Monday, January 9, 2017

Follow Up To Who Is Voting On New Jersey's New Charter Regulations?

Last Sunday, I published a blog post about NJ State Board of Education (NJBOE) member, Peter Simon, and his family's philanthropic foundation, the William E. Simon Foundation. If it had not been for the New York Times piece, which mentioned his brother as a possible candidate for the Vatican Ambassadorship, I probably would never have taken the time to look closely at a Board member. 

I had decided to bring it up during public testimony at Wednesday's NJSBOE meeting. It was one of the rare days when testimony is permitted to be on any topic. I found out late Tuesday that Simon had stepped down from the Board. No one knew why. 

Wednesday morning, at the beginning of the NJSBOE meeting, Board President, Mark Biedron, announced that Peter Simon had stepped down. No reason was given. Biedron also said there had been discussion on "social media" about Simon's family's foundation and donations made to charters, and that Simon had abstained from voting. Biedron added, if Simon had remained on the Board, he would have abstained from voting on the new proposed charter regulations. 

Obviously, I was very glad to hear that, as were other people in attendance. Although, why mention it all? 

The day was filled with a lot of charter-related testimony, both for and against. As people representing entities who had received money from the Foundation spoke, I could't help but wonder if it would have mattered if Simon abstained. He still might have been tasked with listening to public testimony (not all board members do) and, presumably, providing some feedback to those who weren't there to hear testimony firsthand. 

This is not an indictment of Peter Simon. It's an honest question of how reasonable it is to presume the ability of anyone to separate their personal ties from their ability to perform due diligence for the public, with the public's interests foremost in mind. It also demonstrates the need to have transparency at all times. 

A couple of months ago, Mark Biedron introduced the new charter regulations with a nod to how hard the Department of Education (NJDOE) had worked on them with charter schools groups. I can't find meeting minutes from those meetings. They aren't posted anywhere that I can find. If someone has them, or can point me to them, I'd like to see who was in the room and what was discussed. There aren't that many charter players in New Jersey, so it's easy to guess who might have been in those meetings, and two of the biggest ones received money from the Simon Foundation. 

It's important to note Biedron made no mention of engaging anyone in the communities who are currently affected by the tremendous drain on public school funding that occurs wherever charter schools operate. Undoubtedly, those folks would have had a lot to say about the impact of making it easier for charter schools to expand. 

This all leads to a much bigger issue and that is how people come to be seated on the NJ State Board of Education. From the NJDOE website:
The New Jersey State Board of Education has 13 members who are appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the New Jersey State Senate. These members serve without compensation for six-year terms. By law, at least three members of the State Board must be women, and no two members may be appointed from the same county. (Please note: we are currently down 5 members) 
Since the governor also appoints the Commissioner of Education it's easy to see how this becomes a stacked deck really quickly. We happen to currently have a governor who is not interested in public education. He has spent his entire tenure slamming public schools and public school teachers while also shorting his own school funding formula by about $7 billion and calling public schools "failure factories." 

In theory, the State Board of Education should serve as "checks and balances" for anyone who is governor. They should be there for all students in the state and free from outside interests. The question is, Do we have that? Maybe even, Is that possible given how those positions are chosen? These are questions our next governor is going to have deal with. 


Here is the original testimony I prepared for last Wednesday.
I wanted to spend my time today talking about alternative assessments for ESSA accountability purposes. However, I recently came across what appears to be a conflict of interest related to one of the State Board of Education members.
I find myself in the unenviable position of having to point it out and to ask that they recuse themselves from voting on anything related to charter schools, including the new proposed charter regulations. 
The Board member is Peter Simon. He is Co-Chair of his family’s philanthropic foundation, the William E. Simon Foundation. The Foundation’s website has listings of grants made in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The 2015 and 2016 listing links are not working, but the 2014 links are. The 2014 listings on the Foundation website are not complete. The Foundation’s 990, publicly available on GuideStar, has the full list of grants made that year.
There are roughly $3.3 million in grants made to charter schools, charter associations, and groups who lobby for so-called school choice. Of those grants, three in particular, stand out: New Jersey Charter Schools Association, JerseyCAN, and the Association of American Educators who have a partnership with New Jersey Charter Schools Association. 
The reason they stand out is because New Jersey Charter Schools Association and JerseyCAN actively lobby this Board for expansion of charter schools, and currently, for the new proposed charter regulations. 
This appears to be a conflict of interest. I ask that Mr. Simon remove himself from any and all voting regarding the fate of charter schools or the charter industry. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Who Is Voting On New Jersey's New Charter Regulations?


The issue of conflict of interest has been coming up a lot lately. Just before the holiday weekend, a friend pointed out one of the choices for Ambassador to the Vatican, William E. Simon, Jr., is the brother of one of the members, J. Peter Simon, of the NJ State Board of Education (NJSBOE). The New York Times wrote about the possibilities of ambassadorship here

Curious, I decided to take a closer look at Peter Simon. He is, after all, helping to steer public education in New Jersey. Are there affiliations that make his seat on the SBOE problematic? 

It turns out, yes, maybe there are. You decide.

Peter's late father, William E. Simon, former US Treasury Secretary, served under President Nixon, beginning in 1974, through President Ford's administration, resigning in 1977. He is also the founder, along with his sons, of William E. Simon and Sons, LLC, a private equity firm which specializes in technology, information technology, education, and manufacturing. Peter is currently Co-Chairman of the Firm along with his brother, Bill. 

Bill, Sr. and his wife, Carol, created The William E. Simon Foundation in 1967. Their seven children all serve on the Board of Directors. Peter and Bill, Jr. are Co-Chairmen. According to the Foundation's website...
"The charitable philosophy that guided him (Bill, Sr.) in establishing Foundation’s purposes drew heavily on the thoughts expressed more than a century ago by Andrew Carnegie in The Gospel Of Wealth, where he wrote, “In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.” Helping those in need to realize the full promise of their own talent and drive is a large mission, but Mr. Simon was not a man to do things in a small way, and he always recognized the art of the possible."
In the 1990's the Foundation reviewed its giving practices and created a more formalized process for their grants. Presumably this was done to further the Vision Statement of the Foundation...
[T]o help inner-city youth and families gain access to education and community-based services that promote their independence, personal success, and full participation in America’s free, democratic society.
Their Mission Statement, in part, continues...
[S]upports programs that are intended to strengthen the free enterprise system and the moral and spiritual values on which it rests: individual freedom, initiative, thrift, self-discipline, and faith in God... the Foundation’s primary aim is to provide inner-city youth with environments, opportunities, and encouragement to develop the personal values and skills that will enable them to become independent, contributing members of society. The Foundation achieves this goal through its support of direct services and public policy research...In its direct service portfolio, the Foundation focuses primarily on two geographical areas: Jersey City and the South Bronx.
Sounds good so far, right? Let's take a look at their grant recipients. Their website has the recipient lists from 2014, 2015, and 2016. Guidestar provides 990's from 2014, back to 2012, before hitting their paywall. Many of the grants are to religiously affiliated groups, Catholic charities, Boy Scouts, Boy and Girls Clubs of America, Catholic schools, etc. All are in keeping with Bill, Sr.'s deep Catholic faith. 

There are also grants to charter schools, charter associations, and other education reform groups. That's where things get a bit sticky as we are heading into the first NJSBOE meeting of 2017. The second hearing is on the agenda for the new proposed charter school regulations. I wrote a piece in November about the public testimony taken at NJSBOE on the new regulations. You can read about that here

The proposed changes include: 

  • Permit a weighted lottery for charter school enrollment;
  • Establish an expedited renewal process for high-performing charters;
  • Permit single-purpose charter schools;
  • Ease the way for charter schools to secure facilities and capital funding;
  • Establish a pilot program for charter-specific teacher, administrator, and school business administrator certifications;
  • Streamline procedures around budgetary controls and fund monitoring; and
  • Enact other regulatory changes.

Bottom line for charter schools in New Jersey: No local control at all. Charters are approved by the NJ Commissioner of Education, not by the people living in the community affected. Charters are paid for directly out of the local district's public education school budget. Charters can expand without any local authorization or regard for the impact on the local public schools. Charter school operators do not have to disclose how public money is spent. Charter schools are not required to have elected school boards. Charter schools do not educate the same demographics as public schools, and as a result, are highly segregated. 

Keep these points in mind as you read through where the Foundation money goes. Ask yourself if Peter Simon should recuse himself from voting on the new charter regulations. In 2014, he oversaw the distribution of about $3.3 million to charter schools, associations, and organizations which support charter schools and school choice.  

I chose the 2014 year because the Foundation's website has a list of those donations along with the correct attributions, and GuideStar has the 2014 990 filing available for anyone to see. I cross-referenced the website with 990 filing.

From the Foundation's website: 2014
Association of American Educators Foundation: $100,000 for program support, including New Jersey. On their website, they claim to be an alternative to teachers unions. They have a page dedicated to responding to statements from the NEA. And, they have a page dedicated to New Jersey. The regional director's bio says she has taught in the classroom, been a college advisor, and been an education sales rep for a "major publishing company." That New Jersey page also has an announcement for their new partnership with the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. 

Brilla College Preparatory Charter School: $50,000 for technology and equipment to support a blended learning program.

Center for Education Reform: $2,500 for program support. Among the education issues CER supports are school choice and charter schools. 

Charter School Growth Fund: $500,000 (paid $250,000) for "Fund II support to grow high quality charter networks". "As a national nonprofit (CSGF), we make multi-year, philanthropic investments in talented education entrepreneurs building networks of great charter schools, and we provide them with support as they grow." In 2005, they created the National Fund for the purpose of "accelerating the growth of the nation's best charter schools." 

Children's Aid College Prep Charter School: $25,000 for Support for Life Coaches in the 2014-15 school year. 

Common Sense Institute of New Jersey: $2,500 for "Who's Leaving NJ And Why" Report

Educators 4 Excellence: $30,000 for "Program Support for New York programs. E4E is reform movement group for teachers and is heavily funded by the Gates and Broad Foundations."

Ethical Community Charter School: $50,000 for "Support for an Architect, a Fundraising Consultant, a Language Arts & Math Consultant, and a Development Officer in the 2014-15 school year." 

Families for Excellent Schools: $5,000 as a "token of appreciation" to the CEO who presented at the Jersey City Leadership Forum. FES is a pro-charter school group which organized and mobilizes parents to fight for charter schools and their expansion. 

Family Life Academy Charter School: $25,000 for a Wellness program. 

Foundation for Excellence in Education: $20,000 for program support. This is Jeb Bush's very reformy education group whose board includes Betsy DeVos and Joel Klein. Among the group's "reform agenda" is school choice, CBE, digital learning, and so on. 

Foundation for Opportunity in Education: $200,000 (paid $100,000) for program support. I couldn't find the website to this group. 

Golden Door Charter School: $37,752.00 for "Support for the purchase of Chrome books, laptops which will facilitate new NJ state testing in the 2013-14 school year."

Great Futures Charter High School for the Health Sciences: $209,000 for "Start-up costs and general operating support in the 2014-15 school year."

Harlem RBI: $15,000 for "Program Support for South Bronx site in the 2014-15 school year."

Harvard University: $65,000 for "Support for the education reform journal, EducationNext, in 2014."

Icahn Charter Schools: 
School #1 $25,400 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year."  
School #2 $22,500 for "Support for a math consultant in the 2014-15 school year." School #6 $12,880 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year." 
School #7 $12,220 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year." 

Institute for Justice: $25,000 for "Support for litigation work on school choice issues in 2014."

JerseyCAN: $10,000 for program support. This group heavily supports charter schools in New Jersey. 

KIPP Academy Charter School: $100,500 for "Support for the implementation of a new ELA program and a new math program."

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: $65,000 for "Support for their work to foster a strong charter school sector in order to increase the academic achievement of all students in 2014."

National Counsel on Teacher Quality: $5,000 for program support. Diane Ravitch has written about NCTQ and this piece in the Washington Post is instructive. 

National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation: $30,000 for "Support of its charter school legal defense program, which seeks to prevent compulsory teacher unionization at charter schools nationwide, in 2014."

New Jersey Charter Schools Association: $25,000 for "Support for the communication campaign for this charter school policy and service organization in 2014."

Success Academy Charter Schools: $150,000 for "Support for a parent engagement campaign in the 2013-14 school year."

From GuideStar, the 990 filing for 2014: (These are the donations NOT listed on the Foundation's website. The 990 does not provide information about what the grant was used for beyond a simple designation, like "education.")
Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools: $5,000
Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools: $5,000
Alliance for School Choice: $100,000
Alliance for School Choice: $5,000
Children's Scholarship Fund: $170
Children's Scholarship Fund: $250,000
Children's Scholarship Fund: $245,845
Civic Builders: $333,333
Civic Builders: $100,00
EdVestors: $5,000
Family Life Academy Charter School: $5,000
Family Life Academy Charter School: $25,000
Foundation for Opportunity in Education: $100,000 (The Foundation website showed a total grant of $200,000 and $100,000 actually paid. This is the other half of the grant.)
Friends of Learning Community Charter School: $97,500
KIPP New York Inc.: $250,000
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy: $50,000
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy: $75,000
Parents Challenge: $1,000
Philadelphia School Partnership: $10,000
Success Academy Charter Schools: $5,000
Success Academy Charter Schools: $250,000
Thomas B. Fordham Institute: $50,000
Willow Creek Foundation: $5,000
Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation: $25,000

The 2015 and 2016 Foundation website lists have errors in them. When you click through any of the grantees, the information page shows the same information for every grantee, so we can't see the amount of the grant or what it was for. Unfortunately, GuideStar does not yet have the 990's for those years. Here are the related grantees from the Foundation's website: 

New Jersey Charter Schools Association
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation
Thomas B. Fordham Institute
JerseyCAN
Family Life Academy Charter School
Ethical Community Charter School
Educators4Excellence
Children's Aid College Prep Charter School 
Association of American Educators Foundation
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Hyde Leadership Charter School
Harlem RBI
Hunts Point Alliance for Children
Friends of Learning Community Charter School
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Soaring Heights Charter School
74 Million
Brilla College Preparatory Charter School
50CAN

I feel the need to state, unequivocally, I have no issues with people making money. I hope no one is doing an eyeroll just because of his family's history or their ability to make money. The family fortune is not the point of this piece. 

However, when that money is used, philanthropically, to further the privatization of public education, and the person who is overseeing those donations while also serving on a public board which has influence over the course of the industry they significantly support, I think we have a serious conflict of interest where the charter regulations are concerned. 



Friday, December 23, 2016

Parents and Teachers, It's Time to Organize


Last month, at the NJEA Convention, Mark Weber delivered the plenary speech. You can read the whole speech here. He called for teachers to organize. Keep in mind this was before Betsy DeVos' nomination for US Secretary of Education (SecEd) and before Jeff Sessions' nomination for US Attorney General (USAG). 
"It is not an exaggeration to say that right now, public education hangs in the balance. Teacher workplace rights are in serious jeopardy. The ability of NJEA to protect the future of New Jersey’s outstanding public education system – by any measure, one of the finest in the world, in spite of this state’s recent abdication of its role to fully fund its schools – is under dire threat.
There is only one course to take: we must organize. We must stand strong, we must stand together, and we must refuse to give into desperation. Our families, our colleagues, and our students have always counted on us when they needed us the most – we must not now, nor ever, stop fighting for them or yes, that’s right, for ourselves."
Yes. Please. Teachers, especially those of you teach in sparkly districts, who have the best resources (comparatively), please start speaking up. If you feel like you can't do it in the district in which you teach, then do it in the one in which you live. 

If you don't already, come to just one State Board of Education meeting on open public testimony days (like the one coming up on January 4th). Or come to just one Assembly or Senate Education Committee meeting when there is a bill that directly affects you or your students. Yes, your state union is there, already speaking up, but I promise, just like with parents, our legislators need to hear directly from you. They do not get that kind of firsthand information from anyone.

Participate when your union asks. Make those phone calls. Write those letters. Numbers do matter. 

To those of you who don't like your union leadership, I urge you to have conversations with them. Tell them what you need from them. Offer to help. Get involved. Hold them accountable. No, you really don't have to agree on everything. If you don't fight back, there won't be a teaching profession. This is not a time to leave it to others. Yes, I know, this paragraph is terribly simplified. This is work. 

I know. It's difficult. It's also necessary. 

Parents, it's not just teachers who need to organize. I know how difficult it is to find the time to participate. I know how difficult it is to put yourself out there and sometimes have to say things that others do not want to hear or acknowledge. I know how easy it is to complain and not actually do anything. I know how easy it is to keep your head down. 

Fight that urge to only complain. Fight that urge to say, "Well, it's not directly affecting my children." Fight that urge to leave it to others. Fight that urge to look away when those who are standing up make you uncomfortable or aren't doing what you only imagine you would do. 

I know. It's difficult. It's also necessary.

Where to start? 

Look in the right-hand column of this blog. There is a list of education bloggers; some are parents, some are teachers, some are education scholars. All are advocates, dedicated to public education for all children. 

Attend your local and state board of education meetings. Go visit your state and federal representatives. Remember, they work for YOU. It doesn't matter if you belong to a different political party. They weren't elected to serve only constituents from their party. It's not that difficult to get appointments. If you can't do that, write a letter. Make a phone call. All of them have staff who work on the issues that are important to you, including education policy. Ask them what they are doing to protect public education for all students. 

It's ok if doing these things makes you uncomfortable. There are many of us who do these things all the time. And, the longer we do it, the more connections we make, and the better we get at it. It's ok if your voice shakes. What's most important is that you find your voice and use it. 





Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What Will Happen To Special Education?

Yet another reason to be concerned about Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General. Special Education. Back in 2000, when he was an Alabama state senator (formerly the state's attorney general), Sessions made an utterly ignorant, and now potentially dangerous, statement about special education and the federal law which guarantees the rights of students with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). You can read his whole statement here

It's difficult to pull quotes out of the text because the entire statement is so heinous. Yes, students with disabilities have rights. No, those rights, and those exercising those rights are not "a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America." The disqualifier at the beginning of that paragraph does not excuse the ridiculousness of the statement either. So glad to hear that he didn't want to end IDEA.

Sessions quotes parts of letters written to him by teachers who are frustrated by their students and what they described as problems with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). While I am sure there are teachers who are frustrated by what they see in their schools, to blame students with disabilities for those frustrations is absurd. 

Sessions does give a nod to the lack of funding associated with IDEA. It has never been fully funded, nor has it come close to the goal of 40% funded. Ever. He should have been railing against a system that purposely defunds, or underfunds, education mandates, no matter whom they directly affect. To blame the students and IDEA is absurd. 

As I read through Sessions' statement and the statements by teachers, I saw what, in my opinion, is violation after violation of those students' rights. IDEA is not a permission slip for students to behave badly. It does not prevent "discipline." It does not require students to be mainstreamed with their neurotypical peers. 

What IDEA does do is requires states, and therefore school districts, to place students in a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). It requires them to conduct Functional Behavior Analyses, using those results to create Behavior Plans for exactly the scenarios which are described in Sessions' statement. This is not rocket science. This appears to have been completely lost on every one of those teachers and their administrators and Sessions. It also appears to be lost on these people that wrong classroom settings, inappropriate placements, and lack of services contribute to inappropriate behavior - in any setting. 

Before someone piles on here, yes, there are students, unfortunately, who do act out and have no self-regulation or control. God bless the teachers and paras who teach and assist them. It is a reality. However, it should not be happening in a general education setting. LRE does not mean a general education, mainstreamed setting. LRE means providing the best environment for that student. It's a simple concept that is grossly misused. 

I was astonished at the claims that teachers are leaving the profession because of lawsuits brought by special education parents. The statement implies parents are going after teachers. That's not how the law works. It's absurd to state that as though it is fact. 

The last story is from a superintendent. He laments not being able to mete out similar discipline to two students who brought weapons to school. One student, with no disability, was given a 1-year suspension. The other student, with a disability and IEP, was placed for 45 days in an alternate school setting before returning to his regular school. 

I'm twitching as I write this because I cannot believe the rank stupidity of this decades-long educator. IDEA has an entire section dedicated to discipline (Sec. 300.530). In fact, there's even a section on weapons. He most certainly could have suspended that student with an IEP for 1-year, just like the first student. His own ignorance of the law made for the inequity. Further, it made his reference to Animal Farm ("All are equal, but some are more equal than others.") even more inappropriate. 

It also demonstrates that Sessions, as Alabama's former attorney general, either didn't know the law, or he knew and used this sorry excuse of a story to fortify his position that special education is ruining public education and teachers' careers. Shame on them both! 

Unbelievably, the superintendent continues with this ditty: "I became a teacher in 1965 and I do not remember hearing of gun shootings prior to 1975 when Congress began telling ten percent of our students you are not responsible." Gaslighting at its best, folks. When in doubt make an absurd claim, based on nothing, and blame it on the special ed kid. Disgusting. 

Sessions ended his abhorrent statement with this: "I think these teachers make a point. It is a matter we need to give careful consideration to, not overreact, not undermine the great principles of the Disabilities Act Program. But at the same time, we need to say that a child is not allowed to commit crimes, to disrupt classroom, to curse teachers, principals and students, and abuse them and do so with impunity."

Again, that is not what IDEA actually says. You'd think a state attorney general would know that. What will the enforcement of IDEA look like under a US Attorney General who doesn't know the law? Or, perhaps worse, one who does know the law and ignores it?




Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Thank You To Teachers. I See You.

I wish parents could see their children's teachers outside of school. We've all been bathed in the "bad teacher" narrative for so long that when someone mentions a "bad teacher" we just do the head nod. Fortunately, for all of us, that narrative is largely false. Before someone sends me hate mail, of course there are people who should be doing something else, just as you find in any workplace. Understand, that "bad teacher" narrative has a specific purpose...but that's for another blog post. I want to talk about teachers today.

I'm very lucky to know a lot of teachers through my activism. I have very deep respect for them, because not only do they care very deeply about their students and profession, they are also willing to fight like mad to make sure public education is there for everyone's children. That is not just fluff-talk. Some put in long hours researching and writing to educate all of us (some of my favorite teacher-bloggers: Mark Weber, Peter Greene, Marie Corfield, Russ Walsh), some head up volunteer organizations that lift up students, and teachers, and public education (like Marla Kilfoyle, Denisha Jones, Michael Flanagan, and Melissa Tomlinson), some write amicus briefs for the US Supreme Court, and others take the time to do professional development work beyond what their districts provide. They do all of these things on their own time and with their own money. No one is paying them to use their voice for their students and for their profession.  

Which brings me to this year's NJEA Convention. I love going and talking with teachers about what they are doing in their classrooms, what they're excited about, what their students are excited about, and what their concerns are. It's also fun to walk the floor and see what the latest and greatest toys, books, tech, and programs are being sold to teachers. 

Even with the fancy bells and whistles of the tech stuff, the booksellers' booths are always the busiest. Especially the ones who sell books for the lower grades. After grabbing a late lunch with a friend, we noticed a very long line which snaked across a couple of aisles. We asked what they were all standing in line for, expecting it to be a book signing, but it turned out they were waiting for free books for their classrooms. Free books. For your kids. On a day off. The line was at least 200 people long. I want to share with you a few pictures of the line because you should see what your children's teachers do for them. 

From top to bottom: the beginning of the line, to all the way around, to you can't see the end of the line - which was a couple of aisles over from the start. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of the little chalk board announcing the times of the giveaways. This line was a good 10-15 minutes before the giveaway started. I hope the pictures "speak a thousand words."






So, on the eve of Thanksgiving...thanks to Maddie's teachers. You know who you are, the ones who put in the extra time, who cared enough to learn more about her and the way she learns, who stood up for her and her rights as a student. Thanks for your patience and your resilience.

I see you.  




Tuesday, November 15, 2016

It Was A Very Long Day, Part 1, 2 & 3

Part 1: Every month I try to make it to the State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting. While reading the agenda gives an idea of what's going to happen, there is nothing like being there in person to witness the depth of privilege and echo chamber-ness in that room. I want to be very clear about the criticism in this piece. NJDOE has some really great, hard-working people within its ranks and my thoughts on this are not about them. This is about leadership, or rather, the lack thereof. Their willingness to remain well seated in their echo chamber and the arrogance with which pronouncements are made. And, the SBOE and their unwillingness to "dive deep" and ask hard questions and expect good, true responses, and their seemingly endless inability to know the difference between a real answer and a false one. Their job is not to sit there and nod in agreement with statements that are so patently false it would be hilarious if wasn't so damned serious. And yet, that is what we have. The November meeting was no different.

Chris Cerf was in to deliver his annual report on Newark schools. Good news is graduation rates are up. Bad news is he's still the state-appointed superintendent and it's still state-controlled. He made a great show of saying charters and public schools should be working together and no one should be paying attention to what is said on social media. All he wants is for everyone to get along for the sake of the kids. He's not wrong about doing things for the sake of the kids. What and how things get done are the issue.

It would also be great if we could also get some acknowledgment that charters don't serve the same demographics and are costing districts, like Newark, a fortune for a parallel and unequal system whose basic management is kept far, far out of the sunshine. There is nothing "public" about charter schools except the money which primarily funds them. Too bad if you don't like that little piece of reality from "social media." 

Cerf did manage to give a nod to poverty, and then, unbelievably, continued with qualifications, like new immigrants want to get out of poverty, but people who have experienced multi-generational poverty "resist the ladder" out of poverty. In the context of the conversation, education, it's doubly astonishing when talking about a district that has been under state control for more than 20 years. The lack of state funding, the lack of tax base (remember the poverty thing?), the lack of needed support for those students is because the state has denied it to them. On top of that, charters have been allowed to proliferate. It costs this district millions of dollars to sustain them at the direct cost to every other student in the district. So, education, which is a lot of rungs on that "ladder" has been decimated under state control. And guess what, Chris? When you were NJ's Education Commissioner, you perpetuated that too.

Cerf says a ONE Newark survey demonstrated parents actually choose to send their kids to schools well outside of their neighborhood. That it's a "myth" parents actually want a neighborhood school. Yes, I'm putting in a request to see the survey and the results. 


So, why throw in that tidbit about ONE Newark? Well, a couple of weeks ago, the Newark BOE voted to get rid of ONE Newark...which, of course, he failed to mention. 

Cerf was asked what he thought about PARCC and if NJ should keep it. Of course, he immediately sang its praises. And, really, what could he say? He was selling PARCC to the SBOE and the public when he was Commissioner.

Then it was on to a comprehensive report on PARCC by Pete Shulman. The basics were that scores were up compared to the year before. No mention that half the students who took it "failed." No mention of how many students would not have graduated had the new graduation requirements been in place this year. And, no mention of which version of PARCC they were comparing to. You'd think that an organization who bows to the Data Gods would have pointed that out. We haven't had two years in a row of the same test. What are you comparing?

Continuing, PARCC is the best test for gauging college and career readiness and the standards. Notice that it's now just "the standards" since they changed the name of Common Core State Standards to New Jersey Student Learning Standards. There were no fundamental changes to the standards, they're just hoping you didn't notice.

For some reason, they just can't deliver their info on PARCC without a very hard swipe at either NJASK or HSPA. That day, it was both. NJASK and HSPA didn't deliver usable data, they were inferior tests. It's groan-worthy because for a decade, both of these tests were revered. Students have to take them! How would we know how they're doing without them!? Take a look at what a New Jersey dad put together on NJASK here. Funny, sounds a lot like the claims about PARCC. 

Finally, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) "study" was trotted out as proof of PARCC's validity. *sigh* No, it's not. It's not even a "study." I've covered this before. Twenty-three Teachers of the Year decided, among other things, that the 5th grade PARCC test is more difficult than NJASK was. You can read about it and the other "studies" NJDOE claims validate PARCC here

The meeting ran so long they never got to the new charter regs - the ones that lower the standards for teachers, administrators, and business administrators working in charter schools. The ones which were developed by/with people in the charter industry. That discussion has been put off until the December meeting. 

Part 2: Public testimony on charter schools, interdistrict school choice, student residency, and student transportation. Most testimony was about the new charter regulations. There were employees, a few parents, and teachers from charter schools to provide testimony in favor of the new regs. NJEA, SOSNJ, and a few parents spoke out against them. 

This is a good place to state in the strongest way possible, that it's despicable the way public school parents and advocates are pitted against charter school parents and advocates. I see it at SBOE testimony sessions and at legislative hearings at the State House. It cannot be said enough times, we are not angry with, nor disappointed in, charter school parents. They have simply done what they feel is best for their children, as anyone would. End of story. 

The issue is with public policy. Really poor public policy, that has created an environment in which public schools have been systematically resource-starved, and in which a secondary, unequal, parallel system has grown at the direct expense of the public system. That is the issue. Not that you happen to send your child to a charter school.

It was pretty astonishing to hear charter school teacher recruiters asking SBOE to make it easier for people to become teachers and administrators in their schools. That Praxis was making it too difficult for people to become teachers. The irony was completely lost on SBOE, the people making the plea, and many members of the audience. The charter cheerleader stories are always about how much "better" they are than public schools. Yet, here they were, asking the state to lift certification requirements for teachers and administrators. The SBOE will very likely do exactly that. Why does anyone think having a lower level of certification, that will never be accepted in public schools, be ok for charters and their students? How does that fit into the narrative that charters are great. The mind boggles. 

Here is the testimony provided by Save Our Schools New Jersey. It hits on all of the issues with the newly proposed regulations on charter schools.
TESTIMONY TO THE STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION
ON BEHALF OF SAVE OUR SCHOOLS NJ
Presented by Susan Cauldwell
November 2, 2016
In her October 5 memo to the State Board, Acting Commissioner Kim Harrington said the following:
“Governor Christie met with charter operators to discuss the state of public charter schools in New Jersey. During this discussion, many charter operators explained that New Jersey’s regulatory environment is a major impediment to growth of the charter sector in the State. During the last several months, the DOE has worked with charter leaders to develop recommendations to offer school operators increased autonomy and opportunities for innovation in exchange for accountability for student outcomes. The proposed changes will ensure charter schools have increased flexibility, autonomy, and time to innovate and produce strong educational outcomes for all students. In addition, the changes will incentivize operators both in-State and out-of-State to invest in New Jersey.”
These words tell you all you need to know about the proposed charter regulations. The Governor wants them. Period. No analysis, no data, just the desire of this administration to continue its effort to destroy traditional public education in urban districts. Adding more charter school seats in urban areas will only serve to further financially destabilize these school districts. Every state superintendent who address you, acknowledges the challenges of balancing a budget with flat state aid and an ever-growing charter school bill. And the Commissioner is required to consider this is as part of her decision-making process. 
How can the DOE, which wants to collect data on everything from the aptitude of pre-school students, to the college grades of pre-service teachers, to the lifetime SGOs and SGPs of teachers propose such changes as dumbing down teacher and administrator certifications without one shred of data to support it? It’s simple. The Governor wants it.
At last month’s meeting, it was interesting to watch the staff try to explain why charter school teachers needed less training than traditional public school teachers. The staff couldn’t answer it; the Acting Commissioner couldn’t answer it. Deputy Commissioner Pete Shulman had to jump up from the audience to calm things down. Even more curious is why you, as a State Board, are not aware the dumbed down charter school teacher certification already exists. The proposed regulations codify the regulations for teachers and will add dumbed down qualifications for charter school BAs and heads of schools. But, none of this matters because the Governor wants it.
In their report last month, staff attempted to justify pre-ordained code changes with facile charts and graphs that did not make the case. You, the State Board, have an obligation to ask proper questions such as:
1. Why compare state demographics with demographics of charter schools? Charter school populations should be compared to the home districts of the students. A comparison like this would show just how much fewer less poor, less male, less LEP, and less special ed students are enrolled in charter schools, which the staff obviously wanted to avoid.
2. The comparison of test scores showed that charter students outperformed their district peers, which is no surprise give the difference in students as noted above. What the staff did not dwell on was this: charter school average outcomes in state operated districts were worse than state averages in math and ELA in grades 3 through 8, except for math in Newark.
The truth is that, on the whole, charter schools, despite their selective enrollment procedures, and their kill and drill instructional methods are not living up to their promise of greater educational outcomes. Given this fact, why should charters be held to lower standards than traditional public schools? The answer is simple. The Governor wants it.
As for specific comments on the regulations, Save Our Schools NJ offers the following:
1. The proposed dumbing down of administrator and head of school certifications merely to attract out of state charter school operators is troubling. Reports of out of state charter school fraud and waste have made national headlines. NJ has had few episodes of fraud and waste in charter schools and we need to keep it that way. In addition, at least 3 out of state charter chains are successfully operating here already. We do not believe these changes are warranted.
2. We strongly oppose the requirement that school districts be forced to accept charter school students on their sports teams and in extra-curricular activities. This matter was considered by the legislature a couple of years ago and was rejected. In addition, we believe charter schools, which receive funds for a comprehensive education (which includes extra-curriculars and athletics) of their students should be required to provide these activities. At the very least, we believe this decision should rest with the local school district.
3. On the matter of facilities, we do not support co-locating charters and traditional schools. We also do not support turning over publicly financed facilities at bargain basement prices to private entities like charter school management companies.
4. Expedited renewals for “high performing charters” is the wrong approach. The use of standardized test scores as the benchmark supports canned kill and drill instruction, narrows curriculum in favor of test prep, encourages the removal of low performing students, and discourages the enrollment of LEP and special needs students. This proposed change moves charter schools further away from the notion of a public school.
5. The accountability proposals do not go far enough for a public school. We suggest the following:
a. Require that charter schools include all attachments, memos, and reports associated with charter school board meetings on the website;
b. Require that charter school board meetings take place in the community where the school is located;
c. Require the charter school to post an annual calendar of board meetings prior to the start of each school year;
d. Require that charter school boards include residents of the community.
6. The proposed regulations do not address the ability of host communities to have a formal role in the decision making process on whether to permit a charter school. We continue to advocate for either a local vote by residents or, in the alternative, a vote by the local school board.
Thank you for your consideration. We urge you to do what is best for NJs school children.
I left the testimony session early to get up to New York City. Which brings me to...

Part 3: A few weeks ago, I ran into Dr. Lauren Wells. She asked me to come see her speak as a counter-point to Dr. Chester "Checker" Finn at Hunter College. Finn has recently released a book on the 25-year history of charter schools and their future. 

Lauren and I arrived at the same time. Upon entering the building we were introduced to Dr. David Steiner, former New York State Commissioner of Education, who was moderating the discussion. Lauren had Dr. Finn's book in her hand and Steiner asked if she had read it. The question may have just slipped out, but what an incredibly stupid thing to ask the person who is there for express purpose of providing comment on it. Of course she read the book. I confess to being touchy about this, it was a long day, and stupidity was king. But, really? Dr. Wells is a professor of education at American University in Washington DC. She is also the former Chief Education Officer for the City of Newark. Why would he think she hadn't read the book? 

The venue was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's former home on E. 65th Street, and having arrived early, we were allowed to wait in FDR's library. It is not a large room, but rather cozy. It's easy to imagine FDR spending quiet time in this room. It also felt a little like a calm before a storm. Here is a picture of Lauren going over her notes before the discussion. 



The discussion began with Steiner introducing Wells and Finn, and providing a brief history on charter schools. Finn further expanded on the history of charter schools and noted there is no right way to charter. He believes deeply in "choice" and that we have a duty to provide that choice even at the expense of others. He does not have a problem with cherry picking (although, of course, he doesn't call it that), nor with students being counseled out,  nor with excluding certain students, like those with disabilities. He does not have a problem with educating a few at the expense of all others. It sounds very much like The Talented Tenth. Finn believes it is a moral obligation to educate that small number. He seems to believe those students would not get an education without the "choice" to bail out of public education. 

Personally, I found his conviction and stance to be closer to a savior complex, than to that of a person dedicated to education. It is far easier to educate the easiest students than it is to provide a great education to every student. I believe it is every child's right to have that great education. Finn appears to believe that only a select few have that right. It's interesting, but not surprising, since he had a rather exclusive education himself. Although, I doubt very much that Exeter's curriculum and practice look anything like what he thinks is a superior education for city kids. 

To be clear, the definition of "doing better than" and "great education" is actually just high standardized test scores. Of course, curriculum and practice that has the sole purpose of raising test scores, actually does do that. But is that education? Or is that training? 

Wells chose not to speak about charter schools directly. Instead, she discussed the need to educate all students. This wasn't just a fluffy statement. She spoke about meeting students where they are. Igniting curiosity. Recognizing that every student has gifts and they deserve an environment and highly qualified teachers to explore those gifts. In short, Wells talked about what every parent wants for their child, regardless of socio-economic status, classification, and zip code. 

The discussion then turned to Q&A. The NAACP moratorium on charter schools came up. Needless to say, Wells and Finn, and Steiner (who, oddly, had a lot to say in his role as "moderator"), had differing views. Wells was very clear in her support of the moratorium and why - deepening of segregation, student populations that don't look like the districts they operate in, funding that is stripped from the local school district to pay for charter schools, harsh discipline practices, high attrition rates, no backfill, co-locations of charter schools inside public schools, and so on. All of which distort "success." Needless to say, Finn does not have issues with most of this. He does not support the idea of "no-excuses," but everything else is fine.   

Let's be clear about what Finn extols - a separate and unequal system that lays waste to the supporting public infrastructure in order to get higher test scores. All else be damned. While there are "mom and pop" charters out there who are doing innovative work, the majority of what we have here in New Jersey and New York does not look like that. The rest of country is filled with charter schools we know nothing about. Mark Weber, aka Jersey Jazzman, has written about what we don't know. Read here. The point is a moratorium and research is needed so we know exactly what public money is being spent on, and frankly, if it's worth it.   

You can read the full text of the moratorium here. And a statement from Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP here

One of the most difficult things to witness that evening was how Wells was treated. While she spoke, Finn did not look at her. He was visibly agitated by her comments, looking at the back of his hand, looking at the ceiling, frowning, sighing. I am not one who jumps to be offended, but I was wondering what bothered him more; the fact that's she's a woman, or that she's Black. Maybe it was both. Keep in mind, she was invited to be in this space to offer a counter opinion to a rosy view on charter schools. She was respectful. She did not make wild claims. And, her doctorate in education is worth just much as his. His behavior was more like a petulant 5-year-old than a 70-something scholar. Next time you want an echo chamber, don't bother to invite anyone else to speak.

It was a long day. It was also very clear there is a lot of work to be done. It won't end until every child in the US has the opportunity of a great education regardless of the zip code they live in. 


Monday, September 12, 2016

What A Difference A Year Makes


A year ago, I wrote about a student's 8th grade class schedule in a Newark middle school. You can read that post here. It was also later picked up by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post. The Newark schedule was in stark contrast to what schedules look like in suburban and wealthier districts throughout the state.

This was his 8th grade schedule:


The parents, both from multi-generational Newark families, and their son, struggled with the lack of variety within the school day. I would characterize that schedule as oppressive. How can children thrive on a day that looks like that? I know lots of people will think (and feel free to rail against me for suggesting otherwise) there's nothing wrong with a monotonous day filled with English language arts and math. That art, gym, chorus, music, languages, etc. are for those who "deserve" it and not for students who live in a place where high test scores are the only thing keeping their local schools open. 

At the end of last school year, the parents made the very tough decision to leave their city, their home, behind and head for the Jersey shore. Yes, they were fortunate to be able to afford to do so. Not everyone is in that position.

What their son experienced in 8th grade was enough for them to say no more. They wanted him to have history and language every day. They didn't want him to have double and triple periods of any class. They wanted him to have gym more than twice a week. They wanted him to have access to electives. No more, frankly, than what any parent wants for their child. Why did they have to move to get it?

Here is his schedule this year:


So, why does Newark have such a narrowly focused curriculum? They are still under state control after more than 20 years. As I've said, any current problems in that district lay squarely on the shoulders of the state. It's disgraceful that all the state provides is a bare minimum of classes, clearly aimed at achieving nothing more than maybe higher standardized test scores. Is this really what the NJ Department of Education believes is a "high quality" education? 

I'd love to know what Kimberley Harrington, the soon to be crowned Acting Commissioner of Education, will do to make sure the children of Newark (and every other state controlled district) receive an enriched curriculum these parents had to move elsewhere to get.