Posts Tagged ‘problem schools’

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.

Write to henninger@wsj.com

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
  • REVIEW & OUTLOOK
  • 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.

By CLINT BOLICK

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 STATS.org.

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.

By ARTHUR LEVINE

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.

image

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

What Are We Going to Do With Those Failing Charter Schools?

November 14, 2012

Often great concern about failing (academically unacceptable) charter schools is shown by special interest groups that have a vested financial interest in protecting the ISD system status quo.  These groups never show concern for failing schools in their ISD system.  Let’s look at some numbers for low-income students in Travis County obtained from the TEA website.

During the 2010-11 school year, 3 charter schools were failing. There were 230 school-lunch-program students attending these failing schools.  This represented 5.9% of all the school-lunch-program students attending charter schools in Travis County.

For comparison during this same school year, Travis County had 12 ISD public schools that were failing.  There were 7,300 school-lunch-program students attending these failing schools.  This represented 8.8% of all the school-lunch-program students attending ISD public schools in Travis County.

So is the problem worse at charter schools or ISD schools?  In total numbers, low-income students in failing ISD schools is 7,300 versus in failing charter schools is 230.  But even as a percentage, ISD’s 8.8% is worse than charter’s 5.9%.

ISD defenders should worry about their big problem and be thankful that the charters have a smaller problem.

A School Board Defies a Judge’s “Parent-Trigger” Order

August 30, 2012

The Parent-Trigger War Escalates

Updated August 28, 2012, 1:20 p.m. ET

Shades of Faubus: A school board defies a judge’s order.

It has come to this in California’s saga over “parent-trigger” education reform: A local school board is openly defying a judge’s order, with one member declaring “If I’m found in contempt of court, I brought my own handcuffs, take me away.” So now the stalwarts of the status quo will break the law rather than allow parents school choice.

A California Superior Court judge ruled last month that several hundred parents in Adelanto, California had successfully pulled the nation’s first parent trigger to force change at their children’s failing public school. The judge “commanded” the Adelanto school board to let the parents “immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting” proposals to transform Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school.

At a recent hearing, the school board unanimously refused. Instead, the board wants to implement what it calls “alternative governance” reforms: a somewhat longer school day, a “technology infusion into the classroom,” better training of teachers, and a “community advisory committee” to oversee such changes. That is, the board wants to keep tinkering around the edges of a school that’s been classified as failing for six years in a row, with 70% of sixth-graders not proficient in English or math.

The board insists that it is following the law—notwithstanding board member Jermaine Wright’s vow to stand in the schoolhouse door in handcuffs. The board’s line is that because the new school year is about to begin, it’s too late for Desert Trails to become a charter school.

But the parents aren’t aiming for this year. They want to solicit charter offers for next year. Naturally, the board says next year is also impossible, because that will be too far removed from when the parents filed their petition in January 2012. So having obstructed the parents for as long as legally possible, the school board turns around and says too much time has passed for the “trigger” to still be relevant.

This is an invented standard that no law or regulation empowers the board to apply. And it follows last month’s court order that slapped down the board for its “abuse of discretion” in trying to disqualify parents’ petition signatures. The parents of Adelanto will now have to return to court to enforce the victory they have already won.

One appropriate response would be for San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Elia Pirozzi to take Mr. Wright up on his offer and jail him and the rest of the board for the contempt they are clearly showing to the court. Another would be to have senior political figures in the state speak up on behalf of the parents against such school-board bullying. Why isn’t Governor Jerry Brown or Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom holding a press conference in front of Desert Trails Elementary?

Education reform is the civil rights issue of our time, and union obstructionists are the equivalent of Orval Faubus, the Arkansas Governor who tried to block school integration after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. They should be treated with the same moral contempt that they apparently hold for the law and for the children of Adelanto.

A version of this article appeared August 28, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Parent-Trigger War Escalates.

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

A judge lets parents pull the ‘trigger’ on a failing school

July 27, 2012

A Parent Power Watershed

Summer vacation has just turned sour for some of the mandarins atop America’s sclerotic education system. With a judge’s ruling last week in Southern California, a group of parents has become the first in the country to take over their children’s failing public school after pulling a “parent trigger.”

California enacted this reform as an unprecedented accountability measure in 2010. It allows parents of children in persistently failing schools to force dramatic change through petition drives. If a majority of parents at a school sign a petition, they can close that school, shake up its staff, or convert it to a charter.

At least that’s the idea. But implementing the law requires some minimum cooperation from the local school establishment, which in California has resisted parent trigger from day one. That’s how the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School ended up in court.

With their school classified as failing six years in a row, and 70% of sixth-graders not proficient in English or math, the parents of Desert Trails filed a trigger petition in January with 466 signatures, or 70% support. The local school board then asserted that the trigger drive had only 37% support. Some petitions had errors or omissions, the board said, and nearly 100 were no longer valid because parents had rescinded their signatures.

These rescissions followed an orchestrated campaign of intimidation at Desert Trails and across the community. Parents heard—from strangers who wouldn’t identify themselves—that the trigger would close Desert Trails immediately, or result in their children’s expulsion, or even put their own immigration status at risk. Such untruths had circulated around previous school-choice efforts, and they spread rapidly in a few crucial days—all of which suggested the strong arm of the California Teachers Association and its local allies.

But as we editorialized at the time (“Parent-Trigger Warfare,” March 2), state regulations don’t allow rescissions. Now San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone has agreed, finding that the attempt to undercut the parents’ majority “amounts to an abuse of discretion.” As Judge Malone ruled, school officials can’t disregard a trigger drive simply “because in their judgment, converting the school into a charter school is unwise, inappropriate, or unpopular with District employees or classroom teachers.”

The ruling effectively hands Desert Trails to the parents, ordering the district out of their way as the judge says they can “immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals.” This represents a potentially revolutionary power shift. For all the PTA meetings and solemn assurances from superintendents and union leaders that parent input into public schools is sacred, the ability of parents to force change has typically been nil.

For kids in failing schools it’s unfortunate that California’s law took two and a half years to bear first fruit, but such is the reactionary power of unionized bureaucracy. The reform effort will require many more parents to pull their triggers—in California, and in the roughly 20 states considering parent-trigger laws. But this week’s court victory is a welcome precedent.

A version of this article appeared July 24, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Parent Power Watershed.


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