Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

All Politics is Local

Tip O’Neil’s words were never  more true. Particularly when it comes to resistance. In an era of erratic and likely increasingly autocratic government in Washington, the pushback will not wait until 2020. It starts at the local level, as Josh Marshall reminds us:

Resistance to Trump and anti-Trump activism is a critical precondition of turning back to Trumpite tide. But it is not a sufficient one. I appear to be considerably more confident than a lot of other people I know that Republicans may face a big electoral backlash in 2018. But if it happens it will happen because of grassroots organizing in red states and the red parts of blue states.

Of course, it will not simply be grassroots efforts, as if finding more Democrats will cure the ills. In the past, this has too often meant concentrating on the known players and motivating them to vote. As we saw in the last election, this was roughly the equivalent of the drunk looking for his keys under the street light because ‘that’s where the light was good.’

We might put into this same pot the danger of taking an anti-charter stand, as gratifying as that may be. What we forget with charters is that it is not simply the schools or their philosophy, but these are places of parents.

To go beyond our known voters and known friends will require issues that resonate with larger audiences. At their best such issues should be intuitively true — not unlike how Right to Life found the power of babies. Two suggest themselves: transparency and accountability.

Transparency. This is election reform by a different, neutral name. Rather than focus on limits to campaign finance, much as we want them (cf. reactions to Citizens United), we ask only that funding be transparent. Citizens have a right to know who is putting up the money in politics. Secret money is almost certainly corrupt money. This also puts the weight on citizenship, on empowering voters — a theme that often is heard on the Right. Well, it’s time to steal it.

Accountability. Again, accountability is a  theme found among some conservatives. Going forward the same theme can be applied especially to failed, Republican-driven policies. It’s not just Flint, it is fundamentally the flawed governance of charters.

In campaign finance and charter oversight, Michigan ranks at or near the bottom nationally. Two themes give us the path forward.



Filed under: Democratic Party, , , ,

Betsy DeVos, Michigan’s finest

A friend writes on Facebook:

“But what I do know is that she’s smart, committed to kids, and a mainstream conservative Republican.” I think that we need to question how mainstream she is given who she is associating herself with. Also, is she committed to kids or to privatization? Another question.

Any one who has clashed with Betsy DeVos knows what kind of Republican she is, she is moneyed,  partisan. and close to the center of Michigan politics, if not in fact one of its main movers. So  “mainstream” is altogether reasonable given where the GOP is these days. There are several aspects of this mainstream Republican that bear on educational policy, that in fact have given such heartburn: there’s the preference for the private solution, at least so far as services are considered — and urban education falls into that category; and then there’s the no tax dogma which again seeks to hamstring social spending generally by pitting services against each other, a process that at once short-changes retirees, yet refuses to raise funds. This has bred considerable trouble for our State.
Here is where privatization of schools takes shape. From her past actions, Betsy DeVos  push for privatization is  a combination of private school advocacy and triage of the urban school. Charters basically began as a way of addressing the urban schools, their administration and teacher corps — both being perceived as intrinsically hostile to GOP interests (this is Engler c. 1998), and manifestly failing. This failure drives the larger push for educational reform. And it is a fair question to ask (as do the conservatives): Must the kids in Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids  have their future cut short simply because of where they live and go to school?  That’s the big question that the Charter-ists have been trying to address. One can read the current reform efforts of Grand Rapids Superintendent Neal as a direct response to this problem. Those who care about schools and our cities know that something needs to be done.
To this, DeVos and other conservatives also bring the voucher. This is a sort of triage: the very best get a private education, the middle gets charters, and the rest? well sucks to be you. And of course the middle class (white) suburbs also get a benefit. That the charter payments are lower than the state grants only adds to the benefits: the charter provides the “reform” while taking the requirement to meet educational goals off the plate. Lansing gets cheaper schools and less accountability laid at its doorstep — it’s now someone else’s problem. Disadvantage the city, reward the suburb: classic GOP policy.
Of course, the unions are right to be so oppositional. Betsy has been their foe directly for at least 15 years, 20 if you add in the Engler years. The movement to educational reform was not simply to meet the needs of the city (something of an afterthought, actually, having to wait until Pres. George W Bush came by with No Child Left Behind), its goal was to break the power of the teacher unions for a generation. In Michigan the job was made all the easier by a longstanding cultural hostility that had persistently underfunded schools — a  residue of manufacturing era.
Then there is the darker secret behind the DeVos/Republican agenda, that it fed on the racial animosity and segregation that so profoundly shaped Detroit’s regional politics. In this politics, any attempt to help kids in the urban setting (and especially Detroit) was seen as coming out of the pockets of the middle class (white) suburbs.In effect, the DeVos led reforms envision two systems of schools: one for the poor (the charters, with income for GOP supporters), and another, the regular schools of aspiration and achievement, te schools of GOP supporters. This two-track model is the problem, but that is for another day. For now, thanks to tax cuts, Michigan’s educational problems have metastasized so  that we have educational dysfunction across the state. By refusing to address the question of revenue the DeVos/Republican approach has cut short the possibility of real reform or achievement, and threatened the schools of its supporters. This is less a problem of privatization than of neglect and the ironic turning to Washington to help out. Betsy DeVos may yet help clean up Michigan’s mess.

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , ,

Education on the Cheap

The saga continues at what was once Muskegon Heights Public Schools.

Last year the school district ran into a rather nasty fiscal storm and collapsed. Several factors were at work. First its industrial base — the original rationale for the district in the first place — had disappeared. Without a strong industrial base, the non-homestead tax simply lagged. Then came the recession, with its slashing of state budgets, and the disappearance or roughly a third of the total school population. Without an economic cushion, with cutbacks from Lansing and a shrunken population it’s no wonder the district went into fiscal shock.

Perhaps some sort of smart management could have rescued it in time, but the pull of pride and tradition often push us away from making the tough choices that would otherwise save us. In a larger context, the problem MHPS  is simply that it was too small. Its size left it without the flexibility needed to navigate the difficult waters. MHPS is not alone. There are plenty of school districts throughout the region structured the same way: built on a single piece of heavy industry, they began as an offshoot from the larger school districts in the area. Or they were rural districts that decided to keep their ways. In either case, they are exposed to significant economic risk. Their small boats not suited for the larger storms.

The decision to turn to a charter system, to in effect declare bankruptcy, is perhaps the only answer available. And as with bankruptcies everywhere, the workers take the hit.

As MLive reports,   the new financial plan provides an average teacher salary of $35,000. Possible incentive pay may raise that to roughly $40,000, depending on how the money is delivered. Some minimal provision is made for healthcare, as well. The technology budget is another shock: $10,000 for four buildings. Even if one tosses out the young el building, that still leaves little more than $3000 per building. What exactly gets purchased with that?

Two comments seem important: low wages can be overcome with a high sense of mission. This has been the secret heart of many urban schools as it is, at MHPS the mission-offset will get a full test. The second obvious impact will be the higher turnover. Under-resourced schools and low pay do count. There’s every reason to expect significant turnover with its attendant costs to students and educational continuity.

And lastly, it cannot be stressed enough: this is what poverty means for our students. Muskegon Heights desperately needs the economic recovery in region. Desperately. It cannot do this on its own. Even now, merger may be the end game

Filed under: Horace Mann, Michigan, , , ,

Urban School Hope from Philadelphia

Dave Murray writes about the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. An urban education program driven by high standards and backed by civic leaders. He concludes, asking

Sometimes I wonder of a solution to urban education’s woes came before us, would we reject it if we didn’t like where it came from? Or, are we so invested in the excuses for failure that we attack anyone who challenges them?

The questions about such an experiment abound. At the most practical, Murray notes this is a question of scalability. Grant the success, to what extent is it the property of the culture of the organization itself, and can it then multiply, scale-up? This is the recognized problem of charters: their accomplishments may be too site specific. What are the lessons that we are to learn from such institutions, such successes? Is it only a form of academic tough love? If other comparable programs are any indication, it is a question of resources, both the hard and the soft. Of course, given the success of a program like Mastery, there will be the temptation of civic leaders to adopt a comparable model as the silver bullet, another cookie cutter solution. There’s stuff to be learned here definitely, we should also know that one size is always a bad fit.

A second question lurking is for the charter school community. While we often contrast such successes with the public schools out of which the programs emerge, the other question to ask is about the  charters themselves. After all, with 50 percent of school-age children in Detroit already in a charter, why then don’t they show the same achievement? Their “no excuses” style may be the key, but I would bet we could find a host of other programs that try to emulate the same with not so stellar success. No one has ever denied that some charters will succeed very well (case in point: Black River), the question is why don’t other charters succeed, as well.

And lastly there is simply the issue of our own hopes. These stand out schools seem to validate our own ideals for education, that we can overcome the great barriers in our lives. That a few can do it then becomes a validation of our ideals and ironically spurs us on to do… nothing. The real lesson in Mastery and other such models is that we can do something, that these efforts take a great deal of resources, far outstripping those in the surrounding community and often in the political culture. It can be done. But that some do it turns to become the opposite, that those who succeed must obviously point to the moral failure of the others.

Mastery tells us that there is a legitimate hope for urban schools; we are not mistaken. However, we cannot learn the lesson without doing our own homework. And of course, making sure that the schools have the resources.

Filed under: Horace Mann, National, , , , ,

The City Gets Schooled

The City will have a new charter school in the heart of an urban neighborhood. So reports Matt Vande Bunte.

GRAND RAPIDS – An out-of-town developer’s about-face has angered city officials who feel they were lied to about plans for three former school buildings.
Grand Rapids for months has vetted Ojibway Development’s proposal to turn the schools into low-income apartments. After getting city approvals and finalizing a $1.6 million purchase of the schools, the Berkley, Mi., developer now has sold one of the buildings to National Heritage Academies for a charter school that presumably would compete with Grand Rapids Public Schools for students.

Playing fast and loose with the city is probably not the best business practice; from a city side, it would also be of use to know who the supervising institution is, and in particular what sort of partner will they be. Locally, the National Heritage Academy schools benefit from the connection with Grand Valley, allowing for a much more integrated approach in the city; will Bay Mills Community from the UP be another such partner? Well, let’s just say that they got off on the wrong foot.

As to the school itself, the consolidation of GRPS has left a number of neighborhoods without a school. With the closure of Alexander and of Oakdale Christian, the nearest school to Oakdale is Dickinson, a good half mile away. Add to this the efforts families already make to get out to Ridge Park, there is a certain business sense for the school. For the school itself, it will be interesting to see how it competes for students against the other Charters.

A look at the Census data suggests why this may be a solid move for the charters: there are more than 2700 school age children in the neighborhood. The difficulty will be that these come from rather different neighborhoods. Particularly in the neighborhoods immediately to the east (Census tract 35 for those who are counting) the children there are already lean toward the non-general schools (charter, parochial). Are there more students there  for the school to enroll? the likely guess is that such a school will be highly appealing to those neighborhoods immediately to the north, neighborhoods that are distinctly poorer. John Helmholdt is right, that this cannot be about competing schools so much as a common effort to meet real educational needs  in the community.

“We recognize that a school is a more desirable option than apartments and would certainly welcome the opportunity to partner with National Heritage Academy in their endeavor.”
Helmholdt said the school leaders are hopeful that National Heritage Academies will join them as part of an effort the district is organizing with Mayor George Heartwell to convene traditional, charter, and private schools to look at best shared practices and how we can all collectively work together for the betterment of our community’s children.

Filed under: Horace Mann, , , , , ,

Virtually Political

The story today is the campaign by little tykes to expand the Virtual Charter Schools. I’m all for political theatre, but this seems a bit odd. Supporters of expanded access brought along  current students to read the names — 5,000 — of those who wanted to get in.

The staging is bit unusual. Were  a teacher at a general school to bring a bunch of middle school students to lobby for expanded teacher pay the howls of outrage would mount up, at least if the Mackinac Center’s howl a few years ago is any indication. So far on this? Virtual crickets.

What’s going on? Unintentionally or not, the image (and the protest) reveal more about our Virtual Charter. First the mobilization of the students to expand the school program is ethically questionable, particularly in the context of for-profit management systems. the students may think they are doing civic duty or politics, but they are actually in the business of sales. The questions about profit motive of the management of these schools, let alone the oversight of their curriculum — these all gain added currency because of this stunt.

But the second issue is perhaps the more interesting. Look at the picture: the image of students, younger sibs and moms in the background at the very least speak in the visual language of home school, if not the substance. This aspect of the program has been played down in Michigan discussions on the west side. When the measure went through the State Senate, MLive led with this human interest story:

LANSING – Critics of “cyber” charter schools said Wednesday there’s not enough information to determine whether the schools are successful, but Steve Slisko pointed to his grandson.
The boy has cognitive impairments that prohibit him from speaking, but he can work a keyboard – and attend the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, one of two virtual charter schools in the state.

Yet the home school subtext tends to be right there, as  the MVCA site states,

Michigan Virtual Charter Academy is redefining traditional home schooling, but not within the home school network.

A Fox-17 report this past November further bears this out.

Michigan joins a number of other states with similar programs and impacts, including Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

However, one would be mistaken to think that such State support is necessarily a welcome move on the part of home schoolers. After all, the heart of the home school approach is a philosophic commitment about the appropriate locale for the education of one’s children. From within the movement, this development threatens to undo three decades of legal wrangling for recognition.

(The Home School Legal Defense Association) believes that a distinction between virtual charter schools and homeschooling is vital. While charter schools provide parents with another choice, we emphasize that they are still public schools in every sense of the word.
HSLDA also strongly cautions homeschoolers against enrolling in virtual charter schools. Many homeschoolers are seduced by attractive marketing and forget that virtual charter schools are actually controlled by the public school system. HSLDA does not represent students enrolled in full-time charter school programs.
HSLDA is also concerned that virtual charter schools will negatively impact the public and American lawmakers’ understanding of what it means to homeschool.

Agree or not, home schoolers have pushed their cause, and in their own way expanded both public speech and options in our education. The irony now, is that Republicans will subvert the home school movement with the virtual charter, much the same way that a decade ago the physical charter gutted the parochial schools. While the left believes that such charters will weaken the efforts of general schools, the likelihood is that the expanded virtual charter will instead weaken the home school movement generally, all for one obvious reason. It’s free.

Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, Politics, , , , , ,

Private Setback

On the southeast side private education plays a significant role.  And its no secret that the same schools have been taking a hit lately, whether its the consolidation of the Christian schools at the Iroquois campus, or the shrinking Catholic enrollments. If its any comfort, they’re not alone. Today Education Week released new statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics, revealing that private school enrollment has plunged by 500,000 — 60 percent coming from the Catholic and conservative protestant schools.

Two things appear to be driving the shift. First would be economics. To the extent that the schools were serving poorer families, those families are more vulnerable to economic downturns. The recent escalation in food and fuel only further strains the budget. The second reason has been the persistent growth of charter schools. A recent study of Michigan charters from Rajashri Chakrabarti (Federal Reserve NY)and Joydeep Roy (Columbia) suggests the schools account for slightly more than 1 percent erosion in nearby private school enrollment.

Within the context of Grand Rapids, the decline of private schools parallels that of the shrinking public school sector as well — both are products of the declining prospects in the city, a decline driving parents to the burbs or as we’ve seen, out of state.

Of longer range interest, is how the report highlights the difficulties for all those who advance private schools as the preferable option to under-performing schools. That private schools have a cost growth of inflation + two percent means that the pool of attending families in the economically-at-risk category increases.  As with the state universities, a state subsidy (voucher) would only match part of this and still come up increasingly short, losing  its purchasing power over time. So again, we do not have a tool that especially works.

While some choose the school for its perspective or perhaps for its sense of elitism, the continuing drive for the at-risk family is that these are schools they choose, schools where they hope their child will be safe. This is powerful, and certainly seems to be the driver for the growth in charter schools, a growth that has seen enrollment nearly triple from 571,000 in 2001-02, to more than 1.4 million in 2008-09.  This growth can again be seen in the area, a growth that can be unnerving for some Dems. However, when seen as a defensive move and not as an ideological one (open book/Bible on the Heritage Academy logo to the contrary), the charter school becomes a seedbed for political action that would build strong neighborhoods.

Filed under: Education Policy, Horace Mann, ,

The Pendulum Moves

The buzz today is the publication of Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010). As commentators and reviewers note, this is a big shift: Ravitch was one of the champions of No Child Left Behind.

With West Michigan being ground zero for charters in Michigan, and with GRPS adopting charters as a model for reform — the shift of an advocate changes the dynamics.  A move to community-oriented schools would certainly reinforce the position of Tony Baker, Henry Campbell and Wendy Falb trying to keep Stocking School open (and correspondingly, makes the difficulties of John Helmholdt and Bernard Taylor that much more difficult).

This news should also come in the context of recent reports on the role of teacher education in school success (here, for Amanda Riley; also see Bob Herbert).  The increased role of teachers is not opposed to the charter movement per se, but rather functions as a way to focus our efforts.  For would-be school reformers (and conservative critics everywhere), this certainly means that tactics that focus on re-structuring as a magic pill loses some of its emotional energy.

I am sure we will hear more about this in the weeks to come.

Filed under: Community, Horace Mann, , , , , , ,

Civil Rights of the 21st Century

In one of the clearer aspects of Senator McCain’s vague acceptance speech tonight, was the call for education as “the civil rights issue of this century.” And at the heart lay some important nostrums dear to conservative hearts. As he expressed it

When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them. Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have that choice and their children will have that opportunity.

What is notable is the increased role of charters in all this. While there is good reason to think that charters can provide plausible alternatives to parents, the actual educational data is more mixed, as a report from the Detroit Metro Times makes clear.

On the 2006 English and math MEAP tests, charter school students below the overall state average but better than the public school district in which they were located. Measured by ACT, charter high schools reported an average score of 15.5, well below the overall state average of 18.8, if slightly better than the 15.3 of Detroit schools.

While much of the above disparity is generated by the make-up of the charter schools themselves (students in Michigan are more likely to be poor), a second aspect would be the teaching staff. The lower teacher salaries may be read as indicating a younger or less qualified staff.

In short, charters like their parochial cousins, have not found a way to escape the gravitational pull of poverty. The conservative nostrum of easy exit doesn’t exist.

Likewise, the notion that if you only paid (select) teachers more, you would get better results also has been running aground of late. From the conservative Fordham Institute comes the editorial by Michael Petrill, pointing out that rewarding teachers works well if you’re in a place where teachers want to go, say Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids. But what if you’re in Pullman, Mecosta, New Era or Baldwin? Who goes to those places? By stratifying the teaching pool, pay to perform actually works against educational opportunity, matching the poorer performing teachers with the more undesirable locations.

Be it charter, or teacher pay, or even vouchers — each of these solutions represents at best, a variety of magical thinking on the part of the present GOP, policy hopes that somehow the right option will solve their problem. At worst the turn to these solutions represent little more than an empowerment of the already well off districts or cities.

But Sen. McCain and the GOP are right about this being the Civil Rights issue of the 21st Century. And here in Michigan and the midwest, our educational system is a necessary component if we are to have future we can embrace.

Filed under: Education Policy, , ,


August 2020