Friday, December 8, 2023

PA: Penncrest School District Has Such Legal Issues

While the blue wave may have swept plenty of conservative majorities out of school boards across the country, it didn't touch the Penncrest School District here in Northwest PA, and the new-old board kicked off the new year by finessing themselves out of a solicitor. Whoopsies.

Penncrest's board has been slapping reading restrictions on its schools, and CRT, and anti-trans in sports, and generally trying to follow in the footsteps of Central Bucks and they haven't been particularly subtle about it.

Penncrest has been trying to wield a tiny tattered fig leaf over its motivations for a new set of rules aimed at getting LGBTQ+ books out of its libraries, even as some board members have been quite clear about what they mean by "sexualized content," and while we're at it, all that racism stuff, too.

Board member David Valesky on LGBTQ books in the library:Besides the point of being totally evil, this is not what we need to be teaching kids. They aren't at school to be brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is okay. Its [sic] actually being promoted to the point where it's even 'cool'.

Board member David Valesky on books about race in American history:
"I don't have an issue if we're giving books that's targeting education of the Civil War and slavery and there is racism even today, but this is obviously like shoving it down every corner," he said.
Valesky said there were four books on the list that "openly promote the hate group Black Lives Matter."
"That's a group that is for destroying," he said. "They aren't protecting Black lives.
Board member David Valesky on the possibility of legal challenges to the board's new rules:
If we go to court over it, so be it, because at the end of the day we’re standing up for what’s right and for what God has said is right and true.
The board set up a citizen's committee to review naughty books. And in discussing that, board members ended up talking about what was revealed in some emails unearthed by a Right To Know request. 
I believe the terms in the policy we presented are clear. I honestly don’t care what the law says, as long as what I said is right before God. They can change the word at any time in state and federal laws. I’m just concerned that if this policy is pulled, then we have a minimum of 3 months until we can vote on it again. The remainder of my time on the board is uncertain at this point.
Yes, that's member David Valesky again (emphasis mine). Member Jeff Brooks brought it up with the suggestion that maybe the committee should include people who actually care about the law. Valesky said that it was taken out of context, but it's hard to imagine a context in which "I don't care what the law says" doesn't mean "I don't care what the law says." And given the context of Valesky's previous comments, it's hard not to think that he means that he doesn't care what the law says.

Valesky is not some loose cannon; he's just the one that keeps ending up in the paper. And he was re-elected last month. There are plenty of folks, on and off the board, who agree with him. The district was the subject of a Judy Woodruff section on PBS Newshour, and they were generally cranky about the attention they were getting. USA Today's legal department is filing Right To Know law requests (because, see, you can do that with a public school), and that turned up emails from board president Luigi DeFrancesco to the Independence Law Center, the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a right wing religious advocacy group. The board president reached out to me to accuse me of being part of some vast media conspiracy, as if the only reason anyone would object to their policies was because some skullduggery was afoot.

Some of the fuss has come because these board members never took any class from me; if they had, they would have heard me explain repeatedly that what you post on line is not private. At one point Valesky and another board member got into a Facebook debate about a display of books in a high school library. David Valesky posted:
Besides the point of being totally evil, this is not what we need to be teaching kids. They aren't at school to be brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is okay. Its [sic] actually being promoted to the point where it's even 'cool'.

That has led to a case that's been wandering through the legal system for two years. A Penncrest school district resident filed a Right To Know request for all Facebook posts and comments by two board members regarding "homosexuality and Penncrest School District," which the district's open records officer denied. The county court said, "Nope, just because you were using home computers to post things on private accounts doesn't mean that it's not a "record" under RTK law. Then the Commonwealth Court reversed that. Now it will go before the PA Supreme Court, which means this little dustup may have serious consequences for any school district board member employee who talks about official business anywhere on line (however, if you are doing so because you think any portion of the internet is "private," you need to get into the 21st century).

Defending the district in that case may be a challenge, because currently the district doesn't have a solicitor. For the second time this year.

The first came back in January, when the previous solicitor became, politely and diplomatically, fed up.

Attorney George Joseph, of the Quinn Law Firm, told the board that their new policy, plus their anti-trans in sports policy, could open them up to some legal trouble. At a meeting, two board members called the solicitor's opinion "a joke," "worthless," and "not even legal."

In his termination letter, Joseph wrote
Recent actions by the board have highlighted a fundamental disagreement by a majority of the Board with the legal analysis and opinions of our office and, in our analysis, significantly compromised our ability to provide legal ongoing services to the District and to the existing School Board.
He goes on to explain the specific advice that he gave which was ignored and to explain that this is not personal. It's his job to give advice; he knows they don't have to take it, as has been the case in "several such instances."
Nevertheless, I must take exception to the manner in which some individual Board members expressed their disagreement with the most recent legal opinion I rendered.
That expression was "unconscionable" to him. So the board needed a new solicitor.

This week, at the reorganization meeting, as tweeted by Meadville Tribune reporter Mike Crowley, they tabled the reappointment of their law firm, apparently not realizing that it left them without a solicitor, and couldn't just be undone. Said the lawyer at the meeting, before he left,

So what the board has effectively done, whether you knew what you were doing or not, is you're not going to have a solicitor at all until the next meeting.
I'm going to have to go back to my partners and see if we're going to submit an RFP, so you might be without a solicitor for some time -- but just so that's clear for the public's knowledge, you do not have a district solicitor,

There's really no point in me staying for the rest of the meeting. So what I'll do is say thank you to everybody and I also, like Mr. Joseph, will walk out and I'll see if I can catch the end of the Steelers game.

He also pointed out that his firm was the only firm that put in for the job last time it was open, so depending on how the partners feel about hitching their wagon to this out-of-control clown car, Penncrest could be lawyerless for a while. Which, given their propensity for repressive and actionable policies, could mean trouble for the district and its taxpayers. 

FL: Higher Education Nightmare

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has issued a report from a special committee--Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System--and it is both thorough and alarming.

The report comes in several sections, opening with an introduction that marks the rise of Ron DeSantis and his anti-woke agenda, which in turn led to the creation of this special committee back at the beginning of 2023. It issued a preliminary report back in May, with four main findings: 
(1) the “hostile takeover” of New College is both a “test case” and a “blueprint for future encroachments on public colleges and universities across the country”; (2) academic administrators in Florida “not only have failed to contest” attacks on the system “but have too frequently been complicit in and, in some cases, explicitly supported them”; (3) legislation enacted by Governor DeSantis and the legislature, “taken collectively, constitutes a systematic effort to dictate and enforce conformity with a narrow and reactionary political and ideological agenda” and represents “a uniquely bold and dangerous program designed to reshape public higher education according to ideological and partisan political standards”; and (4) “the chilling effect on academic freedom of the governor’s and legislature’s efforts has already been felt by faculty and students.”

This final report says, "Yes, all that and more."

It's a long report, and I'm not going to dive deeply into all of it. But some lowlights are worth noting because, as always, Florida is in the front of the pack when it comes to repressive education policies.

The New College Saga

If you only sort of paid attention to this story as it unrolled, the report has it all collected into one coherent narrative. It matters because, as one resigning professor put it, "This is a test case for a conservative overhaul of higher education—and it isn’t going to stay isolated to New College or Florida."

DeSantis appointed new board members including Matthew Spalding (Hillsdale College), Charles Kesler (Claremont McKenna College), and Christopher Rufo (that guy). Chaos ensued. President was axed, tenure denied, DeSantis buddy Richard Corcoran installed as president. Faculty were fired, seemingly for being critical of the new board. More Faculty left, and Rufo et al chortled over the routing of "the old system of unfettered left-wing activism." Also, "New College will no longer be a jobs program for middling left-wing intellectuals."

One weird development-- New College began heavily recruiting athletes, even though it had never previously had intercollegiate athletics programs. Corcoran pushed a "classical" liberal arts focus, but also majors in finance, communications, and sports psychology. Course offerings became a messy hodgepodge fraught with gaps. 

And if the college isn't a jobs program for middling left-wing intellectuals, it does seem to be a jobs program for DeSantis loyalists. Deam Rancourt, new dean of student affairs, has been a GOP operative, a lobbyist, state director of elections, and deputy secretary of state, but he has experience in higher ed. Sydney Gruters is director of the New College of Florida Foundation; she's a former GOP aid and wife of state senator Joe Gruters (Florida loves its power couples). The newly minted athletics program has hired coaches only from Christian schools. And hostility to LGBTQ persons seems to be college policy as well.

This section of the report concludes

It may seem cynical, but the faculty leader who told the committee that the real goals of the New College takeover were but three—to reward Corcoran, provide a platform for Rufo, and fuel the culture war against the “woke”—may not have been all that far from the truth.

Academic Governance in Florida Higher Education

The state university system is overseen by a seventeen member board of governors; the governor gets to pick fourteen of them; this board in turn operates over individual boards for the universities. The report finds cronyism and pay to play a big piece of this picture. 

It is not simply that the entire board of governors (excluding the faculty and student representatives) and the great majority of trustees are now Republicans. What is most striking is that so many appointees are former political officeholders and professional political operatives. The board’s increasing tendency has been to follow the lead of the governor and his allies in the legislative supermajority. As one veteran faculty member at the University of Florida told the committee, previous board members, regardless of party, understood their role to be ensuring that the universities they led were thriving. Members of the current group, he continued, are concerned principally with their relationships with the governor.

Thern there's Senate Bill 520, signed into law by DeSantis in March of 2022, which creates sunshine law exemptions for candidates for state university presidencies. So that process, which has produced hires like Corcoran; and former senator Ben Sasse; and GOP legislator, DeSantis buddy and former rodeo clown Fred Hawkins

DeSantis doesn't much care for accrediting agencies ("Thew role that these accreditation agencies play, I don't even know where they come from.") He signed a bill requiring colleges to change accrediting agencies regularly. “Accreditation has become a target in red states and by right-wing politicians because they’ve learned that robust and well-regarded accreditation presents a barrier to their attempts to inject partisan politics into higher education,” AAUP president Irene Mulvey has stated. “They are dragging accreditors into this to dismantle that barrier.”

Academic Freedom

You can guess where this is headed. You may recall the flap in 2021 when University of Florida administration tried to block faculty members from providing expert testimony against the proposed voter suppression law. The administration ultimately lost that one, though the judge noted that "preemptive subservience" was in play--maybe the state didn't directly order them to do it, but in Florida, everyone now understands that their job is to keep DeSantis happy. 

The report does note that Florida has a long history of this kind of trouble.

In a move familiar to those of us in the K-12 world, DeSantis and the GOP have worked hard to erode tenure, with DeSantis calling “unproductive” tenured professors the “most significant deadweight costs” at Florida universities. To that end, Florida's legislature has keep working on "post-tenure review" aka "ending tenure entirely." Various versions of such policies have included scary ideas like challenging tenure of someone who gets too many complaints from students.

And of course they've tried their best to weaken the unions.

Bias and Discrimination

The report opens this section with some historical background on Florida's treatment of minority and LGBTQ persons. It has not been good. Segregated community colleges weren't integrated until 1966. Courts found that Florida was not meeting its requirement to desegregate higher ed as recently as 1977.

Much has been written about the Stop WOKE Act and other attempts to suppress teaching about racism or tolerance in Florida; this report offers some of the details from higher ed. The complaint is the same old one, sincere or opportunistic-- diversity, equity and inclusion are used “as cover words for transforming institutions of higher education into activist arms of the American left.”

At New College, gender neutral signage is banned. There are bathroom rules, and-- well, yikes. The State Board approved a new rule in August requiring disciplinary action for employees who do not use the bathroom corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth.

Colleges can under the rule “utilize a progressive discipline process” for first offenders, including “verbal warnings, written reprimands, suspension without pay, and termination.” However, “a second documented offense must result in a termination.”

The Human Toll

No job is worth selling out everyone below you.

—Dawn Rothe, professor of criminology and UFF-FAU president, Florida Atlantic University

My responsibilities to my students far outweigh Governor DeSantis’s presidential ambitions.

—Jeffrey Adler, professor of history and criminology, University of Florida

These governmental attacks from the State of Florida have made us unsafe.

—Carolyne Ali-Khan, associate professor of education, University of North Florida

The brain drain, both from red states in general and Florida in particular, is already the subject of news stories. This report captures more of that. New College lost 40% of its faculty, and other institutions are anticipating higher than usual turnover. An AAUP survey found that 95% of responding profs call Florida's political atmosphere "poor" or "very poor." 85% said they would not encourage grad students or professors in other states to come to Florida. 

For the folks pushing these policies, of course, the brain drain is a feature, not a bug. They are chasing away exactly the people they want to chase away.

Whether more restrictive bills can be passed or not is beside the point, as faculty members said that "the damage is done" and "they are already witnessing a culture of fear, censorship, and surveillance in their workplaces." And that carries over to students, too, especially LGBTQ students and students of color. Florida's universities have become a place where it hard for some people to live their lives, let alone pursue an education.

The Wrap-Up

The report wants to stress--really stress--that this is not just a Florida problem, but a soon-to-be-everyone-else's problem. It's worth noting that most of the new board members for New College are from out of state. 

The narrative that is driving this reactionary movement is not a local one. Rufo and others have articulated it before: the long-haired marxist radicals of the sixties decided they'd spend the seventies capturing universities and other institutions, thereby indoctrinating a generation of Americans in their evil socialist ways. That narrative dovetails with the one about how if young people are LGBTQ or voting against conservative policies, it must be because someone Got To Them, and we need to recapture those tools of indoctrination and have them indoctrinate youths the right way teach youths the true truth. Which also unfortunately dovetails well with the Dominionist cause.

I won't lie-- I don't always relate to the concerns of college professors, who seem to enjoy a lot more power and prestige in their institutions than folks working in the K-12 world. But it would be foolish to pretend that this attempt to gut higher ed and restuff it with conservative fluff isn't directly related to the K-12 world. What the hell does "college and career ready" even mean in a country where The New New College is what's ahead? And what happens to K-12 in a country in which this brand of right-wing indoctrination is what "education" means? 

We'll see what happens when DeSantis must finally face his destiny as another Florida governor who tried to ride to the White House on education issues, and failed miserably. But even if he fades back into the woodwork, folks are taking notes on his revision of education, and the rest of the states had better pay attention.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Choice v. Social Justice and Equity

One more sign that the pre-Trump alliance between choicers and social justice folks has completely blown up.

Jason Bedrick is a school choice guy at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, with a bit of EdChoice (The Friedman Foundation) in his past. I have a soft spot for him because he was once a New Hampshire legislator (so was my grandmother), and it's possible to have a civil exchange with him on line, but I'd bet we've never agreed on anything.

In this recent piece, he argues against DEI and wokeness, which is to be expected. He also rails against the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which is a bit more interesting.

Charter school authorizers are the folks who decide whether a charter school gets to exist or not. When charter boosters of the pre-Trump era argued that the deal was that charters would get autonomy in return for accountability, part of the accountability picture was supposed to be authorizers, who would make sure that a charter school delivered on its promise and decide if they could open, expand, or get shut down.. 

In "Charter Schools Must Avoid the DEI Blunder," Bedrick suggests that NASCA is a bunch of bossy lefties. To set that up, he starts by going full MAGA

A key reason many parents are fleeing the traditional public system is the concern that schools are indoctrinating students in radical “woke” ideology. Parents are watching as the left-wing ideologies clothed in the mantra of diversity, equity, and inclusion spread like wildfire across America's schools.

That's doing a lot of work. Are many parents fleeing? Do we have some reason to believe that those fleeing parents are freaking out about wokey stuff? Is DEI both a sneaky costume for wokey stuff and also a wildfire? But all of that is just a stepping stone to his main point, which is that a "prominent organization is working overtime" to force public [sic] charter schools to get all wokey. 

That organization is NACSA, the "publicly subsidized kingmaker in the charter school world." "Publicly subsidized" is an odd elbow to throw, since charters and vouchers and all the school choice options out there are publicly subsidized, but it seems to be aimed at painting NACSA with the same MAGA red brush used on the public school system.

NACSA believes that it is the true “expert” in determining what’s best for children, so it favors a regulatory approach that prioritizes its own judgment over parents' in deciding when charters should be opened, expanded, or closed.

NACSA has a "technocratic agenda" and DEI is an "integral part." And in states where that technocratic approach holds sway, NACSA favors "stronger adherence to liberal politics." 

Compelling schools of choice to adopt DEI principles is a bad policy on its merits. Parents, rather than “experts,” should be entrusted to determine what is best for their children.

This again. Of course, parents should be involved, but becoming a parent does not make one virtuous and wise. And it's unfortunate that in picking apart DEI policies, Bedrick focuses on race-related items.

Bedrick argues that ESA-style vouchers are better because they have even less oversight and accountability and are, in a phrase popular in the movement, permissionless (aka with accountability to nobody). It's a tell that we are in the Very Libertarian wing of choicer thought. 

There's more, most of it familiar, but it was his finish that really caught my attention.

A NACSA director once tweeted , “School choice for school choice’s sake is completely misguided … social justice and equity are the GOAL not some political tactic.” NACSA’s insistence on technocracy and DEI demonstrate why choice for choice’s sake must, in fact, be the goal.

It's one more explicit display of the fault line along which the great bipartisan pre-Trumpian choicer partnership fell apart. The left-tilted side of that deal was convinced that choice was a good thing, or at least tolerable, because it could deliver better education to students "trapped" in struggling public schools. But for the right-tilted side, that was never the point, not even a consideration. Choice for choice sake. Freedom and liberty. And if the taxpayer's money and students' time was wasted on a marketplace full of crappy schools--oh, well. 

Choice was--and is--the key value. Meaning an individual's choice. Meaning choice from among whatever few or many options that individual might have. Meaning your choices (or lack of them) are not my problem, and it's certainly not my responsibility to make more choices available to you. 

The most conventional explanation is that the alliance fell apart because, with Obama out and Trump in, an alliance with neoliberal Democrats was no longer necessary for folks on the right, and no longer tolerable for folks on the left who were not willing touch anything with MAGA smell on it (some on the right also balked, for about fifteen minutes. 

But nice direct, clear pieces like this one from Bedrick are a reminder of how far apart those two sides really were, and how much of a strain it was for them to ever team up in the first place.



Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Let's Do The PISA Panic Dance

Is there anything in education particularly useful or illuminating in the scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in this (or any) year?

Short answer: 


Long answer: 

Time for the PISA Panic Dance. You will hear, as always, that the US is woefully low in the rankings. We have always been low in these test scores gleaned from fifteen year olds. In fact, because everyone took some big hits this time, we actually climbed a bit. But we're still woefully low. 

Expect to hear from the usual suspects declaring that the woefully low ranking of the US is a monumental crisis of cosmic proportions and therefor we should rush to implement [insert name of the same policy that they push every other day of the week here]. 

Expect plenty of chicken littling. If you care to respond...

Long response to cries of "Our PISA rank is low! Our PISA rank is low!":

Do you have a research based context for your alarms? What can you tell me about the comparison-- is it between similar student populations, or do certain countries only test certain student populations? Additionally, can you cite any research that ties the PISA rankings to specific real-world outcomes for nations. For instance, Estonia routinely ranks high on these lists--in what areas do you believe Estonia is outpacing the US, and how would raising our PISA scores help counterbalance that?  

For instance, one authority says this: "Since a high ranking on PISA corresponds to economic success, researchers have concluded that PISA is one of the indicators of whether school systems are preparing students for the 21st-century global knowledge economy." Can you explain the difference between correlation and causation?

Short response to cries of "Our PISA rank is low! Our PISA rank is low!":

So what?

Okay, there are a couple of other pieces of data highlighted in the New York Times coverage that may shake up the usual PISA Panic Dance (despite the fact that NYT uses the "lost equivalent of three-quarters of a year" baloney). For instance, the US "lost less ground" aka "test score points" than some European nations that "prioritized opening schools more quickly." PISA also didn't find an increase in the gap between US highest and lowest students. 

But it's the final paragraph of Sarah Mervosh's article that is most concerning.
On other measures, the United States stood out for having more children living with food insecurity (13 percent, compared with an average of 8 percent in other O.E.C.D. countries), more students who are lonely at school (22 percent, versus 16 percent) and more students who do not feel safe at school (13 percent, versus 10 percent).

Here's hoping that someone in the education policy world chooses to stop the PISA Panic Dance long enough to look these data and declares that we should do something about them. Instead of worrying about our international bragging rights, maybe we could focus on the lives of the young human beings in our schools. That would be worth a real dance.


The Ziegler Story and the Trouble with Hypocrisy

Yes, we've heard the story. How could we not? It has been everywhere in the education space and the Florida news space and the people who are sick of culture warrior right wingers space. And I understand the impulse behind the social media memes, dark jokes, the general dance of schadenfreude.

But here's what we need to remember.

At the center of this story is a rape (alleged). In the aftermath, a woman so afraid that she wouldn't leave her home for two days. And while the police and media have dutifully withheld her name, there are enough details circulating that I expect every person in Sarasota County knows exactly who this woman is. 

They certainly know Christian Ziegler (Florida GOP chieftain) and his wife Bridget (Moms for Liberty co-founder, Leadership Institute director of school board program). They're supposed to be a rising power couple, with ties to lots of powerful Florida folks. Before Moms for Liberty, Bridget co-founded a conservative school board group with Erika Donalds, half of another big Florida power couple

For a simply layout of the facts, the police interviews, the pertinent documents, head over to the indispensable Mercedes Schneider, who has it all. It's all disturbing, right down to the detail that Christian Ziegler walked into the building at 2:29 and walked out at 3:07.

Nobody really appears to have denied anything--not the three-way a year ago, not the events surrounding the alleged rape. The only point of dispute is whether the sex in October of this year was consensual or not. 

Many have noted that we're only paying attention because the Zieglers have appointed themselves the morality police for so many others, and that's partly true, but I really want to hope that no matter what the surrounding circumstances, "GOP party chief allegedly rapes longtime friend" would be considered newsworthy all by itself. 

But the thruple sex. The fact that the victim was "mostly in for her" meaning Bridget. The extramarital aspect. This is the stuff that would get filed in the "consenting adults will do their thing" file if not for Bridget Ziegler's entire political career of castigating consenting adults, her heavy-handed help in creating and supporting "Don't Say Gay." 

And as a board president--remember when member Tom Edwards finally walked out of a meeting after the gazzillionth time of being publicly attacked for being gay. The actual moment was when a woman was attacking Edwards, the crowd was booing her, and Ziegler shushed the crowd and told them to let her finish speaking. This was in March of 2023, so roughly five months after she had gotten naked with another woman and her husband. 

Moms For Liberty at first tweeted out an indignant "How dare people pick on another powerful conservative woman" but seem now to have shifted to "You know she wasn't a M4L officer when she was doing all this, right?" Some days I imagine that Moms for Liberty leaders have permanent facial creases from slapping their foreheads as they cry, "She did what??!!" This Ziegler news comes right alongside a breaking story of M4L boosting a racist Christmas event from a racist group

Adam Laats called this long ago--a group like M4L inevitably has trouble controlling its message, falling prey to everything from attracting really out there members to local leaders who forget not to say the quiet parts out loud. And the Zieglers join an uncountably long list of people who are eager to impose their morality on others who turn out to have trouble following it themselves.

But people who holler "Hypocrites" and point loudly will be disappointed as well. Hypocrisy never, ever carries the kind of punch some folks expect it to.

That's mostly because hypocrisy as we understand it-- believing something but violating that belief yourself--is really, really rare. Yeti riding a unicorn while pooping rainbows rare.

We diagnose hypocrisy by observing, "That person is condemning A and doing B, and A and B are the same thing! Hypocrite!" But what's really happening is that for the alleged hypocrite, A and B are not the same at all. They see a critical difference between the two, and if you want to understand them better, try to see what difference they think they see, even if you don't believe it's there. This phenomenon is not reserved for villains; it's a basic human mechanism, a way that we make peace with the times we don't quite live up to our own standards. 

At any rate, the Zieglers may pay a price for all this mess. Christian is facing down noise from his own party  (thought not all), and Bridget is getting some bad press. But dealing with this kind of storm is what Christian Ziegler does damage control for a living, and it's not hard to see a pathway out of this for the couple. Christian is already declaring the sex consensual, so no rape, no crime. And the three-way sex? Consenting adults and nobody else's business, which is true, and I'm going to make my prediction now that there will be an argument somewhere along the lines of Bridget Ziegler didn't do gay stuff because A) her husband was there and B) it just a one-time adventure, and so she is completely not like all those terrible LGBTQ people who still should not be mentioned anywhere around impressionable young people. 

Furthermore, Bridget isn't accused of raping anyone. And Moms for Liberty has already invoked "She wasn't with us at the time." 

In other words, if you think this whole mess is going to knock the Zieglers out of power, I suspect you are in for some disappointment. If you think some key folks are going to realize that there is something rotten at the heart of the values by which they operate--well, I'm betting not. 

There will be some jousting in the days ahead. Damage control comes in two types-- the type that's for limiting and minimizing damage from a crisis, and the type that's about maximizing and targeting damage form a crisis, and most of our modern political crises are battles between those two forces. And it would be a positive thing for Bridget Ziegler to lose power (and in so doing cut power of the Florida branch of MAGA-dom), but she has the easiest path out of this by simply disassociating herself from her husband. 

It would all be interesting in a sad, horse-racey, political gamesmanship kind of way, if it weren't that the central (alleged) crime is a rape, a violation of a long-time friendship so traumatizing that a woman was afraid to leave her home for two days. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

ICYMI: Bonus Week Edition (12/3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bogus Historians Who Teach Evangelicals They Live in a Theocracy

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

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

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

Kentucky reaches a new low in white Christian nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knoxville legislative and school board officials divided on school vouchers

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

The Looming Danger to Rural Schools

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

Snowplow Parents Are Ruining Online Grading

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

PROOF POINTS: The myth of the quick learner

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

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

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

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

Colorado conservatives call for law enforcement action to ban books

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

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

For Republican Governors, Civics Is the Latest Education Battleground

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

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

Dark Headspace—and Teaching

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2023

Is Cardona Getting Off Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Semi-Annual Attempt To Legalize Religious Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Vouchers Unmask True Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

AR: Are Vouchers Rescuing Anyone?

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

What does the report tell us?

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

And here's the part that Noland spotted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Voucher-Fueled Price Hikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

How Bad Can It Get? Diplomas For $465

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Chris Rufo Wants To Boost More Culture Chaos Agents

What if Chris Rufo, education dudebro, astroturf landscaper, and cultural chaos agent, could scale up his work? Looks like we may get to find out.

Chris Rufo is a special kind of magician. He tells the audience what he's going to and how he's going to do it, and then he does it, and somehow the audience is still amazed.

His first and in many ways still his most impressive trick was the creation of critical race theory panic. Rather than try to fig leaf the whole thing and try to mask it as some sort of spontaneous grass roots panic, Rufo told anyone who would listen (like The New Yorker) that he intended to take this obscure academic term and weaponize it, deliberately turning it into a tool to attack everything that folks out in right field didn't like. 

As he infamously tweeted, "The goals is to have the public read something crazy in the news and immediately think 'critical race theory.' We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.'

Of course, he only meant certain Americans. But there was a certain bracing clarity to his announcement that he would conduct a bad faith argument in order to strip the term of its actual meaning and instead use it to paper over the less savory term "stuff that right wing white people hate." 

This is not a new thing. As writers and historians like Adam Laats have chronicled, this sort of debate has surfaced repeatedly. "Teaching evolution" served as a shorthand for "indoctrinating children with a bunch of secular stuff." Evolution (and values-clarification and Common Core etc etc etc) was, for some opponents, emblematic of a larger trend in society, a symbol of the larger drift away from certain conservative christianist ideas and values.

What's striking about Rufo is how bald-faced he is about using convenient targets as tools for political purposes. 

It's impressive in its own way. "Se this stick," Rufo announces. "I'm going to use some words, wave my hands around, and convince you that it's really a snake so that you'll scream and run away from it, even though it's a stick." And shortly thereafter, a bunch of people can be seen screaming and running away from the stick.

He's tried the same trick with a few other sticks. "Schools should be more transparent," he said, explaining that the trick would be to "bait the left into supporting transparency" so we can force transparency on these "ideological actors." He hit on his next big stick with the topic of "gender ideology," a catch-all term for anything that promoted tolerance for LGBTQ persons. Rufo told the New York Times
The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues.

This meant, he suggested, that the issue had even "more potential" as a tool for agitation. He may well be right; the Heritage Foundation's Project 2025 education document for guiding the hopes-for conservative President is dry and wonky except when it comes to gender issues, at which point it lapses raging mouth-frothing rhetoric. But Rufo's discussion of the topic (one that he didn't feel much compelled to discuss previously) is largely practical and tactical. The topic is another tool. 

It is impossible to tell how much of his own Kool-aid Rufo drinks, though he certainly shows a devotion to the fabulist narrative that America was take over by left-wing bad guys who flamed out in 1968 and then became somehow both a weak minority and also a vast powerful conspiracy to take over the country. If you have the time and the stomach, check out his ten minute video about Nixon, "a man, reviled in his time, who left behind a blueprint for counter-revolution—the last hope for restoring the American republic." (And for bonus reading, this artifact of his failed Seattle City Council run five years ago.)

But Rufo is a busy guy, and it makes sense to see if he can scale up his operation. So here comes the Logos Fellowship. Rufo announced it as "a year-long accelerator program I will be leading for conservative journalists, activists, and opinion leaders." Here's how the website for the fellowship describes it:

Modeled on successful tech-industry accelerators, the Logos Fellowship will consist of a three-day retreat in New York City and ongoing mentorship, amplification, and promotion. Fellows will bring a specific “culture war” project to the program, which our team will help nurture over the course of the year. The goal is to help move these independent projects from conception to execution, so that they begin to shape the discourse and change public policy. Some topics that we hope to address are critical race theory, gender ideology, higher education reform, crime and policing, and civil rights law.
Again, notice that none of this is about serious holding beliefs, acting out concerns, or examining complex issues. It's about a "'culture war' project" to be built up as lever for building political weight. 

If selected, you get your project kicked off at a three-day, all expenses paid retreat in New York City, where Logos Fellowship director Rufo will teach you about how to use "narrative, language, influence, power" to help you design your campaign to make people to treat your particular stick like a snake. Youi also get a $1,000 honorarium. Given that all of this is being handled by the Manhattan Institute, that seems kind of cheap.

In addition, you get:

Mentorship--workshops and office hours from Rufo and his team

Public events-- "We will host monthly Twitter Spaces to drive the narrative on our portfolio of issues" 

Connections-- get hooked up with cable news bookers, policy makers, and aligned organizations to get your stuff out there into the right wing bubble

Publication opportunities-- pitch stories to City Journal, a Manhattan Institute publication where Rufo is a contributing editor. 

So how can someone be considered for this awesome opportunity? Here's the criteria:

A qualified applicant for the Logos Fellowship is an individual who possesses a deep commitment to conservative principles, a track record of active engagement in conservative causes, and a compelling individual project for the incubator program. The ideal applicant will have strong communication skills and an active presence on X/Twitter.

Just submit a 300-500 word project proposal, a one-minute video, and a resume. The application materials "should convey passion, conviction, and a compelling narrative." I guess actually having those things is optional.  And if you've already got a regular job in the conservative thinky tank or advocacy world, that's totally cool. 

The deadline is December 1 (Rufo announced it on October 30), so you'd better hurry up and apply (though I'm going to call this right now for Daniel Buck). Gotta get things up and running for the new year--those astroturfed political outrage movements don't make themselves, you know.