Morton does talk to some voucher advocates, and their comments are not encouraging.

Matt Ladner, a fellow with the nonprofit group EdChoice, said low-income parents might find second or third jobs to afford tuition for their kids. And, he added, even children whose families pay for private school on their own dime deserve some portion of state funding for education.

“Their parents pay taxes too,” Ladner said. “Everyone pays into the system, and everyone with a child should be entitled to an equitable share. We publicly fund education for all kids.”

So we've gone from "here's your child's way out of low-income school" to "go get two or three jobs." And I'm not sure where to begin with the idea that only people with children are "entitled" to an equitable share. I'm pretty sure that everyone who pays taxes is entitled to live in a world in which fellow citizens, neighbors, and co-workers have gotten a decent education and not a half-baked private school or an empty husk of a defunded public school. 


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

How Bad Can It Get? Diplomas For $465

I just added a post at Forbes about how the school choice movement has abandoned the old "grand bargain" in which autonomy was tied to accountability, and I want to add a little PS to that piece.

We've seen the idea of accountability scrapped, with some of the most committed choicers declaring that, when push comes to shove, having a free market choice system is more important than making sure it's a system that protects the students' rights to a quality education. For some, the belief is that a free market system is how you get to a quality system, but there's a sector of the choicer movement that seems unconcerned about even that part.

So how bad can it get? How low can choice providers go?

We've seen that voucher schools are largely religious, and sometimes very discriminatory in their religious operation. We've seen that these choice schools can teach some highly questionable content (eg Satan created psychology). We know that all those taxpayer dollars attract a huge amount of fraud, failure, and scammage. And John Oliver just did a scary piece about the unregulated world of home schooling

Do these all seem like the lowest the accountability bar can be dropped? Louisiana says, "Hold my beer."

Sharon Lurye reports today for the Associated Press that Louisiana's wide open world of home schooling has produced a great new service-- for $465 and a double pinky swear (less if you don't want to walk in a ceremony wearing cap and gown), you can have a high school diploma.

That's courtesy of Springfield Preparatory School, one of many home school umbrella schools in Louisiana. Louisiana offers two home schooling approaches-- you can register with the state board and seek approval for your home study program, or you can register with the state as a non-public school which is not seeking state approval. Mostly they are just a single family "school" but last year 30 of them had more than 50 students. Over a dozen states allow the call-your-homeschool-a-private-school model (California had one such school that turned out to be the site of horrific child abuse), but some at least require some sort of proof that education is happening. Louisiana's non-public schools operate in a black box, with no oversight or accountability at all.

Louisiana's system (Lurye calls it an off-the-grid school system) enrolls over 21,000 students in Louisiana, and there is zero accountability or oversight. Lurye's article includes this paragraph:

To supporters of the system, avoiding state oversight is entirely the point. Advocates say Louisiana's unapproved schools are a natural extension of the doctrine of parental rights.

Springfield Prep's principal will grant a diploma to anyone who's not actually enrolled in her school, but whose parents say they were homeschooled at some point in their life.

And if all of that sounds cut very much from the right wing parental rights branch of the choice movement, it also taps into a more lefty/mainstream idea. Here's Lurye talking to Springfield Prep's principal about those gifted diplomas:
She says the diploma recognizes the value of educational experiences outside the classroom.

“I think you’re working the oil field, you’re working the McDonald’s, all of that is just as valid as what the classroom was,” Sibley Morrison said.

That's the same "credits for anywhere, anytime learning" idea beloved by folks like the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Only fused with this parental rights, we get "credits for any learning your parents claim you ever got, verification not necessary."

School-flavored operations like Springfield Prep aren't eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers yet. And, I suppose one could argue that a diploma for nothing at all is better than a diploma for Nazi homeschool. But it's clear that when it comes to unaccountable, unregulated schooling, we haven't gotten to the bottom yet.