Archive | April, 2011

Parent Revolution should empower parents with all options

It is wonderful to see the leaders of the Parent Revolution receive this recognition in the Wall Street Journal. I have admired their work from afar, and I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel last year with the group’s founder, Ben Austin. They have done amazing work organizing low-income parents and giving voice to their desire for more educational opportunities.

Here’s my wish: that Parent Revolution would advocate for true empowerment for these parents. Families should have the right not just to reconstitute the schools to which their children are assigned. They should be empowered to choose whatever school will best serve their children. It might be a charter school, it might be a magnet school, but it also might be a faith-based school. What we have learned in Florida and other states is that there is a vast inventory of private, mostly faith-based schools in urban areas with high concentrations of low-income families. In Jacksonville, for example, there are only about a dozen charter schools, and not all of them serve low-income children. However, there are more than 100 private schools in that city serving low-income students on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.

One of these schools, The Potter’s House Christian Academy, has a graduation rate at more than 90 percent. More than 300 of the school’s 600 students attend on the scholarship program. What if you were a low-income parent with a child doing poorly in his assigned public school? What would you rather have, the ability to force change at that one public school or a passport to leave and select the best school available?

The clergy in Florida has indeed recognized that educational opportunity is a matter of social justice. There have emerged two official coalitions of Florida ministers, one African American and one Hispanic, demanding full parental choice for low income families. They both strongly support the tax credit scholarship program.

In Florida, the clergy is not only recognizing that low-income parents need all options on the table for their children, they are in many cases providing that option. My own hope is that the Parent Revolution will expand its amazing work to demand full empowerment for low-income families.

An outcry for changemakers at Harvard ed school

From The Boston Globe:

The recent denial of tenure to a prominent Harvard scholar whose work focuses on grass-roots organizing has sparked student protests over the direction of one of the nation’s most influential education schools.

More than 50 doctoral students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are demanding that the 91-year-old school redirect its mission. Over the last decade, they say, it has veered away from social justice issues in education toward more results-driven management and policy concerns. The students, who are groomed to be national leaders in education, said they fear the shift will hamper their professional development and tarnish the school’s reputation.

“There is a lot of talk about diversity and wanting to support social change, but recent decisions on tenure have sent very clear signals to the student body and the rest of the junior faculty about where the future of the school lies,’’ said Keith Catone, a fifth-year doctoral student in the community, culture, and education program. “That’s not a direc tion that will help Harvard lead a broad movement for educational improvement.’’

Blowing up boundaries in Michigan

It’s taken a Republican governor in Michigan to propose what the Democratic Party could not. Rick Snyder wants to lead the way to a truly public school system, one that recognizes no artificial boundaries and doesn’t care whether you’re rich enough to buy a home near the best school.

In a plan he unveiled yesterday, Snyder would have all Michigan districts open their doors to students, no matter their residence, as long as there are empty chairs. And in Michigan’s current economy, there are not many schools running at capacity.

For the past 20 years, the state has allowed families to cross district lines, but it was always left to school systems to decide whether to accept out-of-district students. While many schools were happy to take the students, and the money that came with them, too many others turned children away for the wrong reasons.  

When I covered schools in Lansing, Mich., as a reporter, one of the more compelling narratives to watch unfold was the migration of hundreds of students from inner-city schools to suburban schools. Poor black families residing in the Lansing School District could leave the system to attend the same schools in East Lansing, Holt and Okemos to which wealthier families sent their children. As time passed, however, this law proved more theoretical than practical. One suburban district, for instance, reported too many “discipline” problems, and families who paid property taxes there complained. The result, in that case, had closed what was the most open of open enrollment policies.

One retired school administrator told the Detroit Free Press that he encountered the same resistance from families when he served as interim superintendent of the suburban Detroit district of Madison Heights. For two months, John Telford opened his district’s doors to what was in 2009 a “flood” of students leaving Detroit Public Schools, but his move created too much tension and he ended up resigning.

Racism was “certainly a factor” in that tension, Telford told the Free Press.

So Snyder’s move could be regarded as a radical and, frankly, liberal step toward a system in which the money, indeed, follows the child in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the collective spreadsheet of Michigan’s public schools. Snyder might be approaching this from the controversial position that unencumbered school choice would improve public schools by free-market means, but realistically the people who will complain the most are those who had the wealth to buy their way into the best schools.

One mother in an affluent Detroit suburb told the Wall Street Journal she’s opposed to Snyder’s plan since “we are paying higher taxes because we chose  Bloomfield schools.” More disturbing is the perspective of the superintendent in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, who told the Free Press that residents in his district are paying “extra taxes to provide extra levels of education to their local community. To make that same option available to others who have not made that sacrifice or that choice to invest doesn’t seem fair.”

Fortunately, the governor is not so tone deaf to the academic needs of struggling low-income children, and it is notable that a fiscal and social conservative has recognized that poor families can’t make the same “choice to invest” in the toniest suburbs. It’s now up to the Legislature to awaken to that fact as well.

Indiana’s expansive voucher bill heads to governor’s desk

From the Evansville Courier & Press:

INDIANAPOLIS — Two key planks of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ education reform platform cleared their final legislative hurdles Wednesday and are now headed to the Republican governor’s desk.

The Indiana House of Representatives approved measures Wednesday afternoon that would ease the process of opening new charter schools and launch the nation’s most broad private school voucher program.

Their passage comes as the Republican-led General Assembly enters its final two days, and despite opposition from Democrats in the House who at one point fled to Urbana, Ill. for five weeks to block progress on the education bills and others.

The biggest big-city superintendents push charters

The new chiefs of the nation’s three biggest school districts have shown in recent days what they all have in common: an embrace of charter schools and school choice.

Just today, newly appointed New York schools chancellor Dennis Walcott told a radio interviewer that it was time to lower the rhetoric on the contentious issue of charter schools versus non-charter schools, according to The Associated Press. Charter schools and traditional public schools should compete with one another, Walcott said.

This is similar to statements made by new Chicago schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, whom Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel plucked from New York State last week. Chicago news media have made much of Brizard’s support of charter schools in their coverage over the past week, but it was Brizard’s own op-ed published three years ago in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that speaks to his larger philosophy of public education:

We need innovation! As superintendent of a large public school system, I support the creation of great options for students. I support charter schools, charter management organizations, our Urban-Suburban program and others that provide or will provide options for our city and its residents. This will create competition and keep our system agile and responsive. One size does not fit all!

The third chief to make headlines is John Deasy, who officially took over the Los Angeles Unified School District earlier this month. The Los Angeles Times today reported that Deasy hired a retired senior L.A. Unified administrator named Maria Casillas, a charter school advocate who’s been vocal in her support of the Compton parents trying to convert their elementary school into charter. Casillas will be Deasy’s top parent and community liaison, a job that pays $170,000 a year, the Times reported. Casillas currently serves as president of the nonprofit Families in Schools, which developed a Los Angeles program to create a “pathway to parent empowerment,” according to the program’s Web site.

Two approaches to ed reform, but one may do little to reform

Two divergent approaches to education reform are operating in public education today. Both are focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of human capital, but while one seeks greater centralization of power the other seeks greater decentralization.

Recent tenure, evaluation, seniority and merit pay reforms are examples of state government trying to improve education by giving school boards more power and mandating that they use this power to increase teacher productivity. Teacher unions, which were created to curb the power of school boards, oppose this power transfer since it’s their power that is being redistributed to school boards.

School board members seem ambivalent about receiving more centralized management power. They like having this additional power but know teacher unions, which play a significant role in local school board races, will fight them if they use it. So board members are trapped between governors and state legislators who will expect them to use these new powers to improve teaching and learning and teacher unions who will demand board members maintain the status quo.

When faced with this dilemma in Florida, our school boards have traditionally followed the letter of the law to satisfy the state while maintaining the status quo in the districts to keep peace with their unions. I predict school boards in states such as Indiana and Ohio will do the same when implementing their states’ new tenure and merit pay laws. Even though these new state tenure and merit pay laws are intended to benefit low-income children, particularly low-income children of color, they won’t because low-income families lack the political clout to counterbalance the pressure school boards will receive from college-educated, middle-class teachers.

Parental empowerment is the other education reform approach sweeping the country. Magnet schools, homeschooling, virtual schools, dual enrollment, tax credit scholarships and charter schools, among others, are enabling more parents to customize their children’s education by matching them with the learning options that best meet their needs. This latter approach is shifting power from school boards to parents and is opposed by board members and teacher unions.

Ultimately parental empowerment will be what generates systemic and sustainable improvements in publicly-funded education. As parents demand more and better learning options for their children, teachers will have more opportunities to be innovative and entrepreneurial, thereby allowing them to be more empowered, also. Unleashing the knowledge and skills of teachers and parents is the best way for public education to maximize its human resources.

Why teacher unions oppose both teacher and parent empowerment is an interesting story I’ll address in a future post.

Black, Hispanic legislators urge caution in expanding Milwaukee voucher

Members of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus wrote Gov. Scott Walker and legislative leaders recently expressing concern that “outside forces and ideology will dominate this discussion” over the proposed expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program. In particular, the members have called for maintaining the accountability standards governing the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program put in place two years ago as well as maintaining the income limits. Gov. Walker has called for eliminating the income threshold, which currently limits eligibility to those students who come from households at 175 percent of poverty. Not long before the Black and Latino Caucus sent the letter, longtime choice champion Howard Fuller told the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee that he would oppose any program that “essentially provides a subsidy for rich people.”

Just as Fuller has done, the legislators recommended aligning the income threshold of the voucher program with the BadgerCare initiative in Wisconsin, which provides health care to state residents who earn less than 300 percent of poverty. “It is common sense that the level of poverty that qualifies a family for healthcare should be the same as that which qualifies a family for the choice program, always intended to be for low-income persons,” the legislators wrote.

Another voice for a parents union

This week, RiShawn Biddle’s Dropout Nation features a plea from Gwen Samuel, the president of the Connecticut Parents Union, for families to demand greater accountability and choices for their children’s education. Just as Ben Austin’s California parents union has organized families to essentially take over a failing school, Samuel is shepherding a movement in Connecticut calling for an enhanced level of parental choice. “Quality-blind education will continue unless parents demand something different,” she wrote (Samuel’s union also is helping Tonya McDowell, the homeless Connecticut mother charged with larceny and ordered to pay $16,000 in restitution after authorities learned she enrolled her child in Norwalk schools when she should have sent him to Bridgeport):

If lawmakers and school leaders are not going to demand schools and their staffs to be fiscally and academically accountable for our children, then they should give us choice and attach each child with their per pupil amount. They can’t have it both ways. Either demand accountability of education leadership or give parents choice. If not, parents will take it. These are our babies and their lives are our responsibility.

Quality-blind education will continue until parents demand something different. We must demand access to excellent schools. That means, as parents, we can no longer have excuses for why we don’t visit our child’s school, or support them at home and in the community. If you can not support your child’s homework needs, let’s work together and find someone that can.

Parents want to be team players. We want to partner with educators, teachers, administrators, community and lawmakers to ensure better outcomes for all students. But the days of blind trust in what you do are over. We are learning to read and understand data, and learn and what high-quality schools should look like. Low performance will no longer be an acceptable option for our children. These are our children and we are responsible for their well-being!