Posts Tagged ‘Charter 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.

PHOTO: KEN FALLIN

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.

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The Softer Side of “No Excuses” at KIPP Academy

October 25, 2013

There are many excellent charter schools in Texas, but KIPP Academy, being one of the oldest “No Excuses” charter schools, has had the most said about it, both positive and negative.  This Education Next article is an accurate look inside a KIPP Academy in New Orleans.

Enjoy!

Survey: Black Voters Support Parental Choice In Education

October 14, 2013

Sometimes it takes a little while for stories to find their way to us. Such is the case today.

Back in July, Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) released a report “A Survey Report on Education Reform, Charter Schools, and the Desire for Parental Choice in the Black Community.”

Among the findings was this tidbit:

Parental choice in education as a fundamental concept deeply resonated with Black voters who completed the BAEO survey. Between 85-89% in each state agreed that government should provide parents with as many choices as possible to ensure that their children receive a good education.

Parental choice in education knows no limitations. Only the usual suspects oppose parental choice, those who steadfastly oppose reform every time it’s mentioned. In a case such as this, where basically 85 to 90 percent of those surveyed say they support parental choice, we should not relent in pressing our message of freedom and education to anyone with willing ears.

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.

GOP leader demands that Holder withdraw school voucher lawsuit

September 24, 2013

By Russell Berman – 09/23/13 10:00 AM 

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) demanded Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder withdraw a federal lawsuit against the state of Louisiana over school vouchers and vowed the House would act if Holder refuses.

The Justice Department is suing to restrict the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for low-income parents to send their children to private schools. The Justice Department says the program is impeding civil rights-era orders to desegregate the schools.

Cantor assailed the move Monday during an education speech in Philadelphia, calling the lawsuit “absurd” and hailing the Louisiana voucher program as “a civil rights solution,” not a “violation.”

“If the attorney general does not withdraw this suit, then the United States House will act,” Cantor said in prepared remarks. “We will leave no stone unturned in holding him accountable for this decision. The attorney general will have to explain to the American people why he believes poor minority children in Louisiana should be held back, and why these children shouldn’t have the same opportunity that the children from wealthier and more connected families.”

A battle over the lawsuit would be the latest confrontation between the Republican House majority and Holder, who has served as attorney general for President Obama’s entire tenure in the White House. In 2012, the House voted to find Holder in contempt over his refusal to turn over certain documents related to the Fast and Furious gunrunning sting.

The Louisiana voucher program has been championed by the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. In the House, Cantor has sought to elevate education reform as part of his “Making Life Work” agenda to expand the GOP’s national appeal.

While many Democrats back expanding access to public charter schools, they, along with teachers unions, have long opposed private school vouchers as undermining support for public education. In his speech Monday, Cantor linked charter schools and voucher programs as serving the same goal of boosting education for low-income children.

“Just like the charter school program in this state and in this city, scholarship programs like the one in Louisiana are aimed at furthering equality for all kids — rich or poor, black or white,” he said. “The civil rights laws of this country were enacted to ensure equal access to education and opportunity, exactly what the Louisiana Scholarship Program is doing. The program is the very opposite of a civil rights violation. It is a civil rights solution.”

“The scholarship program in Louisiana challenges the status quo and provides hope to kids and their parents, but the government in Washington is trying to stand in the way,” Cantor said.

He added later in the speech, “Let me be clear: School choice is not an attack or an indictment on teachers or public schools.”

Speaking from a charter school, Cantor linked the school choice movement to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the desegregation movement of the 1950s and ’60s. He touted the conservative Student Success Act that the House passed in July, along with an amendment he sponsored to allow parents to take federal money to send their children to public charter schools.

“The next time Congress considers a major education reauthorization, I believe we will adopt full school choice,” Cantor said.

Read more: http://thehill.com/homenews/house/323883-gop-leader-demands-that-holder-withdraw-school-voucher-lawsuit#ixzz2fk78ncCs
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Save the date!

February 1, 2013

Former California State Senator (and head of California’s Democrats for Education Reform) Gloria Romero will be in the Austin-area on February 27 and would like to talk to parents. Please let us know if you would be interested in attending!

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.