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Autonomy and speed in NOLA

By all accounts, last year’s school enrollment season was hell for many parents in New Orleans. The shortcomings were celebrated by critics and described this way by the Times-Picayune:

New Orleans public school enrollment faltered badly Wednesday when hundreds of parents arrived at the lone resource center to sign up their children — only to be turned away for lack of staff to help them. It was an embarrassing fiasco for an enrollment process that has received national praise and aims to make life easier for families.

A year later even the critics (and the media) must admit the process went far smoother for parents:

After a disastrous summer enrollment session a year ago, EnrollNOLA transformed the process for families still trying to find a spot in New Orleans public schools. The late enrollment period opened Wednesday, and parents were able to quickly get their children matched to a school. Unlike last year, they didn’t have to stand in the sun for hours on end. The enrollment center this year was set up at Dillard University, which allowed families to wait in an air-conditioned auditorium.

This is one elegant example of how a de-bureaucratized system can be more responsive to parents. As I spend more time in New Orleans I see signs of how it’s easier here to put pressure on the system and get improvements for kids. It says something about the competence of their workers and the speed of their remedies, two things that frustrate efforts to fix inequities in public education nationally.

It’s the autonomy that schools have here to control what happens at their sites that make the difference. Unlike school leaders in other cities who often have control over less than 20% of their budget and even less control over the development of policies and procedures, NOLA schools are empowered to resolve critical challenges much faster.

Having served as a school board member in an urban district with many equity challenges I’m amazed when anything important gets fixed quickly

Improvements for exceptional kids

Consider the Southern Poverty Law Center’s charges against the New Orleans public schools for failing to live up to statutory requirements protecting students with disabilities.

Their organization said:

Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.

That’s a serious problem found in many schools districts (including mine back in Minneapolis). Yet, in record time the flexible governance system of New Orleans charter schools addressed the longstanding issues (problems that go back before hurricane Katrina).

Education reporter Danielle Drellinger detailed some of the changes:

These changes improve access and funding, but even more importantly, schools have improved the quality of services provided to special needs students. One of the advantages of charter schools is the autonomy to innovate and respond to needs quicker and better.

ReNEW Schools offers a program for students with moderate to intensive emotional disturbance and related disabilities.  Collegiate Academies has a Special Education Transition Program to support job-skill development for students with intellectual disabilities.

FirstLine Schools offer a therapeutic gardening program for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The winner of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune’s education entrepreneur contest, Vera Triplett, is starting Noble Minds Charter School,which will work with children who struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges.

And more innovation is in the works. Next fall, in collaboration with OPSB and Tulane Medical School, the RSD will open a therapeutic program for students with mental and behavioral health needs that affect their ability to succeed in a traditional school setting.

To be fair, critics will say being sued goes a long toward helping school districts find religion on equity. These big changes to special education might had never happened were it not for community activism and loyal opposition.

Still, in my experience, a district can be sued time and again over several decades and still not respond with adequate resources or  an implementation of workable remedies. Being fair to the leaders of NOLA schools means admitting they put their money, talent, and time where it matters most, into solutions for exceptional children.

Making student discipline fairer

Examples of responsiveness to community pressure don’t end with special education. Some of New Orleans’ best performing open enrollment schools came under attack two years ago for what activists called “out of control” discipline practices. In the context of Louisiana where black students are disciplined at disproportionate rates the charges in NOLA were particularly disturbing.

After healthy portions of humble pie school leaders returned with $1 million in investments to switch gears from a “no excuses” student discipline scheme to a restorative justice model. I’m on the hunt for actual numbers but I’m told that schools like Sci Academy halved their suspension rates without compromising the learning environment that makes them one of the top performing NOLA schools.

That contrasts my district in Minnesota where long standing issues with race, student discipline and special education warehousing has led community organizers (including me) to call some of the schools “starter prisons.” Social justice activists have been fighting this battle in Minneapolis for more than a decade.

But, don’t misunderstand me. None of this is to say schools or the leaders in New Orleans are getting everything right. To the contrary, these examples are about what they do when they get things really wrong. There is a tension here between them and the community they want to serve. Community members rightfully point out the inequities within the system and the leaders reflect, then respond with resources and new plans.

If only all government worked that way.

With the coming anniversary of hurricane Katrina in August there will be disputes about whether or not school reform has cured everything for low test scores to economic justice to rectal cancer. In all of the crossfire one thing might get lost that goes beyond higher test scores. For those of us who care about justice there appears to be great advantage to having an education system flexible enough to self-correct  major issues within months rather than years.

Community activism, school autonomy, and administrative speed get the job done.

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.

Why?

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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