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How to save a school without saving kids

The video above tells the exultant story of one community’s fight to save a beloved high school from closure. It’s narrated by a friendly female voice over slick graphics and fast transitions between copy-written messages that artfully define school reformers as bad guys and teacher unionists as defenders of community values.

The narrator frames the story in a way that holds teachers up as allies in the struggle for better schools. She says:

School reform shouldn’t pit parents and teachers against each other. In one Twin Cities community, parents understood this. They knew the could raise money from big foundations by saying they were going to focus on simply getting rid of bad teachers but these parents hadn’t actually encountered many teachers that didn’t care about their kids and they understood that real improvement needed frontline teachers in classrooms to carry it out, so instead, they decided to build relationships with teachers and collaborate to improve schools.

You get the picture. Heroic teachers and engaged parents locked arms to fight the power. Overwhelmed by this irrepressible surge of community action the school board reversed itself and decided to reinvest in the school rather than closing it.

It’s an amazing story with one regrettable problem.

It’s all a lie. Not a misunderstanding of the facts or a simple matter of differences opinion about what happened, but a level of manipulative and deceptive storytelling that could be a case study in disinformation. The people who made this video, namely the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, should be ashamed.

How do I know? I was there.

Closing North High

When I joined the Minneapolis Board of Education in 2007 no school was suffering more than North Community High School. Still, it was Minneapolis’ oldest school with generations of legacy built into its ethos.

Located on the city’s “Northside” where blacks and Jews settled during times when black home owners could cause riots by moving to other Minneapolis neighborhoods, and Jews suffered social exclusion in a city once dubbed America’s capital of anti-semitism, NCHS managed to provide a strong education to many. Among them Floyd B. Olson, the first governor elected from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party who graduated in 1909; the  world famous Andrews Sisters (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”); and Morris Day and Terry Lewis from The Time.

By the time Minneapolis Public Schools administration and board reluctantly considered closing NCHS it was a faint hologram of its better days.

After an NAACP educational adequacy lawsuit against the State of Minnesota gave neighborhood parents access to other city high schools with fuller academic programs or open enrollment to attend suburban schools with better academics and sports programs, NCHS was a shell housing a small population of unfortunate kids. The school lagged in test scores.  There were significant safety concerns. Fewer parents trusted the school.

In the six years between 2004 and 2010 enrollment plunged from 1,100 to 265 (it was built for 1,600 students). With fewer students came less programming. Compared to the district’s wealthiest, whitest high schools (South and Southwest high schools) NCHS had a third of the academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular offerings.

If that wasn’t a serious enough equity problem, the cost of warehousing kids NCHS’ baron building was $4,000 more per pupil each year than spent in the better stocked high schools.

Ironically, when all of this culminated in a proposal to phase out NCHS and get its students to safe harbor the president of the local chapter of the NAACP issued a call for the remaining black parents in Minneapolis Public Schools to pull their kids out of the district schools as a protest.

That is the inescapable context Annenberg sidestepped. Apparently their purpose is not educate, but to indoctrinate the public.  That brand of “school reform” does more harm than good.

Saving North High

The recommendation to close NHS predictably riled community activists, especially those in the NCHS alumni association. They quickly started an email campaign to save the school and were quickly joined by political and idealogical opportunists including the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, their recently purchased organizing front group Neighborhood Organizing for Change (an outfit born out of ACORN’s implosion after the “pimp assistance” scandal), and a ragtag group of self-identifying “socialists.”

One thing seemed clear: it wasn’t NCHS parents that were animated to save the school.

If I had any doubt about that it was satisfied during the public hearing for school closure we were obligated to hold. The hearing drew over 300 people who came to deliver comments to the board. As a courtesy parents of NCHS students were allowed to speak first. There were few. I remember two. One was a white suburban parent who had deftly figured out that NHS’ gifted magnet program had opening, low class size, and a level of segregation for the magnet kids from the other students that should have qualified it as a separate school. The other was a black parent who really believed NHS could make a comeback even though expensive efforts to make the school attractive to neighborhood parents failed to attract them back from better offers outside of their school boundaries.

Several alumni came to speak out against closure while admitting the school wasn’t good enough for their own children. Many had no children at all but wanted the building to stay open as a monument to their high school glory days.

Two state representatives, Bobbie Champion and Jeff Hayden, released a statement denouncing the recommendation to close . Champion said “I am not ready to give up on our future, but that appears to be what some people think we should do…This is my home and this is our community. We need to stand together for our schools, for our children, and for our community. Now is not the time to cut and run.”

Hayden said “There are families that are feeling really blind sided by this.”

Congressman Keith Ellison also chimed in with a letter read by his aide. His message was similarly populist.

It was hypocritical and opportunistic for these elected officials to jump on the “save North High” bandwagon. Champion’s kids were using open enrollment to attend school in the suburbs. Hayden’s were in private school. Ellison had selected private schools and schools across town.

The protests of teachers felt equally hypocritical. The majority of Minneapolis teachers live outside of Minneapolis. Those in the city that choose Minneapolis Public Schools use their staff privilege to get their kids in one of three upper-class schools of privilege that always have limited seating for the city’s unwashed kids.

And the rent-a-protestors at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change? Their leader at the time, Steve Fletcher, was childless (their new executive director is a private school parent). He had grown up in the suburbs as the son of two suburban teachers.

I can’t remember any of them asking about the conditions of the kids in the school, only how we might keep the building open.

In the end I voted with my colleagues on the board to keep NCHS open. After three years of fighting with the district to turn things around for that school, and seeing no community advocacy, I thought the new energy could hold district staff accountable for improvements. I amended the motion to keep NCHS open with a demand that its students be offered curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular offerings equal to other Minneapolis high schools.

It was a gambit that didn’t pay off.

Community members who pledged with perfect earnestness to knock on doors, talk to parents, and recruit neighborhood students to believe in the school again fatigued after saving the school. Their first target was to get another 125 student within a year and they failed to convince  that small number of students to return to their neighborhood high school. Enrollment slid from 265 to 225.

And, the district failed to bring curricular offerings to anything resembling a comprehensive high school program.

Kids left behind

It’s particularly troubling to me that Annenberg’s video avoids the one question that should drive all education stories: “how are the children”? The answer is devastating. If the situation was terrible when district staff recommended closing the school it is even worse now.

As an example, several NCHS students came to a board meeting this past fall to complain that their high school is the only one in the district without working bathrooms or running water for their sports teams. They have port-a-potties. No lights for night time football practice either.

NCHS still offers its students the least academic amount of opportunity when compared to other district high schools:

MPS Courses

And, academically, things have gone from bad to unconscionable.

Since NCHS was saved reading proficiency has tumbled from 26% to %17; math proficiency from 8% to 2%; and the four year graduation rate slid from 48% to 37%.

These numbers should help you predict what life holds for NCHS students.

They should also say everything about the misguided liberal religiosity about saving schools – which is proxy for saving jobs in schools. We get so bound up in inch-deep hipster activism that we fail to get beyond the cartoons and ideological fluff. It’s that partisan lazy mindedness that makes us useless to social justice movements.

If we are about politics we will continue to allow our strings to be pulled by the progressive vs. conservative rhetoric of the school reform abyss.

If we are about justice we question our friends and enemies alike about the true condition of children.

Currently, no one is doing that for North Community High School students because, apparently, the school has been saved.

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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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