Public School Takeovers – When Local Control is Marked ‘White Only’

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Do you like Democracy?

Then you’d better not be poor or have brown skin.

Because in America today we only allow self-government to rich white folks.

Sad but true.

American public schools serving large populations of impoverished and minority children are increasingly being taken over by their respective states.

People of color and people living in poverty are losing their right to govern their own schools. They are losing a say in how their own children are educated. They are losing elective governance.

Why? No other reason than that they are poor and brown skinned.

The most recent example is Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts.

Just two weeks ago, the state education board moved to place Holyoke schools in receivership.

So later this spring out goes the elected school board and in comes either an individual or non-profit organization to take over running the district.

On what grounds?

Well, Holyoke is a city of about 40,000 residents in the western part of the state. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, 31.5% of the city’s residents live below the poverty level – nearly three times the state average.

Nearly half of Holyoke students do not speak English as a first language and nearly 30 percent are English-language learners. Eighty-five percent of Holyoke students come from low-income households.

But those aren’t the reasons given for the state takeover. It’s poor test scores and high dropout rates.

The state board can’t just come out and admit it’s waging class and race warfare against its own citizens. Instead, out comes the racist dog whistle of test scores and accountability.

If those kids had just filled in the right bubbles on their standardized tests, freedom would continue to ring in Holyoke. If more kids didn’t become frustrated and drop out, the district would be a haven to rival ancient Athens.

Never mind that poor students almost always score lower on standardized tests than rich kids. Never mind that children trying to learn English don’t score as high as kids who have been speaking it since before preschool.

However, these “alarming trends” are actually improving – just not fast enough for the state.

The graduation rate climbed from 49.5 percent in 2011 to 60.2 percent in 2014. The dropout rate also has improved. However, when compared with richer, whiter districts, this “performance” still leaves much to be desired.

But Holyoke isn’t alone.

In January, the Arkansas Board of Education did the same to the Little Rock district.

The state dissolved the local school board but at first kept Superintendent Dexter Suggs in an interim capacity.

Little Rock – one of the flashpoints of desegregation in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s – is the state’s largest school district, with about 25,000 students.

Once again, African-American and Latino students are about three-fourths of the city’s student body. About 70% of students meet the federal government’s definition of poverty.

Yet the state cited low standardized test scores as the reason for the takeover.

About 45% of Little Rock high school students attend schools designated as “underperforming.” Last year, the Arkansas state board classified six of its 48 schools as being in “academic distress” after fewer than half their students scored at the “proficient” level on achievement tests.

So out with democracy and in with bureaucracy.

Does it work?

Not really.

Across the country, more than half of all states have laws allowing the dissolution of local control for districts that meet certain academic and economic parameters. However, even after decades of receivership, most districts still don’t improve their test scores.

In New Jersey, for instance, the Newark school district has been under state control since 1995 but still registers low test scores and graduation rates. Pennsylvania took over Philadelphia’s public schools in 2001, and test scores have actually dropped while the creation of new charter schools have drained state coffers. In 2013, district officials had to borrow $50 million to avoid delaying the beginning of the new school year.

Nationally, takeovers tend to improve administrative and financial practices but have less of an effect on classroom instruction, according to a 2004 report from the Education Commission of the States.

Academic performance for state-controlled districts is usually mixed, the report concluded, with increases in some areas, and decreases in others. “The bottom line is that state takeovers, for the most part, have yet to produce dramatic and consistent increases in student performance,” the report concluded.

Q: If state-takeovers don’t actually improve academic outcomes, why do we continue to allow them?

A: It’s cheaper than actually fixing the problem – poverty.

Poor students need resources they aren’t getting.

Fact: across the country, we spend more money to educate our rich children than we do our poor ones.

Fact: Poor students need MORE resources to learn than rich ones. They need access to food and nutrition, stability, tutoring and wraparound social services.

In short, we’re ignoring the needs of our impoverished children, because many of them are children of color.

And we’re selling this whole-sale neglect as the impartial product of “accountability” measures. We say that schools and teachers aren’t doing their jobs, so we’re taking over poor districts – where nothing much improves – but at least we made a show of doing something.

The people behind this sham are actually selling it as a Civil Rights issue. And it IS a Civil Rights issue – but not the one they claim. Standardization and privatization of public schools and the blatant government overreach involved in state takeovers are Civil Rights ABUSES.

We should be helping high-poverty schools meet the needs of their students. Instead we put on a show and hope no one peeks behind the curtain.

We liberally dole out blame and conservatively hide our pocketbooks. We point the finger at easy targets – poor and minority parents and children. We demonize the one group devoting their lives to actually helping improve the situation – teachers. And instead of empowering neighborhoods, we steal their vote and call it “help.”

Until we recognize these facts, our public schools will remain “separate but equal.” Ensuring an adequate education for all will remain a privilege of the elite. And the dream of racial and social equality will remain stifled under the boot of false accountability.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

Montel Williams is a True Public Schools Advocate

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Montel Williams did something truly amazing yesterday.

When he heard the Newark Student Union was having difficulty getting food during their sit-in at Cami Anderson’s office, he volunteered to personally send them something to eat!

He tweeted, “Could any reporter currently covering #OccupyNPS @NewarkStudents kindly tell the district spokesperson I intend to send these kids food ;)”

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That takes guts. He wasn’t just offering his opinion. He was threatening to get involved.

It’s that kind of integrity that’s behind his #StandUpForPublicSchools campaign. Here we have a national celebrity, known as a groundbreaking talk show host who could just sit back and enjoy life. But instead he uses his notoriety to help public school teachers!

That might not sound like much to some, but our public schools are under attack. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the public eye to say something nice about our school system. Our national debate about education is curiously absent teachers. Yet here comes Montel who not only praises our work but starts a campaign to advocate for us and our students! Heck! Another one of his hashtags is #LetTeachersTeach!

Finally we have a prominent figure with the courage to take the public stage and not call for more school closures. He calls for support!

Last night he even went on Fox Business to talk with former MTV VJ Kennedy who famously said “There really shouldn’t be public schools.” And he boldly told her the truth: public schools need our advocacy!

As teachers, it brings tears to our eyes to finally see someone have our backs. He’s taking some heat on twitter for it, too. But, Montel, just know we will always be there to back you up.

You are truly badass! Much love and appreciation from all of us at the Badass Teachers Association!

When Kids Teach Adults – Lessons from the Newark Student Union Sit-in

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If ISIS extremists flew in from the Middle East and took over our public schools, we wouldn’t stand for it.

But if those extremists are from our own state or federal government, we just yawn and change the channel.

Though not for the last three nights.

A handful of plucky Newark school students have demanded our attention, and, Brother, do they have it!

At least six Newark students have staged a sit-in at the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson demanding she step down and the district be returned to the voters. The district has been under state control for the last two decades.

This could have been handled easily. Anderson could have met with the students to talk about their concerns. After all, she is a public servant and even school kids are members of the public.

But instead she’s abandoned her office, sent threatening letters to the children’s parents and blocked or held up shipments of food to the young protestors.

Undeterred, the youngsters have set up a live feed on youtube to broadcast their action to the world, tweeting with the hashtags #OccupyNPS and #OurNewark. And the world has been paying attention. Local officials including Mayor Ras Baracka are calling for Anderson’s resignation. The teachers union is discussing holding an illegal strike if the students are forcibly removed.

But more importantly, people all over the country are talking about something they haven’t talked about – maybe – ever: local control.

What gives the state or federal government the right to come in and take over your public school?

Sure if there’s some kind of malfeasance going on, it makes sense to oust a particular school director. If the entire board is working in collusion against the public interest, maybe then it makes sense to get rid of all of them. A temporary acting school board might be necessary in such an unlikely case.

But why not then just hold another election and be done with it? Why would the state keep control over a public school for years or decades after a crisis?

The answer: many of our state and federal government officials don’t believe in local control.

Don’t worry. They’re not against it for everyone.

They don’t come in and take over just any school. If you live in a rich neighborhood, you can breathe easy. No state has ever taken over a posh district.

However, if you live in a poor community with a school that struggles to get by on the contributions of the impoverished local tax base, then the state may be gunning for you.

In my home state of Pennsylvania this has happened numerous times: Duquesne, Chester Upland and Philadelphia spring immediately to mind. In fact, Philly schools have been under control of the State Recovery Commission almost as long as Newark. At the same time Newark students were settling in for their second night in Anderson’s office, the Philadelphia SRC was having citizens arrested for protesting the state-appointed directors decision to expand charter schools.

What gives these people the right to take over our schools?

Poverty.

The excuse is always that the democratically-elected school board didn’t manage the district’s finances well enough. That’s why there were dwindling services for students.

However, the truth is more simple. School directors weren’t able to get blood from a stone. While rich districts rely heavily on a fat tax base that could support whatever services their children need, poor ones limp by. The state and federal government – seeing the trouble our poor districts are in – have a responsibility to come forward and provide financial assistance. After all, every child in this country has the right to a free and appropriate public school education. This doesn’t change just because your folks are poor.

But instead of facing up to their responsibilities, the state and federal government have used this monetary crisis to steal control of the poorest public schools.

And what’s worse, they haven’t improved the quality of services for students under their care! Instead they make sure any moderate increase in funding gets siphoned off to the corporate education reform movement before it ever reaches kids.

The standardized testing industry has increased 57% in the last three years alone to a $2.5 billion a year market. And that doesn’t even count the billions more being raked in by textbook companies (many of them are the same ones producing and grading the tests) with test prep materials and Common Core.

So why does the state and federal government unconstitutionally swipe away local control from people living in poor districts?

Because they can make money off of it!

This is exactly the abomination that the Newark Student Union is shinning light on.

Five years ago, Newark Schools received a $100 million gift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to turn around the district. The project is called One Newark. The director is Anderson.

However, instead of turning the district around, it has been responsible for closing or relocating schools, opening new charter schools and displacing staff. And no improvement to district services!

Where’s the money going? Here’s a hint: Anderson has been sharply criticized for spending $37 million on consulting fees to prominent factory school reformers.

It’s time to end the practice of public school takeovers. There is no good reason for the state or federal government to snatch away our local schools. This is clearly a violation of the almost every state constitution (including New Jersey and Pennsylvania’s) and the rights of citizens and students. Public schools should remain public.

This is what our children are trying to tell us there in Cami Anderson’s office.

As they continue for a third night, I find myself with two distinct opposite emotions.

I feel an overwhelming shame for my generation. We have let greed get the better of us. How dare we trample the future of countless generations of children for financial gain! When I think of people like Anderson and ex-Mayor Cory Booker, people like my own ex-Governor Tom Corbett, I want to throw up.

However, at the same time I’m also filled with such immense hope! These children have shown us that we can be so much more than the sum of our base natures! We can overcome our menial immediate needs and put the suffering of others over that of ourselves!

I can’t express enough the joy and admiration I have for the members of the Newark Student Union! They represent the future we might attain – if only us adults will let them shine!


UPDATE: The sit-in ended after three days when Anderson met with students. They continue to call for her resignation.

This article was also published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.