Posts Tagged ‘problem schools’

The Education Gangs of Los Angeles

September 14, 2015


Meet the decorated former Green Beret

who is rallying Los Angeles parents to fight

the unions and reform the worst public schools,

one school at a time.


Anaheim, Calif.

When most people think of this quintessential California suburb, the Angels baseball team or Disneyland probably comes to mind. But a five-minute drive from the “happiest place on earth” takes you to Palm Lane Elementary, ground zero in a fight between teachers unions and parents who are trying to fix California’s broken public schools. The conflict—as so often in American education—boils down to unionized teachers trying to stop minority children from attending charter schools.

Ninety percent of Palm Lane students come from low-income families. About 85% are Latino, and more than half aren’t native English speakers. Palm Lane has been on the California Education Department’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. In 2013 a mere 38% of students scored proficient or better in English on state tests. And Palm Lane is hardly an exception in the area: Four other elementary schools in Anaheim rank even lower on the state’s Academic Performance Index.

But Alfonso Flores is leading a grass-roots insurgency against the union-controlled regime at Palm Lane. The former teacher and father of four kids who attend public schools in Hesperia has used the state’s “parent trigger” law, passed in 2010, to force changes at a half-dozen schools in California. The law stipulates that if a majority of parents at a struggling school sign a petition, they can compel changes in school management or personnel. Sometimes, the parents contract with a charter-school operator. In one case, they hired a new principal. Parents have also used the law as a negotiating tool to force the district to make improvements like adding more staff.

As the new school year was getting started, Mr. Flores sat down with me in the park next to Park Lane that has served as a meeting place and training ground for parents in the trigger campaign. The 45-year-old decorated Gulf War veteran has plenty of stories to tell about doing battle with teachers unions that bring heavy artillery to every fight.

“It’s grass-roots,” he says of parent-trigger efforts, “and that’s what scares the teachers unions.”

Mr. Flores, a self-described “anchor baby” of Mexican immigrants, knows firsthand the value of escaping bad schools. As a child in the 1970s, he spent three hours daily on a bus trekking to and from a school in the San Fernando Valley under the Los Angeles Unified School District’s desegregation plan. Busing to achieve racial integration is hardly optimal, but Mr. Flores says it did allow him to avoid the horrendous schools in the Los Angeles inner city.

As a senior in high school, he signed up with the U.S. Army and after graduating served tours in Colombia, the Persian Gulf and Somalia. “I wanted a way to thank my country for allowing my parents to bring me to this great nation,” he explains. In 10 years the Green Beret earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, and he lost a kidney after being wounded in the 1993 rescue mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, that was depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”

During his military service, Mr. Flores says, he was struck by his fellow soldiers’ deficient educations. They had to “redo grammar school” because they “couldn’t write a simple report,” he recalls. “The Pentagon has complained about high-school kids not able to pass the ASVAB”—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

After an honorable discharge in 1998, he got his teaching credential from California State University at Dominguez Hills. His first teaching job was at Normandie Avenue, one of the worst elementary schools in L.A. One teacher, Mr. Flores recalls, would watch television while students filled in coloring sheets. A new principal tried to raise standards, he says, but if she entered a classroom without the teacher’s permission, she would get slapped with a union grievance.

In 2007, after being named a district teacher of the year, Mr. Flores was hired as the founding principal of the Global Education Academy, a charter school in South Los Angeles with an almost entirely black and Latino student population. Although most teachers were young and inexperienced, the charter far outperformed neighboring public schools. In 2008, 88% of its students scored proficient or advanced in math, compared with 37% districtwide.

The key to improving student performance, Mr. Flores says, was engaging parents. At most public schools, “parents are treated with hostility,” but at charters, administrators and teachers tend to “embrace parents as partners.” Teachers unions and their liberal allies blame poverty for bad schools, but Mr. Flores calls that an insult to good teachers who are helping poor children succeed: “Poverty is not an issue.”

In 2011 Mr. Flores joined the nonprofit Parent Revolution, inspired by the group’s role in California’s first parent-trigger campaign, at McKinley Elementary in Compton. McKinley parents wanted a high-performing charter operator to take over the failing school but were stymied by the teachers union, which had joined forces with the school district.

The union tactics at McKinley included requiring parents to show up at the school during the workday with a photo ID—a good way to scare off illegal immigrants—to verify their signatures. The trigger petition failed after a lengthy court battle, but Mr. Flores says the injustice propelled him to enlist as a parent organizer. “Before you begin a petition drive, you have to start a parent organization,” Mr. Flores says. Parents “have to be aware of how the system works and how the system is broken.”

For instance, “parents are unaware that principals don’t have power to dismiss or even hire their own staff. Districts do a really good job of keeping parents away from all of this information,” Mr. Flores notes. “Once they learn, it agitates them even more.”

But the biggest challenge is collecting signatures while being barraged by the unions. In every petition campaign, he says, “they use the same accusations and playbook.” Two standbys are false charges that the petition organizers are bribing parents to sign and that the people gathering the signatures are paid by outside groups.

The unions hit the “outsider” label hard, Mr. Flores says, alleging that petition organizers “have a political agenda—that we’re trying to privatize education.” Another union tactic: Overplay the collateral damage, telling parents that a petition could force the school to close. When all else fails, the unions try to junk the petition signatures. In the parent-trigger drive Mr. Flores helped organize at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto in 2012, the school board invalidated nearly 100 signatures. But a state judge ordered the district to accept the petition and allow the charter conversion.

Compared with fighting unions, Mr. Flores’s encounters with local gang leaders have been a relative breeze.

“In every campaign I’ve been a part of, you have situations where you have to respect the community,” Mr. Flores says. “That means if the local community leader is a minister, you meet with the minister. In Watts, it was a gang leader.” That was three years ago, he says, when Latino parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary were seeking to oust the principal. A black pastor said he had to get permission from a local gang to mobilize parents, and he set up a meeting at the gang leader’s apartment.

“There were all types of weapons throughout the house. I remember opening the door and that distinctive smell of marijuana,” Mr. Flores recalls. “I was afraid because I was aware of the turf battles—the fact that I was Latino and they were African-American.”

But the only triggers that came up in the meeting were of the parental variety. To Mr. Flores’s amazement, the gang members supported the Weigand Avenue takeover. One, he says, “happened to be a former student at the school and said, ‘You need to do this for the future generation of kids, because I am a product of this school.’ He was very self-aware.” While parents gathered signatures, Mr. Flores says, the gang “would egg us on and tell us they were sending parents our way.”

The petition at Weigand succeeded, but Mr. Flores says he grew frustrated by what he perceived as an inefficient use of resources at Parent Revolution. In 2014 he left to launch his own school-reform outfit, Excellent Educational Solutions.

Later that year, he got a call from Gloria Romero—the former Democratic state Senate majority leader, who co-authored the parent-trigger law—about organizing a campaign at Palm Lane in Anaheim.

Palm Lane had cycled through five principals in three years. Mr. Flores says the catalyst for the petition drive at the school was the removal of a principal who had “started making teachers accountable” by taking steps like requiring them to assign homework. Teachers howled, and soon the school board reassigned the principal—to work as a teacher at another school.

Parents went public with their outrage. Ms. Romero proposed that Mr. Flores help mobilize them for a petition drive. When presented with various trigger options, parents chose to go for a charter-school conversion.

Mr. Flores used the park outside the school for daily parent meetings. Some mornings, he says, “we had to be out here at 6:30” to catch parents before they went to work. With a three-member team and $60,000 budget, Mr. Flores gave parents a tutorial in public-school dysfunction.

“Parents don’t know about API”—the state’s Academic Performance Index—“but they know when their kids don’t have homework, it is an issue,” he says.

Once again, the union pulled out its playbook. Signature gatherers were accused of bribing parents with iPads. The Anaheim City School District superintendent wrote a letter warning parents: “It has been reported to us that there are people in our community who have been paid by an organization to gather parent signatures for a petition that could completely change the way some of our schools are run.”

The parents were unmoved. More than 60% signed the petition—but the district threw out 133 of the 488 signatures. The matter moved to the courts, and in July a state superior court judge reprimanded the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair” and ordered the school board to accept the petition.

The school board has appealed and doubled the contract for its legal firm, to $678,000. The fight has garnered plenty of headlines in California, but state leaders like Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have been notably silent.

Mr. Flores notes that the Democrat-dominated legislature in Sacramento has made a point of spending big on schools with a high concentration of disadvantaged students, with little to show for it. “You could throw millions of dollars into these schools,” he says, “and if there is no accountability, you have the same situation.”

When it comes to education reform, Mr. Flores says, “parents shouldn’t be leading this, it should be the state.” But given the stakes, he adds, sounding a militant note, sometimes “you have to force change.”

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

Parent-Trigger V-Day

July 21, 2015

Alexander Hamilton said an independent judiciary is essential to guard against “serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.” Last week a California judge reaffirmed this wisdom by overruling local school district officials who tried to thwart parents from using the state’s parent-trigger law.

In January parents filed a petition to convert Palm Lane Elementary in Anaheim into a charter under California’s 2010 parent-trigger law, which allows a majority of parents in any failing school to force changes. Palm Lane had made the state Department of Education’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. Fewer than 40% of students scored proficient in English in 2013. About 85% are Hispanic, and most are low-income.

School district officials and the teachers union tried to stymie parents at every turn. The union even complained that signature gatherers were bribing parents with free iPads, a false allegation that the district superintendent repeated in a cautionary letter to parents. In February the school district rejected the petition on dubious grounds, which included claims that parents had made paperwork errors, such as failing to “submit a separate document that identifies the lead petitioners.”

Though more than 60% of parents signed the petition, the district threw out dozens of signatures that could not be “verified.” That is, the parents could not be reached between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to confirm that they signed the petition. Maybe that’s because they were working. This left parents 12 signatures short of the 50% threshold, so they sued the district for improperly rejecting the petition.

Last Thursday Orange County Superior Court judge Andrew Banks ruled in favor of the parents on all counts and rebuked the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair.” He also scored district officials for violating their obligation under the trigger law to work in good faith with parents—a responsibility many other districts have disregarded as well.

Judge Banks has ordered the district to accept the petition and allow parents to immediately begin soliciting charter school proposals. Palm Lane will become the second school in California where parents have successfully triggered large-scale reform. There would be more if unions working with district officials hadn’t intimidated parent organizers.

Palm Lane parents were assisted by the trigger law’s author, former state Democratic Senator Gloria Romero, who helped seek outside legal counsel. The case shows how far the union and administrative bureaucracy will go to preserve their monopoly, even breaking the law. Palm Lane’s parents are heroes for fighting back, but the scandal is how hard they had to fight to fulfill a basic legal right.


All Arne’s Children

July 14, 2015

Arne Duncan has had his good moments supporting charter schools, but the Education Secretary continues to fight vouchers for private schools. So it’s worth noting that he has decided to send his own children to a private school in Chicago.

During his time in Washington, Mr. Duncan’s two children have been attending public schools in suburban Virginia. But his wife has now moved back to Chicago, and come fall their children will study at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools—which he attended and where tuition runs about $30,000 a year. That’s also where Barack and Michelle Obama sent their children before moving to Washington and sending Sasha and Malia to the tony Sidwell Friends.

Mr. Duncan’s choice is all the more striking since he used to run the Chicago public schools. He also stood aside in 2009 when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin managed to kill the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington until Speaker John Boehner and the Republican Congress revived it.

The Education Secretary was also a muted voice when the Obama Justice Department filed a lawsuit aimed at scuttling Louisiana’s innovative voucher program. And he was silent again when the Colorado Supreme Court recently invoked a leftover of 19th-century bigotry—its anti-Catholic Blaine amendment—to stop students from receiving vouchers for private schools.

We wish Arne Duncan’s children every success. Too bad he didn’t fight for similar options for families not as fortunate as his.

Charter-school parents march in New York to secure a civil right: education.

October 11, 2013

The Brooklyn Bridge

It’s too bad every New Yorker who plans to vote in the city’s mayoral election Nov. 5 couldn’t be at the Brooklyn Bridge Tuesday morning. They would have seen the single most important issue in the race between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota. It’s not stop-and-frisk.

Thousands and thousands of charter-school parents with their young children—most looked to be in the first to fourth grades—marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to save their schools.

When Bill de Blasio won the Democratic nomination for mayor, the first question many asked was whether Mr. de Blasio’s intention to heavily regulate the police department’s stop-and-frisk program would put the city’s years of low-crime calm at risk.

But this big Brooklyn Bridge march of mothers, fathers and kids alters the calculus of next month’s vote. The crime issue, though important, is ultimately about self-interest.

By contrast, most New York voters—especially better-off white voters who’ve already made it here—have no direct stake whatsoever in New York City’s charter schools. They do, however, have a stake in the integrity of their political beliefs.

For decades, New York’s inner-city schools sent wave after wave of students into the world without the skills to do much more than achieve a minimal level of lifetime earnings, if that. This failure, repeated in so many large cities, remains the greatest moral catastrophe in the political life of the United States.

In New York, 20,000 parents and children marched on Oct. 8 in support of charter schools.

In 1999, the charter-school movement began in New York City with a handful of schools given independence from years of encrusted union rules and city regulations that made real learning virtually impossible in the city’s chaotic schools. The project flourished. Now nearly 200 charter schools teach some 70,000 students.

When the legislative limit on new charter-school openings arrives, New York’s next mayor will have to lobby the Albany legislature hard for permission to expand these lifeboats for the city’s poorest kids. So let’s put the politics of the mayoral election this way: Some 20,000 black and Hispanic parents and their kids would not have traveled from their neighborhoods—77% of the city’s charters are in Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn—to march across that famous bridge if Bill de Blasio were not running for mayor. They think Mr. de Blasio is going to kill the charter-school movement in New York City. And they think this is a civil-rights issue.

One thing these 20- and 30-something parents have in common with their counterparts who live in Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Manhattan below 96th Street is that they weren’t even born when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. But for them, you couldn’t miss that the dream described 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial was alive on the Brooklyn Bridge.

A lady with a bullhorn: “What do we want? Choice! When do we want it? Now!” A sign: “Let my children learn.” And bringing the politics to the present, one sign said simply: “Charters for the 99%.”

Many voters in the parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn that have good public- or private-school options will still vote for Bill de Blasio, either because they don’t spend much time on these out-of-area moral dilemmas or they think: It can’t be that bad, can it? Bill de Blasio won’t actually kill these people’s schools, will he?

Yes, it can be that bad.

In a now-famous statement, Mr. de Blasio recently said of charter-school pioneer Eva Moskowitz: “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK?” What this means is that Mr. de Blasio, under pressure from the city’s teachers union, will start demanding rent payments from public charter schools that now operate rent-free in the same buildings occupied by traditional public schools.

If the next mayor makes the charters pay rent in the city’s expensive real-estate market—essentially imposing a regressive tax on them—over time the schools’ budgets will suffocate and they’ll start to die. It will be a slow death, so Mr. de Blasio’s voters won’t notice what’s happening in Harlem, Brooklyn and the South Bronx.

The city’s charter movement has attracted innovative school operators such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Harlem Village Academies and others. For the parents who win the annual lottery to get their kids into these schools, the result is an educational environment of achievement, discipline and esprit—what any parent wants. Given Mr. de Blasio’s intentions, these innovators will start to leave the city. One of the best things New York City has ever done will go away.

Sounds melodramatic? You bet it is. Why do you think those people were on that bridge?

How Democratic politicians like Bill de Blasio and the unionized teachers’ movement ended up so at odds with the city’s black children will fall to future historians to explain. But that’s where they are. What remains to be seen, and will be seen Nov. 5, is how many New Yorkers are in that same place.

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A version of this article appeared October 10, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Bill de Blasio and Civil Rights.

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Education Failure in Philadelphia

September 26, 2013

Only 40% of students can read to standard. Union says so what?

  • The Wall Street Journal
  • September 24, 2013, 7:22 p.m. ET

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has extended a lifeline to Philadelphia’s hemorrhaging schools attached to a requirement for modest education and fiscal reforms. No thanks, says the teachers union. Herewith a parable of education decline.

Philadelphia’s schools are a textbook case of chronic, systemic failure. Woeful finances and academics compelled the state in 2001 to install a five-member School Reform Commission. Test scores have improved but are still pitiful. Last year only about 40% of students scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test, but 99.5% of teachers are rated satisfactory.

The commission’s greatest contribution has been to provide an escape valve for students. Enrollment at charters has grown to about 56,000 from 12,000 in 2000. The number of students attending traditional schools has shrunk by 25%, but those schools haven’t downsized as they’ve lost students.

Charters are paid roughly three-quarters as much on a per pupil basis as traditional schools. Yet savings from the charter expansion haven’t offset the increasing overhead and labor costs at traditional schools where the average teacher earns $110,000 in pay and benefits.

Teachers also don’t pay a cent for health benefits and can retire with a pension equal to 80% of their final salary after 30 years. As a bonus, the district pays the union $4,353 per member each year to administer dental, vision and retiree benefits. Its health and welfare fund had a $71 million surplus, according to its latest available tax filing in 2011.

The district last year had to borrow $300 million, and this summer two dozen schools were closed and 3,000 employees laid off (including about 600 teachers) to bridge another $300 million deficit. While the union blames state budget cuts, pay and benefit increases resulting from its last collective-bargaining agreement accounted for half the budget hole.

Mr. Corbett is offering the district a one-time $45 million grant and $120 million in recurring funds from a one-percentage-point city sales tax increase on the condition that teachers accept lower pay and benefits as well as “work rule” changes. The district wants to cut base salaries by 5% to 13% to offset the rising cost of pensions and for teachers to contribute to their health benefits. Yet the major sticking points are Mr. Corbett’s school reforms that would eliminate teacher seniority rights and base future pay increases on more rigorous evaluations that include student learning.

Teachers have little reason to budge since their previous contract remains in effect and they continue to earn raises based on longevity. Thus the union will likely drag out the negotiations until after next fall’s election when they hope to elect a Democratic Governor and renegotiate a bailout without Mr. Corbett’s preconditions.

Meantime, union leaders will whipsaw the GOP Governor for increasing corporate tax credits for private school scholarships that benefit low-income students in failing schools and then for not caring about Philadelphia’s poor, black kids. The tragedy is that Mr. Corbett’s ideas will help those kids while the union is dooming most of them to lives of underachievement and poverty. Where are Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama when they really could help?

A version of this article appeared September 25, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Failure in Philadelphia.

Justice Department vs. Louisiana Voucher Kids

September 25, 2013
  • OPINION The Wall Street Journal
  • September 23, 2013, 7:09 p.m. ET

Eric Holder hauls out a 40-year-old civil rights case to attack minority school choice.


School-choice programs have faced no shortage of legal challenges en route to their adoption in 18 states and the District of Columbia. But none of the challenges is so perverse or perplexing as the Justice Department’s motion last month to wield desegregation decrees to halt Louisiana’s voucher program.

As part of its efforts to boost educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, last year Louisiana enacted the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program. The statewide program provides tuition vouchers to children from families with incomes below 250% of the poverty line whose children otherwise would attend public schools that the state has graded C, D or F. This year, roughly 8,000 children are using vouchers to attend private schools. Among those, 91% are minority and 86% would have attended public schools with D or F grades.

Attorney General Eric Holder argues the program runs afoul of desegregation orders, which operate in 34 Louisiana school districts. By potentially altering the racial composition of those schools by taking minority children out of failing public schools, the Justice Department asserts the program “frustrates and impedes the desegregation process.” It has asked a federal court to forbid future scholarships in those districts until the state requests and receives approval in each of the 22 or more cases that might be affected.

If successful, the Justice Department’s motion could thwart school choice—not just vouchers, but charter schools—in hundreds of districts across the country that are still subject to desegregation decrees. And it would deprive thousands of Louisiana schoolchildren, nearly all of them black, of the only high-quality educational opportunities they have ever had.

Such a result would turn the desegregation decrees on their head, for it would inflict grave harm on the very children who are the decrees’ intended beneficiaries. Properly understood, desegregation and school choice share a common aim: educational opportunity.

In its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court made that paramount goal clear, recognizing “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

After facing massive resistance to Brown, the Supreme Court approved the limited use of racial ratios for student assignments not to achieve enduring racial balance, but as a starting point in desegregating schools. Since then, the court repeatedly has struck down rigid adherence to racial ratios and has insisted that control of schools must be returned to local authorities as soon as vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated.

But the Justice Department has been slow to cede control even in school districts that have become heavily minority, and districts are reluctant to relinquish federal funds that accompany desegregation decrees. Hence decrees remain in place many decades after the civil-rights abuses that gave rise to them.

Curiously, the Justice Department did not file its motion in any of the ongoing Louisiana desegregation cases. Instead, it seeks an injunction in Brumfield v. Dodd , a case filed nearly 40 years ago challenging a program that provided state funding for textbooks and transportation for private “segregation academies,” to which white students were fleeing to avoid integration. Since 1975, private schools have had to demonstrate that they do not discriminate in order to participate in that program.

The Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program restricts participation to private schools that meet the Brumfield nondiscrimination requirements. The program further requires private schools to admit students on a random basis. Thus the program clearly complies with Brumfield. And the Brumfieldcourt has no jurisdiction over the desegregation decrees to which the Justice Department seeks to subject the voucher program.

Nor can any court properly force the state to seek advance approval from the Justice Department for a clearly nondiscriminatory program that advances the education of black children. As the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, when it struck down the “pre-clearance” formula of the 1965 Voting Rights Act regarding federal approval for electoral changes, states cannot be forced to submit their decisions to federal oversight “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

The Justice Department’s motion has tremendous human implications, personified by Mary Edler, whose grandsons are using vouchers to attend kindergarten and second grade in a Louisiana private school. All of the public schools in their district are graded C, D or F. Thanks to the scholarship program, Mrs. Edler says, “My grandsons are flourishing at Ascension of Our Lord in all aspects. They have small classes and an outstanding principal and staff.” She calls the tuition vouchers a “true blessing”—one that will be lost if the Justice Department prevails.

In its zeal, the Justice Department has transformed a bipartisan education reform program into a partisan opportunity. On Sept. 17, House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders wrote an open letter to Attorney General Holder, calling Justice’s motion “extremely troubling and paradoxical in nature,” given that it hurts the “very children you profess to be protecting.”

On Sept. 18, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was joined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to denounce the Justice Department’s action. Mr. Jindal challenged administration officials “to come to Louisiana to meet face to face with these moms and dads and their kids and explain to them why [they] don’t think that these children deserve a great education.”

It won’t happen. Because for this Justice Department, desegregation long ago ceased to be about children or educational opportunities. It is about numbers and racial balance. If Justice succeeds in destroying Louisiana’s voucher program, the dreams and opportunities of countless children will perish with it.

Mr. Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and represents families and the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options defending the state’s voucher program.

A version of this article appeared September 24, 2013, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Justice Department vs. Louisiana Voucher Kids.

Book Reviews: ‘Reign of Error’ by Diane Ravitch & ‘The School Revolution’ by Ron Paul

September 23, 2013

In the debates over reforming public schools and promoting privatization, there’s precious little middle ground.

    • By Trevor Butterworth

We are, by now, familiar with the sense of a crisis in American education. Where America’s public schools once helped to power the economy, they now drag the country down: groves of apathy, stripped of rigor, suffocated by local and federal bureaucracy and self-serving unions. To Diane Ravitch, perhaps America’s best-known educational historian, the rot was there from the beginning: In books such as 2000’s “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms,” Ms. Ravitch portrayed public schools as playgrounds of progressive-education theorists, frenemies of promise, who loosened children from the grip of knowledge and lowered educational expectations. She became one the most passionate critics of American education, a mixture of W.B. Yeats and a Marine Corps drill sergeant, and an inspiration for supporters of school reform, school choice and rigorous testing—ideals enshrined in No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush administration’s signature educational initiative, which was built with committed bipartisan support.

And then, having diagnosed a crisis and marched the country up the hill of school reform, Ms. Ravitch had second thoughts: None of this is working, she said; NCLB has turned out to be a mess; accountability, whether of teachers or children, was implemented with all the finesse of a Viking raid on a monastery; and charter schools don’t deliver children into the promised land of innovation and effectiveness. Let’s all march back down again.

Reign of Error

By Diane Ravitch
Knopf, 396 pages, $27.95

Flash Quiz A Washington, D.C., student is drilled on multiplication as part of the Singapore Math curriculum, based on that of the Southeast Asian city-state.

“Reign of Error” ostensibly takes up the question that her previous book—2010’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”—failed to address: What should we be doing about American education and what should we avoid doing? Yet much time is expended on restating the same themes, without the humility that accompanied having to originally explain why she had soured on a movement she had done so much to push forward. Ms. Ravitch is no longer writing to explain herself. She is writing for victory, which means crushing a phalanx of enemies, real and imagined.

If there is a crisis in American education, Ms. Ravitch writes, it is only “because of persistent, orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she writes, “create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In Ms. Ravitch’s telling, these interests represent not reform but a new status quo in education, one created by a vast bipartisan alliance encompassing everyone from the American Legislative Exchange Council to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood. At the top of the pyramid sit Bill and Melinda Gates, who make the Koch brothers look like amateurs at advocacy funding. Because there is no crisis in American education, in Ms. Ravitch’s view, all these people are destroying the public-school system over an illusion.

The School Revolution

By Ron Paul
Grand Central, 224 pages, $23

It’s certainly provocative to say that there is no crisis in American education. But the crisis/no crisis frame is unhelpful, particularly when it comes to understanding the debate regarding student achievement. Consider American students’ performance in math. In introducing “The Facts About the International Test Scores,” Ms. Ravitch argues that these data are used by critics “to generate a crisis mentality, not to improve public schools but to undermine public confidence in them.” Of the 2011 results from TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which is seen as the gold standard for international math comparisons, Ms. Ravitch says that the American media presented the results “in a negative light, reflecting the reformers’ gloomy narrative. . . . But the media were wrong. American students performed surprisingly well in mathematics and science, well above the international average in grades 4 and 8.”

Yes, the U.S. performance on grade four wasn’t bad—84% of test takers were able, for example, to do basic addition, as opposed to an international average of 73%. But look more closely at the eighth-grade data and a chasm opens: 49% of Taiwanese students taking the test reached an advanced benchmark and 73% reached a high benchmark; for the U.S., these figures were 7% and 30%, respectively. The U.S. isn’t in the top group of math countries, and we are closer to the bottom scorers. Perhaps this isn’t a crisis, but is it not concerning?

Ms. Ravitch, it should be noted, chooses to characterize the TIMSS data rather than provide the reader with the actual numbers, despite the presence of numerous graphs in the appendix. She also quotes Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born American academic, at length, warning that the Chinese have perfected the art of test-taking and that if America strives to emulate or beat China or any of the nations that do better than us at math, we may “sacrifice the qualities of individualism and creativity that have been the source of our nation’s economic, social, and technological success.”

Really? The TIMSS advanced-math benchmark reflects mathematical reasoning, not rote-learning, skills. Does Ms. Ravitch want us to believe that the better kids are able to reason with numbers, the less creative they will be and the worse our economy will do? The labor market has increasingly paid a premium for analytic and quantitative skills, and, as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argued in “The Race Between Education and Technology” (2008), American schools haven’t been able to meet the demand.

When Ms. Ravitch comes to charter schools, she writes that advocates “claim they produce better academic results than traditional public schools and cost less because of lower overhead. Neither of these promises has been fulfilled.” Except, she adds, some charter schools do get consistently high scores, without gaming out weaker students, while providing a refuge for teachers from “overscripted, hyper-regulated, and over-tested public schools.” Before you think that might be a good thing, she warns that these successful charters “seem determined to reinvent the schoolhouse of a century ago” with their “no excuses” discipline. But what’s wrong with that? The evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Knowledge Is Power Program is impressive—and there is some evidence that these successes can be replicated in the public system. When nine underperforming schools in Houston adopted a no-excuses model, they saw similar gains in achievement (although they did ax half the teaching staff before beginning the experiment).

It is vital to hold the charter movement accountable. The most recent report from the Center for Research and Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University has noted that, while the sector is improving, it needs to raise standards further and close down more underperforming schools. All of which sounds reasonable. But success can’t really win with Ms. Ravitch. You are at best tolerable if you are a nonprofit charter, but you are still contributing to the destruction of “an essential element in our democracy”—that is, the public-school system.

Ms. Ravitch’s mixture of stridency, selectivity and spin is unfortunate because she has many important things to say: Any reform movement that trades with for-profit education puts public money on the line and needs to be scrutinized; a constellation of well-intentioned philanthropies shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves; and the rhetoric of crisis—a default tone for advocates of all stripes—risks burying a complex issue in simplistic thinking. But so does defending public schools at all costs.

Unlike “Reign of Error,” there isn’t much data to untangle in Ron Paul‘s “The School Revolution.” There is, instead, a first principle from which we can deduce the best way to educate our youth: freedom. Freedom teaches personal responsibility; but, warns Mr. Paul, “if the curriculum teaches Keynesian economics, if it reinforces welfare state politics, if it teaches the principle of the autonomous sovereignty of the state, then it undermines” parents who believe in freedom. Ergo, they must home-school—at least until children are able to teach themselves through the Internet.

This view will seem quixotic to many: Given the staggering amount of time and resources expended on remedial education in college, surely we should be more concerned about basic literacy and numeracy than whether America’s children are uncritically respectful of John Maynard Keynes. But Mr. Paul seems uninterested in the hard work of shaping minds. Instead, he is dazzled by the prospect of the Internet providing an end-run around the failed public-school system, something largely intuited from looking at the way kids appear adept at using technology compared with adults and from the spread of e-learning and cyber charter schools. This is painfully naïve, as Ms. Ravitch shows with brutal but reliable data on virtual schooling. A four-year Credo analysis of cyber charters in Pennsylvania, for example, found 100% of attendees performing significantly worse in math and reading than students in public schools.

But why would Mr. Paul read Ms. Ravitch? Why would anyone read these books who didn’t already agree with them? There once seemed to be middle ground in the education policy—indeed, No Child Left Behind was originally co-sponsored by none other than Edward Kennedy. Today the participants in the debate are at war over first principles, about which there can be no compromise. For the reader, this is the political, the ideological, the Manichaean problem with the education debate that education itself can’t seem to fix.

—Mr. Butterworth is a contributor to Newsweek and editor at large for

A version of this article appeared September 21, 2013, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Trying to Teach From First Principles.

Duncan Votes Present

September 9, 2013

The Wall Street Journal

September 6, 2013, 6:56 p.m. ET

The Education Secretary pleads ignorance about an anti-voucher lawsuit.

Asked in a radio interview this week about the Justice Department’s recent lawsuit to block Louisiana’s school voucher program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pleaded ignorance. “I’m not familiar with that lawsuit,” said the man whose department scrutinizes state education reforms in great detail as part of the Race to the Top competition. “That’s between the Department of Justice and the state of Louisiana.”

C’mon, Arne. You can do better than that. As President Obama’s cabinet secretaries go, Mr. Duncan has been one of the better ones. At least he has been willing to challenge a couple of the shibboleths of the union status quo. But if he really did first hear about the Louisiana lawsuit from a reporter, then maybe it’s time he returned to Chicago. He’s clearly not interested in his job anymore.

To recap for Mr. Duncan and his staff: Two weeks ago the Justice Department asked a federal court to enjoin 34 school districts in Louisiana from issuing vouchers under the statewide reform that passed in 2012. Only students from families with incomes below 250% of the poverty line and who attend schools graded C or lower are eligible. Ninety percent of recipients are black.

According to the lawsuit, vouchers “appeared to impede the desegregation process” by “increasing the racial identifiability” of certain schools. Incredibly, the suit objected that in some cases the departing black kids left their former schools with a student body with more white students. Meanwhile, studies from Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. have found that voucher recipients increase integration by letting minority children escape geographic school boundaries.

Governor Bobby Jindal this week asked the court for more time to respond to Justice’s suit because much of the data the state needs to make its case isn’t yet available. He also got to the heart of the matter by noting that the real motive for this lawsuit is union politics. The teachers unions have been trying to block the voucher plan by any means possible, but so far they’ve failed. Bringing in the feds for a desegregation gambit is merely the latest attempt.

The Advocate daily newspaper in Baton Rouge reports that former Justice Department Civil Rights chief Thomas Perez, who is now Labor Secretary, was nosing around the state earlier this year. On Thursday we reported that Mr. Perez had threatened California with a loss of federal cash if it didn’t exempt Teamster and Amalgamated Transit Union transit workers from pension reforms. If Mr. Perez is now also running education policy, it really is time for Mr. Duncan to leave.

A version of this article appeared September 7, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Duncan Votes Present.

The Evil Empire Strikes Back

November 20, 2012

Even when reform passes, teachers unions engage in massive resistance.

Education reformers had good news at the ballot box this month as voters in Washington and Georgia approved measures to create new charter schools. But as the reform movement gathers momentum, teachers unions are giving no quarter in their massive resistance against states trying to shake up failing public education.

In Georgia, 59% of voters approved a constitutional amendment that creates a new statewide commission to approve charter schools turned down by union-allied school boards. Instead of absorbing the message, charter opponents are planning to sue. The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus said last week it will join a lawsuit against Governor Nathan Deal to block the change. According to Caucus Chairman Emanuel Jones, because the ballot measure’s text didn’t discuss the details of how the schools were selected, “people didn’t know what they were voting for.”

This is the legal equivalent of sending back a hamburger because you didn’t know it came with meat. Georgia voters rallied around the charters because they want something better for their children than the dismal status quo. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that as of April only 67.4% of the state’s freshmen graduated from high school in four years. Last year a state investigation of Georgia schools found that dozens of public educators were falsifying test results to disguise student results.

A different battle is unfolding in Chicago, where the city’s teachers union is getting ready for its second showdown with Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In September, teachers went on strike and won a pay raise and limits on test scores in teacher evaluations. Now the union is fighting the city’s plan to close underused schools in an effort to consolidate resources.

Chicago Public Schools have some 600,000 seats but only 400,000 kids, while the district faces a $1 billion deficit next year and over $300 million of pension payments. Yet at a protest rally last week, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey declared that the union was “serving notice to elected officials, if you close our schools, there will be no peace in the city.” Remind you of Selma, circa 1965?

The tension is especially acute for black parents whose children are trapped in the worst public schools. In other states, black organizations that march in lockstep with Democrats and their union allies have also been slow to catch up, but the message is getting louder. In Harlem last year, thousands of parents protested the NAACP’s role in a lawsuit to block school closings and the expansion of charter schools.

No reform effort is too small for the teachers union to squash. In this month’s election, the National Education Association descended from Washington to distant Idaho, spending millions to defeat a measure that limited collective bargaining for teachers and pegged a portion of teachers’ salaries to classroom performance. In Alabama, Republican Governor Robert Bentley says he’s giving up on his campaign to bring charter schools to the state after massive resistance from the Alabama Education Association.

Unions fight as hard as they do because they have one priority—preserving their jobs and increasing their pay and benefits. Students are merely their means to that end. Reforming public education is the civil rights issue of our era, and each year that passes without reform sacrifices thousands more children to union politics.

Now that the election is over, is it too much to ask that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan drop their union coddling and speak truth to union power? Alas, it probably is.

A version of this article appeared November 19, 2012, on page A18 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Evil Empire Strikes Back

The Suburban Education Gap

November 16, 2012

The U.S. economy could be $1 trillion a year stronger if Americans only performed at Canada’s level in math.


Parents nationwide are familiar with the wide academic achievement gaps separating American students of different races, family incomes and ZIP Codes. But a second crucial achievement gap receives far less attention. It is the disparity between children in America’s top suburban schools and their peers in the highest-performing school systems elsewhere in the world.

Of the 70 countries tested by the widely used Program for International Student Assessment, the United States falls in the middle of the pack. This is the case even for relatively well-off American students: Of American 15-year-olds with at least one college-educated parent, only 42% are proficient in math, according to a Harvard University study of the PISA results. That is compared with 75% proficiency for all 15-year-olds in Shanghai and 50% for those in Canada.

Compared with big urban centers, America’s affluent suburbs have roughly four times as many students performing at the academic level of their international peers in math. But when American suburbs are compared with two of the top school systems in the world—in Finland and Singapore—very few, such as Evanston, Ill., and Scarsdale, N.Y., outperform the international competition. Most of the other major suburban areas underperform the international competition. That includes the likes of Grosse Point, Mich., Montgomery County, Md., and Greenwich, Conn. And most underperform substantially, according to the Global Report Card database of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.


David Gothard

The problem America faces, then, is that its urban school districts perform inadequately compared with their suburban counterparts, and its suburban districts generally perform inadequately compared with their international counterparts. The domestic achievement gap means that the floor for student performance in America is too low, and the international achievement gap signals that the same is true of the ceiling. America’s weakest school districts are failing their students and the nation, and so are many of America’s strongest.

The domestic gap means that too many poor, urban and rural youngsters of color lack the education necessary to obtain jobs that can support a family in an information economy in which low-end jobs are disappearing. This hurts the U.S. economically, exacerbates social divisions, and endangers our democratic society by leaving citizens without the requisite knowledge to participate effectively.

The international gap, meanwhile, hurts the ability of American children to obtain the best jobs in a global economy requiring higher levels of skills and knowledge. This economy prizes expertise in math, science, engineering, technology, language and critical thinking.

The children in America’s suburban schools are competing for these jobs not only against each other and their inner-city and rural neighbors, but against peers in Finland and Singapore, where students are better-prepared. The international achievement gap makes the U.S. less competitive and constitutes a threat to national strength and security. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that America would add $1 trillion annually to its economy if it performed at Canada’s level in math.

So what do Americans do? We talk a great deal about the achievement gap. We write books and reports about it. We wring our hands at its existence. We adopt a revolving door of short-term reforms in response. But nearly 30 years after the alarming federal report “A Nation at Risk,” not one major urban district has been turned around. Many of our suburban school districts are losing ground. We have settled on a path of global mediocrity for students attending our most affluent schools and national marginality for those attending failing inner-city schools.

A Hollywood drama released in September, “Won’t Back Down,” offered an alternative. It told the story of two parents (one a teacher) determined to transform their children’s failing school in the face of opposition from administrators, teachers and unions. The protagonists faced apathy and intransigence at every turn.

Hollywood caricatures aside, the movie correctly conveyed that parents are the key. Parents need to say that they won’t stand for these intolerable achievement gaps. The first step is for parents to learn what quality education is and how it is achieved.

This isn’t a game for amateurs. Parents need to use every resource at their disposal—demanding changes in schools and in district offices; using existing tools such as “parent-trigger” laws and charter schools; organizing their communities; cultivating the media and staging newsworthy events; telling politicians and officeholders that their votes will go to candidates who support improvement; even going to the courts. If parents want change, they have the capacity to make it happen, but it isn’t easy.

At the same time, it is critical to recognize that school districts can’t perform miracles. They can’t overcome the tolls of poverty and poor housing, but they can close gaps. They can raise the floor and the ceiling of student academic achievement. Some schools in high-need districts and suburbs are already doing this. There is no excuse not to—and, if we hope to compete globally, there is no time to lose.

Mr. Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

A version of this article appeared November 15, 2012, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Suburban Education Gap


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