Friday, May 26, 2017

Governance by the Perpetually Clueless, Politics as a Comedy of Classes

Most people are familiar with Jane Austen’s Emma, even if they don’t realize it. The often remade and modernized story shows up all the time either in new movie versions or thinly disguised TV shows, from a 2009 BBC series and the Miramax movie with Gwyneth Paltrow to the 80’s vehicle Clueless with Alicia Silverstone.  Most recently, Emma showed up for me in, of all places, a Today show Obama political ad.  

Yesterday morning I was watching the Today show waiting for the weather report as I have every morning for years when an Obama ad for Tom Perriello came on; a series of ads that can be credited with closing the numbers on the Virginia primary race for governor.

For those who don’t follow Virginia politics, Perriello is currently the younger and trendier candidate in a Democratic primary race for governor against Ralph Northam, the more staid but stable current lieutenant governor, in what has turned into a race between the the National party (Perriello is backed by Obama, Sanders and Warren) and the Virginia state party (Northam is endorsed by ranking Democratic Senator Dick Saslaw, and most Virginia based progressive organizations.)

On the Today ad Obama is smiling arm in arm with Tom telling us what a wonderful progressive Tom is, and how Obama hired him to head the progressive think tank Center for American Progress; but back to how that made me think of Jane Austen.

For those who don’t remember, Emma is a lovely, privileged and in many ways bright and capable young woman, who is constantly dabbling in the lives of her neighbors and friends. However, her narrow world and resulting lack of awareness of class differences blinds her to the destructive effects of her constant meddling.

You see, Emma’s friends, unlike her, live in the ordinary but wider world, dealing with daily survival and sometimes struggling to maintain the  human dignity that Emma’s wealth and station automatically affords her.

So, Today Show/Emma Voila! First thing on a Wednesday morning it came to me. The National Democratic Party is an unrelenting and completely clueless Emma!  

The tip off was Obama’s perception that everyone would see Perriello’s credentials with Center for American Progress (CAP) as progressive. No offense, but only a disconnected, aristocratic elite could think that. Center for American Progress was founded by John Podesta (Yes, the John Podesta of Clinton’s Whitehouse, and Wikileaks e-mail fame), and staffed by a mixture of Clinton pro-privatization Democrats and a collection of Reaganite economic neoliberals. It is mainline national party, but that is Not the same thing as progressive, even if they call themselves so.

That think tank Obama brags of Perriello heading for several years during the Obama administration was constantly behind the scenes dabbling in ordinary people’s lives, particularly  in the case of local communities trying to run their schools, with no clue as to how badly they were screwing up things for those actually living the reality of their policy recommendations. CAP has supported school privatization and the disastrous education policies that have destabilized the lives of children in even our best schools. Ala, Emma!

Given the continued close connections between prominent school reform billionaires and those in the National party and CAP,  I can only assume they are still wanting to “improve” public schools through similar but newly named policies in the ESSA bill. They still are like Emma, inviting poorer friends to the party so they set them up and can convince them to be more like the superior aristocracy.

The primary election in Virginia is coming up on June 13th, and the National is seriously wanting a statewide win, which sadly, was virtually assured before they injected themselves into the process.  The state party is looking to avoid an ALEC-DeVos hostile takeover from the radical right and get some solidly dependable governance: Same goal, sort of, but world's apart in stakes and possibly in outcome. Not all Democratic wins are equal, just as Emma and her friends were looking to get married, but what they each needed was very different. Obama, Sanders, and Warren would like Virginia to marry Tom.

In the end of the book Emma has an epiphany, and though she still doesn’t really understand, she’s learned enough to grant her friends and neighbors a little more autonomy and a little less condescension.  I'm pretty sure the National Democratic Party is not there yet. It seems they continue to believe the whole world would be great again if only everyone went to Harvard or Yale.

Tom Perriello says he no longer supports the testing-data-privatization movement Center for American Progress promoted under his leadership. It’s hard to argue with any of his currently pronounced positions. He says all the right things. But then, Ralph Northam actually cast his votes against charter schools expansion in Virginia in the last two state legislatures.  

But don’t get any ideas that Gillespie or the Republicans would be a better choice than either Northam or Perriello. In Austen terms, voting for Republicans these days is pretty much like running away with Wickham; an entirely more dangerous proposition.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Has the Fairfax County School Board Just Declared War on all School & County Employees?

On March 2, I went with three friends to a meeting of the McLean Citizens Association.  We drove through the magnificent neighborhoods among McMansions, Real Mansions, and Really Real Mansions, admiring the Gated Houses and Gated Developments.  It was fabulous, beautiful, like visiting another world.

I don’t see these kind of neighborhoods that often because I live on the other side of the county, among 60's split levels and 50's three and four bedroom bricks on a slab or over a basement. Older homes are nestled here and there among the classic early suburban landscape. My neighborhood is filled with teachers, plumbers, bakers, firefighters, policemen, small business owners, carpenters, and mechanics–and I love it.  But gotta admit, McLean is spectacular.

The reason for our visit was to observe the McLean Citizens Association’s meeting on our teachers’ pension plan.  The Association had recently come out swinging in the Washington Post and local papers at ERFC, the Fairfax teachers’ supplemental retirement plan, and we wanted to get a feel for what it was about.

The recommendations they had for the people who teach in the McLean and Fairfax County public schools was that their pension plan be privatized and reduced to mostly what the teachers themselves could contribute from their $47K starting salary, or $58K average salaries.

After all, the people whose homes I was driving by insisted, we don’t have those generous retirement plans like ERFC, which  pays retirees an average of $1,429 a month.  That $1.4K is from deferred compensation and the employees’ own contributions, and out of that $1.4K the cost of teachers’ personally paid health insurance is deducted, making take home considerably less.

The average household income in McLean according to the census bureau is well over $164K per household, and over $194K for families.  Single guys in McLean make an average of $132K.

Of course, I’m glad for them that they do, well done, and would never go to the newspapers to recommend their hard earned money be taken away, but comparing teachers’ delayed compensation to their own portfolios, golden parachutes, and stock options might be a better comparison than-- you’ve got a pension plan, and I don’t.

On Monday April 24 and on Thursday night April 27, I went to two more meetings. These were of the Fairfax County School Board.

These meetings were for the final deliberations and vote on an FCPS budget proposal that would cut ERFC-- not about privatizing the plan immediately; that would be too expensive, but about reducing benefits for teachers with under 5 years or new hires–the first step.

The first meeting on Monday was 7 hours long because when all the community attendees arrived at the time scheduled, the Board left the public observers sitting for the first 1 ½ hours, waiting while the Board excused themselves to go into closed session.  They would go into closed session for another hour later in the day before finishing the meeting.  My friends and I sat and waited through both delays while the board attended to other more important matters.

To fully understand, it’s important to know that ERFC has been a well managed pension system, not in danger of failing, conforming to best practices consistently, and performing well compared to national plans.

On Monday, my friends and I watched as the Board questioned the ERFC managers and coordinators vigorously and with less than professional respect at times. It became progressively more clear, based on their questioning that the Board was all over the map in their relative understandings of large scale investment and pension funds, with most  having little experience, expertise, or self-education in the area. It also became clear that the proposal to reduce ERFC, which had been published as part of the 2018 budget back in September, was a fixed goal, not a possible consideration as most budget items are.

The second meeting on Thursday night April 27 was the business meeting, where it would all be decided. That one lasted until after 11 and also included a hiatus for a closed meeting while the Board recused itself.

The Board was arrayed as always across the front of the stage and the house was pretty full, but not SRO.  Teachers have a hard time doing weekday evening meetings.  They have necessary second jobs, papers to grade, family requirements, and often small children, but many, who could not be there, had called, e-mailed or sent their concern.

The reasons the Board had been giving since September for the ERFC changes was to give teachers raises, help balance the budget, and establish the long-term health of the fund.

Had we been suspicious, we might have suspected this was not entirely genuous because the projected savings was $4.7 million for this year, and the Board had $22 million in general carryover they could have used, an additional $8 million dedicated to the Boards’ own “special projects” carryover, and they were spending $2.4 million on a computer program to add additional  testing and data collection for all elementary schools.

But these were people we knew, from our districts, people who ran on caring about our public schools, about children, and their teachers.

Megan McLaughlin and Tom Wilson, in a last ditch effort to stop the changes, presented a motion to postpone the decision for no longer than a year, for more study.  Afterall, the proposed changes if directed to salaries for this year would give each employee $200 a piece for the year, not enough to cover much of anything.  The cuts would not seriously relieve budget woes in a $2.7 billion proposed budget– and the fund is not in trouble unless Fairfax pulls its contributions.  There is no hurry we can wait a year, they maintained.

The rest of the Board denied the motion to postpone and at the end of the day, most voted to cut what would amount to 3% of ERFC benefits from all new hires who start on or after July 1, 2017. (Voting to cut new hires' pensions was Hynes, Schultz, Strauss, Evans, Moon, Kaufax, & McElveen,)

The new plan would also require our 2017-18 first year teachers and all after to work well over 30 years for a retirement.  A 22 year old would have to work 37 years and a 25 year old, 34 before being eligible for the reduced benefits.

The cherry on the cake was yet to come though. One final motion was presented after all was done-Elizabeth Schultz proposed another working group on both County and School pensions.  It was decided they did not need to include all employee compensation in her motion because they had already initiated a joint study group that would study how they could change compensation for All County and School employees, it would consist of Sharon Bulova and Sandy Evans, and their respective Budget chairs. *

The Working Group was approved with only Ryan McElveen voting no. Chair Sandy Evans and Schultz agreed from the stage that it should not be a large or far ranging working group made up of citizens and stakeholders, but should be 3 Board of Supervisors members and 3 Interested School Board members.

Next year, it would not be 3% of retirement for newbies, everything would be on the table–on both the County side and the School side.

As I walked out of the meeting after 11, I recognized  several of the McLean Citizens Association members sitting with their laptops up and running. They were smiling.

In my quiet house in my working class neighborhood, I didn’t get to sleep until 4 a.m.

*CORRECTION: After rewatching the recordings of the end of the April 27 meeting,  Apologies to Ms. Schultz for attributing the General Compensation study group to her motion in the original blog.  Her motion was to create a new group to study pensions.  However, there was substantial discussion that concluded they did not need to include other compensation in her motion, because the school board had already recently authorized a Joint Working Group to study General Compensation.  The outcome was the same. Everything is still on the table, it was just done with 2 working groups rather than one.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

the Ones we lose

Last week, right before Easter and in the middle of Passover, a vandal spray painted Nazi, anti-Jewish, and anti-LGBTQ messages on a Jewish Community Center and United Church of Christ in my neighborhood. The Community Center is a place I have bought gifts for family.  The church is a place I have both attended and led workshops, though it’s not my home congregation. The community rallied and removed the graffiti, but the attack has me in a deeply reflective place.

They quickly caught the alleged perpetrator: a 20 year old, who had attended a high school in my district. Had his eyes not looked dead in the photo he might have been handsome and capable looking.  Word among my former students on social media was that he is a member of local white supremacist groups; groups I did not know existed in my community. I had not been his teacher, but for a mile or two distance one direction or the other, I might have been.

I can still remember almost 20 years ago when a student was arrested, my first “loss.” A colleague, older and more experienced said, “You can’t save them all.”  It was one of the hardest things to hear.  It still causes me pain that we don’t find a way to save them all.

Each “loss”: each drug overdose, each suicide, each prison sentence is a blow to your own “why” for teaching and being.  Just as each success, each life affirmation is a cause for joy. For teachers our “why I teach” is often to help each child to find a path to life’s gifts, and when one loses their way, or does not learn the lessons that will help them navigate life,  it triggers deep introspection for those who taught that child.

What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Could I have done more? How did this happen?

Ironically, students we lose the most these days are on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  I have been to memorial services for recent former students whom I knew struggled with gender identity and sexuality, heard of students who had wound up in prison, and visited the hospital for bullied students who OD’d.  

Until now, I had never thought it through that white supremacist boys (or girls) are lost; just as in need of help as our LGBTQ, or our impoverished students. I don’t mean that we should back away from acceptance, defense, and caring for our LGBTQ students or stop helping those who live with fewer resources.  It is just a realization to me the common cause of their struggling is feeling left out, marginalized, disrespected, and unmoored from belonging.

The conversations overheard of young white-supremacist men saying, “We are taking back our country,” speaks to a feeling of being outcast, and rejected.

The young man who spray-painted the community center and church is lost in similar ways to the Trans kid who died at his own hand or the at-risk kid who overdosed from despair. One’s alienation expressed in self harming despair, the other’s in violent hatred for others.

Both beg the question: Why am I not accepted and included in the compassionate caring of family, friends, and community? Why am I seen as unworthy of love and acceptance?

Clearly, there is no pat answer for either’s lostness.  But there is a mandate for us as families, neighbors, teachers, schools, and communities.

We have to ask ourselves why,  and change the way we are treating our children and adolescents so that they don’t arrive on the doorstep to adulthood with anger and despair in their hearts.

We have to understand how we are systematically doing things in our culture and society that bring them to such a sense of despair, and we have to stop doing those things.  We must find the ways to include and connect with those who feel most bereft of care, and reach out to them, support them, and create systems that are inherently kinder, affirming, and more giving and forgiving.

We have to find a way to save our “lost” children before their anguish tears us all apart.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why Congregations Across the Nation Should Stand Against Vouchers

 Many of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations of the U.S. behind the scenes are welcoming, even promoting the idea of government vouchers and financial supports for religious based PreK-12 schools, and the reasons are fairly evident.  More money, more students, the opportunity to open their own school.

Right now Vouchers is the flagship policy being promoted by Mrs. DeVos, the new Secretary of Ed, and by the new President, Mr. Trump.  The Secretary and President are supported by much of the Republican party which has depended on faith groups for their election since Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove figured out ways to attract churches to political action in the late 70s. Many politicians even see Vouchers, also called Ed Savings Accts and Scholarships, as a payoff to religious leaders who have delivered the votes in past elections.

However, there are some glaring reasons that Congregations across the US should rethink supporting or promoting vouchers for private PreK-12 schools.
1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught in a particular religion.
2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe.
3. The story that public schools are anti-Judeo-Christian-values is untrue.
4.With the Money comes diminished control and fragmentation for our local communities.

1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught adherence to a particular governmental religion. 
I still remember as a child in Baptist Sunday School learning the story of Roger Williams and how he and his followers were pushed out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 by the Puritans who considered him and his Baptist followers heretics.

The story of how he escaped in a blizzard and made his way to Rhode Island to eventually found the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in the Colonies was important history in our church.  His belief in Separation of Church and State, in the importance of individual conscience, and his belief in treating the natives honorably were taught as hallmarks of what it meant to be Baptist, even as late as the 1960s.  Many American denominations have a similar “freedom of religion” story in their history.

Williams’ beliefs have become less revered now that media preachers outrank congregational ministers and following a charismatic preacher carries more weight than figuring out what you, yourself think.  But it’s not my goal to convince everyone that we should all become AnaBaptists.  The point is that the Puritans’ push to make Massachusetts Bay a theocracy quickly became antithetical to what it has meant to be American for the last 400 years. It is important to remind ourselves, that though we may be the religion in control of government this year, we may be the victims of a theocratic government when another sect takes over.

2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe. 
Each of those terms has a different meaning, and every faith is a minority in some part of the country.  There is also no assurance that the private for-profit firms, who will also be founding new schools or are currently in place, will be any more in touch with community values than the elected boards we put in office through our local elections, and the leaders/teachers from among our own local population.

It has become an urban legend that Republican views are Christian views, that they are only one set of beliefs, and  that the two labels are interchangeable.  Yet, beliefs, worship practices, and codes of belonging across Christian communities in the US are as diverse as the complex heritages we grow from: from Catholics, to Quakers, to Jehovahs Witnesses, the range of “Christian” churches is vast.  Even among Jewish Congregations, there is national diversity of types and practices.

Many families across the country have stories of breaches and breaks because Grandma was a Methodist, and the Great Grands could not abide that she might not raise the grandkids Church of Christ, or Presbyterian, or some other denomination, and those stories are not limited to long gone generations. There is even the old joke about the guy stranded on a tropical island who when found has two churches there– one where he worshiped before he split off (from himself) to the new one.

My home town had two gas stations, one grocery store, one stop light and 26 churches– all variations on protestant Christianity.  Yet, there was a reason there were and still are 26 or more instead of fewer. Each had a slightly different flavor and style to the other 25, and the congregants in each considered their reason for belonging to that particular church and denomination something worth being separate for.  Which of those churches will have control over the new school that receives the bulk of the voucher money from the community’s taxes?

That variation has not gone away in communities across the nation, and it is good and important to keep that variety in the context of our personal searches for truth and meaning.  However, it makes converting our Monday-Friday schools into religious ones, a problematic endeavor.

3. The story that public schools are anti Judeo-Christian values is untrue. 
Politicians, and some ministers who want to separate us from one another, would have us believe that public schools deny children freedom of religious belief, deny them the option to personally  pray, and deny core values that have been part of Western Judeo-Christian tradition.

Yet, in most states, the pledge of allegiance with “under God” right there in the middle of it starts off each day, by law.  Holiday concerts in December of every year are still much loved performance events of most localities with traditional carols and some add on’s in welcome to other cultures. The opening prayers still get said at many a local event, and major calendar breaks are still centered mostly around western religious holidays.  After school programs sponsored by local religious groups continue to be hosted across the country--Except in places like Michigan (Mrs. DeVos’ custom designed home state system of privates) where the fabric of local community identity has been shredded by mostly for-profit private schools who use the communities' money without serving the greater community.

 Public schools have actually been able to understand the difference between widely varying individual church dogma and the general religious ethics that inform our civil society.  Miraculously (or not so miraculously) there are core values that do reach across religious lines, and not just protestant Christian religious lines.

Values like honesty, not cheating or stealing, respecting one another’s possessions, not hurting others, gratitude,  kindness, sharing, and respect for our families and elders are both religious and civil societal values which continue to be cornerstones that keep our classrooms and schools functioning as healthy communities. Those values we can teach and do teach.  Though reinforcement of these values on a worship day or through religious community are helpful and healthy, the basic religious ethic of all the Big Five religions are already part of our public school traditions because they are the values that help us live in harmony with one another as good neighbors.

Will the same be true of the narrower, more dogmatic, or for profit schools that voucher/scholarship money goes to? There are no assurances because they will not have the same requirements or community oversight our current public schools have. Will the religious organization that runs the new school respect your child’s right to practice a slightly different religious belief or practice?  They will not be required to.

4. With the Money comes diminished local control,  and fragmentation of our local communities. 
For many years, the joke among farmers and other local businesses was that the scariest words one could hear was, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” The truth behind that fear is the reality that people who see citizens’ money as better spent based on outside views often bring ill-fitting policies. Public schools have suffered that plight much of late. Both Democrats and Republicans have felt economic unregulated capitalism would be a better system for managing schools than local democracy would.  Vouchers and Privately run Virtual Schools are the culmination of that belief.

Nationally aligned business and political people believe that the unregulated Market will govern our children’s daily lives better than local community leaders, local parents, and local business people-- Just the way the Market has better governed our health care with better service and better prices. Neither ESSA nor DeVos/Trump Voucher-privatization will include actual local control, only corporate or indvidual religious organizational control.

While privates and virtuals will get the benefit of our federal, state, and local tax dollars; our local public schools will be left without enough to run the already legally required programs the privates and virtuals will not have to provide, with local districts unable to exert any control over the non-public schools that operate within their borders.  Those new schools (and some already established) do not operate with the same conceptual mission to serve the children and communities of the whole town, neighborhood, or county.  The new schools’ mission is to push a particular ideology or make a profit, regardless of the effect on the community as a whole.

Even if the new school happens to luckily be of your denomination, which of those 26 ministers will have control over what your child learns? And what happens when the money has been taken from the local school, but only those who "belong" are accepted?

It will be their choice, regardless of the effect on your community, your congregation, or your child or grandchild.


Friday, March 10, 2017

New Strategy, Same Agenda, Lamar Alexander and Accountability

Why would Lamar Alexander suddenly start to dismantle the “accountability” regulations of ESSA, the landmark Education Bill he worked over a year forging and heralded as a fabulous bi-partisan feat; one of the few of the Obama era?
Photo by Angela Lewis Foster/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Is Accountability which he so avidly promoted for so long suddenly not needed?  He spent about a half hour explaining the change, but ....

Accountability has been the battle cry from both parties for almost 20 years of Education Reform. Why abandon it now?

Those defending the Public Schools have long known the push to privatize our local schools is a bi-partisan effort.  Both of Obama’s Secretaries of Education were firmly committed to  sustained step by step reform using standards-standardization, “accountability,” and high stakes testing as the interlocking strategies for closing local schools-- as were the Republicans.  And it was working fairly well as a means of funneling money to hybrid public-private charters; all under the auspices of Civil Rights for poor students, and “school improvement.”

The story went, State and Federal Officials and Company Owners had to protect children from the local teachers and school boards. These locals were denying them access to educations like children of Harvard and Yale alums were receiving.  Of course, no one was suggesting that children of the projects or working class neighborhoods and towns receive the healthy food, extra parent time, enrichment vacations, healthcare or safer environments their wealthy counterparts received- just the daily school part had to change.

Everything was going fairly well until roughly 2010 when grassroots groups began to spring up among teachers and parents, resisting the narrative.  People started refusing to believe that public schools were failing, with local boards conspiring to deny civil rights,  public schools teachers being unintelligent, ill-trained, and incompetent, and as Rex Tillerson, then CEO of Exxon put it, the children being “inferior products.” It just didn’t match what people saw and experienced in the real world.

No doubt, Education Reformers like Alexander expected some push back, but did not calculate the power growing social media would contribute to the equation.  At first the resistors could be categorized as a few malcontents, radicals, and old teachers unable to understand and change with technology. But as numbers grew, Republicans saw an opportunity in the growing discontent about the outrageously inappropriate standards and ill-designed tests as a way to saddle the Dems with blame for the most unpopular aspects of NCLB, the Republican Reform bill.  They pretty suddenly broke with the Democrats on Standards, keeping basically the same standards as Common Core in Republican states under new names, while condemning Common Core as an elite Democratic conspiracy.  Their strategy shifted to a states rights argument.

With a Republican victory in November there was both opportunity and danger. It became growingly evident that ignoring resistance would not be enough to accomplish a complete privatization of schools.  Change had to move faster, and strategies had to shift if privatization were to succeed because resistance and studies were accumulating.  At that point a shift to the methods used by DeVos in Michigan, Pence in Indiana, and reformers in New Orleans and Florida would be required. Vouchers for both charters and privates and technology in the form of virtual education would need to be moved into place much faster than things had been moving.

Under a new battlecry the Republicans could continue the privatization agenda and also gain a political advantage. Using state control and vouchers (often called scholarships or tax incentives), the Republicans could continue to claim they were on the side of “poor children” and Civil Rights while speeding up the privatization process which had been decimating less affluent schools.  Their new initiative would suddenly extend the preferred school type from currently failing public-private charters to completely private, religious, virtual, and ideological schools.  Voila, a whole new coalition of voters seduced and satisfied in one fell swoop.

The religious right would not only be reinvigorated against the Democrats, but Catholics, Protestants, and Isolationists could be galvanized as renewed supporters when promised their personal choice of new schools that fit their individual ideology through vouchers. Never mind that neither districts, states or the feds were willing to ante up the money to provide designer schools for all districts and flavors.

All the elements were in place– extra dollars could be allocated from the ESSA coffers for the vouchers. Some money had already been earmarked in ESSA, but more could be syphoned off. ALEC bills which re-apportioned state expenditures toward vouchers were already in place to be voted on in the 30 Republican states.

 There were a few problems, though. The attacks on public school teachers had reduced the number of  available trained teachers and the unions protecting teacher salaries had not yet been completely defeated.  Private schools and hybrid charters would have trouble meeting the quota of needed teachers and making the profit margin they would like with “accountability” requirements still in place for teacher qualifications.  They needed a less qualified and larger work force of classroom bodies, at least temporarily, to supply the new ”choice” schools with adult bodies at a low price-- even lower than the 17% discount public school teachers accepted on graduation when compared with their private sector counterparts. Hence the need to take out the teacher training accountability requirements.

Simultaneously, studies on both “solutions” began to come in with highly negative results. Neither Virtuals nor Vouchers improved learning. Quite the opposite, they lowered achievement.

Republicans (and their Democratic allies) are now suddenly under a gun.  They need to clear the way for reduced teacher qualifications and get vouchers and virtual schools approved for full use before the public realizes their agenda is the same old agenda just with new and even worse strategies to accomplish it.

Education is the one place localities are still pushing back against private commercialization of what should be an inalienable right rather than a luxury commodity. Can Global Corp Reformers use the cover of Trump chaos to close the deal on this last federal market before the public wakes up?

Alexander and the team he heads have a rush on, and a high stakes one.  Can he/they privatize your child’s school and put a less qualified, lower paid teacher in your child’s classroom before you figure out what they are doing? Can they make sure their changes can’t be reversed at mid-term elections or by angry parent campaigns leading into the elections?

They have a supply and demand problem, not just with the number of teachers. Most people don’t want a reduced quality of education for their children, with lower paid, less qualified teachers, but that’s what Alexander and the Reformers are selling,

The question  of timing remains though, can Alexander and his Reform allies get out of the frying pan with some chance to run out of the fire before November 2018?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are right?

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are right, at least about one thing.  Education is the Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century.

However, their statement has further reaching and deeper implications than either imagines.

When DeVos and Trump use the term Civil Rights, they are thinking of what our political system “allows” people of color to have.  That is Not What Civil Rights Are.

Civil Rights belong to everyone, including Blacks, Whites, Immigrants, and Indigenous People– All Peoples regardless of exceptionalisms. Civil Rights are those Inalienable rights Jefferson talked about- Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

At this moment in our history, the greed of Free Market Capitalism, in the form of Global Corporations, is trying to take All our Civil Rights away.  In their paradigm all assets are for private ownership, to be bought and sold for gain, with no room for inalienable rights to be commonly held.

Civil Rights are those necessities which are needed to survive as humans– such as access to clean water, air, food, control over our persons, and yes, education. They deal with assets that should belong to all, not just to corporations or the wealthy, and certainly not just to certain ethnic groups.

The current Drive to Privatize - Schools, Water (both above and below ground), Public Lands, Access to Healthcare, and assorted other public needs is a drive to take away all our Civil Rights.

This is not to diminish what privatizers have done already to communities of color around the nation.  The labeling of schools as failing based on invalid tests and narrowly defined data, the closing of schools and firing of Black teachers in exchange for charters, virtuals, and younger whiter, less well trained classroom presences, has had devastating effects on communities across the nation. From LA to Newark, from New Orleans to Detroit, from Florida to Philadelphia and Chicago: the damage has been savagely cruel and every bit a full denial of Civil Rights.

However, the rest of the country should not be fooled into believing that what DeVos and Trump plan is a return to a time when people of color were denied Civil Rights, but whites were not.  This iteration of Privatizing targets the schools of McDowell County West Virginia and North Carolina, Alaska, and Vermont for takeover just as much as those in the inner cities.

In 2014 “Rural Policy Matters” concluded: “But the charter/privatization dynamic is changing. For example, in North Carolina, a dramatic expansion of the state’s charter law is putting pressure on cohesive higher-performing rural communities, especially those in low-income counties.”

At this point in time, even districts once considered affluent suburbs are struggling with funding due to long term degeneration of funding from outside sources, the erosion of property values from the 2008 crash, and exemptions to local taxation given to attract large corporate businesses.  It is unfortunate that the federal government sought to bail out the banks, but never considered bailing out our communities' losses due to the housing crash. With the current precarious funding structures pushed on localities from the states’ lack of support, and unfunded mandates from the federal level, even once invulnerable districts are at risk.

Vouchers and Virtual Curriculum will be simply too attractive to cash strapped localities to resist, and the resulting bifurcation of rich and poor students from the siphoning off of even more dollars from local schools, and the inability of middle and working families to make up the difference between voucher grants and real tuition will be disastrous for our most stable districts, just as the last round of privatization was for communities of color. In the final analysis the Civil Rights of the solid middle class will go the way of our poorer communities, to lower learning rates and reduced life expectations.

So, yes, Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump have a point.  Their plans to gut the public schools of America through a massive transfer of assets to private ownership of what should be a commonly held Civil Right for all, is the issue of the 21st Century.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Not Our Kids! Not Any of Our Children! A Parable

David Swanon's  Photo of a Prayer circle in a vandalized Jewish cemetery Philadelphia Feb 27 2017
First we came for the Blacks
    and some people said, ok, All Lives Matter, prison is what they expect.
We came for the Jews,
    like before, just the harassment at first, we could wait for the rest.
No sense triggering action.
Then we came for the LGBT people,
    and everyone looked the other way, it’s only bathrooms,
    and marriage isn’t that important for them.
Then we came for the Muslims, and other Immigrants
     and people said they are not like us, ok. They are too different, I heard they are
And we came for the Hispanics,
    a few asked who’s going to do our work? But no one stepped forward.
Then we came for the sick,
    and some said, wait a minute, s/he’s a relative! But nobody was sure about how to
stop us. We said, your premiums will go up, so they stepped aside.
Then we came for the old
     and told everyone, they shouldn’t expect entitlements, well they’re old, it’s ok.
Then we came for the children in their schools
     to take the future. And as we started to move the children to the Virtual schools
 To teach them hate.
The teachers stood shoulder to shoulder
and used their teacher voices.
Not. Our. Kids.
Not Any of Our Children.
NO More !

Then Everyone,
the Blacks, the Jews, the LGBT people, the Muslims, the Hispanics, all the Immigrants, the sick, and the old and the young,
People of every shade and age
Turned around and looked at Us,
We could not look away
as they started advancing step by step together

And the teachers and the people said in One Voice--
Not. Our. Kids.
Not Any of Our Children.
NO More !

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Metaphor of School as A Business & How it has narrowed our view of Learning and Life

The metaphor of schools as businesses has become the dominant way of describing Education these days. It is difficult to find a conversation about schools in which business terminology and ideas do not pop up. Terms like emerging markets, global competitiveness, and monopoly are ever present in considerations about what our schools should be like and what they should do.  

The result of using business as The Metaphor (not just a metaphor) extends even beyond schools to most of the conversations about our society and culture in today’s academic and policy making circles. Our policymakers and policy advisers even see business in a particular light. Business in its contemporary neoliberal iteration is Competition, made up of winners and losers. Business is no longer a method whereby we share goods, develop products, or provide purpose and support for our communities, but is focused almost solely on making money for the investor class.

In other words, our leaders see life as business, and business as pure competition.

The fallout from that deeply embedded and distorted metaphor is heavily influencing every aspect of life in these early stages of the 21st century.

It has colored how we see others--Those around us are competitors to beat, whether they are family, friends, or newcomers.

It has defined how we structure increasing global connections-- creating global corporations that win power and money in a global competition where winner takes all. Nations and other societies are competitors to dominate and compete against.

It has influenced how we see God-- In this metaphor God is the ultimate winner who rewards followers with a piece of the winnings, making religion a competition, rating which is the most spiritual by who gets the most converts, the most airtime, and the most money.

And in schools, it has made grades more important than knowledge and school ranking and rating a cutthroat process.

In this metaphor, schools must align to the business model of global competition and be measured and datafied to prove their level of competitiveness or die.

The level of embeddedness of this metaphor has become so pervasive that many see business and competitiveness as the quintessential human characteristic, holding that humans are almost completely motivated by the desire to win.

Most of us don’t question this way of looking at the world on a daily basis.  We let the message and the metaphor wash over us and we go on about our daily tasks, not asking how it is influencing what we do or what we believe.

Yet, those who do question what motivates us, and what metaphors work best as representations of our way of life and learning, tell us that competition or extrinsic motivation is only one side of the story, and not a very effective side when wielded as it has been of late. We know that Competition and Collaboration are two sides of a duality in which both sides of the polarity are needed, like breathing out and breathing in. We cannot do only one or the other.

We know that other values besides winning and having the most are just as powerful for us as wanting to be first, values like discovery, caring,  gratitude, and meaningful connection. We know that the desires to create and serve are just as necessary to innovation as the desire to be first and most.

In English classes, I teach students that when using a metaphor, it's important to recognize the ways in which the metaphor works, and the ways in which it fails. At this point, we need to collectively do that examination.

Gareth Morgan, in his Images of Organizations puts forward a variety of metaphors for organizations. Those who see organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems speak of organizations as ecosystems or biological entities.  There are a wide variety of metaphors and comparisons we can use.  Perhaps it is time we widen our choices of metaphor.

Perhaps it is time, we do question those who try to frame the growth and development of our children and the meaning of our lives as a race, a contest, a business to run for maximum productivity and profit.  

Perhaps it is time we question our world being framed in that way as well.

*Graphic quote from Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

School Choice: Philanthropy or Predatory Capitalism

Image may contain: sky and outdoor
John Handley High School in Winchester Virginia is an endowed public high school. Endowed by a judge.
Betsy DeVos, Bill and Melinda Gates, Alice Walton, Eli Broad, the Koch brothers and other billionaires each have the money to endow Many schools. Yet, they have been spending vast sums of money to dictate the structure of public schools and how communities run them.
If what they wanted was to provide educational opportunities, they could have created their own string of free schools in key locations -- based on their own fortunes, not tax dollars. Their endowed schools could have been the laboratories for innovation they claim to want. Their endowments could have offered free education to those students they claim to want to save. Their added money could have improved the economies of the poor communities they claim to want to help.
None of them have done so. Instead they have spent billions of dollars creating thinly veiled PR firms to malign public schools and purchasing public officials, all in an attempt to lay claim to tax dollars others have paid. Instead of paying tax dollars that could fund those public schools they so viciously criticize, they have tried to take the tax dollars working people pay to educate the community's children.
This latest push for "School Choice" is just another round in their ongoing fight to access other people's money for their global empires. Even more damning is that if billionaire "investors" pulled their dollars from non-profit astroturf groups, one issue think tanks, and legislator purchases-- the entire "School Choice" movement would collapse. There would be No huge push for deconstructing our local school systems. There would be some individual districts trying to provide better opportunities for their own children. (Another place our billionaire philanthropic community could have helped and hasn't).
At some point it becomes impossible to credit any of these individuals with ethical motivations. Their behavior tells us they are only interested in having access to opening a new market for profit, and long-term profits for businesses they already own. (Something Bill Gates actually said on PBS, that he started his public school interventions for long-term profits).
Worse, their choices tell us that they want to dominate other people's choices. Rather than offering real options to neighborhoods, families, or children, they attempt to force whole communities, districts, and states into pouring hard-earned money into the billionaires' coffers.
It's time to say to profiteers-- IF you want your own schools, go fund them. Leave ours alone. And it's time the philanthropic community reigned in their own. It's not philanthropy if it's just tax sheltered R&D or thinly veiled market takeover. We give the wealthy class tax breaks to give back to the community, not to ravage and pillage our best and greatest community services.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How Mrs. DeVos sees Innovation and Transformation And How Parents and Teachers See it

With Mrs. Betsy DeVos’ taking office, Reformers are pleased and excited with the thought that at  last they may have the person in place to deliver quickly what they have long wanted. -- A New Market via their version of Innovation and Transformation. Until now no one has been able to deliver that in a way that the public would completely accept.

But, that is what Mrs. DeVos has promised in her first speech, “And I will promise you this: Together, we will find new ways in which we can positively transform education.”

It sounds wonderful, right? It’s going to be important in coming days and months to remember that when Mrs. DeVos uses these terms, she is not using them in the way we might think.

Just listening, we might think she was speaking of transformation as the process of becoming something new and better, like the way children grow and become.  And by saying she will deliver innovation, we might think she means she has new knowledge about how children learn and how we might help them.  Afterall, that’s what lots of us think of when we speak of transformation.

three kids light bulbs.jpg

The unspoken problem though, is that when Reformers talk about Transformation, they are talking about transforming a commercial market, not learning that changes lives; and when they talk about Innovation, they are talking about Innovative Disruption, not a great new idea for lesson activities, or new in school programs for learning kids, or even a great new way to organize our schools or districts for better learning chances for all kids.

Mrs. DeVos is talking about markets, not children.

The concepts she is using are from Business and Public Policy theories.  Like Mrs. DeVos,  Education Reformers are most often MBA rather than M.Ed. holders, and they know what she means. It is just the rank and file parents and teachers who misunderstand.

Most of us who work in schools or are around children a lot do not look into the earnest eyes of our students and think of them as either products to be sold on the job market, or as raw materials from which to profit. Nor do we think of our daily tasks as a product delivery system to be governed by business productivity models. We see our students as people, children on their way to becoming their future selves.

When these business words and ideas get transferred into the Ed field by consultants, would-be thought leaders, and edupreneurs, it is often with some adaptation of meaning, frequently with some confusion of the original concept, and almost always with little understanding about the psychology and neurology of learning, the nature of Human Development, the diverse conditions in communities, and the realities in classrooms across the country.  

So what do MBAs and Mrs. DeVos in particular mean when they speak of Innovative Disruption and Transformational Theory?

Transformation in simple lay language is a dramatic change in appearance or form. It is a word used in a variety of fields with different meanings in each. In business these are some of the terms.
  • Transformational Learning is a set of ideas about lifelong learning, usually an Adult and Continuing Education term.
  • Transformational Leadership is a style of management in which the compelling personality and high moral character of a leader creates remarkable outcomes. Think Nelson Mandela or Winston Churchill
  • Transformation Theory started as a systems model from George Land in his 1973 book Grow or Die that maintains there are moments when the rules of survival change. It is a three phase model of invention, improvement, and innovation.  
  • Market Transformation is the process businesses use for leveraging a product to become mainstream or dominant in a market.  

School Privatization advocates often use the last three concepts in an intertwined way, maintaining their changes will produce the next phase - either improvement or innovation, that they are leveraging that innovation through the market to improve the overall product of Education, and that leveraging is powered, at least in part, by their personal transformative leadership.

This is what Mrs. DeVos’ means when she promises transformational innovation- that she will bring change that will open Education as a new business market through the power of her leadership.

Of particular concern for both business and education is that Market Transformation and Transformation Theory are both somewhat dependent on constant growth as a requirement, and constant growth is quickly becoming less possible in today’s age of diminishing resources and rising populations. Many futurists think we truly may be at one of those moments when the rules of survival change, not just for Schools, but for Business, and possibly for most societal endeavors.  In that case, the reforms pushed by market creators is even more misguided, leading us in the wrong direction using the wrong concept map.
Disruptive Innovation
Innovation is usually seen as a positive change; a new idea, product or process that has positive impact. Disruption in its ordinary definition is Not a positive term.  Synonyms include shock, disturbance, confusion, disorder, and mess; but in economic terms Disruptive Innovation is a change, product, or service that creates a new market and value network, eventually disrupting the existing market.

Disruption has been a popular term among business and financial executives since 1997 when it was laid out by popular Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen in his book Innovators Dilemma. Christensen even jumped fields to promote innovative disruption as a means to reform schools in his 2008 book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way We Learn which he just reissued in October of 2016. His Disrupting Class book was even inspired by a group of Charter school promoters who approached him and asked him to write it. In it he maintains that the future of schools will be modular software facilitated by teachers who are coaches on the side.

One has to wonder how much screen time his grandchildren are given, whether he knows they need to develop muscular coordination and grow neurons through physical contact and interaction with their world, and if he knows that there are vast swaths of the country that still don’t have fully adequate internet service, but then Harvard probably has great internet. Sorry, he's clearly a very smart man and probably a very nice one. He's just teaching in a field where he's missing chunks of important information.

Economists and those in the Financial field have a long affection for the idea of Disruption. Think fire, guns, railroads, the car, the washing machine, TV, desktop computers, iphones and other world altering products, and it’s true that innovative ideas have propelled us into unexpected positive and negative change over the course of civilization. Contrary to the way we've been portrayed public school proponents are not about discouraging great ideas or the distribution of them.

The problem though, is not just with Financiers and Business opportunists who want to create a new education market and educational products. The larger problem is with a distortion of the idea of Disruptive Innovation and the model of Market Transformation. In classic Innovative Disruption, an idea for change or a new product holds so much promise that even with initial glitches or failures it provides a compelling new future.  Education Innovative Disruption has never had that. Even technology, which has only recently moved to the center of Reform ideas, has at best, provided new sometimes better tools for old tasks. Sorry, but so far they are just nice tools to have if we are given time to learn and use them.

There is an additional problem in that a distorted form of Market Transformation (leveraging the product)  is by far the dominant driver of Reform we have seen.

Education Reform in all its iterations of the last 20 years has tried experimental reform after reform in search of  one that could qualify as an innovation powerful enough to open the Education Market. Yet one by one, testing, accountability, school closures, charter/private schools, temporary teacher pools, standardization of curriculum and teaching methods, accountability/data collection have failed to fulfill their promise.

Education’s  Disruptive Innovators have not had an idea that actually improves on the existing system. What change they have achieved has come from a determined push to create a new market, not from an idea that could either create a system wide transformation, or transform the educational process itself. Many of the ideas promoted as change agents have been old ideas either abandoned for lack of efficacy, or rejected because they could not provide adequate resources for all students. Some have just been personal goals, such as Mrs. DeVos’ desire to use schools to promote her personal religious views.  Even billions of dollars spent on PR campaigns to demonize public schools and lionize Reform have not been able to redeem the failed experiments of Reform.

As Teachers and In-School managers many of us have become used to Business terms as downloads from above. Through Nation-At-Risk, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, teachers and children have been through disruption after disruption, each claiming to be innovative, but with more sound and fury than light and innovation.  As a result Education’s Disruptive Innovators have created Disruption in the old fashioned and lay sense of the word for 20 years now  ---A Mess,  with little or no positive change in the systems or the quality of student learning. During this time teachers and localities have responded to real change in truly innovative ways as Reformers demanded acquiescence to the artificial change.

There will be change. There always has been, and it is accelerating naturally,  but those who are integral to the lives of children know that change for and with children is something to be closely managed and positively introduced with awareness of all the things Education’s Disruptive Innovators have ignored-- The developmental stages of children’s physical and mental growth, the need for a sense of stable surrounding environments and communities, the facilitated means to connections, friendships, and developing a healthy relationship to both authority and personal autonomy.

Einstein once said the central question for humans is whether the universe is friendly.  Education’s Disruptive Innovators in their pursuit of a new market to dominate have tried to turn schools into a universe that is not friendly to learning children or friendly for the adults around them. Their goals have amounted to no more than a damaging failed hostile takeover attempt.

According to Christensen, early iterations of market transformation often fail, but once a base is established the new market takes hold.  Reformers are counting on Mrs. DeVos to deliver that base, no matter what it does to the children in the nation's 14,000 different school systems.

Those of us in the systems would like to experience these words in the non-business-theory way.  We would like to accept that children do transform, and transform beautifully when nurtured and encouraged in their development.  And we would like to move into the future using truly positive creative design to meet the changes that are coming in ways that help our children and communities to engage change in healthy and integrated ways.  We can use various methods from polarities management to creative design cycle and complex adaptive systems tools.

To Mrs. DeVos, and her Education Transformers,
We do not need artificial disruption to create an unneeded new market, or you to levy new artificially created “innovations.”  We could use you working alongside us as parents and teachers to support all our children as they meet the real and organic changes in their lives and the world.

To all the Reformers who thought you were doing the right thing-- Please consider changing course. Your children and ours do not need to be dealing with predatory business practices in elementary and high school. Let them grow up and learn to problem solve, to use critical thinking and creative design cycle first.  Then they will be ready to take on Disruptive Innovators.