Archive | August, 2011

Same arguments, different rulings

An Indiana judge refused to halt the state’s new voucher program, concluding that new statutory provisions guaranteeing publicly funded choice of even parochial schools are “religion-neutral” and “for the benefit” of students, not churches. It is a conclusion wholly different from one ruling issued Friday in Colorado, where a district judge weighed similar arguments challenging a Douglas County voucher plan and found that the same choice provided “no meaningful limitations on the use of taxpayer funds to support or promote religion.”

From Indiana Superior Court Judge Michael Keele:

The [scholarship program] is religion-neutral and was enacted ‘for the benefit’ of students, not religious institutions or activities … It permits taxpayer funds to be paid to religious schools only upon the private, individual choices of parents …

… [The plaintiffs] would thus threaten long-established, and apparently unquestioned, Indiana traditions of permitting tax dollars to be spent on religious education by way of private, individual choice.

From Colorado District Judge Michael A. Martinez on the Douglas County ruling:

Because the scholarship aid is available to students attending elementary and secondary institutions, and because the religious Private School Partners infuse religious tenets into their educational curriculum, any funds provided to the schools, even if strictly limited to the cost of education, will result in the impermissible aid to Private School Partners to further their missions of religious indoctrination to purportedly ‘pubic’ school students.

Strong words, and a little cognitive dissonance

A judge in Colorado on Friday blocked the Douglas County school district’s voucher experiment, insisting that allowing the program to move forward will lead to “real, immediate, and irreparable injury” to the plaintiffs and others who asked for the injunction.

Specifically, Judge Michael A. Martinez wrote in a 68-page ruling that the program provides aid to churches and faith-based schools and ignores safeguards that would ensure no public school funding would promote a participating school’s “sectarian agenda.” Further, Martinez said, there is “overwhelming evidence” to show that the voucher program violates Colorado’s constitutional provisions which call for “uniform” funding of public education across the state.

Interestingly, Martinez wasn’t persuaded by the ACLU’s argument that the program also violated the constitutional demand for a thorough and uniform “system of free public education.” A similar uniformity clause sunk the private school option in Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2006. Martinez, though, said the plaintiffs failed to show that the scholarship program prevented students “from otherwise obtaining a free public education in Douglas County.”

Maddeningly, the judge acknowledged that the scholarship program “appears to be a well-intentioned effort to assist students in Douglas County,” further stating that he agrees that the purpose of the school district was to help students and parents, “not sectarian institutions.” The U.S. Supreme Court said the same when it came to a wholly different conclusion in the challenge to Cleveland’s voucher program.

Insurgents, or engineers

Andy Rotherham today gives us a look at a few examples where progressive-minded teachers are acting as change-agents within their unions. And, surely, the news is promising. But these “insurgents,” as Rotherham calls them, are still mostly acting as engineers tinkering with the machinery that drives a top-down model of public education. Nowhere in Rotherham’s examples do we find evidence that teachers want to disestablish the duopoly among boards and unions and introduce parents at the bargaining table.

This takes us to an overlooked passage in the now-famous strategy document prepared by a Connecticut affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT, to be sure, understood that simply saying, “No,” was no longer a solution, that it had to propose ideas to reform troubled schools if it wanted to kill legislation that would have established a parent trigger. The AFT believed that it stopped the parent trigger and, according to the document, “turned it into a vehicle for collaborative success.” The union’s ideas included the creation of school governance councils that gave parents a voice, but it acknowledged that the word “governance” was a misnomer. The councils would have no real authority.

To be fair, Rotherham does argue that these insurgents still have a lot to prove and they have yet to wrestle with the decision to protect their members while agitating for real reform. But our debate still mostly looks at reform within a corporate structure and falls short of finding solutions that create a truly professional relationship between teachers and families. The change-agents profiled by Rotherham say they want to be more accountable, but we don’t know to whom.  Giving parents authority through the trigger or through choice establishes professionalism between families and teachers simply because the parent can sever the relationship at any time. NewTLA, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus are to be commended for their ambitions, but they should strive to be more responsive to the needs of parents. By doing so, they will empower themselves.

Parent-trigger backers want more from Weingarten

Parent trigger advocates are applying more presure on AFT president Randi Weingarten to pay more penance after an AFT document surfaced in Connecticut that detailed a textbook plan on killing “trigger” legislation. Notably, prominent California Democrats and parent-trigger backers Gloria Romero and Ben Austin have written Weingarten suggesting that simply distancing herself from the Connecticut document is insufficient.

As Romero, a sponsor of California’s trigger law, writes in her letter to the union chief:

I am requesting that you make public all other Power Points that were developed to train AFT members on how to disable and kill parent empowerment legislation that were used in subsequent states where Parent Trigger legislation was introduced. To my count, there have been at least thirteen other states …

… This type of “lesson plan” and strategies are offensive and dismissive to the very individuals who should be fully respected for their goals to further the educational opportunities of their very own children: the parents. I believe you need to go one step further and offer an immediate apology and a commitment to never let something like this happen again.

The Connecticut strategy, emblazoned with AFT’s logo and titled, “How Connecticut Diffused The Parent Trigger,” outlined how AFT leaders in that state worked to “kill the bill” that would have established a parent trigger similar to California’s (The document was originally on AFT’s Web site but has since been removed; Dropout Nation editor RiShawn Biddle copied the presentation and made it available to his readers). Romero also says she was singled out in that strategy and wants that “lesson plan” public as well.

Austin, the executive director of California’s Parent Revolution, wrote to Weingarten saying that:

Over the last year, we have requested on multiple occasions to meet with you and discuss our common agenda. Each time, you have refused to meet. Now, after reading your memo, it has become clear why. You seem to view parent empowerment as a zero-sum game: if parents win, teachers must lose …

… the substance of your plan includes ensuring that parents are “not at the table” when real decisions are made, and creating fake “governance” committees that trick parents into thinking they have power when they actually do not. The fact that this memo has surfaced in the wake of the president of your California affiliate calling the Parent Trigger a “lynch mob” law – and then also refusing to apologize even after civil rights groups demanded it – makes your reaction to this incident all the more troubling.

As much as we have in the past viewed you as a progressive leader and potential partner in kids-first transformation, we cannot have a respectful dialogue with someone who cannot disavow those positions and tactics. If you view parental power as a threat to be “killed,” then we unfortunately don’t have much to talk about.

Rotherham on choice and empowerment

Andy Rotherham spent his weekly real estate on describing his method of choosing a school for his children. Of particular note to redefinED are his comments on choice, equity and empowerment:

… the amount of choice is still limited by administrators (who alone get to decide, for instance, whether to open a second Montessori-style school in a district even if the first one has an insanely long waitlist) and legislators (who can do things like refuse to let charter schools into districts like the one I live in). Our school district does offer some choice, but it’s called “controlled choice” — we were able to pick only from a subset of the schools …

… It’s amazing how routine it has become in public education to deny people choice and power. Giving more Americans this kind of empowerment matters to my wife and me out of basic fairness, but also because in ways large and small, our fate is bound up with those of millions of parents around the country who are growing frustrated with our public system …

… In other words, so far it’s worked out for us, but I’m struck — as both an analyst and parent — by how much public education, an institution that is predicated on a common understanding of the collective good, does things to undermine the very support it’s dependent on to thrive.

Lots of action in Douglas County

The Wall Street Journal hits the ground in Douglas County, Colo., with a report on the school district’s pilot voucher program, highlighting that more affluent families will benefit from a policy that’s largely targeted to more disadvantaged children in other states and municipalities. Also, The Denver Post gives readers a look at the last day of testimony in a court hearing that may decide whether the pilot program proceeds as the ACLU challenges its legality. Education News Colorado reports that Denver District Judge Michael A. Martinez will issue a ruling next week. Eddie has more at Ed is Watching.

From the archives: The FEA on lost influence

Now that a document highlighting lobbying machinations at an AFT affliate in Connecticut has stoked another conversation about teacher unionism and parent empowerment, redefinED wanted to reach into its archives and pull out a memo from the public policy director at the Florida Education Association that also reflects on a singular concern among teachers unions: lost membership.

RedefinED host Doug Tuthill reported on the memo last fall after FEA policy director Jeff Wright urged members to head to the polls and keep Rick Scott out of Florida’s governor’s mansion. Why? Wright said that Scott would enhance merit-pay practices and expand school choice, specifically pointing to enhanced voucher, charter and virtual school policies along with “merit pay in its worst form” that would “obliterate FEA’s and our local unions’ influence.”

“If we are no longer strong due to reduction in the number of people served by public schools,” Wright continued, “then they can do what they want with the education budgets of today.”