Saturday, June 12, 2021

Nevada Family Alliance: That Body Cams for Teachers Group

Nevada is yet another state where folks are whipped into a frenzy about "Critical Race Theory," which they can't entirely identify and therefor consider to include , apparently, anything about equity, diversity, racism and US history. But the headline item is one particular proposal-- attaching body cameras to all teachers to make sure they aren't indoctrinating children. 

Who's behind this really terrible idea?

“You guys have a serious problem with activist teachers pushing politics in the classroom, and there’s no place for it, especially for our fifth graders,” Karen England, Nevada Family Alliance executive director, told Washoe County School District trustees Tuesday.

So who is the Nevada Family Alliance?

That turns out to be a little unclear. 

According to their Facebook page, they've been around since at least 2016. They joined Twitter in 2017. They have about 2,600 Facebook fans and 147 Twitter followers. They're generally referred to as a non-profit, but there doesn't appear to be a Form 990 on file with the IRS for them. The site offers no actual physical address.

Their website listed as nevadafamilyalliance.org, but that takes you straight to reclaimingourschools.com. The "what we do" for the site includes Monitor & Research, Educate, and Act (although act is a little fuzzy--"We mobilize our network to impact the culture in real-time." Their issues are education, anti-LGBTQ+, and the whole constellation of Christianiat culture war stuff.

NFA has no particular clear understanding of what CRT actually includes. Rather, it's just a signifier of the large progressive plot, a chance to, as NFA puts it, take the "racial justice" ball and run with it:

Why? Because progressive activists in education can’t pass up a golden opportunity to indoctrinate our nation’s impressionable children with the victim/oppressor worldview.

 It’s as if they relish any chance to undermine parents’ efforts to rear children who are psychologically healthy, skilled in thinking critically, morally wise, and self-controlled.

And here they are, lumping it all together in just one paragraph:

Simply put, instruction in Critical Race Theory as presented in Black Lives Matter curriculum and The 1619 Project pushes American students down the road of hate. These poisonous classroom lessons immediately hook youth who are looking for meaning. The CRT revisionist telling of America’s history churns out angry activists who are eager to lead the effort to accomplish “social justice.” The twisting of true history causes students to feel unequal and undervalued, and then points them to the “oppressor” as a target.

NFA is particularly focused on Benchmark Advance textbooks being considered  by Washoe County schools. Says NFA's site, "Board President Dr. Angela Taylor has vehemently denied the Benchmark Advance curriculum contains ANY aspects of Critical Race Theory. Clearly, Dr. Taylor has not viewed the curriculum, or she does not know what Critical Race Theory is."

NFA offers links to these CRT lesson plans, though no explanation of how, exactly, these links prove NFA's point. The kindergarten units include "social justice guiding questions" which might be the trigger here, but the questions are scorchers like "How can the messages in stories make us feel safe and proud of who we are" and "What are small and large ways that people can help if someone is in danger?" in support of topics such as "Families are not all the same." I am not remotely well-schooled in CRT, but I do have to agree that somebody here  does not know what Critical Race Theory is, and it's probably not Dr. Taylor.

So who is this group, really?

Often when we dig into these groups, we find the usual web of professional advocates and money from, say, the Kochtopus (looking at you, Parents Defending Education). That doesn't seem to be the case here.

NFA's Twitter following is mostly folks; Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal group pushing to get public money for religious groups, hopped on late in the game. No other connections are readily noticeable.

In fact, there only seems to be one name associated with the group, and that's Karen England. But England has been a busy lady, and this is not her first rodeo. And yes, I noticed that her name is actually Karen. 

England (who doesn't have a LinkedIn account) has also served as head of California's Capitol Resource Institute, a non-profit that advocates for "religious freedom, life, the family, and parental rights" (she's right there on their home page). Their Form 990 history is spotty. Back in 2012, England was the Executive Director  drawing a salary of $27,600, about half what she was paid four years earlier. The chairman at the time was Tim LeFever. In the most recent 990 (2017) he and treasurer Richard Treakle are the only listed officers. In most years they ran through a couple hundred thousand dollars--average revenue $131K, with tens of thousands in assets (except for 2017, when they ended up $4K in the red). Most of their money was spent on publications and PR. In 2011, CRI tried to get a gay textbook law overturned. In 2015, they co-signed a letter from Mike Huckabee warning of the evils of a gay marriage ruling by SCOTUS. 

In addition to serving as member of the Board of Directors for Pacific Justice Institute, yet another religious anti-LGBTQ+ outfit, Tim Lefever is a politican, attorney, and co-owner of a real estate company, as well as member of the Board of Directors for Pacific Justice Institute, yet another religious anti-LGBTQ+ outfit; CRI for a while had offices in the same building as the real estate company. But that's just the company Karen England keeps. Before we get sucked too far down this rabbit hole, back to her.

England has worked against many issues, including sex ed, drag queen story hours, Clark County school district trans regulations (women will be assaulted in rest rooms), and student privacy (irony alert). "We need to take back the land that was given to us," she once said, referring to children. In 2012, she was National Coalitions Director for Rick Santorum's Presidential run. 

She was active for a while with the California Republican Assembly, a group for California's social conservatives, and boy, did she piss some folks off. And I mean other right wing Republicans, one of whom, Aaron F. Park, runs a blog that is mostly about right-leaning issues, but which also includes some scathing indictments of England (and LeFever) for fraud and bullying and failed initiatives and botched coup attempts, and calling her "either incompetent or completely corrupt." A blistering post entitled "Dear Nevada, Welcome to California's Night mare Known as Karen England" says, in part

Fraud is Fraud. No true conservative does the things Karen England does. I am of the opinion that Karen England is a charlatan and I will relate a body of evidence I have assembled from dealing with her up close. I have the battle damage to prove it, including a legal threat letter from her lawyer. (I note that her lawyer certifies in the letter that “Ms. England is NOT Mentally Ill”.)

England is also accused of sucking up to Tea Party members to build a power base, and of trading bribes for political endorsements by CRI. The rage just jumps off the screen; here's one last example:

Those of us that still care about the California GOP will be ten years cleaning up the trail of destruction she has left behind. If you are a liberal democrat, don’t pat yourself on the back. Nevada is a different state. It will see-saw between parties. Unless a dedicated group of good people from both sides of the aisle put down the issues and focus on the demonstrated pattern of personal and professional corruption – like a leech and a cancer, Ms. England will metastasize and you will all be in the cross-hairs yourselves.

That was in 2015. Park later reports with no small glee that England is not doing so well in Nevada.

Bottom line?

It seems entirely possible that Nevada Family Alliance is actually just Karen England and nobody else. It is entirely possible that hollering about indoctrination may be a sincere concern or it may be that she, like many others, smells an opportunity to gin up some attention and work her way into the big leagues. 

Here at the Curmudgucation Institute, where a broad range of members from across the broad range of places, believe, based on our many supporters and broad sampling of fronds from among the grass roots, that the idea of putting body cams on teachers is stupid, offensive, and a gross violation of student privacy, an issue that Ms. England claims to care about. Here at the Institute, located at a secret address that we aren't going to share, we also believe that Nevada Family Alliance is quite possibly a scam, and that Ms. England is, herself, full of it. 


Friday, June 11, 2021

Utopia Thinking (Education Is A Journey, Not A Destination)

One of the signs that Common Core was fatally flawed was not just that it was one size fits all, but that it was one size fits all in four dimensions, that it would fit not just every student today, but every student in the future for years and years and years to come. There was no review process, no mechanism in place to revisit and adjust parts of it, not even an organization to provide oversight and reflection. And the guys who wrote it just released it and then walked away, moving on their next gigs. 

"Set it and forget it," is terrible education policy. Education exists at the intersection of innumerable strands of tension. Tension between the student's potential and what they are actually doing, between the curricular demands on the teacher and the realities in the classroom, between the expectations of the hundred different stakeholders, between following the program and being swept by the issues of the day, between autonomy and accountability (for everyone), between the demands of society and the desires of the student, between the weight of history and the press of the present, between the hundreds of pieces of content all clamoring for a piece of the limited time pie, and on and on and on and on and on. 

All of them shift on a daily basis, and every shift moves the target. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

You can pick your favorite metaphor. When I was blowing up my first marriage, I was trying to drive the bus by tying the wheel in place and setting a brick on the gas pedal, and every time I hit a tree, I deduced that I had tied the wheel in the wrong place and retied it. Not until it was too late did I realize that I had to actually drive the bus. Education is like that, too. The conditions change every day, and you have to steer to accommodate them.

So many attempts to "fix" education, both within the modern ed reform world and outside of it, involve a search for that perfect place, where we can just plunk everyone down and declare "Nobody move a muscle. If we just stay right here, things will be perfect." 

It takes many forms. No excuses schools try to block out as many factors as they can--teacher individuality, student circumstances, the random eruptions of human behavior--so they can stay locked in an education Utopia. Curriculum in a box, scripted teaching programs, teaching material "with fidelity," going "all in" on a particular education philosophy--all attempts to place a school in the middle of an educational Utopia and lock it in place. 

But that's not how education works. In fact, that's not how any human relationship works. There is no locking in on a perfect place because the definition of "perfection" changes every day, shifting with all the many tensions that we balance while we live in the world. We change. The students change. Circumstances change. Needs change. Strengths and weaknesses ebb and flow. We keep moving.

I understand the desire to find that perfect place and lock down in it. It's human to want to know that we have things set up so that tomorrow and tomorrow and a hundred thousands tomorrows yet to come will all be okay, that things are going to work the way they're Supposed To. Uncertainty and unpredictability are inefficient, and scary, plus if we could get things locked down ahead of time, we wouldn't have to deal with it in the moment all over again every single day. 

The often-unspoken part of Utopia thinking is "We'll get these things locked down in the perfect place--and then they will never change forever." Utopia is not only locked in place, but in time. And that's simply not how human existence works. We grow, we expand, we change, we learn. 

And so every idea to fix education that involves locating the solution, imposing the solution, and then locking it in place is doomed, doomed, doomed, just as surely as a wish that your ice cream cone stay just like this forever. Education is a journey, not a location, and it always has to keep moving. 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dear Teacher At The End Of The 2020-2021 School Year


Congratulations.

You have made it to the end of the year which I'm pretty sure is burned into your brain as the worst in your career. But I am hugely impressed.

You did a lot of above-and-beyond things this year. All that retooling of lessons and materials for zoomification. All the driving of paper packets out to BFE so that the kids living in a shack without indoor plumbing or wifi could still do the work (which they mostly didn't, but you still made that possible for them anyway). The time you spent going in to school so that you could hand out lunches which meant not only that the kids could eat but that they could get the food from a friendly teacher face. The many phone calls you made just to try to find all the students and their families. 

Then the district opened the building after half-developing some policies which they then sort of followed, but you went in there and did the work and did your best to watch out for the kids, including the ones who were "challenging," in ways that I'm pretty sure would have been far more manageable in an ordinary year. The pandemic demanded both more instructional invention and emotional support for students and teachers alike. You stepped up.

You said that the end-of-year gifts from students were a little different this year. More heartfelt. I wonder if the zooming didn't make them more personally close to you, or if they simply appreciated how hard you worked at it this year. 

That would make sense, because you were a beast this year. You worked so damn hard, even when you didn't know what was going to happen next, even when you didn't know if the students were even seeing or hearing what you were doing, even when the country and the state provided no leadership or guidance (like, for some reason, this is one time they don't want to micro-manage you). 

It was a physically and emotionally taxing year, and you looked out for your colleagues, and you still took care of your family and managed something like a life beyond school. 

I know that what looms large for you is all the times you fell short, the lessons you didn't get to teach, the students you didn't connect with, the things you always look at and say, "If I were a better teacher, this would have gone better." You got an email of appreciation from the parents of one of your challenge students, and instead of fist-pumping the air and yelling, "Yay me," you cried because you don't think you did enough  for that child.

But I'm telling you that you were a damn hero this year (well, every year, but especially this year) and that you managed to make an omelet in the middle of a tornado and assemble an origami giraffe while on the back of a bucking bronco. You took care of your kids--and taught them--in the midst of chaos, with far less help than you deserved. Rest up. You've earned it. 


It's possible that I have one particular teacher in mind here, but I figured I'd post this for all the other teachers to whom it applies.

Educating the Unreadable Heart

The ongoing debate about teaching about race and history is a reminder of one of the fundamental challenges of education in a free society-- we may want to reach hearts and minds, but we can't read them.

The twins just turned four, and we are at one of the magical stages of childhood-- the Lie Your Tiny Ass Off stage. It's not that they are morally or ethically impaired, exactly. It's just that they've learned that there are "correct" answers to certain questions. If I ask, "Did you wash your hands," they know that I'm looking for a "yes." So why not give me what I want? They just haven't quite grasped yet the value of making their words correspond to reality.

Most humans catch on soon enough, but that basic skill never leaves them. 

Most, if not all, teachers want to influence young hearts and minds, not just program some correct answers into young humans. But you can never be absolutely sure you've accomplished it. That's why when people start throwing up their hands and wailing about how teachers are indoctrinating children, teachers are thinking, "I just spent a month trying to convince students that Ralph Waldo Emerson isn't stupid, and I'm not sure it went all that well. I'm not sure I'm the one to convince them to reject all the values they've picked up at home." 

In a classroom where one particular idea or value is clearly preferred, the learning most likely to occur is learning to give the "correct" answer in response to any prompt. The more clear you are on what answer is "correct," the less certain you can be that students actually believe what they are saying or writing. 

My old school, like many, had a Prom Promise program in which students signed a pledge not to drink on Prom night; a signed pledge got them trinkets like free pens and an entry into a prize drawing. One of my students observed that it was mostly about making adults feel good because they'd received those promises, and students meanwhile felt no compunction about going back on the pledge they'd made in exchange for a cheap bribe.

It's not nefarious dishonesty; it's just giving grown-ups what they want. But if we're not careful, we unintentionally teach some lessons not about race or history, but about how the game is played. 

All we have as a tool for assessing what is in hearts in minds are various forms of outward behavior, from picking a correct answer from four options on up to constructing a complex essay. This is one of the central tensions in a classroom-- a teacher trying to design a set of hoops to jump through that will separate those who have really learned from those who really haven't, and students trying to find the easiest way to navigate those hoops. 

This is why openness matters in a classroom. If students learn in September that they will get slapped down quickly for saying the wrong thing, they'll stop trying to understand or absorb or grapple in any honest way with the material, and they will focus instead on the central problem of "what does the teacher want me to say." If a student can't say X in your classroom, you will never have a productive conversation about X.

This is also, I think, why teachers sense that engagement is important. The "what does the teacher want" question is skin deep; it keeps the whole subject at arms' length; real thinking actually gets in the way. Student engagement means more involvement of the hearts and minds that we're trying to reach, and that means it's just a bit easier to read the unreadable.

Insisting on one single simplified view of a topic in a classroom isn't just a barrier to critical thinking; it's also a guarantee that whatever effect you hope to have on those hearts and minds, you are getting in your own way. If you believe those smiling faces all telling you exactly what to hear, well, I know a couple of four year olds who would love to tell you about how they washed their hands.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

PA: Alert! New Attacks on Public Schools Happening Right Now

If you're a taxpayer in Pennsylvania, make some time to contact your Senator today. Two bills are reportedly being fast tracked, and both represent real threats to public education.

SB 1 is a long wonky slog to read through involving changes in the established school operation rules, but here are the concerning parts. 

Under Section 7.1, we find Section 1717.1-A which establishes a Public Charter School Commission. The commission's purpose is "to act as an authorizer of high-quality public charter schools throughout this Commonwealth." 

The commission will have 7 members, all politically appointed, and it will have the power to impose a charter school on any community, regardless of what the taxpayers of that community and their elected representatives have to say about it. Taxpayers will be forced to pay for charter schools they never asked for, about which they have no say, and which is not accountable to them.

The bill also cranks up the cap on Pennsylvania's tax credit system. That's the deal where wealthy folks or businesses can give money to private schools (via "scholarship organizations") as a substitute for paying taxes. These systems generally have a cap, because every contribution made creates a corresponding gap in state revenues. Currently the cap is $185 million; the bill proposes to up that to $300 million. And under the bill, if at least of 90% of those tax credits are used, the cap goes up by 25%. Per year. Which adds up to even huger amounts fairly quickly.

There are other odds and ends. A local school board must, when approving a charter, must make it good for at least three years. School districts, IUs and community colleges must provide testing space for cyberschools to do their Big Standardized Testing. And there are some bits that require charters to be a bit more transparent than has historically been the case. 

SB 733 is a brand new bill with brand new language, and it wants to establish the "Education Opportunity Account Scholarship Program for Exceptional Students."  It's a retread of the same stuff we've seen before here and elsewhere, and it uses the standard tactic of aiming the ESA at students with special needs.

Like any ESA, the bill proposes to set up an account that the state loads with money and hands off to the parents, as in a debit card. Parents have to promise to use the funds for the usual list:  tuition and fees, textbooks, tutoring, buying some curriculum, cyberschool, testing, therapy, computer hardware and software. The  fun extra twist here-- money can also be put into a 529 account (savings for college), college tuition costs, or "fees for account management by private financial management firms." Left over money keeps rolling over until the student is 26.

A big issue with ESAs is always accountability. Are the parents using the money as they promised, or buying cosmetics? Are the providers actually qualified and capable, or just grifters cashing in? This bill calls for "random audits" of parents annually. As for schools, the bill holds them to some basic regulations and the BS Test, but also the not-unusual hands off clause-- "the department or any other State agency may not regulate the educational program of a participating school or education provider." A school can be barred from the program if they don't provide their contracted services, but there's no mechanism in the bill for determining if they are doing so.  And in the meantime, it's worth remembering that IDEA does not apply to private schools.

Estimates are that this bill could cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars. And you can be sure that the plan is to expand it

Neither bill, it should be noted, says word one about Governor Wolf's stated objectives to stop grossly overpaying charter and cyber schools.

Both bills were put in committee last week and emerged for first consideration yesterday; Harrisburg observers think the bills could be up for a vote tomorrow.

Which means you need to hit the phones today. Contact your state senator and let him know that you oppose these bills. They're expensive, they draw money from local public schools, and reduce accountability and oversight for taxpayers. This is bad policy and bad bills. 








IN: Voucher Increase To Serve Church, Not Taxpayers

Today's Catholic (Serving the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend) offers an article that gives a good picture of what vouchers really do. After all the rhetoric about choice and free exercise of religion, what are taxpayers really paying for?

Indiana has had a huge voucher program for ten years, and this year, the state budget included a big expansion of the program. The Indiana Catholic Conference lobbied for that expansion, which would "give more middle-income parents the option to choose a faith-based education for their children." Well, yes, because six-figure income families are now eligible.

That emphasis on religious education is the whole point and purpose.* Dr. Joseph Brettnacher, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, lays out the mission:

The most important aspect of the Choice expansion is that more families will have the ability to send their children to faith-based schools, where students can develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ within His mystical body, the Church. Our goals for students are to create disciples of Jesus Christ, help them fulfill their destiny to become saints and reach heaven.

The use of public tax dollars to fund this religious mission is not news in Indiana, where the result of the 2011 law was to send 97% of the voucher money to Christian schools; 66% to Catholic private schools.

The boost works a couple of ways. Indiana has vouchers that used to be tiered by family income; now every body will just get the max amount. They also have a Tax Credit Scholarship program, in which wealthy donors can contribute to funding private schools as a substitute for paying taxes. Tax Credit Scholarship programs typically have a cap, since every dollar put into the program leaves a corresponding drop in state revenue. Indiana will be raising that cap by a few million.

The Today's Catholic article is refreshingly clear. There's no talk here about helping poor families get a better education for their children or the superiority of a Catholic education. Instead, it talks about giving well-to-do families that already intend to send their children to Catholic school "room to breathe." They interview one family that moved to Fort Wayne in order to have access to a Catholic school and is now absorbing the news that they'll be getting more tax dollars to do it. 

“We’re still kind of wrapping our head around it, but we think it will help us to be able to do the other activities they’re interested in – the sporting events, the camps, the extracurricular things outside of school,” Glenn shared.

“I feel like this is going to help us tremendously to be able to do those things more often: go to the zoo, go to the movies,” Glenn said. “We’re excited: This is going to take some of the stress off our shoulders.”

So there it is. Hoosiers are going to pay taxes so that this family can go to the zoo and to the movies, and so that the kids can become saints and reach heaven. 

The diocese has been clear about who to thank: 

Key to the success of the legislation that has opened the doors of Catholic school education to so many, was, Brettnacher mentioned, the work of Indiana Speaker Todd Huston, Rep. Tim Brown, Rep. Bob Behning, Sen. Rod Bray, Sen. Eric Bassler, Sen. Ryan Mishler and Sen. Liz Brown, among others.

Those are the folks who helped insure that Hoosiers would pay for religious education, whether they feel inclined to offer up financial support in the name of that God or not. 


*On Twitter, one commenter pointed out that white flight would like a word. That's fair.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Revisiting Marshmallows (Once Again, Money Matters)

Oh, the Marshmallow Experiment. Some scientists at Stanford thought they had discovered a link between the virtuous characteristics of self-control and deferred gratification and later success. Instead they just demonstrated once again that even fancy scientists can confuse correlation and causation.

In case you slept in that day in Psych 101, here's the basic layout. Put a child and some marshmallows in a room together. Promise the child even more marshmallows if she'll refrain from eating the ones in front of her. Then leave the room. The child's subsequent behavior provides a measure of how much ability the child has to delay gratification. A follow up study released a couple of decades later said, "Look! The delayed gratification kids did well in life!"

Voila! A scientific support for the idea that some children just have a special virtue!

But that was back in the 1970s, and there has been more than enough time for other scientists to say, "Hey, wait a minute." 

One such do-over we've looked at before. A 2012 experiment showed that the child's environment might be more important than any imagined childish virtues. Turns out there' a huge effect related to how well the child thinks they can trust your promise of more marshmallows later.

There is a later study that is also important. It cane out in 2018, but I missed it back then. Tyler Watts (NYU) had doubts, noting that the original study involved just 90 kids, all in the Stanford preschool. Not exactly a large or representative sample. 

So Watts and colleagues restaged the experiment with 900 children who were taken from a broader slice of backgrounds, ethnicity, and parental education.

You will find the results completely non-shocking.

What correlates with the ability to wait for that extra marshmallow? Socio-economic background. 

What correlates with better jobs and earnings later in life? Socio-economic background. 

So once again--the ability to defer gratification is not some special character strength, some inborn virtue that students need to be infused with (either before or after their grit injection). It's just one more sign that growing up comfortably well off makes a difference. Glad we cleared that up.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

ICYMI: Board of Directors Birthday Week Edition (6/6)

The Board of Directors turn four this week, if you can believe such a thing. Time flies. In the meantime, here's some reading from this week.

Against Metrics: How Measuring Performance By Numbers Backfires

Not really about education, except that it totally is. One more argument against data-driven lunacy.

Unpacking Nonsense: Knowledge as Commodity

I always feel smarter when I read something from Paul Thomas. As usual, he makes connections between many important ideas, including race, crt, and media literacy.

What HIPAA Isn't

Lots of not-about-education-but-really-it-is material this week, including this handy explainer of what HIPAA really does and doesn't protect.

Our Collective Lesson Plan [On Teachers of Color in This Moment]

Jose Luis Vilson digs deeper into the wave of anti-crt legislation sweeping the country, and what it means for teachers of color.

Stinking Thinking Monetizes Dyslexia

Thomas Ultican takes a look at a bill in California mandating testing for dyslexia. Is any of it supported by research? He has the details.

Know Your State Astroturf Parent/Education Groups

Jeanne Melvin makes a guest appearance at Nancy Bailey's blog to sort out al the new parent activist "grass-roots" groups.

Efficiency is very inefficient

Not really about education but, well, you see the pattern. Cory Doctorow breaking down why we live in a world that praises efficiency, but actual destroys it.

Pittsburgh Media Runs Right Wing Propaganda

Steven Singer looks at how much success the right wing Commonwealth Foundation has had getting Pittsburgh media to treat their baloney like it's real.

Where Communities Go To College

On the Have You Heard podcast, a strong case for learning and teaching close to home.

Inside a bruising battle over a new charter school in Nashville's west side

From Nate Rau at Tennessee Lookout, a look at the trouble that comes when charters want to expand into "markets" where they aren't wanted.

Georgia Board of Education votes to censor American history

George Chidi at The Intercept looks at one more state's efforts to shut down discussion of racism.

More funding shenanigans in Ohio

Jan Resseger has the story of how Ohio's legislature is trying to increase vouchers and privatization while shrinking public ed.


Friday, June 4, 2021

ME: Another Assault On The Church State Wall

Having failed to win popular votes, voucher supporters this year are turning to legislatures and courts to push and expand vouchers, and a lawsuit in Maine is the perfect vehicle for them. 

Maine actually has a voucher-ish law on the books-- if you don't have a high school in your town, then you get tuition paid to a high school elsewhere. Unless, the law says, you want to choose a religious school. 

So here comes the lawsuit. Three families sued the state's commissioner of education over the restriction, using the now-familiar argument that the tuition law  “violates the principle that the government must not discriminate against, or impose legal difficulties on, religious individuals or institutions simply because they are religious.”

As usual, the families are represented by a pair of firms that specialize in this sort of lawsuit. The Institute for Justice specializes in activism, litigation, and legislation; their issues are economic liberty, first amendment, private property and educational [sic] choice. They're a libertarian organization founded by two Reagan-era government guys with a push and seed money from Charles Koch. The other firm is First Liberty Institute, a Christian conservative firm based in Texas. 

When the case was first filed in the summer of 2018, they plaintiffs were hanging their hopes on Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the 2017 SCOTUS case that ruled the state couldn't withhold a playground paving grant from a church. Since then, we've had Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which even more explicitly placed the exercise clause over the establishment clause. 

The First Court of Appeals ruled against the three Maine families, upholding Maine's restriction on using public tax dollars to support a private religious institution. The firms families determined to appeal to SCOTUS

That was last October. But yesterday, the 2nd Court of Appeals ruled against the state of Vermont, saying that local districts cannot exclude religious schools from its voucher program. This time it's the Alliance Defending Freedom doing the litigating; this is a right-wing religious outfit that just entered the news by defending a teacher suspended for refusing to follow his district's policy on trans students. ADF's spokesperson says of the Vermont decision, “Today the court powerfully affirmed the principle that people of faith deserve equal access to public benefits everyone else gets,” which sticks with the framing that this is about the rights of parents and not the rights of taxpayers. 

So now the Maine lawsuit folks are feeling like they have some wind in their sails and are hoping SCOTUS will hear their appeal. At this point, it seems realistic to assume that SCOTUS will side with the plaintiffs and further wreck the wall between church and state and trample on the establishment clause

That will end poorly for everyone. There are only a few possible outcomes of such a decision.

Proliferation of bad and discriminatory schools. We've already seen this in Florida, where taxpayers fund schools that are aggressively anti-LGBTQ+, as well as schools that teach junk instead of science, turning out citizens, employees and voters whose low-information views of the world become a problem for their community. Or perhaps the good Christian taxpayers of your state will find themselves paying taxes to support a Shariah Law High School. Or maybe your state, like Iowa, will even get its own push for a Satanic High School. 

Taxation without representation. Taxpayers will increasingly find themselves funding schools over which they have no say whatsoever. Taxpayers will retain the power to shut off the spigot; will they look at the voucher system they've been stuck with a vote not to fund it?

Regulation. Perhaps the taxpayers will instead demand accountability, a feature that many current voucher bills and laws work hard to explicitly leave out. An uprising of students who have been discriminated against could lead to a spate of laws regulating private religious schools that take public taxpayer dollars. Personally, this doesn't strike me as the most terrible outcome, but I suspect folks in the religious school biz might disagree,

Government oversight of religion. After the Satanic High School opens or some grifter is caught running a fake religious school or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster comes to town, maybe it will be time for a government body to certify whether or not the religious school is a legitimate religion. 

Religious folks do, of course, have a right to set up their own schools to reflect their own value systems. They don't have a right to make everyone else pay for it. And it's particularly odious to make people finance a religion that can only (apparently) fully and freely be expressed by discriminating against those same people. But nobody is saying these folks can't choose a religious school; only that they can't choose it at public expense. 

The First Amendment means that the government shouldn't pick winners and losers in the religious sphere; it doesn't mean that everyone should have to finance all religions no matter what. Here's hoping that SCOTUS does the right thing and just lets this case sit where it is. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Religious Persecution and/or Freedom

In the least surprising news development yesterday, a Loudon County Public School teacher's suspension has now become a lawsuit.

Phys Ed teacher Tanner Cross went to a school board meeting and voiced his opposition to any proposed policy that called for addressing students with their preferred pronouns. "I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa because it's against my religion," Loudoun County, Virginia, teacher Byron "Tanner" Cross said. For that, he's been suspended from his district in Virginia.

I am not without a small slice of sympathy for the man; the former union president inside me saw the story and immediately wanted to question the wisdom of suspending a teacher for saying they were going to disobey a policy even before they actually had the chance to actually disobey it. "I'm going to be insubordinate," is not quite the same thing as being insubordinate. Though I suppose the public announcement sort of forced the administration's hand.

At the same time, I have to wonder about his position. This is not the first time that religious objections to transexual humans have cropped up, and I am still searching for the Biblical basis for this. Exactly which part of the Christian faith, which teaching of Jesus, requires people of faith to object to trans folks? Cross (and his attorneys) are trying to hedge bets by suggesting the problem is the lying, that telling anything but the unvarnished truth is unChristian. I'm.... dubious. Cross teaches elementary school; I'd like to be there for the days when he blasts kindergartners for talking about Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny, or really, any conversation about movies in which actors pretend to be people who don't really exist. All of those are far more lie-like than calling a person by their preferred pronoun. 

The attorneys (we'll get to them shortly) would like to use this as one more chance to extend the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, a game these folks have been working at for a while. What we keep coming back to is the notion that one can't really fully exercise one's Christian faith unless one is free to discriminate against Certain People. To which I say, if you can't be a fully-exercising Christian without discriminating against someone, you are doing the whole Christian thing wrong. 

Cross's lawyers would disagree. They include Tyson Langhofer and J. Caleb Dalton of Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group that was incorporated in 1993 by six right-wing luminaries, including Larry Burkett, Bill Bright, and James Dobson. They are supported by a host of right-wing foundations, including the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. And they oppose abortion, same-sex marriage, most all LGBTQ+ rights. Their track record is sadly successful; these are the Hobby Lobby lawsuit folks. They have a summer legal training program to get Christian law students whipped up for legal careers; Justice Amy Coney Barrett taught at it.

The group characterizes the district's actions as "unconstitutional" and leans on both the idea that Cross shouldn't have to violate his beliefs (by using pronouns) and also the notion that this is an ideology "that ultimately could harm them." I'm wondering if the same argument could be used by a teacher who wants to thwart the practice of letting armed forces recruiters into schools. 

The suit is a win-win for these folks. Either they can impose more of their own religious beliefs on schools, or they can further break down the whole notion of public education and "government schools." And religious persecution no longer means the persecution of religious folks, but the preservation of their "right" to persecute others.


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Gig Economy Has Issues

Betsy DeVos was probably the most high-profile person to claim, repeatedly, that education just needed its own version of Uber. But the last months or two demonstrate just a few of the problems with the gig economy.

Gig economy is great if you're an employer. It lets you have "employees" without any of the actual responsibilities of being an employer. The gig workers are left to deal with their own issues of income, insurance, and employment stability, while the employer can just wash their hands of the whole thing while congratulating themselves loudly on promoting "freedom." 

This is a dream for some reformsters. Teachers, stripped of unions, serving as gig workers, maybe even hired just to teach a class or three. Privatizers complain about how union rules "restrict" teachers and keep them from being free, though it's never clear what they aren't free to do. But imagine--every teacher a Uber-style actor, who scans the app and sees who would, for instance, like to learn a little calculus today. Meanwhile, the education broker doesn't have to pay for retirement or health care. The model is already out there in a limited format, called Outschool, where teachers can sign up to teach a particular class and hope that students sign on, with the education "provider" operating a website to broker deals. Venture capitalists are already salivating.

But a funny thing has happened coming out of the pandemic (or at least imagining we are coming out of the pandemic). A lot of people have realized that their crappy job is crappy, and they don't want to go back. The classic neo-lib theory is that if all those people just get some education, they can elevate themselves and the whole economy--except that our economy is rigged to feed off of low-wage workers who are too desperate to stop doing the turns-out-they're-essential jobs they're being paid poorly for. 

Except that, at least for a moment, they're bailing. And, surprisingly enough, gig workers do have some freedom. And it is hurting Uber and Lyft. Turns out that even when you keep unions from appearing, workers can still decide, en masse, they don't want to work for you when the job sucks. Uber and Lyft's inability to hang onto their drivers has resulted in an increase in costs for riders, making what was a bit of a luxury item even harder to afford. If you had imagined that Uber would some how democratize taxi service so that everyone could afford it, guess again. 

What Uber does is cut out almost all costs of employing people and transfers that money to the top, making gazillionaires out of the owners and subsistence humans out of the gig workers who make the company function. 

Gig work is swell if you've got a real income elsewhere. Lots of fields are rife with gig work from writing to the musician work that gave this style of labor its name. But it's no way to make a living, and it's not even a particularly good way to provide the service that it's supposed to provide. And still, it's only a good model for education if you plan to be the person at the top of the pyramid, skimming cash from everyone else. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Being Mortal (And Measuring )

I've been reading the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It's not at all a book about education, except that, like everything that deals with being human, it does.

The book is actually about facing the end of life, mortality, and the ways we handle end-of-life decisions in this country. It's about gerontology, assisted living, and making decisions about hospice care. Gawande is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a professor at Harvard Medical School, and if you or anyone you know and love is ever going to be old, it's worth a read.

There were many passages that jumped out at me. Here's one from a chapter in which he's talking about the way that old age health care and nursing homes hit the wrong targets in their approach to care. 

Compounding matters, we have no good metric's for a place's success in assisting people to live. By contrast, we have very precise ratings for health and safety. So you can guess what gets the attention of people who run places for the elderly; whether Dad loses weight, skips his medications, or has a fall, not whether he's lonely.

Go back and read just the first sentence. There it is. When dealing with the care of living human beings, the things that matter are really hard, if not impossible, to measure. But because we want a concrete, clear, put-in-a-number measure of success, we just measure what can be measured and convince ourselves that it's important, or a valid proxy for what is important. We might want the measurement for "accountability" or so the authorities can Tell What's Working or because we don't trust our own insight or judgment about knowing success when we see it. True for aging humans placed in care facilities, true for young humans placed in schools.

And then there's this one, which I would very much like to put on a poster and then go back in time to hang on the wall of my classroom.

All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. That story is ever changing. Over the course of our lives, we may encounter unimaginable difficulties. Our concerns and desires may shift. But whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.

I love the nuance of this so much. This is not the cry for "Liberty" that we here from pseudo-conservatives these days demanding the right to be free from rules or obligations to society or other human beings. Nor does it pretend that we just set our vehicle on one track and follow it straight on no matter what we learn or see or discover or encounter. This is not a demand to live in the land of Do As You Please.

It's a basic human desire--to write our own story (the book was published in 2014, the year before Linn Manuel Miranda built a powerhouse finish to Hamilton by raising the question of "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.") That desire applies to students and teachers both, and it is necessarily wobbly and fuzzy and not in tune with the desire of some to reduce it all to a simple formula, precise and set in concrete. 

Being able to write my own story doesn't mean that I don't face obstacles. rules, requirements, the strictures of institutions and society. But I still write my own story and set my own course as I travel about the seas I didn't create against the weather I didn't ask for. It means that while others may have the power to set the conditions under which I travel through life, they do not control how I respond to those conditions. And that should be true for students getting started in the world as well as older humans approaching the end of life.


Why My Children Are Not Scholars

"Why does calling children scholars make me cringe?" Rosemary Jensen

That's a Facebook post that crossed my feed today, and reminded me that I also find that labeling, a popular feature among the charter crowd, a bit gag-inducing.

Why exactly? It's hard to pin down. After all, it's a relatively harmless term. One who attends school or studies, or an especially learned or erudite person, particularly one who in expert in a particular area. Why not use language that conveys to young humans that we aspire for them to achieve great things?

And yet, I'm still kind of cringy.

Maybe it's that it's a sign of the school trying to pump itself up ("other schools may have mere students, but we teach scholars"). Or maybe it's the attempt to verbally turn young humans into grown-ups with a rhetorical flourish. Why do that? Why try to adultify children before their time? And does that adultification serve, in part, to absolve us of having to meet their more child-appropriate needs?

But I think it might be more than that. "Scholar" sounds like a job. It sounds like a function, and as such, it verbally reduces the breadth and depth of a child's life. "You are not here to live your life," it says. "You are not here to play or socialize or to work out the dailiness of personal relationships. You are here to learn things. That's it." 

There is a lot of this running through reformy ideas, the notion that children have a job to do, and that is to Learn Stuff so that they can Produce Test Scores. It is certainly at the heart of No Excuses schools, predicated on the notion that all the things that distract students from learning are "excuses" and must be stripped away by a laser-like focus on Getting the Job Done. 

This suggestion that students--children--have only one function that matters runs counter to what I believe about education--that it's the business of becoming more fully yourself while learning to be more fully human in the world. 

None of this means I think students and teachers should sit around all day hanging out and talking about their feelings. In the classroom, I was focused on the work, and I expected my students to be as well. But I didn't imagine that the work of my class should be the all-consuming focus of their lives. Some of them may well have grown up to be scholars, but most young humans are still learning too such about themselves and the world to become specialists with a singular focus. 

This may all be overthought hairsplitting. But my ambition for my children and grandchildren is not for them to be pre-teen scholars. Humans, first. Children, second. Students, third and when in school. Scholars some day if that's what they decide they want to do. 



Monday, May 31, 2021

Tulsa and Teaching History

The Tulsa Race Massacre happened 100 years ago today. It's a horrifying chapter in US history, its anniversary arriving ion the midst of a new national argument about how history should be taught. 

Nowadays you can find plenty of resources about the destruction of Greenwood and the murder of--well, the number 300 is used, but the fact is we don't really know exactly how many Black folks were murdered. That lack of information is par for the course; the massacre was effectively covered up, buried by civic leaders who wanted to build a reputation for Tulsa as a cosmopolitan oil center. Tulsa's chief of police sent his officers out to physically collect all the pictures taken of the carnage--they stayed hidden away for decades.

When the massacre was discussed, it was called a riot. The full, true nature has only worked its way into public view in this century, and even right now, the massacre is characterized as a white mob running out of control, which portrays the events as still one step less horrific than they actually were. Read this thread by writer Michael Harriot; the white population of Tulsa did not "erupt" in violence. They organized, drilled, prepared and attacked. 

It was a large scale lynching, as well as a real estate grab (most of the thirty-four blocks burned down by white Tulsans ended up being owned by White Tulsans). And lynching, as Harriot points out, was a regular US thing in those days. There had actually been an attempt to make lynching a federal crime in 1918. The NAACP did the research and showed, among other things, that only one sixth of the 2500 lynchings of Blacks between 1899 and 1918 had involved accusations of rape. The bill failed. It was tried again in 1922. It failed again, defeated by Southern Congressmen's use of the filibuster. The Southern legislator argument was that "blacks were responsible for more crime, more babies born out of wedlock, more welfare and other forms of social assistance, and that strong measures were needed to keep them under control." Between 1882 and 1968, around 200 anti-lynching bills were floated in Congress; three passed the House, and none were approved by the Senate. The Senate did pass a bill making lynching a federal hate crime in 2018, and it died because the House did not pick it up and vote on it. The House did pass a similar bill last year, and it's currently in bill limbo.

But I digress. The Tulsa massacre is just one example of a chunk of history that the country has trouble coming to grips with, even as so many states are floating laws to make the conversation even harder, or even forbidden, to have. 

Oklahoma's anti-critical race theory law is less expansive than some, but at the top of the usual list of "concepts" that it forbids, it says that no school "shall require or make part of a course," which means they can't even be discussed. Governor Stitt, in supporting the bill, offers that he believes "not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans." He argues that Bad Things, like the massacre can still be taught. It's also worth noting that while the law applies to public, charter and cyber schools, it does not apply to any of the private schools served by the state's voucher program. An expansion to that program was just signed into law by Stitt.

Fallout has been immediate. Melissa Smith has been teaching classes in high school and community college about race and ethnicities for years, but she has just been told by her summer college race and ethnicities class, fully enrolled, has been canceled. Smith teaches about things like "disparities between the races in terms of education, housing and income," but apparently that's trouble enough.

Smith's story is a good example of how these laws work--not by arresting teachers who teach naughty things, but by scaring the hell out of less-steely administrators who immediately shut down anything that they think has a remote chance of stirring up bad trouble. The folks behind these laws know that--that's why we see folks from astro-turfy Parents Defending Education to Dan Crenshaw to the Lt. Governor of Idaho encouraging folks to anonymously turn in anyone that is teaching any of that scary race stuff or wokeness or  indoctrinatin' our children.

Will anyone be turning in Mikael Vaughn at the Urban Coders Guild? He and his students partnered with Tulsa Community College to set up historicblackwallstreet.com, a website that attempts to capture the legacy of what was destroyed. Will the state take action against the Oklahoma City Public School Board for saying the law is just to protect white fragility?

Look. Teaching history is hard, and teenagers, many of whom are certain that the world sprang into being the day they were born, are a tough audience. For 39 years, my students were near-unanimous in saying that history was the most pointless class they took. Of course, part of that was probably a reaction to the attempt we make to reduce history to facts and dates. When Stitt says that schools can still teach things like the Tulsa Massacre, he means they can keep teaching that X happened on date Y. But that's not history. Not really.

We are hardwired to do history, I would tell my students. We do it every day. Pat and Sam have a fight and break up at a party Saturday night, and by Sunday everyone is talking about it, sharing the different versions of events (Pat's, Sam's, Pat's friends', Sam's friends', etc) and trying to parse out what led up to it, what caused it, what it means for the past, how it will affect the future, and all of that for the ultimate goals of A) building a consensus reality and B) figuring out how to feel about it. And on top of all that, none of these questions will ever reach a final answer. At the fiftieth class reunion, someone will bring it up and relitigate it. That's history. We just mostly do it with dead people who can no longer speak for themselves, which means that the conversation can always be disrupted by new information and that we never can be completely certain we know what we're talking about.

The challenge of teaching history is to convey all that while, at the same time, not telling students how to feel about any of it. Part of my usual fall spiel: "We can't talk about American literature and history without talking about issues of race and gender and class. It is not my job to tell you what to think, but it is my job to convey as clearly as I can what other people think and thought about the issues at hand." And then we buckled up for a year of discussion, and I periodically bit my tongue off, because you cannot change hearts and minds by demanding that they do so or forcing them to declare ideas they neither grasp nor believe (even if you're pretty sure those things are true). 

The White civic leaders of Tulsa tried to control the narrative of their crimes by controlling what people could see and know and say. It only worked for a while. Right now, GOP legislatures are trying to do the same thing by driving discussion of America's racist sins out of classrooms. The conversation has to continue, and it will only serve us well if it's based on reality. 

Okay, this is running long, but I realize now I have one more point to make. Here's a thing I learned during the meltdown of my first marriage--lying is exhausting. It seems easy at first, but the thing about lying is that it requires mental maintenance of at least two narratives. On the one hand, you have the things that are actually happening, and on the other, the things that would be happening if what you said last week was actually true. Little lies may not be a big deal--after a few days, the divergent narratives come back together and life goes on. But big lies-- the longer you go, the further they diverge and pretty soon you're like a person with each foot on a different car, and the cars are racing forward down roads that diverged at that Y back where you lied and it takes everything you have not to fall.

You can try to just forcefully shut up and shut out everything that provides evidence of the truth. Gaslighting, shouting down, sheer exercise of power--those are the popular tools. For a single person, this is tiring and toxic; for a nation, it is, well, tiring and toxic. White folks have spent a lot of energy trying to maintain a narrative about Black folks, and also spent a lot of energy trying to maintain a narrative about that narrative (we used to have a racism problem but that all stopped some fifty, sixty years ago). But here we are again, passing these laws to try to keep people from raising the topics in the hopes they'll all go away.

The story of Tulsa--and not just the story, but the story of the story--is a reminder that the conversation needs to continue, that, in fact, some parts of the conversation have barely begun. We can do better.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

ICYMI: Memorial Day Weekend Edition (5/30)

It has been a time, with a double funeral yesterday and some other little series of life adventures this week. Makes you want to shake some folks and ask, "Is this really what you want to do with your limited time on earth?" Be better. Anyway, I have a few things for you to read this week. Here's the list.

What Education Researchers Can Learn From Teachers

Larry Ferlazzo at EdWeek lets us hear from four teachers with some good thoughts about what researchers need to do to shape up their act.

Here's the truth behind the right-wing attacks on critical race theory

Jeff Bryant at Alternet with a look at some of the forces behind the big crt push, and some comments from people actually in the field.

School choice and charter proponents target public education in key states

A good overview of the rising tide of teacher gag laws, and the rising tide of opposition to them. From Rachel Cohen at Capital & Main.

Bricolage Academy educators vote in favor of unionization

Such a vote isn't always a big deal--but this time we're talking about the staff of a New Orleans charter school. This could be the start of something good.

Turnaround is a relic

Chicago's board of education decides to retire its largest turnaround program.

EdTech in schools -- a threat to data privacy?

This piece from Velislava Hillman looks at just what edtech companies want (spoiler alert: educating students is not Job One).

Why A Billionaire Telecom Executive Gave $1,000 In Cash To Quincy College Grads

From Forbes, the story of a billionaire exec who decided to do something useful (and non-prescriptive) with his money.


From the "you think you've got troubles" file. Also from the "this is maybe closer to happening here than I'd like to imagine" files.


Milton Hershey was doing educational philanthropy back in the old days, and his death in 1945 left a huge estate that became a massive fund for the Milton Hershey School, a school set up to help poor orphans. The school is still in operation, and it has giant piles of money, which critics say should say should be being spent on the school's educational mission.


Yeah, this HuffPost piece is not going to make you feel better. It will, however, remind you that some people in the classroom are bringing along a whole set of toxic beliefs.


From the School of Thought blog, a call for a kinder, gentler, not so focused on being perfect approach to the classroom.


Mark Weber, writing for New Jersey Policy Perspective, shows how Camden is losing sooooo many Black teachers.


Nancy Flanagan with a reminder that wrong is wrong is wrong, even and especially when it comes to education and children.

Eliminating Federal Charter Schools Program Would Curb Academic and Financial Abuses by Charter Operators

The federal program for financing charter schools is still there, still wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. Jan Resseger explains why it should be ended.

A Productive Meeting Between the District and Teachers about the Next School Year

Let's wrap things up with the latest from McSweeney's. Short, bittersweet, and funny.




Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Problem of Parent Centered Education

Teacher gag laws spreading across the country are generally billed as anti-CRT, but of course their reach is much broader than that, forbidding discussion of "controversy" and outlawing any teaching that might make students "uncomfortable" or be "divisive." 

The debate--well, actually not a lot of real debate because GOP legislators are using their majorities to just ram these bills through--even highlights apparent splits in the reformy astroturf community. This week the National Parents Union was in Tulsa to march in commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre (a topic that now probably can't be taught in Oklahoma) while the Parents Defending Education continue to work hard to ferret out anyone teaching controversial race issues (by which they appear to mean any race related issues at all). It's an odd apparent split between people who have worked in the edu-astro-turf world for a while. 

But these groups, and the larger push for these restrictive teacher laws, actually feed one basic tenet of the privatizing push--the idea that education is a consumer good, and the real consumers are parents. Further, as the primary consumer, the argument goes, parents should get to decide how the school works, what the teachers teach, the whole operation.

There are a couple of problems with this idea of parent-centered education.

One is that the promise is a lie. To parents who dream of being able to choose a school that delivers the exact product they want for their child, I invite you to look around and show me any consumer good that works that way. The next time you walk into Walmart, find a manager and tell him exactly the product and features you want to see on his shelves and insist that he get it for you right away. Go to McDonalds, and if you can still find a human working there, explain to them exactly how you want your burger and your fries prepared, and see how that works. "You will be able to have it your way," is a lie told to open the market. Once the market is open, all bets are off.

The other is more fundamental. When folks demand that students not be taught any of that controversial stuff, what they're saying is "I don't want my child's education to go any further than my own. My child should only learn the things I know."

New knowledge, new understandings--that stuff is always controversial, all the way back to Galileo. It would be great if adults regularly said, "Oh, that's cool. I'll just toss out my old understanding of this and modify it with this new stuff," more regularly, but they don't.

These gag laws are the cry of "I don't want my kid to believe things I don't believe and know things that I don't know." There may be hundreds and hundreds of learning and exploration and growth and building that led up to me, right now--but I want all this growing and building to stop with me. Or, in the case many of these folks, I want it to have stopped with my grandparents, so we're going to need to roll some things back. Things like the 1776 project are anti-growth, a complaint of "Why can't everyone just understand history the way my grandad learned it in 1952."

Simply absorbing the received fossilized wisdom of previous generations is not education. It certainly isn't the key to the critical thinking skills that everyone claims to value. There has always been a tension in US education between "You are going to get all the education that I never had" and "Your grandpa and I never needed any of that book learnin' so I don't see why you need it," but right now, the latter is ascendant. For education and learning and collective wisdom and depth to grow, children will have to learn things their parents didn't know. That may seem like a statement of the obvious, but clearly to some folks right now it's not obvious at all. 


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Should Some School Districts Be Broken Up?

New York City's school system is not really an example of anything except itself, despite the many times it's written about and pointed at. This should not be a surprise. We are lousy at history in this country, and so we miss obvious things, like the change in scale. Thomas Jefferson was the President of a country with roughly six million people in it; New York City contains a bit over eight million. 

Our biggest school districts are huge. NYC schools contain almost a million students; the tenth largest school district (Palm Springs) just under 200K. 

So when Howard Husock writing for the reliably right-tilted Fordham Institute thinky tank says that large urban districts should be broken up, he's raising a topic worth talking about. 

Unfortunately, he mostly likes the idea of breaking up large districts because it would break up large unions, which is certainly in keeping with the current narrative that the Biden administration was Very Naughty for talking to teachers unions about re-opening schools. Why is it that when business folks form community groups in order to insert themselves into education policy, that's commendable and swell, but when unions that represent the people who actually work on the ground in education try to speak up, that's considered bad and selfish?

But it's still worth talking about.

The bigger the district, the harder to represent the interests and needs of communities within the larger whole. It's harder for voters to have a voice in the district, harder for teachers to have a voice in the union (I long ago gave up trying to keep track of all the sub-groups in the NYC teachers union). And contrary to anti-union sentiment, a union can be a big aid in helping a district run smoothly--if they know their people.

A small district provides huge benefits. I live and worked in a district of 14K or so citizens, teaching in a school of roughly700-900 students (things changed over the thirty-some years). There was never a year in which I did not know some of my parents outside of school. You want to talk about accountability? In small town teaching, you meet the people whose tax dollars pay you and whose children you teach every day, everywhere. In the grocery store. In church. At the hair dresser. When you walk down the street. In the bar--so watch yourself. All of that goes double for administrators and school board members. If you have been in the district for more than five years, people in the community know about how you do your job, what you teach. There may even be a unit or content that you are "famous" for. 

Not everybody can take it, and some never move into the district where they teach. People think less of them for it. "I don't even know what s/he looks like," is one of the biggest insults that can be leveled at an administrator.

Nor is that the end of it, because a large percentage of your students stay right here, and if you are an awful human being to them in the classroom, you will pay for it forever. My car is fixed, my food is made and served, my innards probed, my streets patrolled, most things I buy sold to me, the volunteer groups I serve in populated, and my own children taught by people that I taught in school. 

Another story. When I was a local union president and contract negotiations turned first contentious and then into a strike, the board president and I met once a week for breakfast. We did no negotiation or discussion of issues; mostly we were doing it to remember that the Other Side was human. 

And we haven't even gotten to all the accountability effects that come because I'm also a parent whose children went through the system. And the ability of teachers to coordinate because they have regular contact with each other. And the strong sense of community. And the positive effects on communication. Let's just summarize by saying that there are many good effects from a small district.

There's a lower limit to size effectiveness, the part where you can't offer certain courses because only two students sign up (and one is going to drop out once she sees what it is really like). or when you can't offer sports or band or other extracurriculars because too few students.

But there is a huge problem with breaking up large districts. We've seen districts do it, and it almost always turns out to be a sneaky form of segregation. School district secession all too often is about "We'd like to take our children into a district away from Those People's Children." An awful lot of de facto segregation has been accomplished by drawing district lines. At the same time, New York City schools, divided into a giant maze of sub-districts, are the most segregated in the nation.

There's also the problem of breaking a large district into smaller districts separated by wealth (or the lack thereof). Once again, Chester Upland School District of Pennsylvania provides an example--Delaware County contains some of the richest and poorest districts in the entire state, carefully separated by well-drawn boundaries. The prospect of using the same kind of computerized tools that have facilitated political gerrymandering--that's not a good prospect.

Any attempt to break up a large district would require some serious oversight to avoid the risk of simply replicating the same inequities already present elsewhere. (And choice policies also replicate those problems, while stripping parents of rights and communities of representation.) An answer probably looks more like a community school, but that's a conversation for another day. For today, breaking up school districts might well be worth it, if done carefully and with a care for all students involved, and not just because you're excited about sticking it to teachers unions.

Eroding Trust In Chester Upland

Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania has the distinction of having been put through every gauntlet that a modern school district ca be forced to run. Currently, that means that CUSD is facing a partial takeover of the district by charter operators

Parents, taxpayers and teachers within the district have not developed much trust in the various processes put in place to "help" the district. That may be related to the parade of shady shenanigans along the way.

In particular, there's the cozy relationship that so many folks seem to enjoy with Chester Community Charter School. CCCS is, itself, a shady operation that started up in conjunction with CSMI, a charter management organization founded by Vahan Gureghian, a guy who runs a billboard company and CSMI and is now, after 23 years in the charter biz, really really wealthy. There are three charter companies operating in Chester (so far) but CCCS is by far the dominant one. How big a pile of taxpayer dollars does CSMI rake in? You aren't allowed to know--they're a private business. 

CUSD is under state receivership, but it's often unclear whose interests are being guarded. In Pennsylvania, charters are only supposed to be renewed for five year spans, but receiver Peter Barsz went ahead and gave CCCS a nine year contract. The argument was that this would "save the district" by getting a deal that the charter would not try to extend its reach to high school students. Except that word on the street was that the charter had no interest in high school students. That's been confirmed; while charter operators are currently making their bids to take over schools in the district, nobody has made a pitch for taking over the high school. So Barsz gave CCCS a big fat gift in exchange for a guarantee that CUSD would not be attacked by yetis riding on unicorns.

It was a great deal for David Clark, the CCCS CEO. Dr. Clark is the community face of CCCS, well-regarded enough that the city leaders decided to give him a whole honorific ceremony. And when folks got heated up over the CCCS petition to charterize the district back in 2019, Clark took to the paper to say, "They did not petition to take over the school." Technically true--they petitioned to have bids opened for charter schools, however as Chestrer's only charter heavy hitter, they were (and remain) the obvious big winners in such a move. Clark also claimed that Gureghian didn't found CCCS, which is a distinction without a difference. In fact, the actual founding of CCCS is a bit opaque, but it's clear that launching the school also launched the charter management organization that runs it and which was founded and owned by Gureghian. Clark adds "nor was he even involved with the school when it was established." That puts us in gaslighting territory; certainly it does not establish Clark as a straight shooter.

But Chester has attracted an endless stream of not-straight shooters. The district has trust issues with its own board, which has been spectacularly reluctant to conduct any of this charterization business out in the open (even though the court told it to). They've hired administrators seen as favorable to charterizing. Fred Green ran an unconventional campaign for the board and won, immediately offering pro-district words in support of a "Local Control Is Our Goal" rally:

We encourage residents and community supporters to come out and help us fight to take back our school district and get it back into local control.

But when CCCS recently opened a new campus in Aston to help it expand into the Philadelphia market, this was part of the scene:

















There are two pairs of scissors there for the ribbon cutting. The pair on the right is being held by Dr. David Clark. The pair on the left is being held by Fred Green.

Chester Upland School District is plagued by broken promises about things large and small, repeated problems with mysterious disappearing money, and a lack of allies in any powerful places. When their woes are tallied up, we have to include an erosion of trust. What a rough place to be.