Friday, March 31, 2023

Bill Hangley, Jr.: Abbott's Lesson for Charters: Look In The Mirror...Please (Guest Post)

Bill Hangley, Jr., is a free lance writer who worked the education beat in Philadelphia, and as such he has some thoughts about the charter scene in Philly as reflected through recent episodes of Abbott Elementary. I'm pleased to present his guest post on the subject.

America’s school-choice lobby can relax: when ABC’s Abbott Elementary returns this Wednesday [April 5], the plot will hinge on teacher qualifications, not charter school takeovers.

That’s good news for a community that’s used to being taken seriously – very seriously. Wherever charter supporters go, they usually have friends to defend their interests. But the choice lobby wasn’t represented in the Abbott writers’ room. Nobody stood in the way as the hit sitcom raked charters over the comedy coals, presenting them as cynical, counterproductive, and even absurd.

Unsurprisingly, the charter lobby didn’t like what America saw. “No one likes being vilified,” said Debbie Veney of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It’s pathetic … to criticize the schools that succeed,” tweeted Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform.

As a journalist who covered Philadelphia’s charters for years, I expected to see people like Veney and Allen vigorously defend their industry. That’s what they’re paid to do.

I just wish somebody would pay them to take a good hard look in the mirror. Because as merciless as the sitcom’s portrayal of district-charter relations may have been, to me it looked far more accurate than charter supporters care to admit.

Admittedly, some might say I’m biased. As a reporter for WHYY News and the late, great Public School Notebook, I saw the ugly up close. In over a decade on the beat, I saw politicians meddle and school boards dissemble. I saw underperforming charters stay open while district-run schools shut down. I heard officials beg repeatedly for relief from costly charter payments that drain district budgets.

And I saw the real-life versions of the charter takeover featured in Abbott’s recent episodes. The sitcom version was funny. The real-life version was downright cruel.

In what our school district dubbed the “Renaissance” process, Philadelphia asked school communities to pick sides and fight it out. What America just saw on television, I saw a decade ago in places like Steel Elementary and Muñoz-Marín Elementary and Wister Elementary and Martin Luther King High.

It was brutal. Parents were asked to choose between imperfect schools they knew and blue-sky promises from well-dressed “providers” they’d never met. The resulting campaigns were every bit as impassioned and intrigue-riddled as any other Philadelphia election. I did my best to cover them fairly, and interviewed countless parents. Plenty were willing to consider a charter, for plenty of reasons.

But the question that came up most often: “If our school’s not good enough, why don’t they just fix our school?”

I had no answer, and the School District of Philadelphia never really did either.

That’s what rings the most true for me about Abbott’s charter episodes: the underlying absurdity of offering “choice” as a solution to an underfunded system. How do you fix one school by opening another? Especially when the old schools have to pay for new ones?

Think about it: no other government service is run that way. Nobody offers “trash collection choice” or “police choice.” Nor do prosperous suburban school districts choose “choice.” They choose to invest in their own schools, not open new ones run by somebody else.

But America’s choice lobby isn’t used to being laughed at. Which may explain the bitter edge to the tweets from Allen, who accused Abbott creator Quinta Brunson of hypocrisy: “attended charter schools her entire education.”

In fact, Brunson went to a public elementary school in West Philadelphia, and a now-closed charter high school. “You’re wrong and bad at research,” Brunson tweeted. “Loving something doesn’t mean it can’t be critiqued.”

So Brunson could easily dismiss Allen. But Philadelphia cannot easily dismiss its charters or their impact. The city’s 83 charters now educate about 65,000 students – almost enough to fill Lincoln Financial Field. They have powerful friends in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, including deep roots in parts of Philadelphia’s Black and brown communities.

How deep? Consider the recent Board of Education forum for Philly’s mayoral candidates. None significantly challenged charters’ role, and several embraced potential charter expansion, including having charters serve as neighborhood elementary schools, like the fictional Abbott.

Take Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who helped launch a charter: “We cannot tell parents, wait until we fix the whole system.”

Or Cherelle Parker, whose home turf in Northwest Philly is a charter stronghold: “We will not have an us-versus-them strategy.”

Or Derek Green, a former charter board member, who wants an “independent authorizer” to award charters, not the school district: “Parents do not believe that there’s not bias in the approval.”

Or Rebecca Rhynhart, who was serving under Mayor Michael Nutter when a Renaissance charter takeover collapsed amidst allegations of corruption and cronyism: “We can’t wait till the neighborhood schools get up to the place where every parent is comfortable.”

Even Helen Gym, a relentless charter-policy critic but also a charter founder, said she’d concentrate on strengthening District-run schools: “I don’t mind choice, but my focus is public schools.”

So charters may disappear from Abbott’s scripts, but in Philadelphia, they’re here to stay.

And now that America has seen charters’ bad side, how will the sector respond?

There’s plenty the charter lobby could do, if its deep-pocket donors choose. It could better support Philadelphia’s community-based charters, many of which badly need financial, academic, strategic and legal assistance. It could help stabilize district budgets by supporting much-needed statewide reforms. It could take a strong stand against obvious absurdities, like giving cyber-charters the same per-student payments as brick-and-mortar schools.

Sadly, my experience says the charter lobby won’t do any of those things.

Instead, it’ll probably keep lobbying for more charter schools. And if charters are on TV, they’ll lobby TV. They’ll be calling executives and advertisers to complain. And I can guarantee that somebody is hiring writers to gin up a pro-charter sitcom. I bet it’ll be full of union jokes. And I bet it won’t be funny.

Bill Hangley, Jr. can be found on Twitter @hangleyjr

A Note To Subscribers

When Google decided to drop its feed subscription app for Blogger, it was a sad day. I had hoped that the app that I replaced it with would be useful, but my frustrations with it continue to grow. The emails it sends out are unrecognizeable as coming from this blog, and virtually all useful functions require me to pay.

On the other hand, the substack experiment is working out well. It's free, it shows up in your email with a subject line that actually lets you know what it is, and I can use it to send out everything I'm publishing, not just the stuff from here at the mother ship. 

Shortly the signup box for the old email app will go away, though I presume the subscriptions will continue until that service gives up its internet ghost. But I want to take this moment to encourage you to sign up for the substack. It's free, it works, and it will keep you up to date on the regular posts here (including the weekly digest), plus whatever I post at Forbes. com, The Progressive, and the Bucks County Beacon. It's quick and simple.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Betsy DeVos Is Not Done Yet

When history closes the book on Betsy DeVos. it may well determine that she did the least damage to public education during the handful of years she was officially overseeing it.

Since she left DC (making a belated attempt to throw Trump under the bus on her way out), DeVos has been doing what she has done most of her adult life-- use money and influence to try to replace public education with a privatized, voucherized, taxpayer-funded-private-christianist-school, system that operates as a free market commodity unaided by the government. 

In Michigan, she tried hard to ram through a voucher bill, even trying to buy up enough support to circumvent the Democrat in the governor's mansion. She failed (thwarted once again by a system that allows any old citizen to vote and not just the righteous and deserving ones). She published a book that I'm sure somebody somewhere read (I'm not going to read it for you--DeVos has lived rent free in my head so long that I could probably write her book for her). 

She teamed up with some of the Koch-funded crowd in New Hampshire to start a national tour for yet another version of her Educational Freedom (Definitely Not "Vouchers") Scholarship program.

She has, in fact, dispatched her American Federation for Children all across the country (complete with head cheerleader and the left's least favorite mean girl Corey DeAngelis) to help goose the push for vouchers. 

I've been collecting clippings. In Nebraska, she spent big to push vouchers (AFC's Nebraska affiliate chief said their fighting the teachers unions that want "to protect their education monopoly" which I guess is why they collected billionaire money out the wazoo). AFC and their affiliate have been funding their friends in Missouri. They have been financing the way-right crowd in Oklahoma as well as in Texas--both states where it has been necessary to lean extra hard on rural GOP legislators who correctly see vouchers as a threat to their constituents and their beloved schools. There's also been some griping among conservatives who remember that giving taxpayer money away with no oversight or accountability is not really on brand for traditional conservatives.

Georgia. Iowa. Idaho. DeVos has been busy. The sudden eruption of voucher bills is not some oddly coincidental local phenomenon, but a full court press for the nation. Way too many folks are seeing it as a local fight, when it's really a collection of coordinated carpetbaggers (or in DeAngelis's case, one with what must a ton of frequent flyer miles). 

Not to mention that she's also backing upward-failing serial school dismantler Paul Vallas in his bid for the mayor's office in Chicago. 

Unfortunately, only a handful of journalists have noted the bigger picture. Here's Tyler Kingkade at NBC News managing to both A) spot the DeVos handprints all over various states and B) correctly identify her favored voucher bills as private school subsidy bills. 

DeVos is certainly not the only person throwing millions and millions of dollars around to try to stamp out public education as we know it. Here's Connie Matthiessen at Inside Philanthropy trying to sort out all the dark money from the various proponents of school vouchers--it's both impressive and scary.

Both of those pieces, as good as they are, miss the full story of DeVos, calling her "Trump's former Secretary of Education," as if her career in defunding and privatizing public education started in 2016. Not even close. She has spent decades as a right-wing, christianist crusader. Her ineffectiveness (and ill-suitedness) in office were predictable, given her traditional method of operation has been blunt, hardball politics. Aid her in her crusade, and you have her substantial financial wind in your sails; refuse her, and find yourself primaried and cast out. 

This is the woman who, in 1997, wrote

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

As I've conceded in the past, I may project a bit too much with DeVos. But she's my generation, and I've known lots of folks like her (well, in every respect except the filthy rich heiress part). People of faith sometimes talk about being in the world, not of it, and I think it probably drove DeVos a little bit crazy to have to pretend to go along with little godless people and follow their silly godless rules

So I imagine that once she brushed the dust of DC off her sandals, it was a sort of relief to get back to pursuing kingdom gains by following the only rules that matter, the rules that she understands God to be requiring of her

Everyone who watched her leave office and thought, "Now that this big dope is out of office, we've seen the last of her" just hadn't been paying attention. It was easy to dismiss DeVos as a dope, but she wasn't. She was just a woman who was stuck in a job she was unqualified for in every important way. But the job she had before that--crusader for kingdom gains wielding a big fat sword of money given to her by God because she deserves it and will use it to His Will-- is the job she has prepared for and practiced her whole life. And now she has that job again.

She's got a strategy, a vision, a personal hired army, and a pile of money that would make Scrooge McDuck drop his flappy jaw. She is not going away any time soon, and it would be a big mistake to stop paying attention to what she's up to, because she is absolutely not done. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

I Am Done With These School Shooting Arguments

Here are the discussions I'm really tired of wading through in the wake of the school shooting du jour.

The problem is mental illness.

Every nation on the planet has mentally ill people. No other nation on the planet approaches our level of gun violence against children and youth. 

There's nothing to be done. Shooters gonna shoot. 

This attitude that there's simply nothing that can be done, so why should legislators even try, is a mysterious notion that is only ever applied to gun laws. Not abortion or drag queens or traffic violations or even elections being won by the other side. Somehow, gun violence is the singular area in which the United States government is powerless to even attempt anything. 

Laws don't make any difference.

Every other country in the world says differently. 

Every argument ever presented by people who want to ban drag queens and dirty books.

If you have been vociferously arguing that children must be protected from knowing that gay people exist and there are books with sex things in them, and also let's not expose them to versions of history that will make them feel bad, but you don't want to try to reign in stuff that can actually kill them, then just shut up. In fact, shut up twice. (If you haven't seen the Jon Stewart clip, here ya go).

When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

Catchy, but dumb. We're not talking about disarming the military or the police. 

But more guns make us safer!

I think we can safely say that we have tried this theory, and the empirical evidence suggests it is bunk, because with the number of guns we have, we should be the safest country on the planet, not the country with the most staggering level of gun violence in the history of the industrialized world.

Let's arm teachers.

This is a dumb idea that sooner or later is going to get somebody killed. Armed, undertrained amateurs in a high pressure situation will not help. Also, this keeps coming from the same people who also say that teachers cannot be trusted to choose books for students, but give them a gun. We can throw terms like socialist and groomer at them, but let's hand them a gun, too. It's almost as if you're not serious about one or the other or both.

Shooters are all angry white guys.

Other nations have angry white guys. They don't have our staggering level of gun violence.

It's those damned video games.

Other nations have video games. They don't have our staggering level of gun violence.

You can just as easily kill people with rocks or spoons.

Other nations have rocks and spoons. They don't have a staggering level of rock or spoon violence on par with our level of gun violence.

We shouldn't have taken prayer out of school.

Other. Nations.

Parents these days just don't raise their kids right.

Other.    Nations. 

This is just an excuse to come after our guns.

Yes, I sure remember when folks wailed that Obama was coming for their guns and then, he didn't. Because the government isn't coming for your guns. Gun and ammo manufacturers, however, would love to come for your money.

But the Second Amendment--

I love the Constitution a lot. I don't agree that the framers wanted to make sure that everyone could own an AR-15, but let's pretend for a moment that the Second Amendment says everything you think it does. The Constitution also failed to give women and Black folks the right to vote. We recognized that this was a mistake AND WE FIXED IT! Because that's what we do in this country. You know--just like some of you keep pushing for a constitutional convention so we can add term limits, balanced budget requirements, and other stuff that you think the framers overlooked.

Let's have the death penalty for school shooters.

This is double stupid. First, I'd rather prevent the violence than get revenge for it. Second, a goodly portion of these shooters have no intent of getting out of there alive, anyway. 

Here are some conversations I'm more than willing to have.

Let's not get too focused on school shootings.

School shootings are horrific and newsworthy, but children are still more likely to be victims of gun violence at home. Nobody is talking about it, but in a district in my own quiet corner of the world, a child shot their cousin, at home, in the chest. Nobody died, and it didn't even make it into the newspaper, making it probably the eleventy zillionth unremarked instance of a child getting their hands on a gun because some adult failed at adulting. 

So we have way more to talk about than the headline grabbing horror of school shootings. Way more. It's just that the one-at-a-time incidents don't generate quite the buzz, and at this point it's hard to imagine how much horror we'd have to be exposed to in order to move the legislative needle. I don't know how we break that cycle, other than by electing legislators who value children more than guns or gun lobby money. 

But while focusing on school shootings makes sense (including emotional sense), I suspect it's self-defeating because school shootings, as frequent, horrific, and terrible as they are, are too easy for ammosexuals to wave off as outliers. And they're not entirely wrong--school shootings are just the ugly tip of a grotesque iceberg of blood. We need to be talking about all the gun violence.

We can't get rid of all the guns.

If I had a magic wand, I'd be waving a mountain of firearms out of existence, but I don't, and no legislation imaginable could achieve that result. We'll never bring the toll down to zero. But we could be better. We could make it harder to get guns, to get ammo. We could outlaw the whole family of guns that have no purpose except to shoot other human beings (no--I'm not going to argue with you about what "assault" means--we all know what we're talking about). We could keep guns away from people who have proven themselves dangerous. We could require training and education for gun ownership, and mandate proper safe storage--you know, exactly the sort of stuff that responsible gun owners already do! The kinds of things we do for people who want to own and operate cars (which now are behind guns in number of children killed).

We don't need to talk about being perfect. But we sure as hell could talk about doing better.

It's a complicated issue, and we are not even close to having the complicated conversations needed to deal with it. This is not the best we can do. Shrugging after each death and saying, "Oh, well, price of freedom and all that" is not the best we can do. 

All the words on this subject are used up. Like the Onion's "No Way to Prevent This", Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens (which was first run in 2014), we're simply caught in a continuous, ineffectual, damning loop. We should do better, but we won't, and that is a hard thing to accept. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Independent Women's Forum Performs Some Covid Theater

There's a lot to know about the Independent Women's Forum, but the quickest way to get where they're coming from is to note that they grew out of a group called "Women for Clarence Thomas." They are a right wing, Koch funded, advocacy for hire group that has opposed the Violence Against Women Act, defended Rush Limbaugh, and fought teaching about global warming in schools. The chair is a member of the Council for National Policy, a sneaky but well-connected hard right christianist nationalist group.

IWF has a whole division devoted to education-- the Education Freedom Center-- that is always happy to argue for privatizing education and removing government from the whole business. The center's head is Ginny Gentles, a Florida product who led the state's school choice programs, worked in George W. Bush's department of education, and runs IWF's "Students Over Systems." ("Fund students, not systems" is a genius way to say "Defund public schools.")

And today, she's testifying before the House Oversight and Accountability Select Subcommittee on Coronavirus Pandemic on the Consequences of School Closures, a House subcommittee that is totally devoted to getting a grasp of the real and complex issues behind the pandemic impact on schools and not at all one more attempt to air grievances and get some hits in against the teachers unions and public education. 

The subcommittee is headed by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), one of the GOP reps who sued to overturn Pennsylvania's election results in 2020. Other witnesses include writer David Zweig, Tracy Beth Hoeg, and, as "minority witness," Donna Mazyck, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. So we know where this is headed. 

Zweig's testimony and Hoeg's testimony both dance around the notion that closing schools might have been a bad call and Europe opened sooner and it's probably the fault of the AFT. 

Let’s be clear: school closures were not a good or necessary response to the coronavirus, and closure decisions were not grounded in data. School district superintendents, school board members, and state leaders knew early on that children were extremely low risk, but many feared the political consequences of prioritizing open schools. They also knew that school closures were an ineffective strategy for preventing the spread of the virus. Schools stayed closed primarily because the teachers’ unions in our country have enormous political power and parents do not. As parents pleaded for open schools, services for our children with disabilities, and a response to the learning loss crisis created by prolonged closures, we found out just how little leverage we possess.

There's an awful lot of bullshit here. Children may well be low risk, but children have families. My twins are low risk; their medically frail grandparents are not. School leaders did not know shit, and Secretary DeVos was explicitly opposed to providing any sort of guidance at the beginning of this mess. As for parents--polls tell us repeatedly that the vast majority of parents (aka parents who don't make as living as political operatives) are quite happy with how their local district handled things

As for the evil teachers union, let me summarize the national conversation that has been repeated incessantly:

Teachers: Remote teaching sucks, and we would love to go back just as soon as schools put some basic safety measures and protocols in place.

Districts: How about now?

Teachers: Have you put some basic safety measures and protocols in place?

Districts: Not really, no.

Teachers: Then we would rather not go back, even though working our asses off via remote is no fun at all.

Certain folks: See! See! The schools are closed because the evil teachers union is trying to keep them closed, because they want to get paid for doing nothing.

But Gentles has the usual thesis.

Irresponsible school district leaders endangered children academically, emotionally, and physically by closing and refusing to open schools, decisions that led to devastating learning loss, mental health issues, developmental delays, and persistent discipline challenges.

She is, as I type this, trotting out the thin-sliced baloney about months of learning lost, the mental health crisis that has been ongoing for over a decade, developmental delays as imagined by McKinsey, and the persistent discipline challenges that I don't think anyone will argue with.

And look-- I'm not here to reargue the pandemic response. My take is that people had to make big decisions with very little clear information or direction, that the situations varied wildly depending on local conditions, and all of the available choices were bad ones, and I believe the vast majority of folks were trying to make the best bad choice they could. And we will be living with a variety of consequences of the pandemic and the bad choices it required for a while. And anyone who says that the choices were obvious, certain and clear at any point and if we had just chosen the right way, everything would be hunky dory now, is just full of it.

But for people who are already anti-public school, the pandemic has turned into a golden opportunity to go after public education. Here's how Gentles is finishing up her testimony:

Parents and policymakers must hold school districts accountable for school closure decisions and COVID-era federal supplemental funding choices. School districts that were closed for extended periods should be investigated so that students with disabilities can receive compensatory services. District, state, and federal leaders that caved to political pressure from teachers unions should be questioned in order to avoid a similar scenario unfolding in the future. Superintendents that chose to direct millions in COVID-era federal funding to athletic fields rather than academic recovery should be required to report regularly on the academic progress of their students.

In addition, education bureaucrats, superintendents, and local and state leaders must acknowledge their mistakes and take drastic measures to address the learning loss and discipline crisis they caused. Districts should prioritize the students with the highest need and invest in intensive high-dosage tutoring and summer school programs with proven track records. Supplemental federal funds should be invested in phonics-based literacy instruction. States and districts should provide learning recovery microgrants to families, similar to COVID-era programs created in Oklahoma, Texas, and Idaho, and recently launched in Virginia, so parents can direct funding to the tutoring or enrichment options that best meet their child’s needs.

In other words, punish our favorite villains (unions, education establishment) and implement our favorite policies (phonics, vouchers) and through it all, keep hammering away at the awfulness of public ed, employing the Rufo doctrine--get to universal choice by sowing universal distrust of public schools.

This is the new COVID theater--grandstanding about the real problems of a real pandemic that resulted in real deaths and real disruption, but avoiding any useful discussion about any of it in favor of using it as a political tool. What does this help? Whom does this help? 

Sunday, March 26, 2023

ICYMI: National Spinach Day Edition (3/26)

Yes. that's a thing, and today is it. It's also the birthday of both Steven Typer and Jennifer Grey. Big month, March. It's this time of year that I get the little pangs that come from not still being involved in the heavy performance season in schools around here. Student performance productions are one of the things I truly miss about the job. 

It's been a slapdash kind of week for education news, but if you want to invest your mental energy, send the vibes to Texas where they're still holding the line on voucher-style privatization. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week. Also, a disclaimer that I rarely think to make--I may not agree with every word that I pass on in this list, but I believe everything on the list is worth reading.

Book ban lawmaker "very sad" that a parent is using his law to ban the “sex-ridden” Bible

An unsurprising and thoroughly predictable development in Utah.

Girls. Period.

From earlier in the week, Nancy Flanagan responds to the preoccupation in some quarters with the discussion of That Lady Stuff. She did not yet know it was going to get worse.

Idaho Republicans block ‘woke’ free tampons in schools proposal

Here it is, getting worse. 

How LA's teachers are making good on their promise to support community schools

Four years ago, LA teachers ran a successful strike and promised to support community schools. Here's Jeff Bryant looking at how well that all turned out. Really, really well.

Central Bucks reportedly plans to spend $1 million-plus in legal fees in response to allegations of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in schools

Central Bucks is one of the districts in PA that has decided to do God's work and stamp out Naughty Books. Looks like taxpayers in the district are going to pay for it big time.

How Vallas Helped Wall Street Loot Chicago’s Schools

There are so many reasons that Paul Vallas, poster boy for failing upwards, should not be the mayor of any city, town, village or fictional cartoon town, let alone Chicago. This piece lays out some of the damage he did to Chicago's school system his last time around.

Really, Governor?

Gwen Pauloski rolls her eyes so very hard at Greg Abbott in this blog post, questioning some of the rationale behind his voucher plan (who's been in charge of Texas schools for most of the last decade?)

DeSantis to expand 'Don't Say Gay' law to all grades

Yes, you probably heard this already, but if not, it can't be missed. "But it's only to protect the youngest children" is so last month. 

Wisconsin 1st graders were told they couldn't sing 'Rainbowland' by Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus because it was too controversial. The song is about accepting others.

The biggest enablers of these gag laws continue to be scaredy-pants administrators.

Recess Is Good For Kids. Why Don’t More States Require It?

Monica Potts at FiveThirtyEight with another one of those ongoing discussions that's ongoing not because we don't know the answers, but because for some reason we don't want to act on them.

Gay Sarasota school board member walks out of meeting after homophobic remarks

Just fake christians being awful again. And the board chair who took no action to stop this? That would be Bridget Ziegler, co-founder of Moms For Liberty.

Is there a test for the love of reading?

Dr. Jesse P. Turner with a couple of thoughts about the testing of reading.

I am a Charter School Abolitionist, and You Should Be, Too

Steven Singer makes the case for doing away with charter schools entirely.

Is This the Singularity for Standardized Tests?

Ian Bogost at The Atlantic points out that the ability to chatbots to pass beloved standardized tests tells us more about the tests than about the chatbots.

We’re nervous that tests might turn us into computers, but also that computers might reveal the conceit of valuing tests so much in the first place.

Group Taking Over School Boards Nationwide Furious Their Children Are Being Taught Basic Empathy

Jack Doyle at The MarySue is kind of pissed of at Moms For Liberty and the whole “Not every human is deserving of my child’s empathy" thing

The DeSantitizing Agenda of the "Joke Mob"

Speaking of pissed off-- Schools Matter takes a hard swing at the work of Ron DeSantis.

Steve Nuzum takes a look at the crew doing their best to shut down ideas they don't approve of in schools of South Carolina.

Why Abbott Elementary's Charter Schools Arc Hit Home for Teachers

And speaking of education issues penetrating media that doesn't ordinarily cover education issues, here's Laura Zornosa at Time Magazine, explaining the whole Abbott Elementary fuss. We can think choice fan Jeanne Allen for trying to pick a fight with the popular show; suddenly a charter story line that has been running all season gets national attention.

Pennsylvania’s teacher shortage has an ‘uglier’ problem: Lack of teacher diversity

Not a new issue--Pennsylvania has always had a problem with a very low percentage of teachers of color. But it's getting worse. Rebecca Watts at the Penn Capital-Star.

The Arizona Senate's book banning hysteria has gotten ... hysterical

Just gonna walk on by this headline. Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic has the story of one of the dumbest bills out there--this one tries to outlaw books that contain "gender pronouns." 

Ohio’s Proposed Income Tax Cut for the Rich Would Impose a $929 Million Property Tax Increase on Ohio’s Homeowners and Farmers

God bless Jan Resseger. Trying to sort out this bill gives me a headache, but she has managed to get a handle on one more way that the Ohio legislature is committed to defunding the public and refunding the wealthy.

Pearson agrees to sell online unit to Regent

Brief little news item, but it may turn out to be a whole thing--Pearson sells off a chunk of its online business

Next Week Won’t Be Much Better – Messing With The FEFP

What do you do after you've chased a huge chunk of your population out of public schools and into private and charter schools? Well, you go back and change who gets how much of the funding. Sue Kingery Woltanski explains what Florida is up to next.


Thanks to Gregory Sampson, we know that there's a word to use when a teacher is turned in for teaching Unapproved Ideas and has to be fired and reeducated. 

Can we talk about something not quite so heavy? Arthur Goldstein talks about the experience of proctoring the PSAT--and reading those obnoxious and privacy-violating directions.

Lasting Impressions

Here's a nice story. Rebecca Brinkman shares a story about little art galleries. Makes me wish I could go back and do something like this.

In 'The Teachers,' passion motivates, even as conditions grow worse for educators

Here's NPR's review of Alexandra Robbins new book, if you need one more review. Just go get a copy.

Nothing from other platforms this week. Please sign up for my substack, which will give you all my current stuff reliably and for free.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Of Course Schools Teach About Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Florida's Don't Say Gay law is about to expand, so now's a good time to remember that it is a stupid law.

Florida's GOP wanted to avoid saying what they actually meant, so they said something stupid instead. 

What they meant was "Don't talk about LGBTQ persons, ever, in school." But they phrased it in a way that allowed defenders to argue repeatedly, "Hey, can you even show me the word 'gay' anywhere in that bill?"

And it wasn't anywhere there. The bill's language bars "discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity." Which makes it a stupid law, because sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed around children all the time, in school and out.

With a pair of five year old twins, we are awash in children's books here, and those books are loaded with depictions of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Little Critter's mom stays at home, cooks and cleans, always wearing a dress. Dad comes home from work wearing a suit. Daniel Tiger's mom is married to his father, and she becomes pregnant with Daniel's baby sister. Or let's talk classic Disney flicks, in which princesses (wearing dresses) are rescued by men. Or movies like Bambi or Jungle Book in which we learn that the mere sight of a friendly female overwhelms the male brain. 

And there are certainly books that present non-traditional roles, like the nurturing father of the Jabari books or the varied families of Daniel Tiger's neighborhood. But all of those are displaying different non-traditional lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Heck, before children gave even set foot in school, they've learned to tell men's and women's restrooms apart based on the icons that show women wear dresses and men wear pants. The pants-dress distinction is probably the ultimate in Shit We Humans Make Up And Then Pretend Was Dictated To Us By God. Pants, just for the record, were probably invented by the Chinese and adopted in Europe much later (the Romans supposedly considered them barbaric, so all those classical charter schools are really missing the boat). 

We could go on and on, but as many have observed, we are teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity all the time (up to including all those times that somebody tries to cutely suggest that two five year olds are boyfriend and girlfriend). There are a handful of materials out there that avoid gender altogether, but I suspect that kind of unspecific androgeny would not please certain folks, either.

To expand this stupid law up through 12th grade is so many kinds of unenforceable stupid. How does one even begin to teach literature while making sure that nothing encourages a discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity? All of Shakespeare has to go out the window. Most of American literature-- I am struggling to think of a major work that does not deal with sexual orientation and gender identity. We could still do "Stopping by a Wood" and "The Road Not Taken" and some other Frost. 

But of course none of that is what the proponents of these laws want. They want schools to never talk about LGBTQ persons ever, only if they just say that directly, both their bigotry in their hearts and the illegal discrimination in their law would stand naked for everyone to see. Their shameful intent to oppress and erase would be on display.

So we're going to get more half-baked defenses of an indefensible law. "The word 'gay' isn't actually in there" as if we don't all understand that the words of the law aren't meant to mean what they say, because that would be hopelessly senseless. "So I guess you want to show hardcore porn to five year olds" as if there are no gradations and nuances that reasonable people can discuss. And some folks will keep throwing "groomer" around, because they don't want to talk about any of this, and nothing shuts up your opponents like slandering them with accusations of heinous crimes. 

Well, that and the constant threat of lawsuits, because don't forget--the law gives any parent who thinks the law has been violated the right to sue the school district. 

Maybe I'm underestimating just how repressive the state intends to be. Given the firing of a charter school principal who allowed sixth graders to be caught unawares by a marble penis (said the board chair, "The rights of parents, that trumps the rights of kids"), maybe the dream really is to get children all the way to age 18 unaware that there is any such thing as gender or sex. If so, that's not a plan destined for success. 

Florida may be the sunshine state, but when it comes to education, it is the coldest spot in the nation. 

Should Student Teachers Be Paid

Among the fifteen or so student teachers that I hosted over the years, a handful made the observation that somebody should be paying them. 

I didn't say anything. I did not agree then. But I may have changed my mind.

Hosting a student teacher, done properly, is a ton of work. You have responsibility for all the usual lesson planning, only second hand, checking and going over all of it. And the more trouble your student teacher is having catching on, the more time you spend ("Okay, you say you want to discuss 'The Road Not Taken.' What exactly do you want to discuss about it? What are some of the questions you're going to use to draw the students out? Where do you hope the discussion will lead?") You watch the lessons being delivered and essentially develop a lesson plan on the fly for how you'll help the student teacher process what happened. And you've got to balance making sure that neither the student teacher nor the students in your class are being shortchanged. Plus the career and personal counseling (How many times did I tell someone at the end of their day, "It's okay. If you don't cry at least once during student teaching, you don't understand the situation.")

To get all meta and mindful about classroom practice is exhilarating, but also exhausting. It is no wonder that some cooperating teachers simply hand a lesson plan over and say, "Just do this," or just hand the class over and go sit in the lounge. In all my years, I had exactly one student teacher who was a natural who needed very little assistance from me. In many cases it was not until the last several weeks that the ceased to be extra work, and in a few cases-- lordy!

So the notion that, as a student teacher, you are providing a valuable labor-saving service for the district is just not so. And that's okay. I took on many student teachers despite the extra work it made because I believed it was a way to keep my own professional muscles exercised and because if I wanted to see a new crop of good teachers enter the field, then I had to play my part in helping that happen. 

But pay them? That seemed backwards to me. And I suspect it seems that way to many of the "Nobody paid me to student teach" crowd.


College has gotten increasingly expensive. Really expensive. Anyone who says, "Well, I just worked my way through school" is just showing their ignorance. In my region, student teachers usually teach close enough to campus that they can keep staying in a dorm room--but that's not cheap. And the costs of commuting are not cheap either. And a teacher's salary is not going to work off that debt very quickly.

Over the past couple of decades, an increasing number of professions have become prohibitively expensive to enter. It's not just the education, but that the entryway now lies through an unpaid internship, and that creates a variety of barriers to entering the field. And I defy you to name any field-- journalism, advertising, medicine-- where the ability to live for a year or two without any income is an actual qualification for the job. 

Loan forgiveness and grants can lower financial barriers to entering the teaching profession, but a stipend for student teaching also makes sense. Use state or federal money. Districts that can afford it would be smart to offer stipends to student teachers as a step toward recruiting folks to fill the district's empty teaching spots. 

Student teaching is a crazy chapter in a baby teacher's life-- you're still in college, but not really, and can you even do this, and why aren't there enough hours in the day, and there definitely enough hours for you to maintain solid contact with your human support system, and graduation is almost here and what are you going to do with your life, anyway, and did you even remember to eat today? A stipend could reduce worries by a hair and serve as a gesture of support for your professional choice.

Most importantly, it could reduce, by even a little bit, financial barriers to entering the profession. It may just seem like nickels and dimes, but if you're going to be a teacher, getting used to nickels and dimes will be valuable.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Testing and the Love of Reading

There's a great piece in the Atlantic from author Katherine Marsh that looks to answer "why kids aren't falling in love with reading." 

It's not just the screens. And she notes that surveys pre-pandemic already showed reading for fun had already dropped off a cliff for 9 and 13 year olds. 

If you have taught in the last twenty years, or regularly reads here, you already know what's happening. As Marsh explains the loss of interest in story:

This disregard for story starts as early as elementary school. Take this requirement from the third-grade English-language-arts Common Core standard, used widely across the U.S.: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.” There is a fun, easy way to introduce this concept: reading Peggy Parish’s classic, Amelia Bedelia, in which the eponymous maid follows commands such as “Draw the drapes when the sun comes in” by drawing a picture of the curtains. But here’s how one educator experienced in writing Common Core–aligned curricula proposes this be taught: First, teachers introduce the concepts of nonliteral and figurative language. Then, kids read a single paragraph from Amelia Bedelia and answer written questions.

Yup. The rise of NCLB and Race to the Top and Common Core have cemented the practice of teaching students to read and respond to tiny little fragments of works rather than the whole thing.

You can argue (as some have, responding to this article on the tweeter machine) that no standards ever said, "Go out and never read an entire work of literature again." And that's fair-- Common Core didn't require this exactly. But it surely enabled it, in two crucial ways. 

For one, it added fuel to the high stakes Big Standardized Test craze. NCLB ramped up BS Tests across the nation, but those were sorted out state by state. The Core created the illusion that we could have BS Tests aligned to national-ish standards and so it was okay to attach higher and higher stakes to test results. But that meant lots and lots of test prep materials, conveniently published under the "Common Core aligned" claim. And since the BS Tests tested with short clips from reading, the most effective test prep would have to mirror that approach. Teachers were pitched coaching book after coaching book with selections just a few paragraphs long tied to multiple choice questions. 

The Core also ramped up the idea of reading "skills," the idea that reading skills could somehow exist in a vacuum, somehow separated from actual content. And if you don't need any content knowledge to pack in with the reading, well, content knowledge can also mean the rest of the piece itself. David Coleman wanted us to stay within the four corners of the text, and the absurd extension of that idea is that we can stay within the four corners of the fifth and sixth paragraph of the entire work. 

"Skills" divorced from content gets us reading comprehension equivalent of DIBELS, the crazy pants "reading" assessment that tries to "test" the skill of decoding by having students decode words that aren't words--reading without actually reading. The literature version of that is reading comprehension without any larger work to comprehend. Answer these questions about one page out of Hamlet, as if one need not read the whole work to develop real comprehension. As if reading comprehension is a skill that can be tested in a vacuum. 

The end effect is to reduce "reading" to a performative task, with no real purpose except to gear students for the Big Standardized Test.

As Marsh points out, the enjoyment of reading, the pleasure of being on the receiving end of a story, a communication, a human mind and heart being transmitted through the printed page--none of that needs to be sacrificed in the service of developing reading skills. 

This is why high stakes testing remains my Education Enemy #1. It turns everything upside down by insisting that the purpose of education is to get students ready to score well on the Big Standardized Test, instead of getting them ready to live their lives, to become their best selves, to grasp what it means to be fully human in the world. Twenty years of high stakes testing has caused too much of education to lose the plot. The number of students who can't imagine any purpose for reading except to answer test questions is just one sad symptom.

Children Are People

During his town hall on education, far-right-light Governor Glenn Youngkin was pressed on various issues of trans children, and in response, he echoed a sentiment that keeps appearing in these parental rights debates (though not always quite so clearly):

Children belong to parents. Not to the state, not to schools, not to bureaucrats, but to parents.

Well, no, Children are human beings, not chattel.

But the humanity of children often seems at question in much of the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation from culture warriors these days. New Hampshire is yet another state considering legislation that could require school staff to out LGBTQ students to their parents. Meanwhile, the well-funded advocacy group, Parents [sic] Defending [sic] Education [sic] has released a list of 6,000 schools that, they charge, have policies to "hide" trans student status from parents. And the hot new wave in anti-LGBTQ student bills are Birth Name bills, requiring schools and school staff to address students by the names and pronouns on their birth certificates without written parental permission. 

What all of this has in common is a disregard for the agency and independence and humanity of the students themselves. 

The scenario often darkly hinted at is one in which school staff somehow convince a student that they are LGBTQ, and tell them they had better not tell anyone at home about it. 

But the far more likely scenario is one in which a student comes to a trusted school staff member to talk about their identity while begging the staff member not to tell parents. This conversation may occur during the highly charged time when the student is struggling with a new understanding of themself, or it may occur in a more standard school drama context (the girl who asks for advice dealing with her girlfriend but "I can't talk to my folks about this because they would freak").

Anybody who pretends that these moments are easy to navigate and can be handled by a cut and dried set of rules is kidding themselves. Students, especially teens, play with their sense of identity an awful lot, and sometimes it's temporary and sometimes it's not. Students are sometimes terrible judges of what they can expect from parents and sometimes they are excellent judges. Parents are sometimes great at supporting their children's growth into independent adults, and sometimes they are not, at all. 

As with many hot button issues, folks are dealing from different premises. If you believe that LGBTQ identities are unnatural, that LGBTQ identities are made, not born, then you will react to news of your own child's LGBTQ identity by wanting to know who made them that way, and schools are the most obvious place to look. If you believe that LGBTQ persons are born, not made, then your main concern will be how to protect and gird them for a world that is often hostile--and that hostility can start at home. We know that LGBTQ children go through a lot. It seems simple enough to want them to go through less, but different premises yield different solutions to the problem ("stop being LGBTQ" versus "put protections for the child in place").

The ideal situation is parents who are loving and supportive of the child, though that situation can be less ideal in states where the parents of LGBTQ persons are stripped of their legal rights to make certain decisions for their children (because parental rights apparently involves only certain parents in some states). A school can't hide any of this information when the child is loving, accepted, and open with their parents. 

Put another way, there is no situation in which the school hides information about LGBTQ students from the parents; there are only situations in which the school and the child keep the information from parents. 

The school's decision has to be based on two factors. One is the question of possible abuse of the child. Some commenters say, "Well, the law doesn't have to worry about that because the laws already require school staff to report abuse." But that's abuse that has already happened. "We're going to tell your folks, and if they beat you and throw you out, then we'll just report it," is not a great plan. But figuring out what possible abuse may or may not happen is not an exact science.

The other factor is that schools must balance the rights of the parents with the rights of the students. The disturbing part of so many of these laws, so much of this rhetoric, is that the rights of students are absent from the debate. This has become an ugly part of the new idea that schools serve families and not all of the community--the notion that teachers are simply hirelings whose primary purpose if to extend parental reach in exerting their will over their children. 

None of this is simple to sort out, and there is no doubt that sometimes schools get it wrong, that staff, well-meaning or not, make some bad judgement calls. 

But any solution that treats children as property rather than people is not going to help. Any solution that enshrines parental rights but ignores students' rights and safety is not a real solution. Students are trying to figure out who they are, and they are trying to figure out how their identity is going to affect their relationships with the people around them. The people around them can help by being mindful, thoughtful, and extending grace to the students and to each other. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Can Conservatives Reconcile With Teachers

Robert Pondiscio has an interesting piece out in National Affairs. Pondiscio and I sit on the opposite sides of many education issues, but I find him to be one of the more nuanced, thoughtful writers working his side of the street. 

This piece goes past some material on which we disagree, including his brief history of ed reform so far and much of what he has to say about teachers unions, but there are also pieces of this that are worth noting, and are, in fact, the kind of things I would expect to hear from actual conservatives (as opposed to the far right neo-faux-conservative-or-something culture warriors dominating so much of the choice conversation these days). If you don't read conservative writers about education (and you should--nobody's understanding of an issue is enhanced by only reading one side), you might have missed some of this. But I think it's well worth a read.

The meat of this piece is Pondiscio's argument that conservatives should not write of public education nor the teachers who work there. It would be a mistake, he argues, for conservatives to favor "school choice as the exclusive, or even primary, lever of reform." 

For starters, asking America's parents to abandon their support for local public schools in favor of entirely new educational paradigms is a heavy lift. Changing schools or opting to home school can be profoundly disruptive to family life and routines, as well as children's social lives. Transportation challenges are often insurmountable. If the majority of American families seem stubbornly attached to local public schools, it can't be explained away by a lack of parental engagement or credible alternatives; it's often the result of more practical considerations.

He also points out that, for several reasons, school choice is no bulwark against the forces of "progressive indoctrination" (God bless him, Pondiscio gets through this whole piece without using the word "woke")-- those "elite private schools" are actually more likely to be full of progressive policies.

But then there's this:

More fundamentally, though, arguments for choice as the main solution to failing public schools sidestep the shared interest Americans have in public education. Parents of school-age children undoubtedly have the most personal stake in the quality of schools available to them, but the claim that families should have control over "their" money elides the fact that the cost of education in the United States is socialized: We pay school taxes regardless of whether we send our children to public schools, or even whether we have children at all. Choice strategies like vouchers, education savings accounts, and other such mechanisms, therefore, put parents in control of our money.

It makes sense to put decision-making in the hands of those closest to schools and with the most at stake — namely their own children. But the shared cost implies a mutual interest, as well as a literal investment in every child. School choice can solve a school-based problem for a family, but it can't address the interest every American holds in the education of the next generation.

This makes so much more sense than the traditional "We don't need oversight because parents will vote with their feet and the free market will fix everything." Conservatives ought to be first in line to demand that somebody tell them how their tax dollars are being spent, and the attempt by some choicers to place choice above conservative values gets us the strange display of advocates saying, "We want new rules requiring more transparency from public schools, and we also want more money directed through vouchers into a system with no transparency or oversight at all."

The inescapable truth about education in America is that there is no foreseeable scenario under which traditional public schools will not educate the majority of the nation's future entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, soldiers, and citizens for generations to come. Conservatives are not wrong to take exception when activists seek to impose a progressive agenda on what is at heart a bedrock government service, but their response of promoting school choice as a conflict-avoidance strategy functionally cedes public education — and the vast majority of America's schoolchildren — to the left. If conservatives earnestly believe that public education is a hotbed of progressive indoctrination on social and political issues, it would be an act of self-immolation to surrender future generations to its influence.

Yes, this too. This is exactly what I would expect from an actual conservative (e.g. the many GOP members of my family). Another part of the modern choicer argument that doesn't make sense is "The building is on fire. There are hundreds of children trapped inside. Let's save five of them."

And then Pondiscio shifts to another interesting part of his argument--that conservatives could find allies for the rescuing of public schools among teachers themselves. Pondiscio points out that despite the continued characterization of the teacher task force as dominated by crazy lefties, the data suggests a distribution that makes the teacher pool "only slightly less conservative, and somewhat more moderate, than Americans at large."

Absolutely. I taught in GOP country, and I worked with plenty of conservatives. A hefty chunk of NEA and AFT members voted for Trump. When right-tilting teacher Daniel Buck told Rick Hess about how he and other conservative teachers "speak in whispers behind closed doors," I rolled my eyes so hard I reparted my hair. 

Teachers are, by the nature of the job, pragmatic. The staunchest principles, conservative or progressive, must yield to "what exactly am I going to do with this seven minute space in my day." Teachers are also, by the nature of the job, moderate in the sense that they have to moderate the pushes coming from a hundred different directions, from dozens of parents, to students themselves, to board members, to administrators, to whatever version of state and federal mandates filter down to the classroom, to whatever Great New Thing someone is trying to foist on them. 

As Pondiscio suggests, there is no real reason (and never has been) for teachers and conservatives to be enemies. Well, no reason but one--and that's conservatives insistence on picking a fight. We could go back further for fights over particular issues, but 1983's A Nation at Risk is arguably the point at which conservatives broadened their attack to simply, "Teachers are bad at their job." Conservatives have hammered away at that failure message and worse, rather than following it with "What could we do to help" have instead moved on to things like "Let's create a system to hunt down the bad ones and fire them" and "Let's just burn the whole system to the ground and replace it with something else." With No Child Left Behind, Democratic politicians (in their special hapless way) joined in the chorus. 

Plenty of rank and file members disagree with state and national choices of their union. But who else is standing up for them in the political arena.

Pondiscio offers some concrete examples of areas where conservatives and teachers could find common ground.

One is classroom safety and student behavior. Nothing makes it harder to do your job than out-of-control students in the classroom, and the pandemic has only made matters worse. Restorative justice poorly implemented, and micro-managing parents given free reign by the front office are part of a larger problem that is, by most survey accounts, a huge driver of teacher dissatisfaction with the job. It's always a balancing act, because racism-infused systems of discipline or a school culture that relies on students being forced to compliantly knuckle under is its own kind of problem. But teachers pretty universally want a safe and orderly classroom.

Pondiscio also suggests that "common-sense measured curricular policies" might be a point of agreement, and he points to issues like the schools that have dealt with inequitable use of advanced programs and tracks by doing away with them entirely. An unscientific survey of teachers I know shows a large support for fixing the problem by applying the programs equitably rather than simply blowing it up. Because gearing a class to forty-seven different ability levels is labor-intensive and taxing to implement.

Pondiscio also thinks that there could be consensus on teacher pay. I doubt it. I have yet to see a measure of teacher effectiveness that teachers can--or should--trust. Like many conservatives, Pondiscio points to DC's IMPACT system. Well. Creating a teacher evaluation system is hard-- really hard. Jason Kamras thought he really cracked the code with IMPACT in the DC schools, but given time and reflection, it seems to have established a culture in which rampant cheating and misbehavior were encouraged. Kamras was hired as a superintendent for Richmond Public Schools and he did not take IMPACT with him. IMPACT is a dud.

So I'm not sure that there's a chance for consensus on teacher pay, but I do have a suggestion-- those who want to see teacher effectiveness tied to pay should stop pretending that teacher opposition to bad evaluation systems is the same as opposition to any evaluation at all. They might also consider letting go of the whole pay-for-excellence approach to teacher evaluation and instead embrace the evaluation-as-a-path-for-improving-teacher-effectiveness approach instead, which would be far more fruitfull as a path to improving schools.

On the issues of trying to suppress the mentioning, discussion and reading about certain topics by various draconian law, Pondiscio hints, gently, that conservatives could start acting like conservatives and just not. Pondiscio points to a teacher code of conduct (the NEA has a nice one that some states adopted somewhere along the line) to prioritize teaching over preaching.

Finally, Pondiscio moves to the issue of trust. He suggests that teacher trust in parents declined, and he returns to a favorite point of his, which is that teachers are employed not as free agents, but as voices of the institution. On this we agree; the taxpayers pay us to do a job, and while "do a job" includes "exercise our professional judgment," it does not include "operate our personal crusade." Not that that's an easy or static line to draw, but I believe it exists.

Pondiscio also has advice for conservatives.

At the same time, conservatives would do well to cease fomenting parental discontent with public schools to advance prospects for school choice.

That is a pretty direct response to the work of Jay Greene ("Time for the school choice movement to embrace the culture wars") and Chris Rufo ("To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a place of universal school distrust") both of whom have clearly articulated exactly that tactic. Pondiscio points out that this may in fact drive more parents to progressive education solutions, and suggests that it's not helpful to burn down the institution where the majority of America's students get their education.

In the end, Pondiscio calls for what strikes me as a more traditional conservative approach to schools, and the conclusion to this piece is solid:

The opportunity exists, and would likely be acceptable to a critical mass of both public-school personnel and conservatives, to renew trust in public education by restoring it to its proper role as a collection of local institutions operating in the public interest to prepare American children for the challenges of citizenship and adult life. This is certainly a more modest role than the activist mentality embraced by some, but by no means all, of the nation's 3 million public-school teachers. And yet it serves the interests of both teachers and conservatives — not to mention Americans more broadly.

Making common cause on public education requires both sides to acknowledge what is plainly observable: that schools are conservative (in the best sense) institutions that serve progressive (in the best sense) ends. Our fiercest arguments occur when either is encroached upon: when schools stray too far into progressive activism, or when education fails to deliver on its promise of being an engine of fairness and social mobility. Reestablishing the proper balance between the two sides offers the critical first step toward restoring legitimacy and trust in this essential American institution.

It would be great to see this stance adopted by more folks in the conservative camp, but I'm not sure how many are really interested in Pondiscio's vision. The Goldwater-libertarian wing of ed reform retains its commitment to a vision of a country in which government doesn't have anything to do with public education at all, and the christianist nationalist wing isn't really interested in either choice or reform--just bending education to their particular brand of values. And folks way on the right are still posting things like this Kevin Portteus piece at American Greatness about the need to follow DeSantis in ripping "our schools" back from the crazy Marxists; he shares Pondiscio's understanding that most students will be educated in public schools--and that's why they must be taught the correct things and not the leftist indoctrination that all teachers are bent on delivering. 

Still, Pondiscio has been ahead of the curve before (he called the dissolution of the free market-social justice alliance in school reform), so maybe this piece will turn out to be prescient and not just an outlier in the conservative thinky tank-o-sphere. We'll see. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

KY: Putting Religion In The Classroom

It's touted as a bill to protect the religious freedom of public school employees, but that's not exactly what Kentucky's HB 547 does. 

What it does is give teachers the right to proselytize in school, particularly in their classrooms. 

Asked why the state needs any such legislation, sponsor and former pastor Rep. Chris Fugate had an explanation:

Fugate said HB 547 is needed due to out-of-state groups protesting prayer before football games.

“I hope that this bill shows that the teachers in Kentucky are supported by not only the Kentucky General Assembly but by the Supreme Court of the United States,” Fugate said.

This guy.
In other words, Fugate has read about the Kennedy v. Bremerton case, in which the Supreme Court was so eager to sign off on allowing school prayer that they traveled all the way to an alternate reality to do it. So he'd like to rewrite the laws so that it allows faculty and staff to proselytize in this reality.

The bill is only two pages long; the beef says that while a school district employee is "on duty" they may "at a minimum" talk about religion with other employees, lead student religious groups, wear religious garb, decorate their desk and other personal spaces with religious stuff. Note: that's "at a minimum."

Linda Allewalt, a former teacher calls the bill "a blatant attempt to legalize evangelizing in school," which sounds about right. And she imagines how this would work:

When I read about this legislation and considered the fact that atheism is also protected speech under the First Amendment, I imagined what it would be like if I was once again running a classroom under the provisions of Rep. Fugate’s legislation. I could imagine wearing my Freedom From Religion shirt that says, “Unabashed Atheist: Not Afraid of Burning in Hell.” I could wear my nice Big A atheist necklace. I could put a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great” on my desk next to my pencil holder. I could put up a little sign with one of my favorite quotes on it by Chapman Cohen, “ Gods are fragile things. They may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense.” I could go on with this idea, but I think you get my drift.

Meanwhile, of course, Kentucky has tried to pass some laws limiting LGTBQ rights, particularly in schools. 

The law has some odd guardrails, like the right to wear religious clothing--as long as it conforms to the school dress code. So publicly displaying your love for Jesus is okay, but not if you insist on doing it with spaghetti straps instead of full sleeves.

And the bill comes with a ready made escape clause for any administrator who foresees endless headaches, like having to set up a school committee to determine what constitutes a "legitimate" religion or not. The law grants all of these freedoms to the extent that they are exercised in no-religious ways. In other words, faculty can discuss religion "at the same time and in the same manner that employees are permitted to engage in nonreligious expression and discussions outside the scope of duties." They can decorate their desk with religious items "to the same extent that other employees are permitted to decorate their desk and other personal spaces with personal items." Teachers can sponsor religious student groups to the same extent that they can sponsor other sorts of clubs. Etc.

So I predict that highly conflict-averse administrators would simply shut down everything. "I don't want to get in flaps over personal religious items on your desk, so as of now, you are not allowed any personal decorations or items in your classroom." The Stanic Temple wants to sponsor an after school group? Fine--the new rule is that there will be zero after school groups.

And as always, I predict that support among christianist conservatives for this sort of measure will suddenly dry up when an Islamic football coach wants to lead a prayer after the game.

Allewalt has an answer to all of this. Referring to her imaginary atheist bedecked classroom:

I wouldn’t do any of this, even if the law said I could. Why? Because it’s wrong, both morally and ethically and violates everything I ever learned about the role of the teacher in a classroom of children. It is also wrong to harangue the people you work with everyday with proselytizing pamphlets and out loud vocal prayers. When a teacher is more invested in pushing their religious rights than they are creating an equal community, void of divisiveness, with the staff in the building and all the children in their classrooms, they don’t belong in the profession. They are taking advantage of the captive audience of children for their own purposes. It’s beyond reprehensible.

You carry the person you are into the classroom with you. I don't think it's necessarily a great idea to try to pretend that you do not believe anything about anything for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's nearly impossible. But I absolutely believe that you have an obligation to run a classroom in which what you believe is not connected to how you treat your students. Students must absolutely believe that they do not have to pretend to agree with you in order to get a good grade and respectful treatment--that goes for beliefs about the value of algebra, the interpretations of Hamlet, and proper way to honor the Lord of All Creation. 

In this day and age, it's not a bad thing to model for students how to be a grown human who believes things, but does not allow their personal beliefs to affect their professional behavior. I'm pretty sure the country would be a better place right now if everyone mastered How To Believe Things Without Being A Jerk About It. But teachers need to do better than that; every classroom should be safe for all students. 

This is a bad idea for a law; not only does religion not belong in the classroom, but supporters will live to rue the day they passed such a thing (hello, school district religion approval committee). If Kentucky is fortunate and wise, this bill will die a well-deserved death.