White Billionaires Cannot Buy the Charter School Debate

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Betsy DeVos is not woke.

 
Bill Gates has not been to the mountaintop.

 
Nor is the Walton Family Foundation concerned with promoting civil rights.

 
So when white billionaires pour cash to charter school lobbying groups – as the Walton’s did Thursday for charter school protestors at an Elizabeth Warren rally – it isn’t exactly convincing.

 
Speaking at the historically black college Clark Atlanta University, Warren, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, was interrupted by audience members chanting charter school slogans.

 

 

She eventually met with the protestors after the rally.

 

 

Strangely enough, Warren hasn’t suggested any policy position that would adversely affect the charter schools from which the protestors hail.

 

 

Along with Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Warren has a progressive charter school platform calling for increased transparency and an end to federal funding of charters, which are paid for with tax dollars but privately run.

 

 

The Intercept journalist Rachel Cohen noted:

 

 

“Frankly suggesting that stronger transparency standards for publicly-funded charter schools would ‘limit parental choice’ is an incoherent talking point that really should not be taken seriously. Increased transparency only ‘limits choice’ if the charter schools themselves refuse to accept higher transparency standards.”

 

 

Intercept journalist Ryan Grim, who was present at the rally, noted that the group of protestors was funded by the Waltons.

 

 

The group was from Memphis Lift Parent Institute which bused in people from around the country. It was supported by a GoFundMe page showing numerous $1,000 donations from anonymous sources.

 

 

Published financial reports clearly show the Waltons backing Memphis Lift to the tune of $1.5 million since 2015. And since then, their 2017 filing shows $375,200 more, with a mere $200 coming from other public contributions. That’s pretty close to 100%. The Walton’s Website makes the connection even more undeniable.

 

 

Support also came from Nashville education consulting firm Strategy Redefined, the Tennessee’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and Chris Barbic, the original head of Tennessee’s disastrous Achievement School District.

 

 

That is not grassroots.

 

 

That is astroturf.

 

 

Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charter schools primarily because of how they increase school segregation and adversely affect children of color.

 

 

These are huge national organizations making decisions based on democratic input of their members. They are not solely representative of the tiny fraction of parents (6%) who send their kids to charter schools nationwide, nor are they funded primarily by corporations and billionaire investors who, in turn, make a profit off of the school privatization industry.

 

 

While it’s true that you’ll find polls showing strong support for charters among people of color, the overwhelming majority of these polls are conducted by pro-charter groups. They’re like the American Apple Foundation finding high support for U.S. apples – little more than paid advertising.

 

 

However, even a poll conducted by charter school lobbying organization Democrats for Education Reform found that both black and white respondents support a moratorium on new charter schools.

 

 

Billionaires like DeVos, Bill Gates and the Waltons have spent incredible amounts of money to convince the public that school privatization is grassroots, but we have the receipts.

 

 

The Walton foundation has promised $1 billion since 2018 to expanding charter schools.

 

 

Andre Perry, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, describes the Walton foundation as hiding behind black faces to obscure who’s really in charge – they’re exploiting black people for a “white agenda.”

 

 

“It’s a sad thing that education reform is about how much money you have and not about what connection you have with black communities,” Perry said.

 

 

The Walton Foundation gave $9 million to the United Negro College Fund for a scholarship to the organization’s fellowship program for students interested in education reform. They are literally paying to indoctrinate black people to the ideology that school privatization is in their best interests.

 

 

This also includes $530,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor an affiliated education policy advocacy and campaign training workshop and an additional $170,000 to sponsor events.

 
Walton money has also gone to two other pro-charter groups – nearly $2 million to the 100 Black Men of America campaign and $7.3 million to the National Urban League.

 

 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

 

Charter schools are not required to provide the same basic services that authentic public schools must.

 

 

To suggest that providing fewer services to black and brown children is somehow in their best interest should insult Americans of every race.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools run by elected school boards.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that accept all comers, not institutions that cherry pick which kids to enroll and which to counsel out to other institutions.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that will provide them with robust services and don’t try to cut programs and pocket the savings as profit.

 

 

None of this is controversial.

 

 

It is common sense.

 

 

The problem is that after decades of misinformation, people are becoming ever more aware of how charter schools are scamming the public in general and black communities in particular.

 

 

The billionaires funding this industry are using their vast wealth to try and buy the debate.

 

 

It is up to every thinking American to look at the facts and understand the extent to which we are being bamboozled by white elites at the expense of our black and brown brothers and sisters.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Eight Things I Love About Elizabeth Warren’s Education Plan – And One I Don’t

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My daughter had bad news for me yesterday at dinner.

 

She turned to me with all the seriousness her 10-year-old self could muster and said, “Daddy, I know you love Bernie but I’m voting for Elizabeth.”

 
“Elizabeth Warren?” I said choking back a laugh.

 

Her pronouncement had come out of nowhere. We had just been discussing how disgusting the pierogies were in the cafeteria for lunch.

 
And she nodded with the kind of earnestness you can only have in middle school.

 

So I tried to match the sobriety on her face and remarked, “That’s okay, Honey. You support whomever you want. You could certainly do worse than Elizabeth Warren.”

 

And you know what? She’s right.

 

Warren has a lot of things to offer – especially now that her education plan has dropped.

 

In the 15 years or so that I’ve been a public school teacher, there have been few candidates who even understand the issues we are facing less than any who actually promote positive education policy.

 

But then Bernie Sanders came out with his amazing Thurgood Marshall plan and I thought, “This is it! The policy platform I’ve been waiting for!”

 
I knew Warren was progressive on certain issues but I never expected her to in some ways match and even surpass Bernie on education.

 

What times we live in! There are two major political candidates for the Democratic nomination for President who don’t want to privatize every public school in sight! There are two candidates who are against standardized testing!

 

It’s beyond amazing!

 

Before we gripe and pick at loose ends in both platforms, we should pause and acknowledge this.

 

 

Woo-hoo!

 

 
Both Sanders AND Warren are excellent choices for President. And Biden might even do in a pinch.

 

So in honor of my precocious political princess backing Elizabeth Warren – I THINK she knows she doesn’t actually get to vote, herself, yet! – I give you eight things I love and one I don’t in Warren’s education plan.

 

Things I like:

 

1)       IT INVESTS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

 

WARREN’S PROPOSAL:  Quadrupling Title I funding — an additional $450 billion over the next 10 years for the neediest children and their schools. Finally have the federal government pay 40% of all special education costs – a promise lawmakers made years ago but never kept. Invest an additional $100 billion over ten years in “Excellence Grants” to any public school. That’s roughly $1 million for every public school in the country to buy state-of-the art labs, restore afterschool arts programs, implement school-based student mentoring programs, etc. By 2030, she’ll help 25,000 public schools become community schools. Invest at least an additional $50 billion in school infrastructure — targeted at the schools most in need.

 
WHAT I LIKE: Everything! Our public schools are crumbling under decades of neglect and targeted disinvestment – especially those serving the poor and minorities. This could be a game changer for the entire country!

 

 

2)       IT ACTIVELY WORKS TO INTEGRATE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

 

 
WARREN’S PROPOSAL: Spend billions of dollars annually that states can use to promote residential and public school integration. This includes infrastructure like magnet schools but also integrating communities. Support strengthening and robust enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in any program receiving federal funding.

 
WHAT I LIKE: Segregation is the elephant in the room in our nation. We can’t be a single country pursuing liberty and justice for all when we keep our people “separate but equal.” If you want to undo our history of racism, prejudice and xenophobia, we must get to know and appreciate each other from a young age. Plus it’s harder to horde resources for one group or another when all children are in one place.

 

 

3)       IT SUPPORTS ALL OUR STUDENTS.

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ students, immigrant students and their families, English Language Learners, students of color, etc.

 
WHY I LIKE IT: I love my students – all of my students. It breaks my heart that the same system that’s supposed to provide them an education oftentimes allows them to be discriminated against.

 

 

4)       IT ELIMINATES HIGH-STAKES TESTING.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: In particular:

“The push toward high-stakes standardized testing has hurt both students and teachers. Schools have eliminated critical courses that are not subject to federally mandated testing, like social studies and the arts. They can exclude students who don’t perform well on tests. Teachers feel pressured to teach to the test, rather than ensuring that students have a rich learning experience. I oppose high-stakes testing, and I co-sponsored successful legislation in Congress to eliminate unnecessary and low-quality standardized tests. As president, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways.”

 

 
WHY I LIKE IT: High stakes testing is a curse on the education field. It warps nearly every aspect of our school system with biased and inappropriate assessments. Good riddance!

 

5)       IT SUPPORTS FEEDING ALL STUDENTS – NOT SHAMING THEM FOR THEIR POVERTY.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Canceling student breakfast and lunch debt. In particular:

“I will also push to cancel all existing student meal debt and increase federal funding to school meals programs so that students everywhere get free breakfast and lunch.”

 

 
WHY I LIKE IT: No child should have to go hungry – especially at school. No child should have to feel guilty for their parent’s economic situation. And feeding all children removes any stigma and helps create community.

 

 

 

6)       IT SUPPORTS TEACHERS.

 
WARREN PROPOSES: Providing funding for schools to increase pay and support for all public school educators, strengthen the ability of teachers, paraprofessionals, and staff to organize and bargain. In particular:

 

“I pledged to enact the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which ensures that public employees like teachers can organize and bargain collectively in each state, and authorizes voluntary deduction of fees to support a union.”

 
WHY I LIKE IT: A robust system of public education needs teachers who are respected and appreciated. You cannot have this when salary is based on the wealth of the community you serve. The only choice as far as I see it is to have the spender of last resort (the federal government) take up the slack. I know some of my fellow bloggers are nervous about this because these funds could come with strings attached. Pay could be contingent on teachers increasing student test scores or using certain corporate curriculum, etc. However, any tool can be misused. I don’t see this as necessarily being a backdoor for corporate shenanigans, but we certainly must be cautious.

 

7)       IT FIGHTS THE CORRUPT SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION INDUSTRY.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Ensuring charter schools are subject to at least the same level of transparency and accountability as traditional public schools. In particular:

 

“…I support the NAACP’s recommendations to only allow school districts to serve as charter authorizers, and to empower school districts to reject applications that do not meet transparency and accountability standards, consider the fiscal impact and strain on district resources, and establish policies for aggressive oversight of charter schools.”

 

Ending federal funding for the expansion of charter schools. Banning for-profit charter schools including non-profit charter schools that outsource their operations to for-profit companies. Directing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate “so-called nonprofit schools that are violating the statutory requirements for nonprofits.”

 
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT: Everything! This is where Warren’s proposal really shines! She is even more comprehensive than Sanders’! She doesn’t stop with just “for-profit” charter schools but understands that many of these institutions circumvent the rules even without that tax status.

 

 

8)       IT PROTECTS STUDENT DATA FROM ED TECH COMPANIES AND BEYOND.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Banning the sharing, storing, and sale of student data. In particular:

 

“My plan would extend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to ban the sharing, storing, and sale of student data that includes names or other information that can identify individual students. Violations should be punishable by civil and criminal penalties.”

 
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT: Ed tech companies are seen for the danger they bring to education. Students are protected from having their entire lives impacted by the choices of ignorant school administrators or school directors. The road to the replacement of public school with digital alternatives is recognized and blocked.

 

And this just scratches the surface. These are just the points that jumped out at me on a first read.

 

I’m sure there is more policy gold in here we’ll find as the election season progresses.

 

However, there was one thing that jumped out at me in a less positive light.
 
One thing I did not like:

 

1)      WARREN’S EMPHASIS ON “CAREER AND COLLEGE READINESS” SOUNDS TOO MUCH LIKE THE WORST OF BARACK OBAMA’S EDUCATION POLICY.

 

 

On the one hand, Warren says unequivocally that she’s against high stakes testing. Then on the other she writes:

 

“We must also ensure that students are able to take advantage of those opportunities and that high schools are funded and designed to prepare students for careers, college, and life…

…I’ll work with states to align high school graduation requirements with their public college admission requirements. And I’ll also direct the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.”

 

This sounds an awful lot like Race to the Top and Common Core.

 

Is she really proposing all public schools have the same top-down academic standards? Is she proposing states force corporate-created academic standards on their schools? And is she threatening to use the power of the federal government – possibly the power of the purse – to make states and schools fall into line?

 

Warren needs to understand that Common Core cannot be separated into curriculum and testing. The testing drives the curriculum. You can’t say you’re against testing being used to make high stakes decisions and then have that same testing determine what is taught in schools.

 

Perhaps this isn’t her intention at all. But she needs to be asked and she needs to give a definitive answer.

 

Obama was all about teacher autonomy, too, before he got into office.

 

And that’s really the biggest issue for most education advocates like me.

 

We’ve been burned so many times before by politicians, it’s hard to accept that any of them might actually be serious about doing something positive for children’s educations.

 

I’m still a Bernie Sanders supporter. I’ll admit that.

 

But Warren has gone a long way with this proposal to getting me into her corner, too.

 

In the primary, I’ll probably continue to feel the Bern.

 

But who knows? In the general election, perhaps my daughter and I will get to root for the same candidate.

 

I’m extremely thankful to Warren and her team for coming up with such a thoughtful and detailed education plan. It couldn’t have been easy – either to draft or politically.

 

It really does appear to be an attempt not just to sway voters but to actually get things right.

 

Here’s hoping that voters do the same in about a year.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Charter School Teacher Introduces Elizabeth Warren at Rally

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CORRECTION:

In the first draft of this article, I called Sonya Mehta a “Charter School Lobbyist” in the title. On further examination of the facts, I realize this is unfair. She was a charter school TEACHER. I apologize to Ms. Mehta and truly regret any harm I have done her. I have changed the title to better reflect the facts. However, be advised that the text of the article, itself, has remained almost completely unchanged. Everything in the article is true to the best of my knowledge and backed up with sources that the reader can see by following the links in the text. My concern remains centered on Warren and what exactly her intentions are via education policy.


 

 

The biggest news from Elizabeth Warren’s rally in Oakland, California, on Friday wasn’t what she said.

 
It was who introduced her and what that says about Warren and her 2020 Presidential campaign.

 
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Warren was introduced by Sonya Mehta, a former Oakland schoolteacher.”

 
However, this characterization is inaccurate.

 
Mehta was not an authentic public school teacher. She taught in a non-union charter school called “Learning Without Limits.” She also was a policy fellow at GO Public Schools Oakland, which is a toxic charter promoter focused around that city.

 

 

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In her introduction, Mehta didn’t explicitly advocate for school privatization. She promoted Warren’s early education and free college policies (Her speech can be seen here beginning at 57:30). But why would Warren, one of the smartest and most knowledgeable candidates in the race for the White House, let herself be associated with such a divisive and toxic legacy?

 

 

 

 

Only 6% of all U.S. students attend charter schools, yet with little accountability, selective enrollment, and the ability to pocket taxpayer money as profit, they cannibalize the funding necessary for the 90% that attend authentic public schools.

 
Warren should know better than this. Along with Bernie Sanders, Warren sits on the Senate Education Committee (HELP – Health, Education, Labor, Pensions).

 

 

 

So the question is this: was this a mistake made by her campaign staff or is this indicative of where Warren is on education policy?

 

 

She has said some very positive things in this campaign, not the least of which is that if elected, she would nominate someone with teaching experience as Secretary of Education.

 
But if Mehta is what she thinks an authentic teacher looks like, we are in big trouble.

 
We don’t need another Betsy Devos or Arne Duncan clone who just so happens to have taught at a regressive charter school. In fact, we already had that, too, in John King.

 
Sadly, that’s not even where the story ends.

 

 

Warren’s senior education policy advisor is Josh Delaney, a Teach for America temp who turned a 5-week crash course in education into two years in the classroom and then a career as an “expert” on our schools.

 
This is simply not acceptable for anyone courting education voters.

 
You can’t go to Oakland, a city which just experienced a massive teacher strike caused by school privatization, and then let yourself be introduced by someone with ties to school privatization!

 
Go Public Schools Oakland, the organization Mehta is associated with, is the major charter organization in city battling the union.

 
Who knows if Warren was intending to take sides on this issue, but she certainly seems to be signaling that if she did, it might not be with parents, teachers and students. It could be with the hedge fund billionaires backing school privatization.

 
How can she be so strong against these same people when it comes to Wall Street and economic inequality but appear completely ignorant (at best) or disingenuous (at worst) when it comes to school policy?

 
A look at Warren’s stated education policies over her history in public life doesn’t exactly calm the waters, either.

 

 

According to the Network for Public Education, Warren holds some regressive views when it comes to our schools.

 

 

The non-profit gives her a C on charter schools.

 

 

She has spoken out against some of the worst excesses of the industry, but supports the concept of schools that are publicly financed but privately operated.

 

 

In 2016 Warren strongly opposed lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts. In 2017, Senator Warren expressed deep concern regarding the “waste, fraud, and abuse of federal money” at the hands of for-profit charter schools and charter school management organizations.

 

 

 

Unfortunately, she also praised the charter industry:

 

 

 

“Many charter schools in Massachusetts are producing extraordinary results for our students, and we should celebrate the hard work of those teachers and spread what’s working to other schools.”

 
Warren earned a B for her stance on school vouchers.

 
She had the courage to criticize DeVos, but her history with the concept of using public money to finance private education is complicated.

 
In a 2017 letter to DeVos, prior to her confirmation as Secretary of education, Senator Warren said the evidence on private school vouchers is “mixed at best” and called them “expensive and dangerous failures that cost taxpayers billions of dollars while destroying public education systems.”

 

 

 

However, back in 2003, she seems to have thought differently. She wrote a book with her daughter called “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke.” In it, she makes a case for a universal school voucher program. She strongly supported giving parents taxpayer-funded vouchers they could use at any school – public, private or parochial. This would “relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.”

 

 

Later she said she never meant those vouchers to be used at private schools, but that is  unclear from the text.

 

 

However, as spotty as Warren’s history is on school privatization, it is much worse when it comes to high stakes testing.

 

 

The Network for Public Education gives her a F on this issue.

 

 

In 2015, as Congress debated rolling back high stakes testing requirements that have unfairly assessed students for decades and used test scores as an excuse to deny poor and minority students the resources they need to succeed, Warren demanded testing stay in place. Along with three Democratic senators endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a lobbyist organization for the testing and school privatization industry, she insisted on stronger accountability measures based on testing to gain their support for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

 

Let me be clear: none of this is intended to be a purity test.

 

 

 

If the only candidate we can support is a perfect one, we will never find any politician to support.

 

 

 

But Warren has to make a decision whose side she is on.

 

 

At very least, she needs to come out and make a public statement clarifying her views here. She needs to say that she does not support charter schools or vouchers. Shouldn’t every Democratic candidate who wants the votes of educators do that?

 

 


Watch the whole rally here. Mehta’s introduction begins at 57:30.


 

 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Bernie Sanders Explains Puzzling Education Vote – It’s Because Accountability

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Photo: Alex Garland

When teachers asked, Bernie Sanders answered.

Why, Bernie? Why did you vote this summer against everything you seem to stand for on education policy?

You stood against President George W. Bush’s disastrous No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. Why did you vote for almost the same thing in 2015?

The answer is in from the Vermont Senator turned Democratic Presidential Candidate, but it’s not entirely satisfactory.

The short version: Accountability.

In education circles, it’s a buzzword meaning opposite things to opposite people. And determined in opposite ways.

Ask a representative of the standardized testing industry, and more than likely he’ll tell you accountability means making sure public schools actually teach studentsespecially the poor and minorities. And the only way to determine this is through repeated, rigid, standardized assessments. Let’s call that TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

Ask a real live educator, and more than likely she’ll tell you it means making sure local, state and federal governments actually provide the funding and resources necessary to teach studentsespecially the poor and minorities. And the best way to determine this is simple math. Let’s call that LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY.

These seem to be the central disagreements: Are lawmakers providing equitable resources to all our public schools or are teachers just not doing their jobs? Are student test scores the best way to measure accountability or should we rely on something as rock solid as elementary math?

TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY is hard to determine. You have to spend billions of taxpayer dollars buying tests, scoring tests and on test prep materials. And then you have to ignore all the evidence that this proves nothing. You could instead just poke your head into any public school across the nation and actually see teachers working their butts off. Heck! You could stop in after school hours and count the numbers of teachers still at work and tabulate the amount of their own cash they spend on class materials. But that won’t work – there isn’t an industry profiting off you using your own eyes and brain.

On the other hand, determining LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is easy. Just compare school budgets. Greater than and less than. You’ll find that none of our lawmakers provide equitable funding. Rich kids in wealthy districts get Cadillac funding while poor and minority kids in impoverished districts get bicycle funding. Strangely, this is never discussed.

Moreover, none of this relies on opinion. All it takes is empirical evidence to see the truth. Lawmakers are not accountable at all. Teachers are accountable for too much and judged by unscientific and untrustworthy methods.

Unfortunately, few politicians have fully figured this out yet. Even you, Bernie.

This summer it’s all come down to a series of votes on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law the governs K-12 public schools was written in 1965 to ensure all schools received the proper resourcesLAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY.

However, under President George W. Bush and throughout the Obama years, it’s become about punishing teachers and schools for low standardized test scores – TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

And the champions of TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY this summer have been primarily Democrats including liberal lions like Elizabeth Warren and Sanders.

LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY? No one’s talking that.

Most troubling is the Murphy Amendment – an attempt to double down on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY. Keep testing and punishing because it’s working soooo well. Thankfully, the move was defeated by Senate Republicans. But Sanders and Warren both voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

That’s why a group of respected education professionals and union leaders (including myself) wrote an open letter to Sanders asking him to please explain, himself.

We aren’t exactly a hostile crowd. We like a bunch of things that Sanders represents in his presidential campaign. We want to support him, but we need to know why he voted to keep the worst aspects of the current law.

And Bernie answered! Or his staff did.

I’ll reproduce the entire letter we received from staffer Phil Fiermonte below this blog. But first I want to focus on Bernie’s specific reasons for voting in favor of the Murphy Amendment:

As you mentioned, Senator Murphy introduced an amendment on the Senate floor that would have required states to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of low-income, minority and disabled students. Senator Sanders voted for this amendment because he believes states must do more to protect every student’s right to a quality education, and that from a civil right’s perspective, the federal government has an important role to play in protecting low-income, minority and disabled children. As you pointed out, the mechanism this amendment would have used to identify struggling schools resembles the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. This was a significant concern to the Senator, and one that he shared with the sponsors of the amendment.

Senator Sanders cast his vote on this amendment to express his disapproval with aspects of the bill that were insisted upon by Chairman Alexander and Senate Republicans and that do not reflect the best interests of vulnerable populations, or a progressive view on the distribution of education resources. He has made clear to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Senate Leadership that his vote was not an endorsement of the accountability mechanism included in the amendment, but rather as a statement of his intent that other measures must be put in place to protect low-income, minority and disabled students.

So Sanders voted for the Murphy Amendment for these reasons:

  1. He was mad that there is nothing about LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY in the ESEA.
  2. He believes in TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY – at least in part. He thinks the federal government needs to make sure teachers and schools are actually educating kids, BUT he doesn’t believe standardized tests are the best way of determining this.

Okay. First of all, he has a point. There is next to nothing in the whole ESEA rewrite about LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY. When I was on Capitol Hill earlier this summer lobbying my lawmakers on this very issue, in general the Democrats blamed the Republicans and the Republicans changed the subject.

However, I don’t see how voting for an amendment you don’t believe in is going to make a point about something entirely unrelated. How would voting for the Murphy Amendment get us LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY? The Amendment had nothing to do with that. There are places for it in the ESEA but this amendment was focused almost entirely on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

Was Sanders trying to convince Republicans to add LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY elsewhere in the bill by voting against them on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY here? That seems a stretch. Both parties appear to love TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY, but during this ESEA process the Republicans have been more concerned with stripping the federal government of its power over education. It’s not that they don’t like TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY, they just want to leave it up to the states.

Then we come to Sander’s position on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY. He’s certainly right that schools need to teach students. However, as a public school teacher, I find it ludicrous to think that there are any schools out there that don’t.

Are there really schools in our country that don’t even TRY to educate their students? Really!? Are there hospitals that don’t try to heal their patients? Are there defense attorneys who don’t try to defend their clients? Are their airlines that don’t even try to get passengers to their destinations?

It’s absurd. Certainly if there were such places, we should do something about them, but the fact that our education policies are obsessed with something that almost never happens is asinine. It’s like going to Ireland and spending the majority of your vacation budget looking for a leprechaun! (At least, this doesn’t happen in non-cyber, non-charter, not-for-profit traditional public schools. But I digress…)

Then we get to Bernie’s suggestion that he’s against using standardized tests to measure if schools are functioning properly. At least here he is justified. But how will voting for the exact thing you’re against get you what you want? It boggles the mind. I want Pizza, that’s why I’m voting for chicken. Huh!?

However, Sanders is responsible for an innovation in the ESEA along just these lines. He proposed a 7-state pilot program that would allow TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY to be determined on more holistic methods than test scores. Schools could use multiple measures such as student portfolios, classroom projects, or other means to be determined by the states.

This could be a step forward. But even under the best of circumstances, it is limited to a maximum of 7 states. It’s not a long term solution. The majority of the country could still be stuck with test and punish.

So we’re left with some good news and bad news.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie actually took teachers open letter seriously enough to have a staffer answer it. That’s something. I’m sure there are plenty of presidential candidates who wouldn’t even do that much.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie has some thoughtful ideas on education. His pilot program holds – limited – promise. He understands that the measures usually prescribed to determine TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY are bogus.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie acknowledges that LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is important and says he’d like to address it.

BAD NEWS: He doesn’t mind focusing on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY when there is very little need for it. Moreover, TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY without LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is actually harmful. Imagine if NASCAR fired a driver because the Pit Crew didn’t gas up the car. If schools have inadequate money and resources, putting a gun to all the teachers heads isn’t going to help.

BAD NEWS: Some of his answers don’t make sense.

BAD NEWS: He isn’t addressing us personally. Will it take teachers storming his campaign speeches and swiping the microphone before he does more than limited reforms and pays us lip service? It’s one thing to say #BlackLivesMatter. It’s another to make sure our black and brown kids get an equitable education.


The following letter was sent to Arthur Goldstein, one of the teachers who signed the original open letter to Bernie Sanders:

Sen. Sanders views on the Every Child Achieves Act, standardized testing, and school accountability 
Rand Wilson Add to contacts 4:59 PM Keep this message at the top of your inbox 
To: Arthur Goldstein Cc: Philip Fiermonte, Cwa Cohen 
laborforbernie2016@gmail.com

Dear Brother Goldstein:

Senator Sanders has asked me to respond to your email, and share his views on the Every Child Achieves Act, standardized testing, and school accountability.

As you know, Senator Sanders has long opposed the blame-and-shame approach to school accountability embodied in No Child Left Behind. He voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001 because he believed then, as he does now, that the legislation’s narrow focus on standardized test scores ignores a broad range of factors that determine how well a school is meeting the needs of its students. Since the passage of this legislation, we have seen the devastating impact that high stakes standardized testing has had on schools all over the country. In the Senator’s home state of Vermont, nearly every school is identified as “failing,” and is threatened with increasingly proscriptive federally-determined interventions.

No Child Left Behind’s narrow focus on standardized test scores has tragically led to a significant culture shift in our nation’s schools. An obsession with testing and test preparation has taken over in countless school districts in America, and educators are being forced to dedicate hours of class time getting students ready for exams rather than teaching them new material, or strengthening essential skills and qualities like critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving. And the worst thing is that students from low-income, urban school districts spend more time in test preparation than students from the suburbs. These hours and hours of test preparation have no educational value, and the fact that poor and minority students are disproportionately subjected to test prep at the expense of lesson time is a huge problem that must be addressed.

Last month, the senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act, which would fundamentally reform No Child Left Behind, and end its system of high stakes testing and draconian interventions. Senator Sanders supports this legislation, and believes it represents a very important step forward.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Senator had an opportunity to shape this legislation at every stage of its development. For example, he was one of the leading advocates on committee for the inclusion of a “multiple measure” accountability system that allowed states to include factors other than test scores when determining a school’s effectiveness.

In addition, he worked to provide states with significant flexibility when it comes to assessment. This legislation includes a provision written by Senator Sanders that would create a groundbreaking alternative assessment pilot program which would allow states to implement alternatives to standardized testing. If the legislation passes, these new assessments would eventually reduce the number of statewide tests children are forced to take, while providing educators with timely information on student performance.

However, this legislation is far from perfect, and there are several aspects of the Every Child Achieves Act that have caused the Senator great concern. For example, there is no requirement that states focus resources or attention on schools that are meeting the needs of middle class children, but not meeting the needs of minority, low-income and disabled children. In addition, the Senator is concerned that the bill does nothing to address resource equity, and was deeply disappointed when an amendment offered by Senators Kirk, Baldwin, Reed and Brown to address resource equity failed on the Senate floor.

As you mentioned, Senator Murphy introduced an amendment on the Senate floor that would have required states to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of low-income, minority and disabled students. Senator Sanders voted for this amendment because he believes states must do more to protect every student’s right to a quality education, and that from a civil right’s perspective, the federal government has an important role to play in protecting low-income, minority and disabled children. As you pointed out, the mechanism this amendment would have used to identify struggling schools resembles the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. This was a significant concern to the Senator, and one that he shared with the sponsors of the amendment.

Senator Sanders cast his vote on this amendment to express his disapproval with aspects of the bill that were insisted upon by Chairman Alexander and Senate Republicans and that do not reflect the best interests of vulnerable populations, or a progressive view on the distribution of education resources. He has made clear to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Senate Leadership that his vote was not an endorsement of the accountability mechanism included in the amendment, but rather as a statement of his intent that other measures must be put in place to protect low-income, minority and disabled students.

As congressional leaders move toward the next step in consideration of this bill – negotiating differences with the House – Senator Sanders has urged the future leaders of the conference committee to include protections for low-income, minority and disabled students, and to do so in a way that addresses the needs of the whole child. We must ensure low-income, minority and disabled children have the same access to educational resources that their wealthy suburban peers have. In addition, we must ensure that struggling students have access to adequate supports including health, mental health and nutrition services and after school programs that help level the playing field.

For many years, educators across the country have been the loudest, strongest voices against the corporatization of our nation’s education system and for the increased funding and wraparound services that will make a difference for our children. This is a fight that Senator Sanders has been waging at the national level for 25 years, and one that he will continue to pursue.

Sincerely.
Phil Fiermonte
Bernie 2016


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive.

The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Almost every Democrat in the US Senate just voted to keep Test and Punish.

But Republicans defeated them.

I know. I feel like I just entered a parallel universe, too. But that’s what happened.

Some facts:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a disaster.

It took the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a federal law designed to ensure all schools get equitable resources and funding – and turned it into a law about standardized testing and punishing schools that don’t measure up.

This was a Republican policy proposed by President George W. Bush.

But now that the ESEA is being rewritten, those pushing to keep the same horrendous Bush era policies are the Democrats.

Almost all of the Democrats!

That includes so-called far left Dems like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren!

It comes down to the Murphy Amendment, a Democratically sponsored change to the ESEA.

This provision was an attempt to keep as many Test and Punish policies as possible in the Senate rewrite.

The amendment, “reads more like NCLB, with its detailed prescription for reporting on student test results, for ‘meaningfully differentiating among all public schools’ (i.e., grading schools), including publicly identifying the lowest five percent, and, among interventions, potentially firing staff and offering students the option to transfer to other schools and using part of the budget to pay for the transportation,” according to blogger Mercedes Schneider.

Education historian Diane Ravich adds, “This amendment would have enacted tough, federal-mandated accountability, akin to setting up an ‘achievement school district’ in every state.”

Thankfully it was voted down. The ESEA will probably not be affected. The rewrite was passed by both the House and Senate without these provisions. Once the two versions of the bill are combined, it is quite possible – maybe even probable – that we’ll have a slight improvement on NCLB. Sure there is plenty of crap in it and plenty of lost opportunities, but the ESEA rewrite looks to be a baby step in the right direction.

The problem is this: the failed Murphy Amendment shows the Democrats’ education vision. Almost all of them voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

When it was defeated and the Senate approved the ESEA rewrite, Warren released a statement expressing her disapproval. But if you didn’t know about the Murphy Amendment, you could have read her criticisms quite differently.

She says the (ESEA rewrite) “eliminates basic, fundamental safeguards to ensure that federal dollars are actually used to improve both schools and educational outcomes for those students who are often ignored.”

That sounds good until you realize what she means. “Educational outcomes” mean test scores. She’s talking about test-based accountability. She is against the ESEA rewrite because it doesn’t necessarily put strings on schools’ funding based on standardized test scores like NCLB.

She continues, “Republicans have blocked every attempt to establish even minimum safeguards to ensure that money would be used effectively. I am deeply concerned that billions in taxpayer dollars will not actually reach those schools and students who need them the most…”

She is upset because Republicans repeatedly stripped away federal power to Test and Punish schools. The GOP gave that power to the states. So Warren is concerned that somewhere in this great nation there may be a state or two that decides NOT to take away funding if some of their schools have bad test scores! God forbid!

And Warren’s about as far left as they come!

What about liberal lion Bernie Sanders? I’d sure like an explanation for his vote.

It makes me wonder if when he promised to “end No Child Left Behind,” did he mean the policies in the bill or just the name!?

The Democrats seem to be committed to the notion that the only way to tell if a school is doing a good job is by reference to its test scores. High test scores – good school. Bad test scores – bad school.

This is baloney! Test scores show parental income, not academic achievement. Virtually every school with low test scores serves a majority of poor children. Virtually every school with high test scores serves rich kids.

Real school accountability would be something more akin to the original vision of the ESEA – making sure each district had what it needs to give kids the best education possible. This means at least equalizing funding to poverty schools so they have the same resources as wealthy ones. Even better would be ending our strange reliance on local property taxes to provide the majority of district monies.

But the Dems won’t hear it. The Murphy Amendment seems to show that they’re committed to punishing poor schools and rewarding rich ones.

I really hope I’m wrong about this. Please, anyone out there, talk me down!

Up until now I’ve always been with the Democrats because they had better – though still bad – education policies than the Republicans. I’m not sure I can say that anymore. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

Which party is most committed to ending Common Core? The Republicans!

Which party has championed reducing federal power over our schools and giving us a fighting chance at real education reforms? Republicans!

Which party more often champion’s parental rights over the state? Republicans!

Sure, most of them still love vouchers and charter schools. But increasingly so do the Democrats.

This vote has me rethinking everything.

Our country’s education voters may have just been abandoned by their longest ally.

Where do we go from here?


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also mentioned in the Washington Post.

Forget Education Saviors – They Aren’t Coming

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I feel so left out.

I get the emails just like you:



Run Warren Run!

Run Sanders Run!



Are You Ready for Hillary?

But I just can’t get excited about any of them as potential presidential candidates in 2016.

Sure I like Elizabeth Warren’s stance to hold Wall Street accountable. I like Bernie Sanders‘ New Deal rhetoric. I even like Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming confidence and competence.

But none of them pass the most important test.

None of them are really committed to supporting our public school system.

For education advocates like me, it’s a case of being once bitten, twice shy.

One of President Obama’s campaign promises was that he would reform our education system. And he did! If by “Reform” you mean “make things much worse!”

I remember watching him at a 2008 rally in my hometown as he spoke about standardized testing overload and how we needed to support teachers. He promised to improve No Child Left Behind, hold charter schools accountable, provide better resources for struggling schools instead of punishing them, etc.

I was so overwhelmed that a politician actually cared about the same things I did, as he was leaving the arena I reached over the barrier and shook his hand. (Personal Note: he moisturizes.)



I hung signs, I passed out “Hope” buttons, I took to the phones – things I had never before done for a political candidate. And the results are less than overwhelming.

Sure he’s done some good things. Obamacare’s not bad. It’s a good first step toward universal single-payer healthcare. Yes, it’s nice we finally got Osama bin Laden, federal stimulus, drawing down troops on foreign soil – it’s all a step up from his predecessor.

But when it comes to education, Obama is actually worse than George W. Bush.

It’s so liberating to say that out loud. Liberating and scary.

Standardized testing, national curriculum, privatization – all of these have become worse under Obama. While he and his laughably unqualified Education Secretary Arne Duncan still pay lip service sometimes to the problem of toxic testing, they make no move to reduce it. They just increase their support year-after-year.

Whenever you say this to a hardcore Democrat, they usually respond that it’s not his fault. He was blocked from initiating the policies he wanted by a Republican Congress, they say. And this is true on some issues, but education isn’t one of them. He’s chief executive. He controls the US Department of Education and thus national policy.

Race to the Top and all its failures belong squarely at his feet. It will be interesting to see him try to distance himself from these policies in his retirement years attempting to preserve a legacy as a liberal lion. Nice growl. Toothless bite.

So I hope I may be forgiven for looking toward the horizon. Is there anyone on the political scene who promises to change this situation in 2016?

The short answer: no.

There are Republican legislators who oppose Common Core, but their criticism often comes down to – Ooooh! Yuck! A black man touched it!



I fear that if a member of the GOP somehow gains our highest office, Common Core will suddenly be rebranded as something Saint Reagan thought of – or perhaps something Jesus told W. to bring to the people along with endless war and tax cuts for the rich.

Those few conservatives who actually do have a reasoned argument against Common Core lose me when they talk about what should replace it. Because it’s usually school choice.

I guess it makes sense. They hate any kind of national curriculum or standards but have no problem with leaving it all in the hands of big business privatizers. They take it too far like someone whose boots are too tight so he spends the rest of his life barefoot in all weather.

So I turn back to my Democrats – the party of my father. And I’ll admit it proudly – I’m a lifelong, FDR-loving, donkey riding, social policy supporting Dem. But when I look around at the current crop of democratic presidential hopefuls, there’s not much support for education.

Take Hillary Clinton – the clear frontrunner for the party nomination.

This is not her first rodeo. Her positions are no mystery. All you have to do is a little bit of research to see what she’s championed in her long career in public service.

And she’s been on the right side from time-to-time.

She’s pushed for universal pre-kindergarten, arts education, after-school tutoring, smaller class sizes and the rights of families.

As a college student in the 1960s, she even volunteered to teach reading to children in poor Boston neighborhoods. She fought to ensure voting access for African Americans and even worked at an alternative newspaper in the black community.

However, at core she’s a true political animal. Whatever her real feelings on the issues, she never lets that get in the way of an expedient compromise.

Sometimes that’s a good thing – but when it comes to education, that usually means someone’s losing big – and that someone’s usually a child.

For example, she opposes religious instruction in public schools – but sees no problem with school-led prayers.

She is against merit pay for individual teachers but champions it for entire schools.

She opposes using taxes to fund students attending private or parochial schools but thinks parents should be able to choose among public schools.

And she is a strong advocate for charter schools as a solution to the media-driven fallacy of “failing” public schools.

But perhaps worst of all is her support for Common Core. Both she and her husband backed national standards before they were even called Common Core.

One of President Bill Clinton’s central education policies (to which Hillary gave her full support) was a push for national voluntary education standards – something that Republicans in Congress vehemently opposed and squashed. Then George W. Bush became president and the Republicans suddenly loved the idea until Obama championed it, too.

As much as I admire Hillary Clinton, the person, I cannot trust Hillary Clinton, the politician. Even if she changed her stated views on all education issues and received the full support of the NEA and AFT, I could never trust that if the winds changed she wouldn’t change her positions right back.

That takes us to Elizabeth Warren – Clinton’s main challenger for the nomination.

Warren hasn’t announced that she’s running. In fact, she’s denied it many times. However, my buddies on the left are completely enamored of her.

Moveon.org is trying to generate support on the Left for Warren to challenge Clinton. And they have good reasons. There’s plenty to like about her.

She was an early advocate for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She’s opposed big banks being labeled “too big to fail” and pushed to hold Wall Street accountable for the risky business practices that crashed our economy. She’s in favor of increasing the minimum wage and fighting against income inequality.

But for all that, she’s strangely quiet on education policy.

The only major education legislation she’s supported in her time in the Senate is reducing loan rates for college students.

Strange for someone who actually worked as a teacher!

For a year she taught children with disabilities in a public elementary school in New Jersey. Though she had originally aspired to be a teacher, she didn’t finish her degree. She used an emergency certification. Then she moved on to law school.

With a personal story like that, it’s not surprising the NEA supported her successful run for John Kerry’s Senate seat.

So what’s the problem?

She wrote a book – not a minor article, not an off-the-cuff remark – an entire book championing school choice.

It’s called The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke. In it, she makes a case for a universal school voucher program. She strongly supported giving parents taxpayer-funded vouchers they could use at any school – public, private or parochial. This would “relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.”

Not exactly the kind of policy you’d expect from a far left liberal – but she was a Republican then. As soon as she changed parties, her support for school choice was stashed in the closet.

When asked about it, she said she was misunderstood. Like Clinton, she said she never intended taxpayer money to go to private or parochial schools – only that parents could chose an adjacent public school for their children if they wished.

It’s a huge stain on an otherwise nearly blank book. Like Obama, she can rhapsodize on the importance of public schools as much as she wants at her stump speeches. I’d like to see her support some real education policies before backing her horse for president.

Could she convince me? Maybe. If I’m honest, I want to be convinced. But I need more than words. I need deeds.

Which brings me to the last populist champion for the Democratic Presidential nomination – Bernie Sanders.

The Vermont Senator is technically an Independent but he caucuses with the Democrats. In fact, unlike most on the left who cringe at the label “Socialist,” Sanders actually uses it to describe himself as a Democratic Socialist.

He’s been a leader calling for breaking up media monopolies, and a staunch supporter of universal healthcare. He was against the bank bailout and a warrior against income inequality.

Though education policy has never been his forte, his voting record is mostly positive. He voted to increase federal funding for public schools, in favor of grants to Black and Hispanic colleges, in favor of reducing class size in the early grades, against school prayer, and against school choice. In fact, he is one of the most aggressive enemies of school vouchers in Congress.

Most recently, when President Obama suggested making two years of community college free for everyone, Sanders championed going even further– free tuition at any public college or university!

It’s a pretty impressive record. However, it’s not perfect.

In 1998, he voted to expand funding for charter schools. Considering that his home state of Vermont had zero charters at one point – yes, zero – it’s unclear how knowledgeable he was on the issue. It certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of thing he’d be for now. That was 17 years ago. Has he learned more in the meantime? Is he now for or against charters? It’s unclear.

Even more damning, in May 2001, he voted for No Child Left Behind requiring states to conduct annual standardized testing. That’s hardly an unforgivable sin. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Congress fully against testing – especially back in 2001.

But that wasn’t his only misstep. Sanders also showed brief support for Common Core. As recently as 2011, he explicitly supported legislation to expand it in Vermont. However, lately he has refused to give an opinion either for or against it.

Could he be souring on corporate education reform? The most tantalizing answer lies in legislation he helped author in 2013.

In a bid to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he developed legislation that would have allowed states to demonstrate student learning through innovative projects instead of standardized testing. The bill fizzled, however, with lack of Congressional will.

Is Sanders evolving away from the testocracy of Bush and Obama or is he just playing it close to the vest? I would like to know more. Sanders would need to do some work to convince me he is on the side of public schools, but he might be able to do it. If that’s what he really wanted.

Of the three candidates examined here, he is most likely to become a true education advocate. But he is also least likely to receive the party’s nomination or to win a general election.

So where does that leave us? Who can I support as a possible education savior in 2016?

The answer again: no one.

We have to face it, people. No one is coming to save us and our children. There never will be. Politicians aren’t made of that kind of self-sacrificing stuff. Not Democrats, Republicans or Independents.

Those of us who cherish public education will have to push 2016 hopefuls to move as far our way as possible. But when it comes to the actual election, we may have to face the distinct possibility that there will be no one in whom we can safely vote.

We may have to run our own independent candidate – someone with no chance of winning, but who might continue to push the mainstream candidates toward education. Because no matter who wins, chances are he or she won’t be as friendly toward public schools as they are toward the lobbying dollars of the privatizers and standardization movement.

We can’t elect our way to sound education policy. It will take a massive popular movement of parents, teachers, students and people of conscience. Demands will be made. Protests will be staged. Revolutions may be waged.

Because the only education savior we can count on is us.


This article also was published in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.