Way Too Much Education Information (or, I May Never Have to Write Another Blog on Education Again) – And There Are Links!
Parents want their children to get a good education, and most of those parents depend on public schools to deliver that education. Parents and policymakers, however, do not all agree on how to deliver a good education, or even what constitutes a “good” education.
Bill Ayers, retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, calls “public education a human right and a basic community responsibility.”
That vision would require that all children have easy access to free public schools with small class sizes, professionally and fully trained teachers, a curriculum that recognizes the diverse population and the history of those populations, well-paid teachers, appropriate equipment, safe buildings, art, music, theater, sports and gyms, and wrap-around services for struggling students. Schools would also be safe environments for all students, including LGBTQ individuals.
If those basic elements existed at every school site, in every school district, then I suspect there wouldn’t be the dissent and disagreement we’re seeing today, including what happened at the TPS school board meeting last week when three board members walked out.
Let’s look at some context around the big picture of what is happening in public education today. I encourage you to do your own research to decide where you want to be on these issues. Is public education a foundation of our democracy? Is it a public good? Should it be privatized where state governments give up their promise to provide public education for all children? Are vouchers and charters fair and equitable for all children? How much say should billionaires have in changing the landscape of public education in the United States? Democracy can be messy.
An editorial by the Tulsa World said of the board meeting walk-out, “If constituents want to see what the dismantling of public schools looks like, this meeting was a front-row seat.”
I beg to differ. All kinds of social media huffing and puffing has resulted from that single act. Many concerned individuals are fearful that their favorite program may be on the chopping block. Is that a fault of the school board members or the fault of a lack of vision and transparency from the superintendent?
A Look at the School Reform Movement
Whatever you think, it may be helpful to put things in context because if you think this is only happening in Tulsa, you’re wrong. Get ready for a long blog. The dismantling of public schools began long before the school board meeting “walk out.” It started when Ronald Reagan declared war on public schools, incorrectly labeling American public schools as failing. (washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/04/26/the-landmark-a-nation-at-risk-called-for-education-reform-35-years-ago-heres-how-it-was-bungled/)
What is the vision of the district and how, specifically, is that vision implemented? It’s useful to look at the forces (and money) at play in public education today in order to answer that question.
The school reform movement on both the neoliberal and conservative sides have converged over the years to a common goal of implementing market-driven business practices to privatize public education. Neoliberalism favors free-market capitalism and is a system that supports privatizing public domains such as schools. From such a vantage point, you can see why test scores define success and children are treated as consumers and data points. Children are primarily meant to be “college and career ready” in order to participate in economic growth. Arne Duncan, former President Obama’s Secretary of Education, followed this philosophy, an outgrowth of former President Reagan’s warning that American school children would not be competitive in the world market.
The Broad Foundation
TPS’s dismantling began with accepting the Gates Foundation money and subsequently hiring a Broad Academy-trained superintendent, Deborah Gist, who then stacked her administration with Broad Academy graduates, most of whom are MBAs with Broad training, not professional educators. Devin Fletcher, the TPS Talent administrator who allegedly mismanaged funds and subsequently resigned, attended the unaccredited Broad Academy.
The Broad Foundation recently donated funds to establish a Master’s in Public Education Management at Yale University, probably to lend it some credibility in the face of on-going criticism. At one time, you could go to the Broad Foundation website to see all the “graduates.” You would have recognized many faces that are currently at TPS. The list of graduates is no longer available on the site.
The Broad Foundation, like Gates and Walton as well as many less wealthy foundations, support taking public education dollars and investing them in market-driven policies. All of them also invest heavily in five-week-trained Teach for America, which costs school districts more than hiring traditionally trained new teachers. (prospect.org/civil-rights/true-cost-teach-america-s-impact-urban-schools)
Groups of parents in school districts such as Seattle and North Carolina have fought against the Broad policies that Broad superintendents brought to their communities. To understand the vision of the Broad Foundation’s desire to create a pipeline of superintendents and administrators across the country, take a look at this post from North Carolina: Take Back Our Schools in Guilford County, NC: takebackourschools-gcs.com/broad-academy
Bill Gates and MAP Assessments
Bill Gates is another big player in transforming public education and you can see his large fingerprint on TPS, but even Gates admits that his experiments in public schools haven’t been a success. A report by the Rand Corp. called “Improving Teacher Effectiveness” showed Gates’ initiative to be a $575 million failure. (nepc.colorado.edu/blog/bill-gates-spent)
TPS announced at a board meeting last month that it will be using the Gates’ MAP assessments to screen kindergartners for dyslexia. Catching reading problems early is a great idea – and the state supports that by requiring assessments, but how accurate can we expect a computer assessment on a 5-year-old to be? This is wrong, not just on a child development level, but on so many other levels that I can’t even write about them because this blog is already way too long. Here’s a heartbreaking letter to Bill Gates from a kindergarten teacher that will give you an idea: teachersletterstobillgates.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/five-hours-of-gates-led-kindergarten-common-core-map-tests-testhearingsnow
Is there a way to extricate ourselves from MAP testing?
I suppose if most of the TPS teachers are 5-week-trained Teacher Corps recruits or Teach for America youth, then they probably don’t have the child development knowledge about how children learn that would be necessary to evaluate a young child, so maybe MAP assessment is the best the district can do. But is this the vision that you have for your children?
I know many parents who have tried mightily to keep their young children OFF of screens, only to have the children go to school to be placed in front of them.
More Info on Broad/Gates/Walton Foundations and Education
For more Broad/Gates/Walton background regarding public school “reform,” go here: seattleducation2010.wordpress.com/race-to-the-top/the-broad-foundation/
Here’s an excerpt (it may sound familiar if you pay attention to TPS):
How the Broad Foundation affects public school families
Broad and his foundation believe that public schools should be run like a business. One of the tenets of his philosophy is to produce system change by “investing in a disruptive force.” Continual reorganizations, firings of staff, and experimentation to create chaos or “churn” is believed to be productive and beneficial, as it weakens the ability of communities to resist change.
As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, a proponent of this philosophy has said, “…we can afford to make lots more mistakes and in fact we have to throw more things at the wall. The big companies that get into trouble are those that try to manage their size instead of experimenting with it.”
A hallmark of the Broad-style leadership is closing existing schools rather than attempting to improve them, increasing class size, opening charter schools, imposing high-stakes test-based accountability systems on teachers and students, and implementing of pay for performance schemes. The brusque and often punitive management style of Broad-trained leaders has frequently alienated parents and teachers and sparked protests.
The neoliberal and the conservative philosophy of reforming public education is the same: a market-driven, competitive philosophy (which can include vouchers and charters) that closes low-performing schools, often opening chain charter schools in their place, called a “Portfolio” model, functioning much like a stock portfolio.
Some conservative republicans such as Gov. Stitt and Secretary of Education Ryan Walters support vouchers and charters, but also layer on cultural/social elements. This is a point where neoliberals and Republicans such as Walters and Gov. Stitt may part ways, so that’s another topic for another long blog.
To provide more context, this quote from “The Power Brokers of Neoliberalism: Philanthrocapitalists and Public Education” by Marta P. Baltodano, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA, explains the vision behind the current education reform that we see at TPS and urban schools around the country:
It has become evident that 21st century neoliberal educational reform has reinstated Taylorism and the social efficiency ideology as a way to support the market. The push for standardized testing, accountability, scripted curricula, privatization, and union busting represent the new version of the efficiency-factory model in the modern classroom (Gude, 2013; Hyatt et al., 2015; Rees, 2011; Vasallo, 2014). Advanced capitalism is once again the driving force behind the control of the curriculum and the direction of public education. As Brown (2003) points out, ‘‘all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality’’ (4). Every single area of social, cultural, and political life is reduced to the simple economic principles of cost–benefit, production, and efficiency (9).
It’s no wonder people are uneasy.
Superintendents, school boards, families and legislators across the country have been grappling with very complicated issues.
A Lack of Accountability – and the TPS Audit
At the same time, billionaires are pumping money into their brand of school reform. Where is the public accountability? Do we merely accept the dollars because state legislatures drastically underfund education, or do we ask questions, as citizens and as school board members, about how these dollars will be spent and whether the reform programs such as Teach for America, MAP tests and screenings, outside consultants, edu-tech packages promising incredible testing outcomes and awesome social-emotional learning, etc. are helpful to educating children? These are questions that Dr. Marshall has asked time and time again.
Baltodano writes in her article in “Policy Futures in Education”:
…these foundations use public money to pursue their agenda to dismantle public education without any input or control by the voters who pay their subsidies, and without any accountability from the government. … These mega foundations follow the basic strategy of institutional capitalism: they have created alliance among themselves, they invest in the same educational projects, and they position their leaders and directors concurrently in multiple grantors and grantee projects. Reckhow and Snyder (2014) call this a ‘‘pattern of convergence in grant-making’’ (191), where these foundations fund not only organizations with the same goals but also the same organizations. For example, by 2010 Teach for America had received grants from 13 of the 15 largest K-12 venture philanthropies for a total of US$44.5 million. The other three top grantees were the Charter School Growth Fund, which received a total of US$46 million from six funders; KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), which received US$24 million from nine funders; and New Schools Venture Fund, which received US$18 million from 10 funders (Blume, 2013; Reckhow and Snyder, 2014).
Forces from both the conservative Republican side and the neoliberal side are creating friction, which causes the public – on all sides of the political, racial and cultural spectrum– to feel uneasy and distrustful of TPS school leadership. Look at Facebook feeds from parents right now. Chaos and confusion. Remember how the Broad Academy encourages chaos? Maybe parents, teachers and even board members are supposed to be confused.
When individuals on the board ask questions, they are pushed aside. Why?
That is the reason that TPS board members Jennettie Marshall and E’Lena Ashley called for a forensic audit of the district’s finances. The two board members, along with State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, who is running for OK State Superintendent of Schools, held a press conference last week.
TPS Board Member Concerns
While they have all been lumped together as heroes by some and as pariahs by others, here is the common ground that brought Dr. Marshall and Ms. Ashley together to request an audit. (I do think it’s unfortunate that Mr. Walters used the opportunity to try to score some political points, so I’ll leave him out.)
Dr. Marshall, the longest serving school board member, has had on-going concerns about being asked to vote on consent agenda items without having complete information and without public input. Because her questions and concerns have not been addressed, she has lost trust in the superintendent.
To vote on a consent agenda is to vote on the entire agenda, to approve every single item.
Dr. Marshall and Ms. Ashley want to know that the millions of dollars being spent on items are in the best interests of children in the district. Without information, there is no way to know.
“During my tenure on the board, I have continuously asked for bidder and company portfolios before a vote is conducted to ensure the board has full knowledge of potential vendor background,” Dr. Marshall said.
Dr. Marshall cites thousands of dollars going to outside sources and consultants without input from teachers, the public or without having a clear understanding of their past success.
Lack of Financial Transparency
She said that her concerns started prior to Devin Fletcher’s public resignation over the $20,000 alleged financial improprieties with Snicklebox LLC.
“The lack of transparency is damaging as evidenced by my continued insistence for background information on Snicklebox LLC, which is at the center of controversy now,” Dr. Marshall said in her statement. “To vote to give vendors millions of dollars without knowing their capability to deliver beneficial goods and services would be irresponsible and lack fiduciary responsibility.”
According to both board members, withholding information and lack of transparency is a pattern with TPS leadership.
Both Dr. Marshall and Ms. Ashley say they have asked for complete information on vendors, but have not received it, or they do not receive it prior to board meetings when they are asked to vote.
“We recently voted on over 250 line items on the consent agenda,” Ms. Ashley said. “I was dumbfounded. How do we handle this? Where’s our documentation? They say they’ll get back to us, but before they get back to us, we’ve already voted, so what’s the use? It’s irresponsible to vote on something you don’t even know what it is. $700 million is a lot of money.”
Dr. Marshall says she also requested information about a $2 million bond that was issued to expand a school to accommodate a growing student population. Instead of expanding the school building, the school was closed. She questioned whether a site assessment had been done prior to asking the public to vote on the bond.
“We need to get definitive answers on how to protect your dollars,” Dr. Marshall said. “This is about accountability and transparency. I continuously ask for documentation on how money is spent and who it is being spent with, and what those companies have accomplished in other districts. When I’m denied that over and over, it casts a shadow.”
Ms. Ashley said she was told that as a new board member, she just doesn’t know how things work, but she doesn’t accept that. “I want financial transparency and accountability.”
Curtailing Public and Board Input
Dr. Marshall is additionally concerned that changes implemented in the way public comments are handled at board meetings has curtailed public input as well as board input.
“The board has eliminated the information agenda, which sends items directly to consent, which automatically eliminates public input,” she said. “This also places a board member in the position to ask questions in advance, which is a masked attempt to impede transparency. The consent agenda totaled a financial request of approximately 89 million dollars. The board then passed a huge budget.”
At the press conference Mr. Walters admonished TPS for staying closed during the pandemic. He wants to know how the district used federal dollars allocated to the district during that time.
The comment seemed a little disingenuous considering that Walters advised the Stitt administration to hire Florida-based ClassWallet to disperse federal relief money to families. The funds were meant to be used for education.
An Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier investigation reports that a lack of oversight led to some parents using the money for such things as televisions, smart watches, Christmas trees and exercise gear.
So when Mr. Walters gets sanctimonious about the use or misuse of federal pandemic dollars, well…..what’s the saying? Me thinks thou dost protest too much.
“Let’s be clear,” Dr. Marshall said. “There’s a plethora of questions to be answered concerning the state of education and the financial state of this district. By calling this audit Governor Stitt has afforded us the opportunity to set the house in order and start the healing process that will make us a true destination excellence district.”
Parents can decide whether they agree with a competitive, market-based approach to public education. I hope this provides some background on where some of the policies we are seeing today originate. It might also shed some light on why some board members, even if they may not agree on “culture wars” issues, vouchers or charters, may walk out of a board meeting in frustration, and why they might agree on an audit calling for fiscal transparency and accountability.
Extra Credit Reading
- Are charter schools “public”? During the pandemic, some charter schools identified as businesses AND public schools, thus double-dipping in federal funds. A charter school law in Washington state was struck down as unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court. A Washington Post article stated, “the law violates the state constitution, which says that public school funds can be used only to support ‘common schools’…and “that charter schools – which are publicly funded but privately run – are not ‘common schools’ because their governing boards are not elected but are appointed by the founders of the individual schools.” washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/09/06/charter-school-law-funded-by-bill-gates-in-washington-state-ruled-unconstitutional
For more information on charters: https://seattleducation2010.wordpress.com/charter-schools/
- Destroy Public Education (DPE); It’s a Billionaire Fueled Agenda: sandiegofreepress.org/2018/01/destroy-public-education-dpe-its-a-billionaire-fueled-agenda/#.YthidC-B2KW
On this one, be sure to look at the chart at the end where Tulsa shows up.
- Portfolio Model: Opening schools and closing failing schools like a stock portfolio is part of the school reform model. Here is how it didn’t work out so well in Chicago: sandiegofreepress.org/2018/01/destroy-public-education-dpe-its-a-billionaire-fueled-agenda/#.YthidC-B2KW
- Vouchers: Vouchers have not been successful, if the goal is to improve educational outcomes for underserved children. A U.S.News article says, “A Brookings Institution analysis of four studies in different states with voucher programs found that “on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools.”
- Jitu Brown, founder of Journey for Justice Alliance, has some interesting writings about making schools work for all children. liftusupmovement.org