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School choice and the unlovely threat to white progressive credibility

Over the last few days I’ve collected a bit of lecturing from young non-black activists who are using their best college voices to teach me the perils of school reform. It’s always a precious encounter to have childless Twitter hipters lecture a 45 year old black man about what’s best for my children, or poor children, or children of color. I often wonder, what did we do for ourselves before these Chuck Conners wearing “Save Our Schools” types came to share their university-derived opinions about our choices.

In one exchange with a particularly pharisaical special education teacher in Chicago I asked if she could tell me her story of choosing a school for her black children.

Sadly, that ended our conversation. I’ve asked the question of others too. Still, no response.

It isn’t meant to be a rude question. I’m willing to answer it because it forms the bases for why I care about education policy.

Two factors combined inspire all of my educational activism. The first is my own unremarkable k-12 career, and the second is the fear, worry, and great aspirations I had as a young father.

During my own time in K-12 I witnessed the real disparities in schools. I gained insight, as a kid, into the obvious differences between public and private, rich and poor, safe and dangerous, and so on. This included time in a west coast hippy school, a few poor southern schools, a working class Catholic school, a middle-class Midwestern school, and an ultra-wealthy school for children of privilege.

If we all carry our own experiences (and sometimes baggage) into family decisions about education, that’s mine.

When my first son was born I had all of the normal insecurities a young first-time father might have. But the normal anxieties were accelerated by love, fear, and low income. Suddenly I cared for someone so much more than myself, and I didn’t want my own experience to be his. Specifically, I didn’t want him to work in the service industry as I had up to that point.

There was only one real way to launch him toward his God-given potential, beyond the limitations of  income, neighborhood, and demography. Education. It was my one shot at getting him on more equal footing with the children of millionaires I was working for at the time.

Now, many years later, many lessons later, and many confounding choices later, I’ve transformed from unremarkable student, to desperate father, to damn near full-time education activist. Not because my story is special. It’s not. Indeed, my story is too common.

Having seen the immense power of school choice, and the real need for parents to have options when they encounter an educational crossroads for their child, how could I be anything other than a school choice advocate?

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

You would think that white progressives would be the biggest champion of empowering poor families, especially those from historically marginalized communities, with the same opportunities they enjoy. But it isn’t so. Locked between their affectionate preference for organized labor and disorganized people of color, they will side with labor while offering contorted fantasies about  “shared” interests with the poor.

They will make the argument that what is best for labor is best for everyone, including denying school choice to families that have a life or death need for it.

Over the last year or so I’ve consistently encountered anti-reform illiberals in one form or another. The empty nesters, the Ph.d candidates, the ivory tower administrators, the unionist re-Tweeters, and of course, my favorite, the childless urban hipsters slumming in organizations paid to blackwash pro-union plantation management rhetoric.

The thing they have in common? They all forthrightly suggest that providing school choice for poor families of color is not good for the families, or public education in general.

“What about the kids they leave behind” many have asked. As if anyone in white America makes a school decision for their children based upon the “left behind” effect. If that were the case, there would be no segregated schools in the United States.

My one simple question in these exchanges is “how did you make choices for your own child”?

The answers I hear are frustrating and enlightening and full of hypocrisy.

How do we explain the fact that so many wannabe progressives who oppose school choice refuse to put their own children in the schools they want kept open for poor families?

Look at the offenses and tell me if you see a trend.

Starting at the very top, there is President Barack Obama, who enjoyed the privilege of a private college prep education. He now sends his children to private schools. Yet, his Department of Justice is moving to block school choice in Louisiana, citing its impact on integration.

That’s doubly puzzling given the fact that Eric Holder, Obama’s leader of the now anti-choice DOJ, was the beneficiary of a highly exclusive education. The son of immigrants, he attended New York’s Stuyvesant High School, a selective admissions high school that has been accused of racial bias in enrollment.

And, Diane Ravitch, a salty axe against school choice for years, says little about her parents choice for her two brothers. They went to private school when the Great American School System didn’t work out. Further, her grandchildren could have attended schools that need integrating, something she professes to be important, but instead took full advantage of residential privilege which got them into exclusive schools.

As per a 2011 Washington City Paper story, the difference between the posh school Ravitch’s grandchildren will experience is world’s apart from schools just three miles away.

A grandmother of three, Ravitch is also excited about her youngest grandson enrolling, this September, at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, one of New York’s most coveted neighborhood schools. Some 65 percent of the kids are white; 80 percent meet or exceed state standards in math, English, science, and social studies. The PTA fundraises, via PayPal and employer matching, to support supplemental programs. At P.S. 167 in Crown Heights, less than three miles away, 99 percent of students are black and Hispanic; fewer than half perform at grade-level in math and reading. There is a PTA, but it doesn’t have a PayPal-enabled website.

Then there is Matt Damon. Isn’t he precious.

He’s endeared himself to the reactionary union-first movement and is now a viral legend for his performance at “Save Our Schools” rallies.

In one speech he says the following:

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

And now?

Two years after that strong stand for public education Damon has a new tune.

Sending our kids in my family to private school was a big, big, big deal. And it was a giant family discussion. But it was a circular conversation, really, because ultimately we don’t have a choice. I mean, I pay for a private education and I’m trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It’s unfair.

See how things change when one’s own children are part of the “choice” equation?

The reader might be tempted to excuse these folks because they are elites. These are people with names and status and blessings in life that elevate them. It could be easy to discount their “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” use of school choice because they are abnormally privileged.

That would miss the point. They are not unique.

Below them is a nation of left-leaning opponents of school choice who find every selective pathway for their own children, including use of the most common method, residential privilege, and for urbanites, selective magnets, open enrollment, and political advocacy for enrollment boundaries that create enclaves.

American suburbs were not built by economic development as much as school choice. The creation of ideal settings for raising children, including schools that would be protected against the “element” of socially disfavored groups, is the primary version of “school choice.” We don’t argue much about revoking that free pass, opponents just assail choice for the poor and people of color as being ideologically irreligious.

We have lots of local examples of that here in Minnesota.

Robert Panning-Miller who joyfully attacks “neoliberal” “corporatists” who want to “privatize” public education, attended Marian Catholic High School.

His kids attend a magnet school that is a haven for educators not willing to send their children to any of the public schools that need integrating.

Similarly, teachers in Panning-Miller’s anti-reform activist circle share his difference between walk and talk. Some have no children at all but love to get all preachy about what is best for our kids. Those with kids have chosen private schools, magnet schools, and out-of-district schools.

Most have chosen the whitest possible option instead of schools that desperately need to be integrated.

To be clear, it isn’t just white progressives.

Even some people of color who have benefited from choice are willing to join the door-closing efforts of anti-choice activism.

Example: Julian Helig Vasquez, a Ravichian academic who conducts studies to discount school choice, benefited from a private high school education. Now he sides with white progressives, even to the point of attacking elders in the black community like Howard Fuller who support school choice as part of their long view of civil rights.

That reminds me of people of color who benefited from affirmative action, only to later denounce it as bad for black people.

All of this should make us mindful of the famous quote from John Dewey:

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

The reflection every merciful and generous person must attend to is one that rejects any political ideology that assigns the poorest and neediest families and children to stations with the fewest options, thus, imperiling our self-conceptions of justice and democracy.

Ironically, nobody needs that reflection more than white progressives who profess one thing for us, while enjoying something very different for their kids.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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